"I guess I shoulda known
By the way you parked your car sideways
That it wouldn't last.
See, you're the kinda person
That believes in makin' out once,
Love 'em and leave 'em fast."
--Prince, "Little Red Corvette"
In writing about my life with HIV, I'm usually asked when I got infected rather than how. Of course, the "how" is usually assumed to be sexual contact, despite the fact that there are various other means of transmission. And if I tell people how I contracted the virus, that doesn't help them understand the full scope of how one can get infected, especially when the primary prevention message is that all it takes to avoid HIV is the simple act of putting on a condom. My story wasn't that straightforward. Recently I wrote a blog about how HIV prevention should move beyond handing people condoms. As I reveal how I became infected, hopefully you'll see my reasoning.
As a 17-year-old, I was quiet and shy and kept to myself. Most of that was because of my low self-esteem. I would walk with my head down, and it was difficult to look people in the eyes when chatting. It was almost like I was guilty of something, and that guilt held my head down in shame. The guilt came from having been subjected to sexual abuse for over a year when I was around 10 years old, which I never shared with anyone, and yet I walked as if it had been my fault. I spent my childhood wondering what I'd done to invite it. I was ashamed, even though I was the victim.
I feel that we're born with wings to fly, but as we grow and ascend, forces come along and pluck our wings, eventually leaving us grounded, afraid to reach for the sky. With all I was experiencing at a young age, it was unfortunate that the way I was raised by my single mother also played a part in my low self-esteem. I grew up afraid of my mother. Despite the fact that I was a bookworm who never said much, she would unleash verbal tirades on me. She must have suspected I was gay long before I did, as I was constantly called a sissy and told that if I grew up to be gay, well, let's just say she wouldn't approve. At one point I truly thought my name was YoustupidmotherfuckerIwishIneverhadyou Guess. I guess I was never meant to fly.
In high school I was the class clown; I learned it was easier to hide my pain by hiding behind jokes. People who knew me in high school saw the class clown, but when the bell rang and I walked home from school, I was this insecure wreck. At the time I walked the same route to and from school and would see this red corvette. The only reason it stood out was because of its bright red color. I also didn't live in the best neighborhood; we shared our playground with prostitutes and drug dealers. The clean red of the corvette stood out because everything around it was gritty and grey.
As I was crossing a street near my home one day, the red corvette stopped, and inside was an older gentleman. He said "hello" and started to compliment me, and there was something about hearing a compliment, hearing something nice, even coming from a stranger, that made me open up. After all these years of living under dark clouds, someone was willing to shower me with encouraging words. I felt like a blossoming flower. When you don't feel valued and you have someone telling you that you have value, no matter how they look or what their intentions might be, you grab onto it like it's a $20 bill blowing down the street, and you hold onto it tight lest it get away.
His words were so hypnotizing that I got into his car. He drove me a few blocks, and I found myself standing in his house. I knew in the back of my mind what he wanted, but having been subjected to sexual abuse as I child, I sometimes had this perception that saying "hello" involved giving my body, not just a simple handshake. Although I had never had a consensual sexual experience, by the way I talked, you would have thought I was an expert on sex. But this was truly my first time. I had heard about it, but I was curious about what it really was and what it would feel like when I was a willing participant. Because he was older and said I was handsome, I trusted him. Because he said we didn't need a condom, I trusted him. Because he would go away if I said "no," I gave in.
Afterward, I never saw the car again; I guess he got what he wanted. I was relieved, as I was scared about what had happened. I felt guilty. I didn't even know his name.
A few months passed, and I got very sick. It was weird, as I had never been a person who got sick. For a week I was in bed. Not long afterward, I saw a story in the newspaper about the man I'd been with. There he was, trying to rob a bank, and in the process of being arrested, he told the cops he would bite them and infect them with AIDS. Naively, I was more shocked that he had tried to rob a bank, so I didn't focus on the AIDS comment at the time. When they say it only takes one time, it's true, I learned. Little red corvette.
It's hard to find worth in life when you're treated as worthless. Without guidance and a sense of importance and value, a person can be easily led astray. Would a condom have solved all my problems? Probably, but the way I felt about myself and the life I was living would have made it difficult for me to see why I should have cared. I was in the basement of the penthouse tower of life. I wouldn't wish my journey on anyone else, but I know the journeys of others follow a similar course. And I also know it's easy to judge others without walking in that person's shoes. I understand. It took me contracting HIV to find something that was denied me: my worth.