Positive Love

Love proves stronger than fear in these couples where one partner tests positive for HIV, the other negative for the dread disease.

But unlike Thomas and Ron, Kathy and Michael do not practice safe sex. Michael says he even wants to have another baby. When he gets around to it, he says, he tries to get tested. Kathy rolls her eyes when he mentions this. It's no good to bother with testing when you never use a condom, she says.

"I used to feel real guilty about it," Kathy says of putting Michael at risk for catching the virus. "But then I was like, he's an adult, I've let him know. What am I gonna do? Say, 'No, you can't if you don't use a rubber'?"

Michael grunts at Kathy's proposition.

Ron (left) didn't know if he would be able to date someone who was HIV-positive. Then he met Thomas.
Deron Neblett
Ron (left) didn't know if he would be able to date someone who was HIV-positive. Then he met Thomas.
Ken McLeod of the Bering Support Network believes the number of mixed-status couples is on the rise.
Deron Neblett
Ken McLeod of the Bering Support Network believes the number of mixed-status couples is on the rise.

"You could, but I wouldn't listen," he answers.

Michael understands others might think he's crazy, but according to the experts, his actions are not uncommon among the negative partners in mixed-status relationships. Because of the growing view of HIV as a chronic, treatable illness, many negative partners are taking the risk. And for Michael, whose life has been full of nights spent under bridges, living with HIV is not something that scares him.

"You could walk by a building and something could fall on you," he says. "I'm just gonna live my life the way I have to."

He admits he doesn't think about the future, because he doesn't see a need to worry about what he can't predict. Kathy says she doesn't sit and think about it, because if she did she'd be depressed all the time. But when pushed to discuss it, Kathy admits there are things they should look into, like burial insurance.

"I don't want someone to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to bury me," she says in a casual voice. "Just the basics."

"What about nice and crispy?" jokes Michael.

Kathy looks at him and says she doesn't want to be burned, she wants to be buried. So Michael insists he'll bury the ashes.

"I like to keep life fun," he explains.

And life, he says, is so much more manageable without the drugs. He thinks drug addiction makes the HIV seem easy in comparison. Kathy agrees, but thinks that maybe she'd like to become some kind of HIV and drug awareness educator, talking to kids about the dangers of the streets and the importance of making good choices -- something she wishes her own husband would consider.

"If you don't have to live through it, don't," she says, inhaling on her cigarette. "If you have the choice ahead of time…" She pauses and slaps her husband on the knee and looks at him pointedly. "Make the right decision," she finishes.

"I will," answers Michael, "when I get my baby."

Kathy moves past his comment and keeps talking.

"There's already so much, why add one more thing?" she says. "I already have this one more thing. If you have the choice…" Kathy stops and shrugs her shoulders. "But people don't think like that."

Even though they have to argue about something many couples never have to deal with, Rhonda and Rochelle are like any two people in love. They joke around, gently teasing each other but pausing long enough to take each other's hands or demand a back scratch.

"First time I looked at her, I was like, 'Oh, what an ugly, stinking thing!' " remembers Rochelle, 31.

"I detailed cars and I smelled like a big walking automobile," explains 38-year-old Rhonda.

"Then she took a bath and dressed up real cute and I was like, hmm…," says Rochelle.

The two met at a treatment facility, where Rochelle had checked in for cocaine addiction. Rhonda admits to abusing marijuana and alcohol but says she entered the facility because she needed to get away from family members who wouldn't let her live her life on her own terms.

By the time Rochelle arrived for treatment, she already knew she was HIV-positive. She had gotten tested in 1989 and was on medication. But at the facility, one of the other residents convinced Rochelle to take more pills than she needed to. The heavy medication made Rochelle unaware of what was happening around her, and the resident was able to take a few of Rochelle's small belongings. Seeing what was going on, Rhonda interceded and decided to bring Rochelle back to her apartment to take a shower and rest.

"If someone was hurting me and could've stopped it, I would wish they would," explains Rhonda.

Slowly, the two began to spend time talking and getting to know each other. Rochelle, who says she has had relationships with both men and women, believes she contracted the virus from a former boyfriend who used IV drugs. She couldn't understand why Rhonda kept sticking around, even though she knew Rochelle was positive. But Rhonda knew Rochelle was someone she connected with -- and the HIV just happened to be a part of who Rochelle was.

"I wouldn't be happy right now if I had pushed her away back then," explains Rhonda. Through the help of AIDS Foundation Houston's Project Life Road, Rhonda and Rochelle got their own apartment and are off drugs. Rochelle is in cosmetology school and Rhonda is training to be an assistant manager at Jack in the Box. Rochelle says they're both like "big kids." On a recent trip to AstroWorld they dressed up in matching outfits, right down to the shoes. They carry a tiny photograph of the day on a key chain.

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