An unassuming doorway lies at the top of Haight Street. I reach the last step and ring the bell. I'm jumpy and nervous. The voice on the intercom asks what I want and after the little game of trading code words, it buzzes me in.
I step in and climb the stairs. The walls gleam from a fresh coat of white paint. Bowls of candy-colored condoms, sitting on the newel post, catch my eyes. I pocket several, knowing they'll get put to use in our household of single women.
At the top of the stairs is the waiting room once the dining room of this flat-turned-health clinic. I step inside and find a spot to sit. I try to relax and take deep breaths, but the circumstances leading me here are hard to forget.
I started high school in Oklahoma, way back in the early 1980's. I only went steady with a couple of boys, but spent the requisite amount of time in the back seat of their cars. No one talked about sex back then and "safe sex" only meant escaping pregnancy. Sexually transmitted diseases abounded in the Bible Belt, but no one dared talk about it. We just kept our Church Camp mouths shut about the realities of sex, and practiced it when we thought God wasn't watching.
The receptionist comes in and nods hello to me. I return her smile reluctantly. I don't really want to be here. That's not exactly true. I don't really want to wait any more. But I stay politely seated, reading the posters about prenatal care and monthly breast exams. A young Latina girl sits across from me, we've both been waiting here a while. The bustle from Haight Street finds its way in through the open windows, rising on the afternoon breeze.
I went to a small conservative college in Southern California. I'd moved to California two years prior, but still felt hopelessly naive. By now, the president had mentioned AIDS on tv, but I didn't think it could affect white, middle class, suburban me.
I glance at the clock. Only a minute has passed. I start squirming in my seat and run my fingers in the crook of my arm that's where my life came to a fork in the road, where the needle mark from two weeks ago is.
The receptionist calls a name, "Taylor," and for a moment I forgot that's my pseudonym for the afternoon. Every clinic has a different system for naming their clients in order to keep their anonymity. On the third call I remember and go up to the desk, just to sign in. She leaves to tell the counselor that I'm here. I sit down again and keep waiting.
Moving north to Oakland after college was when I seriously started thinking about it. Most of my sex acts had been low risk, but not all. And I knew serial monogamy wouldn't save me my average relationship was two months long. Hell, you're supposed to get tested up to six months after an exposure I'd be on a second or third partner by then. And HIV had crept into the periphery of my life. Two friends became infected. One was an ex-lover. I started getting nervous.
Nervous because I could get sick, very sick, in fact, I could die. But, more than that, I was so worried about who I could've infected, If I was indeed carrying the virus. I had a walking nightmare about trying to tell my past partners that they might be carrying HIV, and I might have been the one to give it to them. That thought alone made me nauseous.
Knowing was better than not knowing. It was the responsible thing to do.
A name is called and the Latina girl gets up and walks down a hallway, following one of the clinic workers. My palms seem clammy and I think there are a few beads of perspiration perched on my upper lip. They should've called my name much earlier maybe it's a sign. I want to pace up and down the hall, but it's not allowed, for confidentiality reasons. The walls and doors aren't all that thick, and they don't want patients overhearing conversations between other clients and their counselors. So, I'm forced to stay sitting in this ever-shrinking room, and tap my feet and wring my hands.
I reread the scattered handouts on genital warts, syphilis and chlamydia for the umpteenth time, not really paying attention anymore. My "name" is finally called and I jump up to meet the woman with the manila folder in her hand. She is the one who interviewed me last time. They question you on sex, drugs and blood transfusions (answer honestly please, this is for posterity, and CDC statistics). She has a kind, soft face and small glasses. She appears friendly, but not overly. I guess she's in her mid-twenties in many ways she's a mirror of myself.
I follow her down the hall to one of the converted offices. The walking feels good I'm literally getting somewhere now. My hands stop sweating and my breathing normalizes. She asks me to close the office door. I oblige, then sit down in front of the desk, and exhale audibly.
"How are you today," she asks?
"I'm tired of waiting. Let's get on with it."
Her words are few, but it takes longer for their implication to wash over me. Negative. My brain struggles to transpose the literal meaning to the intended one, negative being a positive result. I exhale again. I'm relieved, but not elated like I'd expected. There's no justification, no feeling of being above reproach from HIV. If anything, I must become more aware, vigilant and accountable.
On my way out, I dip my hand in the bowl balancing on the stair railing and pocket a few more condoms.
Have you been tested?