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Undetectable

by David Levinson
March 27, 2006
Undetectable
The cynic will tell you that romance has been dead for decades (like the theater, like book publishing) and until Chloe met Jack, she would've said the same thing. Her yearlong romance with him began as a bike ride over the Williamsburg Bridge on a cool, misty evening in May. She arrived at his apartment, met his cat, Sherman, and then they were off to eat beet salad and hamburgers at DuMont. She hadn't been involved with anyone seriously in about eight years, having gone from one lunatic, emotionally stunted and unavailable guy after the other. That's what she drew and after a while, Chloe gave up. Really. It's cliched to say the moment you shut down your heart's search engine you land on the exact website, the one you didn't even know you were looking for, but that's what happened.

After a month of dating, they hit a slow, gentle stride, of long talks and longer walks, which set the pace for the rest of their affair. Like many in the beginning, Jack was kind and considerate, going so far as to surprise her one afternoon by taking her to a Chelsea gallery to see an exhibit of Gregory Crewdson's new photographs. Chloe hadn't known about the show and was thrilled, not only by the photos, but also by Jack's thoughtfulness. Because it was thoughtful and told her so much about him: that he'd been listening to her, that he was thinking of her when they weren't together, that Chloe had finally found someone as thoughtful as she was. The afternoon culminated with a happy kiss on the sidewalk and her reply to something he said: "Are you positive?"

Chloe said it and Jack stopped and looked at her, in panic and confusion.

"Are you positive?" she repeated, stressing are rather than positive this time, thinking that if he were HIV positive he would've already told her. "I mean, we haven't really talked about this yet. Are you positive?"

"Yes, I am," he said and then she was confused, thinking he was referring back to her previous question, not the one that was going to change the way she saw him and the way their relationship would play out.

"Come on," Chloe said, "stop joking."

"I'm not," he said. "I'm HIV positive."

Even though she'd asked and wanted to know, she wasn't prepared for his answer or her reaction, the breathlessness, the rage, the sorrow, and then the immediate need to get as far away from him as possible. They were standing on the corner of Tenth Avenue and 26th Street and the cars and taxis whizzed by, all of them in a quick blip, her eyes filling with tears, thankfully hidden behind her sunglasses. She was a grown woman crying on a street corner in Manhattan on a beautiful spring day, Chloe, someone who'd hardened herself against attachment, who'd obviously lived in New York too damn long. There were tears, lots of them, minutes of tears, which obviously said a lot, at least to her, about how she still felt about Jack and AIDS.

But then, this is complicated and it's complicated because a) Chloe liked Jack, b) she's a consummate hypochondriac and c) wasn't Jack too young to have gotten infected? He'd just turned 24 and she'd just turned 32 and those eight years seemed to divide and subdivide, becoming a generation's worth of distance. As Jack told her the story of how he'd contracted HIV (at 22, trusting, in-love Jack engaged in unsafe sex with his equally young, though not nearly as faithful girlfriend), he became someone different, someone almost better and stronger to Chloe. Healthy and on a cocktail of pills that kept him so, Jack told her that he'd moved to New York, a dream of his, after he'd become "undetectable," another way of saying that his viral load was negligible. But how negligible was negligible? This was not the first question she asked herself, however. The first question she asked was, How can I get over my issue with HIV in a reasonable manner and amount of time in order to feel safe enough to keep seeing him?

Now, in the aftermath of their fantastic, turbulent year, as Chloe tires to sort out exactly what went wrong between them, she sees that while they were putting up a great fight, they were also putting up a great front with each other. Some issues can't be overcome, no matter how badly we want someone else, though Jack's HIV played only a minor part in their breakup.

Sometimes, the damages people carry around with them are visible and sometimes, they lie beneath the surface of the skin. Jack's honesty and candor drew Chloe in even as what he told her repelled and scared her. He was gentle and kind with her, but in the end, as Chloe told me, "We had no sex life at all. I just - couldn't. I love him, but I'm not going to risk my life for him."

It seems to me that the risk wasn't in the sexual act but in Chloe's heart, that nothing would've stopped her if she'd truly desired Jack, that she wouldn't have let his manageable illness come between them. But then everyone has his own comfort level, what he's willing to deal with. Perhaps if they'd gone to counseling, like I suggested, Chloe might've been able to get over her fear and Jack wouldn't have felt as rejected time out of mind. Perhaps if Chloe had addressed her own doubts about being in a real and committed relationship, she wouldn't have let Jack go so easily. Ultimately, their breakup had everything to do with what they never brought up and which Chloe herself never addressed - the breakdown of communication, which is, at bottom, the most fatal disease around.

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Author:David Levinson
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"David Levinson is a young writer who has mastered all the elements that make up a classically structured short story: drama, suspense, humor, empathy. There are no fancy pyrotechnics or meta-fictional devices here. He's a neo-traditionalist so the stories are direct, emotional and compulsively readable, plus there's enough mystery and action in them to propel at least a dozen novels."<br>Bret Easton Ellis