Putting the Scarlet “A” in AIDS

scarlet AIDSI had an affair. Of course the mile that I walked in Hester’s shoes was long before the days of Gay marriage, so my stepping out was more akin to your run-of-the-mill, man-on-man, cheating, than it was Nathanial Hawthorne’s epic tale of straight up, sinful  adultery. Or so I thought it was at first, anyway. Be that as it may, choosing to stray from my committed relationship was deceitful, disrespectful, and somewhat debauched. It was also, however, one of the best bad decisions that I have ever made.

My serodiscordant relationship with the hairdresser that I call George lasted for four years. And as I mentioned before, due to George’s growing discomfort with my HIV-positive status, the latter half of our time together was entirely devoid of intimacy.

In early 1993, during those final, frigid years with George, I developed a flirtatious rapport with one of the regular customers at the video store where I was working. Will (not his real name) would come in and rent an eclectic combination of titles, from adult, to classics, to rom-coms. He was handsome, dimpled, and charming. Often times Will would enter the store late at night on his way home from some construction work that he was involved in; dressed in paint splattered jeans and a tattered Tee. This was always my favorite look on him. Our occasional, risqué repartee eventually became the highlight of my workday. I remember one incident in particular when I approached Will while he stood perusing our large selection of musicals. I proceeded to kneel down close to him and innocently place a returned item back on one of the lower shelves. While my face was still hovering somewhere close to his paint-stained crotch, I looked up coyly at Will and asked, “Is there anything that I can help you with?” In retrospect, I pray that all of my coquettish moves were not quite so artless. Nevertheless, Will was always willing to volley something back – “If something comes up, I’ll let you know.” Our relationship – that of playful video clerk and frisky customer – went on like this for months; replaying like the opening scene from some schlocky gay porno.

During one of our more G-rated exchanges, I shared with Will that I was performing in a play at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As it turned out, in addition to our love for innuendo laden banter, Will and I also shared a passion for the theatre. I invited him to come and see the show; a historic, ensemble piece about Dust Bowl immigrants in depression-era California. #dryandbleak.

Will met me outside after the show and we decided to grab a cup of coffee together before saying goodnight. I was emotionally conflicted sitting across from Will in that strip mall, storefront, coffeehouse. It was our first time together away from the safe and behavior restraining confines of the video store, and out in the world my interaction with him suddenly took on an exhilarating and dangerous new freedom. Still, as I began my first in-depth conversation with this intriguing man over a hot cup of java, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that icy George was waiting for me back at home.

I remember that Will began our talk by sharing something that he had experienced while watching me in the performance that night. It turned out that the play’s writer/director was also observing the show that evening from the back of the house near where George was seated, and at some point during the performance Will had overheard him quietly lament, “They’re killing my baby.” My ego may have been slightly wounded, but I appreciated Will’s candor. In retrospect, he may have chosen – albeit unconsciously perhaps – to use that truth as a litmus test to gauge my comfort and willingness to face truths in general. Because, as it turns out, I was about to get an earful of them.

Will continued, “I am very attracted to you, but….”

I don’t pretend to remember verbatim what followed Will’s “but,” however, in a nutshell, it was something like this…

Will shared with me that he was a recovering alcoholic, HIV-positive, and in a relationship with a man who was very ill. Will had a 9 to 5 job that helped to make ends meet, but he was also working nights and weekends to keep his own business going on the side. He confessed that he wasn’t sure where his attraction to me might lead, but he made it clear that he would not consider the idea of leaving his sick boyfriend. With all that in mind, Will was also blunt about still wanting to explore the possibility of something more with me.

I found Will’s honesty intoxicating. He spoke without sadness or self-judgment, and his underlying mindfulness of life’s quickly ticking clock made me feel strangely safe. His truthfulness transported me. After living in some lonely, shameful, HIV-positive exile for almost a decade, I felt like I was finally home. I fell head over heels right there on the spot.

But wait. This was simply supposed to be a clandestine hook-up over coffee with an attractive customer that I was big-time lust-crushing on. Heading into this night I imagined it would simply play out like the long delayed second scene in our trashy gay porn scenario.

Will: How’s your cappuccino?

Me: Hot, sweet, and creamy. Just how I like it.

Will: It’s nice to finally see you out of the video store.

Me: Just say the word, and you can see me out of far more than that.

(Cut to the coffeehouse men’s room, and cue music: Bow-chicka-bow-wow…)

As it turned out, our relationship segued into an entirely different genre that evening. When the talking was done, Will and I simply hugged and said goodnight. Over the next few weeks and months, we continued to chat when he was in the store and sometimes on the phone. Our conversations ranged from light and easy, to more serious discussions about my life at home with a boyfriend who was afraid to touch me, and the challenges he faced trying to care for a lover who was succumbing to AIDS. On occasion, he would come to the store just before closing and wait around the corner for me to lock up. We would kiss and hold each other briefly, before returning home to our separate lives. During this time, my feelings for Will continued to deepen and I lived with a growing and constant aching want for him. Eventually, Will and I did find ourselves together in a hotel room – something we had discussed and planned very covertly. It was perfect. If I felt any shame at the time about the inherent deceit involved in that first, full-fledged, physical tryst with Will, it was far outweighed by the peaceful consummation of our deep emotional connection to one another.

The day eventually came when a friend of Will’s – one who was privy to our situation and supportive – came into the store to share with me that Will’s lover had passed away. The news unleashed an indescribable crush of conflicting emotions. I knew that Will must have been suffering and I wanted so badly to be there for him, but I was still just the other man. I also selfishly wondered if, or how, his feelings about me would be affected in the wake of such a loss. For the time being, however, there was nothing for me to do except to hang back on the periphery while a person that I had never met – someone’s friend, someone’s son, someone’s lover – was laid to rest.

Wait. There was one thing I could do. I could make damn sure that when I saw Will the next time – if there was a next time – that I could let him know that I was available.

Immediately after my shift was done that evening, I went home and told George that I wanted out. He asked very directly if there was someone else, and I flat-out lied. No, I said. In the moment, I remember thinking that I was somehow trying to save him from any additional pain, but the truth is that I probably didn’t want to give him any excuse to judge me further. His refusal to touch me for two years had clearly communicated that I was somehow unworthy. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that I was also unfaithful. The breakup was messy, as breakups often are, and on a couple of occasions he physically threatened me.

Max and MeI ran into George many years later at a movie theatre. I wanted so much to talk with him about our past, and to express my regret with how our relationship ended. I also wanted to know what had ever become of Max, his black lab mix that I lost all custody of when we split. But our talk was largely superficial and he seemed uninterested in pursuing any type of meaningful closure. He did share with me that he had married a man and that they had three beautiful children together. In retrospect, it was sincerely comforting to know that he had found such a happy life – and slightly satisfying to see that he had put on a little weight.

Anyway, a few days after my breakup with George, Will’s friend came into the Video store again. He said that Will wanted me to have the information about where the service was being held. The idea of going to Will’s boyfriend’s funeral struck me as odd, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show my love and support – even if it just meant Will seeing my face there somewhere in the background. It was a good crowd and a nice service for a man who was obviously well loved. I watched from a distance as Will navigated the proceedings with an impressive combination of sensitivity and courage. When it was over, Will approached me and asked if I wanted to meet him at the reception afterwards. It was just going to be a casual gathering of some friends, he said. They were going to hang out and watch the televised broadcast of the Tony Awards that were on later that afternoon.

It was a small apartment on one of the neighboring West streets in Boys Town: Westmount, Westbourne, or West Knoll. I remember approaching the apartment door, fearful that I was at the right address on the wrong street. Honestly, I was just fearful. I was not sure who would be there and I was uncertain about how my presence would be perceived. Once inside, the only two people familiar to me were Will and his friend who had acted as our communication link leading up to that day. At first I felt awkward – fielding a couple of questions about how I had known the deceased.

“I’m a friend of Will’s,” I’d reply.

angelsAs it turned out, a large percentage of the people in attendance that day were connected through Alcoholics Anonymous, and there was an undeniable sense that these people had a strong, important, and supportive connection to one another. There also seemed to be an unspoken understanding in this particular crowd; that we were all living in the midst of a merciless plague, and the idea of something as ordinary as a socially acceptable mourning period was a luxury that many of us knew that we could no longer afford. As soon as I was able to relax, it became clear that I was in the company of a gracious and welcoming bunch. When the Tony’s began, Will led me to a vacant spot on the living room floor, in front of the television set. And we watched as Broadway’s elite showered awards and accolades on Kiss of the Spider Woman and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.

Sitting together with Will on that patch of high-low shag, watching inspiring speeches about the magic of art and the rewards of perseverance, I assumed that I would likely not live long enough to realize my own dream of a life in the theatre. But for that moment I was content. No, more than content – I was blissful. I was shamelessly in love. And for the first time since my diagnosis, I was beginning to feel like I might have found a place – a people – a life – were being HIV-positive was actually OK.