Round One

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I will always cherish the initial misconceptions I had about you.

– Unknown

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It was the fall of 2014, and I found myself at rock bottom, sitting stagnantly in a pool of despair and self-pity. Yes, I was a complete dumb ass for allowing this issue to bring my life to a screeching halt, but back then I couldn’t imagine anything worse. I felt like the unluckiest person in the world: here I’d finally found Mr. Right only for him to morph into Hannibal Lector without me realizing he already devoured me. Discovering that my worst nightmare was now my permanent reality was one bitter pill I couldn’t seem to swallow; and this bitter pill came with a lifetime of refills to boot, making it all the more difficult to digest.

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I was destined to live out the rest of my life as a spinster and an outcast I believed. I saw it like this: if I’d spent the first 30 years of life looking for love without any success and that was being HIV-free, now that I was HIV-positive, there was no chance of finding anyone to love me. I was damaged good, I was tainted, I was toxic, and there were plenty of non-toxic fish in the sea that took priority over me.

I was blind to see anything positive in my future outside of my HIV status. When I looked ahead, all I saw was a darkness guaranteed to be riddled with rejection and shame. I isolated myself from my friends, family, and my entire support network because I was so humiliated; I didn’t want anyone to even see me. I’d been branded with the upmost of scarlet letters, and I ceased living life and started just “getting by.”

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My dreams of finding Mr. Right and living happily ever after had vanished. What lay ahead was a crazy terrain head filled with rejection, confusion, pain and debauchery; it was a terrain I didn’t want to get to know; and it was a terrain that stood for everything I stood against but there was no getting out of it, I was stuck forever here.

In the end, I’d say this crazy terrain did me some good in forcing me to break free from the conservative shell. This crazy terrain also led me to some crazy people who led me into an unprecedented level of craziness that I’m still trying to get out of.

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In time I realized that I wasted years on something that’s a non-issue now. But I was a different person back then, I was sheltered and naive, I was stupid and unrealistic, and what I believed to be the worst possible scenario in my life was a clearly a reflection of my own ignorance: far worse scenarios, exponentially worse scenarios, existed. I’d soon come to experience them for myself. I spent most of that initial summer wallowing in my own misery all alone. Then I met two interesting men that would forever change my life: John and Ben. As a result of these two random meetings, life as I’d come to know if both before and after HIV would soon be things of the distant past.

John was my crazy neighbor who lived a few doors down and befriended me during my blue period. John was the opposite of me: he’d always lived on the edge, the more reckless, the better, and boy never threw caution to the wind. John partied and drank like a rock-star, and when it came to anything addictive – from lotto scratch-offs to ripping off a pack of gum via 5-finger discount – as long as it involved a rush of adrenaline or dopamine, John was game for it.

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I could tell that John felt bad for me in my recent predicament and he made a point of inviting me to hang out with him and his small gaggle of gays.

It was an eclectic bunch: there was the deaf gay, the one gay that looked like George Costanza, another could have been the twin of McDonald’s Grimace, and then there was me, adding another odd dimension to this crew of fun misfits.

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Aside from meeting John and his little gaggle of gays, that was the extent of my outward growth in the friend scene for several months. But then I met Ben, and life as I knew it would be forever changed.

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Given this is my life, where bad luck falls like bird droppings on a summer’s day strolling through the pigeon sanctuary at the Washington zoo, this won’t be a change for the better.
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Looking back, those days initially described as the lowest of the low turned out to be the bestest of the best, because those days were still ruled by blissful ignorance…

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It was one random Saturday when I met Ben on the gay chat app, Jack’d, and suddenly life was full of light again. It was amazing: I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect match for me. Ben was this mellow, kind, soft-spoken and sincere guy, at least that’s how he seemed initially. We both had histories of being in abusive first relationships, we both had HIV, as well, and we both had lots in common. We hit it off amazingly and the relationship progressed quickly from there.

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Ben seemed to really “get” me from the get-go. He entered my life at a time when I needed someone like him the most. Ben was so understanding, so thoughtful, and he treated me so well that I felt lucky to have met him. I felt like finally I had my life back again for the first time in eons. For the first time since acquiring HIV, I forget I even had the virus. Ben made for an incredible escape: he gave me hope, he was an inspiration and role model; I felt blessed to have found him.

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Meeting Ben gave me a whole new outlook on life: I no longer felt like an outcast, and I was finally in good company now. Our connection seemed so strong I felt like it was almost worth this HIV infection, as crazy as that may seem. I remember telling my mom that HIV might have been a blessing in disguised because, without it, I’d have likely never met Ben. My wishful thinking couldn’t be any further from the truth, but it would be some time before I realized that.

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I felt like I’d known Ben my entire life and the romance moved quickly like wildfire. I’d say within two weeks of meeting we were spending all our weekend time together, with Ben soon having his own set of toiletries in my bathroom. The more time that passed, the stronger the bond grew between us.

Ben was so chill, so mild-mannered, and he was one that spoke little but when he did, he spoke volumes. Ben seemed to be in awe of me at times, claiming that I was “wicked genius,” and that it was my mind that he found to be my most attractive feature. I loved the sound of that…

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What I didn’t pick up on initially is how Ben could quickly morph into any role and fit perfectly into any social setting. Ben could use his superficial charm to engage anyone into trusting him and feeling at ease. He didn’t reveal his true emotions; it was as if he had complete control over what he outwardly projected, leaving you to think he felt one way when there’s really no way to know what’s going on inside his mind. Ben’s poker face was worth millions but also highly dangerous as he could act any part without ever letting on to what he really felt.

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While John was living on the legal edge of life, pushing the envelope as my jaw continued dropping towards the ground, it was actually Ben who corrupted me more than anyone in my history, hands down.

While Ben was quiet and hid his emotions behind thick cock-bottle glasses, always appearing stoic and low-key, I soon discovered he had another side that was very bold, I learned that my feelers were incorrect in my initial assessment.

When it came to the gay world and sex in general, Ben was beyond confident, he was self-assured and extremely aggressive, he didn’t view anyone or anything as out of reach, and he didn’t treat HIV as a handicap. To Ben, HIV was a non-issue, and I admired his attitude and tried my best to assume it, as well.

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Ben was the most sexually liberal person I’d ever met, his sexual experiences in a week were more than mine in a lifetime. It was sobering to meet someone so sexually liberal and open that I found myself a bit taken aback. I was the opposite of sexually liberal or experienced, and Ben took note of this. He decided to appoint himself my sexual mentor in this new “anything goes” side of the gay universe, self-proclaiming himself to be:

The biggest whore in Washington, DC!

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Huh?!?!

He was a staunch supporter of doing whatever was viewed as bad and antisocial behind the scenes: lying, cheating, not being monogamous following the law of whatever doesn’t get him into trouble, those were Ben’s favorite things to engage in. Only he tried doing his best to hide this from others, it was only in time I came to realize he wasn’t as innocent as he appeared.

The stuff Ben got into most would avoid altogether or at least approach with caution, whereas Ben gave a wicket grin while managing to beat the odds time and again, indulging himself in the bad stuff in life.

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While he was introverted (he claimed his personality type to be an “INFJ,” that rare 1% of the population that everyone claims to be in their online profiles, he wasn’t the slightest bit shy about sex. I was never one to make the first move, not even with my ex, whereas Ben could talk anyone into sex no matter what. Ben was 28 at the time and was infected at age 19. He had quite the sexual past, and with me still working in HIV, listening to him talk about sex like it was chewing bubble gum, his attitudes towards sexual health initially mortified me:

I’d rather not have sex at all than wear a condom!

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While I’d spent the last 10 years talking about the ills of condom-less sex, he’d spent the last 10 years of his promoting it. Ben appeared so innocent at first glance; but once his shirt came off, along with his glasses, he was nicely built, with the word chaos tattooed on his chest. Ben certainly knew how to perform in bed, in the streets, and anywhere he wanted: he was the McGyver of sex as I called him. He could fix any sexual problem with a few moments of thought and… some spit. In time, though, I became normalized to his way of life.

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The first time we had sex I was blown away, I’d never been with someone who completely lost himself in the moment like Ben: the looks he gave me, the constant eye-contact that pierced my soul, the roughness he introduced, the moans and groans that carried themselves throughout my entire condo building  – this was something I’d never experienced before. He performed like a pro, it seemed almost rehearsed or scripted, but regardless, it was pyrotechnic sex, and I must have suffered diarrhea of the mouth and asked if he’d ever been an escort; he told me he had.

I discovered Ben’s past had a tinge of what I’d experienced in mine recently. When he was 16 years old, Ben met his first boyfriend, a guy in his early 20’s.  Shortly after, Ben was introduced to group sex and sex parties, only he was unaware his boyfriend was pimping him out to these guys. He was collecting money behind Ben’s back, without his knowledge or consent, plus Ben wasn’t even of age. Ben described the relationship as being one of abuse, deceit, betrayal, and exploitation. In many ways, his relationship sounded like mine. After the relationship ended, Ben claimed he worked as an escort for several years. He described escorting as a way to regain his own power, as sex had previously left him feeling powerless. He said he’d learned to use sex as a weapon. I didn’t quite get what he meant by that, but I’d soon no and I’d never forget it.

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With Ben as my new role model, I decided I was game for whatever at that point (without knowing what whatever meant). After all – I had HIV now – the Rolls Royce of all STD’s – so there wasn’t much else to fear at this point, right? It’s not like there are that many narcissistic sociopaths running amok in the world, hunting for empathetic guys like me to mislead, manipulate and destroy, right? What were the odds of that happening to me again? Odds like that don’t exist, or so I thought. I figured it was safe to proceed and let down my guard down, allowing Ben to take the wheel:

The coast is clear, so that means its smooth sailing from here on out!

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Ben would go on to credit himself for breaking me into this lifestyle like it was an honor, like he was the ultimate instructor, doing me some huge favor:

You lucked out, you had me to break you in!

It wasn’t luck, it would turn out to be an insidious curse that would annihilate me.

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When I told Ben about my first “love,” he seemed to know more than I did about what happened. It was Ben who told me:

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Sounds like you were with a narcissist.

I didn’t know what a narcissist was. But he seemed to know a lot about them, as well as other emotional manipulators. He taught me words that matched the craziness I’d experienced with my ex, terms I’d never heard of before like gas-lighting and “love-bombing.” I was so impressed by his knowledge and willingness to share. Having endured similar abuse, in Ben I found a friend who I could finally relate to, I’d discovered a needle in a haystack that I could look up to for advice, learn from, and begin to heal alongside.

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Ben’s charm, good looks, and fearless attitude towards life were intoxicating. At that time if you asked me what stood out the most about Ben’s character, it was his integrity, his sincerity, and his altruism. For whatever reason, he also made me feel like I was safe whenever I was with him, that nothing bad could happen to me, and I loved feeling this way… finally.

This was like the best possible scenario I could have imagined after what I’d just experienced. I told my mom that perhaps HIV was a blessing in disguise, because without it, I’d have never crossed paths with Ben. Like always, I’d later realize I spoken too soon.

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You!!! Labeling again and again and again...I refuse to let you or anyone else get to me and I am living my life my way..I know who I am and I do not need your approval or consent...to bad your not happy with me standing up for myself..get over it!!!

Before I knew it, Ben was with me all the time, we were inseparable. Weeks passed like this, our time together was memorable, and I grew to view him like he was family. He would speak about our future together, which seemed so amazing at the time. His complements were flattering, he seemed to like all the things I found fault with myself, and he seemed to enjoy sex more than anyone I’d ever encountered. It was a welcomed change from the celibacy I’d been living with before.

I noticed Ben didn’t know too much about his HIV medications, whereas I’d been working in the field for nearly a decade. Ben often left his pills in the car, subject to the weather; I scolded him on this, which he wasn’t too fond of. When I saw the antiretroviral medication combination he was taking – 6 archaic horse pills – I didn’t like what I saw. I came up with a one-pill, once-daily regimen and encouraged him to speak to his physician, who ended up switching his meds.

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The only “thanks” I got from Ben was:

I guess it’s better, but it was a lot easier to forget 6 pills than 1!

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Some thanks I got, but I figured Ben didn’t like being reminded of anything regarding the pill regimen he’d be stuck on indefinitely. I not only simplified things for him, but I picked out the best HIV drug that had been approved to date, a pill that recent studies showed removed all HIV from semen in a matter of days after starting it, meaning it was impossible to transmit the virus. I didn’t receive much appreciation for my efforts, but deep down, I felt good for having simplified his life and improved his health in the long-term.

Then one Friday night, Ben didn’t show up as planned, and he didn’t answer his phone, either. This wasn’t like Ben at all, he was always so dependable.

I became worried and called him several times but he never answered. I tried calling again the following day, no response. I tried a few more times, becoming concerned that something bad had happened to him.

One week later he answered the phone with an attitude:

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You keep calling me like I’m your boyfriend or something, Jesus. You know I’m not your boyfriend, right? And I never will be your boyfriend, Okie Dokie?

I’d never expected to hear those words from Ben, they were cold, callous, and clearly aimed at making me feel inadequate. This wasn’t the kind, young man I’d met a few months back, this was someone else, this was someone mean, and he was acting like a school-yard bully.

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My stomach sank to the ground:

I didn’t think we had a title, but you have your toothbrush and what-not over my place, I thought that-

Ben interrupted me:

You thought wrong. I’m out of town, and I ran into my ex who accidentally fucked me. I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it would hurt your feelings, but you’ve just kept calling and it’s gotten annoying.

I thought to myself,

If you didn’t want to hurt me, then why tell me after all? And how did you accidentally get fucked? Did you miraculously fall on an enema before even more miraculously landing right on his dick?

I explained that I’d called because he never showed up and I was worried; then I asked him when and why he’d concluded that I wasn’t date-worthy.

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He mentioned several reasons: I over-think everything (and that statement was repeated time and again during our relationship), and my over-thinking everything seemed to drive him mad. He said I was far too smart for him to date, which I found odd, that we had too many qualities that clashed, and he thought I wouldn’t make a good father and he was having kids one day. Ben seemed to have a lot planned out and a lot of must haves on his life for boyfriends, and that entire time, here I’d thought I was at least something of importance to him. The words that ensued seemed to push that dagger through my heart even deeper:

We’ll never date; get that through your head. We have no future together.

He stressed his ideal and my inferiority, along with my imminent expulsion from Ben’s cool club, as often as possible from that point going forward. It was a change I never saw coming, I didn’t understand how this had happened, or what happened to the Ben who felt like family, the Ben I’d fallen in love with.

Ben continued:

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Now, if you want to keep having sex with me, I’m not gonna pass it up, but I can take it or leave it. But in terms of dating – that has not been happening, nor will that ever happen, Okie Dokie? Plus. you don’t wanna date me, trust me about that; I’ve got a dark side to me that you wouldn’t like. Keep that between us, and don’t try and figure me out – nobody can, I can’t even figure myself out. You deserve to date someone better than me anyway, Okie Dokie?

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The way he said this, so non-nonchalant and blunt, really stung, he was showing me that he called all the shots, he had the power and dictated everything, and my feelings and needs were not his concern in the slightest.

If I wanted what little he had remaining in his pursuit for the ideal boyfriend, so be it; but he could care less, I wasn’t special enough for dating material all the sudden. Nobody had spoken to me in a manner that cut my self-esteem into pieces like Ben had, and it came off like he’d selected each word with the intent to hurt me. The wonderful young man I’d met was suddenly a dictator who had no love for me and had merely strung me along for months with a fake act and a bunch of lies, leading me to believe in a romance he viewed as a farce.  This was weird, this wasn’t how I’d treat someone, especially if I could relate to their recent predicament, I felt his treatment was almost sinister; but I stopped thinking about this sudden change in character as the depression that had recently abated came back full force. I felt like I was worthless again, like I was nothing more than a toxic virus and nobody wanted me, so I accepted Ben’s leftover scraps.

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I knew his words and actions were dehumanizing, but then I’d begin thinking back on the first months after my diagnosis and concluded: a little bit of pain thrown in was better than a whole lot of nothingness. I thought Ben was dealing with something that triggered him at that moment, and with his history of abuse and escorting, he was bound to have picked up a few bad habits in surviving the means streets. Maybe my initial impression had been off, but maybe he was experiencing a bad period in his life, I never believed anyone could be totally dead set in their ways.

Nobody put a gun to my head and forced me to conceit to this one-sided relationship. I accept responsibility in becoming part of this degrading role as what later turned out to be his punching bag. It wasn’t until later that I realized this sort “friendship” wasn’t possible; it was a power play, and it constituted abuse. Plus, Ben was popular, he was in high-demand, and so he was a bit on a high horse at times. He wasn’t the kindest person when crossed at all; but I still preferred being on his team than on no team at all. I gave in and continued in the whatever-he-gives-me-relationship with Ben. Ben believed he was “just right” as he was; he claimed he couldn’t change his ways and viewed anyone that wanted him to change as the enemy.

I thought Ben was just putting up a front, trying to come off as untouchable when he was dealing with pain deep-down. I was certain Ben could change, I knew he would, and I was convinced once Ben discovered who I really was, that I had a good heart, that I was fun, creative, and unique, that he’d come to his senses and start treating me better again; I was certain he’d come to appreciate me like he had initially. Despite him suddenly treating me like crap, besides feeling betrayed and hurt, I still felt this bizarre closeness towards him, like I’d known him for years, like he was family, and oddly… I always felt safe with Ben for some reason. I felt this need to be loyal to him, I felt like I had been put there to help him grow and become a more positive person. I was clearly still under the influence of his initial love-bombing, and that’s some powerful shit I’ve gotta say.

I believed that Ben could see things from other points of view, although while rigid, that he had the capacity to compromise, to change his mind, and that he wasn’t totally dead set in his ways, in putting himself first all the time, and showing no remorse for hurting others’ feelings. I also believed that, despite his mean rhetoric, he at least saw a true friend in me, and in my life, friends didn’t come and go, friends are meant to be there for the long-haul, they become extended family. Soon I’d discover that all the traits I thought mankind was made up of – traits that are present in everyone else – were somehow inherently absent in him. I was certain these positive traits were inside Ben somewhere, hiding, they had to be… and I was certain that I could help Ben bring out his true self. If only I’d known that Ben’s “true self” was his worst enemy and biggest fear, I’d have avoided making the biggest mistake of my life. But hind site’s always 20/20…
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All piano songs composed and performed by me.

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