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my secret.
three little letters.
by matt morin

There is no such thing as a secret. The millisecond you tell someone and create the secret, you also destroy it. Because the very fact that someone else knows makes it impossible for the secret to exist. It’s funny though how something that’s not technically possible can eat you up, change your life, change a bunch of others, too. So to stop this from happening, I’m going to simultaneously create and destroy a secret. Here goes.

I have a cough.

Now as far as non-existing secrets go, it’s not where Jimmy Hoffa is buried or where the Ark of the Covenant is. But to me, it’s everything. You see, my little, insignificant cough will soon blossom into a true hack because my lungs are beginning to fill with fluid on their way to pneumonia. It’s a pneumonia that, in the end, will kill me because I am HIV positive.

Now I know this will come as a shock to all of you. It certainly was to me. One day I’m doing the world a good deed by donating blood. The next minute I’m wondering why I never bought life insurance. Although what good will that do me when I’m never going to have a wife or son to benefit from it?

I honestly thought I had missed a box or two on the Blood Center’s patient form. Just come in, give a little info and I’d be on my way downtown to meet some college friends for drinks. But I was led into a small, white room where Aunt Bea in a lab coat softly touched my knee and said the only three letters that will change your life forever. I honestly don’t remember much after that. My head started spinning like a carnival ride and her words seemed not to form any sort of coherent sentences. She handed me a few pamphlets and I stumbled out the door.

The street seemed much louder than I remember. I smelled exhaust fumes and flowers and a faint iodine scent came from behind me when the Blood Center’s automatic doors closed. They have drugs these days. I am not going to die. Look at Magic Johnson. Those three thoughts got me home – just long enough to close the door before I started sobbing on the floor.

It took me three days to tell my parents. Wrecking the car, that F in geometry, the time I was arrested for drinking and driving – those were nothing compared to how I’ve let them down now. And that’s how I saw it. I let them down. They spent 22 years on a payment plan and now I’m telling them I can’t deliver the wife and grandkids as promised. There was a long pause on the phone, and my mom’s audible hard swallow will always be the most chilling and heartbreaking sound imaginable. Hearing my father cry will immediately follow on that list.

I both know and do not know how I contracted the disease. It was from unprotected sex with someone who didn’t know they were positive. In a strange way, it was even harder telling my current and former girlfriends than it was my parents. But in a stranger way, it’s somewhat liberating to let them know. Suddenly, you’re not alone. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon that when you’re about to die, you become rather self centered. And honestly, that’s all I could think of. “I’m here for you” drowned out the thoughts of “I did this to you.” As much as I would rather have never spoken to my exes ever again, I will truly be glad, possibly for the last time in my life, when one of them calls me and says the magic words, “I’m negative.”

I’ve told a few close friends and they’ve all been great…for a few weeks. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but now I don’t seem to get as many e-mails inviting me to parties or for drinks. I can’t blame them. I’d probably do the same. The best I can hope for is that they’ll show up at my funeral and say something nice about me. “He was a good person.” “He didn’t deserve this.”

I have a secret.
I have a cough.
I have HIV.
I’m going to die.

I have another secret. For me, this is all a work of fiction. I was tested last August and am negative. But the thing is, this is someone’s story. Not mine. Not anyone I specifically know. But it is someone’s. And unfortunately, it's not the only one. There will be almost 50,000 new infections in this US this year – up from last year. Seventy percent are men and one quarter don’t even know they’re infected. AIDS is now the fifth leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 25 to 44, and is the leading cause of death for black men in this age group.

If you haven’t been tested, do so. If you’re negative, stay that way. Volunteer for HIV/AIDS organizations. Ride in an AIDS ride or sponsor someone who does. And then maybe one day HIV and AIDS will be like a secret – it won’t really exist.


Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

more about matt morin


do i make you horny, baby?
yes, i went to a sex club.
by matt morin
topic: general
published: 4.14.03

2001: a matt odyssey
everything i learned in 2001.
by matt morin
topic: general
published: 12.28.01


tracey kelley
3.27.02 @ 8:26a

Phenomenal. I'm not even going to critique you. Thank you for writing this.

mike julianelle
3.27.02 @ 9:02a

Jesus. You bastard. Incredible.

roger striffler
3.27.02 @ 10:07a

Oh. My. God. This is absolutely incredible. I'm not worthy....

Thank you for writing this for all the people who can't.

heather millen
3.27.02 @ 10:08a

You make us feel. Amazing and effective.

adam kraemer
3.27.02 @ 10:12a

One word: "bootstraps."

No, seriously, Matt, that was one of the best things I've ever read, possibly ever, definitely on this site. My one actual word is "wow."

russ carr
3.27.02 @ 10:19a

Everything else I write here is going to feel very, very small.

jeff miller
3.27.02 @ 10:53a

Jesus, that KILLED me. I want to congratulate and thank you for writing something important and meaningful, and I want to punch you for scaring the shit out of me.
If there's ever a "best of" Intrepid, this should be in it.
You just raised the bar big time.

michelle von euw
3.27.02 @ 10:57a

Gorgeous job, Matt. Every bit of this piece is just...wow. The imagery, the emotions, every word serves the purpose of the piece.

sarah ficke
3.27.02 @ 11:18a

This is amazing, Matt. Amazing. Thank you for writing it.

matt morin
3.27.02 @ 11:33a

Thank you all for your awesome responses. We all know about HIV/AIDS. But I wanted to write something that made people think about it on this kind of very personal level - whether it made you think about someone you know, or how you'd react yourself.

Please keep that reaction, pass it on to others, and maybe we'll help make a much bigger difference than this little column does.

duncan lawson
3.27.02 @ 1:52p


Although the notion was noble, I find your essay manipulative. There are so many problems in the world: AIDS, cancer, alcoholism, war, abuse, organized religion. We should try to help others as much as we can. I know you do this with your AIDS bike ride. I respect your help in fundraising, and I have and will give to AIDS research myself, along with breast cancer and other charities.

But money and concern should come from thoughtful knowledge and not lies and manipulations. I get that enough with the government.

I don't need to be reminded how horrible it is to live with disease. There is not a person among us who has not been touched by sorrow of this sort. Crying wolf does nothing to further the eradication of AIDS, only the truth helps.

matt morin
3.27.02 @ 1:59p

Duncan, I completely agree with the fact that my column was manipulative. Guilty as charged.

But I thought it was necessary precisely because there are so many problems in the world. These problems tend to be elevated to these big global problems, and I'm afraid that it should really go the other way. Things hit home a lot harder when they're personalized. So for 850 words or so, I tried to personalize it for everyone. Since I couldn't do it truthfully, I did it in a way that easily could have been the truth.

michelle von euw
3.27.02 @ 3:08p

With all respect, Duncan, perhaps you didn't need to be reminded about how horrible it is to live with AIDS, but a lot of us do. I think our country as a whole has been lulled into believing that the AIDS (in the US, at least) is a non-issue; we've been shown people like Magic Johnson and Tommy Morrison (thanks, Mike) who are perfectly healthy, and hear about all these miracle drugs, and we forget there are people out there who still suffer, and yes, die from HIV.

Matt's column, to me anyway, was a stark reminder that AIDS is still with us, still affecting people every day. And we still need to work toward finding a cure.


mike julianelle
3.27.02 @ 3:23p

Tommy "Machine Gun" Morrison. Star of the legendary Rocky V.

jeffrey walker
3.27.02 @ 3:37p

Matt, your story is very compelling. That being said, I think there is a bigger issue here than HIV. In life, you need to proceed with some forethought. The friends you choose should not be the type to distance themselves when catastrophe occurs. If you can’t call your family now, you probably already knew they weren’t a good source to depend on for help. If you didn’t take the time to buy insurance, why you didn’t take the time? This is not to say that someone who has made a mistake needs to be shunned. but it is your life. Take care of yourself. take care to pick good friends. Find good people like Matt, who stands up for a cause. Pick your associates for the right reasons, and there’s no obstacle too great.

jael mchenry
3.27.02 @ 3:44p

I don't think it's possible to know how your friends will react to news like this. I don't think it's possible for you yourself to know how you'll react to something like this. There are some things that you just can't imagine until they happen to you. Period.

jeffrey walker
3.27.02 @ 4:22p

You'll never be able to predict what will happen. That's why it's so important to see what kind of crowd you keep around you. It's hard work; you must ask hard questions and get real answers. In the end, it really is your responsibility to lead your life. Knowing who is around you may be the most important life choice of all.


jeffrey walker
3.27.02 @ 4:22p


jack bradley
3.27.02 @ 5:02p

Way to knock me out of my shoes, Matt. I don't think I've ever gone through such real and intense emotion in such a few words.

I think I'll go find a clown and kick his ass, today. Suddenly they don't seem so damn scary.

laurie bushman
3.27.02 @ 6:00p

Your piece had the opposite effect on me than it had on most of the other posters - rather than reminding me that HIV is still a devastating problem - it reminded me that there are still some people who don't know (or have forgotten) that.I am glad that people were blown away by your piece, Matt. But for me - it - and the responses - made me feel like I live on a different planet than most of you.
I think about 75% of my friends are HIV positive so I haven't really had the opportunity to "forget" that AIDS can kill you. I've had too many friends die for that. HIV doesn't shock me anymore - and that is pretty sad. On the other hand I can't imagine shying away from someone with HIV - especially if they just found out. Thanks for reminding people that it can happen to them.
Get tested - play safe - it's not just for homos anymore!


matt morin
3.27.02 @ 6:07p

For the record, everything (except the last two paragraphs) was complete fiction. Even the F in Geometry. But, from my knowledge anyway, could have been real.

I've already had a few close friends respond and say, "Hey, you know we'd never push you away." And I do know that. But I'm not sure that's the case for a lot of HIV+ people.

Laurie, you and I both live in San Francisco. So I think we're reminded of it on a day to day basis. It's part of our reality. But outside of maybe New York, I don't really think it's top of mind with a lot of people. And it should be. That's why I wrote this.


matt morin
3.28.02 @ 12:43p

Honest question: Topic and content aside, does anyone think what I did with this column was a cheap trick?

michelle von euw
3.28.02 @ 12:51p

No, not at all. Good fiction can have twists, as long as you do it well. (Which you did, in my opinion.) I was very grateful for the second-to-last paragraph, and I didn't feel manipulated at all.

russ carr
3.28.02 @ 12:54p

No. It was neither. Because I believe you thoroughly explained why you wrote it within the last two paragraphs. It would be easy to write an AIDS awareness piece about someone you knew, and I think you could write it well. But nothing is as potent as the first person, getting in the reader's face...even if the "I" represents someone else. It's a literary device used to devastating effect. No apologies, Matt.

And generally, when I feel manipulated, it's because someone's gotten me to do something against my will or better judgment. All you did was remind me of a responsibility that none of us should forget lightly.

roger striffler
3.28.02 @ 4:05p

Definitely not. As Russ said, you explained it, and furthermore, you just took the perspective of a person in that situation. The fact that it had such an impact means that you did an excellent job of it.

I was briefly scared, thinking that it was about you, but the real impact of the piece is that anyone can relate to it, and it's a horrible situation for anyone to be in.

tracey kelley
3.28.02 @ 4:26p

I agree. Of course my emotions were affected, because I thought it was you. Consquently, you were purposeful with your deception, but I don't think it was underhanded. It had an O'Henry quality to it, for certain.

russ carr
3.28.02 @ 4:27p

Are the O'Henrys related to the McHenrys, Jael?

wendy p
3.28.02 @ 4:56p

Definitely not a cheap trick. I'd appreciate a kleenex rating next time though, so I know to grab them before I blubber. Thanks for putting this in a perspective everyone can relate to.

duncan lawson
3.28.02 @ 7:42p

I think it's still the wrong way to open people's eyes about AIDS.

Instead on conjuring up a fiction of what having AIDS would be like, you should have done some journalistic work and written about an actual person with AIDS.

Do you think writing a fiction masquerading as a personal essay about tragedy would persuade people to help rather than a journalistic account of a true victim?

What we need to hear are the true voices of the afflicted.

jack bradley
3.28.02 @ 8:22p

And I don't see why we can't have both. It's not an "either/or" situation.

I don't know you, Duncan...but telling someone "what you should have done" is pretty arrogant.

I also think that your opinion is perfectly valid, and obviously is deeply rooted for you. Personally, I think that any and every way should be tried to open people's eyes about HIV and AIDS. There isn't a "wrong" one if it works for even one person.


matt morin
3.28.02 @ 8:33p

Duncan, think of how you react when you hear on the news that some soldier was killed fighting the Taliban. Now think of your reaction if you knew that soldier. It's much different. The tragedy of it is still exactly the same though.

I think if I would have done some journalistic work and written about an actual person who is HIV+, it would have been just another story about just another person that none of the readers are connected to.

By personalizing it (fictitiously or not), I got a reaction out of people that reminded them how much of a tragedy this epidemic is.

As fiction, it works exactly the same way that A Beautiful Mind works to change people's perceptions about mental illness.


jael mchenry
3.29.02 @ 9:12a

No, it didn't work like A Beautiful Mind, because I hated A Beautiful Mind, and I didn't hate this.

And I wish Paul Bettany had gotten nominated. He did such a great job.

(Because I like turning every discussion to movies, even when important, serious work is being done.)

mike julianelle
3.29.02 @ 9:17a

I didn't HATE ABM, but it wasn't the best movie of the year by a longshot. Jael, where were you when I got into a mess over ABM on the boards? Jeez!

(Me too.)

jael mchenry
3.29.02 @ 9:29a

I only saw it last week, or the week before.

It wasn't even the best movie of the five nominated, and heaven knows those weren't the best of the year either.

mike julianelle
3.29.02 @ 9:42a

Thank you. I 100% agree. What were your top 5 of the year? Should this be a board topic?

jael mchenry
3.29.02 @ 9:49a

On my way.

matt morin
3.29.02 @ 12:46p

My point was, in ABM, the job of everyone involved with that movie was to get you to feel like you knew John Nash so that you had a personal involvement and really cared about his mental illness.

Whether or not they succeeded, well, that's another question. But it seems like I did, so give me an Oscar!

jael mchenry
3.29.02 @ 2:16p

Can you memorize a speech instead of reading it off a card? That'd be great, thanks.

duncan lawson
3.29.02 @ 2:39p

I hope you don't see this as an attack on you, Matt. My comments were not intended to be personal. I am just critiquing your stylistic choice.

You may have shocked your friend, but to strangers and mere acquaintances like myself it comes off as a trick. And that shock has made your friends value you more, and maybe they thought about AIDS but does it really change anything?

I'm not expecting change from a single essay. To move people from the ease of complacency you need something akin to an explosion. But in any writing you should avoid easy manipulations and be true to not only thyself but to thy reader also. I suppose I'll be called arrogant and other names instead of a discussion on stylistic choices, but it's worth being the lone dissenter if it raises questions on how ideas should be presented.

By the way, ABM was a mediocre film. David Lynch or Robert Altman should have received the directing Oscar

mike julianelle
3.29.02 @ 2:51p

Duncan, I agree with your last two lines 100%. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT!!!

Oh, and don't worry about Matt, it takes far more to offend him. Believe me, I've been trying.


matt morin
3.29.02 @ 2:54p

Duncan, no I didn't think for a second your critiques were personal. I love a good debate, and that's part of what this site is all about. It's great to hear a different viewpoint.

And please don't think I disregarded your comments either. I completely understand your point of view. I just disagree with it, as you disagree with mine.

It's all good.

Jael, I won't read my speech off a card, but if I leave you out, don't be mad.

heath kraynak
3.31.02 @ 11:41a

Very good, and a great use of the medium. Your intention was to affect a specific audience, people who know you personally.

Obviously this wouldn't have worked as well in a general publication, or to a mass audience.

Once I walk away from my computer, I'm not sure that feeling of horror and sorrow will stick with me. But it really got me while I was reading.

I hope you didn't send this to any of your exes. That would have been cruel.


juli mccarthy
4.1.02 @ 12:46a

I knew before reading that it was fiction. That did not diminish the impact for me. I personally think it's an awesome piece.

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