Even though I was not sexually promiscuous or a drug user and had never even known an AIDS victim, I decided to take advantage of the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Community Center's free HTLV-III test, the blood test that identifies antibodies to the AIDS virus in people who have been exposed. When I became fatigued after a workout or had a sore throat that lasted longer than normally, I began to worry. Usual mild irritants take on deeper meanings when one is a member of the high-risk group.
I tried to ignore these feelings--as if admitting that it was possible I had been exposed to the disease and was admitting my own mortality. After several weeks of trying to convince myself ignorance was bliss, I called the Long Beach center to take the test.
A Storefront Center
The center is a small storefront on 10th Street. The tests were given on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4 to 7:45 p.m. There was no charge and I was assured on the phone that all testing was confidential.
I arrived before 4 a few Wednesdays ago, and found myself walking around the block, afraid to confront such a life-and-death situation. Although being exposed to the disease did not necessarily mean certain death, it would mean a change of life styles for both me and my partner.
The man behind the information desk in the small, cramped quarters gave me a number and a stack of pamphlets and told me to go outside the building and around the corner to a flight of stairs leading to the cellar. Although not yet 4 o'clock, I was number 34.
In the cellar were rows of chairs. A television set was showing a videotape of a recent news program on the disease as a continual stream of people came down the stairs and joined us in the folding seats.
People of All Ages
Although primarily men who had arrived in couples, there were a fair number of women of all ages there. One woman wore a babushka and long flowing gown. She found a seat next to a tough-looking young man in a leather jacket.
Numbers were being called out in lots of five. Nervously, the small group called would disappear behind another set of doors. Usually, there would be a last look to friends as if they would never meet again. The whole event took on a melodramatic tone. Although the numbers were reaching into the 90s and the room was overcrowded, no one left or complained. Most read the AIDS information that was handed to them or watched the videotape.
My number was called and I was ushered through the door and up a stairway to meet a counselor who explained once again all I had read in the pamphlets. He asked questions regarding my sexual practices in a way that did not make me uncomfortable. He asked me several times if I understood the test and if I wanted to continue with it.
Anxious for Results
When I answered that I was anxious to find out the results, I was ushered to the second station, a table in the middle of an office area and given a code number that I was told was mine alone. I was also given an appointment two weeks later to get the results. I was warned that I could not get the results over the phone or if I lost the code number. No one had asked me my name at the center, so the number was to be my only means of identification.
I was then turned over to a woman in a white coat.
She took my vial of blood and placed the code number on it, letting me double check that the code number I had been given and the number on the vial matched.
I was then taken out another door and reminded not to miss my appointment in two weeks. I had been in there about an hour and the cool air felt good as I drove home.
The test had been easy. It was the waiting that was horrible. Although having no real reason to believe I had been exposed, thoughts still gnawed at me. My partner and I didn't discuss the test during the waiting period. I just didn't want to think of the consequences had I contracted the disease prior to our relationship. A numbing fear began to set in as if I had already found out the worst.
Waiting for the Number
Two weeks later, on a Saturday morning, I returned to Long Beach to get the results. Others milled about as I gave my code number to the information desk. We sat in silence, my partner and I, until they called my number. My friend started to get up, but I needed to go alone.
I followed the man into a small private cubicle.
I sat opposite this man as he checked my code number one more time. I realized a lot was riding on this one and, although I tried to convince myself I could cope with any news, I still held my breath.
He told me the results were negative.
For a brief moment every emotion that I had been holding in check the last few weeks bubbled up. The relief was tremendous. I was OK.
He continued to talk of the benefits of safe sex and said that there was an incredibly small chance this test was inaccurate, but if I felt the need to double check, I could be tested again in a few months.
I thanked him and went to find my partner. From across the waiting room, he could tell by my expression that I had made it.
As we started through the door, I passed another man who had just received his results. Our eyes met for an instant and I could read fear of the most hideous proportions. He had gotten his news too.
He saw the relief in my eyes and turned away. He walked by us, his head bowed and I felt all the happiness and excitement of the moment before evaporate. The rock that I had been carrying the last few months, the rock of worry and fear, was back.
Only this time, it wasn't for me.