On the eve of the millennium, while others prepared for a global meltdown as a result of Y2K, I had my own personal catastrophe. I got HIV. In truth, it may have been Halloween night or Christmas Eve. Happy New Year, Trick or Treat or a gift from Santa. Who cares? It's all twisted.
The path that led to my conversion started arguably from the minute I had sex with a man. But since this is a short story, let's just start with my last boyfriend.
He was what I call my "opposite boyfriend," the one you date because he's not like you at all. He was a model, tall, masculine, and athletic. That's not me. In fact, I can best be described as a neurotic, over-achieving intellectual with a barbed wit and a nice smile. What I had to offer him remains a mystery. Nonetheless, he nurtured and indulged me and desperately tried to get me to open up to his New Age views on the world but my spirit was unwilling and my brain too evolved. It was not meant to be. Looking back, I realize that our relationship was a potent mix of love and self-hate ... in equal measure.
A year into our relationship, I landed the dream job. When I should have ended the relationship, I chose to move in with him instead and we made it another year. This was motivated less by true love than our mutual addiction to the circuit party lifestyle. Ending the relationship would also involve a kind of excommunication from the circuit party scene, that group of upscale, middle class, post-AIDS cocktail gaggle of gay men in the 1990s that spent their free time living out their missed adolescence on dance floors across the nation. These events, former fund-raisers turned hedonistic galas, were excuses to party and pretend the years of the AIDS crisis had never happened. They had themes like the White Party, the Morning Party, the Black and Blue Ball, and on and on. But, after awhile, there was no party or purpose to it all except finding the next high.
By the end of our second year, I realized I had had enough of circuit queens and what I called their "ex-piphanies," wonderful thoughts while high on ecstasy extolling their newfound purpose in life that would fade away by Monday just like their buzz. But the bf was not ready to end the party. After a weekend that lasted three days and no nights, I barely made the morning ferry to work that Monday. By suicide Tuesday, when the serotonin levels dipped to subhuman levels, I snapped like a dog chained to a fence. "What the fuck do you do all day," I asked. He just looked at me with a mix of puppy dog confusion and guilt. That night I moved to the couch. Within two weeks, I was gone.
I had lucked into a small single in the basement of a brownstone on one of the most beautiful streets in the Village. Next door, there was a renowned yoga studio, though I was the least likely person to ever walk in there. Across the street was the new Gay and Lesbian Center under renovation. And upstairs was the happy gay couple I thought I would have become. But that was a thought I had back in my 20s and before AIDS had taken the love of my life.
However, the start of my new life came with ominous warnings. The first week, I dreamt I was water skiing in the small creek in my backyard where I grew up. Coming to the surface, I slowly began to realize that my apartment had flooded. My dog and I stepped into two inches of water, dirt and grim, cascading down four flights from the roof of the brownstone. A few weeks later, while sitting in my bed, I looked up just at the ceiling light fell and shattered into a million pieces across my floor. The only thing missing was the haunting sound of a ghost warning me to "get out now!"
I found myself alone and bewildered how I got there. Despite a full-time job and going to grad school in the evenings, there was simply too much time to fill and too few friends to fill it. I was introduced to something called "chat rooms" on AOL. This would lead to a new lifestyle, equally as unfulfilling and indulgent as the club scene. That is, if you consider having e-conversations with imaginary strangers for hours on end a lifestyle. For the moment, at least, I eliminated the drugs though not the depression.
Finally, I was invited to a Halloween party, which I considered my grand return to social life after two years down the circuit rabbit hole. How better than a masquerade ball? My friend brought along his ex, a sexy, confident marketing exec who, among his other qualities like being funny and smart, was interested in me. The latter usually was all that was required to get me into bed ... or a backseat, hallway, lobby or alley.
When it comes to matters of sexual interest, I confess I am a bit of a rube. My patented line is I'm not even sure if they are interested ... even when they're giving me head. Nevertheless, he wound up back at my apartment and in my bed. I'm fairly certain alcohol was involved. Maybe there were drugs. I can't recall.
But I can vividly recall his comment while we were fucking without a condom. "I'm surprised. I really wasn't expecting this." I also recall thinking, that's an odd thing to say. Not "you're hot" or "what a fine ass" or "will you marry me and I'll move back to New York and take care of you forever." In fact, I convinced myself that he was surprised because he had not found me attractive and yet here he was fucking me. Call it what you will, but low self-esteem can sure be a kick in the ass. Still, it took me years to realize that what he was trying to say was, he is positive and therefore I must be too.
How could this have happened to me? After all, I had managed to be safe for 17 years, drunk or sober. I had been with a lover for five years who died of AIDS without getting infected. Another boyfriend and I indulged in unsafe sex, but only after we both had tested negative for six consecutive months. That was the pact you made back then, a vow that said we trusted one another. This is what passed for romance and intimacy: The desire not to infect your partner. Guess you won't see that on a Hallmark card.
And yet, here was a stranger fucking me with his toxic sperm. One might assume "there's no way someone who knows they are positive is having unsafe sex. In a game of Russian roulette, no one hands you a loaded gun, do they?" Turns out they would and he did.
In fairness, my lapse in judgment stemmed from ignorance. While I was in my circuit hole with my lover, the phenomenon of barebacking -- meaning unsafe sex -- had become a fetish in the gay community. Once the lifesaving AIDS cocktail came out in 1996, people who were positive fucked others without protection or even a declaration, because they assumed you were positive as well. But even if their assumption was wrong, it was a risk they were willing to take since AIDS no longer equaled death. Right or wrong, culpable or not, my acquiescence meant I had made the decision to fuck without protection. He may have handed me the gun, but I pulled the trigger.
After we had sex, he left to go to another party while I fell asleep. But, the next morning, he called and said he'd be coming back for round two. I leapt up to walk the dog and, when I came back in, he had somehow managed to get inside and was in my bed waiting. It was like a scene in a romance novel, only I would have ripped off my bodice, not my Abercrombie sweat pants.
More kissing, body contact, fucking and another "I'm really surprised." And yet still no light went off in my head. A few months later, while visiting my family in North Carolina, we arranged to meet again on Christmas Eve. Dinner turned into drinks turned into another round of sex. Once again, "I'm just so surprised. This is so unexpected." Only this time, I turned to him and said, "We ought to be safe from now on, especially since I'm negative." As I recall, he didn't say a word. This time, it was my turn to be surprised.
Like clockwork, three months later I checked into a New York teaching hospital after a week of throwing up, dehydration, a fever of 103 degrees and covered in a rash. My doctor took one look and called it the "conversion" flu, which sounds like I had become "born again." Only this felt more like death to me.
Now I am ten years positive and my life hasn't been filled with death or sickness. Four little pills a day take care of that. But there are days when I'm still filled with regret and shame and wishing that I could somehow go back and party like it was 1999.