When We Were Tested: A Tale of Two Pandemics

I pride myself on my ability to remember things. Often, the memories I hold are trivial and useless. I remember the names of everyone in my kindergarten class, as well as how some of them smelled. Sometimes, I call up the number of the house where we lived when I was six, just to see who will answer and to prove, to myself, that I can still recall the digits. I collect commercial jingles from the 1970s, word for word, like a hoarder. The pathways through the house of my brain are littered with them. The memories locate me in a time and place where I once played and tried to find my reason. Being able to retrieve them at will reminds me that I am not yet dead.

I remember, viscerally, the first time I had an HIV test in 1989.

I was barely twenty years old, far too young to be contemplating my own mortality. That’s exactly what I was doing, though, when I pulled into the parking lot of the ramshackle clinic in the “bad part of town.” It was a dingy, run-down strip mall, with dirty white stucco walls and slate blue and light gray accents. The empty storefronts and blacked-out windows on either side of the clinic entrance advertised desolation and hopelessness.

This was where the guilty went to learn of the consequences of their misdeeds.

In 1989, the public recognition of the HIV/AIDS pandemic was not even a decade old. Only a year before, C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general of the United States and a self-described conservative, released a public health advisory entitled Understanding AIDS and distributed it to 107 million American households. Gay activists condemned the report for naming anal sex as a primary means of viral transmission. Religious conservatives condemned the report for its explicitness about sex.

Even in 1989, as in the present, “public health” was not about medicine, health, and science. It was medicine, health, and science as viewed through the prism of the politics, culture, and morality of medicine, health, and science. Science and facts have always been politicized. It’s not new.

In 1989, the number of AIDS cases in the United States reached 100,000.

People.

Many of them gay men.

Ryan White, a teenaged hemophiliac from Indiana who had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, and Elizabeth Glaser, a mother in Los Angeles and wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser of “Starsky and Hutch” fame, gave us reason to believe that there were “innocents” among us who were also affected by HIV/AIDS. Glaser, who became infected with HIV after a blood transfusion during childbirth and passed the virus on to her two children, founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Teenagers, mothers, and babies could also be infected. We wore the red ribbons. We were able to care about the virus, without trepidation that we might be endorsing indiscriminate fucking and/or degenerate and irresponsible lifestyles.

Despite Surgeon General Koop’s report — Understanding AIDS — and the news about HIV and AIDS in 1989, I don’t think I understood AIDS at all. What I understood was that there were “the innocent” and “the guilty.”

A joke from the 1980s:

“What does GAY stand for?”

“I dunno. What?”

“Got AIDS yet?”

In 1989, being gay was synonymous with the virus itself. “Gay” and “guilt” ran together like gangsters. It was only a matter of time before our crimes of the heart, desire, body, and eventual corpse, caught up with us. HIV and AIDS became the judge and jury for our rightful conviction, just punishment, and inexorable execution. Ryan White and Elizabeth Glaser were granted some leniency, due to circumstances out of their control. They died respectful and honorable deaths. The rest of us renegades — the fuckers — were held to account.

“The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution,” chortled Pat Buchanan a few years later, in his declaration of culture war and genocidal glee.

I went to “safer sex” workshops. They called them “safer sex” because, after all, no sex was completely safe. Good to know that any sexual encounter contained within it a moment of satisfaction and a probable eternity of ruin. Thanks for letting me in. I feel prepared now.

The lesbians who ran the workshop tried hard to make the education universal. “We are all at risk,” they said, while they demonstrated the proper use of dental dams and latex gloves. They even talked about how to make latex gloves, dental dams, and rubbers “sexy.”

I appreciated the education on prevention. It just seemed awkward and unwieldy. With any new skill, there’s a learning curve. I feared that I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.

To clear up the matter, I vowed to never have sex again. I contemplated the priesthood. I thought about celibacy. I pictured a life with cats, an afghan, lentil soup, and friendly potlucks after which I’d go home, alone, with my leftover hummus and chips.

A gentleman bachelor. Desexualized, desensitized, and de-emphasized. That’s the safest bet, in the midst of a pandemic that is sexually transmitted. A sexual sheltering-in-place. For the foreseeable future.

When I registered for my appointment, I gave a pseudonym. It was the name I had adopted when I started going to gay bars and wanted to pretend that I was someone else.

“Um. It’s Alex. Alex Potenza.”

I am sure the desk attendant had heard them all. Joe Smith. John Doe. Maybe with a little bit of flair, confidence, and a flicker of brightness to enliven the otherwise dismal setting, someone might have said, “I’m Glitterati Fantasia, ready for my appointment.”

In addition to my membership in the Society of Degenerates, I had just joined the roster of the Guild of the Liars.

“Okay, Alex. Is there a number where we can reach you if we need to follow up?”

I hesitated.

She was kind and patient. She waited a couple moments before offering me an exit ramp.

“You don’t have to. It’s just if we have to contact you…for the follow-up appointment for your results.”

I gave the number for the house we lived in when I was six. I knew the number by heart, but I didn’t live there anymore. Alex Potenza didn’t live there, either. He lived and thrived and danced in forbidden spaces, but otherwise, he was but an apparition.

There were three of us under fluorescent lights, seated on indoor-outdoor carpeting and in comfortable-enough chairs that looked like mauve-colored potato chips supported by chrome. We didn’t make eye contact. Any flicker of recognition or acknowledgment might be construed as complicity. The African American man in his mid-50s who gazed off into some unknown universe and occasionally gave evidence of life there, through a faint smile or almost-imperceptible cock of his head. The white man, in his late 20s, with the trim figure, pleated pants, and neatly-manicured mustache, who pretended to read Sports Illustrated, though he never flipped a page.

Each time they were called, and each time they emerged from the closed white door with the little white window pane cross-hatched with wire, I wondered about their stories. I wondered what crimes they had committed, with whom they had been, and to whom they might have to explain.

“Alex?”

When I rose from the mauve-colored chair and followed the spritely but officious woman with the blond hair, stylishly pulled back into a little ponytail with a multi-colored scrunchie, I swallowed down hard on the lump in my throat and the swell of nausea that threatened to expel a lifetime of secrets and shame.

We walked down an interminable corridor of white and gray-specked linoluem. It smelled like lemon and ammonia. Clinical yet citrus-y.

Before the blood draw, there was the inquisition:

“Have you kissed anyone?

“Have you engaged in oral sex? Like a blowjob?”

“Have you had sex with someone who injects drugs intravenously? Do you use drugs intravenously?”

“Have you penetrated anyone anally? Have you been penetrated anally?”

“Have you had sex or been intimate with anyone who you know has the AIDS virus known as HIV?”

“Have you had sex with anyone who has open sores? Do you have or have you had any open sores?”

“Have you ingested semen, blood, urine, or other bodily fluids?”

I like you, Blond Scrunchie, but you’re being a little forward.

In 1989, the questions were candid and personal…and then again, they were devoid of any real emotion. There was no discernible judgment from Scrunchie. She asked me to search my memory. This was only a test. We were both doing our jobs.

My memory did not fail me. I recalled each and every second of each and every intimate (even when it wasn’t) encounter with clarity. What did I do right? What did I do wrong? At which point was I pure? The transgressor? If I wrap myself in plastic wrap and abstain from sex for the rest of my life, have I become virtuous?

I made promises to myself to be a private person. An isolated, sexless, disinterested person.

Our memories shift into high gear in pandemic times. We remember our mistakes and our indiscretions. Suddenly, we are aware, in vivid detail, of all the times we weren’t careful enough. We remember everything we have done, as well as all that we are and to whom we are connected. I wished that I hadn’t had such a clear memory. My memories, in every excruciating detail, did not bring me comfort. They terrified me, though I didn’t know exactly what I had done wrong.

I came out. I consummated my gayness. That’s it. That’s all I did. Unfortunately, I did so at a time when being gay could kill a guy.

In 1989, I was tested for HIV, for the first time.

There is “the test”: the stick in your arm, the waiting, the anticipation, the reflection.

With HIV and AIDS, there was also the bigger test: having to consider sexuality, mortality, morality, and fidelity. To whom was I faithful? Was the test for me? Future partners? My family? My community?

Thirty-one years later, we are here again in pandemic times. Some things haven’t changed: governmental indifference and incompetence, the instinct to blame, the people who die alone, the shouldering of the burden by those who are always expected to do the graceful heavy lifting.

Like 1989, there are those among us who believe they don’t have to care.

In 2020, most of us care. We are all at potential risk. We are afraid and uncertain. Some of us more than others.

I can’t help but believe that many of us have done the same mental inventory that I did in 1989: where was I? With whom? What did I do? Was I careful enough? In the name of prevention, self-care, and personal responsibility, we are conditioned to believe that it is our fault when we get sick.

We will all have stories to tell someday about how we got by in 2020. We will regale each other with tales and truths about how we sheltered, Zoomed, baked, sewed, binged, drank, cried, and slept. We shared a historic moment, even from the confines of our own homes.

We will remember it all — everything we did, as well as all that we were and to whom we were connected. How we were tested, in different ways.

“So, Anthony, how did you survive the pandemic?”

I’ll take a moment.

“Which one?”

I remember it all.

Photo Credit: Nurse.org

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