Hello Again, 1983

10.14.2008

By Tom Donaghy

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 friend's 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 couldn't 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 can't 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 wasn't the Nineteen-AIDSies anymore. We didn't 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 we'd been hearing.

We left the clinic to find the windshield of my car shattered. The glass hadn't 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 we'd met in the last few days, those in and out of the adult entertainment industry who'd insisted on hope. The fortitude they'd conveyed. Their poise in dealing with the panic that surged over their threshold on a daily basis. I thought about what we'd all been through -- everyone: gay, straight, whatever. The fear we'd carried on our backs, the desolation of the generation that preceded ours, the ones among us who had survived. The strength we'd 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.

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