Fear Factor

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The first
time I had sex with someone I knew was HIV-positive — past midnight,
in a hammock on the beach — I felt as if I had slain
an abuser who’d had complete and unsupervised access to me since my sophomore year
of high school.


    I was nearly thirty and had lived under the abuser’s watch for fifteen years. I’d started coming out as a gay adolescent
in San Francisco in the early 1980s, just as AIDS was revealing itself,
and it quickly became impossible for me to dissociate myself from the epidemic.
My tormentor was AIDS anxiety, but AIDS itself was like a fraternal
twin. We competed for resources and wished the other
were dead.
high school and college and into my late twenties, I was in a constant state
of morbid anxiety. Depending on the course of my disease
(officially diagnosed later as acute hypochondriasis, and more casually identified
before then as survival guilt), I was convinced either that I had AIDS or was
in imminent danger of getting infected.

Out of one letter, I composed
cantos of infection, epics of fear.

    I was much too smart to take comfort in my annual negative HIV test. I’d read
a news story saying HIV antibodies could hide in the macrophage of the cell,
escaping detection for years or decades. I was also a sufficiently critical consumer of medical information to notice, as the years of the epidemic passed, that
AIDS “facts” had a tendency to evolve.
    Unstable medical information is mother’s milk to the hypochondriac.
Take the term “safe sex,” for example. At some point, they added a consonant
to it, an “r” tacked onto safe, and out of that one-letter revision I composed
cantos of infection, epics of fear. Oral sex commuted (as it still does) back
and forth from one side of the safety border to the other, depending on the study,
or the interpretation of it, or whether the interpreter’s interest was in paring
down infection rates by luring populations of gay men away from anal sex, or
in giving a single skeptical neurotic a straight answer.
    Either way, the medical establishment’s flip-flops led me to believe that I wouldn’t survive the epidemic. From the start of my adult sex life at age
fifteen, I was remarkably adept at
myself that this guy whose cock I was sucking right then was probably not
infected. In later years, when this illusion began to crack under the
weight of statistical absurdity, I started disclosing my own HIV-negative status
in an effort to prompt a disclosure from my partner in return.
This didn’t feel particularly honest, because I didn’t actually believe my negative
test results to begin with, but the practice always succeeded — at least
on the superficial level of convincing me that I’d taken an extra precaution,
while permitting me to suck ever-increasing quantities of cock. In cities where
the proportion of gay men who were HIV-positive approached one in two, everyone’s
disclosure was always the same: negative.
    Dipping into natural reserves of denial,
I was far less afraid
during sex than before or after. But these anxiety vacations inevitably came
to an end. The next morning, or the subsequent week, the spider bite became Kaposi’s
sarcoma, the rediscovery of lymph nodes under my jaw — which were neither
swollen nor tender except to the degree that I manhandled them like subcutaneous
worry beads — an
endlessly renewable moment of morbid speculation.
    When I wasn’t having sex, I felt anxious and guilty, unable
the fact that
men just like me were dying gruesome deaths by the thousands and that I, by
a few years younger, had every prospect of surviving. To cope with this burden,
I did my best to make myself suffer as much as I imagined they did.
    Until that summer night I hooked up with Andrew Farley at
Fire Island Pines. We’d encountered one another at a bar, out on the patio, and
I’d had one of those alcohol-inspired re-evaluations of a college acquaintance.
Andrew was not conventionally beautiful, but in a way that had eluded me in college,
there was something lovely about him. He was tall, big-boned, with facial features
I’m hard-wired to lust after: a broad mouth,
thick lips, prominent ears, jet-black hair. His voice was low, musical and cigarette-gravelly,
his conversation lively and intelligent. He put the moves on me in a way that
was subtle enough either to ignore or enjoy. I found myself enjoying
it, and shortly before the bar closed we left together.
    Andrew beat me to disclosure. In the hammock where we’d been
kissing for twenty minutes, as clothes began dropping to the sand, he told me
that a few years after graduation he’d been infected. He thought he knew when,
by whom, but I was
barely curious about the particulars. I was on the beach at Fire Island Pines with Andrew Farley, the two of us were
in the hammock with AIDS, and, like all long-anticipated confrontations, this
one had an immediacy and reality that seemed to exceed the dimensions of waking
life. But it was not the nightmare I’d spent my youth imagining, because when
the moment finally came, I was not afraid.

Sex in a hammock resembles a game of Twister on a moving, three-dimensional mat.

    Andrew disclosed; I listened.
And in a moment of unique clarity,
I told Andrew that apart from being
sorry he’d been infected, his being HIV-positive didn’t matter to me.
    I took a condom from my wallet and rolled it on, taking surgical
care to keep sand away. AIDS aside, sex in a hammock on the beach is a complicated
matter, and there were a few false starts. Most positions, for example doggy
style, risk resembling a game of Twister on a moving, three-dimensional mat.
After trying a few of these, I abandoned my place in the hammock with Andrew
and knelt in the sand beside him. He lay on his back in the hammock and I swung
him back and forth in time with my slow thrusting for a while, then held him
to me and fucked him hard and fast while he jerked himself off until we came.
    Orgasm famously puts things — one’s partner, one’s judgment,
oneself — in a different light, and that is no less true
when you know that the semen pooled on his chest contains a lethal retrovirus. That’s
, I thought, in a kind of cowed reverence I felt again just recently
when I encountered my first wild rattlesnake.
    But this orgasm had not brought caution — that had been
there all along. Nor had it brought depression or regret. I conducted a flash inventory of hangnails and paper
cuts, then reassured myself that Andrew, considerately enough, had not come on
me. I knew, with a sureness
I’d rarely been able to muster after other sexual encounters, that I hadn’t done anything in kissing and screwing Andrew
Farley that put me at high risk of getting infected.
   Andrew and I laughed
about what friends would say if they knew about our hook-up. We ran into the water and laughed again. Maybe my laughter
was nervous, but after a kiss goodbye, I walked back to my room feeling high
and safe, sensing that the tryst on the beach had
shrunk an out-of-control anxiety into lasting, rational caution.
    The first time I had sex with someone I knew to be HIV-positive
was a liberation from the anxiety produced by growing up with AIDS all around
me, but nowhere near me. Men died by the tens of thousands everywhere in the
always uninfected. I will never know if that uninterrupted procession
of HIV-negative sex partners was the result of ignorance, coincidence, luck
or lies.
    To this day, at nearly thirty-four, I have
never attended an AIDS funeral or
memorial for a personal friend. The refusal of the disease to manifest itself
in my personal life while it decimated the world around me produced
an anxiety that reality never got close enough to constrain, one that virtually
vanished in that hour with Andrew on the beach. Now I knew that, whatever
this epidemic brought my way, at least I could face it with the confidence
of having
touched my adversary.

wasn’t easy to face the guilt of being an avowed HIV-negative

The first time I had sex with someone I knew to be HIV-positive
was also my last. In several subsequent instances, twenty minutes of making out
were followed by a disclosure of infection, but after that night at the Pines
I could no longer say what I’d said to Andrew. It did matter that my partner
was HIV-positive, not because I was irrationally afraid and didn’t think I could
have reasonably safe sex with him, but because after the age of thirty I lost
much of my drive to have sex for its own sake. Now I was having sex in search
of a boyfriend, and the one I hoped to find — the one with whom I hoped to spend
the next six decades doing bourgeois, straight-aping things like making
a home and raising children in it — was probably not going to be HIV-positive.
    If I fell in love with someone who turned out to have the
virus, that would be one thing. But I wasn’t going to seek him out. Barring
love at first sight, I wasn’t even going to date him. It wasn’t easy to admit
this, to face the guilt of being not only a survivor but an avowed HIV-negative
separatist. But I already had let guilt govern half my life.
I had
my dues, and I had paid them senselessly. Nobody
had been cured by my misery; no one had even been comforted.

came hard and numb, like ice cubes cracked out of an aluminum

The next and last time I saw Andrew was the morning of September
11th, 2001, as I hurried away from the corner of Seventh Avenue and Thirteenth
Street. It took me a moment longer than it should have to recognize him. He had
aged too much, and his color was wrong: dark, with an unhealthy orange tint.
His skin was drawn, his cheekbones too sharp. And though that day was notoriously
clear and still, he wore heavy fall clothes. Thoughts came hard and numb, delayed
a moment’s stupor and then all at once, like ice cubes cracked out of an aluminum
tray: this is Andrewhe has AIDSthese are the
side effects of his medication
are going to touch
. He put his arms around me as I described what I had just
seen, and though I could not believe the words I spoke he seemed unsurprised
by them, almost unmoved. He only wanted to know if I was going to be all right.  


©2004 Paul

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‘s essays appear in Nerve, Salon, the Best Sex Writing
anthologies for 2005, 2006 and 2008, and other publications. He is
the author of OH MY
GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever
, which is based on Apparition of the Eternal
, his award-winning and critically acclaimed film about the
music of Olivier Messiaen. A violinist, he has toured extensively,
given the U.S., Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles
premieres of Messiaen’s 1933 Fantaisie, and performed with the
Stephen Pelton Dance Theater and the North Bay Shakespeare Company. He
is the official historian of the Presidential Memorial Commission of
San Francisco, and is revising a novel. More info at paulfesta.com.