Yesterday was World AIDS Day.
I could live without it. A day when you suspend your disregard for bodies whose presence you cannot tolerate every other day of the year and grant them a furlough, for one day, to come out and be seen. You look and cry about how awful it is. You may even donate a few dollars to The Cause or like it on Facebook. Your tears, which will dry up by tomorrow, prove that you really care. (But do you even cry anymore? Tom Hanks did Philadelphia. Maybe you finished all your crying then.)
There is a weird paradox that structures the lives of many positive people: a requirement, sometimes under penalty of law, to disclose, and a simultaneous plea, written on our bodies by the gaze of those who choose to look, that we disappear. I am dubious about the value of “coming out.” (Maybe, when the failure to disclose becomes a crime—as it is in most jurisdictions on the planet—refusing to be seen is an act of resistance.) And the place to which the path out of the closet leads—victimization—does not appeal to me.
So please do not mistake this disclosure as a request for pity. I don’t want your pity. I also don’t have anything particularly valuable to say to you. And I do not pretend to speak for all others who share this condition: especially not those who, unlike me, are forced to face it alone or, worse, because of who they are or where they live, cannot afford the pills that keep me alive.
But my virus, when I stopped fighting it and stopped crying about it and stopped asking it to just go away already, introduced me to a whole new world of pleasures and connections and ways of thinking and feeling and being that made it not so much a thing of shame—not something to cry about—but a gift.
I’m not romanticizing it. I will die earlier than I would have if we had not met. And dying haunts me like the worst kind of ghosts, those menacing ones who taunt you in your sleep and show up smiling when you just want to be left alone.
So this is, I guess, an entirely selfish disclosure. I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for me. If it makes you feel or think something, I won’t be disappointed. But that’s not why I’m doing it. This part of me is restless—it’s asking to be seen (but not, I’ll warn you, in the way that you want to see it)—and so, I think, it’s time that you meet my virus.
On July 11, 2012, I sat in the office of a public health worker, whose job it was to collect and screen the blood and saliva of “at-risk” populations and feed the results into a stream of data that follows a circuitous path to the CDC’s National HIV Surveillance Program. He swiped a cotton swab along my gums, placed it in a test tube on a table, and set the dial of a small analog kitchen timer to fifteen minutes. One red line quickly appeared on the swab—a sign, the public health worker informed me, that the test was working properly. “It’s two lines we don’t want,” he said and resumed typing at the computer on his desk. I could not see the computer’s monitor, but I imagined it displayed a spreadsheet full of rows and columns of numbers, traces of bare life, otherwise devoid of value, extracted and transformed into knowledge about populations and subpopulations, behavioral patterns, modes of transmission, and vectors of risk and vulnerability.
I sat across from the table on which my data rested and stared at the wood paneled walls, which I dated to around 1979, the year of my birth. A poster on the wall displayed a muscular, attractive man—at once stern and seductive—standing underneath the commandment: “Know your status!” I pictured a future, fifteen minutes from that moment, when I would congratulate myself for this act in the service of gay citizenship and return to the world with papers certifying my good health. After about five minutes—and well ahead of schedule—a second red line appeared just below the first.
The timer clicked. I looked down at my hands. I looked around at the small, windowless office I had meticulously observed. I recalled that it was a hot summer morning in Miami Beach, Florida. I knew who and what I was, where and when, but I felt a stranger to these things. It was like I had fallen into a vortex spinning with such force that I could not make out the center (because the spinning had induced a state of nausea and disorientation but also because I was, in fact, moving away from the center). When I heard, years earlier, that in the deepest stage of sleep the body enters a state of paralysis, I was able to make sense of an experience that had haunted my sleep: the terrifying inability to speak or move in a dream. Finally—and with the same effort that I had, in so many dreams, struggled to flee a source of danger or pursue an object of desire—I looked at the public health worker and spoke.
“This line. I don’t understand. Is it—a mistake? There’s still time.”
It was less a question than a plea; I knew, even as I said it, that the accuracy of the test did not depend on the completion of the timer’s movement. The public health worker swiveled around in his chair and glanced at the swab. In much the same way, I thought, that he might have glanced at his watch and offered the time of day, he said, “Oh, you’re positive.” And I wept.
The public health worker looked at me, his expression softened, and he placed a hand on my shoulder. (We were two subjects produced by a law that had placed us then and there and ordered in precise detail the manner of our encounter, but I would remember that moment as exceptional.) The public health worker left and returned with a doctor, who reassured me that HIV was no longer a death sentence and “positive people can live for twenty—sometimes thirty—years!” As I calculated my remaining years, the doctor spoke of CD4 counts and percentages and viral loads, protease inhibitors, nucleosides and non-nucleosides, resistance, compliance, undetectability and other concepts, which he illustrated on a sheet of paper with circles and lines and numbers and words. The doctor grew silent and looked up from his notepad. I stared at him blankly. The doctor’s mouth formed into something that might have been a smile or a frown, and he escorted me to a laboratory, where two nurses drew vials of blood from my arm. They said nothing beyond what they had to say, but they looked at me in a way that no one had ever looked at me; and in that look, I recognized what I had become.
I left the clinic, which had begun to feel like purgatory, with a sense of relief; but relief gave way to dread with the realization, as I walked home to a place that no longer felt like home, that I was leaving one purgatory for another. I collapsed onto the bed and covered my head with a pillow—less for dramatic effect than out of respect for the neighbors—and alternately screamed and wept until I could not scream or weep anymore.
At some point in the days and weeks that followed, as the shock began to fade into what a therapist might call “acceptance,” I crawled out of bed and back into the world. I wandered around peering into people and things and demanding answers to questions I could not articulate. There was nothing magical about it. There were no flashes of light. But if HIV, as the doctor informed me, is no longer a death sentence, it was—for me, anyway—a kind of social death sentence. My sense of self, my relationship to time and space and my assumptions about how I fit (or did not fit) into the world were shattered. At a pace that did not seem befitting of the sudden restructuring of my world, and sustained by the love of people who insisted on reminding me of my worth, I chose to survive.
Survival, among radical activists and academics, tends to connote a bare minimum, the black sheep of human agency, a foil against which we prop up big, properly courageous acts, the stuff that really matters (because, we tell ourselves, it instigates real change). My decision to “survive” was motivated less by faith in lofty ideals than fear of the alternatives, but if I had experienced a kind of social death, to survive would require, first, coming to terms with my body, reconstituted as a mortal—and moral—threat to the social body, and then building, on the wreckage of a life that was quickly receding into the past, a new life, new ways of imagining the future, new ways of moving through space, and new ways of being with others.
I did not realize it, but as I was learning how to live with HIV, HIV was teaching me how to love.
And so I have exposed myself, and I have done so as a lover might, not to enlighten or provoke, but to entice; and what drives me is not so much the production of knowledge—through clever storytelling or penetrating analysis—but love. “The loving self,” Zygmunt Bauman writes, “expands through giving itself away to the loved object.” I give myself away to you now, becoming an object, in the expectation, for which I have no guarantee, that I will be taken in—but not consumed—by you, and that you will, as a result, be changed, “even if only slightly.”
The heart does not operate by reporting its own judgment to itself (if it is a judgment). It does not say ‘I love,’ which is the reflection or the speculation of an ego (and which engages love neither more nor less than the cogito), but it says ‘I love you,’ a declaration where ‘I’ is posed only by being exposed to ‘you.’
—Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community
This is a risky declaration (as much a risk for me as it is for you): you may reject my overture, and “something of I is definitively lost or dissociated in its act of loving.” But the truth is “I” was already lost and dissociated. My relationship with HIV developed into a kind of love story because, as it unfolded, I would be “touched, broken into . . . opened by this slice.”
On this day and every other day, I say: Forget World AIDS Day. (Hallmark and Hollywood have it covered.) Expose yourself. Go fuck an HIV positive body. But be careful. We know how to fuck like no one else. And you might just fall in love.