Around me, plasma televisions glowed with images of champions and triumph, but all I could see was you. In front of me sat someone who was desperately trying to be normal—whatever that means these days—but whose heart was probably beating as quickly as it ever had. In front of me sat someone who I’d known for years but maybe never really knew at all. In front of me sat someone who had recently learned that he had HIV.
Months have passed since you first told me, and I have to admit that I haven’t thought much about your life until this week. While watching some of my favorite television shows, I came across the season premiere for Private Practice. Normally, I would describe the storylines as metaphorical anvils for the main characters but something about this viewing was different. On the screen in front of me was a teenager struggling with the decision to have sex, not knowing that he was HIV positive. Of course, because this was television, the teen engaged in intercourse with his girlfriend only to find out about his status after the deed was done.
All of a sudden, I was forced to yet again confront a young person with HIV. I had read the stats, but the spread of HIV among American youth was something that I still wanted to avoid thinking about. I did not want to consider that teenagers were dealing with the responsibilities of sex and its occasional consequences. However, somewhat ironically, in this respect I was an adult who still had some growing up to do.
Although there are times that I wish that the trend wasn’t happening, it’s increasingly apparent to me that teens are maturing at an earlier age. Young people are becoming more sophisticated about media, clothes, college, and, of course, sex. It seems as though individuals are now faced with choices that I never had to deal with in high school and I can’t help but wonder if I’ve done my part to equip teenagers with the tools that they need in order to make the right choices for them.
Restless in my bed, unable to sleep, I kept coming back to the television show and to you.
I couldn’t say this to your face at the time because you needed a friend more than you needed a lecture, but I was mad at you for contracting the disease. Sure, it was a rash judgment on my part, and your situation certainly wasn’t your fault, but I could not help but be upset that this happened to you. Why weren’t you more careful? Why didn’t you know better? Why? I was angry because I was heartbroken and scared; you had the rest of your life to live with this extra burden to bear. In my head, I knew that things would be fine and that this would most likely turn into nothing extraordinary, but I couldn’t get over the thought that, in some way, this was preventable.
I wish that I could go back in time and tell you things that you already knew: use a condom every time, talk to your partner about your sexual history, be mindful of how your judgment might be impaired, learn how to get out of risky situations. Most of all, I hate that I didn’t tell you how important safe sex is to me; it might not have made a difference but what if it had? I can’t save everyone, but I might have been able to save you. I am sorry.