On November 2011, I disburdened myself of possessions, job and lifestyle to seek adventure and purpose –an impulsive decision after months of depression. Stuffing the last remains of what belongings and old life remained into a suitcase, I left Florida with a one-way ticket for Barcelona.
My Barcelonan flat was reserved for two months, my provisional motivator was a CELTA training course (English Language Teaching to Adults), and my bank account held a humble $5000. Five weeks into the course, with only one week remaining, it was clear that I was about to earn a teaching certificate but not be any closer to finding my purpose. Just then, an opportunity befell me. A Catalan colleague in the CELTA course suggested that her retired parents would be interested in hosting me for a month in exchange for English practice. Once I moved in, the month turned into two, then three, then eight. The Catalan couple introduced me to Figueres, Mont Blanc, Sitges, Els Alps, Montserrat, Girona and many other places I had not heard of before. During this time, I was adopted into their culture and lifestyle, experiencing festivals, volunteering at events, and participating in family gatherings. Now, I felt a sense of belonging, but I was still no closer to finding my purpose. It was time to move on.
Per the suggestion of a friend, I scouted the internet for Buddhist schools and monasteries from India to China, applying as an English teacher. Two establishments responded. The first proposal was from a nunnery in Taiwan, offering for me to shave my head and join their convent. The second was from a rural tribal school on the boarder of India and Bangladesh, headed by a Buddhist monk. It took two days to make my decision, two weeks to get the VISA, and two months to get 18 shots of vaccines. On June 2012, I found myself in the little airport of Tripura, India, searching for a person with whom I had corresponded via the email. It was too late to regret not having had exchanged photos or even spoken over the phone. I could only assume that my soon-to-be host would have a shaved head and be wearing a maroon robe, like the ones worn by Buddhist monks in photos on the internet.
My nine-month-stay in India could be summed up in these terms: culture shock, naiveté, enthusiasm, hope, determination, achievement, heartache, despair, defeat. By February 2013, I was more confused than before, ready to throw in the towel and come crawling back to my old life. My mother must have sensed something, as she convinced me to take a vacation in Europe before returning to the U.S. We agreed to meet in Paris the last week of April and from there, continue together to Germany, Luxemburg, Belgium, etc. However, April was not soon enough for me. Having only $1000 remaining, I planned to couch-surf Paris until I was to meet my mom. Through Couchsurfing.com, I lined up 13 hosts and prepared to spend the end of March and most of April discovering the Parisian lifestyle. Yves was the last host on my list. His couch served as my bed for two nights.
Though we did not hit it off at first, Yves and I continued to stay in touch after I left. We grew on each other in the days that followed. While I was touring Europe with my mom, he even got the crazy idea that I should cancel my flight to the U.S. and return to live with him in France. To further persuade me, he proposed to take care of all of my expenses and even buy me a ticket home should I find myself miserable in blossoming, Spring-enveloped Paris.
The first week back with Yves was pure happiness. But, before our lives could get too intermingled, it was necessary to test for S.T.D.’s (we already had one night together unprotected). I knew I was fine, as prior to my two years of celibacy I had only been involved in deeply committed, loving relationships. In fact, I was still friends with most of my ex-boyfriends. But Yves, I did not know so well. We both got tested on a Friday and waited impatiently for Monday. The results confirmed…… Yves was in perfect health, I was HIV positive. Yves even had to translate this news to me at the clinic. Shock, horror, humiliation, fear, denial and other rosy emotions pounded me like a meteorite shower. After regaining some speech, I announced that I would immediately get to packing and be off on my own separate way. Instead, Yves dragged me to two other clinics and then, to the hospital for further edification on the condition and treatments (the staff at the clinics that we tried seemed to have little knowledge about HIV beyond the basics. The hospital was by far a better resource. In fact, if you have recently been exposed to HIV, there does exist a treatment that could stop the virus before it spreads in your body. The treatment must be taken within the first two weeks of having been exposed. This is an example of what you will not learn at the clinic).
The days that followed consisted of much running to and from the hospital, blood sampling, awkward silences, and lots of crying -mainly done by me and mostly in private. Throughout this time of uncertainty, I tried to suppress the emotions, concerned that they might take control of me or damage a relationship in its infancy. There was still the risk that I infected Yves. The guilt and intense mood swings were more toxic than the virus. I tried to occupy my time with fun activities, exercise and meditation, visiting the psychologist, and meeting new people who did not know or care about my condition. My goal was to stay away from Yves’s flat and my feelings.
Humiliation was one feeling that remained unavoidable. Taking a deep breath, I called up all of my former boyfriends, including the ones I quit. All were genuinely stunned and terrified, quickly running out to get tested. All reported back “negative”. I had to reach everyone possible with whom I shared intimate encounters of any kind over the last 11 years (it is conceivable to be infected without detection for as long). Whether out of self-disgust or self-pity, every phone call humbled me a little more.
It was around this time that Yves invited me to take a break from Paris. He suggested going to stay with his parents in La Rochelle. They were both doctors and keeping a secret from them might not be easy……
[end of part 1]
The chaotic spring left Yves and I exhausted. Leaving Paris for some time seemed like the only thing to do. Yves suggested visiting his family in La Rochelle. The only concern was in keeping my medical condition a secret from his parents, two doctors. I did not think this was a problem. He did. Yves pointed out my stress-induced acne and his own side-effects from a recently prescribed medication.
After learning that Yves was exposed to HIV, the doctor immediately placed him on a regiment of Combivir and Kaletra, two powerful drugs that have been known to reduce the spread of the virus if taken within two weeks of exposure. However, this cocktail served to heighten Yves’s faculties. Particularly, his sense of smell.
Yves’s nose could suddenly detect the smell of shampoo hours after my hair had dried, pick up on the faint impression left by the henna rinse I had used months earlier, sense the smell of mascara and lipstick, and even detect the vapours of oxygen peroxide. These smells drove him to the point of vomiting, and Yves did.
Willingly or unwillingly, he tried to keep his distance from me. He would roll to the far edge of the bed, work in a different room, and try, unsuccessfully, to hide the look of disgust from his face. A certain air of doubt seemed to add to his behavior. He appeared to be confused as to whether the repugnancy of these smells was being triggered by the medication or by my biology. I started to question this too. My insecurity soared. Perhaps it was amplified by an almost suicidal humiliation and disgust within myself, as I still did not know how or when I had become infected with HIV.
In my head I dissected the last 10 years of my life over and over again. Somewhere, somehow, someone had put this into my body. Perhaps it happened after one of my many auto/motorbike accidents that left me a bloody mess and in contact with well-intentioned strangers attending to my wounds before the paramedics arrived. Maybe it was through the numerous vaccinations I received before travelling to the third-world. Perhaps I was exposed to it in the developing countries, where I sometimes had to walk barefoot or scratch my bloody, mosquito bitten legs. Maybe I was exposed to it at my job in the jails, where I had many HIV and AIDS infected clients. Maybe it was the piercing I got recently. Or perhaps, it was one of my exes, who did not have the guts to tell me the truth. I was angry, ashamed, weak and disempowered. And now, Yves’s seeming repulsion made me want to disappear.
Yves, however, was not ready to give up on me. He purchased the train tickets to La Rochelle, hastily packed our bags, and dragged me off on the journey.
His family greeted me with open arms. His parents were warm and genuine with a terrific sense of humour. I wondered if they sensed something wrong. Perhaps they noticed that Yves was not particularly excited to be in my company, to converse with me, or to even look at me. Often I found myself in an awkward situation, such as the one where Yves, his father and I went to the theatre together. We arrived early and had to wait forty minutes outside the venue doors. Yves stood on one side of his father and I on the other. Yves did not look in my direction the entire time. His father, seemingly confused by our silence, tried to start up a conversation with his son, then a separate one with me.
It got to the point where Yves could not be next to me without becoming sick. I decided that I had enough and I was going home. This is when his demeanor changed entirely. Yves pleaded for me to reconsider. “If you need to go back to Paris, I won’t stop you, just don’t leave France.”
I purchased a one-way ticket to Paris and left four days later. The feeling of relief that ensued was remarkable. It was wonderful being on my own again in this beautiful city. I enjoyed it all the more thinking that it was not going to last.
Before returning to Paris, Yves was finally issued a clean bill of health. All those months of testing showed that he was unquestionably negative for HIV and that the medication was no longer required.
When he arrived back at our flat in Paris, Yves immediately flew to my side to smell my hair, proclaiming, “The odour is gone! Your hair smells wonderful, your skin smells wonderful, you smell wonderful!” As it turned out, it had been the medication all along, and if Yves’s parents had suspected something, they said nothing to either of us.
And so, under a new set of circumstances, our life resumed. Our relationship seemed a little bit deeper and our future together a little bit surer. Over the next weeks and months we kept busy with work, studies, social activities, and getting to know each other further. Finally, on a sunny August afternoon, while riding a busy métro, Yves sat me in his lap and proclaimed that he did not want me to leave, or at least not without him. He asked me to marry him. We married three months later in the presence of three friends at the local “Mairie”. Now, under the supervision of a wonderful doctor, we are preparing for our first pregnancy and are looking forward to a future full of possibilities.
*The name of the author and those in the story have been changed.