Killer Sex: Midlife Women and HIV

1 in 3 women newly infected with HIV is age 40 or over.

By Alexis Jetter
Photograph: Todd Hido

"He Was Lying About the HIV Test"

Ann Silver* isn’t easily swept off her feet. A tough-talking, darkly funny woman, Silver, 45, dated plenty of men in her 20s and 30s, but took none of them seriously, until six years ago when she met Wesley. He was smart, sexy, and well-read, and seemed to savor her flaws as well as her fire. They watched the sunset together almost every night, strolled through San Diego’s Balboa Park on weekends, played golf, or simply lay entwined on her couch. At 190 pounds with a strapping build, Wesley "was the healthiest man I knew," says Silver, who works as a corporate manager. "And he made me feel loved, unconditionally. I’d never felt that before."

Still, she was no pushover. Before they went to bed for the first time, Silver was characteristically blunt: She’d been checked for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) during a routine physical exam and had tested negative, she told him. Then she asked, "What about you?"

Wesley smiled and caressed Silver’s dark, shoulder-length hair. "I get tested every year," he said. "I just had one, and I’m fine." They didn’t bother with condoms because neither liked using them, and Silver, then 39, wasn’t worried about getting pregnant; Wesley said he’d had a vasectomy.

That part was true. But he was lying about the HIV test.

On Valentine’s Day 2006, nearly three years into what Silver had assumed was a monogamous relationship, Wesley lay near death in a hospital — gaunt, unable to breathe, and in a coma his doctors had induced in order to stop his organs from shutting down. He’d suddenly taken ill a few weeks earlier, and Silver had no idea what was wrong with him. When she bombarded the doctors with questions, they were strangely evasive.

At home later, she typed Wesley’s symptoms into her computer browser: diarrhea, fatigue, no appetite, difficulty breathing. "HIV kept coming up," Silver says. She stayed on the Internet for two sleepless nights, frantically researching the disease. Then it struck her: The previous month, she’d come down with what had seemed like the flu — high fever and a sore throat so painful it felt as if she’d swallowed glass. Antibiotics made her feel better. But two weeks later, hives had erupted on her legs and stomach. Now, cold with fear, Silver realized that many of her maladies matched the symptoms people sometimes develop a few weeks to a month after contracting HIV.

Early the next morning, she walked into a neighborhood clinic and asked for an HIV test, her first in over a year. A nurse took a blood sample and returned 10 minutes later. "You tested positive for the virus," she said. "But the test is only 99.6 percent accurate. You’ll need to get a confirmatory test."

"I’d go to Vegas with those odds," Silver replied.

Returning to the hospital, she stared at the man lying comatose on the bed, as if seeing him for the first time. "He had AIDS," she says. "How had I missed it? He looked like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia." From the decimated state of Wesley’s immune system, doctors estimated that he had been carrying the virus, untreated, for nearly a decade. (Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is the final, full-blown stage of infection, when the body can no longer fight the disease on its own.)

Back in the 1990s, that diagnosis might have sealed both their fates. But Wesley — who, it turned out, had been cheating on Silver with five other women, all of whom he had lied to — survived. Silver nursed him back from the brink and then broke up with him. Today she is a woman in her prime, asymptomatic, who expects to live fully and die old. But she is still incredulous at her fate. "I am the girl next door," she says. "I look like everybody else. My only crime was to have unprotected sex with the man I loved."

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