Picture this. A social club on the outskirts of a busy city. Inside, two bars laced with only the finest liquors and wines. Royal embroidered walls, plush sofas and a crowd of the city’s finest Black professionals…pun intended.
That was the scene as politicians, lawyers, activists, bankers, students, writers and the like assembled for an evening reception dressed casually chic to remember a disease that affects so many, yet few believe it will ever affect them.
I sauntered in a black halter and purple peek toe stilettos, my summatime (sic) shoes. I walked over to the bar, ordered a complimentary specialty cocktail, aptly named "Love," and sipped for just a few moments before I was joined by a gentleman dressed in red. A red tie that is, one of two colors deemed acceptable for a man who wishes to be taken seriously.
“So are you here for love or are you here for politics?” was his opener.
Considering the name of the annual event was “Love + Politics”, a reception that considered the impact of HIV on our communities, and aimed to honor activists making strides in raising awareness about the disease, I thought his line was clever.
“I’m here for the fancy cocktails.”
And I was. They were offering free HIV testing in a mobile van out back, but it wasn’t until I noticed the organizers were raffling prizes that were kind of a big deal to anyone who got tested, that I decided I should take advantage. Two roundtrip airline tickets to West Africa. A coffee table book on hip-hop. Passes to a sexy bowling alley on the pier.
While I finished my drink, I halfway chatted with the red tie. The other half of my mind was occupied confirming for myself that I didn’t have HIV and thus didn’t really need to get tested.
HIV tests are for people who may have contracted HIV. I don’t know anyone who has HIV and I certainly haven’t slept with anyone who has HIV, so I’m really just doing this for the chance to get free stuff.
I set my empty glass down and walked through an exit door to the medical van out back. I filled out a form with all the basics. Some questions about my sexual habits, drug use. The last question asked when I was last tested.
2 years. 3 years. I really couldn’t remember.
Inside the van, I sat down with an “HIV Prevention Specialist.” But it was a misnomer. He wasn’t necessarily preventing me from contracting HIV. He was just going to check to see if I had it or not. I was surprised to learn no blood was needed, just a quick swab under the lips.
Somewhere between the initial handshake and him handing me the testing strip, my heart rate started to speed up. He talked as he worked, scribbling something on a pad, preparing the testing strip.
“HIV is a silent killer. That’s why it’s so important to get tested.”
That’s when it dawned on me. Most people who have HIV never think, “I might have HIV” when they go to get tested. They probably walk in as calmly as I did, and walk out with tear stained cheeks…or expressions of shock at news that may as well be a guilty verdict and a death sentence.
“The virus lives in four bodily fluids.” He held up four fingers and counted down. “Blood. Semen. Vaginal secretions. Breastmilk.”
I could potentially have had the disease for a while and not know it. No signs or symptoms. Not a stomachache, a persistent headache, nothing. I could just be going about my daily routines and then one day get sick and never get better. I rubbed my soggy palms together. I started to think. What if I have HIV? What if I really have it? It’s not like I’m immune. It’s not like I’ve always been 100 percent safe.
“And don’t trust anyone without a negative test. Nobody thinks they have it, until they find out they have it. On average, people who have been tested, test only once every five years.”
Really, how could I be so stupid? And here I was all this time concerned about an unplanned pregnancy. It took fancy cocktails and raffle tickets to even get me in this seat. My eyes started to water. He handed me the strip and I wondered if I even wanted to find out after all…if not knowing would be more comforting.
“How often do you practice safe sex? Always? Sometimes? Or never?”
I kept him waiting. And then the first tear fell.
On my way out of the van headed back inside the club, I dabbed a tissue at my face and collected myself. I met the red tie at the door and we exchanged a quick look. My instinct tells me he knew I’d been crying. “Good luck,” I said before hurrying past him.
The rest of the evening was full of more music, more drinks. I didn’t win anything in the raffle.
That night I learned I was HIV negative, and my heart relaxed, but the experience taught me a lot. Of those tested that night, I can only hope each result mimicked my own. If the goal of the event was to raise awareness, mission accomplished. They raised my awareness.
Herina Ayot is a freelance writer living in Jersey City, NJ. She is currently writing a novel based loosely on her own life, "The Content of Things Undone." Follow her on Twitter @ReeExperience.