Barb Cardell of Boulder, Colorado felt like a loser on The Newlywed Game: Her brand-new husband, Tom Bogdan, was afraid of making love to his newly diagnosed HIV positive bride. Bogdan felt guilty, but Cardell refused to let his guilt or her HIV become barriers to their nuptial bliss. Straightforward and ferocious, Cardell was not about to stand aside and watch her sex life pass her by. She decided to take matters into her own hands -- literally.
Ironically, it was her take-charge attitude that led to her diagnosis. Cardell accompanied five gay male friends on an HIV-test outing. "I was concerned about them being positive," she says, "and I wanted them all to get tested. They agreed." Cardell came along to cheer from the sidelines, but one of her friends' squeamishness altered Cardell's fate. "He saw the needle, freaked and said, 'I'm not doing it unless you do,'" says Cardell. So she did. Of the six, five were negative -- with Cardell the odd one out.
A shock to her and her husband, but Cardell was determined to keep their lovemaking alive. "Like so many in discordant relationships where one partner is negative and the other positive, we saw our sex life coming to an end," Cardell says. Forget Bogdan's fears: The worst thing Cardell could imagine was infecting Tom. "We realized that sex after testing had to be much different than sex before."
The first thing the couple did was consult their physician. While others might have chosen a therapist or a minister when broaching an emotional subject like sex, Cardell had the good sense to know that a doctor was the perfect place to start with her scientist husband. "My physician is great," says Cardell, remembering the day the three sat down to discuss what was safe and what was not. "He never said, 'Clinically speaking, what you can't do is blah, blah, blah.' Instead, he told Tom what he would do as an informed person if he were in a relationship with an HIV positive woman."
That's when Cardell first learned about the correlation between safer sex and Saran Wrap. But getting there wasn't easy.
"We went back to square one," Cardell says. "It was like being a teenager all over again and dating for the first time -- complete with first, second, third bases and the eventual home run. We said, OK, let's start with holding hands. 'And does that feel comfortable to you, Tom?' 'And does that feel comfortable to you, Barb?'" says Cardell, her exaggerated line readings like a Not-Quite-Ready-for-Prime-Time Player in a parody of couples counseling. Once they'd mastered hand holding, the couple moved on to kissing. "It's like relearning how to be intimate with somebody."
When she considers the many people in her same situation, Cardell the good-time gal turns serious, sad that avoidance of sex is the way many discordant couples deal with their fear. "The most important thing," says Cardell, who since her diagnosis has become an outreach speaker for the Boulder County Aids Project, "is to know what's really safe and not get caught in fear that's based on mistaken perceptions about what you think is safe."