I don’t know exactly why I decided to become an HIV Counselor. I am sure if Freud were here he’d say it was due to some trauma during my adolescence, which could be true. If you asked my high school History teacher he would say it was probably because I always liked being controversial, which could also be true. One hypothesis I have is my grandmother, or lack thereof, pushed me down this road. The first time I met her was also the last time I saw her. She died from complications of AIDS and all I got to do was wave ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in some stale Baltimore hospital when I was 12. A few years later someone yelled at me that AIDS was a gay disease, which gave me the opportunity to ask, “Then how’d my grandmother die?” This person couldn’t answer that question and I still can’t answer my own question — why do I do what I do?
When I go to dinner parties or sit at a bar or interact with people in forced social settings, I get antsy when we begin the “What do you do?” game that people are so fond of. As I sit back and listen to the accountants make boring jokes about their boring jobs, while I listen to the housewife defend full-time motherhood, while the unemployed fill their drinks and search their minds for a different conversation, I wait my turn. When it’s my turn, I smile and say, “I’m a counselor, an HIV Counselor.” People usually stop, process, and take a sip of their drink before responding. In the moments before they can respond I add, “I work mainly with homeless youth.”
“Oh wow, that must be intense,” they usually say with concerned eyes. All I can think is I always thought math was intense.
The other night I was at the birthday dinner for a man that I once dated. The people there were an eclectic group of liberals who worked in fashion or owned restaurants or had some sort of trust account that paid for their expensive dinners and taxi rides. I began playing the usual “What do you do?” game with a woman who sat next to me and drank a dry white wine while picking at her buffalo mozzarella and stale bread. After giving her the rundown on what an HIV/AIDS Counselor does, she gave me a rundown on how sad she felt. This happens a lot. You tell someone a heart wrenching story about a girl in the sex trade who is pregnant with HIV, and this woman sits there sipping her dry white wine, picking at her $20 appetizer, getting sad and wanting to help.
She began asking if my work needs volunteers and how she is so, so passionate. I believed her, but passion isn’t a sustainable emotion. I entertained the conversation with her as I continued to drink my wine, red and tannic, and nodded my head with compassionate eyes to all the emotion she was struggling to hold down as she felt so bad for these ‘kids’ and how we must do something.
I remember one of the earliest times I thought that phrase we must do something. My uncle, a gay black man in Tennessee, was dying from complications from AIDS and my family called it prostate cancer. He was in a nursing home most of the last days of his life, but on major holidays he would reemerge to make an appearance for the rest of the family, you know, so people felt ‘normal.’ I remember one Thanksgiving he sat in one of those white-plastic lawn chairs that my other grandmother kept in the house. His dark skin contrasted that chair in a way that made him the highlight of the room, as if he were glowing. He sat in the chair and just swayed back and forth. He looked rail thin and could barely speak. His eyes just watched the room and watched his family that treated him like a homeless man on the corner.
Later that Thanksgiving night as I sat in the car with my dad, stepmother, and little sister, I commented on my uncle’s health. I was no more than 13 at the time. I asked why he looked so sick and told them we must do something to help him. My dad responded saying he had prostate cancer and there was nothing we could do; my stepmother cut him off and said he had AIDS and that the family wasn’t talking about it. That statement we must do something flared in my mind again; I thought about my grandmother.
After the passionate woman at the birthday dinner finished her diatribe on pain and children and the need to help, she pulled out her smartphone to add me on Facebook. “We must stay in contact,” she tells me. I give her my full name and pull out my own phone to add her. When I see her profile come up on my phone I notice her profile picture is of her with goggles on making an odd face in a sea of blue. “Are you snorkeling in this picture?” I ask. “No, no, sky diving! It was the most wonderful thing.” Really? I think, “I bet it was terrifying, I could never do that.” As she finished the last sip of her wine while shaking her head no at me, with a smirk beginning across her face,” It really isn’t. The moments before you jump, the moments when your feet are still on that plane, those are the scary moments. You still feel that you are a part of something.” Her hand held onto the empty wine glass. “But once you fall, you feel nothing and you just are.”
You just are. We must do something. These phrases rang through my head. I stopped listening to the rest of her description of the fall and the complications around skydiving and I thought about my work. For a moment I think I have an answer to that question that I’ve asked myself for so long, why do I do what I do, but then my phone vibrates and my concentration is broken. It is 10:10 and I should be in bed. As I start to refocus she is already packing her purse while peeling off the barstool. “It was so nice to meet you; I can’t wait to chat again,” she told me. We embraced, and it was nice — she was nice. The Birthday Boy ran over after this exchange and dramatically begged her to stay for one more drink; we’ve all seen this performance before. He doesn’t really want her to stay; he just wants her to feel like he wants her to stay.
As the woman made her way out the door, her heels clicked across the marble floor. I remember seeing her slide into a cab and she became once again a part of the urban noise outside.
An hour later I was getting out of a cab that the Birthday Boy made us take to the gay part of town. The neighborhood is buzzing; cackles fueled by alcohol bounce down the street and the young men prance in hopes of finding their next husband, or at least their next body pillow for the night. Birthday Boy handed the cab driver his card and there seemed to be a problem, so I stood outside of the door staring down the streets. When Birthday Boy finally exits the cab with the few friends that are left from dinner we cross the street to head to a bar. When I get to the door, a voice says my name from behind; it was a young person I work with quite often at my job.
“How’s your night? You look nice tonight.” I say to her, watching the annoyance spread on her face as she taps her acrylic nails on her palm. “It’s fine. You know, just another night. Same shit.” She looks up the street when she says this with one hand on her hip, the other holding a large bag with her belongings. “Yeah, I understand that,” I really don’t but I lie, “Are you coming in?” She shakes her head no and keeps looking up the road as if she is waiting for something. “I’ll see you later, have fun,” she says as she begins to strut up the street, her night just beginning. A taxi pulls up next to her and honks, a signal to follow him as he turns down a side street.
As she walked up that street her heels clicked on the pavement, very much like the passionate woman’s did earlier that night. And in that moment the phrases we must do something and you just are pop into my head. Birthday Boy shakes my shoulder and pushes me into the bar.
I enter and a sea of men are dancing to a song I don’t know. A drink I didn’t order is placed in my hand. I look at my phone, 11:20, and I think about bed once more and about that young girl I work with. I wonder if she continued walking up the street or if she turned down the block to follow the taxi, to a make a few extra bucks. A stranger’s body presses against mine, a drink spills, the music gets louder.