Hand sanitizer reminds me of the worst days of chemotherapy. We’d never used it before. But we were taking the train back and forth to Sloan Kettering, and standing in crowds, trying our best to stay upright. We didn’t want to pick up any opportunistic infections. At the hospital, dispensers of Purell foam were everywhere. I got in the habit of slathering it on my hands whenever we entered or exited any room, anywhere in the building. The smell of sanitizer is a powerful trigger: instantly I am back on that train, hoping there’d be no delays, hoping no one was sick, hoping that the fearsome after-effects of a chemotherapy session wouldn’t begin until Hilary was home in bed.
Damn it, I swore I’d never write about those months. I never wanted anybody else to read about them and get upset. But I’m back to the constant worry that at any moment, something terrible might begin. Symptoms would begin; a trap door would open, and she’d drop, and I’d never be able to recover her. For twenty-eight years, all I have ever wanted to be was the one who would catch her if she fell. So my fear that I could get her sick — that I could be the one who pulls that lever, however inadvertently, and let the trap doors swing — has been overwhelming. I’ll touch my face and I’ll feel like I’ve condemned us both. An act as innocuous as an eye scratch has begun to feel as threatening as a live mine. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, I was told when I was a child. I never stepped on a crack, because unlikely as it seemed, what if it was true?
I was ten years old when I first heard about AIDS. It was then called GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. A year later we learned that it could be spread through heterosexual contact, too. Great, I remember thinking, that’s everything out. As a young teenager I thought about sex constantly — how to get it, how many different ways I wanted to try it, what sort of adventures I might have while pursuing it, the ups and downs, the seeker and the sought, the whole shebang. The hunger never eased. At the same time, I read the public-service announcements and Village Voice articles that testified to the awful reality: a single errant contact could spell doom. Nothing was foolproof but abstinence, and abstinence seemed quite out of the question for me. Once I became sexually active, I was terrified that I had it — that I’d made a mistake that would not only be my undoing, but the undoing of the people I found exciting and lovely. My deepest fear was not that I would die horribly, but that I would be a transmitter, a vector, a ruiner of the lives of others.
I’ve spent the last few days having intense flashbacks to the ’80s and early ’90s. I’ve been remembering the mood on the street in Manhattan — the OutWeek and Enjoy AZT posters, the elegiac Pet Shop Boys songs, the looming dread and suspicion in the clubs, the feeling that a playground we’d been promised was falling apart. Our ungovernable desires, we were told, were the corrosive forces that made that collapse inevitable. In the midst of this catastrophe, not only is casual sex an affront to the public health, but so is a handshake. We’re not even supposed to touch ourselves: we’ve got to keep all surfaces scrubbed and squeaky clean. By government order, we are alienated from our experiences and exiled from our senses. And because the alternative is unspeakable, I’m going along with it.