By Charles Sanchez
Our first date was on a Tuesday night. I wasn’t sure it was a date at first, but I was hopeful. To be dating during a(nother) pandemic is a little nutzo, but my Romeo is completely COVID-worthy, if you know what I mean. We didn’t actually meet during the novel coronavirus pandemic. I met Romey – sometimes I call him Romey – about seven or eight months ago. He works for a major national retailer and contacted me via Instagram with an idea to do an HIV awareness event at the store’s SOHO location featuring my web series, Merce. We got together for a long coffee and kicked around ideas. I found him criminally handsome – tall, with brown hair and blue-hazel eyes. I like big fellas, and he fit the bill. He’s smart, very funny, an artist, in his fabulous 50s (like me), and he’s living with HIV.
We live in the same area of Queens, New York City, and that Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m., I huffed and puffed up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. I dressed cute but didn’t overdo it. He opened the door wearing relaxie clothes: shorts, a T-shirt, and a huge devilish smile.
Once I de-masked, Romey showed me around his quaint one-bedroom apartment. Every wall in every room is filled with his paintings, political and passionate, each containing an amiable image juxtaposed with a protest phrase like “End AIDS” or “Black Lives Matter.” Even his bathroom had art! I was charmed.
As a classical radio station played, we dug into eggplant with garlic sauce and chicken with broccoli (I was touched that he also got me an eggroll), and sat in his living room with our plates balanced on our laps, party-style. I offered to pay for half of the food, and he dismissed the idea. As we noshed, we talked about art, his life, my life. I’m sober, and he doesn’t really drink, so that’s great. The fact that we both are living with HIV made certain conversations (“Are you on PrEP?” “Do you know what U equals U means?”) unnecessary. I gushed about his art. He complimented my comedy and encouraged my creative work. We talked for more than two hours.
When I got up to leave, we hugged. The hug lingered. He slowly started to rub my back, then nuzzled my neck. Gradually, my mouth found his.
He took my hand and led me to his bedroom. I told him that I wasn’t going to have sex. It was our first date, and while I’m certainly no prude, I need to protect my tender heart. Like the old song says, “My heart has been well schooled, for I have been fooled in the past.” He responded by saying, “Let’s just get more comfortable.” We laid down, continued our smack fest, and although our shirts were opened and hands went under pants, we didn’t have sex. We were both excited, and at one point he said, “Isn’t this great? We’ll have November and December and January…” I thought, “Wait a minute. Are we dating already?” We kissed more and more, and the armor around my heart began to melt away. In 30-plus years of dating, I don’t know if I’ve ever been kissed like that. I felt we were releasing ourselves into each other. It was beautiful and overwhelming.
When we noticed the time, it was almost 2:30 a.m. I realized that I hadn’t taken my HIV medication and needed to go home. The subways stop running at 1, so I called a Lyft. Romeo stuffed a 20-dollar bill in my pants pocket, saying, “You shouldn’t have to pay for the ride home.” I tried to hand it back to him, and he insisted. He walked me down the stairs, and we hugged as the driver pulled up. “Call me when you get home,” Romey said. And I did.
The next day, I woke thinking the night before had been a dream. Dabbing balm on my kiss-worn lips, I texted Romeo, and he assured me that the night had been real and certainly dreamy. Then he asked when he could see me again. We made a date for that night. I warned him that I still wasn’t going to have sex yet, but he encouraged me to bring my meds so I could stay the night. “Cuddling will be wonderful,” he said.
Hours later, I leapt back up the stairs to his apartment two at a time. He greeted me this second night with a little box: a sweet gift of cologne samples he got from work. I trepidly kissed him hello, and he asked if something was wrong. I said that I was just a bit reserved since this was all brand new. He wrapped his big arms around me, saying, “There’s no need to be scared. I’m right here.”
We nibbled on mediocre tacos as we talked more about our lives. We giggled about ex-boyfriends and crazy guys we’d hooked up with, adventurous sex we’d had. Romeo told me how nice it was to be with someone close to his age. He had dated a lot of younger guys, “dented cans,” he calls them.
We then got ready for bed, and he gifted me a fresh toothbrush. He placed it in his medicine cabinet, saying, “And it begins.” He then insisted I moisturize my face before sleep, and he tenderly stippled my face with luxurious lotion.
We went to his bed and kissed, and it was everything the night before had been and more. At one point, he could sense that I was trying to emotionally protect myself and whispered, “Come on, Charles. Come home to me. I love it when you come home to me.” When he said that, the knees of my heart buckled.
My mind swirled, “Oh, my God. Is this my boyfriend? Could we be happy together? This is unbelievable!” Everything about being with him felt like the future.
The next morning, he made coffee for me, sweetened with Splenda that he’d swiped from his work for the occasion, and he cooked us scrambled eggs and toast with melted butter. We talked about plans for the weekend (sex was certainly going to be on the agenda), and it was all romantic and comfy and delicious. I floated home like a cartoon balloon in a holiday parade.
Around 4 that afternoon, I sent him a little goofy text. Then at 10:30 or so, I texted to ask how his day was. No response. Huh.
Friday, I texted a sweet, “Good morning, beautiful” gif. No response. I sent another text a half hour later asking if everything was OK, and no response. I started to feel a knot in my stomach.
On Saturday morning, I called Romeo and left a message. I thought that there might be a possibility that his phone had conked out, but deep down, I knew the truth.
I never heard from Romeo again. Two incredible nights, romantic gestures, incredible kissing, cooking breakfast for me, paying for my cab, talking about the future, then poltergeist. What was it? Was it me? Did he decide that I was another “dented can?”
I thought I was past this kind of craziness from men, that I was too savvy after 30-plus years of dating to be romantically conned again. Ah, but remember the song that says, “My heart should be well schooled, for I’ve been fooled in the past?” The next line is, “Still I fall in love too easily. I fall in love too fast.” DAMMIT. Thank the Universe that I didn’t have sex with him. If I’d have done that, the ghosting would have been much more devastating. From the emotion that I felt in his kisses, I may not have ever recovered from the emotions that sex with Romeo would have evoked.
What makes this sting more sharply is that before meeting Romeo, I’d resigned myself to being alone and felt fine about it. Finding true love had come to seem like a fairy tale notion for jaded ol’ me. Not everybody has to find the mythical “One,” and just because gay marriage is legal (for now) doesn’t make it a requirement. I was cool with being single, having my bevy of beautiful friends, my family, and the occasional kinky trick when the itch needed scratching. This experience with Romey shook that notion up and spun it around, making me long for and dream about romantic love again. DAMMIT.
I suppose I was extra vulnerable. We’re all going through this pandemic, collectively trying to stay safe and socially distant. I’m touch starved, man starved, and affection starved. The anniversary of my HIV diagnosis is right around now (Nov. 4), and I’m always extra sensitive in the weeks surrounding that day. Add to that the stress of the political climate, rampant racism, violence, fear, so much that’s unknown. When I think about it with all that in mind, what defense did I have?
Friends who I’ve shared the experience with have said well-meaning, encouraging things to me, like, “What an asshole!” “He’s crazy!” “Men are such fucktards!” and “Gay men are so damaged, they don’t even know how to be a grown-up.” All that may be true, but if Romeo is a damaged-crazy-asshole-fucktard, then who was I kissing? Thinking about him that way invalidates my experience. I don’t know why Romey chose to ghost me. I thought he was feeling what I felt. I had a fantastic whirlwind of a time with an incredibly attractive, smart, funny, artistic, super sexy, great guy. Moreover, he made me feel handsome, sexy, smart and all of it.
It still sucks, though, and it’s going to be a bit before I again deem someone COVID-worthy. Heartache is another kind of virus, and I can’t imagine there’ll be a vaccine for that anytime soon.
Charles Sanchez is a Mexican-American gay writer and actor living with HIV in New York City. A contributing editor for TheBody, he is also the creator, lead writer, and star of the award-winning musical comedy web series Merce, about a fabulous HIV-positive guy living in New York who isn’t sad, sick, or dying. This column is a project of TheBody, Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, QSaltLake Magazine, and Q Syndicate, the LGBT wire service. Visit their websites – thebody.com, hivplusmag.com, positivelyaware.com, and poz.com – for the latest updates on HIV/AIDS.