This one frightens me. I just want to put that out there before I begin. And the truth is that I may or may not be starting with that particular emotional insight because I am trying to elicit some kind of special consideration. Ugh. Be that as it may, I just want you to know. I’m afraid.
In addition, I want you to be aware that in the telling of this particular transgression I may try to water down the sting of its severity by pointing out the fact that I was very young at the time. Or perhaps I will redundantly contextualize the grievous wrongdoing by reminding you that it was committed in the still very shadowy dawn of the AIDS crisis. My guess is that I will also try to blur the harshness of this particular offense by draping it in some flimsy veils of self-depreciative humor. Oh, and get this; I may even try to elicit some ridiculously tangential compassion by straying into a completely unrelated tale about my penchant for taking in orphaned baby birds.
No. Wait. Ignore that last part. It would be impossible for me to inconspicuously weave in the orphaned bird narrative, so forget that.
The point is this; I will undoubtedly try, to the best of my ability, to impose some kind of subtextual justification for the inexcusability of my actions. So there it is. Consider yourself warned.
At some point not long after my HIV-positive diagnosis I went down to Laguna Beach with my would-be Model buddy to hang out with some friends of his. That is where I met a guy who would rather swiftly become my first, real, big boy relationship. And he was exactly just that – a guy. Don’t misunderstand, I mean that only in the best sense of the word. He was unabashedly handsome, completely charming, refreshingly unaffected, sweetly confident, and boyish to the bone. Yes, he was a guy – an all-day-long dreamy one. And I fell fast and hard – like a drunken drag queen on black ice.
It began as a weekend relationship mostly; me and my Guy. In the beginning, I would commute an hour-and-a-half or so down south to be with him whenever possible. After a few months, however, Guy relocated up to Los Angeles and we eventually moved in together. I was still attempting to complete my college education (on and off), while working at a local video store and catering part-time. Because he didn’t have a car yet, Guy got a waiter job at a small, family-owned, Italian restaurant close to our apartment. It was the first time that I had romantically cohabitated, and at the tender age of twenty-three I was feeling all grown up. The only remaining photograph I have of Guy and me is of the two of us sitting in a friend’s driveway playing with a litter of puppies. Looking at the picture now, I realize that we were both still just puppies ourselves.
It was a very cozy arrangement we had, and it remained that way for a couple of years. In all of that time, however, there was one particular conversation that Guy and I had never had with each other. In almost two years of living – and loving – together, we had never once broached the subject of our respective HIV statuses. Never. So the truth is that we weren’t actually just a couple. The living arrangement in our modest abode was really more like a kinky threesome; Guy, a massively awkward elephant, and me.
Keep in mind that we were still living in the very early days of AIDS. There were precious few resources and not a lot of information about the mysterious new syndrome that would eventually grow into a deadly, worldwide pandemic. And although there was plenty of hearsay about how the illness was spread, it was still years before the blazing proliferation of the “Safe Sex” campaign. Most of the men that I knew had not yet been tested, or, if they had been, they were not talking about it.
Somewhere along the line – much to my regret – I had convinced myself that I wasn’t really lying to Guy about being positive because he had never actually asked. Perverse logic for sure. For the record, I never asked about his status either. Also for the record, our sexual practices always stayed within very limited and therefore fundamentally safe boundaries. This last statement is not meant to justify my behavior, but rather to help rationalize Guy’s. You see at some point during our time together, Guy began to…how do I say…seek out the kindness of a stranger. In retrospect, it may likely have been that he was yearning for an erotic menu a bit more diverse than the one being served up at home by the awkward elephant and me.
Guy’s other man was a slightly older, swarthy, masculine bartender from our local gay watering hole. He had a bitchin mullet, a perpetual five-o-clock shadow, and cruised around town in a black, T-top Trans Am. He was undeniably mid 80’s hot. I bring up Guy’s tomcatting because it was my discovery of that affair, along with the quickly declining health of my friend DJ, which finally prompted me to initiate the HIV discussion.
Rather than bravely divulging the truth of my positive status, however, I suggested to Guy that we both go and get tested together. I soon found myself by his side in the same clinic where I had been almost two years earlier. All the while of course I pretended to be experiencing the anonymous testing process for the very first time.
At some point during the two-week waiting period between our blood draw and the results, Guy got cold feet. He explained that he’d decided that he would rather not know his status after all. What was there really to be done about it anyway, he reasoned? In Guy’s defense, the only real treatment available at the time was a very new drug called AZT, and there was still very little known about the drug’s side effects or its efficacy.
I wasn’t willing to give up this opportunity to finally get the truth of my HIV out into the open, so – continuing the charade – I told Guy that I still wanted to go and get my results. A couple of days later I found myself sitting – without Guy – in the same small room, with the same affable man, who looked to be holding the same ominous clipboard. I knew right away that he recognized me. He glanced down at the page of results in front of him. Just like two years earlier he looked up and gave me the news that I was positive. And then he asked about why I was back again. I told him that I’d originally come in with my boyfriend this time around, but that in the end Guy had decided not to return for his results.
The man explained to me that if Guy and I had come in together, then the numbers we’d been assigned to correspond with our test results should be sequential on the list. After another glance down to the clipboard, he shared with me that there were no other positive results anywhere close to my number on the page.
At this point in the story, the line between victim and villain begins to blur. And so it should. I believe that most often there are no clean lines around the truth.
When I got home, I told Guy that my test result was positive. I also went on to tell him that his result was most likely negative. I remember that for some reason our HIV conversation eventually segued into a fight about Guy’s ongoing fling with Hottie McDrinkslinger. I don’t remember clearly why the subject of infidelity came up, but I do recall that the argument finally escalated to a climax at which I point I blurted out my long-held secret. “I’ve always known,” I confessed. “I’ve known about being positive all along.”
This next bit I remember very clearly. Guy was sitting on our bed and I was standing in the bedroom doorway. There was a brief calm in the aftermath of my revelation. Guy and I stared silently across the room at one another. And then he said to me – more with anguish than with anger – “You killed me.”
If nothing else, finally the elephant in the room was gone. We were at last alone, Guy and me. With the speaking of truth, however, came the slaughter of trust, and very soon after we went our separate ways.
The universe did eventually afford me a small token of absolution for my egregious lie of omission. Many years later – very close to my 40th birthday – I was on my way home from my weekly poker game, and I decided to stop in for a drink at the old gay haunt in the neighborhood where Guy and I used to live. The place had gone through some minor renovations over the years and it even had a new name, but it was still a tad divey.
The crowd was expectedly sparse for a Sunday, so as I entered it was impossible not to notice a familiar face sitting at the bar and sipping a beer. Our eyes met and Guy’s smile was immediately warm and genuine. We talked for a time about how our lives had evolved in the years since we had last seen each other. Inevitably the conversation turned to the circumstance of our messy breakup, and I was grateful to be given an opportunity to apologize. Guy shared with me that he did get retested some time later and that he was indeed negative. He also admitted that he had since become infected with the virus, but he was careful to make it clear that his exposure to HIV had happened long after we had been together. It was very kind of him to be concerned with my peace of mind after so many years. I was sorry to hear of his seroconversion, but happy to see him looking so healthy. It was a bittersweet reunion, and eventually like in that old Dan Fogelberg tearjerker, “The beer was empty and our tongues were tired.” We hugged goodbye. That was the last time I saw Guy. I still think of him often, and hope that he is well.
There are no excuses for what I did. I have always regretted the lie of not telling Guy the truth in the beginning. It was indisputably wrong and I will forever carry a gentle shame regarding that choice. I call it a gentle shame, because over the years I have managed to find some modicum of self-forgiveness. You see, when I met Guy I was clearly incapable of doing any better. At the time I was likely far more afraid of dying than I even knew, and existing in a kind of frightened and flailing, survival mode. I was like one of those tiny birds that would fall from its nest up in one of the hollow street signs near our house when I was a kid. Still bald, blind, and utterly ill equipped to survive its unfamiliar new landscape, the terrified bird would writhe on the ground, chirping and thrashing. On many occasions I’d scoop one up, take it home, put it in a shoebox under a lamp, and try to stuff smashed bananas down its tiny gullet with a toothpick. In the end, the vast majority of those fledglings died.
The reality is that when I met Guy, my HIV diagnosis gave me something close to the same odds of survival as one of those tragically orphaned birds. So now when I reminisce about some of the mistakes I made with my first, real, big boy relationship, I have learned to set aside harsh judgment and a propensity toward self-loathing. And I am able to do this just long enough to recognize that back then I was a desperately floundering, HIV-positive fledgling, and I was lost in a frightening new landscape.
(Sorry, one final warning. I may sneak in a picture of myself with a litter of adorable puppies.)