The pills are $2,000 every month. The doctor visits never end. And there's always the possibility the virus could spread. Otherwise, it's not so different.
Chad, my boyfriend, types to me from the Hyatt on New Jersey Avenue, "I am hiv positive." We study the screen together, 1,426 miles apart. The cursor of my chat window blinks for me. I'm not stunned, or even much scared, really; definitely not sickened, repulsed. I am more overcome by the simple fear that the chat window will time out, that my Internet connection will lapse, that he will think, alone in a computer lab on the other side of the country, that I have closed out. So I type in a rush, "That's OK," and then add, "Really."
I'm not sure he entirely believed me, then, but he came back.
We lie crossways in unfettered sheets and discarded clothes, tangled so deeply I don't know where my arms end and his hands begin. Late August 2010. It's hot, almost insufferably stuffy; I remember not caring.
Jesus Christ are we broke. Jesus Christ, we are out of condoms. Pay day is four days away, there is no food in the pantry, and there is less than 10 dollars in the bank account. I don't remember us being hard, actually, but I must have known it was coming, because I remember saying, "I mean, we don't know for sure. We could take a chance."
He said, "I could never put you at risk like that."
I remember how much that made me respect him.
At 2:00 a.m. at DFW International, the only way to travel between gates is the Terminal Link, a rollicking sort of short bus manned by a former tractor driver whose accent, combined with the whoosh of the air outside and the whine-and-hiss of the hydraulics seems intentionally indecipherable; I've lived in Texas 20 years, and I still can't make out half of what he tells me.
Also difficult to make out over the road sounds: Chad's voice on my cell. "I'm at Gate...."
I've grown, over the last few months, the beginnings of concerned; he's started to suffer bouts of malaise. Nothing too terrible: mild stomach aches, sore joints. In anyone else, it could be anything.
"I know where you are, I'm on my way."
"Can you see a bus stop that says, 'Terminal Link?'"
"Just find the Terminal Link stop. I'll be right there."
I spot Chad a few minutes later, a dark-eyed waif on the sidewalk. It's been three weeks he's been gone, and he's lost so much weight. Everything about him looks burnt-out, the way refugees on TV look with farms smoking behind them: translucent skin, an uncertain balance something like shellshock. I notice he's wearing a necklace, one he wasn't wearing last time. A ring and a small cross.
I tell the driver, "That's him."
The bus slows, but the doors don't open.
"Five hundred dollar fine!" the driver shouts.
"Five hundred dollar fine for entering or exiting the vehicle at..." (here I have no idea what he says) "...designated stopping point."
"So he can get on at the stop?"
"Five hundred dollar fine!"
Chad studies me through the plexiglass of the bus's doors. Perplexed, panicky from lack of sleep, obviously trying not to show it. I do my best to motion him down the road, try to mouth, "wait there." The yellow and black paint of the stop is at just such an angle I can't point at it through the doors. I keep pointing as the bus keeps moving. It stops 20 feet away; the doors hiss open.
"Can he get on here?"
"Designated stopping point!"
Chad reaches the stop a few seconds after the bus. I can't think of anything to say but, "Hey."
We collapse into seats next to each other, he with a bag over each shoulder. His lips taste like seawater; his mouth is dry. I later learn that he took a shot, his last shot, in the bathroom at Dulles. This is quite valuable, actually, seeing what he looks like still high, on the tail-end of high -- it's a look I've yet to see on him again.
"I parked at the wrong gate," I explain. "We have to go back around."
He seems euphoric to just be able to rest.
We stop twice on the two-and-a-half hour drive back from Dallas. Once, at a gas station, where he buys two microwavable chicken sandwiches, a cigarette lighter, and each of us a cup of slushy red sugar water. Back on the road, after a few sips, I dump mine out the window.
The second stop: I pull off the Interstate, onto an access road in the middle of nowhere. We sit, side-by-side, on the trunk of the car, our backs against the rear windshield, looking up at the shockingly bright stars. The weather has turned cold since he's been away; we press up against each other.
"I needed to tell you," I say. "That I forgive you. I think everyone deserves one good fuck-up."
"I was so afraid, after everything, you weren't going to want me back."
"It's not going to happen again," I say. I'm trying to sound collected, forgiving, loving, happy, and I am probably all of those things, but I'm also terrified I'm going to lose him again. Betrayed. Justifiably furious at him, if I'm being honest, at least at the junky side of him. It's 3:00 a.m., and the last three weeks have taken their toll on me: I don't know it yet, but a feature of my dreams for the months to come will be lost phones, missed connections of deathly importance, frantically asking, "Where's Chad?" In the face of what we've both come through, 1,500 miles apart, when he says, "And about the...." I can say, and mean, "I'm not worried about it. We'll figure it out later. Really."
We wait a few days to have full sex, not so much by choice but by exhaustion, his withdrawal, my job. When we do, having to pause Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven, as he rolls down his condom he asks, "Are you sure?"
I say, "Absolutely." I'm only barely lying when I tell myself I'm not worried at all. Only barely, really.
I started doing my homework the moment the conversation from the Hyatt computer lab ended, after I told him, repeatedly, that it wasn't a big deal to me. Sure, I'd never slept with someone I'd known was positive before, but I had met people online, all of them incredibly friendly, who were open about their status, generous with my questions, even before I'd met Chad. Either the night of or the night after the Hyatt conversation, I call one of them. Even after admitting that he was a little sad to hear that I'd been taken (how to respond to this, I had no idea), he told me about friends of his in situations like mine. He pointed me to websites, or really just to thebody.com. He told me that those friends in their situations like mine were still the way they started, with one partner still negative, even after years together.
I contacted other people. An online classmate, who I remembered helped coordinate HIV/AIDS services in some city, and to whom I sent a long email, and got a longer email back: situations like mine could be loving and happy and healthy. Situations like mine.
The weeks that Chad had been away were taking their toll on me; I was spending most of my days asleep, and when not asleep, I was on Manhunt.com, AOL Instant Messenger, my phone: waiting for him to call, come online, make contact in any way. I would go to work and return in a rush, searching frantically for evidence that he'd tried to contact me and I hadn't been there. I miss him, so badly, am so worried for him. It's like a wound.
I learned the clinical term for situations like mine: serodiscordant.
My regular doctor is on vacation in the days after the Hyatt conversation. The doctor available is, weirdly, the same man who sees my grandmother. As the nurse leaves me in my room, she says, "The doctor has a student with him today, but considering...."
'It's fine," I say. "Don't sweat it. I really don't mind." I'm not nervous in the least.
The doctor obviously is. Behind him floats a very tall 20-something wearing a truly unfortunate paisley shirt. Dr. X, scrutinizing my chart with a laudable intensity, listens to me explain: "Just a precaution ... my boyfriend ... positive ... just wanted to be sure ... we were always safe."
At this he glances at me, for the second time in five minutes, and says, "You used contraception?"
His eyes back down to my chart; the lab paperwork is scrawled in a matter of seconds. I project onto the floundering professionalism of the intern's face (God, that shirt he's in): Sweet Jesus, please don't make me deal with this often. Honestly, if he stays in Waco, he probably won't have to. But they still shake my hand when I leave.
The lab tech comments on the veins in my arm with the same enthusiasm as Chad when I first met him. She prods them a few times with two gloved fingers with what seems like almost admiration, ardor. The needle slides in clean. In my mind, I remember it piercing the skin with a slick hiss, like a nail gun firing, a bullet punching through a plywood wall.
My main physician calling back two days later. No worries.