I told them, finally, last month. I knew there’d be some kind of reaction, but I thought it would be more “why didn’t you tell me?” than “why did you tell me?” Just like I knew they’d be shocked and silent, and then start with pity and all that, but I thought maybe after a few days, we’d be back to normal. I was wrong.
Barbara called me at work a week after and invited me to lunch, the cheap Italian place with the spinach calzones. That was the first incident, so naive as I was, I thought it would be a normal whine-about-our-bosses lunch hour. Instead, she started going on about, did I “want to talk,” and then, she “knew someone” whose cousin’s nephew’s friend had AIDS, he lost so much weight you could see his bones through his skin, he had a hacking wheezing cough that would send shivers down your spine, and so on and on and on until I just said stop it I’m not sick yet and walked out. I’ve tried to call her a few times since, but she can’t deal with me. Probably thinks the virus has taken root in my head.
Then there’s Jane, who’s always been sort of distant, and different because she’s miss-married-woman with 2.7 kids a foreign car and a goldfish. Can’t have anything mess up her perfect world, especially not some woman with a contagious disease, especially not around her little angels. With her, it was junior high all over again, that cocktail party she didn’t invite me to that I only found out about by accident. So she had me over to explain while Davey and Lisbet were at their playgroup, sat me down on that beat-up lounger in their rec room, and started in. “Listen, this is a tough situation for all of us, and I sympathize with your condition, but I’m sure you understand, I’ve got a family, I’ve got another child on the way, and I can’t babysit some poor soul who didn’t take the right precautions—even though I’m always here if you want to page me.” Yeah, sure. With her around, who needs enemies?
Maura, with the cubicle next to mine, has stopped sipping my coke or coffee when she thinks I’m not looking. Which is a good thing, since I don’t have to wash off the lipstick stains anymore. Except that she’s also stopped spontaneously peeking over and chatting, and bringing in morning croissants from The Bread Basket to savor over the horoscope, and most of those other things that kept 9-to-5:30 from being such a bore. She really just tries to avoid me, and she’ll start work as soon as she gets to the office so it doesn’t look like she’s got time to talk—and then when she sees me in the hall, she’ll say an innocent “Hi!” before ducking into the nearest room until I’m past. I think that hurts the most, seeing her every day and having her react to me every day.
The list goes on.
For the record, I’m not promiscuous, or any of those other words people connect with HIV. I’m almost forty, and it’s only ever been four guys—and one of them I ended up married to.
The first was in high school, that whole raging hormones thing, way back when no one had heard of AIDS and the words “venereal disease” were whispered quieter than “abortion.” We broke up sophomore year of college, after he’d spent months doing that male “I’m being a jerk so you’ll dump me and I won’t have to dump you” thing. I moped about him for almost a year. Then I met Frank, 180 pounds of muscle and Italian love, who was amazing to live with and embarrassing to be married to. I’m still surprised I didn’t get sick from him, with all the other women there were. He’s had gonorrhea twice, but not HIV. All told, we were together for eleven years, no kids, and somehow he kept my dog. I burned his photo, and watched his face melt and drip onto the carpet.
Then I bounced around between blind dates and friends of friends and guys in bars, though I didn’t usually find out what the last were like sober. None of these ever got beyond a second date, and none of them ever got farther than the front door. After several months of this, I turned to the classifieds. I answered an ad from a guy named Damien, the kind my parents would have liked if they were still around, but who could keep my interest. He was a romantic, who’d plan picnics in the rain and send chocolates to my office. We broke up after a dumb argument that we were both too proud to apologize about, though for months after I checked my answering machine every ten minutes, hoping. He was the one with HIV. And the funny thing is, he didn’t even die of it. He was hit by a car almost a year after we stopped seeing each other, and there was a big controversy in the news about doctors operating on AIDS patients and the risk of getting infected from accident scenes. So I got myself tested.
The one I feel the worst about was Jim, a simply nice guy I met a few months after Damien and I split, the coward’s way of proving I was over him. It was only once, and we used protection, but those days before his results came back were the worst. If I’d actually given it to him, I could never forgive myself. Jim, of course, hasn’t spoken to me since. That was three years ago.
And now I’m a statistic. One of however many thousand or hundred thousand or million single, white females on the far side of thirty who’ve tested positive. A number on a piece of paper in some hospital archive. Except I’m not. I’m a person. I like animals, furry ones. And old black-and-white artsy films, and romantic comedies. And picnics in the rain, and unexpected gifts, and being alone together and not having to worry about tomorrow, or how many tomorrows will come after that.
If that sounds like you, give me a call. I’ll be waiting.
Work of fiction, copyright Sarah Kathryn Blumenthal 1996
Published in Erehwon 1997 Back to Cover Page