"Dear Linda: I, and many others, love you and will never forget the sunshine you brought into our lives." This is how Lori Levine ended an article about Linda Luschei after Linda died. Lori is gone now too.
I met Linda in a support group for HIV positive women, one week after my diagnosis. That was in May of 1990. Of that group of eight women, three of us are still alive. I don't know why. I do know that I would not be alive if it wasn't for that group of women. And I do know that they live on.
Linda was (like all of us) initially devastated by her HIV diagnosis. But, like most of us, learned how to live with it. She made a decision, unlike a lot of us, to not just live life as "best as possible, under the circumstances" but to make the most of it, ...to find all the ways to get the most out of life that she could.
One big decision she made was to find love again. She did, what I thought, was one of the bravest moves I've ever seen. She took out a personal ad, revealing her HIV status. But what was more incredible was what happened as a result of that ad.
LINDA'S ARTICLE, "HIV and the Single Girl," from Women Alive, Autumn 1993:
HIV and the Single Girl
By Linda Luschei
Lori sipped a cup of cappuccino. "The late morning sun steamed 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 in 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.
The Big Question
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.
The Personal Ad
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 from 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 combining the personal ads himself. I did call him and we had a friendly conversation.
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 a new outgoing message. 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.
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.
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.
I started dating two of the men who responded to my ad, one on Fridays and one on Saturdays. I received a total of 72 phone calls from my personal ad. I continued checking the messages but did not call any of the other men after I started dating. The experience had been enough, and frankly, I had to make up for lost time with the two men I chose to date.
I thought Linda's story was amazing. I told her I'd like to write a play about her adventures through the personal ads. She told me to go ahead. I did. The play is finished. It is titled "Lovable Blonde Seeking..."
LOVABLE BLONDE SEEKING...
Friday & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.
February 6 - March 28, 1998
The Third Stage 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
(8 blocks east of Hollywood Way)