Derek’s left hand developed the sort of scab that you could tell itched. “It doesn’t look that bad, right?” Derek asked me. I played doctor and examined his palm. I poked in between his fingers, studied his wrist, and touched the pressure points of his left hand, bearing witness to how AIDS had begun to matriculate itself physically on his body. We were two 18-year-olds who had barely begun to live – and yet, our lives were scarred with a burgeoning adulthood that we were both eager to escape.
“No, no, not that bad,” I responded, followed by shared laughter.
Derek and I didn’t have the language to articulate the intimacy and affection we felt for one another, so we used laughter to fill that gap. We laughed at the married men from New Jersey he turned tricks for. We laughed at how insubstantial we often felt. We laughed at the word “AIDS.” Through this laughter, we sank inside one another – he thirsting for the affirmation that his family deprived him of, and I searching to be seen through someone other than my mother’s eyes.
Derek was relieved when he received his AIDS diagnosis. Not that he wanted to live with this syndrome for the rest of his life, but he finally had something to call the mountain of woes he had come to face over the past few weeks: vomiting, diarrhea, night sweats, and the chronic coughing. Two years ago he had been diagnosed with HIV; today he was diagnosed with AIDS.
“This is my wake up call,” he confided in me. “I got to start taking my meds, man.”
We were growing up in the generation of young queers coming out of the footnote years, and into the fourth wave of AIDS activism, where prevention and advocacy were scaled and widespread. We knew, through magazines, the quirky lit we read, and being hassled by researchers peddling their PalmPilots, that there was a micro-epidemic happening, and that it was affecting young men like us. We understood that community, shared space, and friendship were the basic anchors we needed to stifle the progression of this scourge. Friendship became our first model of prevention. We operated under the belief that we could somehow counter HIV and AIDS with our friendship, as much as with condoms, a belief that seemed relatively simple and intuitive.
We had a system: we’d ask about whether we’d gotten tested, if we got our safer-sex kits, or if we knew our partners’ status. I would check in with Derek about his STD results and his drug regimen (he was diagnosed with HIV at 16), and Derek would ask me about any love interests--there weren’t, really, there never was.
This is the simple model of prevention and treatment that I still use with my friends. I nurture friendships where getting tested together is part of our coda for the quarter, going to the pharmacy to pick up a PrEP prescription is a routine that isn’t unusual, and happy hours aren’t complete with just beers, but conversations about awkward condom negotiations with hook ups. Friendships where we navigate through the stigma that we help foster, even when we’re trying to scrub our walls of it.
What I realized then, and still struggle to internalize now, is that our statuses are often a rendered summary, a receipt, of the historical forces of degradation that prod at our lives; a flow of dilapidated narratives that continue to permeate systemically through institutions that are not built to serve people with our history, and a society that continues to decenter community as a tool for organizing and advocacy.
Hi, I’m Derek, I’m 18 and I’m HIV positive. My preferred gender pronouns are He and Him.
Whenever we’d go out, to some group, to some meeting, to some social gathering, he disclosed his status. It was impossible for me to have cerebral conversations with Derek. He was much brighter than I was, much wiser, his heart ached more than mine, and the commitment that he showed advocacy work was far beyond anything I could keep up with. So when he dragged me every Saturday to a morning group with the other Pier Kids, I was neither happy about it nor particularly excited to go. I went anyway. We were an eclectic group of kids on those Saturday mornings, who had tales to tell, and love to offer one another, and were trying to excavate some sort of revolution, not for anyone else, but ourselves. At the center for me, was this HIV positive, later diagnosed with AIDS, sex worker, who never tried to shield these parts of himself when the world was telling him to hide them.
“How many people do you think know that you’re positive?” I asked Derek, after one of those Saturday mornings as we waited at the train station.
“I don’t know,” he said, grinning.
I never asked Derek why he mentioned his status when he introduced himself. I suppose it was his invitation for other young men – who looked like him, who’ve struggled like him, as young, but perhaps not as aware – to understand that it was okay to not participate, in what he may have perceived, as the coercion of one’s own body and truth. He may have thought that openly sharing one’s status, without being asked, is as much an invitation for our peers to share theirs.
The train arrived. He got on with that sandy-colored book bag he always lugged around, the one he never allowed me to look into, but I knew that it contained silhouettes of a life he’s been working hard to nurture: books, medications, condoms, and lube. A journal perhaps.
As we sat, he turns to me, flashes a smile, “Manny, you have something you want to tell me?”
Before I could ask what he meant, he cut me off, and asked me more sternly:
“Do you have anything you want to tell me? Anything?”
Finally understanding the query, I chuckled. I couldn’t find the language to answer the question with the sort of depth he’d expect from me.
“I don’t have anything to share right now, but ask me again in a couple years, maybe a decade? Who knows?” I responded.
We broke out in laughter.
We knew that through the unpredictability of this evil world, where racism, homophobia, and poverty act as social stressors that work against us, my status could change. But more than that, we recognized that there was a tension between needing to express our sexuality the way we wanted to, and what that meant for our personal health. I, we, may not have had the vocabulary to articulate that, but at that moment, the only language that could express it, was laughter.
I haven’t spoken to Derek in nearly a decade. It did not end in malice, but we merely lost touch in a world just on the cusp of the endless connectedness birth through social media. I wonder if he thinks about me. I wonder if he still does survival sex work. I remember that he was really bad at taking his meds. It was a reality that spurred me to be the friend that would help him through his diagnosis. Somehow, I know that he is okay. Of the many friends and mentors I’ve had since, who’ve taught me that intimacy and laughter can be the tools we use to fight against HIV and AIDS, Derek was the original. He was the first who offered me the model of friendship that I would use to navigate through this treacherous terrain for years to come.
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