“I’m sick,” he said.
“Sick how? What do you mean?” I asked him. I looked at his face, searching for answers while he avoided my eyes.
“I’m sick!” he yelled at me in Spanish, “I’m not well!”
“Well, what kind of ‘sick’? Would you just tell me what’s going on?” I asked him. I turned in the driver’s seat, still trying to meet his eyes while he actively avoided my gaze, staring at the floor.
“I have AIDS!” he yelled.
Shockwaves reverberated through the car as an awkward silence settled between us. One heartbeat, two heartbeats, three—for a moment, I was torn between how I should reply. My first thought was that it had to be a joke, but my husband is not the joking type. Still, the bomb he had just dropped on me was so completely outside the realm of possibility, all I could do was laugh and say, “Yeah, OK.”
But he wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t smiling, either. “You are joking, right?” I asked, not sure if I wanted to hear what came next. He finally tore his eyes away from the floor of my car and looked at me. Before the words even left his lips, I knew what I would hear.
“No. I have AIDS,” he said.
The silence was deafening. Thoughts swirled in my head as I tried to convince myself that my normally serious husband had to be playing a cruel joke. But as much as I tried to convince myself, I knew otherwise. The truth was hidden in the furrow of his brow, in his eyes that turned down sadly in the corners. It was there, written plainly on his face. I just refused to see it.
“Who told you that? Where is the visit summary they usually give you?” I asked, still trying to convince myself that this was a lie. For the first time, I noticed the folded papers he was clutching in his hand. I snatched them away and quickly scanned the pages for any sign of the death sentence he claimed they had given him. “What are you talking about? There’s no mention of AIDS anywhere on this damn paper! They didn’t even test you for it! Who the hell told you that blatant lie?” I demanded. “Did they even have a translator in the room for you? If they did, then whoever it was, their Spanish was terrib—”
My eyes lingered on a three-letter word about halfway down the page: HIV. “What is this? What kind of tests did they do to you?” I asked.
“They asked me if I wanted an HIV test, and I said no, but then I changed my mind. They swabbed something in my mouth,” he replied, staring at the floor again.
“No, this is a mistake,” I said. “They make mistakes like this all the time. This shit is wrong…”
The next few days were a blur. Every night, I would tell my husband that I was taking the garbage out just to have an excuse to hide in my car and cry. I knew he was scared. I was too, but I couldn’t let him see. Twice that week, I bought OraQuick HIV tests from the pharmacy for us to take at home. And twice that week, his came back positive while mine was negative.
A normal person would accept that the chances of three separate tests falsely coming back positive were slim to none. But not me—not when the person taking the tests was my husband.
How I Turned His Doctor’s Appointment Into My Own Rage-a-Thon
The rest of the week dragged by as I counted the days until we went back to the clinic to find out the results of his blood test. When the day finally arrived, I couldn’t wait the last hour until his scheduled appointment time. I decided we had waited long enough and that someone needed to see us right then and tell us once and for all that everything was fine and we could go back to our normal lives. That didn’t go over very well.
“What do you mean, no one can see us now? We’re an hour early, and he has an appointment!” I snapped. The receptionist shifted uncomfortably. “We’ve been waiting all goddamn week for the results of an HIV test, and I will not wait another moment just for you all to tell us that you made a mistake. Tell us the damn results so we can leave already—you’ve wasted enough of our time!” I continued.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but these kinds of results require a doctor to be in the room. I can’t just tell you here in the waiting room,” she said.
“Then go get someone who can!” I yelled impatiently.
I turned to look at my husband, knowing that he was most likely embarrassed by my behavior. “I know you don’t like when I make a scene, but I’m ready for this shit to be over,” I muttered to him. He stood there quietly, not answering me.
After a few moments of waiting in awkward silence, a male nurse wandered over apprehensively. “Excuse me? You can go back now,” he said. I translated for my husband before moving to follow him back to the exam rooms. “Oh, I’m sorry. Only your husband can go back,” the nurse said.
I felt myself growing angry. “This is my husband!” I hissed.
“I know,” he said. “But this is sensitive information, and because of HIPAA—”
“I don’t give a damn! I obviously already know the damn mouth swab was positive, so what the hell difference does it make at this point?” I snapped. He took a step back, recoiling from me.
“I—It’s just. … Sir, do you want her in the room?” he asked my husband. “Of course, he wants me in the goddamn room! I’m his wife! Why the hell wouldn’t he want me there?” I thundered. For a moment, I almost felt sorry for the nurse. He was just doing his job, I knew, but in that moment, he was a roadblock in our path back to normalcy.
“Follow me,” he said, as he turned and led us down a winding hallway.
It was an empty victory, however, because as soon as the door closed behind us in the exam room, he was trying to kick me out again. I was still ranting and raving when the door opened and two doctors and a case manager filed in.
“This man keeps trying to kick me out of the room after my husband has already stated several times that he wants me here,” I complained. As the nurse opened his mouth to speak, I leaned over to my husband and put my hand softly on his leg. “See?” I said. “Now they’re just gonna tell us this whole thing was a mistake, and this whole nightmare will finally be over. Where do you wanna go when we get out of here? We have to celebrate.” I was still smiling.
Hindsight is 20/20. When I replay these moments in my head, I can clearly see all the signs. Yet somehow, in that moment, I was blind to all of them.
My Husband Wasn’t in Denial. I Was.
I can pinpoint the exact moment the smile fell off my face and bounced onto the floor. I can hit the pause button on this memory and still see them all clearly, staring at me, watching my reaction. The case manager holding the box of tissues, everyone watching my face—everyone, that is, except my husband. He’s still staring at the floor, oblivious to everything the doctor is saying because he doesn’t speak English, clueless to the bomb that’s about to send aftershocks rippling through our lives. If this were a movie, this would be the part where everything goes silent except for the sound of my own heartbeat pounding in my ears.
“…Following a positive OraQuick HIV test, a blood test was ordered. The results of that blood test were positive…”
Positive? My body starts to tremble. As I feel the panic rising inside me, I try to steady my breathing so my husband won’t notice. My husband. My poor, clueless husband who has no idea what’s going on because he’s waiting for me to translate for him. Tears sting my eyes as I try to get myself under control. Stop! He’ll see!
“Someone give her some tissues, please.”
This damn doctor. This goddamn insensitive doctor, sitting here droning on like he’s talking about the fucking weather!
The case manager presses a wad of tissue into my hand. At the same time, the other doctor rolls his chair toward me, offering me a box of Kleenex. My husband is looking at me.
Dammit, he saw. He saw! I breathe in shakily, trying to ration my breath as the tears roll down my cheeks.
“Do you have any questions for us?” the doctor asks. I look at my husband. He’s staring at the ground.
“No,” he says quietly. He knows.
“We’ll give you guys a moment alone. We’ll be back in a few minutes,” the doctor says as they all shuffle quietly out of the room. The door closes behind them, and an uncomfortable silence settles between us. For a long moment, no one speaks. We can’t even meet each other’s eyes. My husband is still staring intently at the floor, while I’m staring straight ahead, at the poster on the opposite wall. He’s unable to look at me out of shame, while I’m unable to let him see my tears.
“How could you do this to me?” I ask. He doesn’t answer, preferring to study the pattern on the floor instead. “How could you? You promised me. You promised you’d never leave me, not even in death. You lied,” I said. “You lied to me.”
The Moment I Realized My Husband’s Diagnosis Wasn’t About Me
Looking back on this moment now, I’m ashamed of how selfish I was. My husband had just received what I thought was a death sentence—and instead of being there for him, all I could think of was myself. It took the doctors splitting us up for a while for me to see that. The doctors stayed with my husband while I followed the case manager into the exam room next door.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” she asked. I hesitated, knowing that the dam would break the second I opened my mouth and everything would come flooding out. I tightened my jaw, refusing to let her see me in a moment of weakness. She had caught a glimpse of it earlier when my tears betrayed me, but if I could just make it to my car, I could cry in peace, and she would be none the wiser.
“I know this is hard for anyone to hear, but—”
“You don’t understand,” I blurted out. “Everyone close to me, everyone I ever loved, left me, whether voluntarily or through death. He promised me he would never leave me. He promised he wouldn’t die and leave me behind.”
“Is that what you’re afraid of? You think he’s going to die?” she asked. “Honey, everyone will die someday, that’s inevitable. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that that’s a promise he can’t keep. But he’s not gonna die today, or any time soon. This isn’t the ’80s—HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore. It’s no different than any other chronic illness. It’s completely manageable.”
“I know all this,” I said. “I have a friend who has HIV, and he just has to take his pill every day and see his doctor regularly.”
“Then why do you think your husband will be any different?” she asked me. I didn’t have an answer for her. I knew she was right, but part of me still worried that he would be that one person to have a bunch of complications. Part of me was terrified that he would be the rare exception to the rule. “You don’t understand,” I said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
“What wasn’t?” she asked.
“This! None of this! None of this shit was supposed to happen! Not to him. … You don’t—he doesn’t deserve this…” I trailed off, my voice breaking. Damn, now she’ll see, I thought bitterly, as the tears started flowing. She rolled her chair over to me.
“Does anyone deserve it?” she asked.
“No, of course not,” I said. “It’s just—he saved me. I’d still be a homeless junkie hooker if it weren’t for him. He …”
“I get it,” she said. I looked up at her then, wondering if she really did. “You want to take care of him the way he took care of you, you want to return the favor,” she said. I nodded.
“Then be there for him. Get back in that room and let him know that you’ll be with him every step of the way, because he’s probably feeling pretty alone right now, don’t you think?” she asked. I sat quietly, processing what she had said. I pictured my husband on the other side of the wall, alone, listening to that insensitive doctor droning on in a language he couldn’t understand, while the other doctor sat there uselessly. I nodded.
“I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s go.”
ogether, we walked next door to the exam room. When the door opened, I walked in and sat down next to my husband and put my hand on his leg. “So what are the next steps? Where do we go from here?”
The rest of the appointment was a blur. When it was all over, we sat in the parking lot, preparing to leave. “Nothing’s changed,” I told him. “The only difference is that you just have to take a pill every day and take better care of yourself, make regular appointments with your doctor. That’s all. Other than that, everything is still the same. I love you, and I’m not going anywhere. We’re in this together …”
And we still are. For a few weeks, I cried myself to sleep every night, even randomly bursting into tears throughout the day. But it slowly became easier for me to accept. It took a few months for him to realize that I wasn’t disgusted or afraid of him, but eventually, he understood that I wasn’t going anywhere. After months of apologizing and telling me he understood if I wanted to leave, he finally accepted that he couldn’t push me away.
It’s been almost two years since that fateful day in the parking lot of that clinic. I’m still my husband’s keeper (just as he’s been mine when I wasn’t so good at taking care of myself). His diagnosis has not only brought us closer together, it’s also inspired me to want to stand up and fight against the stigma that a positive diagnosis carries. And although the stigma remains, we’re making progress. With groundbreaking shows like Pose changing the public’s perceptions of people living with the virus, I know that together, we can end this stigma once and for all.