The Scarlet Letters
As the window fan in Zenia's bedroom whispered thick, humid air over my body, I stared at the ceiling and tried to count my blessings. It was Monday morning and Michael was at work. I had forgotten to take my bedtime medications: a protease inhibitor, a sleeping pill, and three pills to keep my anxiety low. It was now five A.M. I was still awake, so I popped two ativans, which didn't help. I was worried about catching the 8:57 train back to New York. I dozed a little, said my prayers, got up, bathed. After breakfast, I took my morning medley of prescription drugs and waited for Michael's mother to take me to the train.
I needed this beach weekend away from my companion of seven years to sort things out. Michael -- a dear friend, more like family -- was a willing host. His daughter's old bedroom was now mine. I looked forward to bar-hopping with Michael in Providence -- a pastime I don't currently partake in in New York.
After a major confrontation with my longtime companion Barry concerning my alleged cocaine use, I abruptly left New York. This was a test, in a way, for both of us. It was the first time in over 18 months, since my hospitalizations, that I was left on my own. Up until quite recently, I had a full-time home health aide who would watch my every move in Barry's absence. I didn't need one now, as I was able to bathe, prepare my meals, feed myself, and dispense my many medications unaided. I could safely cross streets on my own without fear of being harmed. This newly found freedom was both scary and wonderful. My viral load had dropped from 2.7 million to non-detectable levels, and my T-cells rose from a low of 47 to over 250. So where was my reward? I felt like Eliza Doolittle after the ball. What was to become of me now?
On the way back to New York, I mused about the past and my lost loves. So much had happened since leaving my native New England to attend college in the big city; the ups and downs of my career, my relationships, and now, my health. What would the future hold?
I think it was about ten years ago that I was bothered by a mole behind my left ear. It was difficult having my hair trimmed around it, and I wanted it removed. Having recently quit my job at a large catalog design agency, I was losing my health insurance coverage. I had been seeing the same general practitioner ever since I arrived in New York, and accepted his referral to a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center. I had recently had a physical and was told that I was fine. "Just keep doing what you are doing," the doctor said in his thick Viennese accent. He asked me about my sex life, and I told him that I was in a monogamous relationship.
I took the subway from 23rd Street up to 92nd, and made my dermatologist appointment on time. After examining me, the doctor asked if I was gay. I was stunned and, looking over my shoulder, camped "Does it show?" I asked him why he thought so, and he replied that, while examining the mole, he saw what might be a "molluscom" on my cheek -- a tiny, wart-like growth that could indicate HIV presence. I told him that I had a couple removed about a year ago by a dermatologist while on a photo shoot in L.A. As it turned out, both doctors were classmates at Harvard, and I told him that she had not made that connection. He wanted to do a biopsy and the HIV test right then. I was in shock and told him I would have to think about it.
On my way home, I wondered if this would be the beginning of the end.
When I got home, I immediately called the referring physician and asked him what he thought. He said that the specialist was in fact an expert, heading up the AIDS task force at his hospital. My next call was to Beverly Hills. The doctor there said that she really did not see it in her practice, although she did have one patient with hundreds of the wart-like growths.
Time to be a brave soldier, I told myself. AZT had just been approved in this country, so I decided to "bite the bullet." I had the growth removed and biopsied and was told that it was what I had feared. I asked if this meant that I was HIV-positive. He told me that it was a "trivial skin infection," a virus that little children sometimes get from each other while playing close together, and was also common with HIV-positive people.
I then called my friends Robert and Philip. Robert was a successful make-up artist who sometimes worked with me. His lover, Philip, was an architect with AIDS who'd been to many doctors. Only one had really helped. This immunologist had an office in Manhattan and a research facility in New Jersey. He had developed a serum that seemed to slow the advancement of HIV, cancer, and leukemia in laboratory cats. The success stories gave me hope. The doctor claimed that HIV/AIDS was a chronic disease, like diabetes, and was similarly manageable. I was tested for HIV, got the results, and started on a weekly regimen of injections and AZT. This discovery, called the "transfer factor," had been written up in National Geographic some years back, yet it had not been approved by the FDA for reasons unknown. Though I felt better, Philip was fading.
It was a Friday. I was finishing some layouts at a SoHo studio, and although I started to feel some flu-like symptoms, I decided to take a much needed weekend in Rhode Island at the home of my friend Michael. Had Dr. Angers not been on vacation, I would have postponed the trip. Michael had to work that Saturday. I was feeling sicker and was starting to panic, thinking that I needed my shot of transfer factor.
Meanwhile, on Fire Island, Philip was at home in his dream house, which he had designed himself and where he spent much of his time. Robert was called out of town on a shoot and Philip could not be left alone. Dr. Angers' assistant Cindy, who would ordinarily make the trip down the boardwalk to their house, I.V. in hand, was not available that weekend. Therefore, Robert needed someone to take care of Philip.
Although I was already at Michael's home in Rhode Island, I had to be with Philip in his time of need, to help with his daily injection of transfer factor, and also to get my own dosage. I decided to make the trip to Fire Island.
I phoned my friend Ernie and he took me to Westerly Airport where a chartered plane was waiting. When I confided in him about my condition, he suggested that I talk to his lover Horst. I wrote a check for my last $200 and flew to Islip, Long Island. After catching a taxi to the ferry, I finally crossed Great South Bay and reached the Pines and Philip.
There was no all-night dancing that night to be sure, and our only drugs were therapeutic. I was out of AZT and borrowed some from one of their friends. Housefuls of guys were now dying. AZT was being shipped from a pharmacy in Sayville, across the bay. I started to feel better, and I credit Philip and Robert for my life to this day, as they referred me to the right doctor when I most needed him. Whether or not this magic formula worked was not the point. I was getting something extra, something that most people would not get. Even then, supplies were limited.
After graduating from Pratt Institute in 1973, I started out as an assistant art editor at the Simplicity Pattern Company. From there I went on to jobs at McCall's, Redbook, and Avon. I hated Avon, feeling like a messenger for their art studio. I was interested in the image-making aspect of the beauty business, rather than being caught up in concerns over highlights on photographs of little bottles. I quit and, determined not to stall my career, started freelancing in the fashion catalog area. My editorial background served me well. I was offered a retainer arrangement as the West Coast creative director for Harrison Services, which was based in New York. I had fallen in love with L.A., having visited there with Redbook, where I directed shoots with Sissy Spacek, Melissa Manchester, and Michelle Lee, among others. My sister, whom I missed very much, lived in L.A., so I gleefully accepted the offer.
I was truly bi-coastal, having the best of both worlds with frequent trips back to New York. The company bought me a BMW and I was in heaven. Michael was now living in Brooklyn, estranged from his wife of three years, who is my second cousin. He had recently come out and could not wait to live in Manhattan. I sublet my apartment to him with guest privileges. Little did I know what was to come.
My company lost their premier account, the then-prestigious Bullocks Wilshire, and I lost the retainer. I had few contacts in L.A., and the terms of my contract did not allow me to work for the competition. As L.A. is not a fashion capital, I was suffering. I couldn't find work as an art director there, and I realized that my cachet as a New Yorker had faded.
I borrowed $2,000 from my mother and returned to New York. The Big Apple welcomed me back; I found a job working for an old friend, Sol, whom I had met on the first day of my very first job. I even had a new boyfriend, and felt safe and comfortable.
I worked hard at Commercial Graphics and graduated to their plum account, the Spiegel Catalog. I traveled to resorts around the country, following the sun. Top models were now my world, including a young Cindy Crawford, Christie Brinkley, Brooke Shields, and the now infamous Paula Barbieri.
That was 10 years ago. Having had differences with the new owner, I abruptly quit; thinking that, with Spiegel on my resume, it would be easy getting work. I was wrong. I floundered and spent my pension fund money. My boyfriend was very busy taking care of his best friend, who was dying. He had no time for me and we broke up.
I turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of unemployment and a broken heart. Having experimented with speed and cocaine in L.A., I returned to my old habits. I missed meetings and was morose. I was sustained in part by my college chum and still close friend, Jeffrey, a successful menswear designer. He had a Japanese client, and I helped him lay out catalogs which remain to this day some of my best work. Still struggling, I freelanced for Avon, and the experience was again awful. I had a mini-comeback, returning to Simplicity as their executive art director, but when a woman from McCall's was hired over me, I feared for my future there. Ironically, I was hired to take her place at McCall's.
During this time I had an on-again off-again relationship with Barry. He worked for a medical center in the neighborhood. We had been apart for a couple of years when we spotted each other in a bar where we had originally met about three years ago. He had heard of the death of my close friend Horst -- Ernie's lover in Rhode Island. He came over to offer his condolences, we exchanged phone numbers, and started dating again.
We lived a short distance from each other. I found myself spending almost every night in his apartment. Still, I grew tired of the commute and decided to give up my apartment of 21 years and move in with Barry. Was I making the right decision?
Only time would tell.
(Part II: to be continued in February)
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.