Red ribbons and green flags

Finding love as a person living with HIV (PLWH) is no small feat. Sure, I’ve never experienced, not once, having a guy back off after telling him my status. But there are microaggressions here and there that make the dating scene even more daunting than it already is for everyone.

There are best friends who ghost you after knowing your status and steal the guy you’re currently dating. There are exes who pretend you infected them when you don’t want to get back together. And over and over, you get into a cycle of guys who go from admiring you “for being so strong and brave” to making you carry the heavier weight of the relationship, because they think they’ve done more than enough by choosing to date you despite your status.

Maybe I’m a born romantic, maybe it’s determination, or maybe I’m just stupid. But somehow, after all the red flags, the battered heart, and the sinking feeling that maybe I’m cursed to never find love, I keep on trying. I take time in between to heal, get back on my feet, reinvent myself, and then go back to dating.

Sometimes I actively look for someone, other times someone finds me at the most unexpected moment. Whichever the case, I keep the faith. I shine the light for the next person.

There’s a part of me that wonders whether I’m starting to sound cheesy, insufferable. Then I remind myself: What about it?

For the Greeks, love was enough to start wars. For the Christians, love was literal salvation. For certain epics in the Philippines, love brought forth healing or life in new, enchanted forms.

Love is relentless in its expression. And so am I.

So much so that I’ve had this reminder tattooed on my inner arm. Two crossed spears and a shield with Aphrodite’s flower in the middle. To me it means “Love is a weapon.”

As a PLWH, I’ve long since learned that love is not weakness. It can either be a powerful force or a dangerous one. You craft it with materials of the best quality you have, which you freely give others. You help arm them in battle, hoping they help arm you in return.

You don’t get a say in the quality of love others give you. Theirs may easily break or betray your hand. That speaks more about them than it does about you. I believe when you truly love another person, you don’t expose them to the elements with something made of scraps.

There have been so many times when I got love made of scraps. There were times when I gave love with wrong pieces or inaccurate measurements. There were also times when the love I gave someone—sharp and balanced—was used against me. And in all those times, I was left wounded and bruised, betrayed by those whom I trusted to have my back.

The year 2020 was a specially poignant time for me. I was in a short-lived relationship with someone who left me lasting scars, physically and psychologically. It was three dreadful months of catching my boyfriend cheating on me on Messenger, of self-harm, of getting claustrophobic in my own room, of running off to the night despite quarantine curfews, of getting left in an empty room in the middle of a movie, of a breakup on my birthday, and of nightmares every single night. I developed fears I never had while trying to survive the pandemic as a PLWH and a working student. The cheating, the neglect, and the psychological abuse from a three-month love affair were nothing less than unnecessary.

Love that brought peace seemed like a myth.

But more than a year (and a tattoo) hence, I now found myself spending a day with someone who’d wake me up at 7 a.m. to look for lavender-scented candles at the Sunday market. This was because I said the night before that, lately, I’ve been having a hard time sleeping. He also helped me rearrange my room cluttered with weeks of mess and depression from a hard semester. We wiped the dust off each of my one hundred books while telling stories and listening to my gay pop playlist.

When we’re done, covered in dust and sweat, I noticed him picking up my books on Philippine folklore—my most favorite ones and the ones I’m currently reading for my thesis. He gave them a special spot just above my study table, which would now always be within my peripheral vision. Then he sneezed through his face mask, the dust triggering his allergies.

We both laughed at the sound, but even as the laughter died down, a smile remained on my lips. “Thank you,” I told him. He simply nodded and kissed me on the forehead.

And for the first time in so long, I felt battle-ready.

This is not to put the guy on a pedestal. I’m way past that. I also know the future remains unseen. There are a hundred things that can go wrong. These people we consider “green flags” are not saints to worship for their decency.

This story simply serves as a reminder that no PLWH has to settle for anything less than what they deserve because of their status. There is nothing to be afraid of in knowing the truth about our health. In fact, it should be something liberating, or ideally, normal.

Our blood does not define how sharp and true our love is, even though they both reside in the heart.

* * *

Samael Tibayan is the pseudonym of a 20-something communication arts student at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños. He has a great fascination with unearthing the truth behind tales in myths and folklore.

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