by Jennifer Sembler
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e were standing among G’s drunken Italian friends who were singing an awful karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” when G turned to me with a serious look in his eye and said, “There’s something I have to tell you later. Not here though.” I nodded and filed it away. A half hour later we were navigating our way through the cobblestone streets of Florence toward G’s car, which he’d parked illegally, as most Italians do.
We reached a small square in the Santo Spirito neighborhood, quiet at that time of night, and as I linked my arm in his, I said, “So what did you want to tell me?”
He hesitated. “You want to talk about this now?”
“Well you said later. It’s later.”
He took a deep breath. “I have to tell you that I’m HIV-positive.”
I laughed, which wasn’t the most appropriate response, and then followed with, “Are you joking?,” even more inappropriate. In the time it took him to say “No,” my buzzed brain had already deduced he wasn’t. Who on earth would joke about having HIV? “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that you gave me the look you do when you’re kidding and trying to keep a straight face.” We’d only been seeing each other a week, though this was our fourth date in that span, and I already knew one of his looks. We’d gotten close and quickly, as it happens sometimes when you encounter someone while living and working in a foreign country, as I was in Florence for the month. The dumb luck of meeting coupled with the uncertainty as to whether a future is possible fosters almost instantaneous bonding.
We found his white VW and he cursed as he reached for the ticket on his windshield. “At least you weren’t towed,” I said, reminding him of the car we watched being pulled away on the back of a truck a few hours earlier—the one unlucky one in a sea of cars just as illegally parked, an apt metaphor for his situation, I imagined.
When we got in, he relayed his story in a methodical way: how he was diagnosed a year and a half earlier at age thirty-three, how he’d feared he’d unknowingly passed it to his then-girlfriend though she ultimately tested negative, and how he contracted it was up for speculation. He told me about his five-pills-a-day regimen, his every-other-month hospital visits, and that he understood if I didn’t want to sleep with him.
“I don’t take it personally. I understand the fear and where people are coming from. I don’t blame them.” I marveled at his levelheadedness, and how he didn’t fault people for holding against him a thing that wasn’t in his power to change. I don’t know if I’d cope so well with that type of unfair rejection. “It’s an illness. It’s not who I am.” He fell silent.
I asked him probably more questions than I should have about risks and viral loads, sexual liaisons since he discovered his diagnosis, his current health status and how he really felt. Then it got quiet.
“So I’ll drive you home now.” He started the car.
“To my home or yours?” I asked.
“You want to come to my home?”
“You don’t want me to come to your home?”
“Of course I do, but I wasn’t sure if you wanted to.”
“Well you didn’t ask, did you?” I countered, enjoying this little linguistic mating dance.
“Do you want to come home with me?” He conceded.
“Well I want to continue hanging out with you, so yes.” He smiled, visibly pleased, and backed the car out of its tight space. On the way, he talked about moving out of his apartment to move in with his girlfriend, only to move back into it a few months later after the relationship fell apart. “So last year was a big year for you, huh?” I tested the waters. He laughed.
We didn’t have sex that night, but I slept in his arms, my face nuzzled in his neck as his breath caressed the tip of my nose. The next morning I stared out the balcony door eyeing the clouds as they imperceptibly lifted the slightest bit to reveal a layer of blue beneath.
“It looks like it might be a nice day. You know you promised to take me to the seaside this weekend,” I said, referring to our first date one week earlier.
“I don’t think I promised,” he laughed. “Besides, I think I was just trying to impress you.”
“Keeping your promise would impress me.” He relented and we drove to Forte dei Marmi that day and sat on a bench on the boardwalk, his arm around my shoulder and my head rested on his. We talked. We laughed. We enjoyed moments of companionate silence as we watched the sun sink into the horizon and paint pink and purple brushstrokes across the sky. Later that day, he thanked me for urging him to go.
On the ride home, I laughed harder than I had in longer than I could remember when he debuted his crazy hand-dance moves as we sang along to Eagle-Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight.” I laughed even harder when he said, “Good night eagle face cherry.”
“But they’re such majestic animals,” he explained while I scoffed.
“You’re lucky English isn’t your first language, otherwise I’d take offense. Being called an eagle is not a compliment.”
After I stopped laughing, I kissed him and got out of the car, slightly disappointed that he hadn’t invited me over for another sleepover. It had been a long while since I’d had so much fun with a man, and the fact that he’d revealed his status brought us closer than expected sooner than expected. Watching someone’s worried eyes search yours for acceptance as they deliver news like that only deepens empathy and compassion.
The next few days I researched HIV and was amazed at the advancements in treatment options, and how antiretroviral therapy can lead to an undetectable viral load, like G’s, which meant little to no risk of transmitting the disease when using protection during sex. I also read about pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis for those who were negative and sought to keep it that way.
But what I thought about more in those next few days was G’s offbeat sense of humor that led to uncontrollable bouts of laughter, his quick wit and intelligence, his sensitivity and especially how he caused a frisson of excitement to surge through me every time we kissed. At age thirty-three and single for the past four years, that excitement was something I rarely felt. Those were the things that mattered because that’s who G was. He wasn’t a diagnosis, one that some might use as an excuse to write him off. To me, the real risk was not in his disease, but in letting the revelation of it smother the small spark between us before it had a chance to burst into a bonfire.
Four days later, he picked me up and I spent the night at his place. This time I did more than just sleep in his arms, and when he placed his lips on mine sending jolts of electricity through me, his status was the furthest thing from my mind.
Jennifer Sembler is a freelance writer who originally hails from New York, but currently lives wherever her newest whim takes her, which is usually near a beach.