Metro Weekly

Across Decades, HIV Haunts An Anniversary

An internet search for an ex-boyfriend turns up sorrowful results.

Photo: April Pethybridge/Unsplash

There is still so much going on. From Hamtramck, Michigan, to Daegu, South Korea, there’s plenty for me to rant about. Really, it doesn’t take much.

But with a birthday coming up — my “Stonewall Baby” nickname ain’t for naught — I’m feeling a bit introspective. It’s not a milestone birthday this June, but it would’ve been for David. He would have been 55 this month.

David was my first live-in boyfriend. He’d already had an off-campus place in Charlottesville, but our Tampa apartment was my first real home away from home, dorms and hostels notwithstanding.

It was the dawn of the 1990s, and we were so young. David and I were introduced by my dear childhood pal, Mike, attending the University of Virginia. I was passing through, taking a hiatus from the University of South Florida, on my way to London for a student work program. Mike advised that David had seen some photos of me and wanted to meet. I was immediately smitten to a hopeless degree.

During my brief C’ville layover, I imagined I’d met the love of my life. OF MY LIFE, I tell you. He clinched it by sitting me down in a library carrel and cueing up Suddenly, Last Summer. He had to go to class and figured we should both pass the time enriching ourselves culturally. When it comes to the camp classics, it’s hard to beat Elizabeth Taylor putting out a cigarette in a nun’s hand. David had great taste.

The eve of my departure, I removed one of the gold hoops from my left ear. Fashion being what it was in that era, I had two. It stood as my proxy, hanging around a tiny branch on the ficus tree in David’s campus apartment during my months selling Gap-esque clothing at an American-themed shop in Piccadilly Circus.

David would send the dreamiest letters, painting a future together that might include such mundane pleasures as lounging in bed together enjoying Saturday morning cartoons with sugary cereal. Why that particular promise sticks in my head, I don’t know. Perhaps childhood was still so recent that Jonny Quest and Quisp seemed only somewhat nostalgic, more a genuine good time. Through that correspondence, our plans to move in together upon my return to Tampa were hatched and honed.

David was there to pick me up at Tampa International. He’d gotten us a hotel room for my first night back. It was bliss. David was gorgeous, sophisticated, and funny. An age-appropriate Robert Downey Jr.-Ben Platt hybrid comes to mind. He could wear an ascot without irony, repair a smashed windowpane, and extol the superior merits of French-press coffee. How lucky I was, at 20, to have pinned down the man of my dreams with whom I’d spend the rest of my days! Who said adulting would be a challenge? Look at me, checking off the big items with ease!

Truly, it seemed that way for at least two months. We signed the lease in late summer. Arguments started in October. A perpetual sticking point was our age difference. David had the freedom that 21 afforded. At 20, I could trail behind him at Tampa Tracks on Thursdays, the all-ages night.

By the time our lease was up, we were visiting the apartment separate from one another, hoping to avoid a collision as we removed our few possessions. “Young hearts run free,” sure. They also have a tendency not to break so much as explode. And to hold grudges with an intensity reserved for first loves.

Sometime that summer, I’d heard David had moved to Richmond. I was transferring up to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, so I expected we might bump into each other. Should that ever happen, I guessed we’d be a little bitchy, but not belligerent. That never happened.

Maybe it was a year or so later that I heard he was living with his parents. I called the house on Oscar night, guessing he would be watching. Whether watching or not, he was home.

Seemingly startled by my voice, he ended the call quickly and bluntly: “We had something once. We don’t anymore.” If I wanted some sort of meaningful closure, tough. That was all I was going to get.

As years passed and the interwebs pried ever deeper into everyone’s life, I’d sometimes find myself executing a minor search. After all, David was bound for success in his chosen field of architecture. Surely I’d stumble upon some little bit of news, for whatever it was worth. (Note: If we’ve dated, certainly if we lived together, I am going to Google you on occasion.)

During my first trip to Provincetown, 2010, my husband and I stayed at the Boatslip. Plenty of the public space is filled with photos of rotating summer staff. It would’ve been a perfect summer gig for charming David. I examined some of the photos from the years right after us, but no sign of David.

Mike, the friend who introduced us, was in P’town during that visit. I told him the photos had rekindled memories. Mike offered to check with some old friends of theirs for any news. It was simply inexplicable that David was off the grid. His career was bound to make waves in some notable pond.

Mike reported back a few weeks later. With scant detail, the secondhand story was that David had died. When? Where? Of what? Again, scant detail. Mike said someone in his infosphere suggested David’s death may have been AIDS-related. I looked for an obituary, but nothing.

It became one of those Google searches that I would occasionally revisit. A few days ago, the search was successful. David died in 2001.

There is no cause listed, though there was a suggestion that donations might be made in his memory to a particular oncologist whose professional bio is full of phrases like “AIDS-associated malignancies” and “AIDS Oncology subunit.”

There will be no “closure.” I can’t close the chapter on David. I still love him, despite the bitter breakup and the decades since. I wish him a happy birthday this Pride month, even if he’s not here to celebrate.

I also offer condolences to those who mourn him and to those robbed of the chance. And I mourn the loss of David’s glorious potential. He’s not the only person to have been cheated by death, certainly, but no one could argue that he didn’t deserve so much more.

Will O’Bryan is a former Metro Weekly managing editor, living in D.C. with his husband. He is online at


Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!