It’s been almost two weeks since the day I walked into the clinic for my ritual HIV test. A ritual deep with meaning, history, and emotion. The first time I did this was in ’89 when you had to wait 21 days for the results. My doctor at that time said to me, “Oh you have sex with men, so it’s likely you are positive.” I remember retracting from his words, stunned. Not that it was the first or last time the stigma of being gay and equating it to death would occur. I guess I wasn’t aware of how deeply that wound had set into my own psyche.
Should I be surprised at the results when so many times before I expected I’d convert to positive? Can I be surprised at the amount of shame and guilt I felt upon receiving the news I had zero converted? What a funny word, “positive”. It doesn’t feel so positive to me. I grew up and came out in the late 80s. I watched my friends melt into bones and then break. I saw the terror in their eyes and the acceptance when it was close to being over. Families turning their backs on them. Friends forgetting they existed. The taint of disease coloring everything. An apartment filled with memories that seemed locked in a tomb below ground. I volunteered at an AIDS charity doing home visits to clean. I later managed the volunteers at the supporting thrift store. A truck would pull up to drop off an estate. In one instance, the items were all covered in address labels. A last attempt to make sure people knew who’s stuff they were buying? An attempt to be remembered.
I sat at the table numb. Staring down at the test sticks. One stick for HIV and one for syphilis. A chart sat next to it indicating how to read it. Purely graphic with the words “reactivo” next to the mark pattern to let you know you tested positive. I look left at the test sticks. Right at the cheat sheet. Left. Right. Listening to the explanation of the lady across the desk speaking in Spanish. I am an expat living in her city learning Spanish. I know what she is saying. I compare her words to the information in front of me. The air grows thin, my vision blurs, my face fills with blood, my eyes well over. “Otra vez,” I say to her. She instinctively had another kit waiting and repeated the exam. Prick the finger. Careful those gloves are tight. She continues talking. It’s funny. I have been in her shoes as a volunteer for AHF in Los Angeles. I don’t know all the words she is saying, but the script is instinctively playing in my mind. No subtitles needed. The time is up and she placed the test strips next to the other ones. All matching. All supporting the diagnosis. She slides a pamphlet over to me (in Spanish). I stand to leave feeling like my head is 2000 pounds and surrounded by plastic wrap. She pushes a bowl of hard candies towards me. A reward?
I’m back out in the streets feeling and probably looking like the truck had run me over. I’d recently started going on dates again and had met a nice guy who listed himself as “POZ.” I was considering who do I reach out to, but I wasn’t sure I knew anyone who could identify. Despite the recent introduction, I sent a message to Francisco. “I need help. Emergency. Can you come to Zona Rosa?” The question followed by more questions. I sat on the steps of Pendulo trying not to hyperventilate. God forbid anyone is aware I have feelings in public. My friend arrived and I couldn’t reserve my feelings for later. We attempted to eat and he told me his story. It felt like the first time at an AA meeting. I was still pressure wrapped in plastic sealing my brain, so the words were muffled. I could see his concern and compassion in his eyes. I knew he understood what was going on in my head.
We made our way in Uber from Zona Rosa to the clinica in Condesa. The next indicated step was to have a full blood test done. I wasn’t really prepared for anything more, but I was more than willing to take whatever step was necessary since I had no ability to process my movement. It was a bit daunting. I totally forgot Spanish and English. Here I am with my dead languages being ushered from one place to the next. Blank white walls covered in tattered informational posters. Surrealism. Attempts at privacy were futile. There were too many guys just sitting on the floors waiting for their turns. We all know we are there for the same reason, to get tested. Each time someone walks a by every head turns to check the expression on the passer’s face. A quick turn back to not be caught. A review of all the visual information to determine if he shared your same fate. A slight sense that despite the circumstances guys were cruising one another as they waited.
I remember flashes of hospitals and clinics from the 80s and 90s. I saw faces that looked like people I knew. Ghosts. I am unsure in my memory what happened for the rest of the day. I know I was ushered and tended to by Francisco. I am fairly sure I asked the same questions 100 times or more. Truly my mind had melted. I took every hug that was offered to me. I heard about 10% of the comforting things my friends told me. My friend Mark sent me a message inviting me over for dinner that evening. I accepted because I could not imagine how I would respond sitting alone in my apartment. “Yes, yes of course. I will be there.”
When Mark opened the door of his building there were several people behind me all waiting to enter Aida’s apartment for her pop up tlayuda event. We waited until we made it up the million flights of stairs. I set my bag down to be absorbed by his loving energy. When he let go the next thing I remember was a glass of wine in my hand. I stood in the kitchen drinking wine and relaying the day’s events as he cooked. At some point, Leo, his partner, and my friend arrived home from work carrying Friday’s commute like a fur cloak. He set it down and walked over to me and embraced me. We spent the night drinking and sharing stories. We are all about the same age, so our stories were shared not just references to the past. Leo kept saying “VIH” in Spanish which phonetically sounds like beh-e-ache and in my mind sounded like Belles Artes. He said it 100s of times, but I was not understanding this word I’d heard so many times that day. I stopped him and asked what the significance of the word is. He spelled out VIH with his fingers while mark to the left spelled out HIV. I broke out in laughter. Why? Cause the entire context of the day was HIV and I did not understand the word all day. That my friends is how one turns lemons into lemonade.
Now 12 days have passed. I’ve been doing the next indicated thing. Visiting IMSS (Medicare) to solidify my healthcare. Going to different hospitals as instructed for exams. Getting medicines for syphilis which requires 2 shots a week over three weeks and is the epitome of painful. Talking to friends and listening to stories of them coming out of the closet with HIV. Some I had known for years and never knew they have HIV. These interactions bolstering me but needing it from other interactions not so enlightened. Sex partners who respond with fear, anger, accusations, declarations, and occasionally thanks for letting them know so they could get tested.
Want to know if the stigma of AIDS is still alive? Have a good friend upon hearing the news declare you are smarter than that, you get tested, and you have safe sex. Yes, it’s true. I am was an AIDS activist for many years and an AIDS educator. Yes, I got tested. Yes, I often used condoms, but not 100%. So when a friend asks me the same series of questions to which I reply, “Let me repurpose your question to make it easier to understand. Did you and I ever have unsafe sex?” The answer is yes. “So all your questions don’t really matter from the moment that I tested positive. The truth is you can do all those things perfectly and test positive. You can do all those things almost perfectly and test positive. At this moment I am telling you I tested positive your questions only lead to doubts and judgments. Intended that way or not, no one asks a cancer patient if they recently visited a nuclear reactor. No one asks a diabetic if they feel ashamed of the pie they had last week. Everyone, even the gays, still feel comfortable with the language of shame and guilt. That is where I am. I recognize that same shame and guilt in myself. Branded into my psyche by Dan Rather announcing a “gay cancer” in ’84 while my parents sat behind me not able to see my face in shock. I had assumed since that moment I would die of AIDS. I had all those experiences of being chased home by guys in a pickup truck, a cross burned in the yard, a baseball bat across the back of my head, a boyfriend being shot several times in the head for daring to kiss a guy in public, and so many other things. Not isolated to the 80s so we can look back on it and reflect on our growth. No, even recently having such experiences in this day and age of enlightenment. That’s why I can be an educator, activist, openly gay, and still be cowered into a corner by a deep seeded guilt. “I deserve this.” It doesn’t matter at the moment all the experiences I had different to that shame and guilt, because it rests deep inside myself waiting for a tear to nourish it into sprouting vines.
I don’t want to leave this post like that. It’s been 12 days. I have surrounded myself with support and ignored the way others need to cope with my diagnosis. It’s not resolved in my mind or heart. I am just taking the evidence that others present to me, the knowledge that I know to supported factual truths, and using it to propel me one step forward. My tears have decreased. The nightmares mostly fading. I am learning an entire new context for Spanish language. Today the urge to create returned to me. What am I going to do with all these lemons but make lemonade? I hear your concerns. Why are you sharing this in a public way? Why? Well, look at my galleries of art. None of it is removed from the personal space for me. Every one of those is an open diary of my life stories. Yes, I create things that are beautiful. I learned a long time ago showing your pain on a surface doesn’t equal sales. Few people want to put anything other than scenery up on the wall behind their couch. I want people to access my work through the beauty and find the deeper meaning behind it. Telling you this here in an open forum is how I start to create again. I am an emotional exhibitionist. I chose to allow my art to display my feelings, experiences, and stories to whoever is paying attention. Writing this is difficult because it is clear and indisputible proof. In painings I can hide my feelings while secretly hoping you’ll understand. If I keep it inside me the guilt and shame will win. I can’t let that happen.