I stood there, in London's Tate Modern, looking at Wolfgang Tillmans's photograph 17 Years' Supply, feeling a shared intimacy with a man I've never met. The piece depicts a container filled with HIV-medication bottles. I thought I would start to cry.
I am a 48-year-old, HIV-positive, polyamory-oriented gay man. And while none of these words actually describe who I am, each is a construct used to limit me and define me.
I was in London visiting my 30-year-old lover, Noah.
That morning, we had laid in bed in his Shoreditch apartment, watching TV. With his head on my belly, I was awestruck by his absolute beauty, the way the light and color of the room hit him just so, the way his head moved with each breath I took, the curve of his body under the blankets, a glimpse of a butt cheek, his foot sticking out. It all combined to create a moment that was nearly flawless, and I laid entranced by him and the wonder of what we became without outside constructs and limits on whatever our young relationship was.
I ran my hand through his hair, feeling the shape of his head, and I was stunned by the potential of this person: his whole life still ahead of him, everything he had left to experience, all the ways he would grow and change, the man he was becoming and would one day become.
Before leaving, a friend had asked if I ever worried about the fact that I am so much older than so many of the men I date. I am 18 years older than Noah. I am 17 years older than my husband, Alex, and 16 years older than our boyfriend, Jon.
The answer is simple – yes, I worry. I like to torture myself with a particular game of math, and I did it that morning in bed with Noah: When I am 60, he will be 42. When I am 70, he will be only 52. Will he still want to fuck me when I'm no longer sexy, when I'm just an old man? Will he still want to go on walks with me, talk to me, kiss me and hold me and tell me I'm beautiful? Will they still love me when I'm old?
If I'm feeling particularly cruel, I will remind myself that I am HIV positive, too, and I'll imagine how that might play out as I age. Will I live a normal life (modern medicine and science seem to indicate that I will), or will I die ravaged by illness, alone and sick?
I remember my grandmother Irene telling me how strange the experience of getting older was. She was 91 at the time, and she told me that on the inside she still felt like a 16-year-old girl. It was only her body that changed, and the way the world treated her.
I'm at a point in my life when I am neither young nor old, where I am leaving behind one experience and entering into a new one. This May, I will turn 49. For much of my early life, I was a heroin addict. I spent my 20s and 30s struggling with addiction, with finding a way to exist, but by the time I reached my 40s, especially my later 40s, that struggle changed – I found myself finally becoming comfortable with who I am. Liking who I am, even. Age made me stronger. I was happy. Life became beautiful. All the wasted potential of my youth suddenly focused into something with meaning. I had hope.
My numbers game is just another construct, like those who would deny me my capacity to love all these beautiful men. It's just another way to limit myself. If they love me at 48, why won't they love me at 78? The only reason to think that is because I'm afraid – of being left behind, of being abandoned, of that day when I'm suddenly no longer enough.
I will get older and my body will fail. I will be covered in wrinkles and my chest will sag, my dick will stop working, and I will no longer look on the outside the way I feel on the inside. One day I will die.
And so I have a choice: I can sink under the weight of it, or I can rise and flourish and grow from within. Instead of being limited by my age or HIV status, I can allow those things to make me stronger, to allow myself to become a man who will be loved as much at 98 as he is at 48.
We are much more than those constructs used to define us, than our age and body type and gender. We are only defined by those things that we allow to define us. I am a 48-year-old HIV-positive poly-oriented gay man, but I am more than any of those things.
I remember that morning with Noah's head on my belly – the way he turned to look at me, smiling, and the sheer amount of potential contained in that moment.
After we made our way through the Tillmans exhibit, I went to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and cried. Noah stood outside, talking to a friend we had run into. I couldn't control it. I was overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude and hope and joy.
"I don't mind it, though," I remember my grandmother saying to me. "This feeling, getting older, knowing that soon I will die – it changes how the world looks. Suddenly, from this perspective, I can't escape the truth: Everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose."