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My First HIV Test: November 1985


Remembering the fear and the courage to take the test

Alone in my dorm room, I uncrumpled the flyer, carefully ironing-out the wrinkles with the edges of my hands until all the information was once again legible: HIV Testing, County Health Clinic 11400 Canal Street, 2nd Floor. As I searched for my car keys, the page began to curl back up, but I didn't care. I didn't want to stop for a moment, in case I curled up as well.

It was 1985 and we were all scared, not knowing what was going on, what this disease was, who would die. So I drove downtown in search of Canal, where I found the County Health Department, situated in the dreariest part of the city. The clinic was a grimy, Soviet-era inspired box of a building, with no pleasing aesthetics, and no mood-enhancing paint hues to lift the spirit.

As I approached the main entrance of the clinic, my temples began to pound. Would I run into someone I knew? What would I tell them? Was I writing a research paper? Maybe picking someone up?

When I tried to enter, I couldn't get the automated glass doors to open. I stepped all over the place trying to activate the motion sensors. From a distance, I must have looked like a crazy person, trying in vain to step around his reflection in the glass. I let out a sarcastic laugh when I realized how often I'd done that dance with myself at home recently, while agonizing over the decision whether or not to get tested.

When the doors finally parted, I entered the clinic and took a seat in the waiting room. After four years of obsession and worry, I felt as though I was finally taking control.

One of my favorite songs, "Sarah," was playing over the radio. I actually owned the Jefferson Starship record, but after my roommate had gotten drunk one night and scratched the vinyl, I'd banished it from my collection. As much as I tried, I couldn't enjoy the music anymore: the predictable, yet paradoxically jarring pops had become too distracting.

As I sat there, I watched as a little boy carefully formed letters with a tiny pencil: it was sharpened all the way down to the metallic eraser band. He'd chewed the metallic band flat--presumably to squeeze out the last remaining bits of rubbery magic--but at this point, there wasn't any eraser left at all. Yet he continued to write.

I grabbed a magazine, but only to skim through the ads. I didn't dare get caught up in a long article. Had I lost myself in a good story--for even a few minutes--my temporarily cleansed psyche could never have withstood the next ultra-pure, high-potency dose of anxiety coming around the bend. No, I tossed the magazine back on the table: I had to keep my tolerance levels up; I had to make sure nothing came between me and my next fix of HIV paranoia.

Finally, a nurse called my name, or more accurately, my number. She walked me to an examination area, and I sat down on the edge of a cold steel gurney.

"So...why do you want an HIV test?" the nurse asked.

"Well, I'm...I'm gay, and..."

It was the first time I had ever told anyone that I was gay. I savored the irony as best I could. I'd always imagined coming out to a loved one while sitting on a park bench somewhere, overlooking the ocean, but here I was coming out--for the first time--to a stranger, amid bandages, rubbing alcohol, syringes, and pictures of smokers' lungs and brains on drugs.

I really don't remember exactly what I said next. Something about a mutual jackoff session five years earlier...something about how my partner, who had cleaned up, had then playfully tossed the moist towel at me. I explained how the towel had hit me in the face, how it had brushed against my eyes and lips. How I knew there were open fissures; I knew that I was infected.

I broke down and wept. I cried like I'd never wept before. I couldn't put words together.

The poor nurse immediately pulled my trembling body against hers, and with the calmest of hands, she laid my head against her warm, consoling breast. My tears fell and disappeared into the darkness of her uniform. I had waved the proverbial white flag; I had come home for one last time.

But we needed to get back to the business at hand. Other people waited their turn, so I extended my arm and the nurse took my blood. After a few moments, she withdrew the needle and placed my bar-coded specimen in a pass-through cabinet on the wall. It was over; I was done.

On my way out, the nurse had gave me so many free condoms I thought I could have resurfaced the Goodyear blimp. She'd also given me a pamphlet which explained how the HIV virus worked, based upon the four years of data available at the time. I devoured it, feeling like a frightened kid who finally gained access backstage where I could see the smoke machines, the flash guns, the trap doors, the invisible wires...

It was all so liberating, but a bit of a let-down as well: while I knew that I'd never again allow myself to be gripped with such fear and trepidation, I also knew that I'd never love or lust with the same reckless abandon. The gods had fallen along with the monsters that day.

Back at my dorm room, I longed to hear my favorite song again, so I decided it was high time to rescue my poor exiled Jefferson Starship LP from the closet.

After navigating it the past dirty laundry, my 21st birthday beer bong, and a bunch of old high school track medals I'd never bothered to display, I placed the record on the turntable and carefully lowered the arm.

Day One of the rest of my life had officially begun.

John Daniel lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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