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The Bare Truth

The Bare Truth

Fifth grade Jamie with Mama Jean
Photo Courtesy of Jamie Brickhouse

What Mama Jean was learning to ask, I'd never answer.

Pictured: Jamie Brickhouse in fifth grade with Mama Jean

"What's barebacking?" my mother, Mama Jean, asked. She was visiting my partner Michael and me in New York in the fall of 2005. We were watching Oprah, who was interviewing a gay man about how his fabulous, successful life was destroyed when he became addicted to crystal meth and lost everything. He started barebacking and became HIV-positive.

I explained the phrase to Mama Jean. "When you have unprotected sex. Sex without a condom."

She screwed up her face in disgust. "Oh God."

An hour later, she and I were in the living room when Michael came home from work. He said a brief hello and disappeared into the bedroom to change.

Mama Jean leaned into me with a mischievous grin and whispered, "Bare- skinned? Bare-assed?"

"What?"

"What's it called? What that boy was talking about on ? Bare-skinning?"

"Oh. Barebacking. Why?"

"Never mind." She held up her finger to silence me and leaned back with a just-you-wait smirk on her face. Then: "Michael?"

"Yes, Jean?"

"Have you been barebacking lately?"

Dead silence.

I shook my head in resigned exasperation. Mama Jean silently snickered. She cocked her done-once-a-week Texas hairdo with her ear in Michael's direction. "Michael? Did you hear me?"

Michael appeared in the living room, wearing the expert poker face that made him unflappable in any situation. "I heard you, Jean. But I'm not sure that I understood you."

"Oh, come on. If you don't know what barebacking is, I'm worried about you."

"Riding side saddle?"

I broke the charade and explained that she was just showing off the new term she had learned. The story became an instant classic before it was even dry, neck and neck with the one in which she warned 19-year-old me that there was no safe sex, only two kinds of sex: oral and anal. (She forgot vaginal, but that was her problem.) The stories represent the kind of in-your-face woman she was: part Auntie Mame, part Mama Rose, who never had a thought she didn't speak.

But every time I laughed along with the response to the barebacking story, I cringed inside because of the secret I was harboring.

In 2002, I paid a visit to my doctor after a fallen priest I'd been seeing told me he had the clap. My doctor asked if I wanted an HIV test, since it had been over a year since my last one. "Might as well," I said with nonchalance to hide from him--but more from myself--my fear that I had reason to worry. A few days after the exam, he called me at my office.

"I have good news and bad news," he said.

"OK?" I said with a nervous rise in my voice.

"The good news: You don't have gonorrhea."

"That's a relief." But I wasn't relieved.

"The bad news: You're HIV-positive."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. But these days, it's a condition." His voice was suddenly upbeat, as though I had just won the lottery, only it was the lottery in that famous Shirley Jackson story where the winner is stoned to death.

I mentally lacerated myself.

Did I get it from that guy in the bathhouse that time we did crystal meth? I knew I didn't get it from Michael because we always had safe sex. Who knows where I got it? There were so many alcoholic mornings after when I suddenly remembered that a condom hadn't been part of my night before. How stupid was I? I came of age when the AIDS epidemic was full-blown and safe sex was standard protocol. Mama Jean's warning echoed in my ear, "Remember, a moment's pleasure isn't worth a lifetime of regret."

I couldn't tell her she was right and face her I-told-you-so wrath, but mostly I couldn't tell her because it would kill her.

Half an hour after I received the news, I was parked on a stool at my local gay bar, draining my first martini. "Another, please." I felt like I was on a cliff and about to jump, when a man next to me asked me what was wrong. The dam broke, and in a flood of tears I told this nameless stranger that I was positive. That my life was over. That no one would want to have sex with me again. He said that it wasn't true. He took me to a porno bookstore and made an honest man of himself. I finally understood what Blanche DuBois meant about always depending upon the kindness of strangers.

I told Michael (who remains negative) that night, but Mama Jean went to her grave never knowing.

"You'd tell me if you were, wouldn't you?" she'd asked me many times with a stricken face.

"Yes," I lied.

"Good. Because if anything ever happened to you, they'd have to lock me up and throw away the key." Mama Jean was a successful businesswoman, but she made a career out of loving me.

What I told a complete stranger, I could never tell Mama Jean. She already knew and accepted that I was gay, alcoholic, and voted Democrat. Well, that last truth she never fully accepted. I lied about being poz to protect us both: her from living with that bare truth and me from living with her knowing that bare truth.

Adapted from Jamie Brickhouse's memoir, Dangerous When Wet, published by St. Martin's Press.

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