I drive a San Francisco cab all night—and hadn’t taken a real vacation in years. So when POZ called with a free ticket to an all HIV positive Caribbean cruise, they didn’t have to twist my arm. But the cruise encouraged matchmaking, and in the 17 years since my diagnosis, I have never dated a positive woman. I have had relationships, but after two years of AIDS-related illnesses, I started gravitating toward prostitutes. Would a positive woman bind me even tighter to the virus?

“I don’t wanna be part of a leper colony,” I mumbled to myself, mockingly. So I convinced myself I was sailing as an observer, a writer for POZ—not as a single man driven by a strong and unfulfilled urge to find love and understanding.

Soon, I found myself on the observation deck of the MS Zuiderdam, staring up at the Caribbean’s billowy clouds. It was a surreal backdrop to a pandemic that has taken millions of lives. I also watched my fellow cruisegoers—single, coupled, gay, straight—at a distance from my lounge chair. Then, that night, all 100 of us convened on the deck. Under a full moon, with our hands cupping flickering flames in Styrofoam holders, we remembered our dead friends and relatives. I’ve never felt like part of an HIV community at home—and suddenly, I felt bonded to people living with the same stigma and constant reminders that you’re positive.

But this was a vacation—a time to indulge and live life to the fullest. Everyone got down on the dance floor and burned off calories from the endless buffets. The guy with Gore-Tex cheek implants got his freak on. The woman called “AIDS Bitch” by her neighbors wore a tight dress showing off tattoos in all the right places. People made to feel like damaged goods gave themselves permission to live, sweating and beaming in the screen of my digital camera.

Watching, I realized how many small pleasures I had erased from my life since HIV. I enjoyed dressing up for dinner and sitting with new people every night. I vowed to challenge myself with something outside my comfort zone, so I went scuba diving. I explored a shipwreck at 90 feet with an instructor. Surrounded by vividly colored fish and plant life, I watched the bubbles rising like Siberian diamonds. The only sound I heard was my breathing. I thought of that day in 2001 when I entered the hospital dying of PCP pneumonia, unable to breathe. It was so exhilarating. I’ve decided to get certified in scuba diving.

I didn’t find romance, but I found friends. I met a woman who was diagnosed by her ob-gyn while her legs were in stirrups, an HIV positive cop afraid his department would discover his status and fire him, a schoolteacher who quit his job and plunged into a suicidal depression after his diagnosis and many others. They shared epic stories of our struggle, including battles with buffalo humps and liposuction scars.
Talking to them, I realized HIV status—mine or a potential date’s—wasn’t the issue. I had used it as an excuse to sell myself short, embrace my negative attitude and forgo what I saw as bullshit dating rituals. Then, during a layover in Miami on my return trip, I saw a beautiful Brazilian woman. She was sitting with friends in a lush, palm-filled restaurant. Usually, I would have thought she was unattainable. Instead, I approached her table. I got a picture of us with her arm around my neck and my arm lassoed around her waist. It sent sparks flying. I stopped disqualifying myself from going after what I want, because I realized there’s no reason I can’t have it.