This was originally published in March of 2007. In honor of World AIDS Day, I pulled it from the archives.
I already knew he was positive but I hadn’t seen him in years. He walked out of the car to hug me and his body was half the person he used to be. It disturbed me. We drove to the hotel and I tried to act like things were like they used to be, but those things were just our past. When he turned the steering wheel I noticed the sharp bones in his elbow, nearly cutting through his skin. His collar bone appeared to be ripping out of his neck; his shirt was on more skeleton than muscle. I wasn’t in shocked he had HIV, but more disturbed looked so ill. As the cliché goes, “HIV is no longer a death sentence.” But I kept quiet. He always hated when I brought things up when he wasn’t ready to talk.
He babbled. Cracking jokes and laughing harder than usual. When we arrived at the hotel he immediately began to roll a blunt and said, “Well, you know I got HIV.” I looked at him nearly angry — it was as if he said, “Well, you know Keisha around the corner is pregnant!” Not that I wanted him to fall to the floor and scream, but it was obvious his diagnosis wasn’t serious to him.
He sarcastically added, “Now don’t go crying now — I got some Xanax if your ass needs to calm down!” I knew we really didn’t know each other anymore because I wouldn’t, and haven’t, cried when someone told me they were HIV-positive. I had been in New York City for years and once again, HIV isn’t a death sentence.
I asked how he was feeling and he answered, “Oh, I’m great! I feel good — I’m only on two medications. So, yeah I’m good.” As he proceed to finish rolling his blunt, he explained he found out about a year ago. I asked him why he lost so much weight. “I lost weight way before I was positive then when I got HIV it was hard to gain the weight back… plus, I snort coke.” He sprinkles in he’s also working in porn to “make a little change.”
I’m trying not to judge. I know how stubborn he is and when he feels like someone is judging him he might never speak to you again. He continues more uncomfortable jokes, saying, “Yeah, the stat is true if four people are in one room, one of them is sick — that’s me!” Big laughs. “Yeah, you know I left you something in my will — but don’t get too excited, it wasn’t no money!” Big laughs. “Yeah, I’ll be working on this porn, but I won’t be co-starring in it this time!” Big laughs. All of these laughs were by himself, similar to the “fat girl” in the room who constantly mocks herself because she doesn’t like who she is.
I was getting angry. I wanted to storm out. His mask was plastic and deadly. He wanted me to fall for his toxic act of illusions. He was a former HIV/AIDS educator! He was one of my best friends, he was my roots, he knew I was gay before I knew. He taught me what it meant to be bold and unapologetic, he taught me how to survive with my tongue. He helped me to affirm myself when no one else would. I wasn’t going to listen to him lie to himself, I thought.
But I was afraid if I walked out I might never see him again. I didn’t want our potential last conversation to be me storming out. So I said what was in my heart, “Stop the bullshit. I’m not one of your dates. You can’t tell me everything you just told me and say you’re okay! Don’t lie to me and expect me to believe it — you taught me better than that.”
For just a moment, he took the mask off, put the guard down and admitted he had a problem — but that he was the problem, no one else. He admitted the reason why he was positive was the drugs. He admitted to letting his “ex” penetrate him raw, even though he knew his ex — who was now dead — was positive. My dear friend said, “Maybe if I would’ve loved myself I wouldn’t be HIV-positive.” That was all I needed and all I was going to get. I thanked him for opening up to me just a little bit. It may not have been the real thing, but it was good enough.
When I hugged him goodbye I grabbed onto him like he was my son. I kissed him on the cheek wondering if this would be the last time I would see him. I knew he could change things right now if he wanted to. He could turn it all around. However, he was half a person. It wasn’t that he had HIV, it was that he was abusing himself. Cocaine, alcohol, weed and HIV meds don’t mix. Before I left I gave him a second hug. I wondered if he thought I was being dramatic.
My generation had a different experience with HIV. We received all of the education, facts and history. When I came out one of the first things I learned was how to use a condom. Still a teenager, an HIV educator said, “There is no reason for any of you to be HIV-positive through unsafe sex because now you all know how to protect yourselves. My generation didn’t know.” I believed him and everybody in that room seemed to believe him. The teachers in our community taught us our lives are valuable enough to protect.
When I left the hotel I listened to “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers and didn’t shed any tears. I rode the train and played “Home” by Stephanie Mills and my eyes didn’t well up. However, when I finally arrived home with no music, no scenery and nothing to cloud my thoughts, I sat on my bed, thought of the whole day and cried till it hurt.