This is a short story written for an HIV awareness short story competiton. The theme was: Vulnerability and/or Resilience in the Caribbean Context of HIV and AIDS. I placed 1st! :). Enjoy!
Dances at the Edge of Darkness
Panic throbs in my head like a migraine, and a pretty violent one at that. I will be okay. I want to breathe it. I want to whisper it until my mind believes. But my mind has other journeys to take. Journeys to dark, dank, putrid places that make me want to fall to my knees and wretch. I will be okay. I want to believe it. I want to sing it. But what if I am not?
What if those results are what I fear the most? I dismiss the thought as soon as it enters my mind and continue staring blankly at the powder blue walls of the doctor’s office. It is impossible. I am twenty-three and my life has barely begun. I cannot have HIV.
My mind takes another nosedive into the depths of hell when I think of my swollen lymph nodes and constant fatigue. I fight the urge to cry again as panic rises in my throat. Cancer. Why had that never crossed my mind? I breathe deeply acknowledging that I’d be better off with cancer. I want to tell you that it is because there is a chance of being cured of cancer but that would be a lie. If I were diagnosed with cancer people would greet me with pity hugs, help me fall into alcohol induced nirvana or heed Job’s wife’s advice and curse God and die. They would attend mass and pray with me if I chose the alternative, more karma filled route or hold fundraisers for my treatment. They would sympathize with me and empathize with my condition. If I were diagnosed with HIV, I would be worse off than a leper during biblical times, a homosexual in Jamaica or an American stumbling across a secret Al Qaida meeting.
I am so consumed with my horrific thoughts I almost miss the dark, plump nurse ushering me towards Dr. Rawlins’ office. I give her my most dazzling smile. Maybe the extra karmic points would steer my results into being something a strong dose of antibiotics could easily fix.
But when I look across at my balding doctor sitting staunchly behind his mahogany desk I know that my karmic points did not quite add up.
“Anna,” he starts softly, his voice tinged with distress, “your blood contains HIV antibodies.”
The yellow walls contracts with my panic as I try to summon an appropriate response. But what exactly do you say to a doctor who tells you that you have HIV? Do you smile gently, nod and thank him for his time? Or did you allow your cries and screams to pierce the shattering silence enveloping the room?
I do neither but listen passively as he outlines treatment plans, directs me to support groups and offers empty words of comfort.
It is only when he hands me a blank sheet and asks me to list the names of my sexual partners, I allow myself to feel anger. Informing previous partners was a hard step, he said gently, and with my consent he was willing to do it for me. I scribble roughly and push the paper towards him. Shock is palpable in his features and the tension in the room shoots up a notch, “No more?”
The tears held back with sheer willpower now fall silently down my face.
“Shall I call?”
I shake my head slowly, “I want a second opinion.”
I do not wait for his response. Instead, I push the chair back trying to control my shaking limbs.
“Anna,” he says softly, “I am not finished.”
“But I am,” I reply indignantly. I did not have HIV. I refuse to accept it. There must be a mistake. I cannot be sick.
Dr. Rawlins reaches up and massages his temples, “I’m not sure how to tell you this…”
I am staggered. Could anything be worse than the news he just dropped on my head like an atomic bomb?
“What?” I ask feebly.
“You are pregnant.”
To my credit I did not scream, I did not wail. Instead, I closed my eyes as the office turned violent shades of red before everything became black.
I bury my feet in the sand and flex my toes embracing the residual warmth of the scorching day. I feel cold and helpless. It has been two days since the second opinion confirmed Dr. Rawlins’ diagnosis and the magnitude has just begun to hit me. I stare out at the amber glow cast over the horizon by the setting sun and try to come up with some sort of plan, a solution. There are many things I should be doing now instead of sitting out here in the sand. I should have already set an appointment with that specialist in the capital that Dr. Rawlins so highly recommended or contacted one of the support groups.
I shudder at the thought of a support group. I tried telling my best friend as soon as I got home from his office but was so mortified I gave up half way through. If I could not tell Jenna, there was no way I would be able to confide in a bunch of strangers. I am no good with difficult conversations. I have not even confronted David. Instead I allowed him to kiss me night after night although anger boiled within me.
I allow my hand to fall to my stomach where I imagine my baby to be. In the days immediately following the news, I considered abortion. Abortion is illegal in Prudence but there were more than a few doctors willing to risk it for the right price. The thought tore at me and left me with an emptier feeling in the pit of my stomach than the initial diagnosis. I did not want to kill my baby but did not want to cruelly subject them to their fate. It is impossible to recount my relief when hours of research confirmed that I could deliver a healthy baby.
It suddenly hits me that I am not the only person depending on me to win this. If I cannot find the will to fight for myself, I needed to try for my baby. I walk to my car with newfound determination. I would take small steps. I would make an appointment for the doctor and find someone to answer all the questions that have been dancing around in my mind all week.
As I unlock the door my eyes settle on the gold of my wedding band and my stomach contracts. Before I started trying to put my life back together, there was something I needed to do.
Colourful images promoting our island’s annual Fiesta flash on the television as I sit in the living room waiting for David to return from work. He is an accountant in a downtown firm and is never home before seven despite the fact he clocks out at four. It has always bothered me but I never mention it. I have been told that good wives do not nag. Nagging drove men to more inviting beds.
“Why are you sitting in the dark?”
I stiffen at the familiar voice but with steely determination I look up at him.
“You’ve been with someone else.”
He denies it but stops when he catches the look on my face.
Thirty seconds pass before he says softly, “It was a silly mistake…”
I allow the tears to fall, “More than you know.”
I refuse to lose my temper although rage threatens to spew over the surface. I struggle to grasp at the threads calm which were unravelling like silk. I will not shout at him nor will I hit him over the head with the flower filled vase like I want to.
“Are you leaving?”
I walk away from him and as he tries to grasp my hand, I drop my wedding band to the floor. Despite myself, I take one last look at the apartment which I called home, the man I loved. Leaving is never easy, no matter the painful memories left behind, no wonder Lot’s wife risked turning to salt for that one last look.
“David,” I say softly.
“You are the only man I have ever been with…”
“I know babe and I love you…”
“…so it is only you who could’ve infected me with HIV.”
I walk away without looking back.
I want to pretend that his infidelity is shocking but it isn’t. The thought is still a bitter taste on my tongue that trickles to my stomach and makes me sick.
After four years together I left the island to begin my four year Early Childhood Education degree at the University of Toronto while David wanting to be close to home headed to the St. Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. There were several other girls during his degree but I didn’t leave him. When I tearfully asked my mother for advice she wiped the tears from my cheek and said simply, “Men stray but they always return to the one they love. If you love him you will be waiting.”
This probably explained why she had been with my father for three decades although he was known for changing women with the phases of the moon.
If you love him you will be waiting.
I loved him. I loved him so much that when he proposed I agreed and when he cheated on me three times before the wedding, my mother’s voice echoed in my head. If you love him you will be waiting.
If I had loved myself, I would have left.
Lola Carlisle, the founder of the Strength, Hope & HIV Foundation, is tall and lithe. Although her greying hair pulled into an austere bun, she is smiling pleasantly.
“Thirsty?” she asks offering me a bottle of Blue Waters which I refuse.
“I know what you must be thinking of me.”
She casts me a puzzled look before asking me to elaborate.
I take a small breath, “That I must be promiscuous or use drugs…”
“Is that what you think of all of us? That we were promiscuous druggies who got what was coming to them?”
I am flabbergasted by her revelation and before I can recover she continues speaking.
“I don’t look like I have HIV do I?”
I shake my head.
“What does having HIV look like?” she asks evenly.
She is still smiling at me kindly but I feel like a child who has just been reprimanded.
“I started this Foundation seven years ago and experience has taught me that diagnosis does not immediately erase the misconceptions you’ve picked up over the years. When it comes to the type of people who get infected, one of my old friends used to say it all boiled down to rotten luck.”
I start to speak but she silences me with a wave of her hand, “What was your rotten luck?”
I am silent for a few seconds while I watch the dancing rainbows that appear on her desk when the large, glass cross reflected the rays of sunlight streaming through the wide windows.
“The husband I stayed with despite his infidelity.”
She nods her head appreciatively, “Man wielding a knife in a dark alley.”
The gasp is out before I can control it.
“It has been twenty years. The scars are still here but the wounds no longer fester.”
Lola uses my silence to saunter to the large filing cabinet across the room. She returns with a photo album and lays it out in front of me.
“You see Anna,” she says opening it, “although lapses of judgement are sometimes involved we all have these lapses. Unfortunately, some pay higher prices for their lapses of judgement than others. Then of course there are those cases of rotten luck.”
She points to the first photo, “Charlotte. When she was sixteen her boyfriend said if you trust me we don’t need a condom. She trusted him.”
For the next half of an hour she continues.
“Stephen. He was his wife’s first but she never told him that she dabbled with heroin in her past.”
“Malachi was only taught safe sexual practises for heterosexuals in school.”
“Milly was afraid to purchase condoms because she was told only sluts took condoms around.”
“Jonathon was told that real men didn’t use condoms nor did they stick to one woman.”
She pauses before she shows me the final photo of a toddler nestled in his mother’s arms, “Gabriel. His mother’s obgyn did not consider an HIV test an important part of routine antenatal screening.”
I try to swallow the lump in my throat but fail miserably. It takes four attempts but I eventually tell her that I am pregnant.
She absorbs the news with her trademark nod of the head, “You are lucky.”
“I don’t feel lucky.”
“Knowing puts you in an amazing position to help your baby. Are you medically insured?”
I tell her about the private insurance I have through my job and she repeats that I am lucky. Antiretroviral drugs are not cheap, she assures me, and lots of persons living with HIV are not adequately treated.
“I have had HIV for twenty years,” she says with such ease it is almost as if she is talking about something as simple as asthma, “the antibodies present in my blood are still very low. I might die before the disease ever progresses into AIDS. I am lucky but many people aren’t. Of the eight thousand people living in Prudence with HIV about two thousand of them are not adequately treated. It is a problem all over the region, in fact, all over the world.”
We talk like this for a long time with me asking questions and absorbing her frank responses. It is not all bad she tells me, Brazil has signed a deal with the OECS to donate Antiretroviral drugs and she is spearheading campaigns across schools island wide to promote sexual responsibility. She wants to teach little girls that they had the right to say no and to negotiate condom use. She is filled with hope and I cannot help but be drawn towards her positive attitude.
I tell her how I sometimes wished I had cancer instead.
She smiles at me, “Eventually the stigma will die and we will realize that properly treated HIV has a better prognosis than most types of cancers.”
I confided that it is the stigma that has kept me muzzled. I had not told anyone.
“Go home and tell your parents and all those who love you,” she urges, “You will need their support.”
“I’m not telling anyone,” I say defiantly, “I just want to put my life together.”
She gives me a small, tired smile like she has heard many similar rants, “One day at a time.”
I did not get a chance to put my life back together in obscurity as I planned. In the three months following my diagnosis as I tried to regain normalcy and recapture my sense of peace, David found his own way to deal with his diagnosis; a bottle of vodka. He died instantly when he slammed into a lamppost while driving at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. I remember the police officer commenting that his blood alcohol level was so high he was surprised he hadn’t died from alcohol poisoning instead.
It was scandalous and newspapers ate it up. World War III could have begun and Prudence’s population would have been caught unawares. I was caught up in the whirlwind of gossip so viciously and quickly, I didn’t time to protect myself. When the papers were not speculating about which one of us infected the other, they were blaming me for his death. I finally reached out to the support group, to my closest circle of friends and family. I still believe they prevented me from hitting rock bottom with fatal force. Why had it taken utter chaos for me to realize how much I needed them?
With tiny steps I began climbing back towards normalcy when it was shattered with a dismissal letter from the Education Centre where I taught since graduating from University. With cool efficacy they informed me that parents expressed concerns about my ability to deal with their children.
I still bristle with anger when I think about it. I had not been diagnosed with psychosis or paedophilia. I was just as capable of dealing with their children as I was before my diagnosis.
After weeks of seething Lola slipped me the name of an attorney during one of our meetings. Once the discrimination lawsuit was filed, it was impossible for me to remain anonymous but I don’t regret doing it. I am not the first person to be fired because of their HIV status nor will I be the last. I just hope that my case sends a very loud message.
During the helter skelter of it all, Hailey made her grand appearance via C-section in April. Her initial screening showed HIV antibodies and I thought I would never claw myself from the despair I felt. Every time she wrapped her tiny hand around one of my fingers and looked up at me with eyes bright with innocence and trust my heart broke. I had failed her. But after holding her in my arms for the first time, I knew that she could never be any less than perfect in my eyes. I would give my life to protect her to help her live as normal of a life as possible. The second tests showed no antibodies and I felt lucky for the first in a long time.
I finally acknowledge that my diagnosis is not a death sentence. I still have a lot of fight left in me. I smile at my sleeping toddler. It has been two long years but the sun is now inching its way into the morning sky.