In the pursuit of love, I allowed my self-worth to be defined and defiled by fear.
In the aftermath of my deceit-laden relationship with Guy, I managed to remain single for the better part of a year or more. In that time: I established an amenable roommate situation with a buddy I’d met during one of my failed university stints; I unsuccessfully attempted a few community college classes to try and get myself back on track to finishing my degree; I was arrested, of course; and, most significantly, I continued to keep my HIV status a secret from the majority of my friends and all of my family. Yes, in my mid-twenties, I was pretty much a floundering, late 80’s mishap. In the plus column, however, I had great hair. This last factoid may seem a trifle conceited or a tad bit tangential, but in truth it serves as a highly relevant segue into what happens next.
I fell in love with a hairdresser. D’oh! Does my complete and utter gayness have no end? That was initially intended to be a rhetorical question, but in reality, regarding this particular relationship, it does actually have an end – a split end. #apologiesforthat.
It all started out innocently enough. I needed a haircut. My would-be Model friend suggested that I use his guy; a handsome hair-burner recently out of cosmetology school who was offering house call coiffures to help make ends meet. You can see where this is headed, can’t you? Inevitably the ends that meet will be mine and his.
I will call him George; a brazen homage to the sexy hairdresser played by Warren Beatty in the 1975 film, Shampoo. An appropriate alias I would argue because my George was equally as good-looking as Beatty’s, and damn near as flirtatious. He told me I had cute ears. The day after he cut my hair, I got a phone call saying that he had “accidently” left a pair of his shears at my apartment. Indeed, I looked around and found the scissors in question. They had been squirreled away in my living room somewhere, and George and I made a “date” for him to come by and pick them up.
Needless to say, when he came to collect his shears our fast-moving relationship took a decidedly sharp turn toward the physical. Before we made our way south of the belt buckles, however, I stopped to clear the air. Knowing that the truth I was about to share could potentially kill a quickly developing romance, and with the understanding that I could very well be tossing a lifetime’s worth of free highlights out the window, I said it.
George paused momentarily. He shared with me that he was negative, but suggested that it shouldn’t matter as long as we were safe. I agreed, and we quickly got down to the business of undoing belt buckles. It was the first time that I had experienced honest lovemaking since my HIV diagnosis. It was amazing. So amazing in fact that as soon as we were done, I suggested to George that we lather, rinse, and repeat. #apologiesforthat2.
And so began our serodiscordant affair; him negative and me positive.
George and I were the same age and he had grown up in an adjacent part of the San Fernando Valley. Like me, he had a family that was still intact – that is, no divorce. Also like me, he had two sisters and a brother. We shared much in the way of common ground. He was a fledgling hairdresser, but also like me, he had aspirations of something much more in his life. Specifically, George wanted to be a model/rock star. We were still very young, so we set out, hand in hand, to make our respective dreams come true.
The first two years were pretty blissful. I was still employed at the video store, I tried to get out on auditions whenever I could, I worked toward getting myself reenrolled at the university, and George and I settled into a small apartment together near the campus. George wrote a song or two, found a job at a local salon, and tried to pull together a portfolio in the hopes of jumpstarting his modeling career. We took a romantic trip down to Disneyland, and we rode the Amtrak to Chicago one winter to visit some of his extended family. Yes, the first half of our relationship was like a picture-perfect, gay fairytale.
OK, that ends the obligatory relationship montage. Perhaps I should have suggested some background music to consider while you were reading that last paragraph. If you have a moment, skim back over it with Straight Up by Paula Abdul playing in the back of your mind. If you don’t have the time, feel free to move on, but switch the soundtrack in your head to Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn.
Cut to the chase. By the end of the second year, our sex life had completely stalled. Leading up to the demise of our physical relationship, George had started to ask questions. Specifically after sex, he would want to know if what we had just done was safe. The “Safe Sex” campaign was kicking into high gear by this time, and the number of AIDS deaths was beginning to skyrocket. Every time George posed the question – “Was that safe?” – I had the same response. I explained to him that I considered what we were doing to be safe, but that he needed to do some research and come to a decision on his own about what he was comfortable with. He never did, and I could never bring myself to take on the responsibility of giving him a definitive answer on the subject. There was still far too much controversy over what “safe” meant exactly, and I believed that George needed to establish those parameters for himself.
Add to George’s growing confusion about the dangers of sex, the fact that I was now enrolled in an investigational drug trial at UCLA. George was now witness to me ingesting close to twenty pills a day. In addition to the flood of controlled pharmaceuticals, I was also involved in some far less conventional therapies. For example, one treatment required periodic infusions of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP); a compound that is produced by the yolk sac and the liver during fetal development. The experimental AFP that was being pushed into my veins by a rogue doctor, in the bathroom of a private home in the hills overlooking Hollywood, was being harvested from pregnant sheep somewhere in Ireland. These were desperate times.
In retrospect, all that in mind, I suppose George’s skittish behavior regarding physical relations with me may seem completely logical. After months of abstinence, however, the increasing level of George’s sexual frustration became overwhelming. One night, I was pulled from a sound sleep by George’s physical advance. Before I knew what was happening, the weight of his tall, muscular frame was on top of me. He was kissing me with an undeniably growing passion, and I immediately gave in to the carnal pleasure. For a few moments it was wonderful, but we were both still partially clothed when the erotic wrestling came to an abrupt halt. George recoiled and clumsily disentangled himself from me and the bedding. He quickly scrambled off of the bed and stood staring back at where he had just been – with me.
“What did I do?” he asked.
I was confused. I don’t remember having time to reply before George turned and stumbled into the bathroom. He switched on the light and turned on the water in the basin. From where I still sat in bed, I could see him using his hand to scoop water into his mouth. He repeated this several times, swishing and spitting each gulp back into the sink. Eventually, after drying his face with a towel and turning off the light, he made his way slowly back to the bed.
“What did I do?” he asked again. “Anything bad?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing.”
George crawled under the covers and fell back to sleep. Asleep; the unconscious state that he had been in when he mistakenly reached out to touch me. So there it was. I had officially become a pariah in my own bed; dangerous, dirty, unworthy.
I remained in that relationship for another two years; living and sleeping with a man who was afraid to love me. For two long years my body ached for him to reconsider. In that span of time, the sleep-molesting episodes would repeat every few weeks or so. Every now and then I would allow myself a few moments of selfish pleasure before he would come to on his own. Most often, though, I would simply push him off or shake him awake. And every incident ended with the same, shame inducing routine; George stumbling into the bathroom to try and rid himself of any possible contagion by slurping and expelling handfuls of tap water into the sink. And always, in the end, he would ask the question, “Did I do anything bad?”
And my answer was always the same, “No. Nothing.” Believing in those moments that it was my responsibility to reassure him, while my dignity and self-worth lay battered and defiled in the barren spread of rumpled sheets between us.
I know that I loved him, and that he loved me. But the truth of the matter is that George was doing something bad. He was doing something horrible and long-lasting. Just as horrible, though, was the fact that I allowed it to continue for so long. There is no blame to be parceled out. Not then. Not now. We were, both of us, doing the best we could in an atmosphere of complex and extraordinary fear.
Unlike my relationship with Guy, my romance with George was seeded in complete honesty. I’d come clean with him right from the beginning about my HIV, and mistakenly assumed that the truth would somehow serve to shield me from heartache and self-hatred. But truth, it seemed, held no such magical power – at least not truth alone.
So there I was, now seven years HIV-positive, fixed in my absolute brokenness. Waiting for death to come and claim me.