Clean: Nonfiction by Norman Belanger

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]re you clean?” my Grindr date asks me. He’s cute and young, about thirty, give or take. His name is Kenny.

“What do you mean?” I ask, as if I don’t know. I sip my Starbucks.

“You know,” he says, picking at the raisins in his half-eaten scone, “are you disease-free?”

“Are you asking me about my HIV status?”

“Yeah. Are you clean?”

I hate this question. I hate it because it states clearly in my profile, the one that no one bothers to read as they scroll through pictures of faces and torsos and body parts, my status is HIV-positive, undetectable, on meds. I am healthy in every other aspect. I have a good job, I own my own place, at fifty I’m in pretty good shape, I’m basically considered a nice guy, a catch. Still, when this question comes up, as it almost always does in just this same way, I feel like an untouchable.

When I tell Kenny my status, I watch his discomfort, his pretty blue eyes that look everywhere but at me, as if he’s scanning the place for an emergency exit, and I know he will be gone in about two minutes.

“I should get going,” he says, suddenly forgetting we had plans to hang out together. It’s a bright, warm, sunny October afternoon. We had talked about walking along the Charles, to see the leaves. We were going to go to the Square, to browse the stores.

Kenny thanks me for the latte. “Nice meeting you.” He manages a tiny smile. He zips up his jacket hastily, the hem of his untucked flannel shirt gets caught, he just leaves it like that. He can’t get out of there fast enough.

From the table at the window, I watch him as he crosses the street. He does not look back.

The place is busy, noisy with people, but I am alone, and quiet. I stay there a while longer. The coffee is getting cold, I take a sip, not able to shake this feeling that’s something a little more than sadness, I sit there feeling dirty, and diseased.

I can’t be angry with Kenny, he’s too young to remember. He doesn’t know what it was like, to come of age just as AIDS was on the horizon. I understand his fear. I was scared in those days, too. I was barely twenty before the first casualties began.

Robert, in July of ’84. He went fast. Paul was next; he was in hospice a few weeks, so we got to say goodbye.

John lingered. He was a ghost by the time he passed like a shadow, after months and months. He scared me the most, with his face, so thin, so gaunt. The feel of his bones when we hugged made me cringe. I hated myself for how I felt, but I couldn’t wait to get away from him, away from the bottles of pills, the diapers, the smell of dying and death, and he knew it.

Everett died, then Seth.

It was like playing musical chairs. When the music stopped, someone was out. I stumbled through those years, numb among the sick, skeletal, walking dead. In between, I kept dancing and drinking, I smoked and snorted and rutted to forget. I needed to feel alive, to feel a pulse, a warm body, someone to hold onto. I had boyfriends, I had tricks, lots of them, like survivors in a shipwreck, I clung, sputtering, dazed, wounded witness to the end of the world, what could I do but keep playing the game? Take care of me. Don’t let me go. Love me, a little.

By the ’90s anger was the dominant mode, and it took the form of activism.

We wore black T-shirts that said SILENCE = DEATH. We marched in pride parades with Queer Nation and ACT UP. We were angry. We were scared. We didn’t know what to do, so we marched along.

And then it was my turn. I sat in my doctor’s office when I got the news. I just sat in the hard plastic chair, staring at her calendar. December 1999. I didn’t cry. “Do you want to see a counselor?” she said softly, nudging a box of Kleenex toward me. I shook my head. My first thought was to get out of her office, out of the building, and on the street to walk in the falling snow. I didn’t talk to anyone for weeks, I unplugged my phone, called out to work, stayed in bed.

Those days turned into weeks, months, and now almost twenty years have passed. In the end I was lucky to be diagnosed when things were changing on the cusp of a new century. And yes, it was luck, the kind that comes randomly, but also thanks to the efforts of a generation of men and women who went before me, those who marched and protested and those who died, whose efforts brought new meds and treatments in the pipeline. I would be OK. I would survive, but I would never forget.

And I here I am, dating again in my fifties, navigating a digital world that presents new challenges. When some guy shrinks from me because of my status, yes I get angry, yes I am hurt. But it will pass.

I leave Starbucks after the last sip of cold coffee. I walk out into the bright autumn day, to breathe in the air, that feels cold and sharp, the air that feels clean.


 

Norman Belanger is living healthy with HIV in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a writer and a nurse in HIV care. His work has previously appeared in A&U, as well as Potluck, Blunderbuss, and Jonathan magazines. You can follow him on Twitter @norman_belanger.