The Cost of Casanova
It happened again on Valentine’s Day. I’d known that I was going to sleep with A. On the previous date, we’d made out at a bus stop.
“I bet,” I murmured into his ear, “you’d be in big trouble if you did this back in Bangalore.”
How he laughed, head tilting back only for a moment before kissing me again.
So, on Valentine’s Day we picked up a few supplies at Trader Joe’s: a bottle of wine, some salmon and veggies to cook. It was a simple evening with conversation and our clothes coming off in the living room. Only later did I realize that we hadn’t used a condom.
“I’ve been tested since my last partner. Have you?” I asked, naked in bed.
He shook his head. Fuck, I thought to myself. I’d done it again.
My friend uses the term “self-infected” for people who get HIV through risky behavior. That night it lingered in my mind, accusing me.
The first time I put myself at risk I was 25. I had given a guy, B, oral sex without a condom. The next evening he came over, I asked him when he’d last been tested. A while ago, he guessed.
I told him I wouldn’t give him oral sex without a condom again. I needed to get tested. It would mean a lot if he’d go too.
“But I’m no Casanova,” he said.
At the time, I swallowed wine, trying to process his response. I was too overwhelmed to be upset, too concerned with being nice while he was still in my apartment. How could I be angry without being called hysterical?
It should’ve been easy. We were playing Russian roulette and he didn’t know what was in his gun.
Casanova is shorthand for men who have many sexual partners, but the real man’s philosophy was simpler. “Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life,” the Italian author had written.
Seems simple until it’s put in practice. Telly in the movie Kids only sleeps with virgins. He explains that they have “no diseases...no nothing, just pure pleasure.”
He doesn’t know that he’s the one with HIV.
I was still seeing A after Valentine’s Day. Sitting on his couch but not looking at him, I brought up the STI issue. It would mean a lot for me if he got tested.
“Of course,” he said quickly.
I sighed in relief, my head resting again on his chest. It shouldn’t have felt so large, but after B, it felt like victory.
I soon discovered, however, there were more ways to say no. After 3 weeks, I checked in to see if he had been tested. All he had were questions: Where could he get tested? How long did it really take? Couldn’t he get false positive results?
Despite my chest tightening, I explained his options. There were multiple Planned Parenthood locations in the city. The biggest issue would be going too early and getting a false negative.
He agreed to go, but there was never enough time, not after the weekends in Tahoe for snowboarding, or drives down the coast for mountain biking. I watched his values reveal themselves as Tahoe’s mountains shed snow in the spring. Soon, I left too.
I remember the first time Sleeping Beauty truly disturbed me. It was a Celtic version, "The Brown Bear of the Green Glen." In this version, the prince travels to a magical island. He walks into a house where each room holds a magical pleasure. There is a bottle of whiskey that never empties, a cheese round that never ends, a loaf of bread that is always whole. In the last room lies a beautiful sleeping woman who never wakes.
These are the magic pleasures for men.
On a podcast about self-love two terms keep repeating. The body you have. The body you want. If I was sick, my body would become another inadequacy. I wouldn’t just be too large for a size 2. If I was infected, something new is added to that impossible horizon—becoming “clean.”
The more I thought about the terms “clean” and “thin,” the more they felt like ways to commodify the body for the male gaze. Deny your hunger and become thin enough to love. Have no health history to be discussed or seen. Wipe yourself of your wants and needs to allow his lust to unfold without any restriction. Become a vessel, always ready to be filled with someone else’s desires.
The nurse at Planned Parenthood tried to reassure me. Only eight in 10,000 get infected from vaginal reception. Even if A was HIV-positive, my chances were low.
It was the statistical version of my friends’ reassurances: “You’ll be fine; just get tested.” But what if I was one of those eight? No one had an answer for that.
In “The Brown Bear of the Green Glen,” the woman wakes up nine months after the man kisses her. She gives birth to a child, and must go out into the world and find the father. Only a magical duck can prove the father’s parentage. She finds him, and he marries her.
They say they lived happily ever after. But could they? She was awake.
The nurse told me that I’d know my results in 15 minutes. I thought I’d have to wait a week, like the tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia. I wanted to wait forever, and I wanted to have known 10 minutes ago.
As she pricked my finger, I felt like Sleeping Beauty, my life balancing on a single jab. I couldn’t stop the surreal questions: Had the whole world paused? Were we all waiting in a dreamlike place? Would the nurse wake me up, and tell me my fate?
If I was infected, the only salve would be a chance to text A. I’d make science my sword and plunge it into his chest.
Not to rain on your “Olympic” dreams, but I tested positive. You should get tested. Would’ve saved me a few months of anxiety, asshole.
It would give me a chance to be righteous, to rip his excuses to shreds. I was tired of men seeing my safety, my health, as an inconvenience. I wanted to remind them I was more than a moment of pleasure. I was blood and bone, impossible to erase.
“By the way,” the nurse said, returning to the room. “Your test came back negative.”
I laughed to stop myself from crying. The world began to move again. The nurse prepared a clean needle to test me for syphilis.
Now, I’m waiting for a call to never arrive. If they call, it means I have syphilis. It means I’m not done. In a way, it would mean I’ll never be done with A.
I’m waiting for A to text and to never text me. Science can only define the physical traces. Infected or not. There’s no test to codify these remaining feelings.
In this world silence is an answer, but I’ve never found an ending there.
Katie Simpson is a writer and photographer in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in Eastern Iowa Review, HitRecord's Body Book, and Entropy Magazine among others. You can find her online at: https://twitter.com/honest_creative.