by Paul A. Aguilar
This past October was the thirtieth anniversary of discovering I had acquired the human immunodeficiency virus, aka HIV. I was twenty-six-years-old and working as the office manager at a local thrift store that benefitted over 200 charities. I had a part-time gig delivering the Bay Area Reporter, which I shared with my boyfriend, a truck driver for the thrift store. We were living communally with three other co-workers in a one-bedroom apartment.
How I came to be tested was a fluke, an afterthought, a case of having nothing better to do, really. If I were to be completely honest I never intended to get tested. Many of us had contemplated that choice, especially after seeing how it had torn friends’ lives apart, many of them choosing to take their own lives rather than face the tortured, painful, grotesque and lingering death that lay ahead. Oh, what would the world be like today had they chosen to hold on just a few short years longer?
It was early October 1988, that time of year the rest of the world calls autumn, but which we in San Francisco call “Indian summer.” That time of the year when you wore as little as possible during the day and, at night, you slept naked under just a sheet with your window open.
I had been informed by a playmate that I might have been exposed to gonorrhea and that I should get checked out and treated “just in case.” That meant a trip to the City Clinic on 7th. Upon my arrival I was ushered into an exam where a nurse took a swab from the inside tip of my penis. Then she grabbed a syringe and began drawing up penicillin. “Wait a second. Did you not see the warning in my chart that says ALLERGIES: PENICILLIN?” I was probably a bit more terse than necessary, but I was annoyed that I had to point out something that basic. She apologized, saying that they had been swamped, citing the upcoming Fleet Week celebrations. She explained that it would be a little bit of a wait while she requisitioned the alternate antibiotic and did I mind waiting? I told her I didn’t mind. Little did I know that her next question and my almost flippant response would change my life forever. She told me they now had the ability to test for HIV and asked if I would I like to get tested. I figured, what the hell, there’s nothing I hate more than just sitting idle.
Back in those days you had to wait two, sometimes three weeks before the results were made available. Some people have described the anxiety they felt during those weeks as overwhelming, mind-numbing, and paralyzing. I could never relate to that because I didn’t give it a second thought. It was Fleet Week!
This was back when San Francisco had active military bases, both Navy and Army, and Fleet Week meant something more than it does now. Back in those days I always scheduled my vacation during Fleet Week. By day, I was a proud American showing my support of our military, and by night, maybe not so proud, but still supporting of our boys in (and out of) uniform in so many ways. I enjoyed my Fleet Week escapades and then, BAM! just like that it was two weeks later, and I was back at the City Clinic.
The weather was a bit chillier now, as it had been drizzling on and off all day. One thing that’s been consistent during my life in San Francisco is that the first three weeks of October can be warm and sunny, but that last week before Halloween, always foggy, wet and rainy.
After checking in, I was led to a small exam room and told that somebody would be with me shortly. About thirty minutes later, a physician entered the room, chart in hand. After confirming my identity with the “secret number” I had been given when they took the blood for the test, he opened the chart, stared at it a few minutes, closed it and looked me in the eye. “I’m sorry,” he began, “the test results came back positive. You have the virus. I’m so sorry.”
The rest is a bit fuzzy—like when you wake up from an intense dream and try to recall specific details, but they are just out of reach. I remember asking “How long?” and he said, “Five years, on the outside.” That was when his voice became that of Charlie Brown’s teacher. I vaguely remember him asking if there was someone they could call or if I wished to speak with a staff counselor. All I knew was that I needed to get out. Out of that room, out of that clinic, out of this city, and more importantly, out of this very, very bad dream. I mumbled a curt “no thank you” and left.
It had started to rain. By now it was rush hour and people were hustling about to and fro. I remember walking up 7th Street toward Market as the drizzle began to dampen my clothing, my hair, my glasses. I was grateful for it because I was sure that the rain on my glasses made it impossible for the people around me to see the tears streaming down my face. I wasn’t in the mood for the long train ride home, so I went in search of a payphone (in those days there were still working payphones on almost every corner). I called my mentor, friend, housemate and boss, Wayne. I knew he would be home, just sitting down to his first Old Crow and Squirt of the evening, and preparing dinner for the household.
After three rings, I heard his distinct, deep, resonant, radio announcer’s voice come on the line “This is Wayne.”
“Can you come get me?” I asked.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I’m not sure, 7th and Howard, I think.” I looked for the street signs at the intersection. They were difficult to read because of the rain on my glasses, “I have to put the phone down a sec to make sure. Hang on.” I placed the receiver of the little shelf under the pay phone, took my glasses off, did my best to dry them, and took two steps out the booth, turned back picked up the receiver and said, “7th and Mission.”
“I’m on my way.”
I don’t know how long I stood there but it seemed like hours. As I waited, I wondered what the next five years would be like. Would I waste away like so many of my friends? Would anyone want to care for me? How would I tell my parents? My family? My best friend, Sol? How would they react? Would I die alone and forgotten? So many questions, questions a twenty-six-year-old shouldn’t have to ask himself.
A week later, Wayne sat down across from me at the breakfast table. I had been wearing the same pajamas for the past six days, hadn’t showered, hadn’t eaten, and had consumed far too much vodka, and smoked far too many cigarettes. He took my hands in his, looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Well? Do you want to be remembered as someone who died from AIDS or someone who learned to live with HIV?”
In the book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson describes a miracle as a change in one’s perspective. That was the first of many miracles to come.
Paul A. Aguilar is a fifth generation native San Franciscan. He grew up in Ashbury Heights during the seventies and eighties. He is a long-term thriver, having tested HIV positive in 1988. “The Test” was awarded runner-up in the Chris Hewitt Awards by nonfiction judge Joy Gaines-Friedler.