I have now lived with HIV for more than half my life, and if my doctors are correct about my seroconversion sickness at age eighteen, it has been for more than a quarter-century. A lot has changed since then. But not all changes have been easy to process.
There was a dark period in my life. It happened a few years after everyone stopped dying, and after I had lived through the horrors and politics of 9/11. Day in and day out, all I wished for was that I could be well. Most of my life I had only ever felt diseased – either because of my sexuality, or my virus.
It was during this time in my life that I made some mistakes. I did some things I wish I could take back. I stopped double-checking about the status of every man I had sex with, something I had always done to ensure that each man knew what he was getting himself into. I had done this sero-sorting with nearly everyone, even though it meant about 30% of my suitors got up and rudely left. But during 2004, I stopped double-checking. I just assumed that everyone had seen my profiles – in which I always honestly stated my serostatus. I assumed they were adults and knew the risks.
It was during this time I met a guy. We were both commuting for work and often traveled the same route. When he invited me to his hotel to play, we started having sex a few times a month for about six months. The first few times we were together, we were safe. Then he asked me to have condomless sex, and I assumed he was also positive and agreed. I had gotten out of the habit of double-checking. The last time we were together, he confronted me angrily. He had found out I was positive from an Internet site and he told me he was not. He accused me of being dishonest. I realized then that we had never discussed it, and my habit of openness had led me to make a wrong assumption. And then, I did the thing I regret most in my life. I lied.
In that moment, when confronted and realizing I had put him at risk, I was so consumed with panic that I lied. I said the ad he had seen wasn’t mine. I claimed that someone was “catfishing” with my picture. I was too afraid of what might have happened, too afraid to admit what I had previously worn on my sleeve. And the worst part? He believed me.
Our relationship ended shortly afterwards, because I couldn’t face him again. And then my job changed and I no longer travelled to the city where I saw him.
I did not mean to put him at risk. I had carefully followed a set of habits to prevent such a thing from happening, but this encounter lay outside of those habits. It was completely accidental; the conversation just got missed. But I do wish I hadn’t lied about it. That moment is the one time in my life I most wish I could undo, the one real regret I carry. Thankfully, I was on meds and undetectable, and we now know the likelihood of transmission was very low.
After that incident, I returned to double-checking and have done it ever since. I pray that our paths will cross again, that I will learn he is happy and healthy, and that I can make amends with him. But as far as I know, he is the only sexual partner who did not either know my status, or wear a condom. In spite of all my best efforts, I exposed him accidentally. The guilt of this event is a huge factor in my push for wider use of PEP and PrEP – and for writing this novel.