Whenever I go for my regular HIV/STD testing, I’m tempted to use the pseudonym Dorothy Zbornak. On one episode of The Golden Girls, Rose has an HIV scare (from a blood transfusion during gall bladder surgery, not unprotected anal sex) and goes to get an HIV test. She’s embarrassed so she gives the nurse Dorothy’s name which leads to a classic Bea Arthur slow burn to camera. Rest assured her test comes back negative. So as Sophia would say, “Picture it” …
Clients begin congregating outside the door of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation Men’s Wellness Center in Los Angeles a half-hour before it opens at 5:30pm. Only the first 17 men can be seen in one evening, so, with my competitive spirit, I hauled ass to get here. When I arrive at 5:35, nine other guys have already scattered throughout the room. There is a chair or two between each of them. I’m just relieved I made it. It seems Friday evening is not a popular time for STD/HIV testing.
“LA’s hit music channel” is blaring from a miniature boom box questionably plopped in the middle of the floor. “One two three four/uno dos tres cuatro!” It sounds like a circuit party in here. Am I poolside in Miami Beach? Or about to get checked for unusual genital growths? I’m tense. It’s making my scalp itch.
I cruise the blonde guy sitting in front of me. I should not be cruising at an STD clinic. Or maybe I should. Perhaps this is the perfect place to meet a responsible man. Perhaps, the worst.
This fella is leaning forward, playing on his BlackBerry, revealing turquoise Calvin Klein underwear. I love turquoise — it’s one of my signature colors. Turquoise and coral. He turns around and looks at me. He could be Neil Patrick Harris.
Mmmph, a sexy guy just walked in wearing all black. He’s either a waiter coming directly from work or some symbolic Angel of Death like Richard Burton’s character in the movie, Boom! His hands are on his hips like a runner after a race trying to catch his breath. Like me, he’s glad to have made it here in time to be tested. He scratches his head.
The occasional ring of a cell phone dares me to come unhinged. If they don’t silence it by the second ring, I will kill. I’ve been here for an hour now and have yet to see a counselor or doctor. This is a multi-stage process: wait to see the counselor, meet with the counselor, wait to see the doctor, see the doctor, wait to see the nurse, see the nurse, wait to see the counselor again, see the counselor again and receive the results of your rapid HIV test. It’s like waiting at the airport only more interactive. Expect delays.
I’m finally called in to meet the counselor. He was my counselor the last time I was here. “How many people have you had sex with in the last six months,” he asks once we’re alone. I remember he’s the abrasive type. When I asked him to clarify what he meant by sex, “ANY ORAL OR ANAL SEX” was the answer. Oral sex is sex? Oh yeah. Shit.
Determining one’s risk level begins with you deciding what you’re trying to avoid. For me, it’s HIV. The STD/HIV counselors I’ve seen are either somewhat nonchalant (“You’ve only been receiving blow-jobs? Don’t worry about a thing”) or they use scare tactics (“You’ve received how many blow jobs? You can get HIV from receptive oral sex, you know”).
I always get an HIV test if only to get in the routine of doing so. My counselor hands me a padded swizzle stick and tells me to swab the front of my gums, top and bottom, then place the stick in a tube filled with magic solution. Now I’m Roseanne and it’s the episode where she takes a pregnancy test and the whole family waits impatiently to see the results. The difference is I don’t have the blue-collar comfort of John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf. And if my test does come out positive, what are my options? I can’t abort the HIV or give it up for adoption.
Back in the waiting room there are no Family Circles, no Redbooks, not even the therapeutic yellow of a National Geographic. All of the literature is HIV-related. I’m reading a story about a man who gets tested after his aunt tells him he looks like he has HIV. His results come back positive, of course. He freaks out in the counselor’s office and says he’s going to commit suicide. She makes him stay until he promises not to kill himself and somehow he comes to the realization that his life isn’t over just because he’s positive. The story is surrounded by ads for HIV drugs that reiterate the man’s realization. Is it a drug manufacturer’s wet dream: a captive and target audience? The ads make HIV seem manageable; people are smiling in the pictures. Today, one pill does what five used to. Today, pills don’t keep you on the toilet shitting your brains out. Today I am straddling the fine line between reassurance and panic.
A May-December couple sits down next to me. It warms my heart to see lovers get tested together. It also makes me feel more alone like the maybe-pregnant girl at Planned Parenthood. I’m Mo’Nique’s fat daughter in that new movie, Precious. The older man in the couple is telling his child-like boyfriend to “just relax.” YOU RELAX, I want to interject. The boyfriend is called in and the older man plays with beads that I recognize as a rosary. “Are you nervous,” I ask him, ready to provide comfort. “They’re prayer beads,” he tells me, “I’m Buddhist. I pray when I have nothing else to do.” He’s missing a front tooth.
I’m at the two-hour mark now. It’s like a goddamn sex club in here: hyper-deodorized air, a techno-ballad thumping from the boom box, nobody talking. The only thing missing is the occasional moan of ecstasy. The door flings open: “MATT SIEGEL,” the man shouts. I am the only patient to be called by first and last name. So much for anonymity, but the loud announcement brings back the airport charm.
I look around hoping someone will grinningly acknowledge this breach of privacy. I should have used the name Dorothy Zbornak.
The doctor asks if I’m there for anything in particular. Just do everything, I say. I gag during the throat culture for gonorrhea. “This is why I don’t give many blowjobs,” I explain to him. I’m glad for it, too — anything that keeps dicks away from my orifices. A nurse takes multiple vials of blood to test for syphilis and HIV. “Oh you have good veins,” he tells me, grinning. Is he daring me to pass out? No vein talk, I tell him. He hands me a little sealed cup and a long Q-tip with a vial. He wants my pee and a swab of my anus. With all of my unabashedness, I am still weird about ass. I go into the toilet and decide how to proceed. I will save you the image of me crouching on a bathroom floor swabbing my anus.
It’s 8pm and I’ve given blood, urine, and some anal lining. I await the final step of this process: the result of the HIV rapid test.