Dating in the age of HIV stigma

‘I was angry at myself for being afraid when I knew full well there was no reason to be’

We met online. I’ve always been a sucker for boys with brown hair. We texted for a while and you were funny. We swapped some pictures and you were sexy. I asked you out and you suggested a bar.

“It’s near my apartment,” you said. We both knew what that meant.

The night before we met, we were texting. You said you were stressed about calling your mom. When I asked why, you said there was a big thing you were in the midst of dealing with and you had to talk to her about it.

Ding! Text message: “It’s probably better I tell you now.”

Ding! “I’m going through a legal thing.”

Ding! “With this guy.”

Ding! “He didn’t tell me he was poz.”

I was standing on the steps heading into the subway and I stopped. People started bunching up angrily behind me. I couldn’t say nothing. I couldn’t get on a train, go underground for forty minutes and leave you in silence — but what was there to say? I felt stupid, because as much as I thought myself educated and supportive, a Pride-marching and red ribbon-wearing queer, my first thought was that I wanted to call off our date.

“Are you +?” I said.

“Undetectable,” you said.

You were the first real person I ever knew who used that word.

“I have more questions. But you don’t need to answer them now.”

Then, as if I was being heroic, I sent one more text: “I’m still excited about our date.” Still. How must you have read that?

We had dinner and you were lovely. The bar you picked was crowded and filled with jukebox blues and the shouts of the hockey game. Neither of us cared about the hockey game. The Thursday night drink special was a beer and two shots of bottom-shelf bourbon for $10.

“Ten bucks! We can’t pass that up,” you said.

When we got back to your place we were both pleasantly swaying. You kissed me at your door. It wasn’t a first date kiss. It wasn’t even a hookup kiss. It was a real, deep, honest-to-goodness, weak-at-the-knees type kiss — the kind that you fall into.

Your mouth was dry and I could smell the soap and aftershave on your skin. You asked if I wanted another beer and I took off my sweater. I was careful to let my T-shirt ride up. Careful to let you see the band of my underwear and the skin on my stomach. In your bedroom, I touched your arm, letting my fingers linger, letting my grip be strong. I touched your chest. I reached under your shirt. I touched your stomach. I ran my hands over your jeans. I felt that you were hard.


I’d done my research. It’s amazing what an hour on Google can teach you. More than I ever learned in school, that’s for goddamn sure.

If an HIV-positive person has suppressed viral load and is on ART (antiretroviral therapy), the risk of infecting an HIV-negative sexual partner is exceedingly low, I had read. “Exceedingly low. ” Then came the worry, like a hangnail. But what if?

That morning, as I was reading a PDF one-sheet from the Health Canada website on HIV/AIDS, all I could think about was my high school gym teacher, Mr Stanley*. He had hairy arms and a low, chesty laugh. He was a real man’s-man kinda guy, always with a whistle in his hand and cell phone on a clip at his waist. He looked like the kind of guy who would say fag casually — of course never at school, but if he did he would have added, “not the there’s anything wrong with that.”

Mr Stanley didn’t teach me how to put on a condom. My high school didn’t do the whole pinch the tip and roll down over a banana thing that TV had promised. Like everyone else I know, I had to figure all that out on my own. I remembered being 15 and sitting in a roomful of boys, watching a seven-minute educational video on STIs. All of us, hands under our desks and not looking at each other in our mixed-up states of horror and semi-arousal. Afterwards, somebody asked about AIDS. “What does it stand for?”

It took Mr Stanley a minute to remember. He played off his moment of not knowing by making a little joke. “Now I didn’t come up with this,” he said, making it clear this wasn’t his joke, he was just repeating it, “Anally Inserted Death Sentence, get it?”

Everyone laughed, even me.

You had a spot of precum on your navy blue Calvin Klein’s and I wanted so badly to take them off of you. We were on your bed. You undid my belt. There is virtually no risk of transmission from masturbation or receptive oral sex, was all I could think as you had my cock in your mouth.

I pulled your face back up to mine and we stopped. All night you must have known that I was going to ask.

You said everything I knew you would say, but I still needed to hear you say it.

“I take medication . . . ART . . . recently tested.” Yes, but what if? I thought.

“Undetectable viral load . . . over a year.” Yes, but what if?

“Statistically there’s no chance.” Virtually no risk. But what if?

“Of passing the virus.” Wikipedia and WebMD statistics flashed in my memory.

“I’m always safe.” About 675,000 people have died.

“I would never do anything that would risk me or my partner.” Anally Inserted Death Sentence — ha! — ha! — ha!

I had other questions. Ones I wouldn’t ask. Not then. Why didn’t you have +/undetectable on your Grindr profile? I already knew your answer. Would you have messaged me if I did? How did it happen? Does it matter?

I did ask about the legal thing. That was how you had phrased it, “a legal thing,” as if it were trivial, like a parking ticket. “He didn’t disclose,” you said. “There was already a court order for him to be taking his meds. He ignored it. Other people are pressing charges too. There’s going to be a trial in 18 months.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said you were brave.

You said something I didn’t expect then. You said, “I’m not.” You said, “my mom wants to come, but I don’t want her to hear me testify. I don’t want her to know how it happened.” You said your lawyer had told you that you couldn’t talk to any of the other people pressing charges, any of the other people he’d transmitted the virus to, otherwise your testimony and theirs could be dismissed. I thought that was the loneliest thing I’d ever heard.

“It will be the first time I’ve seen him since,” you said. “My lawyer says he’ll be on the other side of the judge’s bench he won’t see me, but I know he will.”

You were quiet for a long time and I didn’t ask more questions.

You were on top of me with one hand pressed to the wall for support when you came. You came on my chest and I couldn’t stop picturing myself telling my family that I was HIV positive.

At the time, it never even occurred to me that you had already been through that.

We lay together and I listened to you falling asleep, and even as I felt tired and hazy and glowing from that sweet mix of post-sex euphoria and the Thursday night drink special, I began to be more and more afraid.

I went to your washroom and cleaned myself off. I washed my face and body with hand-soap and hated myself. I have had bad sex. I have left apartments feeling disgusting and disgusted. I have done things I am not proud of and that I might never tell — but where did you fit in to all this? You, with your brown hair and your story?

I wanted to leave, but I didn’t want to leave. I was shaking as I scrubbed at the inside of my mouth with my fingernails and a handful of soap that tasted nothing like it smelled, and for the millionth time that day, I looked at the Health Canada one-sheet I’d printed out and folded until it was the size of a condom and stuffed into the pocket of my jeans. I re-read and re-read “low risk.” What was this feeling? Fear? Yes. Disgust? But not at you, no, no, not at you. But if I had to keep saying it, didn’t that mean it was really at you? I couldn’t untangle it all right then.

I was shaking and wet and clutching the edge of your sink, that sick hospital taste of soap still heavy on my tongue, and I was so angry. I was angry at myself for being afraid when I knew full well there was no reason to be. Angry at Mr Stanley for laughing at the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and never once telling us that we shouldn’t be scared. Angry at this whole world for being so goddamn complicated sometimes, when all we really want is to feel safe and warm and beautiful and loved. And angry because you deserve someone so much better than me.

You were sleeping when I came back to your room, and you were beautiful. I’ve always been a sucker for boys with brown hair. Your bed was warm and smelled of sweat and fabric softener and semen as I crawled in beside you. You were breathing slow and peaceful. I pulled your body around mine so that I might fall asleep with you, trying to block out the noise of the world in your arms.

*name has been changed

Love Like Mine

This story is part of Love Like Mine, a bi-weekly column that celebrates all forms of queer love.

Kevin Connery is a fiction writer and essayist.

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