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Joe W narrowed his eyes at me as we smoked Newports outside a church on a cold Monday morning in November. “You don’t come to meetings to pick up girls,” he told me, and I wanted to laugh. I’d been sober for exactly three weeks, and at thirty-two years old that three weeks was the longest I’d been clean since I first picked up a can a of PBR at age fourteen.
“So what, I have to wait like a year or something before I can date anyone?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“That would be my suggestion” Joe said, and brought the Newport back up to his lips. The top of his hand was covered in tattoos, old, bleeding ink, blue and black, smeared and runny, like the watercolor paints I used to use in first grade. Gang tattoos. He had them all over his olive skin, all over his hands, his arms, his neck, alotta the drawings were so faded it was hard to tell what they were supposed to be. But there was text too, most of it written in Spanish, beautifully drawn cursive script like the “The End” written across the screen of an old black and white movie. Joe reminded me of a character from a black and white movie. He was old school like that.
I didn’t answer him that day. Didn’t ask why his suggestion was just a suggestion and not a direct order, because there were direct orders. Well, one direct order. It came at me almost every time we parted:
“Don’t pick up.”
It made me angry. I wondered why this dude was always telling me not to pick up? Did he think I was gonna relapse?
Okay so a brief note on Joe W, or as much as I can tell you about a dude who I’m already using a fake name for: he’s an ex-gang member and drug runner from the West Side, in and out of prison many times, mostly in, finally he got introduced to the program and it stuck, now he’s upwards of fifteen years sober. I could lie and give you more fake descriptions, but instead I’m going to keep that all to a minimum and let you imagine the rest of it yourself.
Another day, another cigarette, outside another church. It was December now, much colder, the kind of Chicago cold that will freeze the wetness on the inside of your nostrils in seconds. But not if you smoke. I was six weeks clean. The record breaking day count continuing to grow, and I had been bitching about a low paying job I had in an after school art program for high school students.
“Sounds like a real problem man.” I didn’t catch Joe’s sarcasm until he let his stare hang on me a little too long.
“Fuck you,” I said, “It is a problem.” He was always trying to do this, trying to downplay anything in my life that was shitty by being all relative about it. His point was that up against being dope sick on a Sunday morning or in jail or worse yet, dead most of life’s other “problems” were manageable.
“I’m playing around man,” He said, “But chill. You so angry. Damn. This is the good kind of problem man. Just don’t pick up.”
“Why do you always say that shit to me?”
“Because I don’t want you to pick up.” Joe lightly stroked his closely cropped, freshly graying goatee. “And because me telling you not to pick up, it helps me remember not to pick up, and I really don’t wanna pick up again.”
His stare hung on my face again and I knew he was clocking me. I knew there was something I was supposed to get out of that statement, some realization I was supposed to make, and he was waiting to see if I’d made it. But I had no clue.
He hung a jacketed arm over my shoulder, pulling me toward the church.
“Cmon homes,” he said, his breath warm on my ear, the smell of menthol cigarettes stinging my nose, “You’ll get it someday.”
And again it felt like a movie. Like the old street gang stories I used to watch. This legend coming over and whispering something to the new kid, taking him under his wing. I had only seen shit like this in movies, this shit doesn’t really happen does it?
Now, Joe may have looked like a gang banger, but he carried himself with the calm of a Tibetan monk. Soft spoken and tranquil, with the attentive eyes of an alley cat, I once heard Joe say he hadn’t been angry in over three years. When I asked how he accomplished that, he simply smiled and pointed to the twelve steps.
The meeting where Joe became my hero was in a neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago that I used to live in many years before. Back then it was all gangs and addicts. Now the black iron bars on the storefront windows had been removed and lots of white people walked dogs. It was at this meeting that I first heard Joe W say that he was HIV positive. Afterward we stood outside smoking and I wanted to hug him, to be close to him, anything to have his energy mixing with mine. Everything in me was racing, but Joe was calm, at ease. I imagined his heart to beat the way the metronome did atop my mother’s piano. One-two. One-two. One-two. Real steady like.
Nothing was said between us for an entire cigarette. We just stood in the cold as traffic sloshed by.
An older woman, gray hair hidden under a thick wool hat exited the door behind us and gave Joe a hug. As it ended she gripped his shoulders and stared at him as if he were a child she was proud of or perhaps even someone holy. She wiped a tear form her face, Joe smiled, and she walked away.
Then he looked at me and nodded toward the next block, and we walked.
The McDonald’s was crowded but we found a booth and took the lids off our coffees to let them cool. The steam was warm on my face, and Joe removed his baseball hat, set it on the table, and ran his hand across his freshly shaved scalp savoring the smoothness.
“You know how much I love dope?” He asked.
“Nahh, I think you do man. I can see it in your eyes.”
Joe fixed his stare out the window on a young mother holding the hand of her daughter as they walked toward the entrance, the little girl’s pink snowsuit so puffy it caused her to wobble back and forth.
“I knew everyone had the bug man, my friends, even my girl, but I didn’t care. Actually, it wasn’t that I didn’t care, I did care, I was scared shitless of getting that bug, but I still ran with it dirty because I’m a dope fiend man. We are dope fiends. Long as I remember who I am I get to live, but once I forget it,” Joe made a small explosion sound with his mouth, “my life explodes.”
I sat in silence. I wanted to tell him I was nothing like him. That I had only done two weeks in jail, not ten years. That I had never owned a gun. That I was not the same kind of addict.
“What about you homey?” He asked. “You been tested recently?”
Joe picked me up on a Wednesday morning for our visit to the clinic. On the ride over we listened to old west coast gangster rap and laughed reminiscing about the first time we heard each song. The sun was shining bright as hell, reflecting off the snow, and I remember thinking, what a beautiful day to find out I have HIV.
The clinic was crowded, it was barely 9am and already the waiting room was packed. A Spanish language children’s program with brightly colored puppets played on a television mounted high in one corner. The receptionist, a pretty Puerto Rican girl with dark eye makeup and flower patterned scrubs spoke briefly in Spanish to Joe as I stood behind him smiling, scared I was going to puke. She handed me a clipboard and I sat down to fill it out.
The questions were fairly basic.
(QUESTION) Have you had unprotected sex in the past ten years? If so, about how many times? Yes. Fifty or more.
Have you used intravenous drugs in the past fifteen years? If so, how many times? Yes. Ten or more.
Have you had sexual contact with someone you know to have tested positive for HIV? Yes. Ten or more.
Have you shared a hypodermic needle with someone you know to have tested positive for HIV? Indeterminable.
I returned the clipboard and I waited while Joe continued to flirt with the receptionist.
There are all sorts of what I call “This is your life” moments in sobriety. Moments when you really need to tap into some humility and accept the fact that this is your life. This is what it has come to for you. Sitting in a free clinic waiting to be tested for HIV was one of those moments for me. I thought about all kinds of shit I hadn’t let run through my head in forever. The intravenous drugs. The unprotected sex, even with partners I considered safe, partners I’d bee in relationships with for years. I had no idea what the actual odds were for someone like me contracting the bug, but I knew they had to be pretty good.
Two hours later I sat alone in a small doctor’s office staring at a poster sized illustration of the human heart, the left and right ventricles leading up to the hollow red atriums above, the deep burgundy aorta. I pushed on my chest. Let my hand rest there for a moment and register the muscle below pumping and working.
When the nurse entered I smiled like I was happy to see her and she got to work.
“Your veins are hiding,” she said, tying up my arm for the second time.
And then finally the pinch of the needle and the slow pull of the hammer, the cylinder filling with deep crimson.
“This is a 24 hour test,” she said after, “You can stop in for the results tomorrow. Just hang on to this,” She handed me a small pink slip of paper.
At home that night I chose to be alone, first trying to meditate and then just sitting. I tried to convince myself that I was a drug addict. That this is who I was, that I had done all those things on the questionnaire, plus way more. I couldn’t be angry about any result the test yielded.
But I was angry.
I thought about my parents, about how I hated them for working two jobs, allowing me to do anything I wanted, I went back and forth from blaming them to pitying them. I even thought about calling them, but I didn’t. Mostly I just sat with myself, and my choices.
I went alone to the clinic the next day, and when I got there it was not as busy. I waited for about ten minutes, the television playing the same children’s program. It was definitely another this is your life moment, but it was also more. When my name was called I walked back to the office concentrating on every detail. The way the early morning sunlight sliced through the blinds onto the tile floor; the receptionist’s small, white teeth; the cool, smooth steel, of the office door on my way back. Would these things look and feel the same after knowing I was HIV positive?
The reveal was quick. No movie shit. No dramatic music or building tension. The nurse, a heavy black woman who was not there the day before and didn’t seem to care one way or the other, read me back the chart in a low monotone voice.
“Hephatitus B: Negative”
“Hepatitus C: Negative”
The list went on and on and on, but every answer was the same: negative. How could this be? How could I not have contracted a single blood related or sexually transmitted disease? I expected to feel relief, but all I felt was guilt.
Afterward, I managed to avoid Joe for nearly three weeks. I didn’t answer his calls and I stayed away from the meetings I knew he attended regularly. When I finally did end up in the same place as him, a late night meeting on the northside, I instantly began to think of ways to escape. I could go to the restroom and not come back, or maybe just walk out before the final prayer happened, but half way through the meeting Joe met my eyes with his, the corners of his mouth curled into a smile, and I felt completely at ease.
Outside the building we smoked. The neighborhood was full of clubs and bars and it was just past eleven on a Saturday so everything was alive and kicking.
“Joe, I’m sorry man.”
There was a bar across the street, and a long line of good looking young men in tight shirts and freshly styled hair were backed up for at least a block waiting to get in. For some reason, seeing them in that heighten state of excitement, bouncing and hugging, it got me angry.
“Let it go man,” Joe said exhaling smoke, “this isn’t about anybody but you hombre.”
“How do you do it?”
“I dunno you have this calm about you. Nothing gets to you. It’s crazy. I’m angry all the time man.”
“That get’s better homes.”
“Yeah, everyone keeps saying that.”
“Don’t matter what they say, what do you believe?”
I didn’t know what I believed at that point. I had received this incredibly positive news, and still I felt like a piece of shit. Like I didn’t deserve it.
Joe looked at me again his eyes heavy on my face, “Acceptance,” he said.
I laughed. “Acceptance? You’re gonna drop that shit on me and expect me to know what you mean? You’re like yoda sometimes dude, I gotta decipher every piece of information you give me. Just talk to me normal man, acceptance what?”
Joe stopped laughing and rubbed his goatee, “Acceptance is the answer to all of it man. Just accept things.”
I guess I understood what he meant, but I had no idea how to actually do it.
“Chew on that for a while homey,” Joe said and put out his fist. I gave it bump with my fist and he began walking away down the sidewalk. Acceptance, I thought, and it was like I was remembering something I had always known. I was an addict. I would always be an addict. That’s just the way it was.
I cupped my hands to my mouth, “Joe!” I shouted.
He was a good thirty feet away now. He stopped and turned back, raising his arms in the air like ‘what’s up.’
“Don’t pick up.” I said.
He smiled and pointed his finger at me, then turned around and disappeared into the night.