I don't think that either of us would call what we were doing dating. We had become really good friends in a really short amount of time and she had even become a part of my family in such a way that my mother would invite her to family functions without asking me. Her 5-year-old son and I were developing a really good bond that still exists today.
She and I had met at a specialty (African American) bookstore that she owned, which I helped her to manage for a year or so. Everyone called her the "neighborhood Oprah," because women came in to discuss all of their problems with her.
Angela knew that I enjoyed sex with men. She knew everything that there was to know about me. Well, almost everything that is.
On one unseasonably warm, autumn evening, after a long day of work for the both of us, we decided to go back to her house for a glass of wine. I remember her lighting this really sweet, exotic-smelling incense. She always burned the best incense. We laughed and talked for hours, enjoying what was, at the time, Sades' first new CD in 10 years.
I'm not sure exactly when our good time turned sexual, but it did. Perhaps it was after the third or forth glass of wine, or maybe during the second joint, but at some point or another, it did. One thing that I am very sure of, however, was that we had used condoms and that I was the one who had insisted that we do.
When I left her house the next morning, I was totally disgusted with myself. To this day I don't know why I didn't have the courage to tell her that I was HIV-positive before we had sex. I would like to blame it on the alcohol and the marijuana, but I am not quite certain that even if I had been sober I would have done anything differently. Even knowing that we had used protection, I still felt entirely horrible about myself and vowed that nothing like this could ever happen again. I am extremely sad to admit that it did.
Neither of us spoke a word about that night for a long time afterwards and it was almost a year later when it happened again (under almost the same circumstances). Whenever she would light her mood-altering incense in the store, I would always give her a devilish grin and say "alright now" in a sly tone.
Our friendship grew deeper than I think either of us imagined that it would and soon we began to express the true feelings that we had been harboring for one another since we met. No matter how deep our relationship grew, however, I could not bring myself to let go of the secret that I had been keeping deep within. That secret may have cost me a life with one of the few women I every really romantically loved and one of my dearest friends.
The summer of 2002 was a rocky one for me. I had been living in North Carolina but came home to visit my mother and grandmother for Mother's Day and ended up staying for a couple of months. I think that I stayed because I knew then that there was something seriously wrong with me.
I had been HIV-positive for eight years at that point and had been virtually symptom free until then. I was violently yanked from denial of that fact when my body began to show signs of what I knew were HIV-related illness. I would wake up several times throughout the night, drenched with sweat. My regular bowel movements turned to loose stools, which then turned into constant, explosive diarrhea. Because of that, I had very little energy and was tired all the time. I began to lose a lot of weight, fast.
At that point, I made a conscious decision to face the truth and stop lying to myself and to others. I sought out medical attention and then vowed to come clean to everyone close to me about my HIV status. That meant that I had to tell Angela.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. I didn't want to tell her over the phone, but the conversation that we were having that afternoon opened the door for it and I walked right in. She listened in silence. There was a long pause after my spill that let me know that she had heard every word and was taking it all in. In a very shrill and distant voice she managed to say, "I gotta go," and it wasn't for about two years that we actually had an in-depth conversation about that experience.
"My biggest issue with you, Keith, is that you did not value our friendship enough to just come out and tell me your truth," Angela said. "For almost two years we had been practically inseparable and I truly thought that I meant more to you than that." I could hear the pain in her voice as she spoke. She was holding back tears; I couldn't.
"Not only did you take away my right to choose whether or not to be intimate with you, which I probably would have still done, but you also took away my ability to be there for you as a friend. I would have wanted to be there for you and done everything that I could have to make sure that you remained as healthy as possible." After we joked about hoping that that didn't mean me eating her cooking, she said, "But seriously, that is what hurts me the most. It makes me wonder if I could ever trust you again, as a friend. I have forgiven you, and still love you like a brother, but I will never be able to forget the hurt that I feel from your deception and how you put my life and future in jeopardy."
Angela has been tested for HIV twice since learning about my status and, thankfully, she is HIV-negative. She now hopes that our near tragic story will be an example for people, especially women, all over the world. "We as women have got to learn to ask questions. And not just ask questions, but make him follow it up with some proof! If he tells you that he is HIV-negative, make him prove that to you." Federal regulations are in place to protect the confidentiality of any individual who tests positive for HIV, therefore, a testing counselor cannot share anyone's test result, positive or negative, with anyone else. However, if your partner has nothing to hide from you, there may be a waiver of rights that can be signed to confirm the results with you.
"A huge part of being open with one another about sexuality is acceptance," Angela claims. "So many men fear disclosing their bisexual nature to their girlfriend or wife because of the way that they think she will react to them, and that fear is not unfounded. As women, we have to be more open-minded if we are ever going to put a stop to the spread of HIV. We have to accept people for who they are and where they have been and move on. Even if you cannot continue to pursue a relationship with a man who tells you that he is bisexual or that he is HIV-positive, continue to show him love. Be honest with him about your own feelings and then be the most supportive friend that you can be."
The recent birth of Angela's daughter Mariah has made me take a closer look at the choices that I make in my life for myself, and how those choices affect the people who choose to be a part of it. My choice to withhold vital information from Angela could have altered her dreams of having a baby girl. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Unfortunately, however, not everyone is as fortunate as I am.
There are many men, women and children whose lives have been altered because of a choice that someone else made for them, without their permission. Don't allow yourself or those you love to be victims of those circumstances. Live in the truth, no matter how hard that may seem. Know that it is a choice that you must make every single day for yourself and that you are the only one who can make it. It will never be easy. Trust me, I know. Ask questions and know "what's goin' on." Then be open-minded enough to receive whatever truth may come to you. Make a conscious effort to love harder and to be a better friend to those you have chosen to befriend. Until next time, play safe and love even harder.