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.

Much experience, 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 usual—he 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

Reggie accompanied 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 sorry.

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 … well … what about us?"

After a moment of quiet he answered, "Yes… I know … 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? And worse … 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, just silence … for weeks … 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 carpeting.

© Michael Perreault 2003

 

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Michael 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.


 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2003