Do the villagers think I'm spreading HIV? Or am I just crazy?
I’m shivering on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, in New York’s HIV-friendly Chelsea neighborhood. I’ve endured past grimy winters by counting the seconds till April, when I reopen a one-room cabin upstate. The owners, my friends, never use it, so I can hang whenever I want. It sits amid the Catskills Mountains—a three-hour drive from my Chelsea apartment. I race there to write and to breathe, to forget my Manhattan life with AIDS. Sometimes it gets lonely, but conquering a new environment has rescued my self-esteem. I’ve learned I can survive beyond the city’s HIV resources and care. The drive itself is a victory. Two years ago, I was having cataract surgery because of HIV-med side effects. Now I tear up the freeway.
But this winter’s wind feels especially brutal—because I’m wondering whether I belong on the mountaintop. Last summer and fall, I began to sense something lurking in the woods. I don’t mean bears or coyotes—though I do spot paw prints on the farmhouses and hear howling all night. I mean something more unsettling, à la Blair Witch Project: AIDS stigma.
My pals Marc and Andrew work for the local Catskills Rural AIDS Services. When I asked Marc how a positive guy like me would feel among the villagers, he warned that because the communities are tiny, HIVers can fear we’re being watched. He said, “You may feel stigmatized, even if you’re not.” So we retreat, Andrew added, stigmatizing ourselves.
Savvy New Yorker that I am, I laughed—until I ventured into town by myself for the first time last summer. I’d never felt especially ashamed of being positive. But suddenly I experienced a creepy tension, wondering what the locals must think of “city person” me. Yeah, they’re polite. But I know they’re wondering about me just as I am about them. Were people being nice to me because they had heard I have AIDS? Did they pity me? Did my “high cheekbones” (code for sunken cheeks) give me away? Do they think I’m spreading HIV?
The good part is they watch out for one another. The drawback is that they know every move you make, even when you can’t see them. It’s the unspoken that bothers me. A sideways glance. A too cheerful hello. Eating alone at a diner, I freaked out while taking my meds. The room fell silent. It seemed to take the waitress a lifetime to refill my water glass.
I immediately called another friend there, who explained: “In a small town, being positive on top of being gay is almost too much. I just can’t tell them. I don’t want to scare them away. It gets lonely, but I’ve learned to live with it.”
In the city, I’m used to talking about my HIV status to anybody and not sweating their reaction. Spending so much time alone upstate, I succumbed to paranoia. A few days into my first visit, a neighbor friend, whom a mutual pal had likely told I was positive, mentioned how much better I looked. She told me to help myself to the carrots in her garden. Carrots are good for your vision. Did she know I’d had CMV retinitis?
Sometimes I want to move to the country and leave the city forever. Other times I can’t imagine leaving. The mountaintop had seemed the perfect compromise. Now, as spring arrives, I must decide whether to confront the fears that linger outside the cabin—and inside my mind. I know I can’t totally escape from AIDS. But I can’t let my guard down, either. The coyote howls and bear prints remind me that so many fears, real and imagined, are just waiting to pounce. They’ll chase me wherever I go. It may be time to stare them down—in the fresh mountain air.
Columnist Joe Westmoreland published his first novel, Tramps Like Us (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95) in 2001.