August 6 is a day for remembering.
August 6, 1945: the United States drops a big bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A day which will, as they say, live in infamy.
August 6, 1991: my doctor drops a big metaphorical bomb on me – my HIV antibody test came back positive.
Chris, my doctor, insisted I come for the results late in the day, at 6 PM, a half hour later than his usual “last appointment” time. I should have got the hint then.
When I arrived, he locked the door behind me. No-one there but him and me. This was not so unusual, he was very much a one-man practice in those days and his receptionist worked only part time.
In his office, my file was already on his desk. He sighed and gave me the bad news.
“I’m afraid this was a positive test,” he said. A clever circumlocution which neatly avoids any reference to the patient. The test is positive, not you. A kind conceit.
I don’t recall what I thought at that moment, but as my heart leapt into my throat I suspect I knew one thing: everything had changed. Forever.
“You knew this was going to be positive,” he said to me, “didn’t you?”
Well yes – and no. This was my first-ever HIV test, and I’d done all the things necessary to get infected, but not in the previous few years. Hope springs eternal, and denial is a powerful temptress.
I’d managed to go a few years without showing any outward signs of HIV, while many of my friends were already dead or on the Primrose Path, so I clung to hope that I might have been spared. No. I guess not.
I still don’t know when I was infected, exactly. When I’m in the mood for reckoning these things, 1985 seems a good year to pick. That was the year my 1½ year relationship with Austin, my first boyfriend of any consequence, ended. Austin and I never did get around to switching to safe sex when AIDS came onto the radar in the middle of our dalliance. We’d started in the old days, when all sex was safe, and the idea of gay men using condoms would have seemed absurd. I don’t think I’d ever even seen a condom out of its packet.
Austin died in 1988. He was 24.
So 1985 seems a reasonable bet. I guess I might have been infected even a few years earlier, but let’s settle on 1985, which makes Iris 19 years old today. Happy birthday old girl.
Sitting in the doctor’s office, I declined the offer of a tissue. I didn’t cry. I was shocked, if not surprised, but not sad. Just numb.
Chris explained that he’d take more blood for a confirmatory test – “False positives do occur … but I wouldn’t suggest you pin your hopes on that” – and for a CD4 count. In the meantime I should go home, try not to worry and come back to see him in a week.
“You don’t want to be alone tonight,” he said. “Is there someone you can be with?”
I explained that I was flying to Canberra for a morning meeting, that I’d be spending the night in a hotel room. Alone.
“Well, try not to sit in your hotel room and stew. Go to a movie.”
A couple of hours later, in Canberra, after dinner and a couple of glasses of red, I decided to do as the doctor ordered. The Manuka cinema was near my hotel so I headed over there.
Just one screen and just one film on offer. I look up to the marquee and this is what I see:
DYING YOUNG – LAST DAYS
In the freezing Canberra winter air, in front of a cinema marquee, 13 years ago, on the day the world changed forever, I laughed and laughed and laughed.