Passive Living: A 2-Day-Old HIV Diagnosis


It’s only been 48 hours, so I’m unable to tell yet whether it’s a question of major tectonic drift or more like a simple, transparent pane of thick glass, but there’s definitely a distance now, a distinct and impermeable separation. Between September 13th Minus and September 13th Plus, between what I know and what I feel, between “I” and “they” out on the street. Friday and Saturday have been lived as if in passive voice: there’s some form of “to be” and the solid participle of another verb; they stand grudgingly shoulder to shoulder, never deigning to interact with each other but claiming equal effect on the subject. I was told. The proof was put in front of me. But work had to be done. And that night, surprisingly, sleep was had. Having lived this way, it is now understood (by me) why use of the passive is so rabidly discouraged (by high-school English teachers).

Grammatical distance was the first thing I thought of, actually. “Ja,” she pouted, “ich muss Ihnen leider sagen…” Ihnen comes from Sie, which is taught in German classes as the “formal” or “polite” 2nd-person pronoun, the German equivalent of usted or vous, and this was how I learned it. I’ve been living in Vienna the past four years, and my German still has plenty of room for improvement, but as soon as she said Ihnen, I understood it for the first time as a native speaker would. “Unfortunately, I have to tell you…” It’s not about politeness, it’s about distance.

We used to have the formal/informal distinction in English, but as the informal “thou” quietly exeunted, we filled the “distance” void with a glut of superfluous verb tenses and dithering wordiness. “How will you be paying?” There’s no such future progressive spinelessness in German — they just ask for your damn money, but they do it with Sie.

All the same, though, I wished badly she’d said, “Ich muss dir leider sagen…” embracing me with the vulnerable du, because the next thing she said was, “…dass alles nicht in Ordnung ist. Der HIV-Test zeigt ‘positiv.’”

HIV in German is pronounced “ha-ee-fow,” the last syllable to rhyme with “cow.” Over the following three minutes she must have said it at least eight or nine times, and I became fixated on the sounds. “Ha-ee-fow. Sounds like an old North American tribe. The Haifaux of present-day Saskatchewan,” I thought, “were noble and respected the land.” She mentioned something about white blood cells. “When the White Man came to Haifaux land, the brave warriors amassed and met the pale-faced enemy in a legendary battle upon the plains.”

“…So we’ll perform a complete blood examination now, and when you visit the doctor next week he’ll be able to tell you what your T-cell and CD4 counts are. What do you think?” I hadn’t been paying attention, and when I tuned back in I thought she was describing some outrageously improbable scenario whereby it would be discovered that today’s test was a false positive. This made me a little indignant.

“Oh, I believe you about the results,” I said more irritably than I’d meant to. But I was enjoying the story of the Haifaux.

She showed me the test, the little blue line that, on a very different test, millions of women have rejoiced over. But I didn’t find in my own blue line cause for equivalent despair. There was nothing, really. The blue line had importance only insofar as it meant I had to come back in a week for another appointment. Should I call in sick from work that day or ask for a holiday? I haven’t decided yet.

Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed in passive voice — to avoid deciding. Whom to tell, when to tell them, what to do now. I’ve thought more than once in the past two days that the numbness isn’t healthy. “Cry,” I will myself, using the imperative. “Collapse in a sobbing heap next to your bed and exorcise the anger and the fear and, most of all, the overwhelming, hateful, puncturing guilt.” I even sat in my apartment making a pooping face, trying hard to disintegrate into anguish, which seems like what a normal person ought to do. But, passively, nothing is felt. Even though so much (and indeed, frighteningly little) is known. No tears are produced, no shame lamented.

As any politician will tell you, passive living has its advantages. “Mistakes were made,” anyone? And cumbersome English tenses certainly serve their purpose: “When will I be dying?” is far more digestible than “When will I die?” I can manage “What could you have been thinking?” better than “Why the fuck didn’t you use a condom?”

I worry that, if (when?) I do transition into active living, the change will come without warning, and I’ll emotionally decompose at work or while out grocery shopping. But however and whenever it happens, I do hope for life to become active again. The best and most current estimates of life expectancy for HIV-positive men receiving treatment are nearly that of their negative counterparts. And 35 — or maybe even 40 — years is a long time to live with the distance I now feel (or don’t feel, to be precise). I’m not going to do the disease’s work for it. I’m not going to resign myself to being a living ghost. Subject, verb. That’s what I’ve been telling myself. That’s the goal. With no intermediary, no needlessly stoic participle. Subject, verb. 

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