Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner

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A month after Chad's return to Waco, we go to the zoo. It's a cold winter for Texas, bleak; today is the first dry afternoon in days. The giraffes are not out, nor the elephants. The signs are still up on the pens of the Dik-Diks, the tiny African antelope that were slaughtered, all of them, in the night, at least two years ago, by a pack of wild dogs that somehow got through the fence. No sign of the pandas, either.

In one of the new exhibits, visitors can slide down a clear plastic tube that leads through the water of the otter tank. The gray day has given us the zoo to ourselves, and we slide down the chute again and again, braking in mid-slide to watch the otters swim up and examine us through the round wall. "Are they as playful as they look?" I ask Chad, "Or are their faces just stuck that way?"

At the bottom of the slide, the otters swim to the glass and study the fingers we poke through the mesh above them. I notice the look in their eyes, and even though the mesh seems far higher than they could reach, I pull my hands out. I glance away, toward the next exhibit, and miss the jump. A splash, and Chad shouts, "Fuck," only half-laughing.

There is, fortunately, a bathroom directly behind us. As he washes out the wound, we both marvel at the perfectly symmetrical zig-zag the otter's teeth have left in the pad of his index finger. He holds it under the water a long time, wraps it in paper towels, wraps it again with fresh ones.

"Jesus, the sink," I say.

"Things have taken a lot longer to heal lately," he says. An understatement.

This is before we're even able to apply for health benefits, four months before a doctor's appointment, five months before he is able to start medication.

The next exhibit, the one I was looking at when the otter attacked, is a single ocelot. We're both shocked at how beautiful it is, this miniature leopard. Note the way it stalks us from across the fence, note the way its every step mirrors ours as we make our way around its pen.

"Look at those eyes," I say. "He's studying us."

"He smells the blood," Chad says.

* * *

We awaken at 6:00 a.m.; coffee in a thermos, documentation under one arm. We arrive at the health center 10 minutes before they open; in the waiting room of the benefits office, ours are the first names on the clipboard.

What makes me look away is watching how she hits it; when they at first don't succeed, she and Chad come to some sort of agreement, and she shoves the needle down.

"In D.C.," Chad says as we sit down. "It's four waiting rooms just like this, and there are always people here ahead of you. I think they camp out."

As 8:00 a.m. approaches, others arrive: Hispanic housewives with squadrons of toddlers, black women younger than me with newborns over their shoulders. Just a year ago I would have considered applying for welfare beneath me. A good way to grow up in a hurry: let your parents take you off their health insurance.

I'm not completely matured yet. I take an incredibly smug satisfaction in seeing that we're the best-dressed people in the building.

At 8:00, a small woman hauling three bags and long rowdy hair treks through the room, smiling to everyone. She disappears into the office, and 10 minutes later emerges, looks at the clipboard, and calls Chad's name. We both approach the door; "We're together," Chad says. She keeps smiling, ushering us in. I feel, though am probably imagining, the eyes of everyone in the waiting room on our backs.

Sort-of-free health care doesn't take long at all to get, if you show up early enough. Within 15 minutes, she has reviewed all the paperwork we've brought with us, made photocopies, typed us into the computer, and had a thumping machine spit us out two plastic cards, our names punched into a nightmarish shade of chartreuse. That smile she gave to everyone on the way in was genuine. "Good luck," we tell her, on the way to the door; in our 15 minutes, the number of people in the waiting room has doubled.

Whatever hope I have of our health looking up is dashed, or distended, as soon as I start calling clinics to schedule us appointments. The earliest we can be seen is with Doctor XY, in March, two-and-a-half months away.

* * *

I take full responsibility for our tardiness to our appointments with Doctor XY, for not checking Street View before we left. A small miracle we find his office, a tiny building orbiting a strip-mall hospital (Gynecology, Rhinoplasty, Medical Supplier, Suites A-C), one of a long line of interchangeable buildings that with their dismally bleached limestone define in the Texas sun everything that is terrifyingly identical about Southern suburbia. The nurses look at us sourly when we come in late and give us paperwork to fill in and slide shut the window in front of their desk.

My appointment first. Initial impressions are worrisome: just past the scales and blood pressure cuffs, eating most of the wall on the way to the exam rooms, is a massive, hideous, fussily composed oil painting of Jesus standing over a doctor's shoulder, pointing out something on a patient's chart, both He and the doctor wearing a look of constipated dignity and lit both by lamplight and by a glaring Messianic effulgence. Looking back, I honestly cannot get over just how terrible this painting is, or if I can properly convey how disturbing is the idea of anyone paying money for it, let alone displaying it for others to see. Further worries, as I'm shown into my room, the first book I see on Doctor XY's desk: James Dobson's How to Raise Boys.

When I meet Dr. XY, he's not a bad guy, just Christian. He takes pretty well the news that my HIV-positive boyfriend will be with him in an hour. He writes without laying a finger or a stethoscope on me the same scripts that I've been on for years under my old doctor.

As the appointment is winding down, he asks me, suddenly, "I'm assuming, from all that you've told me that you're ... homosexual."

"I am, yes."

"When did ... when did you first start to suspect you were?"

It's only after I leave, as I am telling the nurses (truthfully) that I have absolutely no money to pay them with, as I take my exit paperwork, that I realize why Doctor XY's question, the tone with which he asked it, struck me so oddly. That I wonder if, perhaps, about one of his boys, he has suspicions.

Chad's appointment is far less fruitful. Doctor XY, in an awkward rush, mistakes HIV for AIDS and asks him straight off, "Have you developed any lesions?"

Chad tells me, "He's referring me to a social worker."

"Did you like the painting on the wall?" I ask him.

"Oh my God, did you see the book on his desk?" he responds.

* * *

Further waiting: Chad calls and leaves messages for Social Worker #1 for two weeks. No word.

I've grown, over the last few months, the beginnings of concerned; he's started to suffer bouts of malaise. Nothing too regular, or too terrible: mild stomach aches, sore joints, general lethargy. In anyone else, it could be anything, etc. In Chad, I grow attuned to the slightest variation in temperature, to the distracted look behind his eyes when food isn't sitting with him.

Finally, we call the main office of Social Worker #1, just to see if a message can be delivered to her in person. Instead, the phone is answered by Social Worker #2, who doesn't normally answer the phones but, today, the receptionist is indisposed. Social Worker #2 tells us that her name is Melissa. She schedules us an appointment to come see her instead.

* * *

Chad, musician that he is, tells me for the 100th time how beautiful the name Melissa is to him. "Yes," I say. "I know it comes from the Greek word for honey." We're both nervous; about what, it's hard to say.

Social Worker #2, sweet Melissa, is, like the smiling lady at the health office a few months ago, one of the most refreshing facets of the Texas health care system: gentle, sharp, a wry sense of humor one gets the impression she doesn't get to use too often. Instantly, we are in love.

Paperwork, paperwork. Signatures, initials, dates, some pages intentionally left blank. As Chad signs, she discusses plans: bloodwork, doctor's appointments, vaccines (in the weeks to come, I will have completely lost track of which of the dizzying number of dead viruses Chad has or hasn't been injected with), more bloodwork.

"I don't know how they're going to get anything," Chad says, with the mix of apprehension and something like shame he gets when discussing the repercussions of the junky life. "When they tested me in D.C., they weren't even able to get anything out of my feet."

Melissa nods, concerned but not shocked. "Don't worry. You'll like Carolyn."

* * *

We do like Carolyn. Spry, sharp, a wry sense of humor she deploys whether people get it or not. When she sees Chad's arm, she says, "Ah."

The two failed sticks that day don't bother me much; mostly disappointed, for Chad's sake, because we have to reschedule. I'm more stunned than anything; he's told me time and time again how nice my veins are, how some parts of his arm are practically calcified by now, but seeing it in practice, and with a lady who has seen it before too, is bizarre, a little unnerving. The two share a specialized, private rapport: they discuss arteries, tendons, angles, and finesse the same way I've seen veterans meeting each other on the street discuss outfit numbers, IEDs, ammunition calibers. I sit on the bed with the paper sheet and feel for all the world like the petite blonde in the sundress on the GI's arm, the boyfriend on the pier watching the warship pull away.

Before the next appointment, Chad chugs water, Powerade, debates and decides against aspirin. Carolyn tells us she's eaten her Wheaties this morning. A long build-up, as she lets the arm fill up under the tourniquet, prods again to find her most promising spot. Chad tells her not to be afraid to push it, because she'll probably have to. That's how they finally got him in D.C., he says, to test him. Carolyn nods, a vial between her teeth.

I'm not fazed when the needle first goes in, and then when she finds it, it's not the way the blood spits through the leur-lock like a bullet wound in a movie (because it's an artery she's hit) that gets me. What makes me look away and put a hand over my mouth is watching how she hits it; when they at first don't succeed, she and Chad seem to come to some sort of agreement, and she shoves the needle down. In my mind, it seems like to bury completely in his arm. One thing I know I remember accurately: the way Chad's eyes flutter and roll back in his head, the way his face goes slack, when the needle breaches the vessel. It's like he's dying and coming and about to vomit all at once.

Tweakers sometimes call crystal gak, because when a vein is punctured, a choke of pure adrenaline sprays directly into the back of the throat, and the first reflex upon tasting it triggers a sound on the tongue exactly spelled gak. Seeing this look, this junky Chad face, I get it.

With all the tests we do, she takes a hell of a lot of blood.

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John Fram is a Texas-based freelance writer.

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