‘Objects in history: AIDS as cultural singularity’ was published in The Lifted Brow Issue 25, March 2015.
When I tried to think about my earliest memory of HIV or AIDS, I couldn’t seem to go back further than the first time I had sex.
I was staying in a cheap hostel in Amsterdam a few months before my 19th birthday, and one night ended up at a really cruisy gay bar. It was packed, dimly lit. There I was, a tall, lanky 18-year-old boy from country Victoria, standing in the corner with no idea what I was doing. A few beers turned my furtive glances into awkward stares, and after about an hour a cute Israeli guy probably twice my age stuck up a conversation.
I had no experience at flirting but must have muddled through. He took me back to the apartment where he was staying and we had very confusing sex. Nothing penetrative, not even oral, but I felt anxious and detached throughout the whole debacle. I suppose it was pleasurable enough for me to come, but if I hadn’t been so nervous I would have laughed when the guy said something like, “Yeah, that was good sex” in a husky porn-voice approximation.
As far as I could tell, it was not.
The fear started even as we put our clothes back on. When I asked if he was ‘safe’—not really even knowing what I meant by that—something changed in his face, as though he only just realised how young I was. I guess I was asking him if he was HIV-negative, although at the moment of the question its precipitating fear had been much more diffuse.
I remember he was kind about it. He did everything he could to reassure me, and I left to walk back to my hostel in the rain. I spent the next day in a fog, somehow convinced I had contracted HIV. It was almost 10 years ago, but I clearly remember many times forming the thought: if I am HIV-positive I will kill myself.
Read the full essay in The Lifted Brow.