"By the way, Chris, I'm HIV positive, you know, " I remember saying, delivering the blunt pronouncement with all the delicacy of dropping a brick onto his plate of angel hair pasta. He didn't react with more than mild surprise, but chewed carefully before responding.
"Really. You are? " He said finally. "I'm negative."
And there it was. The definitions had been established. The life spans of the two gay men, having lunch in the California sun, seemed pre-ordained. He would continue living for decades -- barring the proverbial runaway bus -- and I would very likely be dead within a few short years.
We made small talk about the disease, as if in 1987 that was actually possible, and I was quick to explain all about my high T-cell counts and my confidence that my good health would remain indefinitely. I babbled on nervously while, he would tell me years later, he felt deep sympathy while some rather frightening thoughts crossed his mind. If this relationship lasts, he thought, it will probably involve primary care and a death bed vigil. Then he sorted through his recollections of all our sex to date and assessed the chances he had taken.
Anything naughty we did was definitely not in the "You're Gonna Get It For Sure If You Do This" column, but funny how ignorance can make for blissful, risky sex.
Fortunately for me, we both threw our hesitations out the window and continued the romance, becoming that very modern phenomenon, the "sero-different" couple. Kind of like being polar opposites, but with a killer virus involved. Over these years, it's impossible to know which of us has worried more about AIDS. I've worried for him, not wanting to see him widowed after spending a part of his life in a relationship he could have avoided, and he has worried about me for every reason you might expect.
Along the way, we've watched the crisis unfold from within a relationship in which we aren't "safe " from the threat of infection. Chris never tells me when he goes for an HIV test -- I can't handle the anxiety and suspense -- and I feel like crying each and every time he announces the good news that he's still negative. We've also seen the fears of other couples fully realized, as when my own brother's lover of fifteen years died of AIDS. My brother has never been the same.
And then, throughout 1996, something happened. The "Year of the Cocktail."
For the precious few that could afford/access/tolerate it, the thought that they would live a complete life became more than a feel-good mantra that would get them past their depression. It was a reasonable assumption. It also became a realistic expectation for thousands more, like me, who were living with HIV and trying to maintain.
The sense of renewed hope spread to partners and families as well. Chris told me that he honestly believed I would live a full life, and he meant it. Suddenly all bets were off, and any fears Chris may have had -- both spoken and unspoken -- began to fade in favor of his wondering how my vanity will survive when my strawberry blond hair turns to grey.
Neither of us are naive enough to no longer be concerned about our future. We've already experienced enough of the creative cruelty of AIDS to know better than that. But we're happy to approximate the anxiety levels of any other healthy gay couple carving out a home and a life together.
As a man with HIV, the "Year of the Cocktail " feels like a reprieve, however short and however fragile. A chance to reflect through the eyes of someone who could actually live a long life. Do I love my job? Yes. Can I live in our house for thirty years? Only with a paint job and a fabulous contractor.
The easiest question is the one about the lover. Do I want to live the next forty years with a man that loved me when I could have died on him, that stayed to face possible grief, that made love to a body that carried viral bombshells?
Absolutely. He's a keeper.
Mark S. King is Director of Education for AID Atlanta, the largest AIDS service agency in the southeast United States, and also serves as Chair of the Mayor's AIDS Advisory Board. He is currently completing his first book, A Place Like This, about his experiences as an HIV positive gay man.