By David Nicholas Rigel
“Hi, David. I’m Bob Ford, an educator for the local health department.” He said while swabbing my index finger with an alcohol pad. “Why are you here today?”
“To get tested for HIV,” I said. Sarcasm was a nervous habit of mine. It covered my anxiety like a comfy yet ill-fitted sweater.
“You’re here despite your fear. That’s something to be proud of. Do you know why I ask people why they’re here?”
“It’s the first step towards accepting the illness. It helps relieve tension. Something about admitting the possibility of having the disease. You ready?” Bob looked up at me, and I nodded. He jabbed the needle in, but the blood didn’t come.
“You need to relax. Can you breathe in for me? Good, now hold it. Okay, good. Breathe out.”
“Even my blood is stubborn,” I laughed. I was trying to ease the tension because I didn’t want the health educator to see my terror. It was impossible for me, a millennial homosexual from the rural South, to relax while getting HIV tested for the first time.
“Keep breathing for me,” the health educator said, milking my finger. “You sounded really frantic on the voicemail you left the other day.”
“I was involved with someone last summer. He messaged me saying that he was recently diagnosed with HIV.”
Welcome to the paradox of gay dating— when someone you nearly dated tells you that he has HIV through an app commonly used for hooking up.
Bob replied, “But, that doesn’t mean you came in contact with the illness.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just that someone told me that he’d had HIV since 2015.” I tried gathering my thoughts. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t just tell me.”
“Yes, you do,” Bob answered. “You know why he didn’t tell you.”
I exhaled, reminding myself to breathe. Back in my small Kentucky town, I grew up barely knowing anyone who was openly gay, let alone anyone who was openly HIV-positive. In my hometown, the disease was like the sleepover game Bloody Mary; something that was improbable yet terrifying enough to stay cautious—just in case.
“What are you going to do if it’s positive?” he asked. His expression was blank.
“I’d continue with the next step of treatments.”
“So, you’ll take the extensive, required testing then register in the national database with your private information?”
“Yes,” I gulped, realizing that in less than twenty minutes I could be determined a danger to public health.
“That means it’ll show up on your health insurance,” he stated. “There’s a support group up in Cincinnati that’ll help you find housing, affordable treatments, and employment.”
I felt my heart flutter to a near stop. Like many millennial gay men from the rural South, I had emerged from childhood with few connections to the gay community. Until this moment, I never realized that an HIV positive status could affect my ability to get a job or an apartment.
This astonishment melted into disappointment. In Eastern Kentucky, when one confesses their homosexual desires to others for the first time, they’re warned of AIDS—if they’re not thrown out on their daddy’s porch. I swore to myself that I’d provide my family with evidence that a homosexual lifestyle didn’t have to be synonymous with casual sex, just-a-phase, and HIV.
I coaxed my lips to part, “Okay, yeah that makes sense.”
“Great, they’ll set you up with a specialist to figure out your treatment options, and you’ll get a case manager,” the medical educator affirmed. “How does your family feel?”
“They don’t support you?”
“It’s not that they don’t love me,” I stammered. “They’re from Kentucky, so they’re not that accepting. I mean, I was on the phone with my mom right before I came in but we don’t talk about certain things.”
“Oh,” his eyebrows perked up, “Does your mom know that you’re here?”
“No way,” I spat.
I could still remember the time she yelled at me to “stop acting so queer.” I was in the fifth grade. Another time, I’d asked if my brother if he wanted a wife or a husband when his plastic car landed on the MARRIAGE square in The Game of Life. I remember my stepdad saying, “Your brother and sister and my kids are still young. They don’t know nothin’ about that gay shit. I don’t want them to know either.”
“Are you going to tell them if you have HIV?” Bob asked.
“I don’t know about that.”
“Don’t you think they deserve to know?”
It felt accusatory as if I was a bad son because I didn’t want to see my mother’s heartbroken face. I didn’t want to hear the clanging as the shackles of Christian affliction latched onto her ankles.
“Are you afraid they won’t support you?” The health educator pressed.
I paused as my brain stumbled over harsh memories. How can you condense a lifetime of family-induced suppression and abuse? I managed to utter, “They found out I was gay when I was seventeen and the first thing they said was that I was gonna get AIDS.”
I could still hear my granny as she sat in her recliner and bellowed, “You ate straight out of the ice cream container. You’re gonna give me AIDS!” I remember how my aunt and her husband declared that I couldn’t come around to see their son no more. They said that I was a bad influence as if my sexuality was contagious. In retrospect, they probably didn’t think it was my gayness that could rub off on their little angel but the Gay Immune Disease.
“I came out before you were even born and I’m HIV positive,” Bob began. “I’m also from a small town, so it took a few years, but my family came around. They accepted my husband like they do my brother-in-law and sister-in-law.”
A sliver of hope subsided the terror in my gut until he asked, “How many sexual partners did you have in the past year?”
“Um, three,” I said. It was more like ten. I was too ashamed to reveal the real amount of the sexual partners I’d accumulated. I could barely even recall their screen names. They probably blocked me on Snapchat or unmatched with me on Tinder after pulling out of my driveway. Catch and release is the newest dating game because someone will seek you out but discard you once they’ve obtained you. Sometimes, you catch feelings and have to release the dude before he can leave you for someone he told you not to worry about. But, often you just catch disappointment.
Mostly, I was afraid of the judgment that may flash across Bob Ford’s pale eyes. I was contributing to the stigma of modern millennial dating. Even worse, I was contributing to the stereotype that loveless gays fornicate as if we can resurrect Sodom and Gomorrah through a collaborative amount of sperm emissions. It was just too easy for me to imagine him responding with, “Well, why’s a nice boy like you acting like a slut for?”
I wasn’t a slut, though. I never imagined the domineering existence of artificiality within the modern gay community until I was determined too average. So, I settled for hookups that usually lasted less than an episode of the Golden Girls, but it wasn’t that I was unable to form a genuine connection or establish a mature relationship. The problem was that I was stuck in a whirlwind of emotionally unavailable men, men awaiting the next best thing to appear on their smartphone screen.
To my relief, Bob asked, “Are you always safe?”
“I try to be. I’m not good at confrontation.”
“Here’s how you eliminate that problem. So, before you and the person begin to f—”
My jaw descended. My anxieties increased. My eyebrows furrowed. This topic was not a conversation that I had with most people. In fact, the status of my sex life was something that I never felt comfortable sharing unless there was Jack Daniels involved. Bob Ford, who was well into his fifties, continued without acknowledging my abashed expression, “Just put on the condom and be confident. Don’t let there be room for hesitation. There doesn’t have to be the conversation about being safe because they’ll know that you’re serious about your sexual health. It’s the most responsible way to handle your anxieties about sex.”
“Yeah, that’s certainly a logical approach,” I replied, knowing well enough that my brain didn’t use much logic when it came to sex. I’ll probably just turn into an abstinent cat lady or a lighthouse keeper… especially if I’m positive.
“Well, if my math’s right then the results are ready,” the medical educator said as he glanced down. He was analyzing the testing strip we’d tainted twenty minutes prior to my blood from the finger stick. Anxiety trembled down to the fingertips we’d pricked but it wasn’t HIV that frightened me—it was the pressure, the anxieties about whether I was strong enough to live fearlessly with, or without, the conviction of a disease.
His eyes flicked up at me with a sense of earnest care, “Do you wanna look?”
-Ciel Qi was born in Xining, China. She studied at Soochow University and U.C. Berkeley, and currently lives in the greater Shanghai area.
David Nicholas Rigel studied English: Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University. Mr. Rigel has creative nonfiction published in the Bluegrass Accolade. His poetry was published in For a Better World 2017. Additionally, he placed 2nd in the 2016 Nonfiction Writing contest sponsored by the Appalachian Writers Symposium. He’s edited four literary journals, acting as a Fiction or General Editor. His inspirations include Stevie Nicks, Sylvia Plath, & his adviser Dr. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman. Mr. Rigel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.