*Featured Artwork “Vejigante” by Carlos N. Molina
Formally coming out at 19 in the mid-’80s was a catastrophe ruled by fear. Fear, fear, fear. Fear of HIV and AIDS. It was a panic that molded my life and ruled every sexual thought.
That was until a glimmer of hope appeared, in the Spring of 1988, when I was introduced to the first-ever vaccine trial to combat HIV. I had no doubt that I would apply and called my best friend Robert to convince him to join. I explained every detail of the vaccine before mentioning the one catch.
“We need to lie about being gay,” I said. “They’re not accepting homosexuals. After the initial interview, they do a bunch of blood tests, and then they decide.”
We each called, went in for interviews, gave what seemed like a gallon of blood. In the end, we were both accepted into the trial, which was so new that only 12 people enrolled. Every two weeks, we had a full physical and more blood drawn to check for new antibodies and CD4 T cells, the target cell of HIV infection.
I was HIV-negative, which was a requirement for the study.
It was my first time living in a big city with its own gay district, Montrose, and I resided in a building that was over 90% gay. One of my neighbors, Ralph, was a sexy-daddy-type landscaper, and I had a major crush on him. We’d made out a couple of times, but other than a steady diet of massive amounts of gay porn, that was pretty much the extent of my sex life. I lived in mortal fear of HIV, and until then, my entire gay sexual experience had consisted of two single encounters.
When a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon in June rolled around, I put on my sexiest swimsuit and headed out to the building’s swimming pool. Lying there was Ralph, like a deeply-tanned Texan cowboy with his long blond hair, sky-blue speedo, and a prominent bulge reminiscent of the previous nights’ porn videos.
We had a fantastic afternoon of sun and Coronas. We talked about life and love, laughed, swam, and sunbathed. And we drank enough for me to work up the courage to ask him out on a date that evening.
I kept checking my watch, but the time was barely moving. At 7:25, I grew impatient and went to Ralph’s apartment. His lights were on, so I assumed he was still getting ready. I was about to ring the doorbell but hesitated. He said he’d be over in an hour, for chrissakes. I went back to my place and waited. I waited an excruciating 15 minutes past an hour before calling him. No answer. I went back to his apartment, but it was dark. My heart sank.
Why would he agree to dinner and blow me off like that? Don’t call, I kept telling myself. Do. Not. Call. Of course, my pathetic desire overrode my rational mind. I called again. And again. No answer.
By 8:15, I had beaten myself up enough. I changed into my tightest, gayest t-shirt and drove to JR’s bar, and then on to Heaven disco. I danced until dripping with sweat, pounding Coronas all the while, in keeping with our poolside imbibing. As if I needed more alcohol!
After a couple of hours, I thought, screw it, and left Heaven to head over to the Ripcord leather bar, one where “good boys” generally didn’t go. The red lights were low. The backyard was also dark and shady. I was in a daring mood and wanted to experience the whole thing.
Who gives a shit about that idiot Ralph? I told myself. Who the fuck does he think he is, anyway? Fuck him!
The moment I stepped into the backyard, I saw the most intense man. Despite being shorter than me, his masculinity was overpowering. His face was a macho man cartoon, with possibly the thickest black beard I’d ever seen. This was a man, a “real” man. No cologne, no gay outfit, not even the subtlest gay mannerism. He was the personification of testosterone.
He stood there looking me over for a few seconds, then signaled for me to come over—more a command than an invitation.
“Let’s get outta here,” he said, dispensing with unnecessary chit-chat.
I was simultaneously frozen and mesmerized. “OK,” was all I responded.
My heart pounded as I drove to my building. The moment we walked into my apartment, he took complete control. He immediately took over and played the undeniable dominant role, perfectly matching all my wildest sexual fantasies. I felt like I’d been swept off my feet like I was in a surrealistic dream.
We stumbled into the bedroom, and I reached into the drawer where I kept my one condom. I hadn’t had sex in months at that point, but I made sure to keep a condom handy, dreaming that this moment would arrive. Now the moment had come, and I couldn’t find the stupid condom. It wasn’t there! For God’s sake, where is it?! I didn’t know what to do. I so wanted this perfect man to take me. Finally, I gave up.
“Listen,” I said. “We can do this, but you have to promise me you’ll pull out before you finish, OK?”
“Sure,” he said without hesitation.
It was the best sex I’d ever had. This was what sex was meant to be. When he was ready, he kept his promise. It was sexier, hotter, and better than any porn film.
I never saw him again. I can still remember his face so clearly that I could draw his portrait. It’s as if that image lives in a particular place in my brain.
When I finally saw Ralph, I downplayed my disappointment over his standing me up. He claimed that he’d passed out from all the beers and didn’t even hear the doorbell or phone. I never asked him out again. A piece of my heart was broken.
Four weeks later, I came down with a bad cold. It was almost like the flu, with fever and joint pains. I didn’t think much of it, other than being annoyed with all the achiness and feeling like crap.
The following week, and I got a phone call from the HIV vaccine study.
“Mr. Barbosa, this is Ms. Hills from the HIV vaccine study. We need you to come in for a second blood draw.”
“But I just had a blood draw a few days ago,” I said.
“I’m aware of that, Mr. Barbosa, but the study investigators have asked that you come in an additional time this cycle. Will that be OK?”
“Yes,” I answered.
I went in, and they took another set of blood samples. I didn’t think much of it until, six days later, the doctor in charge of the study called.
“Mr. Barbosa, this is Dr. Nichols, from the HIV vaccine study. We need you to come in today as part of your follow-up.”
“Fine,” was all I said. Did I already know in my heart what was to come?
Dr. Nichols was emotionally dry and even more extreme than the stereotypical American doctor.
“Mr. Barbosa, please sit down,” she said as I walked into her office. Her demeanor was cold as a robot.
“We’ve conducted a complete analysis of your blood work twice, and we can say with certainty that you have been exposed to HIV.”
My head was spinning, but I tried to pull myself together and play the role of the scientist Ph.D. student.
“Dr. Nichols, may I ask you a question? Since I’m part of the HIV vaccine study, isn’t it possible that I’m responding in a positive immunological way to the vaccine trial?” I was going for professional, but it sounded pitiful and desperate.
“Mr. Barbosa, given your background as a Baylor doctoral student, I assume that you’re familiar with the Western Blot test. We’ve tested your blood twice. Even though your official blood test results read as ‘indeterminate’ for now, your bands in the test show exposure to all of the HIV proteins. We’re certain that you will have an HIV-positive test result in a matter of weeks. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Of course, I understood her perfectly. The cold, hard reality was that I was in the first few weeks of HIV infection, and there was no turning back. This was a real HIV infection, the thing I feared most from the moment I first realized I was gay. This was it. I was fucked, plain and simple.
Still, I persisted. “Dr. Nichols, I understand that a Western blot test is more certain than the regular ELISA test used to diagnose HIV infection, and yes, I’m well aware of all the science behind both tests. Still, is there any chance that an HIV-positive result could be an artifact of the vaccine trial?”
“Mr. Barbosa, this is not an artifact. You’ve been infected with HIV, and it has nothing to do with the vaccine trial.”
It was in this categorically intellectual and professional way that the doctor assured me I had turned HIV-positive, even two weeks earlier than a person would normally find out. Weirdly it was a blessing, as I’ve always been obsessed with knowing the truth. Better to know the ugly truth, than to live in a lovely lie.
I responded to Dr. Nichols with perfect composure, as if I were discussing the weather forecast.
“Thank you, Dr. Nichols,” I said. “I only have a few more questions, if you don’t mind. First, are you 100 percent certain of what you’re telling me?”
“Yes, Mr. Barbosa, I am.”
“OK, in that case, would you mind sharing with me my prognosis?”
“Well, that’s a more challenging question. Some people get sick more quickly and die within two years of infection, and others live longer. Right now, I would say that you will experience four to five years without major clinical complications, followed by one year of illness before death. What I can tell you with certainty is that you will not reach your thirtieth birthday.”
“Thank you, I appreciate it very much,” I said, striving to be as calm and professional as she’d been with me.
I walked out of the office with no significant feelings one way or the other. I was just numb. I drove back to my apartment and locked the door. As my situation sank in, it was as if someone had punched me in the face. I started sobbing uncontrollably; I almost couldn’t breathe. My hands shook from the intensity of my crying, and I felt like I was going to have a seizure.
In a panic, I went to the kitchen and grabbed my sharpest knife. I brought the knife with me to my bed and put the sharp edge against my left wrist. Still shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, I couldn’t find the courage to do it, which only made me more desperate. I grabbed the phone and dialed Robert’s number.
“Robert,” I said, trying in vain to steady my voice.
“Simón? Are you crying? I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
“I’m going to die.”
“What? I still can’t understand you.”
I took a deep breath and screamed into the phone, “AIDS! AIDS! I got AIDS!”
“Don’t move. I’m coming over.”
Robert lived a half-hour away, outside the 610 freeway loop, but he was at my door just 14 minutes later. He had keys to my apartment and opened the door to find me on my bed, knife still in hand. He took the knife and threw it on the floor and hugged me. My head just lay on his shoulder as my tears and snot soaked into his shirt.
“I am not leaving you here, Simón,” Robert said. “Get up, wash your face, and get ready. This support group starts in two hours, and we’re going to be there.” I sat there looking at him, speechless.
“I’m not asking, Simón, I’m telling you, got it?” All I could do was nod my head.
There were seven men in the group, and the facilitator was a woman. She and Robert were the only two non-HIV-infected people in the room. Everyone sat in a circle and shared their experiences. Everyone seemed shockingly calm. There was no major drama or theatrics. Were people not aware we have just been given a death sentence? Was I the only one with common sense in the room? When all the eyes focused on me, I simply cried. I felt like a child unable to articulate the complex emotions of my recent diagnosis. For two more hours though, I listened to the stories of the others. Lives torn apart and transformed by a death sentence. By the end, I was entirely different.
Was I going to cry nonstop until I worked up the nerve to commit suicide? Was this what the future held for me? No! I learned that I had five years of health left and that was the best-case scenario. How many people get a five-year countdown to their own death? It was frightening, but it was also a blessing and an opportunity. I’d been living my life assuming to live until ripe old age. That’s the beauty of youth. When you think you have another 50 or so years to go, it seems like all the time in the world—plenty of time to accomplish everything I’d ever dreamed about and then some. Now that I only had five years, I’d have to speed up the schedule a little.
Soon after, I flew to Puerto Rico and shared the news with my close friends. One of them started crying even before I finished.
“Lisi, stop,” I said. “I’m not doing this so you can cry. I’m simply asking that every time I come home, we all spend time together, alone and as a group. I need quality time with all of you.” It turned into a tradition that we followed for many years.
Within six months, I’d purchased a motorcycle, been certified in scuba diving, registered for piano lessons, and started learning French. I also had sex at a gay bathhouse for the first time, which is something that wholly terrified me in the past.
The years went by, and I did not die. Within ten years after my HIV diagnosis, I was living the most complete and intense life of anyone I knew. I traveled the world and pursued my dreams. Today, as I write these words,
If I have to be completely honest, as grateful as I am, I am also a bit exhausted from living so long at such an intense pace.
It’s ironic that I didn’t take any anti-HIV medications for the first 20 years I was infected. I’d accepted the fate of early death, but The Universe had a different plan for me. As it turns out, 1-in-300 —0.33 percent— of people infected with HIV become what’s known as “elite controllers” or “long-term non-progressors.” If you’d asked me to bet on it, I would never have done so with such meager odds.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have lived so thoroughly without the five-year warning. Would I have traveled the world with the same determination? Would I have loved as intensely? In 1989, medical science gave me a guarantee of death before 30, but the science was wrong. Instead of death, the outcome was a life I’d never known and, likely, never would have known. For this, I am eternally grateful, even if I don’t have a retirement account.