Clean by Norman Belanger
short story

“Are you clean?” My Grindr date asks me.

He is cute. Too young for me, about 30, give or take.

His name is Kenny.

I am a bit new to the online dating game, but the essentials have not changed; what was awkward then, is awkward now.

“What do you mean?” I ask, as if I don’t know, as if I have not fielded this question many times before. I sip my Starbucks.

“You know,” he says, picking at the raisins in his half eaten scone, “are you disease free?”

“Are you asking me about my HIV status?”

“Yeah. Are you clean?”

And there it is again, the question I must answer.

It says right on my profile: “POZ”

But who reads anymore?

When I tell Kenny my status, I watch his discomfort, his pretty blue eyes that look anywhere but at me as if he’s scanning the place for an emergency exit.

I know he will be gone in about two minutes.

“I should get going,” he says, right on schedule, suddenly forgetting we had plans to hang out together. It’s a bright, warm, sunny October afternoon. We had talked about walking along the Charles River, to see the beautiful autumn leaves. We were going to go to the Square, to browse the stores.

Kenny thanks me for the latte.

“Nice meeting you.” He manages a tiny smile.

He zips up his jacket hastily.

The hem of his untucked flannel shirt gets caught.

He just leaves it like that.

He can’t get out of there fast enough.

“Bye,” he says. And then he is gone.

From the table at the window, I watch him as he crosses the street. He does not look back.

The place is busy, noisy with people. I stay there a while longer, alone and quiet. The coffee gets cold. I take a sip, still not able to shake this feeling that’s something a little more than sadness.

I can’t be angry with Kenny. He’s too young to remember. He wasn’t there. He doesn’t know what it was like, to come of age just as AIDS was on the horizon. I understand his fear. I was scared in those days, too.

Who wasn’t?

They were truly terrifying times. I was barely 20, a real kid, before the first casualties began.

Robert in July of ‘85. He went fast.

David was in hospice a few weeks, so we got to say goodbye.

Everet lingered. He was a ghost by the time he passed, like a shadow, after months and months of wasting away. He scared me the most, with his face, so thin, so gaunt. The feel of his bones when we hugged made me cringe. I hated myself for how I felt. I couldn’t wait to get away from him, away from the bottles of pills, the diapers, the smell of dying and death. I hated being there, and I was afraid of him. And, worse, he knew it.

Everet died, then Seth.

Those early years, I stumbled through, numbing myself.

I kept dancing and drinking. I smoked and snorted and rutted to forget. I needed to feel alive. I needed to feel a pulse, a warm body, someone to hold onto. Like a survivor in a shipwreck, I clung on, sputtering, dazed, wounded witness to the end of the world.

What I really wanted was to say:

Take care of me. Don’t let me go. Love me, a little.

By the 90’s, we were angry. We fought back.

Queer Nation, ACT UP taught us how to rage back against it, how to be heard.

We wore black t-shirts that said SILENCE=DEATH

We marched.

And then it was my turn. I sat in my doctor’s office when I got the news. I just sat in a hard plastic chair, staring at her calendar. It was December, 1999. I didn’t cry. “Do you want to see a counselor?” she said softly, nudging a box of Kleenex toward me. I shook my head. “I’ll be OK,” I think I said. My first and only thought was escape. All I needed was to get out of that office, out of that building, I needed to get out on the street and walk in the new falling snow. When I got home, I shut down. I didn’t talk to anyone for weeks. I unplugged my phone, called out to work, stayed in bed. With strength I did not know I had, I got through those first agonizing days.

Somehow, the days turned into weeks, months, and now almost 20 years have passed. In the end I was lucky to be diagnosed when things were changing on the cusp of a new century. And yes, there was luck involved, the kind that comes randomly, but also, thanks to the efforts of a generation of men and women who went before me, those who marched and protested, those who died, those whose efforts brought new meds and treatments in the pipeline, I would be ok. I would survive. But I would never forget.

I cannot forget that history; it’s as much a part of my blood as this virus, and just as potent.

Now, dating again in my 50s, I am trying to navigate a foreign digital playing field that presents new challenges. It sometimes feels very cold and impersonal. I was not prepared for this new environment, surprised to be confronted with stigma toward HIV that still lingers, even in this new era. It may be people have forgotten. Or this next generation coming up just doesn’t know what we went through. I wonder, what happened to all that we learned? Where did all that hard-won understanding go? It was real, wasn’t it? All those people gone.

When some guy shrinks from me because of my HIV status, yes I get angry, yes I am hurt. I am surprised that this stigma still exists. Whenever I am confronted with someone’s fear or ignorance, someone charming and young like Kenny, I am saddened.

But it will pass.

I leave Starbucks after the last sip of coffee. I walk out into the bright autumn day, to breathe in the air, the air that feels cold and sharp,

the air that feels clean.


Julia Lama

I am a queer writer from Cambridge, MA. I work full time as an HIV care nurse and am pursuing a Master’s in Creative Writing part time. A lot of my work deals with being gay. You can find some of some of my fiction, essays and poems in the Transnational Queer Underground Anthology, Aids&Understanding Magazine, Red Fez, and Sibling Rivalry Press.

Julia Lama (also known as Julipy) is a cartoonist, illustrator, comic passionate and animator. Julia lives for everything related to creativity and storytelling, no matter the media. You can find more of her work on her Instagram.