I shouldn’t have been surprised that the room was filled with gay guys. I was on Church Street, after all. Men of different ages and ethnicities stood around, studiously ignoring each other. I took in the assembly of Abercrombie and H&M to see if there was anyone I knew, but even if there had been I probably wouldn’t have raced over, arms a-stretched, bellowing, “Hey girl, how are you?!”
For I wasn’t at a gay bar on Saturday night: I was at the Hassle Free clinic to get tested for HIV.
I am a single, gay guy living in Toronto. I go on dates. I try to enjoy my life. While I always practice safe sex and have never been with someone who is HIV positive, I believe that getting tested is what a responsible person does. If you describe yourself as HIV negative, you have to occasionally make sure you are. In the past, my family doctor had just thrown the test in when she’s taken my blood and I hadn’t thought much of it.
But this time felt different. It had been over a year since I was last tested and there had been some men in that time. I knew, rationally, I had no particular reason to worry, but the prospect of the test weighed down on me. For one thing, as I get older, I find that I worry about illness and death a lot more. And not just my own: nowadays I get paranoid every time one of my parents goes to the doctor.
Last year, when I felt a mole on my back, the two month wait for my doctor’s appointment was agonizing. After telling me I had nothing to worry about with the mole, she added, “I do want you to get those two spots on your chest checked out with our skin specialist, though. You always wear sunscreen, right?”
“Yes,” I said, defensively, before thinking, ‘There was that one time, in India…’
(The spots were fine.)
The other problem is, I have too many fictive stories in my head. While it’s good that TV shows, movies and books have dealt with AIDS, when it comes to my own life, instead of embracing the most likely scenario, my mind jumps to dramatic plotlines out of ‘Angels in America’. It’s the equivalent of people who are scared of flying because of movies in which planes burst into flames. The fact that one of the safest places in the world you can be is in an airplane makes no difference to them.
“If you are worried about it, just get tested,” a friend of mine said.
“But I don’t want to wait for a doctor’s appointment,” I whined.
“Then go to the Hassle free clinic. They have a five minute HIV test.” My friend, who is currently in a three-way relationship with two handsome bearded men, is more privy to this kind of information.
“I didn’t even know that existed. Welcome to the future.”
“Yeah, to get that test, they ask you to make an appointment,” he went on. “I think you should, even though I’m sure everything will be fine.”
Despite his admonishments, as the day of my appointment approached, I was nervous. I couldn’t stop picturing, after the test, the doctor pulling me into the little room to talk. Would I faint, like Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’. In an episode of ‘Queer As Folk’, a main character gets tested after having unprotected sex in an orgy but finds out, miraculously, he’s still negative. In the same scene at the hospital, a man who presumably didn’t get the same result is comforted by a friend. The main characters look sympathetically at the two softly crying, before they exit, never to be seen again.
The night before my test, I went out for ice cream in the Annex with my old friend Laura, who is almost finished the tortuous odyssey of becoming a doctor. I thought if anyone, Laura, rational to the extreme, would allay my fears.
“Statistically, the chances are very small that you’d have anything,” she said. “But it’s good you’re getting tested.”
I stopped licking my Butter Pecan.
“That’s it? I thought you’d say I had nothing to worry about.”
“Sorry, Max, you probably don’t. But I’ve been trained to never promise people anything.”
‘I need to get this stupid test over as soon as possible,’ I thought.
I learned later that the reason it was all gay men in the waiting area was that the clinic has male and female hours. After I filled out the requisite forms, I pretended to read my book, but really I was thinking about the people around me. How many of them expected bad news? How many had already received bad news? After having read Randy Shilts’ ‘And The Band Played On’ about the development of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, I thought about how lucky we were to have the resources and the knowledge whose absence destroyed a generation.
It was a middle-aged South Asian man in glasses holding my newly-created chart.
“Sorry it is so crowded today,” he said. “We are understaffed.”
“Did somebody call in sick?” I asked, partly joking.
“Yes. Two people. Please have a seat. So, because of that, I will be doing your tests, but as I am not a doctor, I cannot do all of them.”
“Oh,” I said. “Which ones?”
“HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea–those are all fine. I can’t do a genital or anal exam.”
“That’s fine,” I sighed in relief. “I don’t think I need those.”
Then, there was a bunch of questions. It’s weird to describe your sexual history in stark, no-nonsense terms to a stranger. I kept wanting to go into deeper contexts about my ex-boyfriends: “Okay, the thing with that guy was that…” But the man seemed pleased with my answers.
“Given your history and your precautions, I would be very surprised if we found anything today,” he said, preparing the needle.
“So…are you a nurse?”
“No, I am a counselor who is trained to administer tests. Can I have your hand please?”
“I’m not going to look, okay?”
“That’s fine. It’s just a light prick.”
“I know. I’m not scared. It’s just that, when I got tested for mono at the end of high school, I almost fainted. First, the nurse asked, ‘Mono, huh? Been kissing lots of girls?’ Which was so inappropriate! I remember joking about it, saying that if I was being tested for HIV, would she have said, ‘HIV, huh? Been screwing lots of gays?’ (In reality, I had probably been coarser in my phrasing, and used two F-words.) And then, because it was taking longer than I expected, I glanced down at my arm, and saw the blood filling the needle. And my vision went all white, all I saw was light, and I started yelling, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see!’ So I had to lay down for awhile.”
“Okay, done,” he said. “Now I just need to take this sample to the other room and I’ll be right back. One line means you’re negative, two lines, positive.”
“Kind of like a pregnancy test.”
“Yes, but like I said, I doubt you’re positive.”
‘Stop saying that!’ I thought.
Then he left me alone. Here it was, the part I had feared: waiting for the moment of truth. But I was no longer scared. Partly it was the man’s nonchalant attitude and his freedom to say things that doctor’s aren’t allowed to say. But I also think my own rationality had kicked it. I trust science and facts, not gut feelings and phobias. I understood the dangers and had taken the right precautions. As Laura had said the day before, the advantage of having been careful is you don’t have to worry as much. I felt a bit silly for creating drama entirely within my own head.
I have been very fortunate in my life. Many have been less so.
“Good news!” the man announced as he came back in. “Like I thought, one line. Here! See? You’re fine.”
“With your habits, I see no reason for you to get tested any more than once a year, or once every two years.”
“One last thing. I would like you to fill this cup with a urine sample. Up to this line, but not past it! Leave it at the front desk and we will test for everything else. We will call you if we find anything, but like I say, I don’t think we will.”
“Still best to be safe,” I said, collecting my things to leave.
“Yes. Goodbye.” he said, scribbling on my chart, continuing with his busy day.