Born in South Carolina, raised and educated in Portland, Oregon, Courtney Weber now lives in Waterford, Connecticut, where she works as the Assistant to the Executive Director of the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Center. "This is What Gets Me" is her first published piece. She would like to apologize to her mother, who was very disturbed by the content of this story.

This Is What Gets Me

posted Oct 4, 2004

I am dying. This is not good for my sex life.

My latest boyfriend thinks he's offended me, but he's mistaken. This situation is nothing new. He fidgets by the bathroom door without a shirt, watching me for a sign. I guess this is my cue to chuck his sweatshirt at him and order him out my door. I'm not in the mood.

Pabst had been on sale for $4.99 a half rack, but I opted to spend more on the Trojans with extra sensitivity. Six useless rubbers later, I'm thinking that I should have gone for the beer. He swears that this has never happened before.

Why is it that impotent young men find me so damn attractive?

These guys swear that they are "just kind of nervous." We're usually only starting to get to know each other, they point out. If we've had a few drinks, it makes things even more difficult. Condoms also take away a lot of sensitivity. What kind do I use, anyway? They're always used to a "special" brand, and well, they'll make it a point to bring them next time. They say I shouldn't feel bad.


At least this guy is honest.

"I don't know, I guess I'm kind of scared about having sex with you. I'm just, you know, worried about the disease and all." The next look on his face told me he didn't realize how that was going to sound.

Huh. I lay there for a minute without speaking, trying to adjust to the enormous weight placed on my chest and the sour bile eating my stomach. I thought I remembered him saying last week that the virus wasn't an issue. That obviously didn't extend beyond my panties.

This is where he remembers that he has to work at nine a.m. He jumped out of bed and started doing that nervous little dance by the bathroom door.

Now, I just look at him because I can't think of anything to say. He grabs his sweatshirt and kisses me on my lips. He kisses me again. He says he'll call me tomorrow. He will, too. He's not a bad guy, but he's kind of an idiot.

Maybe he isn't over his ex. Maybe he's gay. Maybe they had all been gay.

It's amazing how quiet the apartment can get when it has been emptied of guests. This place is about as spacious as a shoebox, but it echoes like a Tudor when I'm suddenly alone. He left the bathroom light on, but the toilet seat down. He really is a nice person. I'd probably feel the same way about if the roles were reversed.

I've finally gotten to the point where I don't cry when I tell someone that I'm HIV positive; although after tonight, I may regress a little. People don't run. They don't think I'm a slut or a user. They admire my courage, being so young and relatively clean, or something like that. HIV in the 21st Century is not the "Philadelphia" death sentence of the 1980's. It is not a withering, two-year battle that ends in yellow roses and political quilts. It has become a lifestyle very similar to diabetes or epilepsy. One has to eat right and exercise, so aside from the beer and cigarettes, I'm in the best shape of my life. There are a lot of pills, which sucks. I take a mouthful of Viramune, Epivir, Zerit, and that awful, chalky Norvir every morning and night. Plus a big dose of Pepto when they start to wear on my colon. I'm pretty proud of myself. I don't know many other pre-med students who pull down a 3.2 while being stoned on that shit all day.

My cell phone makes a feeble beep from the inside of my purse. It's probably another message from my father. I forgot to return the one he left earlier today.

"Hey kid, just checking up on you to see how things are going. I know I sound all paranoid, but a young woman living alone should check in occasionally. So, call me back this time, all right? Love you."

Don't worry, Dad. All is well.

Dad has adjusted. He didn't murder my ex-boyfriend, so I guess he's doing about as well as could be expected. It's really not the end of everything. I have at least ten years, and there will be plenty of medical breakthroughs by then, anyway.

I'm not dying tomorrow. I'm not thinking about that. What is hard, and this really gets to me, is the feeling that your body is what separates you from the rest of humanity. All you really have is your body and it is the one thing that gets in your way. People try to act as though the disease is not on their mind when they see me. It's as though I've been caught crying and the person is pretending not to notice. Everyone is very accepting, but it's easy to accept another person's baggage when you don't have to bring it home with you. While I could easily have healthy kids, plenty of studies say, there aren't very many fathers who want to have children with an HIV positive mother. Your body is your social inhibitor, and the creator of your downfall. Maybe Jimmy was right.

I'm sweating. These radiators are insane. They come on without cue and fill the studio with hot air in the middle of the night. I often step out in the night and get some air. I could use a cigarette anyway.

I have to be very careful to keep from making noise when I go up to the roof. The stairs echo and a lot of cranky old farts live in the penthouses. I've already had two "Notices of Disturbance" issued for my rooftop habit.

The view is amazing at night. During the winter, the city glows a kind of electric yellow from its reflection on the clouds. I wonder if my skin is glowing too, absorbing the light from the concrete and the trickle of moonlight. Three a.m. has an odd feel. It's as though I'm trapped between two time frames. The world continues to go forward, while I'm still standing here on the roof, smoking a cigarette.

American Spirits do not light well in the wind. One side of the paper catches flame. I puff while I wait for the other side to take up as well. The smoke seems to dance off the end, almost in time with the rhythmic clinking of a vagrant's shopping cart below.

There isn't a whole lot I remember about James these days. It's funny how easily you can erase someone in three years. He only dressed in cool, solid colors. He wore Old Spice deodorant, but never cologne. He didn't like it when my socks didn't match. When he cried on the phone, he sounded retarded.

He swore in a sob-laced spray that he had no idea. I held and caressed him that night while he screamed his tortured apologies into my stomach. He rattled off a list of people responsible for this mess. His ex-girlfriend. The guy she cheated on him with. His tattoo. The Red Cross. God. Satan. His father.

I've almost been able to erase the summer we spent in his bed, hoping we'd die together. I've forgotten most of my twentieth birthday, which I spent on the floor of James' bathroom. I don't remember the landlord breaking in. I don't remember why we ignored the Non-Payment of Rent warnings, or the eviction notice that had been pushed under the door. I didn't see the landlord's reaction to two unconscious tenants, lying half-staved and delirious in their own vomit and shit. I don't remember the cops, the paramedics, or the ride to the hospital.

I do remember my reflection. I looked like an insect. My eyes had outgrown my face. I didn't know my body could not hold up such an enormous head. I no longer filled my shoulders. I remember a steady drum on my brain and muffled voices growing louder. Jimmy's voice was in there somewhere. I couldn't make out what he was saying. I remember how painfully cold the tiles had been on my cheek.

I woke up out of the coma with a plastic hose down my throat and a steady drip of vitamins and auto-immune support in the crook of my elbow. We had pneumonia, compounded with the untreated symptoms of early HIV. Malnourishment, alcohol, depression; the peppercorn pattern of previous events nearly destroyed anything I could have had with the remainder of my time.

There was no dramatic breakup. I just went home with my dad. Occasionally, I could feel the bathroom floor on my face and this purged any wish I had to see the man who gave me this disease. I guess that was cold. I know he thought he needed me. He went to live with his brother. I wouldn't return his calls.

He called me one morning at five am, hissing and choking on the line. The lesions had returned. He was thinner than he had ever been. The vomiting was worse. He didn't think he had long.

I had a lab at eight-thirty. "Then take your fucking meds," I said.

The crying increased. Out of pity, or maybe obligation, I waited through his self-satisfying grovel. He became quiet when I made no other sound.

"You can't just walk away from this," he croaked. "It's going to get you too."

I never heard from him again.

James's sister-in-law had had oral surgery, and was taking Vicadin for post-operation discomfort. He swallowed the whole bottle with a quart of Jack Daniels. I guess he found one dose easier to take than a lifetime of prescription medications.

I run my cigarette cherry over the rail and cough on what feels like gravel. I have to quit smoking. Wondering if it's cold enough to freeze spit, I hack over the rail. A few drops disperse into the air, but most of it hangs from my lip in a wet string.

Fuck you, Jimmy.

It's too cold and damp to be standing out here. I don't want to get sick. The night is old, but I guess it's more like morning now. Goodnight, city. Goodnight, hotel across the street. I hope your guests are having more fun than I did tonight.

Oh well. Next time will be better.

My eyes burning from wind and fatigue, I creep back down the stairs to my apartment, minding the neighbors and the early hour.