Living the Questions: The E-mail
BY Tyler Helms
January 26 2011 6:35 PM ET
A new year — the first month always sprinkled with resolutions, fresh starts, and crowded gyms. There seems to be hope, renewed commitment to things perhaps once forgotten. And there is focus on defining the year ahead. For me, like so many others, it involves a look at my career, dating, and of course my ongoing commitment to the conversation around HIV/AIDS. I had three goals before the start of the new year: (1) get through the hundreds of e-mails I had received following my last column, December 1; (2) arrange dinner with my ex-boyfriend, someone I had not seen in a while but missed dearly and was hoping to forge some type of relationship with; and (3) figure out what was next for this column, the greater cause, and the conversation. Each seemed doable. Dinner was arranged, thoughts were started, and on December 30, while waiting for my ex-boyfriend Adam to arrive, I would sit down at my computer to work on goal number 1. I was about 15 e-mails in when a familiar name caught my eye. The involuntary reaction of my stomach churning was no doubt an indication of the enclosed message. There are only two names that could incite such an emotional reaction, and this was one of them. The other was a former love named Matt, to whom I said goodbye in the mental ward of St. Vincent’s Hospital four years ago after drug abuse and a fragile mind got the best of him. But that’s another column.
This name was from a more recent part of my life; I had seen him numerous times over the past year in parties, bars, and restaurants, and I even remember that when I glanced out at the audience the night of my AIDS Walk fund-raiser, he was there. All the times I saw him, I never spoke, I never said hello, and I did everything I could to avoid him.
His e-mail subject line was "What’s Next?” An apt title, given my thought process. The body of the note would deliver on this question more specifically as it related to him, me, and what was. I couldn’t get through the words fast enough; there was still hope that I would be wrong about the direction I thought it might it go in. As quickly as I had those thoughts, I would come across this portion, beginning with the message's third sentence: “Perhaps your first column, if you are still writing it, can answer the question of why you didn’t call and inform me of your status given our last time. And you should also know I tested positive that same year, shortly after you. ... I’m positive, Tyler.” My heart sank, for him, for me, but mainly for my decisions.
The author of this e-mail was at one time a friend and someone with whom I would be intimate days before my diagnosis. The last time we slept together was a not-so-safe moment. You remember those things as a gay man, the times you were cautious but pushed the limits, said you would be careful but had clearly taken a risk. We had even acknowledged it that night, he having just tested negative, and my test results due back in literally a few days. All seemed fine, given my track record of negative results, including my most recent, three months earlier. We would conclude there was nothing to worry about — so we thought. We would part ways that Saturday morning, and I would never talk to him again. And that was by choice, the very choice he was now challenging.