On a recent Friday night a friend of mine called me from the corner and said, Can I come by? Ive 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 arent so dramatic. Do you have AIDS? a friend of mine deadpans whenever Im listless. Hes cute, smirks another friend about someone at a bar, but he looks a little HIV-ish.
Were being silly. And were 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 whove been having sex the last 25 years. Thats because HIV/AIDS is forever locked in our DNA, and whenever were reminded of it -- as I was last Friday night -- its 1983 all over again, and were 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 didnt know what test hed taken. He had the feeling -- since the results had come back in 20 minutes -- that maybe hed taken one of those tests where false positives happen every now and then.
We were suddenly two people whod 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 hed 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 didnt even know there were different tests. Some let their doctors handle the entire business; others simply hadnt been tested in years -- theyd decided waiting for results was too stressful. OK, but have you ever known anyone whos 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. Its not such a big deal, his tone seemed to say. My viral load is undetectable, and Ive 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 wed settled in for an Albee-esque weekend; fear had moved in. Hello again, 1983.
As I tried to sleep, I realized all over that HIV/AIDS had been the defining event of my adult life, the same way the Depression was for one generation, or the Vietnam War for another. I can remember a time before it, when I was a teenager, when I was a child, but only vaguely. That time seems to exist behind a curtain, gauzy and holographic.
The next morning we headed to the only STD clinic open on a Saturday in Los Angeles. In the San Fernando Valley, it catered to members of the adult entertainment industry. As I sat on a liver-shaped love seat, sandwiched between two blond girls in rhinestone-encrusted T-shirts, my friend had his blood taken by a former porn star. Now in her 50s, she seemed more like a waitress at a truck stop diner, the kind who would call you Hon. But she was a certified health care provider, and she assured us many times over that we would have the definitive answer by Monday morning.
We were also assured that it was a wonderful time to be HIV-positive. That if my friends infection had occurred in the last few months, he was in an extraordinary position vis--vis early treatment and the many options it held. HIV was manageable, and there was no reason anyone who had it couldnt live a long, healthy life. We were not comforted.
We went back to my place and spent the next 48 hours sleeping, rationalizing, denying, hoping, laughing, making tea, ordering in, watching CNN, and not answering our phones. We were off-grid, in a soft realm where things cant happen.
Monday came and went with no results -- the lab was behind. Tuesday, no results either. In our zeal to pass the time we went to other clinics, doctors, and hospitals, getting other tests, seeking more advice. Information crashed over us. At each stop we were told the same thing: that HIV was manageable, no longer a death sentence; it wasnt the Nineteen-AIDSies anymore. We didnt believe any of it.
The results finally came in at lunch on Wednesday; he was definitively HIV-positive. Another former porn star -- this one in her late 40s with enormous breasts showcased in a peach halter -- sat us in a dark room and laid out the options. HIV was manageable. Some people take only one pill a day; others take nothing. Everything wed been hearing.
We left the clinic to find the windshield of my car shattered. The glass hadnt fallen in or out, but remained somehow held together, and I could see through it just enough to get us from the Valley back to my apartment. My friend took to my bed. I looked out the window to the giant spray of lavender, gold, and cherry bougainvillea that tumbled from the roof of my building.
I thought about all the doctors wed met in the last few days, those in and out of the adult entertainment industry whod insisted on hope. The fortitude theyd conveyed. Their poise in dealing with the panic that surged over their threshold on a daily basis. I thought about what wed all been through -- everyone: gay, straight, whatever. The fear wed carried on our backs, the desolation of the generation that preceded ours, the ones among us who had survived. The strength wed built up in resistance. The compounding grace of the past 25 years.
As I did, something between my skin and everything inside me went liquid, and the colors of the bougainvillea pulsed, saturating the late-afternoon light. Chunks of history cracked and fell away.
I saw my father on the boardwalk. I arrived in New York City. I kissed my first boy. I had arrived back, through the curtain. We were going to be fine.