By Russell Etherton
I try and live my life by choice. My first HIV test, however, was in reaction—reaction to a love story and a partner I thought I knew.
Once upon a time, in a gay land far away…
I vividly remember the day I met my ex-boyfriend. Like so many of my friends, Grindr was how I found “connection.” I opened the app and, in the endless scroll of faces and torsos, I’d find someone who would quench whatever thirst I had that evening. After chatting for a few minutes, we’d arrange who would host and who would travel.
Things seemed typical when he first opened the door. He stood about my height, with dark features and tan skin. He had thick black hair that waved to the right and body that had seen a gym, but didn’t have a serious commitment to routine. We wasted no time on unnecessary conversation—a “hello” was all that was exchanged. The foreplay known as “human connection” was complete.
About 40 minutes after I had arrived, I started to quickly and confidently put my clothes back on.
“What’s the rush?” Mike asked.
“It’s 2 a.m. and I have a busy morning ahead,” I responded.
“You should stay then.”
Both slightly dubious and somewhat curious about this stranger, I smiled, thought for a second, and started to undress again.
That night, I slept in a bed that I would regularly sleep in over the next two years. During those two years, I grew to love and respect Mike as an important part of my life. Mike was someone I was able to trust with my mental scars and physical imperfections, perceived or otherwise. My partner was someone who I had allowed myself to open up to fully. I was living my Disney story where this Cinderfella met his Prince Charming and immediately had sex with him. After all, is that not how all good gay fairytales begin?
One evening, on a regular routine kind of day, I left work and headed to my adopted second home. I picked up the phone to touch base with Prince Charming during my drive to his apartment.
“Hey, how’s it going?” he answered.
“I’m headed home. Are you hungry? Want to grab dinner tonight?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just need a minute to get ready.”
“Okay, I’m around the corner.”
I hung up the phone, turned the corner, and parked outside of his apartment. As I walked to the entrance gate, a man came running past me and shot me a look. I hadn’t seen this person in the complex before, nor did I recognize the car he got into before driving away.
I opened the door to a boyfriend, covered in sweat and missing a shirt. His heart was beating so intensely that I could see it through his chest. He bore the face of a child who had done something wrong and just got caught. In that moment, I knew. He tried to deny it, but I could see the deception in his eyes and smell infidelity in the room. I turned around, walked out, got in my car, and drove away. Love story over.
I hunkered down and turned off my phone. I could not eat or sleep. It would be three days before I left the house again. I made few attempts to update friends and family. It was not the embarrassment of having to tell people I had been cheated on that bothered me the most—it was the betrayal.
When I finally emerged from my cave and made contact with the world, a friend asked me if I had been tested. I hadn’t. The idea had never occurred to me. We’d been together two years, but only used condoms for the first few times we had sex.
“No, I haven’t been tested. Do you think I should?” I asked.
Friends always bring the straight talk.
“Bitch! Your man was caught fucking another man, go get tested.”
Now, high school sex education tries to warn young minds about the terrible things that happen if you have sex, but they don’t tell you what to do once you actually become sexually active. I suddenly realized the magnitude of my current situation.
I hung up the phone and sent a text to my friend Maya, who had just started working at Legacy Community Health. In a matter of minutes, Maya had arranged for me to come in first thing the following morning and assured me that “Everything was going to be okay.” I didn’t know if it was, though. How long had I been cheated on? What if my ex-boyfriend was positive and didn’t know it? What if I was positive? How would I tell my parents? What does it mean to be positive? Suddenly, a world I never thought I’d be a part of was my potential reality.
I did not sleep that night. I showed up early in the morning, as instructed, to the Legacy clinic in Montrose. Maya met me at the door, grabbed my hand, and hugged me tightly. “You dumbass,” she said. “Why didn’t you call me sooner?” I had no answers.
We took the stairwell to the second floor. The closer I got to the exam room, the more uneasy I felt. We continued down the hall to a door marked “Public Health.” My heart beat faster with each step. “Barbara, this is Russell,” Maya said. “He needs an HIV test.”
Barbara was a woman who stood about five foot five, had aged hair, soft eyes, and a gentle touch. It’s in these moments of sheer terror that you really begin to notice the little details.
“Nice to meet you, baby. Come with me,” Barbara said. “Everything is going to be fine. No matter what this test says, it’s all going to be alright.”
That morning, I got my first HIV test as an adult. I was a 25-year-old, out, sexually-active, gay man.
The test came back negative.
My mind raced with gratitude and I gained a new perspective on what it meant to be responsible, to live by choice with my health, and to own my status. I was blessed.
December 1 is World AIDS Day. On this day, we commemorate those who have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. On World AIDS Day, we honor those who were not able to live fully by choice because of a love story. On this World AIDS Day, get tested. Live by choice.