Early one Saturday last summer, I found myself sitting in a health clinic waiting for an emergency HIV test. There were eight men in the waiting room, all of whom looked to be in their 20s. We were there for the same reason — STD tests and PEP, a pill taken to prevent infection after potential exposure to HIV. Youthful foolishness seemed to explain the other men’s presence. I, on the other hand, had no excuse. In a few months, I would be 40.
The day before, I had had unprotected sex with a stranger. I didn’t know his HIV status, how to find him, or even his name. In my apartment afterward, alone, I frantically searched the Internet for what to do. There was a lingering sense that something wasn’t right. I’d had unsafe sex with strangers before, true, but in my 20s. This time, I was convinced I had been infected.
A hotline said go to the emergency room — unsafe sex with someone of unknown status is considered a medical emergency. PEP has to be started within 72 hours and taken daily for a month. I also spoke with Callen-Lorde, an LBGT health clinic in Manhattan. Can you get here before 8:30 tomorrow — the triage nurse had demanded, not asked.
In the 1980s, when gay men were dying from AIDS in places such as New York and San Francisco, I was in elementary school. Now, AIDS is no longer a death sentence; you can take medication and live a full life. My few friends who are positive seem to be living normally.
Meanwhile, there are bowls of condoms in gay bars, and bus stop billboards remind us to know our status. Free HIV tests are available. Safe sex is definitely part of gay men’s vernacular. But it’s not happening. People in our community continue to get sick, albeit it in a less-public way than before. HIV rates among gay men are climbing, especially for young men. Why do we do this? Why do we make knowingly self-destructive choices? Why had I?
At the time I was in that clinic, my career was stalled. Money stress was constant. I was alone almost all the time — depressed or feeling sorry for myself. When you’re down, no matter why, many things can become an escape. Drugs, food, booze. But perhaps the headiest drug is adoration. When someone finds you attractive, sexy even, and desires you when you’re convinced you’re not — that’s a difficult fix to pass up. Regardless of circumstance or consequence.
I went to the clinic alone. The waiting room filled quickly. Still overwhelmingly young men, all of them white. I watched their hunched bodies, averted eyes, shuffling feet. As far as I could tell, also like me, no one had a partner or a friend sitting with him. No one talked.
Those who had just gotten a negative result had relief on their faces. But also a look of longing, for someone to share the good news with. Instead, one by one, they left. It was one of those painfully familiar moments unique to living in New York — you’re surrounded by people but feel utterly alone. At one point, I dropped my water bottle and it spilled everywhere. No one looked up.
I was alone a lot the next weeks, taking the big blue pill I had little faith in. I told only a few people what was going on. I felt stupid for making this mistake. It was avoidable, and I knew better. Worse, I knew my friends knew I knew better. So it was impossible to believe that anyone, no matter how close, wouldn’t judge me for this.
That’s the problem with making mistakes when you’re alone — they start to feel much bigger than they are. And that’s one of the beautiful things about being in a relationship, also one of the scariest. You have to let yourself be known. I didn’t want this part of me to be known, so hardly anyone did.
After a month of PEP, I got retested. It was remarkably unremarkable. Another finger prick, then the nurse said casually, “Oh, the test is negative.” That was it.
In the waiting room, one of few friends I had told sat patiently. He insisted on being there. I shot him a thumbs-up. He and I toasted drinks afterward and laughed about unrelated things. Then we parted ways — him to the subway and me on my bike.
It was a mistake to have unprotected sex with someone I didn’t know. Possibly a big one. But not in proportion to how hard I beat myself up as I waited that month. It’s the people we build relationships with who can help counter the judgment. Not giving them the chance would be the biggest mistake of all.