Just Another Death Sentence: Nonfiction by Hank Trout

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Hank Trout reading his piece alongside members of the Steamroller Dance Company. Photo by Lenore Chinn
Hank Trout reading his piece alongside members of the Steamroller Dance Company, two of whom worked with him on the presentation. Photo by Lenore Chinn

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne morning in July 1989, I woke up with my right eye swollen completely shut and cysts all over my chest and belly. I went to the emergency room at General Hospital, where I was promptly ushered into a “biohazard isolation room.” After a week of intravenous antibiotics, the swelling and the cysts were gone, and I was about to be released from the hospital.

I sat on the edge of the bed waiting for my “exit interview.” Three doctors, two male, one female, huddled in the far corner of the room, their quiet but animated discussion punctuated by furtive glances my way. After a while, the doctors heaved a collective sigh and the female doctor approached me.

“I’m afraid I have some terrible news, Mr. Trout. We’ve done a lot of blood tests and, well…you have been infected with the HIV virus.”

She very tentatively put her hand on my shoulder, then quickly pulled it back.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

I had expected this diagnosis for seven or eight years. We all expected it in those days. Still, at that moment, those words—“you’ve been infected”—shot through me. I felt numb, completely utterly numb from head to toe. My shoulders collapsed inward, my head drooped toward my chest, and for several seconds my muscles refused to pull air into my lungs. The doctor went on talking, but the heartbeat pounding in my ears drowned out whatever she was saying. I stared at the tiled floor, remembering all the hospital beds and hospice rooms where I had watched friends wither and die—all the noisy hospital machines, all the IV tubes and hypodermics, all the beds rumpled by the dying. I saw their bruised and tear-soaked skeletal faces straining to tell me something.

“Mr. Trout? Mr. Trout!

My head shook, my shoulders snapped back, and I gulped air back into my lungs. I slid off the bed and stood.

“Is that all? Can I go now?”

Is that all?! I must say, Mr. Trout, you’re awfully calm about this! I’ve given this news to a lot of men, but…are you sure you understand what this means?!”

How could I tell her that I had already endured the terror of two “false positive” diagnoses and had prepared myself for the one that wasn’t “false”?

In just six years, I had watched helplessly as thirty of my friends—men whom I had loved; men I had held in my arms—suffered and shriveled and died. So I knew every inch and every curve and every bump in the road ahead because I had already crawled the length of that road on my hands and knees and licked every inch of the pavement.

I knew the diagnosis meant I would be dead very soon.

“Yes,” I said, “I know exactly what it means. I’m going home now.”

I walked toward the door, waving off her questions about whether I wanted more information. More information?! I thought, Yes! Please! Tell me something I don’t know already! Anything!

I stopped at the door and turned.

“You see,” I said, “I underwent experimental open-heart surgery in 1958, when I was five years-old. Those doctors told my parents that I would die before I was fifteen. Well, I’m thirty-six now.

“This is just another death sentence I have to live with.”

Since my diagnosis, I have learned many things about death sentences. For instance, I’ve learned that death sentences can have a very long shelf-life.
Twenty-seven years I’ve lived under this one, and I’m still here.

I’m still here.


 

Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. His published writing has ranged from gay “smut” (his term!) to literary criticism of William Blake. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-five-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Hank read this piece at “Still Here 2015,” a program of readings and music honoring long-term survivors, part of the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco during Pride Week 2015.