Love is in the air: I’m about to leave for the Caribbean to marry mypartner of six years. We’ve planned an intimate seaside ceremony atopthe black coral cliffs of Negril, Jamaica, near his parents’ home. Myfiancé and I are 42, but it’s his first marriage, whereas I’m onmy—call Jerry Springer—third. Yet I feel like a blushing first-timer. Idaydream about the sun setting as we exchange the vows that will uniteus and my 12-year-old son as a family. I have planned everydetail: white roses and purple orchids for the bouquets.White-and-purple rose petals scattered on the aisle. Handmade candlesflickering among orchid petals in the pool. After a traditionalJamaican wedding feast, we’ll reggae and rock. And, ah, yes, my dress:it’s strapless, mermaid-style…the dress! Wake up, Shari!

Realityscatters my fantasy. Although I’ve had HIV for 13 years, I’ve beenspared what living with this disease can do to your body—until Idropped 20 pounds in just a few weeks during a bout with the flu (somuch for the flu shot). My legs and arms thinned, my butt and breastsall but vanished, while my belly seemed to swell. It turned out that underneath my middle-age plumpness, I had the typical signs of lipodystrophy.

Nowthat my shirts are baggy and my pants sag, my skateboarding son thinksI look “stylin’.” As much as I appreciate the support, what will my 30wedding guests say about my weight change? Will they ask about myhealth? Will I look ill in my photo albums? Am I being shallow andvain?

I have never obsessed over my looks. I’ve long sincelost the beauty-queen bod I strutted in the 1982 Miss Canada pageant.Indeed, my extra bulk has served as an “insurance policy” to be cashedin if I got sick. Now, my insurance has expired, and when I look in themirror, I no longer feel healthy, curved, sexy—but like a pregnant KateMoss. My man, who dreams of a princess bride, has noticed. I was makingcookies when he grabbed my butt and asked “What happened to the junk inthe trunk?” I hoped it was a compliment. Then he added, “I hope thosecookies are for you—you could use a few pounds.” I was mortified. Howwould he react if I got PCP or something worse? Sometimes I feelselfish asking him to commit to a future that could include a sicklylooking wife instead of the slightly rounded goddess he signed up for. Preweddingfestivities have also put me under the microscope. His cousins threw mea lingerie shower. After a few glasses of wine, they persuaded me tomodel the gifts. Everyone noticed I’d lost weight, but, to my shock,they all thought I looked fabulous. “What’s your secret?” theydemanded. I’d forgotten that weight loss was an achievement in the HIVnegative world. His family doesn’t know my status, so I replied, “Ah,you know, drink lots of water, walk the dog. No real secret.” I had asecret, all right—but one I wasn’t willing to share.

My doc helpedput things in perspective. Although concerned, she explained thatanyone can lose 20 pounds with a bad case of the flu. She added thatsince I switched to a combo of Kaletra and Combivir last summer, myCD4s have bounced from 400 to 780 and my viral load has gone from over100,000 to undetectable.

Assured that I wasn’t about to die anytimesoon, I went to pick up my dress: A strapless, mermaid-style “hoochiemama” gown in white net reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s in Diamonds Area Girl’s Best Friend. The salon owner helped me find the rightunderwear to cinch my waist and push up my breasts and added a bustleto create a butt! Even I have to admit I looked amazing. I’m stillanxious about a possible future of sunken cheeks (facial and otherwise)and scrawny arms, but at least I won’t have to face it alone. I ammarrying the love of my life. I’ll be his princess bride.

Shari Margolese was recently awarded the Golden Jubilee Medal of Queen Elizabeth II for her AIDS activism.