I met Oliver a week after my 19th birthday, at a mixer thrown by a few friends. I still remember what he wore—a red flannel shirt with fitted jeans, classic Converse and two small, pearl earrings. His complexion was soft, his face riddled with perfect imperfections: wide set eyes, a gap in his teeth and a discolored spot hidden in his dark brown eyes, my favorite. We must have exchanged glances a hundred times that night, neither of us brave or drunk enough to make the first move.
I searched for him high and low online; we had no mutual friends, and nobody I knew at the party knew who he was. I almost gave up hope when, a month later, fate took hold: There he was, at a community theater production of Into the Woods, playing none other than Jack, the tale's giant-slaying youth. When I saw him up on that stage, time ceased to exist.
I waited for him in the lobby after the show, and minutes later there he stood, all five feet and nine inches of him, curly-haired and beaming. After the crowd parted I made my move and said hello. He remembered me from the party, too, and we laughed about it, followed by a long, awkward pause. "Are you free tomorrow?" I blurted. He said he wasn't—he had school.
Reality hit. This was community theatre, and while I was happily attending the University of New Mexico, Oliver was still in high school, preparing for the SAT.
But I drove to meet him for coffee a month later nonetheless. For over three hours we sat and talked, and through it all, his eyes never left mine. At 18 he was remarkably direct and daring. The whirlwind continued with three more dates and then finally, after an outing to a rock climbing gym, his lips met mine, pressed against the front door of my Toyota Tundra. We kissed for what could have been ten minutes and then separated, smiled, climbed into my truck, and proceeded back to my apartment on campus.
His skin was remarkably soft as my fingertips caressed the back of his neck. We quickly took off our clothes and my pulse raced.
Kissing. Biting. Touching. Then, suddenly, he pulled away.
"I have something I need to tell you," he said.
"Is everything okay?" I asked, concerned that I had pushed too far.
"I, uh, I… I have HIV," he said.
Having grown up in rural New Mexico, where homosexuality was still taboo and sex education was paltry at best, those three words terrified me. Everything I knew about HIV I'd learned online, typically accompanied by horrific depictions of the virus and its impact on the gay community. When my parents found out I was gay, they were incredibly supportive, but they were also quick to buy me condoms out of fear I'd contract the virus. This was before PrEP, the medication that protects HIV negative men from contracting HIV, was widely available, and before the words "undetectable viral load" were on anyone's lips.
My erection quickly faded, and with a look of longing apology I pulled him close, and we laid there all night, half sleeping, half lost.
Oliver told me that at 15, in his first sexual experience, he'd been raped by a family acquaintance and contracted HIV. His family, due to some strange sort of community bond, ended up forgiving the man after they found out, and nobody ever spoke of it. I remember the tear-filled night he first told me what happened, ending with the realization that he'd always felt as though his mom had decided to love him less to protect their family image. "She never looked at me the same," he'd said.
I remember thinking how unlucky those odds were—and how the truer wording of that would be "unfair." And after he told me that, I began to understand the depth of his struggle. He'd told me that his antiretroviral regimen only served to remind him that he was infected, as though his body was rejecting him—but on top of that, he suffered from unspeakable emotional strain from the way his family had handled the whole thing. We never talked about his depression. Though he saw a therapist every week, he and I never had an in-depth conversation about how his mind and heart were healing.
Over the months that followed, Oliver and I grew closer and fell deeply in love. We never had sex during that time because of my incredible fear of the disease, but I wasn't ready to lose him from my life. I saw doctors, talked to other queer people and, most importantly, enrolled in a local HIV education seminar in an attempt to learn more.
Between group discussions, stories from gay community leaders and visiting doctors, the seminar taught me the concrete facts about HIV and transmission. All the tall tales I'd heard about contracting the virus through kissing were dispelled. I learned all about white blood counts and viral loads, PrEP and PEP, a medication to prevent infection after exposure. I was determined to out-educate my fear. I loved Oliver, and I wanted to love him without being afraid of him.
11 months after we first met, we made love. We used a condom, and I had moments of paranoia, but it felt better than any sex I'd experienced prior. Sex can be used for so many things—manipulation, jealousy, anger, a need to release—but this was the first time I had experienced sex for love. All those conversations with doctors and classes had prepared me to have sex with someone who was positive, but they never had to teach me how to love someone who was positive. That part is innate, because a person is a person, no matter their status, and learning to love another human comes with no requirements.
We spent the nearly three years that followed creating a kind of happiness that only exists when two people trust each other absolutely and approach each other with open hearts. And then Oliver was diagnosed with pneumonia.
Unbeknownst to me, Oliver had stopped taking his antiretrovirals. His outward demeanor was always incredibly kind, and even to those who knew him best, he seemed incredibly happy—I can't remember a day when a smile wasn't on his face. He was also incredibly smart, and knew the ramifications of what he'd done. During his hospitalization, I never thought to ask him why he chose to stop taking his medicine. The experience was incredibly traumatic, and I chose to focus on the man I loved, who was now dying. Maybe it was emotional trauma from the cruel way his family had treated him; maybe it was an escape from the physical world in which he felt diseased. The answer was never important to me. I knew Oliver as a beautiful, strong, passionate partner, and I wanted, and always will want, to remember him in that way.
But I do often find myself angry about the risk he put me in. Without his meds, the virus was able to replicate freely in his blood, meaning he'd become highly infectious. I'll never know what went through his mind, and I can't punish myself by doting on it.
After he was admitted to the hospital, the doctors put him on a new cocktail of meds to try to stabilize the virus and treat his pneumonia, but by that time, his immune system was already too compromised. Watching the pneumonia take hold and his chest pain and severe cough grow worse by the day was horrifying. Watching his mind grow soft was just as bad—as the weeks went by in the hospital, it became clear to me that his mind was already elsewhere, in a distant place with less pain. I remember bringing him his favorite flowers, Stargazer lilies, and what he said to me when he saw them: "I hope I'll meet you again in my next life, or at least remember how good you were to me when I walk in fields of flowers in heaven."
In just three short months, his body faded away, and I lost the first love of my life.
By 23, I had found and lost love. I know Oliver is in a better place now and still watches me on quiet nights, and I still love him with all my heart, but our relationship did more for me than a lifetime of happily ever after ever could. It taught me that love is love, and living one's life through a lens of fear only limits what happiness and growth life may bring.
Follow Tayte Hanson on Twitter.