He was 49; I was 31. He was HIV-positive; I was not. When I met him I was smitten. We were introduced by two friends who invited me to a beer bust without telling me they’d also invited a potential date.
I knew immediately that Jim was attracted to me and was flattered as all get-out. He was charming and handsome, and, from, what I could figure, rich! Not Calvin Klein rich, but, like, fancy apartment in Greenwich Village rich. Sandra Bernhard was his next-door neighbor. Yes, he told me that to get me to spend the night. Yes, it worked.
I’d just emerged from a horrible breakup with an actor my age and had been despondent and convinced I’d never again find love. Michael was as immature as his breakup call (“we are traveling in different paths”), and seemed like a reflection of my tiring, non-paying acting life. Same old friends, same old game-playing, same old getting nowhere. He drove me crazy when he refused to get tested for HIV because “it’s really about spirituality; not what the doctor tells you.” The attentions of an older man worlds away from this life were a refreshing, irresistible concept.
With his captivating friends and sophisticated lifestyle, Jim was how I had always pictured my future life in New York. My deserved life, the one I’d imagined growing up 3,000 miles away in suburban California. His apartment was a Rock Hudson/Doris Day 50’s comedy heaven replica. I used to sit on his couch and imagine all the different types of people who’d walked through that room—he’d had a long life of cocktail parties. Later, I’d sit there and imagine the footsteps of the dead. Jim also had a roster of deceased friends.
He casually told me his status after a night that started with drinks and dinner, then a nightcap back at his home. It wasn’t so much a revelation (back then, anyone older than you was automatically suspect) as it was a torn out page in the story of my life. Cancer would have sounded better. A still-attached boyfriend just a glitch. But HIV? That was a communicable death sentence. In the 1990s being negative and dating someone positive was the stuff of movie drama. If you don’t believe me, rent Jeffrey.
And if you think you can have a relationship without eventually having anal sex or reciprocal blowjobs, go back in time and think again. I had guilt, I had fear, I had anger, and I had a man who had everything except a childhood guarantee of love’s security.
The relationship lasted for about two weeks after I admitted full-on sex was out of the question, or, rather, just avoided the subject in an immature way. I pretended we could play non-sex house until, what, a cure? He never spoke to me after it ended, even when I passed by him on the street. I didn’t blame him. I was a dick about what I perceived as his diseased dick.
Around the same time I met Jim I had a roommate whose idea of intimacy with his boyfriend was to sit across the room from each other and jerk off. Welcome to irrational love, HIV-American style.
I always hesitate to write relationship stories about HIV because of my negative status. I have no idea what it’s like to be positive, now or then, and I can’t pretend to. But when I read that the CDC finally admitted that undetectable men can’t transmit HIV I was so thrilled I wanted to elaborate on the subject. It wasn’t that it was news to me, as I’d been hearing it from experts for the last few years; it was more like a stamp of approval on the truth.
I do know what it’s like to get emails on a regular basis from HIV-positive readers who tell me they are still treated like pariahs in our “enlightened” gay country. They are invisible, or worse, derided. They get insulted on hookup apps, at bars, in social situations, on dates! I can only sympathize and offer words of encouragement. What’s almost more infuriating is that many of the emails are from young men. It’s a world where trickle down knowledge has failed us.
A couple of years ago I dated an HIV-positive man, and the generation of change on both our parts was life affirming. I was 51; he was 54. He told me he was positive; I told him I was not. And then we changed the subject and enjoyed the wonderful night.
Later on in our relationship, he opened up about the experience of going from a young man with AIDS and almost-certain impending death, to an older, undetectable man in his fifties. He said it was like re-writing history, his sexual being no longer a threat. He allowed men to service him; something in the past he’d never consider requesting. Something that for 20 years had eluded him. Something that for must of us is a given sexual pleasure.
Several years ago, I was asked out on date from a dreamy fitness model in Los Angeles who was visiting New York and wanted to have dinner. I was in heaven, especially after he sent me his “portfolio” of nudes to ensure I’d say yes. The fact that he was in the process of adopting kids made him a hard-on with a heart of gold. When he told me he was undetectable, in a serious tone, I said it was fine, then, after our conversation, hurried up and checked out what it meant. Admittedly, I’d never heard the term and felt like an imbecile.
I wanted our date to go perfectly, so I found a fantastic restaurant, wrote out activities for the next day in case he spent the night, and rearranged clothing choices like a model at Fashion Week. And I’d always thought guys like him were so out of my league. I was moving on up.
Around midnight the night before our date, he texted me a note saying he’d met someone on his first day in the city and didn’t want to see me…ever. But he felt “really bad about it.” He was a dick about his in-demand dick. I’ve not spoken to him since.
We live in a time where being positive or negative should only be indicators of being positive or negative. It doesn’t change who you are underneath—your general goodness or your learned immaturity—and a positive status shouldn’t be a barrier for relationships or an invitation to mistreatment. We’re equals when we treat one another as such. HIV in 2017 is a discussion, not a dismissal... with liberty and justice for all c**k.
I’d love to tell Jim what I’ve learned and how happy I am about the progress that’s been made in regards to HIV. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen him but, who knows, maybe that will change. He still lives in the same apartment, same building (sans former neighbor Bernhard). Jim’s in his seventies now, and from what my friends tell me he’s never suffered anything more serious than the common cold.
This essay is part of an ongoing series by the author about issues facing older gay men. If you’ve got a “Daddy Issue,” I want to hear about it. -DRT