“He silently cursed Cyrus Carson for that – for walking in and creating waves where Jaxon simply didn’t want them.”
In a word: Read the thing. I was initially interested in reading this one because it was the first romance I’d ever come across where one of the leads was living with HIV (and it wasn’t a tragedy). I will say that I don’t think this story lived up to my expectations, but it still wasn’t a bad story. We don’t really get much detail of Jaxon’s struggles with HIV (outside of his fear of potentially passing it on to a partner), but it’s not glossed over and it’s a definite real part of Jaxon’s life. It was nice to read a romance involving an HIV-positive lead where no one died. There was a nice, if a bit predictable, little plot and the writing was okay. One of my biggest problems was with Cyrus, Jaxon’s love interest. His behavior when he first showed up made me dislike him and when he suddenly changed his tune it never really felt genuine to me and I never warmed up to him. I liked Jaxon and Cyrus’ relationship after Cyrus’ personality change, but it almost felt as if Cyrus became a different person after he finally got close to Jaxon. I mostly put that down to poor transitioning. Cyrus annoyed me less when he wasn’t acting like a smug prick and insisting on running the show, and I did get invested in his and Jaxon’s relationship eventually.
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
The Trigger Warning: This book contains a character with a serious illness, mentions of child abuse, parental abandonment, and mentions of alcohol abuse.
The Couple: Jaxon Hawke is a 20-something living with HIV. He was diagnosed in his late teens when he was just starting to get his life back on track after an abusive childhood followed by a few years of alcoholism and prostitution and homelessness. The diagnosis came as a blow to him but, years later, he’s more or less healthy (considering) and living a pretty stable life. He has a full-time job he shares with a close friend, he’s sober, and he volunteers at a homeless shelter, giving back to people who are where he used to be. A big issue he has, though, is that he is utterly terrified of sex and relationships. At this point he’s resigned himself to a life of celibacy and singleness until Cyrus Carson happens. Cyrus is a well-known local TV personality (I believe) and seems to do a lot of charity work in the local community (he’s also very involved with the shelter Jaxon volunteers at). We don’t actually get to know as much about Cyrus because the whole story is told from Jaxon’s point of view and we never get a look into Cyrus’ thought process. Not that I really wanted to because I never really came to like Cyrus. At one point Jaxon describes Cyrus as being a kind, giving man, but I found his first interactions with Jaxon pushy and creepy and I never really got past that. Cyrus initially approached Jaxon because he wanted to feature him in a news piece (or something to that effect) and when Jaxon declined Cyrus would not back down. Cyrus really came off as smug and pompous at first, and really pushing and demanding and got on my every nerve. He also got on Jaxon’s nerves. Jaxon was definitely physically attracted to Cyrus from the get-go (man’s not blind), but he really didn’t like Cyrus and his pushiness and was mostly annoyed whenever Cyrus showed up. This couple was really not working for me at all; actually I was rooting against Cyrus at one point. Cyrus eventually does turn around and Jaxon does start enjoying his company, but it happened after a very dramatic event and Cyrus still taking no for an answer very obnoxiously so it all felt a bit forced. I did grow very fond of Jaxon, but I never really warmed up to Cyrus (although Jaxon seems happy with him).
The Illness: Nothing about this book makes it a secret that one half of the romantic couple is HIV-positive; the summary mentions it and Jaxon gets diagnosed in the very first chapter. Jaxon spent the latter half of his teenage years living on the streets and turning to prostitution for survival. He eventually managed to turn his life around, but his past behaviours ended up having permanent effects on him. By the time the story starts Jaxon has come to accept his lot with his condition and lives his life normally. There actually isn’t all that much detail about what it’s like to live with HIV and, aside from a few lines here and there about viral loads and medication cocktails, it really only comes up in a major way when Jaxon talks about sex and dating. Jaxon hasn’t had sex since he was diagnosed because he’s completely terrified of the possibility of passing his disease on to a partner. He knows there are ways to minimize the risk, but there’s no way to have sex completely risk-free and it’s not a chance he’s willing to take. It’s a valid fear for him to have and the source of most of his anxiety concerning sex and romance. That’s really the only part of Jaxon’s life that’s ruled by his anxiety; the other areas of his life are otherwise normal. Throughout the story Jaxon’s HIV is under control and he’s a fairly healthy guy and, aside from a scene where he gets stabbed, only comes up in relation to his relationship with Cyrus.
The Friend: Before Cyrus happens, Jaxon only seems to have one person he’s in any way close to. That would be his friend and (former?) AA sponsor, Donna, who he also owns a business with. Donna is a bit older than Jaxon (I want to say 10 years, but I’m not sure if that was referring to her age or her sobriety) and was also an alcoholic and I think homeless as well at one point, but I can’t remember if her past is similar in any other ways to Jaxon’s. Donna has always seemed to be Jaxon’s main source of support and companionship, though we don’t see as much of her once Cyrus gets involved. By the time the story really gets going Donna has mostly moved past her AA sponsor duties, since Jaxon doesn’t seem to be struggling with his addiction, and mostly functions as Jaxon’s friend and confidante. She’s the one who usually tries to talk him out of panics, though the way she did it came across to me as if she wasn’t really respecting his fears and feelings. Aside from that though, she’s a good friend to Jaxon and he really respects her.
The Teen: About mid-way (ish) through the story, a teenage girl named Amanda shows up at the shelter. She’s six-months pregnant and her parents have just found out and have thrown her out onto the street (her parents never show up in the story but can I just say that they are clearly terrible parents and horrible people). As soon as she showed up I knew exactly where this was going. Though there was a bit of a fake out because they didn’t go there right away. So, Amanda is 16 and homeless, pregnant with a baby she can’t raise. Jaxon and Cyrus get her set up in a youth shelter (I believe) where she can stay and work on her schooling until she has the baby. Jaxon quickly develops a bond with Amanda, which struck me as odd because he’s been volunteering at the shelter for years and this is the first person that came in that he got attached to? That’s how I knew for sure that he would eventually end up adopting her baby; saw that coming a mile away. But whatever, it was fine. Amanda was a nice girl and strangely well-adjusted for someone whose life just veered in a completely different direction. Honestly the whole plot about her and the baby came out of nowhere and was probably just there for the emotional drama near the end of the story.
The Sex: This has to be some of the safest sex I’ve ever read outside of a Johnlock fic I read a few years back. Jaxon’s HIV-positive status makes him terrified to have sex, but he eventually does decide to have a sexual relationship with Cyrus. And he makes sure they both have the safest sex ever. Jaxon has to protect Cyrus from HIV, and be protected from the possibility that Cyrus could pass something to him. So condoms everywhere. Cyrus wears one and Jaxon wears one, simultaneously, at all times. No exceptions. I’m far from an expert on how to have the safest sex possible with an HIV-positive partner, but these two seem to be managing alright. (Although I’m leery as fuck about the mechanics of using plastic wrap as a dental dam. Is that even a thing?) Jaxon and Cyrus don’t have the luxury of having a normal sexual experience, they have to go ahead very carefully when they do decide to fuck, but they seem to be having an okay time of it. There are a few sex scenes in the story and they’re all pretty standard scenes aside from the importance they put on the safety aspect.
The Writing: I have no strong opinion on the writing one way or the other. Although I definitely wasn’t crazy about the third act breakup drama. I had some small nit-picky problems, but other than that it was okay. The plot was fairly simple and predictable, I saw the end of the Amanda subplot right away when she showed up, but I enjoyed the read. The most interesting thing about the story was Jaxon’s struggles with his HIV, which made for an interesting read. One thing I do have to really complain about what how Cyrus was written, because I really didn’t like him when he first showed up and that kinda stuck with me through the rest of the story.
[Here & Now was published March 31, 2010, by Dreamspinner Press, it is only available as an ebook]