Three days after we met, this dark-haired, beautiful-bodied man was lying in my bed, his feet hanging over the edge. We were man and woman on that kind of euphoric high you hope for from every illicit drug.
We lay together in the morning sun as if joined by hot solder, the chemistry overpowering me. Through three nights now I’d exerted valiant self-discipline to keep it chaste—and my secret at bay. He’d told me he raced cars for a living. Would he take other kinds of risks?
Moving closer to me, he said he wanted us to be together—and he hoped that would be a long, long time. (I didn’t care he’d known me only three days. I believed him.) “You’re healthy, right?” he asked.
I paused. I didn’t want to break the spell so soon, but I couldn’t lie. “There is something,” I said. “I have HIV.”
With those three little words, the sun disappeared behind a toxic cloud. The light-spangled room went flat. He stared at me with eyes like two raisins dropped in a snowbank.
In the seven years since my diagnosis, I’ve told several potential sex partners I have HIV. Though only two have flat-out said “No way, José,” it’s always hard. I’ve had a spectrum of reactions. There was the soccer pro who bolted for the door like it was the goal line in the World Cup final. He left without a word and changed all his phone numbers. There was the documentary filmmaker who wanted to capture my confession on film. There was the guy who seemed so baffled that I ended up shouting, “HIV, you know? H-I-V?!” (I dumped that one.) There was the guy who became nauseated when he smelled latex. There was the guy who got furious and slapped me across the face, reminding me that not everyone appreciates disclosure, even though I always do it before I venture beyond first base.
This last one was different, though. He didn’t move for 30 minutes. He lay tangled in the sheets, staring at the ceiling, out the window, at my face, back out the window. Several times his mouth opened and closed but no words came out. He wouldn’t stir, even when I sat up and started blabbering some facts I thought he might find reassuring. “Do you know anything about HIV?” I asked. He just shook his head side to side. I blabbed on. “You’re OK,” I said. “We haven’t done anything to put you at risk.” He closed his eyes. Everything I said seemed like exactly the wrong thing. He looked like he desperately wanted to run away but was tied down.
Finally, he spoke. “I love you,” he said.
Again, I didn’t care that we’d known each other less than a week. Those are three words I’ve never heard right after telling someone I have HIV. And I chose to believe them. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Don’t apologize,” he said, his voice anguished. Our feet rubbed together. A giant spark brightened the room.
He stood and pulled on his jeans. Ran his hands through his hair and wandered around my living room. He stopped and looked at me. “I hate condoms,” he said, walking again. “And I want kids. Three of them.” (I decided now was not the time to tell him I didn’t want a big family, with or without HIV.) “I don’t want to get sick,” he said, sitting on the couch. “And I hate pills.” I could tell he didn’t know much about HIV, especially female-to-male transmission. “I don’t want to fall in love with someone who’s dying,” he said. This time I made the right decision, shutting my mouth instead of correcting him right then. I let him vent. There would be time to educate him, if he stayed.
We separated for several days. Then, one night, he called. His tone was angry. He said he’d told a friend. A female friend. An ex-girlfriend, over lunch. She’d refused to kiss him goodbye on the lips.
I bit my tongue, though I was furious. How dare he tell someone without asking me? Especially someone who knew nothing about HIV. Especially an ex. (And what was she doing kissing him on the lips anyway?)
“I can’t help but see you as dirty,” he said. I wanted to reach through the phone and smack him. “Like you’re squeaky F-ing clean? How dare you judge me?” I wanted to yell. Instead I just sighed, thinking I don’t know if I can do this. Can I really work through educating another HIV-naïve guy?
“I love you,” he said. “But I’m scared of losing you.”
“Sleep on it,” I said.
The next morning, he sent me an e-mail. “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” it read. “I want to be with you.”
That’s where we stand. I know we have a long way to go, but we’re off to a good start. And, as is often the case, I’m grateful for a good thing HIV has brought into my life—this time, the love of a brave man. At least for now.