Chairs were set throughout the third-floor halls of the 519 Church Street Community Centre — a makeshift waiting room. They were filled with a cross-section of the gay ghetto: a businessman, a street kid, a bear, a hipster and so on. Most of them were on their phones distracting themselves. I tried to do the same, but the fear was heavy in my gut — I couldn’t focus.
A young woman walking by asked me if it was an audition.
“No, this is not,” I said. I couldn’t help but laugh. It did lighten the mood.
She took a moment to study the group. “Why is everybody so quiet? There are all these gay men, but none of them are talking. I’ve never seen that before.”
I saved her the embarrassment and just smiled. I didn’t have the energy to tell her that this was a weekly drop-in for anonymous HIV testing. She finally walked away, bewildered.
To an outsider, the scene might be a spectacle, but it was all too familiar to me. I’ve sat in waiting rooms like this throughout my entire adult life — always the same sombre crowd, silent and weary, awaiting verdicts. This was the only part of being gay that I really hated. The fear lingered in the air, dense and choking. What if this is the day that my life changes? It’s hard not to think it, because it’s entirely possible; it has happened a thousand times before and will happen a thousand times again. I try to remain calm in these waiting rooms and tell myself that many brave men have experienced the worst, survived and thrived. If I ever became positive, it won’t be the end of he world. The virus is manageable, I have a good drug plan, and we’re lucky that in Toronto there are endless resources.
I took a deep breath.
When I’d checked in earlier, the receptionist asked if I also wanted to get tested for syphilis. I declined but felt irresponsible, like it was my duty to know. But I couldn’t imagine being told that I was HIV positive and, by the way, I have syphilis too. Good luck with that. No thank you!
In the end I decided to start taking PrEP. Why not? I could stop anytime, I told myself, especially if the side effects became too much to handle. I had horrible headaches for the first month, but that was it. I had originally gotten the HIV test necessary to obtain the prescription but that didn’t account for the three months prior to starting the medication. That’s why I was at The 519 being tested. My doctor wanted me to do blood work which takes up to five days for results, but I always just ignored him and went to the drop-in instead. I preferred the immediacy of the rapid testing.
I slipped up (I think, but can’t be sure — I was drunk) a month before I started using PrEP so I was somewhat concerned about this particular batch of results. Maybe I was overreacting. I’d been putting this test off but I knew that if I’d seroconverted, then the virus might be building a resistance to Truvada, which was a frightening thought. Truvada is used in combination with another drug to treat those who are positive so if I had converted, the treatment could become useless to me if the virus became resistant. There were other treatments of course, my doctor assured me but it was still mandatory to get tested regularly while on the drug. It’s a strange feeling to be monitored. Keeping sexual health at the top of my mind seems great on paper, but it also means that you’re constantly reminded of your status — it becomes a part of you. Before, I was just Mike, and I kind of liked that. Now, I’m Mike on PrEP, and I’m learning that there’s a lot of baggage that goes along with it — I often am made to feel as though I’ve chosen a side: either for PrEP or against it. There’s no middle ground . . .