Thursday, March 16, 2017

A NECESSARY DATE NIGHT


My boyfriend and I hung out at a free clinic Tuesday. It’s my version of a romantic night out. Yeah, I know nothing about romance. We’d decided to get HIV tests together. My idea, my tradition.

For various reasons, the test isn’t as ominous as it once was. A positive result doesn’t bring on immediate notions of a death sentence. HIV is treatable. Thank god. The testing isn’t even as invasive. It’s a prick test to round up a few drops rather than a blood-sucking needle. I’m afraid of needles. Really, all things medical. Generally speaking, I don’t view a clinic visit as a good time. I try deep breathing before going, but it always lapses into hyperventilating.

But when I’m in a relationship, it’s one of our early dates. I’m good at discussing HIV status with a potential partner. When I was coming out, that was part of foreplay. I’ve always felt the discussion brings me closer to the other guy. Look how we can put aside carnal desire—for ten minutes, at least—and have The Talk! It’s part of an adult relationship. It builds trust. It opens the door for ongoing communication about sex. Yeah, I probably talk too much.

Trust is one thing. It’s wonderful, in fact. But there are other “facts” that can best be answered by a medical professional. While I got tested a year ago and have no reason to believe I’ve put myself at risk, there’s always that What if? I suppose it’s a whole set of questions.


   What if the test was a false-negative?

   What if they mixed up my test result?

   What if I’m that 0.03% guy who becomes positive from a not-quite medically disproven cause?

   WHAT IF I UNKNOWINGLY EXPOSE MY BOYFRIEND?


It’s the last question that would haunt me. I don’t know how the relationship would survive and I don’t know how I’d live with myself. Knowledge is indeed power. The HIV test remains the medically responsible course of action.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I got tested annually at least. I’m sure there were times when in was once every six months. Back then, HIV was a fast track to AIDS and to dillydally was considered flirting with death. The first time I ever went with someone to get test was with John, my first love. We went to a clinic in L.A. where they gave anonymous tests and, being as I was in a panicked state about the needle, I went first. John often later delighted in retelling how I reminded him of the Wicked Witch of the West as he was ushered to another testing room. Sticking out in the hall were my two feet, sporting Stan Smith sneakers instead of ruby slippers. I hadn’t fainted; they just insisted that I lie on the floor after they stabbed me with the medical implement “until you get your color back.” Or at least until I stopped whimpering. (I don’t actually have color.)

I got tested again a short time later, not because of any concern, but as a support for my friend Jay who had never been tested, was far more sexually active and whose best friend had recently been diagnosed with AIDS. Jay wasn’t terrified of the needle, just the result. So I succumbed to another stabbing—different clinic so as not to risk being turned away (“You again?!). We went back a week later with our anonymous numbers and I sat with a quiet, shaking Jay as they told him he was negative. He cried and thanked me profusely. I think this is when I began my tradition of going for ice cream after anything medical.

I’m in love for the fourth time in my life and this is the fourth partner I’ve gone together with for testing. At first, the receptionist told us that they don’t allow people to get tested together. “We can fill out a card with your result.” Date night suddenly sounded even less fun.

I went into the conference room first. It’s best that I don’t have extra time to think/snivel/beg for a teddy bear. Once inside, I cautioned the nurse as I do every medical professional. “I have a tendency to faint.” Often. “And, even when I don’t faint, I blather like an idiot. I’m a total wuss.”

“It’s okay,” said the nurse.

They always say that. They never mean it.

At least, not by the time they’re done with me.

“I was hoping my boyfriend could be with me to give me support.”

And, just like that, they made an exception and let him join me. Got what I wanted. Being a wuss has its benefits. The romance was back on!

To be sure, there was great risk in the testing experience. Not about the results. A year ago, I’d had my first chance to consider dating someone who is HIV+…undetectable. While things never became sexual—again, I bring up the conversation early—I had come to terms with figuring out how to make things work. The real risk was letting my boyfriend see just how wimpy I am when it comes to needles, talk of blood, anything graver than a hangnail.

And, yes, he saw unfiltered wimpy. I couldn’t look toward the nurse or whatever the hell they prick you with. There was far too much medical paraphernalia in that direction. Don’t ask me what. I truly didn’t look. (I once fainted during a hearing exam after glancing at a standard diagram of an ear posted on the wall.) As I signed consent forms before the test, I got sweaty and had to remove a layer. I squirmed and spun in my chair. (Good thing it had wheels.) I talked rapidly. There were a couple of times I had to fold in my forearms and crouch over.

I got pricked. No yelling, no tears. And, miraculously, my boyfriend stayed. Every time I think he’s seen me at my worst, something else pops up. Two days later, he still hasn’t come up with an excuse to back away and run. This is one hell of a good man.

By the time we were done, I realized I loved him even more, if that’s possible. We’d done this as a couple. We’d been at each other’s side to be supportive, no matter the result. I’d even borrowed his zip code—Ooh! No letters!—so the nurse could record the area where I “lived”. (A certain border guard would be most displeased.) Call it a flash forward to what may come.

By the time it was all over, I didn’t even need to celebrate with ice cream. The reward of being with my boyfriend was enough.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ALL CRIED OUT?


I’m worried. I seem to be losing my woefulness. I don’t even know the last time I said or typed woefulness. I was once hardwired in the stuff.

Don’t you remember sharing coming out stories? Some weren’t as good as others. If Kevin said, “My parents told me they always knew. We had a group hug and then my dad took me to a Backstreet Boys concert,” I was happy for Kev. Happy but a bit nauseous. And not just because that “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” song is both lame and obnoxious. His story wasn’t a story at all. It was just another example of Kev always getting what he wanted: an associate position in a top L.A. law firm; his daily fill at Sweet Lady Jane without the telltale love handles; even hunky Adrian, the step instructor from the gym whose always-to-capacity classes were more about the visuals than the L-step/grapevine combo.

I may have wanted Kevin’s life, but his stories were always too much of a good thing. True coming out required drama. Jayson’s story was far more compelling. Shunned by family, he was basically run out of Riverside and struggled to pay his rent in L.A. through early work as a bad drag queen in dives I’d never heard of.

Benny’s mother scheduled an intervention with their priest.

Jose transferred high schools.

We grew up in the No Pain, No Gain era. We came out against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. If the 70s rhetoric about homosexuality being lumped with bestiality, pedophilia and sexual perversion served as my Introduction to Being Gay, the 80s added fear and societal redemption. My kind deserved to die. God’s wrath and all that.

When you’re shunned, reviled and repressed, you yearn to hear other stories of struggle. You commiserate, you empathize. Eventually, you muster up a few drabs of empowerment. More Twisted Sister declaring “We’re Not Gonna Take It” than BSB pleading to “Quit Playing Games”.

I felt the fear and angst of the gay teen in ABC’s “Consenting Adult”. I cried along to NBC’s “groundbreaking” AIDS movie, “An Early Frost”. (Both productions aired in 1985, the year my own coming out to my best friend was met with an abrupt distancing.) I cheered the gay kiss on “thirtysomething”, all the while getting worked up over the accompanying advertiser boycott. By the time I’d seen and videotaped an airing of “Parting Glances” on some nascent cable network, I’d developed a solid understanding that love and death went hand-in-hand. “Longtime Companion”, “Philadelphia” and “Angels in America” only confirmed this. I wept frequently for gay characters. I balled and fumed repeatedly as I read Randy Shilts’ sobering accounts of AIDS and assassination in “And the Band Played on” and “The Mayor of Castro Street.” I bought a copy of the AIDS quilt documentary “Common Threads” and it became my Lenten thorn stick which I pricked myself with whenever I felt complacent about the devastation of People Like Me. Though “The Wedding Banquet”, “The Birdcage” and “Will & Grace” brought comic reprieve, we gays were largely portrayed as a tragic lot when we weren’t otherwise case as filthy sinners.

Somehow I made it through. Well, not exactly “somehow”. I spent many a Thursday night-Friday night-Saturday night going ogle-free in West Hollywood bars. Maybe being undesirable saved my life. Still, I saw what was happening around me, if only a degree or two removed. Most of my friends were relatively ogle-free, too, but we had friends of friends who got the KS lesions and put their trust in devastating AZT treatments.

It used to be that a gay- and/or AIDS-themed production would cost me half a box of Kleenex as I extended my mourning for real and fictional characters hours, even days, after a viewing. It was a sure thing. A good cry, like listening to an Adele album or Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” or recalling beloved moments with my dearly departed schnauzers. But lately the tear ducts aren’t as reliable. I’m barely even moved.

I watched ABC’s miniseries “When We Rise”. At least, I tried. For three out of four nights, I sat down, tuned in and found myself distracted. While I started by leaving laundry tasks to commercial breaks, I got to multi-tasking as the characters quibbled on the screen about protest plans. Each night, I prematurely clicked off the Power button, promising myself that I’d watch what I missed online, including all of the third instalment. But I haven’t felt the need. Further viewing feels like homework rather than something I genuinely want to do. The production bored me. I felt nothing. Had I not had a cold, the tissue box would have gotten no attention at all.

Last night, my boyfriend and I watched “Doing Time on Maple Drive” a 1992 TV movie he’d rented on DVD through Netflix. Only one passing reference to AIDS, but it was all about the angst of coming out in a family where appearing happy meant more than being happy. I’d lived and breathed this kind of dysfunction. I expected my own younger trauma to come flooding back. Yes! A good cry. I’ve still got it.

Except I didn’t. After a key scene of family coldness, I begged my boyfriend to press pause, not so I could regain composure, but so we could wander to the kitchen to mix his homemade marionberry jam with vanilla bean and chocolate brownie gelatos. And I was still plenty full from dinner! (As an aside, it proved to be a delectable distraction, especially the vanilla-berry creation.)

Egad. What has happened to me? How have I developed an immunity to anguished gay/AIDS-themed fare? If I, as a been-there, sorta done-that gay man am indifferent, how will straight people and younger gays be entertained? How will they be informed and enlightened? Will they tune out? (It seems, in the case of “When We Rise”, they did just that.) Will they view our past with a mere shrug? Have we achieved too much too soon? How will we rise again if an erratic new government compels us?

Maybe I’m just going through a phase. I’m in love. I’m happier than I’ve been in, well, ever. Maybe I’ve got the internal melancholy button on mute. For a while. Maybe I deserve a period of boundless joy. I lived much of my life with self-hate, fueled further by the scorn of others. I’ve feared living, thinking it would bring early death. I’ve been consumed by angst. I’ve kept filters on my identity for so long that I can’t seem to shake them. My boyfriend remains a secret to my coworkers and my family. The present joy, however guarded, is most welcome.

But let me not forget. Let us not forget.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

BORDERLINE BEHAVIOR


Many of us are uncomfortable with going through customs/border checks. We say too much. We try to be the funny guy. Yesterday, a colleague of mine mentioned how she inexplicably adopted an English accent when going through the border crossing to the U.S. I, of course, jinxed myself. “I don’t get nervous. I’ve been through it all. I don’t care.”

Okay, I haven’t been through it all. No strip searches. No guard dogs, barely restrained, eyeing me as dinner. But I’ve had my car thoroughly searched, vacation plans doubted (Boise? Really?!), suitcases ransacked—and I’d been so diligent about folding everything! In 2004, I had a U.S. border guard detain me, send me to some back room at Vancouver airport and treat me like I was a criminal for having previously been a permanent resident in the U.S. who’d had the gall to move back to Canada. It seemed to be a personal affront to his daily Pledges of Allegiance in what I’m imagining was a patriotic shrine in the living/dining room of his basement apartment.

But things had been hassle-free lately. I assumed I’d ride this good streak into my On Golden Pond years as skilled officers accurately assess me as the harmless, fifty-something do-gooder that I am. (They may also see me as a regular contributor to the U.S. economy, making impulse purchases and bingeing on $4 donuts, all the while pretending that my Canadian dollar has greater value than the American nickel. (Scrutinizing my credit card statements is an exercise in masochism I choose to avoid.))

Alas, the streak ended.

I’m on a two-week vacation and, as soon as I could leave work yesterday, I bolted for the U.S. border. Seems that, even though I had to formally relinquish any right to live in that country, I keep going back whenever I have the chance. Now more than ever. The estimated wait at the Peace Arch border crossing was twenty-five minutes so I nonchalantly read magazine articles, munched on a whole wheat sesame bagel and readied for an agent to glance at my Canadian passport and wish me a nice trip. Indeed, the line in which I queued seemed to move along smoothly with only one car inspection that I could see. Probably some guy with marijuana smoke wafting in the air when he rolled down the window. Or maybe someone blaring that song from “Frozen”. Maybe a combination of the two. The driver got directed to pull over and head inside for further inquiry. Been there. I feel your pain. But I remained cheery. If it was a random questioning, I was in luck. No way I’d be sent in, too. Border agents shouldn’t be overworked.

And, cut to the chase, I didn’t get pulled over. But I drove away feeling equally, perhaps more, violated. As I drove up to the booth, my passport dangled out the window, open to the page with my photo. Yes, officer, I’m going to help move this along as quickly as possible.

“Where are you going?” he asked, stone-faced. Last time I crossed, I’d gotten the guy to smile, even joke with me. This guy—I’ll call him Barney—was all business. He’d wear the premature wrinkles on his thirty-five-year-old forehead with pride.

“Portland.” Keep it simple, I coached myself. No need to mention an excursion to the Oregon Coast as well.

“Why?”

“I’m visiting a friend.” And that’s where I messed up. Maybe Barney wasn’t just dead serious. Maybe he was having friendship issues.

“Why?” Um,…isn’t that what friends do? Poor Barney.

“For a visit.” I’m a very private person. Neither my co-workers nor my family knew more. Why would I share more with randomly named Barney?

His next question startled me more. “Do you have a significant other in Canada?”

Significant other? I didn’t feel this was part of official border training. In what way had I revealed my gayness? (To be clear, I was not playing that song from “Frozen”. I don’t even know all the words.) My calmness cracked. I was at the mercy of an authority figure and, being a gay man of a certain age, I’d grown up wary of officers. I’d heard enough about Stonewall, about bashings, about how today’s “hate crimes” were once deemed just desserts. It’s taken a lot to be open about being gay, but I still don’t always feel safe talking about it. I remember “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and there was a time when I felt that was actually progress. As good as it’d ever get.

“No,” I confessed. No significant other in Canada.

“So who’s your friend?”

What did Barney want me to say? I coughed up a name. First and last. How would that advance anything? I’ve moved past imaginary friends. For the most part.

“How’d you two meet?”

“Online.” Here, I knew I’d entered another uncomfortable realm. I believe in telling the truth, but I sure wished I could have lied on the spot. Twenty-four hours later, I still don’t have a good alternate story.

“What site?”

Oh, god. Here, I hesitated. Deep breath. Welcome to Too Much Information land.

“OkCupid.” Do people actually meet on Twitter? Or LinkedIn? At least it wasn’t Grindr, but I was red-faced and resentful enough.

“How long have you known each other?”

“A year and a half.”

“Is it serious?”

Seriously?!

I finally lied. “No. We’re just friends.” I felt disgusted with myself. I hate being so guarded with the truth.

Then Barney rambled on about not caring about the details of who I am. “I just need to know you’re not crossing the border and moving here. That’s my job.” Hmm, did the two dozen shirts hanging from the pulldown grab handle on the passenger side lead him to think I was moving? If he was going to make snap judgments about who is gay, how could he really think I’d move with so little apparel? If anything, I’d under-packed. (More possible shopping in tax-free Oregon! Another 0.3% uptick to the U.S. economy, courtesy of a Canadian who can’t distinguish between want and need.)

I assured him I had a good job to return to in Vancouver and, to repeat, my Portland companion and I were just friends.

Liar, liar!

He waved me through. Mission accomplished. On with the drive to see MY BOYFRIEND. Maybe I should even call him my partner. Yes, we’re serious.

Not that some border agent needs to know.