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My First Girlfriend and My First HIV Scare

It was perhaps the last phone call I ever expected to experience. I say experience and not receive because I was only in the same room when the call came, but it was my girlfriend that the call was for.

“It’s my mom,” my girlfriend mouthed as she picked up the phone. “Hi, mom!” she said cheerfully into the ancient black handset. It was 1994 and we were staying in a tiny, budget motel room.

We were on tour with a children’s theater company, making the rounds of elementary schools and daycares and local auditoriums during the day and eating in Shoney’s and staying in whatever local No Tell Motel that zip code had to offer.

It wasn’t exactly the glamorous life of an actress I had had in mind. But it was fun and it was money, albeit not a lot, and, most importantly, I was in love with my co-star and she was in love with me.

We volunteered to share a room in every town and pretended the rest of our tiny troupe didn’t know. That night we had been eating junk and messing around and watching Law and Order like we did every night when the hotel phone rang.

“What?” I heard her say, her tone shifting from giggly to alarmed.

“That was years ago… I know but… So what am I supposed to do?”

“But mom I…” She started to cry and I started to pace. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what they were talking about it. But it was clear that it wasn’t anything good. Finally she hung up the phone. She was hysterical.

“I may have killed you,” she said. I couldn’t translate the words. The tenses didn’t make sense. I was alive.

“I may have HIV,” she said.

My stomach dropped. I considered myself a relatively educated person. I considered myself a relatively careful person. Condoms were standard, required equipment when I was sleeping with men. But, I confess, I hadn’t really considered protection when it came to her. She was the first girl I was with. It was stupid obviously. But the truth was that as much as I knew about HIV, I was still pretty hazy on the whole female-to-female transmission thing.

I was in high school in the 80s. I grew up in the heart of the HIV/AIDS rise. When I was in high school, Father Ken came into our classroom and told us we had nothing to worry about when it came to AIDS because none of us were gay and none of us were having sex. That intense ignorance was what led me to take an HIV seminar my first year in college. I wanted to be ground zero for information.

You can’t get it from social contact. Condoms used “properly” can protect you from sexual transmission. Don’t share needles. Don’t share fluids. Know your status.

I remember the first time after taking that seminar that I hugged someone who was not only HIV positive but who had what we called in those days “full-blown AIDS.” He cried and so did I and I remember wondering how long it had been since someone touched him as he clung to me, my shirt wet with his tears.

When Grace* and I started dating, I did know her sexual history. I did know her status, as much as she knew it. And I did know that female-to-female transmission was considered rare and was rarely discussed. What I didn’t know was that she had had a blood transfusion many years before. And that was what that phone call was about.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What are you saying? I don’t understand. I’m alive. How could you have killed me?”

“I may have HIV,” was all she said.

My stomach dropped. My heart stopped. My mind raced.

I began to cry.

“Oh baby. Oh no. What did your mom say? Were you tested? You need to be tested again. You’ll be ok. We’ll get through this. There are meds. There are trials. We can…”

“Me? I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about you. What if I gave it to you? What if I killed you?”

I couldn’t believe it. She had just gotten a call from her mom saying that blood she had received years ago was from a lot that included some HIV positive batches and that she needed to be tested and she was worried about me. Me.

We called every 24-hour hotline we could contact to find out about how HIV is transmitted between women and what the stats were and what we should be doing to protect ourselves and we searched for somewhere we could get tested and we cried and held each other and we wondered what the future held.

It was all very anti-climactic. Thank the universe. She was negative. I was negative. We were fine. That time. But I will never forget that moment. I will never forget what almost feels like. And I will never forget what love like that feels like either, the kind that puts you first even in the most terrifying moments.

But more than anything, as a result of both that moment and my “coming of age” in the mid-80s, I will never forget the legacy of HIV. I will never forget that a positive status used to mean a death sentence. It used to mean solitary confinement. It used to be about “them” and never about us.

But things are changing. Only the most ignorant among us see it as matter of morality. It’s no longer fraught with the level of misunderstanding it once was. And the slow lifting of the blanketing of stigma has allowed us to begin to see the truth. HIV is virus. And the only means to a cure is us, telling our stories, sharing our knowledge, and remembering that a diagnosis does not a person make.