Lori sipped a cup of cappuccino. The late morning sun streamed in the window, turning her long hair a rich shade of copper. We were at Hugo's, a trendy delicatessen in West Hollywood.
"Oh Lori, "I sighed, "I just get so discouraged. Why is it so impossible to have a supportive, caring relationship with a nice guy?"
Her expression was sympathetic. Like me, she was HIV-positive and single; she knew how hard it was to meet men. She shrugged. "Maybe you should try something different. How about taking out an ad in the LA Weekly?"
"You mean say I'm HIV-positive? How do you slide that little gem into an ad?"
"Well no, not necessarily. I mean try to meet some men, if you like one enough, tell him then. What have you got to lose?"
"I don't know. That sounds like a recipe for rejection to me."
I thought about it. There was something so....desperate about personal ads. Did I really want to meet one man after the next, agonizing each time about whether or when I should drop the bomb.
What would I say if I did run an ad? How could I be truthful and still attract responses from decent men? And the big question: was I bold enough to disclose my HIV status? The more I thought about it, I realized there was no point in running an ad unless it could serve as a screening device, to weed out men who would otherwise run the other way once they learned I had HIV.
I worried about wackos who might assume an HIV-positive woman must be desperate for sex - or self-appointed vigilantes trying to rid the world, one by one, of all infected people! In the end, I decided I was relatively safe. I could control all contact; I didn't have to call or meet anyone unless I chose to do so.
I sat down to try my hand at writing a personal ad. I took a deep breath and typed "HIV-POSITIVE WOMAN seeks..." I ripped the paper out of my typewriter disgustedly. Would an uninfected person lead with her very worst liability? Being diagnosed with HIV did not mean that I had given up my pride or the right to put my best foot forward.
Suddenly, I was my own advertising agency. I needed a grabber, something eye-catching but honest; an image of myself in a nutshell. Lovable, I thought. Lovable meant deserving of love but also, I hoped, would convey that instead of being coolly sophisticated I was a little silly. In the end my ad read:
LOVABLE, PRETTY BLONDE blue-eyed SWF, 33, intelligent, warm, funny. I'm HIV-positive, seeking together SWM for platonic or other relationship. Call.....
I was pleased with how I had slid naturally into the second sentence, as though being HIV-positive was like being Methodist or right-handed. That was exactly what I wanted to convey: HIV was a fact about me but did not define who I was. The "platonic or other" was my way of communicating to any men who might call that it was safe to be in my presence; I was not going to jump their bones and infect them at first glance. If I received five responses, I decided, the whole experiment would be an unqualified success. Before I could lose my nerve, I mailed the order form and promptly put the ad out of my mind.
A couple of weeks later, Lori and I met at Hugo's again.
"You know, I took your suggestion," I said. "I sent an ad in to the LA Weekly."
"No kidding. What kind of response have you gotten?" I stared at her, realizing I had no idea.
"Oh my God! I never even checked!"
We lunged for the current issue. To my amazement, there it was, prominently displayed: LOVABLE, PRETTY BLONDE. I couldn't wait to see whether I had received any responses.
Picking up my messages was an exercise in roller-coaster riding, alternately terrifying and exhilarating. In addition to a couple of lewd propositions, out of seven initial messages, two were from men I already knew: an HIV-positive hemophiliac named Joe who I had met at a party, and an HIV-negative man I had dated for a short time. The latter left a message saying, "This ad sounds like someone I know named Linda. If this is Linda, you know who I am - call me!" He had no reason to believe I had any acquaintance with the LA Weekly, and frankly I was shocked to realize he was combing the personal ads himself. I did call him and we had a friendly conversation.
I called Joe back, too. We decided to go out for frozen yogurt. Joe and I sat on the bench outside the yogurt shop and chatted about T-cells, antivirals and the like, the all-too-standard dating conversation for people like ourselves.
"In a way," he said, "I've had a whole life to prepare for HIV. As a hemophiliac, I was always different anyway. The other kids were scared; they didn't understand why I had to be so careful. HIV is just another set of problems to deal with."
His tone was matter-of-fact, but suddenly I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him everything would be okay; I would hug all the hurt away. But we both knew nobody could do that. I shook my head slowly from side to side instead.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind for me as I responded to the calls that had started to flood my voice mail, always I was half-hoping to hear from Joe. I never did. I later learned that he died less than a year after our only date. He was 27 years old.
As my personal ad adventure continued, I realized I needed to leave a voice message that would discourage people like the caller whose message described his attributes at great length, followed by an offer to let me "watch", considering the "limitations" of my condition.
I recorded the following message: "Hi, this is Linda. The fact that you've responded to my ad already tells me you're a special person. If you're calling out of any twisted motive, please don't leave a message. But if instead, you're interested in a healthy, honest and fun relationship, I'd like to know more about you".
The men I heard from ranged in age from 25 to 50, and every single one of them revealed their height, weight, hair and eye color, despite the fact that the only qualification I had listed was "together SWM." Most of them let me know whether or not they were infected with HIV. To my surprise the great majority were not.
I asked each of the men I chose to call back why in the world they were interested in meeting a woman infected with HIV. The answers I received were fascinating and often touching.
One young man, who I ended up seeing for several months, said he had been in a very dishonest marriage. When he saw my ad, he reasoned that if I was open about my HIV status, I was probably honest in general. Like many of the others, he also thought that my running an ad was a "gutsy move". His name was Andrew, and he managed to get himself to the top of my call-back list by leaving four messages, each one sillier than the one before. He sounded so sweet and so silly that I called him back right away.
Cautioning me that the ability to ride in his car without dying of embarrassment was the acid test for a first date, he picked me up on a stormy Monday night. He showed up with a single white rose. We smiled into each other's eyes; I liked him instantly.
Andrew and I drove from one restaurant to another, his car bucking and lurching as he restarted it dozens of times, alternately swearing and trying to coax it gently into submission. This being our first date, he felt compelled to come around to my side of the car with an umbrella each time we parked, after which we would run through pouring rain to yet another coffee shop that turned out to be closed. The routine was becoming ludicrous and less funny every minute. Eventually we found shelter from the storm at Canter's, a famous old delicatessen in the "borscht belt" of Los Angeles. I was tired enough that I asked him to take me home shortly afterward. The evening was not a total loss, however; I knew I liked Andrew and we both agreed we would like to see each other again.
We went to the museum, we wandered around the La Brea tar pits, we had a picnic on the lawn. We went to a movie, "The Blue Planet", a film about the earth projected on an enormous Imax screen. We were both mesmerized. Afterward, we went to my apartment, where we had drinks in the living room. He began kissing me, and pretty soon the kissing wasn't enough.
"Um," I said, searching for words, "I know you know about HIV, so you probably know about safe sex, right? I mean, you know about using a condom, and what the risks are and all that?" What a mood-setter, I thought. I was feeling less alluring every second.
"Yes, I know about it, and I want to make love with you," he said, looking earnestly into my eyes. I was relieved. Smiling in response, I took his hand and led him into my bedroom. Andrew's lovemaking was like him, sweet and playful and light-hearted. I appreciated that he didn't make me feel like the diseased half of a relationship. I liked him more and more.
Rationalizing that I owed it to myself and to all of HIV-positivedom to see the experiment to its conclusion, I kept picking up my messages. I met a few more of the men. Always at the same cafe, and during the day, whenever possible. I chatted over coffee with a health spa owner, a teacher, a couple of actors, and even a magician.
There was one message in particular that caught my attention. It was from a man named Peter, a writer and teacher, who said, "Believe me, I know what you're going through. I'm HIV-positive too." Once I called him back, he said, "I can't afford to take you out to a restaurant, but I'd love to make a spaghetti dinner for you." I took him up on his offer.
Peter was an interesting person. He had graduated from an impressive school. More than looks, more than money, to me a smart man is sexy. If a man isn't intelligent, he won't hold my interest past a couple of dates. Peter was smart and appealing in a rugged sort of way, tall, with brown hair, brown eyes and a beard. Whereas Andrew was sweetness and light, Peter seemed ponderous, a much more serious kind of person.
After the promised spaghetti dinner, we went for a walk on the beach. We filled each other in on our experiences with HIV.
"At the risk of being indelicate," I asked, "do you know how you were infected?" Peter paused for a long time.
"Well, I've never used IV drugs or had a transfusion, but it's not as though I've never messed around with a man. I don't really know by whom I was infected. For all I know it was by a woman."
He went on to explain that he had had occasional sexual liaisons with men, but that he had only had real relationships with women; he had never been emotionally close to a man.
This was a new one for me. I wasn't sure if I could handle dating a bisexual man. I had plenty of gay male friends, but I certainly hadn't dated them, and I wasn't sure I had the confidence to compete with both genders. At least Peter was honest about it - I had sometimes doubted HIV-positive men who insisted they could only have been infected by a woman.
Back at the apartment, Peter poured wine and we sat on the mattress that served as both his couch and his bed. He started kissing me. The kisses felt good, but I was confused and didn't want to go any further. I thanked Peter for the meal and said good-bye; we agreed to get together again soon. He still struck me as someone who might have a lot going for him.
The next day, Lori and I rented bikes and rode the bike path along Venice Beach.
"I thought you liked Andrew."
"I do. But I'm still calling back some of the guys. Peter's HIV-positive too; I think I should check it out. Besides, he went to an Ivy League school." I stuck my tongue out at her.
Peter called me after a few days and we went to see a movie together. Later, we shared a memorable day hiking in the mountains and playing in the snow.
Eventually Peter and I did develop a sexual relationship. We had agreed that even as HIV-positive people, we needed to use safe sex; there was the possibility of reinfection with HIV, or other sexually transmitted diseases. From the start, I felt a connection with Peter in that we shared the same problem, and there were so many things we could understand about each other. The problem was that I was getting very confused.
My intention in running the personal ad was not to date lots of guys, certainly not on a regular basis. I only wanted one. On the one hand it was very exciting: a reminder that I was still a young woman, and that I actually had a choice of men. I was almost like a normal person. After so many years of relative celibacy, following the death of my husband, the dam had broken, and now I needed to assert the sexual part of my personality, to prove to myself I was still alive.
Although I never told Andrew or Peter explicitly about the other, I tried not to really imply that either of them was the only person I was seeing. They both knew I was continuing to pick up my personal ad messages. It was fairly easy for me to fall into a pattern of seeing Andrew on Fridays, and Peter on Saturdays. When I confided to my co-workers that I was seeing two guys (they had yet to know about my HIV status), they teased me relentlessly.
"Are you going out with Friday tonight?" was the typical jibe, or "or is it Saturday's turn tonight?"
There were more serious reasons for my confusion between the two men. They each represented something I needed, and I couldn't decide which something I needed most. Peter and I were kindred spirits by accident; we shared many of the same challenges and fears. But our relationship was burdened by those very concerns. One of us could always try to cheer up the other, but what if we were both down at the same time? And God forbid, what if either of us got sick? I didn't feel like nursing another man through the end of his life.
Andrew, on the other hand, represented lightheartedness and fun, and the semblance of a normal life. I was confronting some of the most difficult issues imaginable, and it was painful to contemplate dragging someone I perceived as an innocent into an abyss of potential illness and death. I couldn't decide between them, so I simply continued seeing them both.
I received 72 phone calls from my personal ad. I had continued checking the messages but had not called any of the other men after I met Peter. The experience had been enough, and frankly, I had to make up for lost time with Andrew and Peter.