Never Get AIDS [Norton Girault Prize Winner]

By Greg Marshall

I went to school and we had an AIDS speaker in science. He had AIDS and took nearly 40 pills a day. I can only pray to God that I’m not reading this journal in 20 years saying, “Shit, why did I do that? Now I have to live with AIDS!” Greg – make the right choices. Do not let AIDS take you in! Fight! Never get AIDS. Never!

-An entry from my seventh-grade journal

 

HIV started like a common cold: fever, chills, sore throat, muscle aches. You might suffer some fatigue or have swollen lymph nodes, but a week or so after primary infection your ailments would subside and your health would return to normal. Rushing to the clinic wouldn’t do any good as it could take six months after being infected, maybe longer, to test positive for the virus that causes AIDS. “The window period,” Mrs. Potter said, strolling the rows of my seventh-grade Life Science class. She kept her arms crossed and her gaze trained on some middle distance, the American flag or the TV bolted above the chalkboard. “Will you test positive during the window period?”

“No.”

I chanted along with the rest of the class, trying to make sure my voice was not more ragged than those around me. Failing to hide my nerves, I ripped a corner of paper from my binder and tore it into smaller and smaller pieces, my leg jiggling like I had to go to the bathroom.

Mrs. Potter passed my desk, momentarily enveloping me in her lotion scent. The rare junior-high teacher who had a genuine rapport with her students, Mrs. Potter was more like a friend’s mom than a teacher, affectionate but quick to correct. The district pushed a strict no touching policy—our teachers were supposed to be like actors in a haunted house, frightening us but never making bodily contact—but Mrs. Potter had no problem straightening a collar or brushing the dandruff off a distressed shoulder. I felt her linger over me, studying the mess I’d made with my scraps of paper, and for a second I worried she’d put a comforting hand on my shoulder, singling me out as the one this was all directed toward. Did everyone know I was gay? Was this lesson for me? These other assholes weren’t going to get AIDS, but I was. I kept my eyes fixed on my scraps of paper.

Mrs. Potter moseyed by. When she came to the end of my row she twirled around, lifting a prosecutorial finger as if she might finally stump us. “But can you get other people sick during the window period?”

“Yes,” I said along with the rest of the class.

Mrs. Potter had sensible dark hair that curled obligingly at her shoulders. Like our moms, she preferred pleated khakis, appliqué vests and headbands. Unlike our moms, she could turn bland textbook passages into rhapsody. “That’s right,” she said. “Viral loads can be very high during this time. Viral loads can be what?”

“High during this time,” we repeated.

A hand shot up. A girl asked, “Will this be on the test?”

Mrs. Potter paused significantly before answering. “We’re not having a test on HIV/AIDS.” She always said the two together, like they were a package deal. “Life will be your test.” Mrs. Potter had told us this a hundred times before. The thought of getting out of an exam made the other kids in my class giddy; it made me flustered. Life really would be the test, and I was sure to bomb.

I was thirteen. Closeted. A virgin.

“Closeted” sounds strange to say of a seventh grader as it implies I knew for sure I was gay, no question about it, and I’d chosen to hide said gay identity. This is close enough to the truth, I suppose, at least as far as the hiding part. Let’s just say I thought I wasn’t one of those kids who was confused about my sexuality, though looking back I can see I still had a lot of questions. My earliest memory is of undressing my Spider-Man doll at the age of two and my first boner came a few years later when, playing with my action figures, Superman and a cowboy named BraveStarr began submitting each other to torture. My hang up was not accepting I was gay, but figuring out how this fact would apply to my life. It’s possible both to like guys and to picture a woman on your arm when you daydream about walking the red carpet.

There were two other suspected homosexuals in seventh grade, a baby-faced Samoan boy named Dallas and a knock-kneed fop named Bobbie, the only other kid on my third-grade basketball team to not score a basket in an entire season. I fancied myself less obvious than these boys—less effeminate, less flitty—but I couldn’t be sure. Suburban Salt Lake City in the late 1990s was not especially cruel, but not especially enlightened, either. Kids used the word gay in the same way they used the word retarded—to signify something they didn’t like. You might not have gotten your ass kicked for openly liking guys, but it wouldn’t have made you any friends, either. There was no incentive to come out, no queer world waiting to claim you. Being gay was a social death sentence as surely as AIDS was an actual death sentence.

My sister Tiffany was obsessed with Drew Barrymore and had a poster from the movie Mad Love taped above her bed. When I pressed my mom’s Brookstone back massager into my crotch, I thought not of Drew but of her co-star, Chris O’Donnell. It would take me a few more years to fantasize about boys from my grade. Until then, I told myself that I didn’t like guys. I liked celebrities.

I can see now that my fear of AIDS kept me in the closet. I had never met an openly gay person, or seen a gay character on TV unless you counted “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” a cartoon superhero satire onSaturday Night Live. When gay people did come up in the news, it was almost exclusively in the context of AIDS. Gay guys weren’t the only ones infected with the virus, but all gay guys were infected with the virus. I couldn’t earn better than a B-plus in pre-algebra, but the transitive logic was so simple even I could complete it: Greg is gay. Gay people have AIDS. Greg has AIDS.

I don’t want to suggest I was the only seventh grader whose world was rocked by AIDS. Anyone who was a kid in the late-90s will tell you it was quite the opposite. Mrs. Potter made a point of saying the virus afflicted not just gay men, but Democrats in general: brown kids, goths, girls. AIDS, as they say, was catching. Magic Johnson had HIV. So did a nurse on ER. Ryan White, the hemophiliac who had been expelled from middle school for being HIV-positive, was now (posthumously) a national hero. There was the AIDS quilt, Rent, Freddie Mercury.

It may have just been that it was a big deal for me, of course, but for those two weeks Mrs. Potter seemed to pack the house. The skater boys who were truant or checked out when we discussed DNA or mitosis or wetlands came alive when we talked about AIDS. At full attendance, there was not a single spare desk in the room, and as the winter began to thaw into an uneasy spring, the smell got worse and worse, not just body odor but body spray and deodorant and dried sweat. Without a desk to sit in, Mrs. Potter’s dead-eyed teacher’s assistant, a ninth grader, beached herself on the radiator. We could smell her oils simmering as surely as we could taste the Oreos on our breath from lunch a period earlier.

School policy when it came to sex ed was for kids to never have any, ever. Abstinence only. Most of the kids in Mrs. Potter’s class were Mormon. The girls weren’t allowed to wear tank tops, let alone have sex. Whacking off was sin. And so it was a small act of courage for Mrs. Potter to teach us the word prophylactic. “The only one hundred percent safe sex is not having any,” she would say. “But if you do choose to have sex, using condoms greatly reduces the risk. Using what?”

“Condoms,” we would say in unison.

Mrs. Potter had no illusions she was training the next generation of professors and pathologists. Our class was not Gifted and Talented. We had average tests scores and average life prospects. Life Science covered everything from evolution to pasteurization. Squinting through microscopes, dissecting frogs, debating whether or not Pluto was a planet—the object of these lessons was as much civic as it was scientific. Mrs. Potter endeavored to mold us into decent people, to prepare a bunch of sheltered kids for the world by arming us with facts, and, when that didn’t work, by scaring the bejesus out of us.

The last day before spring break, she wheeled a TV in from the library and, before pressing play, excused the few kids whose parents wouldn’t sign the permission slip she’d sent home weeks earlier. I can’t remember what her letter said, but it must have sounded reasonable and firm because, in the end, only three or four unfortunate creatures stood and gathered their pencil sharpeners and backpacks. I watched them scurrying out the door, binders clamped chastely to their chests, as I sunk back in my bendy plastic chair, putting my feet up on the book basket beneath the desk in front of me.

Something strange, almost animalistic, happened whenever a teacher turned out the lights and cranked down the blinds. A different charge coursed through the room. Kids around me quietly exploded bags of potato chips or passed around Granny B’s Sugar Cookies they had bought from the vending machine. Mrs. Potter shushed a few loudmouths; soon they shut up, transferring their energy to writing notes.

Clocking in at about forty-five minutes without commercials, In the Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story tells the story of a promising high school anchorwoman who, over the course of reporting a story about teenagers living with HIV, discovers that her boyfriend has infected her with the virus.

It’s the end of the movie I remember best. Katie is sitting dazed behind her anchor desk at school when her camerawoman, Lisa, runs in to tell her they have won a journalism contest. Their story will appear on Channel Three, where they are going to be summer interns. A deliberate silence settles over the almost abandoned newsroom. Doing a report on AIDS was Lisa’s idea to begin with, and now Katie resents her for it. “It’s all your fault,” Katie says. “This had nothing to do with me until I met you.”

In a lesser production, things would have turned scene-chewy fast. It’s a credit to the actresses that they underplay their lines. Soon, Katie has moved from accusing her friend to blaming herself. “Why did I do it, Lisa? Why did I sleep with him?”

“Because you loved him,” Lisa consoles before Katie tumbles into her arms.

Shadow of Love is the kind of paint-by-numbers parable that madeAfter School Special not just a long-running TV series, but a catchphrase for the overwrought, arresting drama in our own lives. By today’s standards, the movie may be cheesy, its scenes scored with jazz guitars and flutes, but on that April day in 1998, I was not the only one quietly weeping. You have to love a program written for twelve-year-olds so earnest that the support group leader, played by a woman with a head of loose braids, gets away with mentioning that you can catch HIV not just from semen and blood, but also from vaginal fluid. The show also gained points in my mind for casting Harvey Fierstein, Robin William’s gay brother from Mrs. Doubtfire, as an auntish AIDS counselor.

The final shot, which remained frozen on the screen, was of Katie sitting down in a big comfy chair at the support group. The jazz guitars purred and the credits rolled over the image as Mrs. Potter waltzed to the light switch, giving us time to wipe snot onto our sleeves, and clicked on the lights. Using my middle fingers, I pulled my lids taut to sluice away the tears, like my mom did when she cried. It was as close to congregational as I’d ever felt in school and it was hard not to wonder if my funeral would get anything near this outpouring. Dabbing her eyes, Mrs. Potter told us to have a safe and wonderful spring break.

As we were finishing up AIDS in science, my mom was finishing up a round of Rituxan. Compared to the other kinds of chemo she’d endured, Rituxan was no worse than a rigorous day at the spa. A therapy that targeted cancer cells, this cocktail didn’t make Mom’s hair fall out and she could usually make it to and from the toilet to be sick. Only occasionally would I shoulder into my parents’ room to watch Nick at Nite and discover Mom’s Pompeiian form huddled next to the toilet. Chemo was on Tuesday. By Saturday, she would feel well enough to get dressed, and by Sunday, when all the Mormons were in church, she would go to the grocery store to do our shopping for the week.

There are plenty of differences between AIDS and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but, from what I could observe, both were chronic conditions that attacked the immune system and pretty much ended your life.

I lived under a germophobic regime where hand washing was a form of prayer. Wringing our hands, we would beg, Please don’t let Mom get sick. If my brother or sisters or I brought home a friend with a runny nose, Mom would send them away. We didn’t blame her, exactly, but it was humiliating having her shut herself up in her room, shouting from behind her door. “Was that a sneeze? I heard a sneeze.” We would have to tell our friends how sorry we were, they would have to call their parents to pick them up.

If one of us got sick, we were treated as enemy combatants. According to Mom, a cough traveled eight feet even when you covered your mouth, and the pettiest of colds could give her pneumonia. She made a point of wearing a blue surgical mask and yellow rubber gloves when cleaning up dog shit.

Because of Mom’s cancer, all of us kids were real hypochondriacs. We’d go into the doctor for just about anything and generally feared death more than your average children. We considered ourselves a family to which bad things happened.

I started coughing on the third or fourth day of spring break and by that weekend my voice was a strangle of vowels. Hitting tennis balls with my dad one afternoon, I started to worry. If it could happen to Katie, anchorwoman and journalistic luminary, it could happen to me. As the ball flew toward me, I told myself that if I missed this shot I had HIV. My sore muscles, swollen lymph nodes and cough were symptoms not of a cold but of the disease we’d been studying in Mrs. Potter’s class. I was a goner. I couldn’t stay in the house if I was sick, so I was bound for a squalid foster home where I would be forced to befriend spiders and mop toilet bowls with my tongue. Conversely, if I made the shot, I was negative and would be fine.

My rinky-dink shot cleared the net by seven feet and sailed over the fence. Hearing the ball thud on the lawn behind the court, I told myself it was best of three shots, and then best of five, of seven, of eleven. I made some ground strokes and missed many more and walked off the court more consternated than ever.

On one level, I knew what I was doing was illogical. Mrs. Potter had taught me better than to believe a racquet could decide my fate. I didn’t have HIV since I wasn’t engaging in risky behavior: having sex, shooting up, or getting sketchy blood transfusions. Then why this worry in my gut? The fear might have subsided if I’d been willing to tell my dad about it, but then he would start to ask questions. “Why should you be scared, Greggo?” he might ask, tapping my chest with his white Wilson. “Is there something you need to tell us?”

The morning I was supposed to go back to school, I awoke to find my shirt soaked in sweat. “You don’t look good, Greggo,” my dad said when I came down for breakfast. I poured a glass of O.J. and went to the couch to die. Not wanting to worry my dad, who looked quite blissful flipping pancakes with his spatula, I kept my diagnosis to myself. The Price Is Right would be on soon and after that, Bewitched. I would close my eyes and drift off. There were worse things than dying to Samantha twitching her nose.

I missed school that day and the next. When I returned, we’d moved on to natural selection or cephalopods or the circulatory system. I can’t really remember, and made no note of it in my journal. What I do remember is that near the end of the period, Mrs. Potter told us that her dear friend was coming the next day to talk to us about HIV/AIDS. She was intentionally vague, saying he might be a doctor, patient, or counselor, and we were not to ask if he harbored the disease.

“He totally has it,” the kid next to me whispered.

Walking into science that day, I expected a woman in a lab coat to prick my finger and administer an HIV test on the spot. I took some relief in the fact that, seeing as how I was in the window period, I would test negative. The doctor would need only massage my lymph nodes and feel my pasty forehead to detect my ravaged immune system, but for conclusive evidence we would have to wait. At least I wouldn’t be hauled away on a gurney.

As I made my way to my desk, I was surprised to find Mrs. Potter gossiping with a relatively attractive guy at the front of the room. He whispered little insights that made Mrs. Potter tip back her head and chortle. In my memory, he’s thirty-three, which means he could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five.

Taking off his jean jacket, he hung it on the back of Mrs. Potter’s chair, exposing a rumpled shirt tucked into slim, stonewashed jeans. Though his status was supposed to be a secret, before the tardy bell rang he came right out and told us he had AIDS. Not HIV. Full-blown AIDS. We’d studied the virus from a polite distance for so long, learned all the right things to think and say, and yet I couldn’t help but be electrified by the news. Here was someone from the real world, not a teacher but an actual adult with an actual first name, and for the rest of the period I was free to study him. This was one of the advantages of being a student. Outside class it was rude to stare; here it was my job. As far as guest speakers went, I’d hit the AIDS jackpot.

Dennis was cute, prissy and self-righteous as truth-tellers can sometimes be, not a scare-em-straight motivational speaker, but a whistleblower from the corrupt company called adulthood. He looked a little vexed standing before us. Hand planted on his hip, he rested most of his weight on one battered sneaker while the toe of the other just barely scraped the ground. His smile was tight and defiant. It must have been that defiance that attracted me, a mix of handsomeness and ruin.

It says something that even after seeing the plucky, infected teens inShadow of Love, I expected my first, real-life AIDS patient to be hunched and skeletal, a lover of dark corners with a breathy voice. Maybe all I mean to say is that Dennis didn’t appall me, that I saw myself in him, and instead of recoiling I sat back in my desk to listen, somehow gladdened.

 

Before she retired to the windowsill, Mrs. Potter squirted some Purrell onto Dennis’s palm and then onto her own, as if simply being in our presence required hand sanitizer. “Like we’ve talked about, class, because of Dennis’s weakened immune system you’re more of a risk to him than he is to you,” she said.

Dennis worked the clear gel between each finger, studying his shiny cuticles as he said, casually, “You really are. You could kill me.”

Dennis began with an About Me section. “Like I said, I have AIDS, which sucks and is awful. I like long walks on the beach and riding my bike.” He looked to Mrs. Potter. “What else?”

“It’s your class,” she shrugged.

“I really freaked out the last group, so I think I’m just going to have fun with you guys,” he said.

I was disappointed to hear Dennis was from Farmington, a village outside of Salt Lake, and not a big city. How did he contract HIV in Farmington? Maybe it was a case of animal-to-human transfer. A carnival had come to town and a gorilla or a sooty mangabey had snapped its leash and lovingly bitten him.

As I sat there wondering, Dennis chalked two columns of monthly expenses on the green board: Medical and Everything Else. The first column was for his drug cocktail and doctor’s bills and the second, which he filled with our suggestions, was for things like rent, food and movies. Mrs. Potter called it a brainstorm, but it was really just a shouting match. “Milk,” one girl cried. “Soda,” said another. “Ba-loan-ya,” said the class clown, and everyone giggled.

“Keep it together, people,” Mrs. Potter warned.

Dennis was lithe, almost balletic, and so short he had to arabesque to reach the upper third of the board. I didn’t participate, not because I thought I was too good for the auction-like commerce of ideas, but because I was holding in a cough. Several coughs. If I opened my mouth, I worried they’d go flying out like saliva-covered bats. Dennis would catch pneumonia and die and I would be to blame. Mrs. Potter would show up to school Monday wearing a black veil, holding it together until I walked into fifth period. “You,” she would say. “Why didn’t you listen?”

Dennis’s handwriting was thrillingly messy and unteacherlike. The chalk clattered in his fingers and when he turned to us, wiping his mouth with his forearm, we saw that he had smudged his stonewashed jeans and his billowy dress shirt.

Following up his baloney hit, the class clown recommended Cheez Whiz and Dennis actually put his chalk to the board. “How do you spell that?” he asked. The laughter couldn’t be contained. Was this some sort of joke? When, in the history of the universe, did a scheme to write whiz on the board actually work? We were the average kids, remember, and yet my class had accomplished a remarkable feat. When it came to being smart asses we were Gifted and Talented.

“W-h-i-z,” the kid said, as if in a spelling bee.

Dennis let us inspect his handiwork as a girl with a completely unnecessary TI-80-something came up with totals for each column, then Dennis put another dollar amount on the board, his monthly budget, and drew frantic circles around it. Anyone could see the man’s modest income wasn’t nearly enough to cover both his medical expenses and his living expenses. He tossed the chalk playfully in the air and caught it, asking which he should choose: food and movies and an apartment, or his medicine.

Educators would have called this a teachable moment. Dennis and Mrs. Potter had let the class go on and on, crafting an encyclopedic list of all the foods we loved and all the things we liked to do so that we’d get a sense of loss. This was all we couldn’t have. Mrs. Potter had taught us the scientific method, about making assumptions and coming up with a hypothesis, only to use it against us. We had assumed Dennis could afford to indulge his appetites. AIDS, it turned out, was pricey.

When he’d erased everything we’d come up with, Dennis tossed the chalk into its tray and settled on top of Mrs. Potter’s desk, his thumbs rapping on the desk’s metallic edge. He’d been so wry and sarcastic so far, a public school Peter Pan, it was disquieting to have him sitting primly in front of us, his posture so perfect it had to be an act. He picked a spot on the floor and didn’t look up from it. “Now I’d like to tell you about my friend Terrence,” he said.

Dennis had no problem telling us he had AIDS, but it pained him to talk about this Terrence guy, who had died three years earlier of complications related to the disease. Dennis described delirious trips to the emergency room that turned into interminable hospital stays, and how frightened Terrence had been at the end. “I’ve lost my best friend. And now I’m all alone. Me and my bills,” he said.

He must have already told the story to Mrs. Potter’s other classes that day, but his voice became hoarse, as if he’d finally caught my cold. Grief made his features uneven. He squinted one eye and twisted his mouth from one side of his face to the other, straining not to cry until, all at once, he slapped his thighs and hopped up from the ledge of the desk, saluting the board one last time. Mrs. Potter came over and put a hand on his back. “Give Dennis a round of applause,” she said.

I’d like to say I knew Dennis was gay right away, but that would be an exaggeration. It’s hard for any of us to comprehend just how naïve and unhip we were as kids, how lost in daily life, ignorant of the themes and events that shape us as they’re shaping us. Only upon reflection at home would Dennis’ sexual orientation become obvious to me: Terrence wasn’t Dennis’s friend but his “friend.” I wish now that I would have given the guy a hug, germs be damned, but when the bell rang I filed out with everyone else and, once in the hall, let out an ab-straining cough.

My family didn’t believe in counseling, but if Harvey Fierstein could have sat me down, his voice crackling like a campfire, he could have helped me understand. “You have a crush on Dennis,” he might have said. “That’s why you’re freaking out.” As a seventh grader, my greatest fear was dying of AIDS, though it may be just as accurate to say the opposite: As a seventh grader, my greatest fear was not dying of AIDS. Worse than AIDS was the prospect I might never find anyone to love me.

If my logic sounds tortured, perhaps even schizophrenic, it’s because itwas schizophrenic. I wanted to join my denim-on-denim wearing brethren, maybe even take part in a fashionable support group, but I didn’t want to die.

 

I saved any mention of Dennis for the end of my journal entry that night. The few sentences I managed were as much about fighting desire as they were about disease. Make the right choices. Do not let AIDS take you in! Fight! Never Get AIDS. Never!

I remained a hypochondriac for the rest of my teens. Donating blood during a school-wide drive in the tenth grade, I wondered if I would get a call from a counselor telling me I had the virus, never mind that I was still a virgin.

I still occasionally made a superstitious bet with myself when I was shooting a basket or swinging a tennis racquet: If I make this, I’ll stay negative. If I miss it I’ll get HIV, but Mrs. Potter’s lesson diminished my ignorance. Any time I lost my cool, I remembered that my personal life equation was not Greg equals AIDS but Greg plus condoms equals safe. I couldn’t get rid of my fear, but I could put a prophylactic on it.

 

It took me until my freshman year of college to come out of the closet and another year to find someone who would have sex with me. Dennis became my stand-in fictional boyfriend on many nights when my only company was AOL Instant Messenger and porn.

I didn’t know whether Dennis was dead or alive, but whenever I came home on breaks I imagined running into him in the beer aisle. On a Sunday. When all the Mormons were in church. Despite the years that had elapsed, he would still look the same as he had that day in seventh grade, the cuffs of his rumpled shirt rolled almost to his elbows, his jean jacket tossed over one shoulder. When I saw him, I would squeeze his shoulders and steal Katie’s line from Shadow of Love. “It’s all your fault,” I’d say. “This had nothing to do with me until I met you.” And then I would tumble into his arms.

 

*

Greg Marshall is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. He lives in Austin with his boyfriend and is at work on a memoir.