Six months into our relationship,
Reggie called to say, matter-of-factly, "My HIV test is positive!"
We'd been waiting for his results since I had tested negative
days earlier. Because I was starved for the passion that love
can bring, and he was eager to satisfy, we had not been able to
keep our safe sex resolve.
Disabled with polio
in infancy, I figured my desirability quotient must be low. The
girls in high school who bemoaned being single felt free to share
their longings, but they never flirted with me. I got a few charity
dates, and on occasion some misfit girl would express interest,
but I didn't want to be identified with other misfits. I was a loser,
simple as that. After I came out, dating men was a little easier,
but still arduous, taxing. With my self-esteem in the toilet, my
first relationship was with someone who chose me. Since I didn't
expect many opportunities it never occurred to me to ask myself
if I was in love with him.
many lessons learned, and many years later I met Reggie in a bar
late one Saturday night. I'd seen him at least twice before in passing
and kept the memory of his eyes, his friendly glance. That night
I waved hello to an acquaintance, William, at the far end of the
bar. William was with a friend, who turned to see whom he was greeting,
and the friend turned out to be Reggie. My smile lit up to acknowledge
his presence and our eyes lingered longer than passing acquaintance
permits. Soon Reggie maneuvered towards me through the pack of bodies.
We smiled at each other, each self-conscious of desire. Under the
pretense of ordering a drink he finally stood next to me.
I often felt tortured
when I met men; not knowing what to say or do, I felt everything
was up to me. Since I seldom knew what dating success felt like
I tended to pin my hopes on the slightest gesture of friendliness,
so dating filled me with dread. But tonight conversation flowed
and Reggie's interest put me at ease. This first step happened with
ease. The second step would up the ante. He didn't know I was a
crip. Most of it didn't show till I walked. In crowded bars I stayed
put once I found a seat. Now, my anxiety increased as my interest
in him soared; the greater the investment, the greater the loss.
Someone pushed through the crowd and bumped Reggie into me as we
talked. As he braced himself against the bar his hand touched my
cane, hanging from the rail. This is it I thought: Truth Time. Will
he lose interest, will he bolt, or will he hang in there? Most lose
interest; some bolt; very few hang in there. In the space of three
seconds he glanced down to my cane, paused, and looked back up into
my eyes without missing a beat in the conversation. Ahhh! He passed!
No change in demeanor, no smile deterred. My psyche flip-flopped.
I was used to losing, not having! I betrayed none of those feelings
in the moment and continued to chat him up. That was our beginning
and it got better as we fell in love.
Each of us had tested
negative shortly before we met, a fact that made safe sex more difficult
to practice. I suggested we both get tested again. If we were unable
to make love safely, I thought, we should at least be able to enjoy
our passion with some degree of security by knowing we were HIV
negative. Having fallen for him big time, I did not want to rein
in my desire. The touch of love was so much better than the touch
of medical manipulation I'd endured for so long. Only when touched
with love could I believe I was desirable.
Reggie's phone call
changed everything. I sat stunned the entire evening. My unsinkable
ship had hit an iceberg. His feelings sought the calm of the deep,
while mine fired distress rockets into the air. I needed to talk
about it with my friends, and with Reggie's permission I did, but
he had no intention of divulging his HIV status to his friends or
his family, even though everyone knew he was gay and had helped
him care for his previous lover who had died from AIDS. Reggie was
a nurse on the faculty of a nursing college. Professionally he taught
openness, but could not practice it privately. I'd assumed that
his nursing background heightened his understanding of me as a disabled
man, but that turned out not to be the case, and his emotional withholding
left me confused.
With his status evident
he was concerned I might also convert to being HIV-positive. I worried
too, but had no desire to leave him. It wasn't as if I had an HIV-negative
version of him waiting on the sidelines. I was there to stay. I
loved him, but he beat a hasty retreat to his God, where only optimism
was allowed; all other feelings he buried. For him it was business
as usualhe even suggested a one-year anniversary party to
celebrate our meeting. It was a lovely party but also the window
of time for my six-month re-test
me for the results, but I saw the HIV counselor alone. It took a
long time because I asked so many questions about partners with
different HIV status. When I emerged from the back of the clinic
I could see Reggie standing motionless, smoking a cigarette, and
I knew he was distraught with the certainty of bad news.
"Reggie, I'm OK.
I'm negative." His body slumped as tears rolled from his eyes. He
gave me a massive hug and we stood there motionless, locked in an
embrace, but not long enough for me to feel relief. He quickly turned
away and raised his eyes and I knew he was thanking God.
He finished his cigarette
with his back to me and finally said, "You ought to celebrate, Michael.
We've been waiting to hear this news for six months."
My God, I thought,
he thinks I should be happy about this. "Reggie," I cupped his face
in my hands and tried to explain, "I'm relieved, really I am, but
happiness is not what I'm feeling."
"Don't you realize
how lucky you are?" he snapped.
"Reggie, it's like
we were involved in a drive-by shooting. You got hit. I didn't.
I can't celebrate that."
He just stood there,
silent, with a resigned look on his face as he turned away to light
another cigarette. We returned to his car in silence and didn't
speak about my negative status again.
Slowly he started
to withdraw. We still saw each other as much as before, we made
love regularly and safely, but the energy I felt from him started
to diminish and I noticed that he stopped saying "I love you." I
mentioned my own feelings when I needed to, but did not confront
Reggie about his. With his life turned upside down, I reasoned that
the distance he created was his only way of coping. Everyone I talked
to agreed, and since all my friends were either HIV-positive themselves
or intimate with friends who were, I felt secure in how I was handling
things. I just hoped he would come around.
Later that fall he
announced, "My cousin invited me to Missouri for Thanksgiving. I'm
going. I'm sure you'll have no problem making other plans for the
holiday." It took me a few seconds to gather my wits and respond,
"We're in a committed relationship and you've just gone ahead and
made a decision that I should have been part of. I wanted to spend
the holiday with you but would have tried to understand if you really
wanted to go. I want you to stop making decisions that affect me
without consulting me." He seemed to understand and said he was
Three months later
he called to say, "I'm selling my house!" "Where are you going,"
I asked cautiously? "Oh, I'll probably stay in the area, maybe move
across the bay, I don't know, I'm tired of the city." Somehow I
knew immediately he was going back to Iowa to be near his brother,
but it took me three days to ask, "Ah
what about us?"
After a moment of
quiet he answered, "Yes
it's not fair to you! I love you
but I'm leaving." And leave he did!
It dawned on me then
that the results of my second HIV test broke what remained of his
bond to me. Now that I was negative he could let me go. What took
a year and a half of care to create shattered in minutes. Just like
Columbia, one huge BOOM! and it vanished, vaporized into thin air.
Only the shock on my face testified to the last moment of being
in the present with him.
Through the following
days and weeks, often in the middle of the night, questions assaulted
me: What happened? What went wrong? How could I not see it coming?
was it me? My mantel of hope changed to a cloak of regret
and silence set in as the shock wore off. No words, no thoughts,
for months, no sound coming in, no sound
leaving. Press the button and I, the robot would start to move,
methodically but lifelessly.
Did I care too much,
or not enough? Had he really loved me? And if he had, how could
he leave? My questions continued to sprout from the soil of endless
self-doubt, thriving like weeds in a garden abandoned, a garden
all too familiar.
Or, then again, was
it all simply a random hammer dropping on an iron spike, shattering
whatever lay beneath it, champagne glass and psyche alike. Was breaking
up hard to do? It was for me. I still find shards of myself in my
© Michael Perreault 2003
Let us know what you think
of this BENT feature.
Perreault's last wrote for BENT in May.
His work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and
Their Stories," edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, Harrington
Park Press, November 2003.