I’ve been revisiting old writings from when I was in high school. Somewhat miraculously, I’ve managed to maintain a number of files originally composed at my father’s house on the Hyundai IBM-compatible computer he built or at school on one of the Macintosh computers that seemed so cutting edge. This was way back in the early 1990s when you stored everything externally on a disk, and so I collected and transported these bits and pieces of my adolescent soul on sacred floppies (5.25” or 3.5”, depending on where I wrote them). These days, they live on my MacBook Air in an “avl work” subfolder within an “old shit” folder—classy—with all caps filenames like VAMPIRE.DOC and WARRIOR.PM6.
I won’t subject you to my collected works, but I will gift you with some highlights from my 9th and 11th grade English classes (how lucky I was to have Lisa Sessions as my teacher both years and how equally unlucky for her):
- The Vampire: Friend, Foe, or Fiction? (the aforementioned VAMPIRE.DOC) – My romantic teenage fascination transformed into a 1994 term paper that opens with:
Everyone has heard of vampires. They are the bloodsucking creatures of the night that seek to destroy. People are fascinated by this being that has been a part of our culture for so long. Yet very few know the true significance behind the facade. The purpose of the following is to take people into the world of the vampire and hopefully return from such with a greater knowledge and understanding of the immortal.
- The Empress (of TV) Strikes Back (MURPHY.DOC) – My 1992 channeling of Murphy Brown for an exercise in which (I think?) we were supposed to speak in the voice of a fictional character:
In the past, I have not spoken as eloquently as some. I will try to keep my composure as I speak right now. I will refrain from bringing up such unnecessary things as the “potatoe” incident, for they are really irrelevant. I just hope Dan Quayle doesn’t help his children with their spelling homework. I apologize, Miles, that was inappropriate. Let me move on.
- Essay on Beloved (BELOVED.DOC) – Exactly what it sounds like, a short essay about Toni Morrison’s gorgeous novel, in which I vomitously wax poetic on rivers, writing, and memory:
Toni Morrison said that a writer is like a river. “Like water, I remember where I was before I straightened out,” she described in one interview. Beloved, too, is like a madly flowing river. It twists and turns around the past and the present, rapidly weaving the pain of both together in an attempt to show how the characters—or the river—became who they are and arrived where they are. The book sweeps its readers into a world of slavery and freedom and shows the difficult transition between the two and how no one can ever forget his or her past, despite every effort to deny it, and how many can’t move on from it.
Hidden among these gems of angst-infused academics, though, is a piece I’m truly proud of: a 1396-word feature article about a man in his early 20s living with HIV, published in my high school newspaper in March of 1994. Yes, you read that right, a feature article about an HIV-positive man in 1994 North Carolina in a high school newspaper.
I was absolutely obsessed with Chad Lowe’s storyline as Jesse, an HIV-positive teenager, on Life Goes On. When the show started airing in 1989, I was only 12 and obviously didn’t have an inkling of the impact the AIDS crisis was having on what would become my community, but something in me deeply identified with Becca and Jesse’s relationship. Something in me deeply identified with this character who was completely out of place and challenged everyone’s notions of how people lived with HIV and who might have HIV and how love and HIV could coalesce. Something in me deeply identified with Becca’s otherness, the good girl, the nerd, the one nobody looked at, the one nobody saw. Something in me deeply identified with Jesse’s single ear piercing (even though it was in his left ear, which in my small Southern city was considered the “straight ear”; to this day, I have multiple piercings in my right ear thanks to this supposed code). In spite of their heterosexual relationship, there was something undeniably queer about Becca and Jesse. I’ve sometimes wondered if it was my identification with Becca’s dogged fictional commitment to Jesse that informed my own commitment to my ex-, who led me to believe for most of our nearly 10-year relationship that she was HIV positive.
My obsession with Life Goes On led me to volunteer for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP), and that’s when I began to understand how inextricably linked AIDS and the queer community are. Like Becca and Jesse, I was a theater kid, and so, of course, I joined the WNCAP educational theater troupe, a cohort of like-minded teenagers who wrote and performed truly terrible skits—usually involving some dramatic reveal of a teen to their parents/friends/classmates/partner that they were HIV positive—at area high school assemblies. It was as dumb and poorly executed as it sounds, but it was also kind of groundbreaking. Sex education at my own high school—where our troupe was not allowed to perform—was abstinence all the way (pun intended) and zero tolerance for discussions of “alternative lifestyles.” Since there was no acknowledgment that kids were already having sex, there were a number of immaculate conceptions, and speaking of high school assemblies, during at least one, we were advised to eat a Snickers instead of having sex because, you know, Snickers satisfies. To emphasize this point, there was a call and response (something like, What do you want? Snickers! Why? Because Snickers really satisfies) followed by Snickers bars being tossed into the audience.
It was through WNCAP that I met Michael (not his real name) and asked if I could interview him for a feature in my high school newspaper. Incredibly, Michael said yes and so did my journalism teacher, Calvin Hall. I cannot overstate how incredible Calvin was as a teacher and what a positive influence he had on my young life (not that I saw this at the time). I cannot overstate how much faith he placed in his students and in the First Amendment. And above all, I cannot overstate how much I admire the way he fought for our right to tell the stories that mattered to us, especially as a black man in a school with only a handful of black teachers against an entirely white administration. I am honored that Calvin had my back even though I was a bundle of sarcasm and snark (snarkasm?) in his classroom, and I recognize as an adult that it was likely at great cost to himself.
I don’t know whether it keeps—I’ll let you be the judge of that—but I wouldn’t take you through the setup and then not share the work itself. I also don’t know what we ended up titling it; all I have is the heading from the original document written in good old Winword with the filename AIDS9403.18.
Yours in snarkasm,
Jessica the Westchesbian
March 19, 1994
March ’94 issue
When Michael first discovered he was HIV positive, he thought his life was over.
Michael (not his real name), a native Ashevillian and graduate of Erwin High School, found out in August of 1993 that he is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It was less than a week before his twenty-second birthday, and he was already having family problems. He attempted suicide that same day and ended up in the hospital.
“Everything hit me all at once,” he said. “My birthday was less than a week away, and I was having family problems, too, and I just didn’t want to live with it.”
Michael says that from talking to other HIV-positive people, he knows now that every case of HIV is hard to accept at first. Perhaps his biggest fear was that he would lose the support of his family, but he found that this was not the case.
“I was afraid my family would not stand by me, but when I was in the hospital I found out different, that they was gonna support me and everything else,” Michael said.
Michael’s family on his father’s side, however, has abandoned him due to his HIV. They have had nothing to do with him since they found out he is HIV-positive.
Michael and his doctor don’t know for sure how he contracted HIV. He was a Certified Nurse’s Assistant and was exposed to many sick patients who may have had the disease. He had also cut himself on several beer bottles from a gay bar. Michael, however, feels pretty sure that he contracted the virus through unprotected sex because at the same time he found out he had HIV, he discovered that he had contracted gonorrhea. So far, he has been unable to contact the girl from whom he suspects he contracted gonorrhea because he has lost touch with her.
Currently, Michael lives in the Hope House, a home run by Hospitality House which provides a place to live for people who are HIV-positive or have full-blown AIDS. Rent is free for people like Michael who currently have no income, and in addition to food brought in from the Manna Food Bank, each resident is given a weekly $20 voucher at Ingle’s.
At the Hope House, each resident receives counseling and participates in support groups. There are VHP nurses provided for those who need them and each resident meets with a VHP nurse once a month. There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held in the house for the many HIV-positive people living there who are coping with alcohol addictions. In addition to weekly meetings with the director of the house and visits with a massage therapist, the residents also have art therapy groups.
Michael says that living in the Hope House helps him a lot in dealing with his position. He says that he feels like they really take care of him there and that he learns more every day about his condition and the condition of others and to appreciate that he is not worse off.
“I find ways of coping with my problems without trying to commit suicide or something,” Michael said. “I see I’m better off than some people at this time because I live with people who are worse than I am.”
David Bradburn, Education Coordinator for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP), says that the house is not very large and is generally kept full. When someone leaves, his or her place is filled quickly.
“When somebody leaves, we can probably fill up the places pretty quick,” Bradburn said, “because we have a lot of people who come through the Project who are homeless and need a place to live.”
Bradburn says that most any HIV-positive person can live in the Hope House. He does say, however, that there are some rules. He says that once someone gets so sick that he or she needs hospital care, he or she usually must find another place to live.
“And that’s where it becomes difficult,” he said. “There’s not very many nurses or nursing homes in Asheville that want to deal with HIV people.”
One place willing to accept AIDS patients is the Mountain Area Hospice. An AIDS patient must meet the same requirements as any other patient at the hospice. He or she must have a prognosis of six months or less and a primary caregiver. A patient can be admitted, however, without one or both of these requirements. Even financial status is not a problem. The hospice accepts insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid policies.
Michael himself has not yet shown signs of illness. He is currently taking AZT, and his CD4 count is stable at 480. He says that from what his doctor can tell, it is leveling off in that area and is not dropping.
“I don’t have nothing to worry about at this time,” Michael said.
Michael is part of the ever-increasing group who learned that AIDS can happen to them. HIV and AIDS has grown to epidemic proportions. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), AIDS is the leading cause of death in men ages 25 to 44 nationwide and the fourth leading cause of death in women in the same age group.
“And if you look at that on the long range,” Bradburn said, “most of the people in that twenty age range got it in their teens.”
Women and teenagers are the largest group becoming infected with HIV in the US, but another of the hardest hits groups is the African-American community. African-American youth account for 15% of the US teen population, but they constitute 38% of the AIDS cases. Women make up 42% of this group, whereas in white teens, they make up only 19% and 22% in the Hispanic community. African-Americans are 8% of the Asheville area population, but 30% of the new AIDS patients.
Another startling figure is that NC leads the US in gonorrhea cases, which has Bradburn concerned about safer sex and the non-improvement of behavior.
“And so a lot of people, even after 12, 13 years of this (AIDS) epidemic, are not changing their behavior,” he said.
Michael can attest to this. He had friends who were HIV-positive prior to finding out he has HIV, yet he still did not practice safer sex. Perhaps more startling is that Michael’s current partner refuses the use of a condom, despite Michael’s condition.
“And I can’t take having that life, anyone’s life, on my hands,” Michael said.
Bradburn says that one of the main problems everyone needs to deal with now is the continuing ignorance. People continue to worry about the risk of blood transfusions despite the series of ten tests that make them safe.
“Probably less than 2% of the people who are getting AIDS are getting it through a blood transfusion,” Bradburn said. “The greater percentage, if not from sharing needles, is sex, and that’s what people need to be concerned about more than anything else.”
Bradburn and WNCAP caseworker Beverly Harper both say they have been asked if they are afraid to work at WNCAP because they might catch something. Bradburn says that he still hears about the fear that AIDS can be passed through the air.
“They convince themselves that the researchers don’t know everything yet or whether it’s in the air and think, ‘I better stay away,’” Bradburn said. “I mean, we’ve been working a long time in this office, and there’s no contraction casually. I mean, think about it, there’s a lot of people infected in this area that if it were airborne, we’d all have it. It’s just a ridiculous kind of thinking.”
Bradburn and Michael both feel that what needs to be stressed the most to teenagers and all others is the need for safer sex. Condoms are not 100% effective, but have been proven to protect from AIDS better than nothing.
“A person can have AIDS and it not show up for years,” Michael said. “They (teenagers) need to know how to practice safe sex if they’re going to have safe sex because when I found out I was HIV-positive, I wasn’t having safe sex. I said to myself, ‘I’ll never get it.’ ‘It won’t happen to me.’ Well, I got it now.”
Jessica lives with her shiksa wife and geriatric cat in picturesque Tarrytown on the Hudson. Although a proud Westchesbian these days, Jessica grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, back when the opening of the Olive Garden and the 24-hour Walmart were big news. During business hours, Jessica’s a communications professional who translates highly technical concepts into clear, concise, colloquial language that media buyers and sellers can understand. Outside of business hours, she’s a poet, cat mom, wife, avid reader, and lover of questionable crime, sci-fi, and supernatural TV shows (preferably all in one), not necessarily in that order. Her poetry has appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, LIT, and The Huffington Post, among others.