Back then, I lived adjacent to the HIV pandemic, as cells share membrane walls.
In 1984, when I was 18 and flirting with a cocaine addiction, I had a lover with saucer pupils and long white fingers who tripped on acid through Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s house, staring at brown gravy as it dripped over his mashed potatoes.
In bed, a dreamy expression floated over his pale face as he described to me the incredible high of injecting heroin. He was telling me this just after we had sex without a condom. I think he had recently started sharing needles.
That young lover, whose name I’ve forgotten, danced with me at a party in the basement of a run-down Victorian he rented with three other men on Capitol Hill. While we shimmied to Sheila E, an exultant grin bisected his face, and locks of lightning-blond hair shook into his eyes.
I had briefly dated this man’s roommate, a sweetly insecure blue-eyed boy who bussed tables at my first restaurant job in Denver. After work, that boy and I rode the number 15 bus down Colfax and had unremarkable sex on the double mattress that took up most of the floor space in my tiny bedroom on Monroe Street.
As fall turned to winter, I lost interest in them both. I disappeared from that house where the bedroom door of the drug-dealing roommate was sealed with a heavy padlock.
At 18 and just out of high school in Dunedin, Florida, I knew almost nothing about the burgeoning epidemic of my generation or about how close I would come to contracting HIV. I had probably heard the term “gay cancer” at a time in my life when simmering resentment of my imperfect parents blocked out much awareness of the wider world.
The link between heterosexual transmission and intravenous drug use was just beginning to be understood in the mid-eighties, as new infections in the U.S. peaked. Oblivious, I took a one-way flight to Denver, my plastic pack of birth control pills tucked in the pocket of a hand-me-down suitcase.
I count, but I can’t, the times I could have been infected with HIV — had I injected with that lover, or the next one. Had I gone to just a few more parties or liked myself a little less, I could easily have gotten hooked on coke or heroin. But by luck or some genetic saving grace, I was pulled back from the edge just in time.
I count, but I can’t, how many of the generous gay men who made me welcome when I moved to Denver after high school must have died; waiters who stood with me in the biting wind and told me to get a real coat, to look out for myself. Strong men with gentle beauty who hugged me goodbye when I went on to the next restaurant job, the next lost boyfriend.
How many men whose tables I seated with customers must have faded away to nothing before tolerable antiretroviral drugs were finally developed? The server at the breakfast place where I was hostess for a few months, and his girlfriend, who wanted to marry him and was waiting out his fondness for sex with men: Did they survive?
His face was marked by acne scars and hints of purplish bruises. Tall and patient, he would stand by the register with me as our shift ended, keeping me company as I tallied meal checks on a punch calculator and counted out my cash drawer.
Uncountable moments of grace saved me from the self-destructive life I courted and shielded me from addiction to drugs or to risky sex.
The kind words of the car salesmen on Colfax, whose lot I walked past every day, soothed my loneliness. The crystalline beauty of distant mountains dusted with snow gave me hope. Luck and privilege combined to keep me HIV negative.
My imperfect parents gave me love and also paid my rent one month. When I finally applied to college, at 20, Pell grants and student loans covered all of my tuition. I didn’t fight racism to get my restaurant jobs. HIV went on to decimate communities of color long after it became a more manageable illness for those who could access care.
A virus itself doesn’t discriminate, even if health care systems do. With highly-evolved opportunism, it simply proceeds through bloodstreams and airways, doing its work of replicating as efficiently as possible.
No, a virus doesn’t think about the next pandemic, or the last one.
Jenny-Lynn Ellis lives and write in Denver and in Fairplay.
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