Hello Again, 1983

10.14.2008

By Tom Donaghy

On a recent Friday night a friend of mine called me from the corner and said, 'Can I come by? I've just tested positive for HIV.' 'Sure,' I said. 'Come over.'

This particular bomb had been dropping for 25 years, during which time my friends and I panicked and prayed, died and lived, crashed, burned, and rose from the ashes.

But these days we aren't so dramatic. 'Do you have AIDS?' a friend of mine deadpans whenever I'm listless. 'He's cute,' smirks another friend about someone at a bar, 'but he looks a little HIV-ish.'

We're being silly. And we're entitled to be silly, we reason, because we consider ourselves post-AIDS. Those of my friends who have AIDS even say they have 'the new AIDS, not the old AIDS.' And the new AIDS is a walk in the park compared to the AIDS of the 1980s -- or the 'Nineteen-AIDSies' as another friend calls it.

See, we have no problem parodying our decades-long fear of HIV/AIDS, because the disease is not such a big deal anymore. Right?

But behind the black comedy, the subject of HIV/AIDS still stirs up a tsunami of quiet terror for many gay men who've been having sex the last 25 years. That's because HIV/AIDS is forever locked in our DNA, and whenever we're reminded of it -- as I was last Friday night -- it's 1983 all over again, and we're back on Christopher Street or Santa Monica Boulevard, staggering through a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

My friend arrived on my doorstep within minutes, stunned, tentative. He told me he stepped into one of the free testing sites in West Hollywood 'on a whim' and took the test. 'Exactly what test did you take?' I asked him, recalling from somewhere that there are several tests, each with different windows and degrees of accuracy.

He didn't know what test he'd taken. He had the feeling -- since the results had come back in 20 minutes -- that maybe he'd taken one of those tests where false positives happen every now and then.

We were suddenly two people who'd lived through the last 25 years of HIV without having learned much about it.

He told me the name of the clinic, and I called it as he sat wide-eyed in my living room, staring alternately at the floor and then up at the ceiling, his hands on his knees and his legs apart, winded and tense.

It was after hours on a Friday night, the recording said; the clinic was closed. I went online, trying to find another clinic, or a doctor, or a hotline where I could speak to someone and get more information about the test he'd taken, or what to do next -- what to do with a friend staring into space. But there was nothing open and no one to talk to until the morning. Hospitals no longer do HIV testing in emergency rooms, and hospital operators had little advice.

I started calling friends to see what they knew. The few I could reach on a Friday night had no idea how effective or definitive HIV tests were. A couple didn't even know there were different tests. Some let their doctors handle the entire business; others simply hadn't been tested in years -- they'd decided waiting for results was too stressful. 'OK, but have you ever known anyone who's tested false positive?' A couple had. 'Do you know a doctor I can call on the weekend?' No one did.

Their hushed voices sounded dissociated, solemn, childlike, a familiar mix of concern and dread. The only one who spoke evenly was the only friend with HIV I could reach. It's not such a big deal, his tone seemed to say. 'My viral load is undetectable, and I've never been sick.' I told my friend this. He was not comforted.

He then fell asleep on the couch. I continued a search online until, buzzed, I lay on my bed, sleepless. I knew we'd settled in for an Albee-esque weekend; fear had moved in. Hello again, 1983.

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