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HIV Treatment Under a Collar
HIV Treatment Under a Collar

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An Almost Elegy: Taking the Test

By Nina Schuyler

On the surface, I appeared relatively normal. I went to work, wrote, spoke with people, even laughed, occasionally, but an elegiac tune moaned in the background; you might be terribly ill, so ill that your lips become parched, your breathing labored.

A few nights ago, I purchased an HIV test kit.

I brought it home and set the small white box on the bathroom counter. "Home Access Express, HIV-1 Test System," the only home test to receive FDA approval.

I picked up the sleek box and my heart pounded. Sweat lined my upper lip. I set the box down and went into the kitchen, made some tea, read my mail, sorted through some laundry, placed a phone call, made more tea, and then returned to the bathroom.

The box was still sitting there. Fortunately, the phone rang.

"This is how you're spending your Friday night?" asked my friend.

"That's the beauty of it, don't you see?" I was speaking fast, and we both knew I was working up the nerve. "I can do it at my leisure, in the privacy of my own home." In three days, I'd call a 1-800 number and retrieve my confidential and anonymous results. I would do the poking and prodding, the invading of parts that were mine.

I went on until she interrupted and asked what I was worried about? As a white, heterosexual female, I didn't exactly fall into a population that was at risk for contracting AIDS.

But the disease does not confine itself to neat subsets of the population. It spills out through unprotected sex, sharing needles with an HIV positive partner, or transfusions of infected blood.

More heterosexual females are testing positive, according to the Center for Disease Control, so I should be tested, especially if I'd engaged in risky behavior. And I had.

I thought I'd been in a monogamous relationship, only to find out it wasn't true. And the truth was what I wanted.

"Just take it," said my friend with exasperation. "You'll feel better once you know the results." Neither of us said anything. In my mind, I filled in the unstated, "I'll feel better only if the results are negative."

I hung up the phone, returned to the bathroom and summoned up the courage to open the box. I had to know. There were drugs now. AZT could prolong my life. Where I would get the money for such a thing, I didn't know, but I'd face that later.

I washed my hands and wiped my third finger with the enclosed alcohol prep pad. I took the kit's needle and poised it above the soft pad of my finger. I've fallen off my bicycle, split open my knee, dropped a motorcycle on my foot, but for some reason, I couldn't prick my finger. I gently tore away some skin. Still no blood. Finally disgusted with myself, I plunged the needle downward.

Brilliant bright red drops dripped on the white card. My blood. Why couldn't it reveal its secrets to me? Why did it require someone in a lab coat in Illinois to read its special language? I put the card into the kit's Federal Express envelope and walked it to the mailbox.

The next few days were maddening.

On the surface, I appeared relatively normal. I went to work, wrote, spoke with people, even laughed, occasionally, but an elegiac tune moaned in the background; you might be terribly ill, so ill that your lips become parched, your breathing labored. You will be eased into chairs and led by the arm down steep stairs.

I tried to counter the dirge by noticing things, the purple peonies with big blowzy heads in my garden, the way an old man removes his coat, slowly, deliberately, the long stride of a hound dog. I tried to pay close attention to beauty. I drove through Golden Gate Park and forgot to see if the white egret stood on one leg next to the waterfall. I was worried. I'd eventually have to quit my job. Who would get my car? I'd have to move in with my parents.

The night before I was supposed to receive my results, I went to hear San Francisco poet Thom Gunn read from, The Man with Night Sweats. I listened to Gunn tell about his friends who'd died of AIDS. So many bodies decaying, fraying, falling apart at the limbs. Life folding up its petals, again and again. The poets knew that life had an expiration date.

When Gunn switched from beer to wine, he lost 15 pounds and was certain the drastic drop in weight meant he, too, had the disease. That night in my journal, I filled a page, ""I am not ill. I am not ill.... "

The next morning I woke with a headache. My throat felt scratchy. My face was pale, my eyes red. I called my friend. "Sounds like allergies," she said. I was doubtful. I crawled into bed and tried to sleep. It was impossible. I listened to my body. Are you sick? Is everything ok? I tapped my belly. It turned on its side, refusing to reveal what lay below its pink and spongy coat.

I reached for the receiver, dialed the 1-800 number and immediately my throat constricted. A computerized voice asked me for my code number. I entered it. It repeated the code back to me and asked if it was correct. I wasn't sure, so I entered it again. We went through this two more times, my lungs tightening until I was taking short sips of air.

The voice was saying something, verifying my code, something about six months, if I'd been exposed in the last six months to HIV antibodies, it wouldn't show up on these results. I'd have to test again. The computerized voice paused. I paused. Silence.

The voice spoke. "Test results negative." Without missing a beat, the voice says that should I feel like taking another test, the kit can be purchased at most any drug store.

I hung up the phone. No thank you. No thank you. Give me life. Life! I tried to hold on to that feeling as I dressed for work. Tried to remember to look at the white egret in the pond, standing next to the waterfall, soft wind blowing, and at least today, I did remember to look.

Nina Schuyler is a San Francisco based writer. She can be reached at Schuylerninasky@aol.com

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