A Tale of Two Bugs, Part Two: The Bug that Drove Me

I confess that the news of my HIV status did not initially spur me into positive action. beachesFor example, do you remember the scene in Beaches just after Barbara Hershey is given her ominous medical diagnosis? Her character is shown hunched over a large stack of medical books in a colossal library with shards of celestial sunlight streaming in from a set of high clearstory windows…? Come on gays, I know that you at least are with me here. For a time she very intensely flips through some massive volumes until she apparently finds documented clarification of her tragic condition and inevitable demise. Eventually, she removes her reading glasses. And then – with a gloomy look of resignation – she stares out across the mostly vacant mausoleum of knowledge and contemplates her next move. All the while, Bette Midler’s haunting vocal of I think it’s Going to Rain Today plays in the background.

Now – if you can imagine in your head something that is the exact opposite of the pro-active, grandiose, beautifully scored scene that I just described, then you will have a semi-accurate picture of my reaction in the aftermath of my HIV diagnosis.  There was no evident anguish, no further inquiry, and no ethereal lighting.

There were three of us that went together to be tested that day in 1986. It was me and two friends that I’d met during one of my first stints in college; one an aspiring disc jockey, and one a would-be model – the latter which I had dated briefly some years earlier.  All of the testing back then was performed under a heavy shroud of fear and anonymity. During our initial visit to the clinic we were instructed not to give our names. Rather we were assigned numbers that would be used to match us to our blood work when we returned on our own for the results. In retrospect, the namelessness and care that was taken to avoid documenting people’s HIV-positive status during those early years was a wise move. As it so happened, Proposition 64 was placed on the California ballot in November of that very same year. Opponents argued that passage of that controversial initiative could have mandated the segregation and internment of HIV-positive individuals. Thankfully, that ballot measure was defeated.

So, upon my return to the clinic two weeks later, I was called into a small office where a very affable man asked me my number. He glanced down at the clipboard on his lap containing a sheet of paper with a long list of anonymous digits. When he found the number in question, he moved his gaze from left to right across the page and then looked up at me.

Before he gave me the news, I remember him asking if I’d had any expectations. Honestly I don’t remember that I did or did not – have expectations. I was a twenty-two-year-old, part-time cater-waiter with dreams of Hollywood stardom. I was still trying to figure out how to conceal my sexuality from agents and casting directors. I knew of AIDS, but wasn’t really up-to-date on the specifics. Clearly I was aware that Rock Hudson had died just a few months prior, and I do recall my model friend once saying that he had heard that just breathing the air in West Hollywood was enough to expose someone to HIV. Ugh. I am hoping now that I didn’t share that last insight with the affable man sitting across from me at the time, but I may have.

“You’re positive,” he said.

My guess is that there may have been some counseling involved in the aftermath of the revelation – information perhaps about support groups and the like, but that I don’t remember. All I know for sure is that at some point I climbed back into my bug and drove home. Soon after that I learned that both the DJ and the model had tested positive as well. In some strange way we were tied forever together from then on, like Musketeers, Caballeros, or Stooges – the three of us. We were bound by a common secret, a shared fear, and a collective shame.

It was an era of growing panic and the first approved treatment to combat the progression of HIV into full-blown AIDS, AZT, was still one year off. There were various, hard to get into drug trials and unconventional and untested regiments like those dramatized in the movie The Dallas Buyer’s Club with Mathew McConaughey. Beyond that, however, it was just a waiting game. Most people like me could only hope that medical advancements would accelerate before the onset of pneumocystis pneumonia, or the appearance of Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS); two of the more common defining opportunistic infections and indicators of a highly compromised immune system. The latter disease, KS, is the cancer that causes the appearance of dark, red lesions on the skin – an especially disfiguring and highly visible marker of contagion and impending death.

VirusSo I was positive. It was in me – this virus. I was infected, and as time passed I became increasingly aware of its lingering presence in my body.

I remember one occasion shortly after my diagnosis. I was playing Paris in a production of Romeo and Juliet at California State University, Northridge and I ran out of a rehearsal to move my bug off of the street. I was in a rush to avoid getting yet one more parking ticket. I reached through the shattered wind wing to open the door from the inside, which I was forced to do on many occasions when the key wouldn’t work in the old lock. As I drew my arm back through the small opening, a tiny piece of broken glass that was left in the edge of the metal frame caught my forearm. I stared down as the blood began to pool around the short, jagged rip in my skin. I pressed my hand hard against the cut, made my way back inside, and asked for a first-aid kit. Without giving myself away – or raising suspicion – I was able to convince the stage manager and anyone else who offered to help that I did not need any assistance with getting the wound cleaned and bandaged. It was the first time that I considered the very real threat that I might pose to those around me.

Although the knowledge of my positive status did not initially inspire me to educate myself like Barbara Hershey, or compel me to circumvent FDA regulations in search of treatment like Mathew McConaughey, it did drive me in other directions. First and foremost, it drove me to seek a job – any job that would provide me with health insurance should the need for medical care become an issue.

More than anything, however, the incubating bug that I carried inside me drove me into a dangerous silence. It moved me to confide the truth of my circumstance to only a very select few. My support system remained extremely small. And as time passed, the bug drove me to become well practiced in the fine arts of denial, deception, and avoidance. It also drove me to adhere to a convenient and twisted conceit. I came to believe that the omission of truth was not the same as lying. Eventually this toxic, self-placating, and self-preserving philosophical conviction in my right to avoid full disclosure would extend even to the person who more than anyone should have known my every truth – the one who shared my bed.