I kissed him through the thin paper mask in the gilded light of my borrowed living room. Two weeks before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had advised the public to wear masks and stay at least six feet away from others to slow the spread of COVID-19. Kissing his mask was likely not advised.
Chico (whose name has been changed for privacy) was the first person I’d touched in weeks. I missed the shape of his lips against mine. We were both wavy on our feet from the alcohol and the weariness of having the unpredictability of the world wreak havoc on us again.
My hand slid up along his neck and into his grown-out curly hair to slip the elastic of the mask over his ear.
“Lemme kiss you for real,” I whispered.
“No no, no, don’t do that,” he said, taking the elastic from my hand and tucking it back.
“Ah, okay—so that was all I get, aight aight aight.” My words dipped into each other, trying to hide the hurt. This was just another version of the rejection we’d been circling for more than a year.
We hugged while his dog, Bug, sat at our feet waiting for him. I held Chico tight against my body, trying to get him to understand the love and trust and desire I had for him in a way that my words had failed to do.
My lips pressed against the curve of his neck, greedily attempting to commit to memory the shape of his body, his touch, smell and the expanse of golden skin dotted with moles and freckles and scars. We’d done this many times before, but this time was different—the world was ending.
Chico and I met the night before New Year’s Eve 2018 at Turtles All the Way Down, a bar close to both of our apartments. From that encounter at the bar, an infinite situation-ship emerged. He started as an option on a digital grid filled with people looking for sex. Chico and I chatted, and he entertained me enough that we arranged to meet for a drink and chat, before going somewhere to fuck.
We are the strange offspring of a plague that has killed thousands, and shared the same twisted humour to laugh about the fallacies of being HIV positive; our shared experience allowed us to slide easily into the comfort of getting to know each other over drinks. I liked the way he blushed, beautiful brown-boy red, and how his mouth cocked to the side of his face in a sly smile before he said something clever.
A month or so after we met, I had dinner at his place. I was nervous all night. By the end of dinner, I decided to try to be helpful by doing the dishes. I broke a wine glass in his sink doing a fly trick in an attempt to hide my nervous shake—I had convinced myself out of my usual tactic of leaving. A couple weeks later, Chico called me. He rambled until he finally worked up to asking me what it was that we were doing, and that made me want him a bit more. I had been hesitant to let myself dive deep. I wasn’t good at taking a chance with men; my relationships were more like a revolving door.
At one point, Chico took a work trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, the place I grew up, and a place I haven’t spent more than a week—at most—in the six years since I left. We texted during his trip, and I told him that the Bay Area was the place I had felt the lick of death, the place where I felt the world end a decade ago.
I shared the story of how I laid in a hospital bed covered in bags of ice, attempting to break a fever. Delirious, I swung in and out of consciousness as I seroconverted. My hometown was more bitter than sweet. He told me he hoped one day he could help me make better memories there. That’s when it happened: That’s when I stopped stumbling over my own feet and let myself trip and fall headfirst. He wanted me in spite of my complications. Before Chico, I had been enjoying the selfishness of being single for as long as I’d been in New York, but trust earned made me want to consider something different.
I thought everything was going well until I felt something change—it was his kiss that gave it away. After dinner out one night, on the corner where we would leave each other to go to our respective apartments, I asked him if he wanted to come over.
“Not tonight,” he said.
I said okay. When I kissed him goodbye, I felt the shift. I knew he didn’t want me anymore—and that’s when things began to unravel.
I was embarrassed: For being the one still hanging on, for falling further than the other. Embarrassed that he was so ready to just be friends when I was still so raw from pushing beyond myself.
So, I tried. We both tried. To be friends. Again, and again, and again. We tried to find a way forward, and held back too many questions, unasked and unanswered, to save our already bruised egos and hearts.
I quit my job the day before the office closed to the public following New York State’s stay-at-home order. Chico spent a handful of nights listening to me agonize over the decision. I told him everything because I knew that he would tell me the truth.
“Do you think I did the right thing?” I asked him when we took a walk to the park. Bug was off her leash chasing squirrels no bigger than her.
“No. I don’t,” he said.
We sat in silence watching Bug scamper around in the sun. It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but it was the answer that solidified my decision. I brought up the conversation days later and he clarified that it wasn’t that he disagreed with my reasons for leaving, it was that he disagreed with the way I was leaving. Launching myself out of security into a space with no job prospects, no money and no health insurance. A safety net of poverty.
In the days after I quit, I sat and stared out the window into the streets of Brooklyn, watching black and brown bodies trudge by. A slow parade of gloved hands and mouths covered by medical masks, or versions of one made with whatever they had found around the house.
The news and the internet kept tallies of deaths, reporting the mounting numbers worldwide—by country, by region, by city, by neighbourhood, by hour, by minute. They were spliced and diced, telling you that to be outside was to risk life or death. But bills and rent haven’t stopped—mouths need to be fed and the help that we need is in the hands of an incapable government.
When the lockdown was extended for another month, each day started to look the same. As the days passed by, I felt envious of the people in the slow parade. At least they were doing something to get a steady paycheck and, hopefully, some health insurance.
I continued to sit and stare out the window as the dollars slowly left my bank account.
The end of the world involved a lot of pacing. Up the hall and to the right, into the room with my stuff. Turn around back into the hall, walk down and then to the left into the nook of the kitchen. Turn around again, perhaps a stop by the fridge to see if anything had changed, back down and left into the living room nook. Turn around again and repeat the process in my new, unexpected apartment.
My former roommates and I lived in another apartment for almost three years, an apartment that helped shape the man that I wanted to be. It was the apartment I brought Chico home to after our night at Turtles. The night our drinks lasted longer than they were supposed to, leading to a one night stand that may have lasted longer than it was supposed to. After three years, my roommates and I were all ready to move on to a place that was a little bit closer to our dream lives.
By the beginning of March, the pieces of the apartment were being temporarily held together by short-term subletters—we all agreed that we’d leave at the end of the month. As the month marched on, the sureness of the world began to unravel. One of the subletters, a Canadian student, flew back home because his school and government didn’t trust he’d be safe in a country with a healthcare crisis. Another subletter had already slowly begun to move into her new apartment with her boyfriend.
One of my original roommates fled to Rhode Island with her girlfriend. It was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks, but by late-March it became obvious that assumption was wrong. She’d be stuck in Rhode Island for the foreseeable future, and I needed to vacate the apartment. In a video phone call where we both looked exhausted, we made an agreement of convenience: I would move into her girlfriend’s apartment just around the corner. It wasn’t what either one of us wanted to do, but it was the only thing that could be done. I spent the last week of March slowly moving my and her things, one by one, to the temporary apartment around the block.
During that time, Chico and I chatted on FaceTime almost every day. We shared anxieties about what was happening around us—or, we used each other to ignore the anxieties of what was happening around us. Sometimes we would just sit in silence as he played video games and I scrolled through the internet. Sometimes I’d ask him to show me Bug, who was probably nearby, curled up in some blankets. Sometimes I’d hear the front door open and close just out of frame—a disembodied voice would offer a greeting, then the sound of the sink and washing hands. I could see his face shift and hear his tone change. The call would soon end, and I wouldn’t hear from him for a couple of days.
The panic I felt from not hearing from him during a pandemic could have been easily assuaged by a phone call, but it would mean that I would have to ask a question I didn’t want the answer to: who did the disembodied voice belong to?
So, the pacing continued. Up the hall, to the right into the room, back to the hall—again and again until the sun set.
By 5 p.m., I was already a little drunk and a little stoned and glutted with TV, movies, books, porn, street watching, pacing and whatever else I could find to distract myself from the abnormalness.
I sat on the couch and watched the light move across the room until it was just amorphous shades and shapes of blue and black. Eventually, I got up to turn on the lamps and lit the candles around the apartment, diffusing the room with the dim and warm golden glow that I love. I went to the room with my stuff, opened the nightstand drawer and took my nightly dose of the HIV med Biktarvy.
Evenings were strange. What’s the point of going to bed at a particular time when there’s nothing to wake up to?
After a decade of living with HIV, my life has become a monotonous, anti-climatic routine. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a fresh layer of life-or-death complication. I’ve never had to navigate my infection without health insurance, and now each night feels like a slow countdown to figure out how to afford an almost $3,500 bottle of pills so I can continue to suppress the virus for another 30 days.
Mine and Chico’s experiences are different enough: He’s navigated the disease in New York without health insurance before, and knowing that has helped soften my fear about resources and placate my anxieties. To live with a disease that has killed thousands, in a city that is the American epicentre of a disease that is killing thousands, feels like I’m stuck in the crosshairs of certain death.
Before I kissed the thin paper mask in the gilded light of my borrowed living room, Chico and I had been sitting on my bed, having a version of the same conversation about how much we love and trust each other but are unable to agree on the shape of our relationship.
In that night’s version, I got the answer to the question I didn’t want to ask. The disembodied voice had a name and a story, and his own connection to the golden brown boy. The world was ending and Chico was choosing someone else. Versions of the world keep ending, and the sun keeps rising. It’s annoying as hell to be navigating heartbreak when I’m just trying not to be killed by a country and a virus.