"Are you clean?" my Grindr date asks. I met him on a gay chat site some weeks ago, after some pleasant back and forth, we agreed to meet up.
He's cute and too young, about 30, give or take. His name is Kenny.
"What do you mean?" I ask, as if I don't know. I sip my Starbucks.
"You know," he says, picking at the raisins in his half eaten scone, "are you disease free?"
"Are you asking me about my HIV status?"
"Yeah. Are you clean?"
I hate this question. I hate it because it states clearly in my profile, the one that no one bothers to read as they scroll through pictures of faces and torsos and body parts, my status is HIV positive, undetectable, on meds. These days, in the age of medications, being undetectable means that my ability to transmit HIV is zero. Zero. This, and safer sex practices that we all know by now, helps prevent new infections. But sadly, there is still a stigma in the gay community toward those of us who are HIV positive. I am healthy in every other aspect. I have a good job, in fact I am a nurse in the HIV field. I own my own place. At 50 I'm in pretty good shape, well reasonably good shape, anyway. I'm basically considered a nice guy, a real hoot at a party, a catch. Still, when this question about my status comes up, as it almost always does, in just this same way, I feel like an undesirable, untouchable.
When I tell Kenny my status, I watch his discomfort. his pretty blue eyes that look anywhere but at me, as if he's scanning the place for an emergency exit. I know he will be gone in about two minutes.
"I should get going," he says, right on schedule, suddenly forgetting we had plans to hang out together. It's a bright, warm, sunny October afternoon. We had talked about walking along the Charles River, to see the beautiful autumn leaves. We were going to go to the Square, to browse the stores.
Kenny thanks me for the latte. "Nice meeting you." He manages a tiny smile. He zips up his jacket hastily, the hem of his untucked flannel shirt gets caught. He just leaves it like that. He can't get out of there fast enough. And then he is gone.
From the table at the window, I watch him as he crosses the street. He does not look back.
The place is busy, noisy with people.I stay there a while longer, alone and quiet. The coffee gets cold. I take a sip, still not able to shake this feeling that's something a little more than sadness, I sit there feeling for a moment dirty, and unclean, diseased.
I can't be angry with Kenny. He's too young to remember. He doesn't know what it was like, to come of age just as AIDs was on the horizon. I understand his fear. I was scared in those days, too.Who was not? They were truly terrifying times. I was barely 20 before the first casualties began.
Robert in July of '85. He went fast.
David was in hospice a few weeks, so we got to say goodbye.
Everet lingered. He was a ghost by the time he passed like a shadow, after months and months of wasting away. He scared me the most, with his face, so thin, so gaunt. The feel of his bones when we hugged made me cringe.I hated myself for how I felt.I couldn't wait to get away from him, away from the bottles of pills, the diapers, the smell of dying and death. I hated being there, and I was afraid of him. And, worse, he knew it.
Everet died, then Seth.
Those early years, it was like playing musical chairs. When the music stopped, someone was out. I stumbled through, numb among the sick, skeletal, walking dead. In between, I kept dancing and drinking, I smoked and snorted and rutted to forget. I needed to feel alive, to feel a pulse, a warm body, someone to hold onto. I had boyfriends, I had tricks, lots of them, like survivors in a shipwreck, I clung on, sputtering, dazed, wounded witness to the end of the world, when what I really wanted was to say:
Take care of me. Love me.
By the 90's, we had collectively moved through the stages of grief, from shock and denial, to anger. Anger was the dominant mode, and it took the form of activism.
We wore black Tshirts that said SILENCE=DEATH as we marched in pride parades along with QUEER NATION and Act UP. These groups organized protests that politicized the epidemic into a call for action. They verbalized the rage we felt, they made people uncomfortable, but they were visible, vocal, and they would not back down.
We were angry. We were scared. We didn't know what to do, so we marched along.
And then it was my turn. I sat in my doctor's office when I got the news. I just sat in a hard plastic chair, staring at her calendar. It was December, 1999. I didn't cry. "Do you want to see a counselor?" she said softly, nudging a box of Kleenex toward me. I shook my head. My first and only thought was escape. My thought was to get out of that office, out of that building, I needed to get out on the street and walk in the new falling snow. When I got home, I didn't talk to anyone for weeks, I unplugged my phone, called out to work, stayed in bed.
Now almost 20 years have passed. In the end I was lucky to be diagnosed when things were changing on the cusp of a new century. It was luck, the kind that comes randomly, but also, thanks to the efforts of a generation of men who went before me, those who marched and protested, those who died, those whose efforts brought new meds and treatments in the pipeline, I would be ok. I would survive. But I would never forget.
I cannot forget that history; it's as much a part of my blood as this virus, and just as potent.
Now here I am, dating again in my 50's, trying to navigate in a foreign digital playing field that presents new challenges. I was not prepared for the coldness of this new environment, surprised to be confronted with stigma toward HIV that still lingers, even in this new era.
When some young guy shrinks from me because of my HIV status, yes I get angry, yes I am hurt.
But it will pass.
I leave after the last sip of coffee. I walk out into the bright autumn day, to breathe in the air, the air that feels cold and sharp,the air that feels clean.