It was 30 seconds. Ok, maybe 45 seconds but 45 seconds at the most! That's how long Rob's cock was in my ass without a condom. I really hadn't thought much about it until 3 weeks later when Rob called me and told me he tested positive. Now I was biting my nails, tapping my foot and desperately searching my doctor's face for an answer.
"We were caked in lube and we were making out intensely and he just slipped in. That was it and we stayed like for those few moments before acknowledging we should grab a condom. In fact, after that we never ended up having sex! I'm such an idiot! How could I be so stupid?!"
My doctor put his hand on my knee. "Slow down, Eric, relax! You're going to make yourself sick! You say you were covered in lube?
I nodded yes in a groan and a whimper.
"And from what you say, he had very little precum, if any, and there was no ejaculate whatsoever in your ass?"
"Yeah," I said swallowing, out of breathe. I wiped the tears from my face with the palm of my hand.
"Eric, now listen to me," my doctor commanded, looking me in the eye, "it's unprofessional for me to say this, but from what you're telling me, if you're telling me honestly, I don't think you have much to worry about. You were covered in lube, that can often be a barrier. You can't get HIV without precum or ejaculate and from what you say there was none. But unfortunately, you're going to have to wait a few more weeks before we can get an accurate test result. Now don't beat yourself up. You practice safe sex, we've talked about this before, you do everything right. Just try and relax."
Yeah, easier said then done, Doc. I rolled my eyes and exited his office. I walked across campus banging those utterly intractable 45 seconds around my head. I replayed those moments over and over hoping for a different outcome or shred of evidence which might prove he actually never entered me. But I knew the truth. He had done so and there was nothing I could do about it. After all I learned, all I experienced, the friends around me. It was all worth shit. Like Icarus I had flown to close to the sun, I never was the person I thought I was and my head, was never above the water. The outgoingness, the handshakes, the warm meet and greets, circuit parties, all the new friends I made, trusted and believed in, hanging with the big boys, feeling as though I was on top of the world- all lead me to this! "Positive at 21," I told myself, "what the hell have I gotten myself into?"
Phoenix Arizona, 2001 19 years old
This is my first ever big gay gathering. It's a house party and men and drinks are everywhere. The pool outside is huge. Everyone is walking around in speedos or boardshorts and there's not a body in here that's at least ten years within my age. The majority of the men are gorgeous well built short haired hulks. "Just be yourself," I tell myself. "Smile politely and shake people's hands. You got this." My host greets me, "Thanks for coming up from Tucson to come hang with us, go mingle!" he says patting my ass and running off. He's on drugs. I know immediately.
I stand there, shifting my weight from one leg to another, bitting my bottom lip and wishing I could shrink up into myself. Someone comes up behind me. "Hi," he says. I turn around and am taken aback. My mouth left open. Standing before me is a man, brutally East Coast Italian, short cropped black hair, tan skin, muscles pushing their way through his skin, and sunglasses perfectly complementing his full black-and-silver goatee. "I'm Mark," he extends his hand. "Eric," I respond, "nice to meet you."
He tells me the host of the party sent him over since I might not know anyone. We trade background stories, I knew he must have been from Tri-state area so I confess I'm from New Jersey. He tells me he's from Staten Island, the land of firemen and cops, and I melt further into my immediate crush on him. I tell him I'm in school at University of Arizona, studying film and smoking a lot of pot. "Nice, we'll have to do that later," he says smirking. We talk further well into the bottom of my second drink when I cannot take it any more. I desperately want to pat his muscled, hairy tummy and I concoct a way to do so. I run my hand down his torso and onto his stomach.
"Geez man, what's your secret to such great abs?"
"HIV," he responds.
I jerk my hand away in shock and surprise. It isn't that I am afraid to touch him, I know better than that but I don't know how to react. "Oh-I-uh," I stammer.
"Don't sweat it, kid. It's ok. It's the meds I'm on. I have to take steroids to supplement my body's loss of muscle. That's my secret to great abs."
I don't know what to say and I don't want to offend him. The guy is obviously healthy. It doesn't seem as though he is outwardly suffering from anything so I just nod and take a sip out of my cup which we both know is empty.
"Didn't mean to scare you, kid. Come on, let's grab another drink."
Mark walks me around the party introducing me to people. There was about a 100 guys at the party and Mark makes me feel at ease by placing his hand on the small of my back, stroking my hair and referring to me as handsome. I began to feel better and drunker. Mark and I spend more time talking and getting to know one another as we smoke a joint outside on the patio chairs. He introduces me to Tim, his partner who is equally handsome, massive and hairy. Tim is hanging out with a bunch of his friends in the pool. I get up the nerve to ask Mark about how he became HIV positive. If I offend him I'll just apologize and blame it on my young naivety but he isn't. He simply shrugs and tells me. He used to be married, wife, kids the whole deal and would take occasional "business trips" to Miami and rendezvous with men. There was a hustler he'd meet. Mark said he asked the hustler's status and after he said it was negative they began having unsafe sex. That's when Mark tested positive, divorced his wife and met Tim. They've been together since.
"Sometimes, I think it was a good thing, Eric. Not that I should wish you ever become positive but it helped me take control of my life admit to what I liked and I met Tim. As funny as it sounds, I've never been happier."
I believe him. There's no reason he should lie to me and I grasp intuitively that he looks at his status as a way of being more free from the life he used to lead.
I thank him for telling me. That I am just starting to enter the gay community and clank his glass saying, "Hey, if you're happy. I'm happy." Tim jumps out of the pool and asks us what's up. "Oh, nothing" Makr told Tim, "I was just telling Eric how I became HIV+."
"That story again," Tim said smiling. "Come on Eric, I've got someone I want you to meet."
Mark and Tim take me over to where a DJ is spinning records. They introduce me. His name is DJ Buck. He's a bigger guy, fat and has deep lines in his dimples, near his cheeks, like heavily scarred wrinkles. He asks me if I like dance music and I tell him I go to a lot of raves.
"Oh so like glow-sticks, pacifiers and visors," he asks.
"Something like that," I say smiling.
"Well I don't know anything about that but look what I got here, signed by Donna Summer herself!"
He puts a record in my hands and I study it. Above Donna Summer's signature is a song title big bold and black it is called, "I will go with you (Con te partiro.)"
"Cool," I shrug, handing it back.
"Cool?!" he questions, "you young guys know nothing! How old are you anyway, twenty-two?"
"Nineteen," I say smirking. "But twenty-two is fine by me."
Almost in chorus Mark, Tim and Buck groan in a he's so young tone. Buck flips on the record and people come to the dance floor as if this song is a particular siren calling them. I watch Mark and Tim dance with each other, holding one another, kissing and staring into each other's eyes. Other men gather around me. I begin dancing myself. I start noticing similarities of the men around me. Many of them have the same features as Mark, six pack abs or muscle stomachs, deep creases in their face like Buck, and prominent veins jut from their legs and behind their masculine features and bright eyes lays a grief and great sadness that I cannot describe. A feeling that I would find many years later still steals its way into my soul. This stands as my first of many experiences being surrounded by HIV.
The song is joyous and emotional to the same degree. All of these men dancing are alive but how many friends aren't? 1? 10? Whole address books? I swallow these new feelings and emotions and just continue dancing. I am happy and it's been a bumpy road for me to get here.
As Donna Summer sings the lyrics, "I will go with you, I'll go where you lead me, forever true, forever and ever we'll stay, in love together." I look over at Mark and Tim and decide to do just that.
In the following months in New York and throughout the rest of the year Mark and Tim would be my daddies. We joke they adopted me that day on the dance floor. They take me everywhere, teach me about life, about being gay, about staying negative, about what to expect and what I'd be exposed to. They never make me feel uncomfortable or awkward or pressured and they protect me from the men who they refer to as having, "bad vibes." We never have sex and they never ask for it and it is their hands I hold above my head in triumph as a giant rainbow flag of lights is unveiled at my first New York Pride Pier Dance. They are the first to tell me everything. Just like a year later they are the first to tell me, Buck is dead.
I walked through campus sobbing. I was programmed not to have unprotected sex. Not to do this. But I did. And it happened. And yes, Rob had slid in, pushing his way past everything I had absorbed from Mark and Tim, and up into my body. "I'm sorry guys," I whisper out into the dry Arizona air, "I'm not the wonder boy you think I am."
Five weeks later, just as my doctor said, I tested negative. And now, five years later I continue to test negative. I've lost both Mark and Tim to crystal meth and haven't seen nor heard from any of the men I met at the Pheonix house party. But despite their own failures, the advice to which they themselves did not live up to, their spirits still speak to me, like ghosts, from an everlasting shaman's fire. That great sadness I saw, lying behind their eyes on that dance floor is something I still see and something I still feel.
I often find myself grieving the deaths of men I never knew and of friends I never had, because this virus, this disease, this struggle of my brothers haunts me beyond repair because negative test after negative test I can't help but feel that those 30 to 45 seconds are still ticking by.