The Washington Post reported last year that up to one million Russians may be HIV positive, and it has one of the fastest growing rates in the world, particularly among young Russians. Another report said that up to 10 percent of Russian adults may be HIV positive.
One of the simplest ways to know if you've led an interesting life is if taking an HIV test makes your eyes sweat. There exists a kind of human tundra who would be no more bothered by an AIDS test than they would by taking a driver's license test. Probably tens of millions in the US alone, maybe even more. They live their entire lives in order to feel at ease at rare moments like these, when people like me have to face The Reckoning.
It was the winter holidays and I needed an HIV-negative certificate fast for my visa. I was in San Francisco, the Serengeti of the HIV world. The only places where I could get a quick HIV test done were the non-profit clinics run for junkies and homos in the rougher parts of downtown San Francisco. They offered free (donation requested) oral exams, which take only 30 minutes to provide your results. But there's a hitch: oral exams also have shown a lot of false positives. Many free clinics wouldn't take me because I'm neither a needle-user nor a homosexual. I liked being turned down for "not being in a high risk group." That was encouraging news and made going in for the exam easier.
I found a clinic where the Tenderloin meets the SOMA district, inside a church center that was oddly like a public school library, brown paneling, cheap but durable furnishings, with buzzing overhead fluorescent lights. The testing director, a small Mexican with dyed-blue hair gelled up like Ed Grimley's, kindly agreed to meet me early in the morning so I could get to the embassy on time - assuming I was HIV-negative.
That's the expression I started using to preface questions: "Assuming I'm HIV-negative, can I...?"
It was false humility, trying not to jinx myself. Or hoping to hear a, "No-no-no, you're definitely negative."
Grimley opened a sterile packet, took out a flat cotton swab hooked into a plastic stem with a small crystal display, and had me scrape my gums and the roof of my mouth. He took the swab to the counter on the other side of the room, dipped it in a solution, then came back with a survey form and sat in front of me. I had no idea the shit he planned to put me through.
There was an uncomfortable silence. "So," I said, "I have thirty minutes? Why don't I go out and run some errands."
"You're not going anywhere," Grimley said. He pulled out the clipboard and pen and became so serious that I swear his shocking blue hair turned black as he started interrogating me. How many partners did I have over the past year? I don't count, I said. He looked up at me accusingly, as if he couldn't believe I'd said what I'd said. He marked it, then continued. Did I have anal sex with men? Did I use a needle? No? Sure? Did I have anal sex with women? With prostitutes? Oral sex? How many partners did I have again? You don't remember? Have I used drugs? Do I drink? How much do I drink? When I have sex, what percentage of the time do I drink?
Eduardo was getting aggressive in his tone. I could sense that, as my answers were increasingly unsatisfactory, underneath it all he was HOPING I'd come out HIV-positive, just to teach me a lesson--and to maintain his Weltanschauung. I found myself agreeing with him: I deserved something bad, though not exactly HIV. Maybe Hep-B. But I'd been vaccinated against that. I tried thinking of a disease that that would be a fair and brutal punishment, but one that I could accept as well. Nothing came to mind.
Finally, after the most Hellish interrogation imaginable, dragging me through every foul act I've committed over the past 18 months, all but guaranteeing me a brutal death, he rested the clipboard on his lap and said, "It's been thirty minutes now, so the results are ready. So, what do you think your chances are that you'll be HIV-positive, on a scale from zero to ten?"
"What is 0 and what is 10?" I asked, quivering.
Eduardo snapped: "Come on! You know what I mean. Zero - you know. Ten - that's like cum in the ass, shooting up with other people's needles, that kind of shit."
"Um, heh, well, after going through the whole interview with you, I guess I'm about 3-1/2 or 4, which is why I'm so fucking scared now," I said. I thought I was high-balling with that number, given the fact that heterosexual powder-snorters are not officially "high risk." Again, high-ball it so as not to jinx myself. I expected him to, at worst, stare at me in quiet contempt, to "scare me straight" by letting me wallow in a 4-scale.
Eduardo shook his head sadly. "Actually, by our standards, given your answers here," he flicked the clipboard - "we would say your risk is more like 5. Or even 6."
"Five to six??!!"
"You're having multiple partners, sex while drunk or on drugs, some partners may be junkies. You're having long, rough sex with some of these girls."
"Six?" I said.
I felt like Magoo in A Christmas Carol, standing beside Death who's pointing at me doggy-styling a Moldovan whore, dripping sweat and cheap wine on her back. "No! Stop, stop it I say!"... The quips came on in my head, but I didn't ask for them. The fact that I was quipping to myself only depressed me, as if they were mere reflexes.
I realized right then that I was not just afraid of dying, but I was afraid of not being alive, which is a very different thing. As Dr. Dolan once wrote, "Not wanting to die - that's nothing to be ashamed of, is it?" It's not an easy emotion to admit, this desire to live. For all of life's problems, I couldn't imagine living without it. I was like Tina Turner with Ike. I'd rather keep getting slapped around any day then go out there into the abyss. After all, life can be charming at times, if it wasn't for its incredible coke habit.
I was already working on polishing my lines even as I waited to hear the results. I started replaying that vow that you make at these moments - to change, behave more safely, be more healthy, exercise more, maybe move home at last, settle down... But this thread got interrupted by scenes from a 70s B-comedy called The End with Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise. I won't repeat the storyline, except to say that Reynolds, to survive a near-drowning, promises God he'll give everything away to charity if he survives. And when he survives, naturally he reneges.
I knew my own vows to behave better were borrowed lies, bad 70s B-comedy lies. I knew in advance that I'd renege on them. But I found myself making them anyway, and then guessing when I'd renege, and if that would make for a good comic moment in a column. It wouldn't: it would just be Burt Reynolds' bad joke. I couldn't even enjoy my fear and treachery of death and life as something epic or literary. The whole moment was borrowed, and yet I'd never felt so close to such a bad, borrowed death.
Grimley sighed dramatically, and my heart rate went into squirrel speed. "Now I'm going to check the results. I have to ask you, Mark, if it comes out positive, what will you do?"
"I'll kill myself," I said, and I meant it. "And maybe take someone down with me." It was an old vow, made in more confident moments, but now I felt I'd lost that urge to take someone down with me. Is this what happens, a loss of will that accompanies certain death? Is this why so few terminally ill people take their enemies down with them?
"Do you want me to check the results?" he asked. He left open the possibility that maybe I wouldn't want to know.
"Go ahead," I said.
Eduardo Grimley walked to the far end of the room. I could hear a jar lid unscrew. Wax paper crumpled. Then silence. A switch: I looked over, and I could see some kind of ultraviolet light shining against the solution, like those lights hypochondriacs use to check motel bedspreads for sperm stains. Then he put some instruments down and started scribbling on the clipboard. I looked for signs of hope in his body language, but he wasn't giving away anything. It was a bad sign.
How would I kill myself? I'd always wanted to use a shotgun - but now, blood. The jokes suddenly vanished from my mind. The Dane had finally found me: "Hey Tic-Tac, ever notice how the snappy dialogue dries up once a guy starts soiling his union suit?" It's funny now to cite that, but at the time, I wasn't citing any films at all. I was trying to imagine the script I'd follow if I was positive, and the script if negative. I couldn't imagine far because if positive, there was no glory to be had. The script ended with the first shock.
Eduardo sat down in the chair in front of me, still avoiding eye contact. Then he looked into my eyes dramatically and paused.
"Okay. You're HIV-negative." He said it in a tone that implied, "This time, you were lucky."
I dropped my head and nearly cried. I felt like I'd won the fucking Miss America Pageant. But Eduardo was not pleased. He wanted me to admit that the experience had changed me. So I had to stay in my chair and conjure up a story about how I'd change my behavior, be safer and better, and at the time, I meant it. But already the quips were coming back, the Burt Reynolds cackle...
Afterwards, my friends' reactions to this story was that Eduardo was nothing but a fucking sadist.
"Straight men can't get HIV," said one friend. "It's like the Sam Kinison routine. Name one straight man who caught AIDS. Starsky never got it from his wife after sleeping with her for years. Dworkin was right: God hates women. And gay men. You were never in any danger, Ames. It's all lies."
Mark Ames' most recent book is Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond (Soft Skull Press).