Nonfiction by Rob Zukowski
It was the summer of 1987 and I was newly out. Like any twenty year-old having just thrust open the closet doors, I was looking for experiences and adventures. I’d spent my young life nestled in suburbia, living between the northernmost Bronx and southernmost Westchester. In the early days of my gay life, I frequented an assortment of bars and dance clubs in North Jersey, Westchester, Rockland and Connecticut. I was bored with the white crunch socks, pastel-colored shirts, piano bars, penny loafers and fruity drinks that were the gay 80’s. I wanted something different—something with an edge and darker than I was accustomed to; just a little bit dangerous.
There was one bar in particular that I’d read about in the local fag rags; a very popular cruise bar along the West Side Highway. It was rumored, at least among the suburban gays, to be the wildest of the wild. I remember hearing one, very dramatic and detailed description of the establishment from a drag performer I knew. “It’s a bar where men collect; wild, easy men; limitless and erotic,” she told me. “If you are looking for fantasy after fantasy, with only enough time in between experiences for another cold beer and a quick clean up with a moist towelette, it’s the place to be.” She told me that the weekends were mostly leather and Levi: rough sex, fetish, bondage and discipline. It was extreme for my tastes at the time but I was intrigued. She regaled me with stories of impromptu invitations to casual sex romps featuring a plethora of lust, flesh, fetish and kink. She spoke of men meeting men at the bar, leaving for sexual encounters and then coming back for more. There were rendezvous in dark alleys and groping on dimly lit side streets surrounding the bar. “If you can’t find it in the back room of this establishment,” she said, “you won’t find it anywhere.” I couldn’t help but fantasize, which lead to a plan.
I was excited. This would be a new experience for me. I lied to my friends that night and told them that I was staying home. The possibilities presented by a night like this at a place such as that were something I needed to explore alone. With the smell of the Hudson River seeping through my windows, I drove down the West Side Highway en route to the sin I craved. Upon arrival, I made my way through a maze of men to the chipped, wooden bar and ordered a cheap beer. I took every advantage of my slim and youthful station in life groping my way through the myriad of men in my path; stopping occasionally to hold a glance, consider a suggestion, and enjoy an inappropriate touch.
It was all that I heard it was and more. I was prompted to do things I’d never even heard of. Ideas were exchanged and possibilities presented that were completely unknown to me. Yet, I considered them all. After numerous drinks, ample experimentation and even more invitations I weighed further options. I smirked on my way to the restroom. I was satisfied with myself. In spite of the goings-on around me I was cool and unaffected. Not bad for a newbie. Not bad at all. As I stood in the dimly lit restroom relieving myself, I glanced up for a moment noticing a photo hanging on the wall over the urinal. It was an ad of some sort in a tarnished, faux metallic frame. I leaned slightly forward and squinted to read the content. I moved my head to the side to see past the glow of the bathroom’s bare light bulb reflecting on the dirty plastic cover over the image.
It was a picture of two men having anal sex. Both men were well built, smooth, pretty and young; very much exciting examples of the stereotypes each of their sexual roles suggested. There were text bubbles over each of their heads. Over the bottom’s head it said “He must be negative too, he didn’t wear a condom.” And, in the bubble over the top’s head, it said “He must be positive too, he didn’t ask me to use a condom.” I was stunned. Almost, I’d go so far as to say, distraught.
There are moments in life when everything changes. These are the moments you’ll always remember with distinct clarity and razor-sharp detail. Even years later, these are the memories that evoke that same swell of emotion they did the very first time. You’ll stop to catch your breath. Call these moments realizations if you will. Call them an awakening or an epiphany. Or, simply call it the moment you woke up. But, I can assure you, whatever you call it, you have no other choice but to acknowledge it because that moment becomes a part of you, like it or not.
I’ve spent a lot of time, and a good number of therapy sessions trying to figure out what happened that night. What demons did that image awaken inside me? My best guess is what I call “cigarette commercial syndrome.” We’ve all seen those quit smoking television commercials; the really explicit ones. There’s the one with the man with the hole in his throat as a result of cancer, who misses swimming and talks about almost drowning in the shower. Or the one with the lady with her fingers and toes cut off, whose children are embarrassed by her appearance. I think that night in the bar produced the same effect; that recipe of explicit factors and obvious details that fall into place and drive a point home.
I stood there in the restroom for a moment, lost in thought and gripped with fear. Someone came from behind me, reached around, and grabbed me. He lifted my shirt with one hand and pulled my body back against his with the other. That was, after all, what I was there for. But I panicked. I thrust backward and pushed him away. I ran through the crowd past the men I’d played with and promised more. I ran through the leather-padded doors and went home. Welcome to the birth of a phobia. There’s cake. Did you bring a gift?
In the years that followed, even more than a decade, my life and the way I lived it had been altered. These are years that I can never have back. I was stricken with a fear of HIV and AIDS so debilitating that it seeped into every aspect of my life. Everything suffered. Not only was my relationship with myself an exercise in self-inflicted emotional abuse, but my outer relationships and intimate encounters were only shadows of what they could have been. I didn’t have sex, at least not in any traditional or common form. When I was intimate I was never really present for the encounter as my mind was inundated with worry. I refused anything beyond mutual masturbation. Even then, I agonized over every hangnail and paper cut. When I did go so far as to indulge in anything even slightly more than mutual masturbation, I was thrown into a state of anxiety and panic so severe that it would last for weeks or sometimes months. Penetrative sex was physically impossible for me due to the emotional turmoil it accompanied. On the rare occasions that I tried, I became so petrified that I would lose my erection and flee the situation. As you might imagine, this made dating impossible. Not only due to my unwillingness to partake in most sexual activity, but to my refusal to be tested. I was afraid to know.
Perpetually single and sexually unsatisfied I immersed myself into a subculture of fetish and alternative sexuality. It seemed only logical to me to explore the world of kink in an attempt to add back to my sex life what fear and my abstinence had taken away. Oftentimes, the focal point of fetish isn’t about oral or anal gratification, it’s about the bondage, the uniform, or the foot fetish, to name a few. It was a comfort to me to be able to experience some form of intimacy and sexuality, knowing that I couldn’t be infected by the rope, police baton, or someone sucking on my toes. Make no mistake, I enjoyed the exploration. I was thrilled with new experiences and even found an assortment of kinks that I truly enjoyed. In the end, however, they only masked the greater problem.
Every birthmark and blemish that appeared on my flesh, in my mind, was a skin cancer caused by HIV. One occurrence stands out above the rest. I noticed a small brown patch of skin on my chest that I’d either never seen before, or that I hadn’t recalled seeing. It was my focal point for weeks. I looked at it every day, watching for growth or change. Fear and panic will make you do crazy things. One day, so deeply depressed and frightened, I took a scissors and cut it from my own body. I cut so deeply, that I required stitches. Every sneeze, cold, and cough was a signal that the end was near. If I lost a pound or two, I’d binge on food only to prove to myself that I could gain weight. I avoided seeing doctors whenever I could, based upon the fear that whatever was wrong was HIV or AIDS-related. I suffered through many an untreated infection, cold, flu and illness. I held a daily, constant fear of death and dying and sank into a very deep, constant depression.
More than a decade after that night in the bar I’d come to live with my emotional turmoil. There’s a line in the movie Torch Song Trilogy where Anne Bancroft tells Harvey Fierstein, after losing his partner to a hate crime, that losing someone is like learning to wear a pair of eyeglasses or a ring. You get used to it. And this, no matter how tortured, no matter how phobic, was my ring. I stopped dating. I avoided those who pursued me and never set my sights on anyone whose needs, physically or emotionally, would upset my delicate balance of fear and self-preservation. I was accustomed to sexual rejections and failed relationships. I resigned myself to being single and to living in the shadows of fetish and kink. Fear, anxiety and depression were my normal emotions. No matter how tortured my life was, it was my life to live.
It had been more than a decade since I’d seen a doctor and one day something went wrong. I have a mild heart condition, in the sense that, with treatment and medication, it can be controlled. Yet, I shied away from medical attention due to the belief that if they just looked, they’d find something. My doctor scheduled an appointment for me to have comprehensive blood work. As the nurse drew my blood I asked what they would be testing for. She ran through the battery of tests the doctor had ordered which included an HIV test. I lied and told the nurse that I’d recently been tested and refused the HIV test. He made the necessary notes on my chart and assured me that he’d tell the doctor that I’d opted out of the test. A week later I returned for my results. The doctor went through my report with me; blood sugar, cholesterol, etc. He continued with all negative results for assorted STIs and concluded his report with the proclamation of HIV-negative. The nurse had made a mistake and ordered the test. I started to shake. I could barely breathe. For the very first time I told someone my story. Through tears and gasps for breath I told the doctor everything. I was calm by the time I finished. He listened, between his profuse apologies for the error, to every word I said and offered me the kind of comfort and support I wished I’d sought more than a decade ago.
I can’t help but think back to the life I didn’t lead. I can’t help but regret the experiences and the relationships I didn’t have. There are, unquestionably, things that I missed. The days, weeks, months and years I spent consumed by worry and fear is time that I could have been living or loving. It’s time that I can never have back. I’ll always wonder who and what passed me by when I was living so deeply in my fear that I couldn’t escape, or let anyone in for that matter.
All these years later I am still HIV-negative. I still see that very same doctor and every six months I am tested for HIV. Rest assured, I’m still scared, old habits die hard. But I recall what the doctor said to me after I told him how very much of my life I’d lost to my phobia. “No matter what the results may have been, maybe this is the universe telling you that it’s time, and it’s OK, to live your life.”
Rob Zukowski is an activist, writer and photographer in New York City. He has worked professionally and personally in the LGBT community and in the arts since 1992.