Saturday, December 01, 2001

So, in response to World AIDS Day, and in keeping with my participating in Link and Think, today's writing is about, well, HIV and AIDS.

Make sure you're in a comfortable chair with something tasty to nibble on, because it's gonna be a long story.

I first remember reading about it - in the Washington Post I think - before it had a name. I was living with my ex in this teeny-tiny studio apartment at 7th and A Streets NE, in Washington, D.C. This would have been 1983 or so. Gay men, drug addicts and Haitians were all getting weird cancers, their immune systems pathetically feeble and failing them utterly.

It didn't register much at first.

But over time, the facts became less hazy and this phenomenon acquired a name, two names in fact: AIDS - acquired immune deficiency syndrome - and ARC - AIDS-related complex. AIDS killed you, but ARC was a sort of pre-AIDS, or maybe it never led to fullblown AIDS. They just didn't know. They hadn't yet discovered what exactly caused it, but they more or less knew that it could be transferred through sex or sharing needles. They thought maybe drugs - poppers, amyl nitrate - had something to do with it. Everything was shrouded in mystery, and a lot of people were scared that they could catch AIDS from drinking from the same glass of water a gay man had just drunk from.

By 1984-1985, the worry had set in for us. Sometime around then it was discovered that HIV causes AIDS. I decided it would be highly likely that I had contracted HIV sometime in the years before 1982, before I'd gotten together with my ex. And what made the worry terrible in some ways was that my ex refused to get tested, reasoning that since there was nothing they could do about it anyway, and since we were monogamous, it would only make his life worse to know.

Me, I went along with him, not because I agreed, but because that was what he wanted.

Looking back on it, this virus was lurking in the back of our minds all the time, every day. Any cold or flu bug, any feelings of fatigue, any bruise, all were examined closely but silently - I never spoke of any of it for fear of getting my ex upset. And I assumed the worst. It's so strange to look back on it now, I've really forgotten completely how much that damned virus haunted me.

In 1987, when I came back from two years at university in Manhattan with my degree in hand, and after I had gotten my first real job, at my instigation we contacted the Whitman Walker Clinic, which had started as a free VD clinic for gay men in the '70s, and early on in the epidemic had become the primary institution serving people with HIV in Washington DC. We became "buddies" with a man who was critically ill. We underwent several days of training, even attending a weekend-long workshop on death. Our buddy, G., lived in one of the six houses that the clinic maintained for people who had no other place to go.

We met him in December, and by February he had died. We visited him several times weekly, fixed meals for him, brought him to the doctor, took him shopping and out to a restaurant once; within a month of our meeting him, he was bedridden and couldn't go out.

His funeral was held in the Church of God of the Two Worlds, a strange vaguely Christian spiritualist church. He was buried somewhere outside Shepardstown, W. Virginia. We hardly knew him, not really.

We never became buddies with anyone else after G. died. Fear, I suppose. It brought it all too close, especially since we didn't know our own status. I did know, however, that several of my good friends were HIV positive. My high school sweetheart (the male one), another guy with whom I'd lived with briefly in Atlanta. My best friend in D.C. who'd moved to Chicago.

I guess it must have been in 1989 or 1990 that my ex finally decided that he wanted to know. I'm not sure, perhaps AZT had just shown up on the scene, although I seem to think this was before then. Whatever it was, he had decided that not knowing was worse than knowing could be.

We went to our doctor, who wasn't gay, but said that we should not have our insurance pay for the test because then they would discriminate against us. He would do it anonymously. He was a wonderful doctor.

Waiting that week - it took a week in those days - was utter hell. Mostly because my ex was crazed. Me, I'm pretty good at ignoring things, pushing them down into the back of my mind somewhere. And despite my knowing all these people and having witnessed someone, more or less, die from it, it wasn't real to me anyway.

The results came back negative.

I suppose that our lives changed at that moment. But to be honest, I don't remember it, not really.

- by Francis S.

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