We are officially two days into our relationship when Darrell tells me he hasn’t been on his meds for about four months. He says it with a smirkand I get it. It’s not so much that he believes what he said is humorous, but rather, this is just how this goes sometimes.
Perhaps a change in insurance is now prompting ADAP to request more information before shipping out your daily communion. Or perhaps your doctor insists on a check-up before renewing your prescription. Either way, you should be fine. You feel okay, at least. Not sickly, like spoiled fruit runneth through your veins or anything. These are all just formalities.
You’re not going to allow a formality to scare you away from treatment, are you? That would be silly. That would be ridiculous. That would be dangerous, irresponsible, selfish: Do you not care about your mother? Haven’t you put this family through enough? Haven’t you put your body through enough? Enough. Enough. Enough!
Darrell is still waiting for me to respond so I roll my eyes and I tell him, “I’ve been off for about two weeks.” He scoffs, jokingly, as if to say, “amateur.” I push his forehead with my palm as he grabs for my waist giggling. I snort, “Nigga, you bout to die! I ain’t with that necrophilic shit.” He cranes his head up towards the ceiling and lets out a cackle as large as his diseased bodyand this is a joke only our kind could share.
They call couples with opposing HIV statuses “serodiscordant.” Which, to me, just means that if I leave some pills in the Triumeq bottle I keep on the dresser, I would not be asked any questions, because it would just be presumed that I’m “on top of my health.”
Very often negative folks are clueless. It is only those like Darrell and me who share this particular undoing who know that pill bottles aren’t proof of anything and that sometimes it isn’t a phone call or a doctor’s visit, but rather the act of having to put the pill to your mouth that is the deterrent to your own treatment.
We, who are warned by our doctors to not f*ck each other raw because our combined HIV strains could “speed up the process”as in our deathsunderstand it all. But we f*ck how we like anyway because our bedroom is the only place where we can allow death to be a joke we tease each other with. It is this particular kind of dying that I cannot share with anyone else.
There is something special about having a partner with your same diseasebe it HIV, or loneliness, or abandonment issues. There is a freedom therea mirror to scream into. I wonder if there is a word as precise as “serodiscordant” for that kind of love. Granted, many would say the word I am looking for is “dysfunction.” They would call our humor around not taking medication “enabling.” Yet, this is why we find each other in the first place.
Only we know the cost of such living. Only we understand that the true “dysfunction” began in 1980 when Ronald Reagan decided to ignore all thebodies dropping to the floor. Only we understand that the true “dysfunction” lives today in thedisproportionate rates of HIV in black communitiesdue to deterrents such aspovertyand access tohealth care.
A life with HIV is a life in response to a world that has done all it possibly can to enter and regulate your body. For years, the world has attempted to quarantine us. To tell us that we will only be able to date those who are “dirty” like us. But what magnificent irony it is when they realize that the whole time we were all we wanted in the first place. I contemplate this as Darrell leaves the bed to take a shower.
He turns back to me and says, “Naw, but for real. We got to do better. We got this, babe.” I reply, “I know.” That was all I needed to say for him to continue on his trip. Had he been my mother or my best friend or my HIV negative ex-boyfriend, that conversation would’ve required more heavy lifting.
The statement “I know” would’ve necessitated an explanation as to why I knowor how: You do understand that this your life you’re playing with, right? So what, you’re just gonna not take your medication? You telling me you want to die? Are you just giving up, is that it?
A few weeks later, I was tired. I am generally tired every day, but this particular day I convinced myself that the exhaustion felt “different.” Immediately, I began to think about my pills, the nurse’s voice when she read the word “positive,” Tom Hanks’s role in the moviePhiladelphia, my brother’s disdain for funerals, my own disdain for graves, death, death, and more death.
I text Darrell the words “flare up,” to which he replied with a paragraph worth of laughing emojis. He asked me if I coughed, and I told him, “No, this time it was a yawn”he sends more emojis. Flare up is the term we used for this particular kind of anxiety.
Sometimes your brain undermines the rest of your body’s progress in healing. Sometimes you can be virally suppressed, but your mind still tells you that your ten-second sneezing fit is a direct manifestation of your “tainted blood.” Flare up is how we learned to laugh at this paranoia that on occasion kept us up at night, or kept us inside during flu season.
“Did it pass,” he eventually asked. “Yeah,” I reply, “I’m beginning to calm down.” And I was. With him I was.