Heart-Shaped Boxes (and Noisy Beepers)

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Heart-Shaped Boxes
(And Noisy Beepers)
by Hank Trout

Every February, department stores, grocery stores, and drugstores are filled to the hilt with reminders that the season of celebrating St. Valentine is upon us. Cute little teddy bears toting gifts, stuffed animals with swooning eyes asking to be loved, and Disney characters galore bearing love. (I actually have one of those! A Mickey Mouse holding a yellow heart that reads in red letters “I love you,” a present from Rick, perched on the pillows when we’re not in the bed.) But even more ubiquitous than stuffed animals and Disney characters are the heart-shaped boxes inundating us.

You know the ones. Bright red-foil-topped cellophane-wrapped heart-shaped boxes, festooned with roses, full of chocolates. Whitman, Hershey’s, Godiva all dress up their wares in heart-shaped boxes meant for giving, one heart to another.

The heart-shaped box that I remember, though, never held a chocolate inside. In 1996 when I began taking the “cocktail” of HIV medicines, my regimen included six pills three times a day, morning, afternoon, and bedtime. At the time, I was still working at a downtown law firm, which meant carrying the afternoon dose with me to work. Other guys I knew who started the same regimen and who were still working, used various receptacles for taking their pills to work or whenever they were going out for the evening. Small snack-sized zip-locked Baggies were popular, as were half-filled plastic Tic-Tac boxes (a disguise that fooled many co-workers) and small Altoids tins (although that was a rather noisy option). Others simply wrapped their pills in aluminum foil.

For me, deciding to take the cocktails had been a dizzying emotional roller coaster. Even though I knew the cocktail was less toxic than AZT or DT4 by themselves, I also knew there would still be horrible side effects. And I realized that once I began the cocktail, I would be swallowing these toxic chemicals for the rest of my life. There was nothing that made that decision easy. So, I decided that if I was going to poison myself that way, I needed something to make it, well, if not pleasant, at least bearable. I needed something prettier than a zip-locked Baggie to carry the cocktail in.

On eBay one evening, I found an antique silver heart-shaped pill box. The maker of this lovingly crafted silver box had etched into the lid an image of a cherubic Cupid drawing back the arrow on his bow. The sides of the lid were decorated with an intricate vine all ‘round. As soon as I saw it, I fell in love. I swallowed my shock at the price and ordered it anyway. I used that box for the rest of the years that I worked.

Along with pill containers, many of us needed something to remind us when it was time to take an afternoon or evening dose. We relied on small timers, similar to the message beepers that were popular with doctors and Polk Street hustlers. Carried in our pockets or snapped onto our belts, the beepers became as common as zip-locked Baggies and Altoids boxes. When the beeper went off, we knew to drop whatever we were doing and go swallow another cocktail.

Often those beepers went off at the most inopportune times. For me, the most embarrassing was when the beeper went off in the middle of a movie matinee in a theater full of people. The beeper was not terribly loud, but loud enough to disrupt the movie——and to elicit many sharply turned heads and angry stares.

I’m sure it was far more embarrassing when the beeper went off during or before a live production in the theater. A friend in New York has told the story of sitting in the audience at the Gershwin Theatre in 1997, waiting for the curtain to go up on 1776. Moments before 8 o’clock, his beeper went off. Then another beeper on the other side of the audience went off. Then another down front; another in the balcony. Several more beepers beeped, making a loud embarrassing chorus. Of course, everyone in the theater carrying a beeper knew exactly what was happening. A good relieving laugh was had by all.

I’ve lost that heart-shaped silver box somehow. And that’s okay. It served me well for a number of years. My current HIV med regimen includes just one pill, once a day, so the box and the beeper would be superfluous now. But every February, when I walk down a store aisle plump with chocolate gifts, I pause and wistfully remember that silver heart-shaped box that held life-saving meds in it.

I guess I miss that box more than I realized.


Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter..