In a recent interview, Charlie Sheen disclosed his HIV+ status. I think it takes a lot of courage to do this because, despite science to the contrary, the disease is still stigmatized, both socially and legally, in ways that it shouldn’t be. However, I have to reprimand the reporter for asking questions such as, “Have you knowingly, or even unknowingly, transmitted the disease? Have you ever had unprotected sex since your diagnosis? Have you told each of your partners about your status before sexual intercourse? What risky behaviors did you pursue? And do you know how you contracted the disease?” These are invasive questions that, to me, are just as bad as asking a trans person about genitals and surgery, or maybe even worse.
So let me just say a fast few things about sex, safety, and HIV.
When I began this journey, I promised I would offer no vindication, and to this I feel I remained true. I stripped aside the commentary and let it fall out as I remembered it–sometimes building beautifully harrowing images, other times feeling I fell short in capturing the turmoil I truly felt. But I did my best, and I’m thankful I made it this far.
But there are still more sides to this story, some that slip outside the narrow keyhole through which I looked back this past week, and these stories need to be shared.
One year ago I packed my bags and left. I met two friends by the library and we began our drive to the North Carolina LGBTQI Leadership Retreat. We listened to the Pitch Perfect soundtrack as we drove in to Efland. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but I know I didn’t mention anything that had happened the last week.
I wanted to enjoy this weekend. For one moment I wanted to set aside all the anger and fear and self-loathing and just have a good time. On Monday the healthy relationships group would begin. Maybe a week or two later I’d have my first individual session. I’d already deleted my apps. I wanted to take a break from it all. To just forget for a moment.
But who was I kidding? That wasn’t going to happen.
One year ago, as I walked the brick path around its first bend on my way to class, I saw the trees in crystal clarity. Every leaf was outlined in high-resolution detail. I felt excited. Thankful that I was alive. That I was negative.
But just as quickly all that happiness turned to hatred.
What had I done? How could I have been so stupid? So reckless?
One year ago I got tested. I waited outside at maybe ten in the morning until Adam showed up. As we rode to the public health offices, he kept me talking. We didn’t say much about what we were going for, other things like classes or music or I don’t really remember.
When we got there, we parked a short distance away and walked quietly through the parking lot toward a towering brick building with none of the sleek, soothing architecture of the Student Health Center. We walked through three doorways until we made into a longer hall, opened on one side, that took us to one of the clinics.
One year ago I woke up early to stop by the Counseling Center before class. I walked to the second floor of the Student Health Center. The building is industrial, white, modern. The brightness made me feel better, if “feeling better” meant anything.
I walked up to the counter and asked to make an appointment. They sent me to a computer to go through a mandatory screening that lasted maybe twenty minutes, and then I got to schedule an appointment. The soonest time for the counselor I wanted to meet with was a couple weeks, but I took it anyways. It was a start.
One year ago I woke up pressed between the warm bodies of two men I didn’t know. Cane mumbled something to Jay, asking if he was working the ten or one o’clock shift today. I don’t remember what time it was, but he checked the clock and muttered something angry about needing to wake up.
Cane got out of bed and went in the bathroom to shower. Jay walked their dog. I hadn’t even realized they had a dog. The room was bright now, but all I really saw were my pants and shirt on the floor. I dressed in vague motions that felt like the fabric of dreams. I latched my belt, listened to the falling water from the bathroom, and sat on the floor.
One year ago I was in the study room around the corner from my apartment working math problems at the white board after midnight. It was a month into the semester and I was three weeks behind. After talking with a graduate TA who put it simply–“If you’re not passionate about doing the homework, is this the right major for you?”–I turned my organization on its head and had spent the entire weekend getting myself caught up.
And I was almost there. I felt great.
I wiped the board free of my algebra, sprawled letters about groups and how they commute and associate, and I stacked my notebooks and my markers and went back to my room. But the night was nowhere near over.
The first time it happened I was standing in a shack raising money for the homeless. The two walked up to me–a man and a woman, maybe my age, smiling, too exuberant–and with their eyes attached longingly to mine, they introduced themselves and asked, “Can we pray for you?”
I’ll admit: I was taken aback. All my life the idea of “praying for others” was an insult to their identity and an affirmation of the prayer-maker’s superiority: “You’re Jewish? I’ll pray for you. You’re gay? I’ll pray for you. You’re a sinner. I’ll pray for you.”
December 1 is World AIDS Day. Today I’m commemorating the occasion in a mostly silent, academic way–the personal side of observance, though somewhere, feels absent. I have some poetry I’ve been meaning to share, some poetry I still need to build up some courage to share, but I’ll get there.
So today I’m writing a paper. It’s due in twelve hours and I haven’t even started it.