Thu. June 25, 2009 12:00 AM
by Feature Column
H…I…V. At the mere mention of the initials, gay and straight wantons alike administer a hasty, careless guffaw. Some may think "Me? Pshaw. Protection is my middle name! ‘Ribbed for your pleasure' is my mantra! I sleep in latex!" Others may be less sure as they've been caught up in the throes of passion and forgotten to don their sheaths more than once before doing the deed.
No matter how much precaution an individual takes, I find there almost always exists a seed of doubt, a nagging "what-if" that rears its head after a few moments of contemplation. This heckling question usually gets pushed aside in favor of more entertaining self-inquisition such as wardrobe choice or cost-benefit analysis of a new ‘do. In any case, the ever-lurking, but largely ignored possibility of infection leaves many to adopt a blissful ignorance when it comes to getting tested for the frighteningly prevalent disease.
Hardly the picture of an at-risk gay youth (I'm 23), I very rarely go out on a Saturday night seeking meaningless, though highly pleasurable sex. I am one of the least promiscuous people I know and think the devil-just-may-care. I have more than adequate health care and a firm support system. Don't get me wrong, I've had a, er, handful of enjoyable, sometimes regrettable, encounters, but I've never, ever had unprotected sex with a random partner. Never really fancied needles either, so resisting injectable narcotics hasn't been an issue. I realize I'm in the minority and have no intention of forming a coup to preach purity to the more libidinous. In fact, I could probably stand to learn a thing or two from the orgasmically-oriented twenty-somethings out there. Despite my relatively un-libertine behavior, I still couldn't be 100% sure I was HIV free, even if my uncertainty was almost solely driven by hypochondria. Hence, I sought a worthy establishment to squash any remnant of doubt. Time to get tested!
I correctly assumed the Center on Halsted, a shining beacon of concrete, glass and organic foods offered such a service. Although I passed by the center numerous times, tempted to treat myself to an overpriced concoction of arugula and grape tomatoes from tenant extraordinaire Whole Foods, I never went inside. After a search on their website (http://www.centeronhalsted.org/) I easily found information on the HIV Testing & Prevention Program. Plastered across the top of the page was a chilling fact masquerading as a question:
Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 250,000 persons are living with the HIV virus but do not know their status?
Well that's great. Just fucking great. As if my neuroses hadn't already deployed themselves in full force, manning their battle stations at every possible point of sanity infiltration. Now it seemed a hidden infection was more likely than ever. 250,000? Jesus.
I paused for a moment before I dialed to make an appointment. If I called and spoke to a real live person on the other end, the seal would break. No longer would I be the only person aware of my fear, as seemingly absurd as it was. My privacy would be exposed to the world, released from its cozy womb. A friendly, though somewhat masculine-sounding woman answered the phone. As I began to provide the exact spelling of my name, she politely interrupted, "We only need your first initial."
Only my first initial? I cheerily provided it and prepared to recite more information. However, the husky receptionist efficiently confirmed my appointment time for 8:00 that evening with nothing more than a single letter from me. No age, no sexual history, no shoe size required. Perhaps not all anonymity would be lost.
The fluorescent lights on #8 Halsted bus were brighter than usual. All the better for Craiglist's "Missed Connections" seekers to identify the objects of their lust. As we pulled up to the stop across from the Center, I couldn't help but feel exposed to penetrating stares of fellow passengers. Did they know I was about to get tested for H…I…V? I couldn't remain hidden. Their eyes seemed to wave back and forth tisk-tisking with all the rhythm of a metronome despite the fact that there was nothing of which to disapprove.
Although slightly uneasy, I entered the Center in good spirits and addressed the front desk attendant in a volume that was neither discreet nor vociferous - a normal, pleasant tone. He was noticeably surprised by my sprightliness. He called upstairs and notified them of my arrival with nothing more than a whisper. I was simply identified as "Dave's [not his real name] 8:00" accompanied by a quick description of my attire. He instructed me to head upstairs and wait for Dave to fetch me.
As I reclined in one of the reproduction Eames loungers looking over the ledge, I was very impressed by the facility. Though slightly sterile, the sparse, spacious interior would be perfect for an event, I thought, and expertly executed lighting did wonders to warm the place up. Minutes crawled by with only the sounds of a gay senior citizens' band practice to calm my nerves. What would Dave – the only other person who would be able to accurately match my name with my paranoia – look like?
Turned out he was a portly fellow with a neither-here-nor-there scruff, not shorn enough for a kempt appearance, not long enough to raise suspicions of a bearish lifestyle (although the oversized plaid shirt didn't exactly negate those ideas either). His innocuous demeanor was cool and comforting. We proceeded down a long hallway making idle chit-chat, though of course all the personal information would be conveyed behind closed doors. We could have just as easily been touring prospective spaces for an ice cream social or lesbian quilting club. At the opposite end of the corridor, he led me through a nondescript door and into a small, bright exam room.
I had no idea what this process would entail. A vile of blood slowly sucked from my tender bicep? A thorough examination of my nether regions? A camera probe shooting my innards like a Michael Moore documentary?
Dave assured me none of these would be the case and began by filling out a sheet of paper with several blank areas for my personal information, solely for their own records. I've always had an aversion to worksheets with a series of blank lines for responses – either too little space, causing letters to suspend themselves without footing, or too much space, leaving the respondent feeling inadequate and uncertain of their answer. Not concerns one wishes to have before an HIV test. And really he was occupying the long stretches of real estate zoned for my sexual history. The worksheet was actually very short – only a few vital questions. We were both aware of the overriding BIG question in the compact exam room: Positive or Negative. Although, as the pre-screening progressed with my tales of prudence it became increasingly obvious what my results would be. Nevertheless, I came for confirmation of my cleanliness and I intended to experience each step along the way.
He lightly pricked my forefinger (not nearly as climactic as my previous knowledge of pointer punctures that consisted of Disney's animated epic, Sleeping Beauty. I guessed this wouldn't involve a wooden spindle, lengthy nap or dashing prince – damn!). However, I still chose to turn my head away from the spreading crimson mark on the test strip. There it was, my most telling bodily fluid blotted from beneath my skin for all to scrutinize.
Next came the most difficult part of the entire process: The Wait. Modern science has successfully whittled it down to a brief 20 minutes, but I'm sure this crawls by like a lecture on geological formation for most distressed test subjects. Dave explained he usually takes this time to discuss safe sexual behavior, myths vs. reality and lifestyle choices in a grounded, I-realize-what-it's-like-out-there kind of way. We could confidentially talk about anything I'd like, though. Since I had a well-seasoned sexpert on my hands, I figured I should take the opportunity to clear up some information my rural public school health education class had left hazy. Dave seemed somewhat confounded by my eager inquiries, but obliged with clarity.
After 18 minutes and further tales of my insipid sex life, the results were ready. I was tempted to suggest we wait the full 20 minutes, but Dave attested to its validity. The result…NEGATIVE! Hallelujah!
After our discussion, I can't say I was surprised. Still, a sigh of relief was in order. Despite the apparent silliness of my concerns, the process of getting tested for the disease is nerve wracking at best. Familiarity with how to go about it is invaluable especially if you are legitimately worried about the outcome. For me, the consistency has since become a matter of principle. If I plan to encourage regular testing (that's every six months in my book), such diligence should be my personal practice, promiscuous or not. And as I hope to have conveyed, not knowing your status is far more agonizing than a quick prick.
Written by: Stephen Waite