Sunday, December 01, 2002

Mr. Bartender's Long Personal Drama (aka why I'm so fucked in the head)

Prelude - Nothing New Here

Nothing Unusual
Nothing Strange
Close to Nothing At All

-- Damien Rice, "Amie"

Here's a relationship tale that's been told a million times by a million different people. Nothing new or unique about it other than the fact that this time it happened to me. It's one that has a way of lingering around in my head, years after the fact. I wonder when all the ghosts of this relationship will leave but they have a way of lingering around my psyche, popping up in the strangest places.

I'm hoping that writing all of this out will help exorcise some of those feelings. I've given the Cliff notes version of the story to people over the years, but I've never forced myself to review the experience from start to finish. So in deciding to write about this I went through 6 and a half months worth of old emails between the ex and me (yes ol' sentimental me keeps all of that stuff for just such occasions).

In reading the emails I was really struck by how much memory can distort what really happened. Not necessarily the major events, but rather timelines, emotions, and behavior. Despite how fucked up so many things were, there was a lot in the relationship that was really good. At the end of a relationship it's easy to either only remember the good things and want him back or only remember the bad things and dismiss it as the worst relationship you ever had. I was certainly doing the later. Reading old emails reminded me about all the good things that I had forgotten. I forgot how happy he made me. I forgot that I really did love him. Sometimes in retrospect I would beat myself over the fact that I fell for such a liar or how much of myself I had lost to him. It was reassuring to look back and read old emails where I really stood my ground. Makes me feel better about the 22 naïve kid that I was.

And then there are the hard emails to read. The foreshadowing of trouble ahead, the days following the bomb that dropped on us, the process of picking ourselves back up, the eventual realization that despite the chemistry, attraction and love we were just so wrong for each other.

Overall I'm finding this process cathartic so far….we'll see if writing it all out helps some more.

Part 1 - Boy Meets Boy

I love everything about ya and I don't even know ya
So I hope everything I made up about you is true

- Melissa Ferrick, Blind Side

It was May of 2002. I went in for my Tuesday night shift at the bar and met a brand new employee – SC. He had recently moved back to DC after being in Michigan for a few years and was going to begin bartending with us. From the second our eyes met there was an instant attraction. At the end of his first shift he handed me his email address and we started emailing back and forth. It started off as a "welcome to dc, let me know if you need anything" and quickly evolved into heavy flirtation. He was having a bit of a fling with an old ex of his, but as things between SC and me heated up, things with his ex began to cool down. Soon we had scheduled a first date. I was 22 and a hopeless romantic so naturally this felt like love at first sight. How could I not fall hopelessly in love with him when he sends me emails like:

"It is getting harder and harder for me to keep my hands off you. You have a way of looking at me that makes me feel naked....vulnerable. I start to imagine your skin I would touch you...You should stop, but I don't want you to. When will I see you again?"

Okay so a bit cheesy in retrospect but at the time I was infatuated.....So we had our first date, which led into our first night together - we proceeded to spend every night together after that. We'd each come into the bar when the other person wasn't working just to be around each other. You couldn't separate us. Aside from the obvious physical attraction I was drawn to the air of confidence that just exuded from him. Here was someone who knew what he wanted in life and grabbed it - and at the time he wanted me. He showed no fear for life and wanted to experience every moment to the fullest.

Along with that zest for life was an occasional tina/coke/e/g usage. He was very upfront with me about it and seemed to have a good handle on things. He used to be a pretty hardcore club-kid back in MI, but since moving to DC he had slowed down. He occasionally did still use, saying that for him the benefits outweigh the risks.

Now having never been part of that scene I wasn't fully comfortable with it, but was willing to keep an open mind. At first I told him I was completely cool with him doing things as long as it was in moderation and didn't get out of control, but wanted to let him know upfront I wouldn't be joining him in any of that. He seemed cool with that and we moved forward.

Two months into it things were going great. I was the happiest I had ever been. Every day we'd email each other our horoscopes and joke around with interpretations of what they meant. We'd swap stupid haikus and limericks written as a distraction from work. We just had this great playful fun. I couldn't believe things were going so well. He introduced me to his ultra-religious parents, and it was that day that I said it. We were getting ready for bed that night and I held him and said

"I'm gonna say something and I don't want you to respond – I want to say this without any obligation of a response, I only want you to return this when you feel it and mean it – SC – I love you – "

As nervous as I was saying those words, it just felt right. I knew he probably wasn't quite there yet so I didn't want to pressure him into feeling like he had to say it back. It was just something I had to say officially because it almost fell out of my mouth so many other times. Things were going great….

Part 2 – The Day It All Came Crashing Down

If we lived in a world without tears
How would misery know
Which back door to walk through
How would trouble know
Which mind to live inside of
How would sorrow find a home

-- Lucinda Williams, "World Without Tears"

…As things progressed in the relationship with SC, he became more insistent about his dislike for condoms. He had previous told me stories about some of his sexploits during his heavy clubbing days so I wasn't going without a condom without getting tested first. Especially when he told me things like "You're the first person in three years I've had sex with without being on something" When I asked about his test results he said "well i was tested last year and it came back negative, but it's probably time to get tested again". We decided to go get tested together. We went to Whitman Walker - got poked and prodded - and waited a week for the results.

In that week we took a two-day trip up to Michigan to pick up his remaining stuff. SC couldn't drive, so I drove all 9 hours there and all 9 hours back. We had a lot of time to talk during that car ride and we talked about what would we do if the other person tested positive. He joked around that he'd dump my ass. I said that I hoped I'd stick around, but that it was one of those things you just don't know how you'll react until you're in it.

We got back to DC the day before we got our test results. Even though I knew I was virtually at no risk, I had trouble sleeping depsite how exhausted I was from all the driving. The next day we got to Whitman Walker and waited to be called into our rooms. I was a nervous ball of energy and was about ready to implode by the time they called me into the room. They sat me down and told me "everything looks fine!" and I felt a cool calm falling over me.

I went back to the waiting area for SC to come out. I was so relieved. I looked out the window at the shining sun and felt that everything was right in the world.

But the minutes kept ticking by and no sign of him.

5 minutes, turned to 10 minutes, which turned into a half hour, which turned into a 45 minutes. As the minutes ticked by I began to grow restless. My sense of calm was quickly diminishing. Panic and denial rotated dominance in my mind.

Then he appeared.

But only briefly. He was taken into another room to draw more blood.

Another 15 minutes go by and he comes out and we leave.

He didn't say a word. We just walked, hand in hand. The silence was excruciating. I kept clutching his hand tighter and tighter. I already knew what he was told, but I had to hear it. My mind wouldn't accept it until he said those words. Finally with tears welled up in my eye I sputtered out the questions "...what....did they say....?" A pause and then three little words "I tested positive".

The snow globe of my world was shook hard. I couldn't make any sense of it. We went home and snuggled on the couch in silence. I fought back my urge to completely break down and managed to compress my sobbing fit into a slow but steady stream of tears down my face. He didn't cry at all. In fact the only emotion he showed was a complete lack of emotion. I figured it was just his way of dealing with it....

Oddly enough, at this point and for the longest time after that I was never really concerned with my own health. Aside from a minuscule chance from oral sex, we had been safe and really I couldn't allow my mind to go there. I was so filled with grief already, no more could fit in.

And despite the uncertainly of what I would do before we got the results, afterward there was never really a big question as to stay with him or not. I was in love and that hopeless romantic in me said that love sometimes encounters difficulties and that I could not abandon him now.

So we carried on...

Part 3 – Picking Up The Pieces

Am I in heaven here
Or am I in hell
At the crossroads I am standing
So now you're sleeping peaceful
And I lie awake and pray
That you will be strong tomorrow
And we will see another day

-- Sarah McLachlan, "Hold On"

SC seemed to be handling the news well. I on the other hand was a depressed wreck. I never thought I'd have to deal with HIV. After all I grew up in an era of AIDS so by the time I was having sex I knew all about how to protect myself. In my mind as long as I was safe this disease wouldn't affect me. How wrong I was. I could prevent it from entering my body, but I could not stop it from entering my life.

I put on a strong and supportive face for SC, but I confided one day to Mrs. Jesus and absolutely broke down. I hit a low I had never felt before. Not only did I feel awful about the circumstances, but I also felt guilty for feeling so bad. After all I wasn't the one who tested positive. Why am I taking this harder than he is??? This isn't about me. But try as hard as I could, I couldn't snap out of the funk.

So I decided to go to therapy. The first person I went to was part of an employee assistance program and completely unqualified and uninformed on HIV. During our first and last session she asked me how I thought I would cope when he dies in a year or two. All I could think was "bitch where did you come from? 1982??? "

Second time around I found someone who despite her flaws was better. Things began to improve in my own mindset and I maintained my newly chosen role as caretaker. A big part of my trouble was that I felt so powerless to help the person I cared about so much. Luckily I found some relief by signing up for a trial HIV vaccine program at the National Institute of Health. I felt that if I couldn't help SC, the least I could do is help prevent this from happening to others. Plus I would also have the added benefit of having my blood tested on a regular basis. Going to the NIH every two weeks for the study was so much less emotionally draining then the simple thought of having to step back into Whitman Walker again.

Slowly life regained a sense of normalcy. By now I had moved a lot of my things out of my place and into his. I kept my apartment in the burbs, but essentially lived at his place. We became very domestic. At this point we had both quit our bar jobs and worked just our day jobs. We had our routine of coming home from work, he'd cook a meal, we'd eat, I'd do the dishes, we'd snuggle on the couch and watch the latest arrival from Netflix. We'd go to sleep and he'd always be asleep in seconds. I'd lay there holding him, planting soft kisses on the back of his neck, staring at him and wondering what the future would bring.

Part 4 – And After All Of That

I knew by the time on the stove
That you were no longer my alone
I guess we're all just out on loan
and everybody is only their own

-- Sarah Harmer, "Coffee Stain"

Despite our return to normalcy other problems began to appear. After testing positive I became more concerned with his health in general. His recreational habits no longer became acceptable to me. I became a research fiend and was constantly sending him articles about how Tina not only destroys his immune system but also significantly increases HIV viral replication. My nagging became the cause of many-a-fight…. especially after a night when he didn't make it back home until 9:30 the next morning. There were also nights he came home on Tina and I moved to the couch because I refused to sleep next to him all fucked up (not that there was much sleeping for him when he was like that)

Then one night each of us had a friend who was celebrating a birthday. He had been asked to DJ at his friend's party, which was going to be an all night/morning drug binging affair with a hot tub and strippers. Mine friend's party was scheduled to be considerably tamer. I knew before we headed different directions that he was gonna cheat on me that evening. There was little doubt in my mind in fact. I went off to my party and tried to distract my mind with good friends and tons of alcohol. I had already made plans to spend the night at Mrs. Jesus' apartment so I wouldn't have to know what time SC got home. When I got back to SC's place the next day, my fear was confirmed. He had fucked around with a couple in the hot tub. As angry as I was, I was shocked how well I took it. I guess when you already know it's gonna happen some of the anger subsides...

A week later I had a birthday of my own and I had to remind him about it. I was given an African Violet (which he took to his office the next week), a promise to take me to 6 flags (never happened) and some herbal acne remedy (nothing says happy birthday like 'here take this to get rid of those zits!').

And then there was the fact that despite everything we had gone through he still hadn't ever said those three little words "I love you" back to me. He'd allude to it every once in awhile, say it by accident once or twice when he was drunk, but he never said flat out – I love you.
I had begun to question if I should leave him or not. As much as I loved him, I was beginning to feel more and more walked on. Gone where the days of flirty emails and playful banter. Now emails were bitching about his coworkers and telling me how to tell off mine. But inevitably every time I seriously thought about leaving I would always end up feeling like I'd be abandoning him. After all he just got diagnosed with this a couple months ago, of course things are going to be off. So I stayed…

Until one Sunday in early December. We were thinking about how to spend our night and both of us wanted to go out. He suggested playing pool at Titan, I said that'd be fine but I'd just watch because I suck and pool. He was annoyed that I wouldn't play pool with him and all of the sudden he launched into a big conversation about what do we have in common. I told him we knew from the get-go that we had a lot of different interests, if this was a problem for him why had he been with me for six and a half months?

Mr. B - "What do you like about me?"

SC - "I like that we have the same politics and you sleep naked with me".

Mr. B - "so you like that I'm a democrat that sleeps naked – there's tons of those in this city – what do you like about me – me as a person".


SC - "I don't know".

Mr. B - "Well that's not good enough….what do you like about me?"

SC - "I don't know"

Mr. B - "if after everything we've been through you can't tell me a single thing about me that you like, I can't do this"

And it was over. Two days later I was moving my possessions out of his place. I was absolutely heartbroken.

Part 5 – Just When You Think It's Getting Better

If you had the real thing, how could you tell
Liars can say it all just as well

-- Patty Griffin, "Christina"

The hardest thing about the end of that was I felt I had been through so much and gotten so little in return. I would have moved mountains for that boy and at the end of the day what was I left with? Nothing but a broken heart. At first we remained friends. We both felt there was still good chemistry between us, we just weren't a good fit for a relationship. After about a month of time off, we'd meet up once a week for dinner at his place, snuggle on the couch watching tv and I'd head back home. Eventually it became too hard for me. I knew as long as I saw him on a regular basis I'd never be able to move on.

So I forced some distance. Every once in awhile I'd send an email. I kept in touch with some of his friends and would get the occasional update on his life through them. Found out that he started dating someone else. One of his friends was worried that he might not have told the guy yet that he was positive. I was concerned but felt it really wasn't my place to say anything.

Meanwhile, back in my life, the trial HIV vaccine program that I was on was a year long study. Luckily that meant that well after the relationship had ended, I continued to get my blood tested on a regular basis. By the end of the trial, my results were still coming back negative. I had officially gotten through the relationship with my physical health in tack. It appears my mental health was another story....

About a year after the breakup, I randomly saw SC walking down the street with a guy, holding hands. I was shocked – not at them, but at me. I finally felt a sense of release and contentment. For the first time since the breakup I could see him and truly feel completely over him. No anger, no bitterness, no longing for what could have been. At that moment I felt like a poster child for a healthy breakup.

To celebrate Mrs. Jesus and I headed out to the bars. We started at the normal 17th St stomping grounds but quickly grew bored with the scene. We headed off to the Eagle. After about an hour at the Eagle I ran into the guy SC was fooling around with when he first moved here. We said hi, engaged in some small talk and things took a serious and tragic turn.

other ex - "So how's SC doing??"

me - "oh i think he's doing fine...i saw him today and he looked good. He deserves it, he's had a rough year"

other ex - "oh my god yeah...."

me - "so you uh, know?"

other ex - "about him being positive?"

me - "yeah"

other ex - "oh yeah, I knew when we were dating"

Things get rather hazy from this point on in the conversation. I know I held it together pretty well in front of this guy, but inside the panic attack was already forming. My mind was exploding and I had to escape. Somehow I was able to excuse myself, ran to find Mrs. Jesus and told him we had to leave.

We get outside and I break down in tears. I tell Mrs. Jesus how apparently SC knew all along that he was positive. That he had lied to me from the get go. In between tears I began to scream expletives into the air. Meanwhile, poor Mrs. Jesus was attempting to catch a cab. Without a doubt my most tragic night ever.

It wasn't until the next day that the truly twisted thoughts came into my mind. I think I would be able to comprehend it if it was simply a case that he didn't tell me about being positive and then pretended to find out. I still think it's wrong, but at the very least somewhat understandable. There's oodles of stigma attached to HIV and of course it can be frightening to tell someone that you're dating. So that part I could make sense of.

The hardest part for me, and the one that I still just can't get my head around, is why he was so insistent for me to fuck him without a condom? Was it as simple as he didn't like the feel of a condom and didn't consider the risk to me? Or was it something even more sinister. Did he want me to get infected? Did he envision some sick romance to me being positive as well, to be the one to give it to me? I have no idea. I probably never will. Even if I were to confront him on it I don't think I'd ever be able to fully believe the answer he gave me. I tend to over think things and that one small thing has been such a mind fuck that's created all sorts of trust issues for me.

Really, how much trust do you give someone? How much of your own safety do you put into someone else's hands? Even if you get tested together and you both come back negative, how do you know he won't fuck around and get it from somebody else?

I also discovered that aside from my own mental issues, dating SC provided some other interesting challenges. I was on a third date with a guy that I was really interested in. He seemed sweet and charming and simply adorable. It was the first time I had begun to warm myself to the idea of seriously dating again since SC and I broke up. We were sipping on cocktails and talking about old relationships and I gave him a brief synopsis of my fucked up history with SC. He seemed cool about the entire ordeal.

That is until the next night. I sensed something was amiss when he didn't do so much as give me a kiss. He said he wasn't feeling very well and didn't want to get me sick. At the end of the date though he fessed up that he was more concerned about getting sick from me and that he wanted to just be friends. I was being rejected because a year and a half ago I dated a guy who was positive. Even though I was still negative he was scared I may give him HIV. Nice.... I gave him a quick science lesson, but he argued that science isn't always right and maybe I have it and just don't know it yet.

Devistated and sick and tired of dealing with HIV I rushed off to find Mrs. Jesus. Once again I broke down in a million tears. Oh and of course drank myself silly. Oh what great coping mechanisms...

Part 6 - Moving On

Hunger hurts and I want him so bad, oh it kills
But I know I'm a mess he don't wanna clean up
I 've got to fold because these hands are too shaky to hold
hunger hurt but starving works, when it costs too much to love

-- Fiona Apple, "Paper Bag"

Fortunately after some time had passed after that night things began to slowly improve and I've mostly moved on with things in my life. But the ghost is still always with me. Whenever someone tells me they want a guy with no baggage, I reassure them that I am sooooo not the guy for them. I still have a lot of trouble trusting new men and new relationships. The drug scene that entralled SC and probably was the #1 contributor to his infection bothers me to the point that I won't date a guy who does anything worse than booze or pot. I've given full out safe sex lectures to random tricks that were asking me to fuck them before they asked me to put on a condom or even if I was positive. I find myself questioning and double guessing the people in my life - because once again, how do you really know that you're being told the truth?

And while I view some of that in a negative light, I have to also look at the positive. I've dealt with a helluva lot more than I ever thought I would have to, and I came out stronger for it. And despite whatever demons I may have, I've picked up some good life lessons out of it. I mean is it REALLY so bad that I now refuse to date a guy who's a big coke/tina freak??? Yeah, probably not.... Trading in a good romp in the sack with a trick for a lecture on the risks of unprotected sex may not be the best thing for my natural urges, but really - is it so bad that I didn't end up fucking around with that guy??? Probably not....

Overall I think the good does outweigh the bad in my relationship with SC, and while I still feel like I can never forgive him for certain things, I have no regrets about the experience I had with him. Someday I hope to learn enough from it to make me all the better boyfriend to someone in the end...