Though I am not HIV positive, I was a volunteer with the CPAVIH, a comite of HIV Positive men and women whose goal was to raise awareness through different ventures, and to help, in a very concrete way, themselves and others living with HIV. There, I learned about the virus and met with its many different faces. Before I could take calls (my contribution was with the phone line, INFO-SIDA), I had to attend a weekend of training and information.
Picture this. I’m twenty-five years old, a single mother of two little girls, one of which is 5 months old, and the only understanding I have of HIV/AIDS is what I’ve gathered through TV, books, rumors, and a close call with it myself at the age of seventeen, but at that time, when I walk into the conference room, I have never met a HIV positive person. I am the general public. Then, I seat myself at the table, look around, and voila–all men. I’m the only girl, and my heart starts racing. What will these guys think of me? What will they think my motivation is for being here? Morbid curiosity? Confusion? Suddenly, I feel like a freak. And why am I here anyway? What is a mother of two young kids doing sitting in a conference room with a bunch of queer men?
I smile and sweat, and fondle the papers before me. Yvan begins to speak. Yvan is the main coordinator of the information session, him and his boyfriend, Réjean. Yvan is blond, cherry-lipped–a walking wet dream. He’s also HILARIOUS and CRAZY. Within minutes, I am peeing my pants. He knows exactly how to run this gig. He puts everyone at ease. Soon, we are paired up. The objective is to get to know one and other. I glance around, shit, who? No need to worry, there’s a line up of pretty faces willing to sit with me. Whew. I am matched with an older man (he’s like forty, but I’m twenty-five so he’s old, right?) and we clumsily try to begin a conversation. We loosen up a little and joke around, and then BANG, he drops the bomb. He’s got AIDS. Dying actually. I feel my face heat up. I look down at my hands. I think about my babies. Contamination. And, I curse myself for having that reaction. ME! Me the marginal, iconoclast, free thinker…Yes, me.
He smiles. Don’t worry. Every thing is cool. There’s no blame in his eyes. Just a slow burning sadness which makes me want to crawl under table in great shame. Too late. I can’t take my reaction back. But I can learn from it, I tell myself. And I do. From that moment on, I take it all in. Every detail of the monster. I look at it. I see it for what it is. Not a queer disease. A black disease. A junkie disease. I see what it does to a human body, where it hides, how it moves. And it terrifies me. From that day on, I make it a point to OPEN MY EYES.
The first call I take is from a man who fooled around on his wife during a sales conference in Toronto. He’s panicked. What should he do? I give him the usual run down. Get tested. Use a condom. But I can’t, he tells me. My wife will know I cheated. I am hot faced, my Italian temper boiling over. What??? How can he put his wife’s life under the guillotine like that? Be cool, Ivan says. He knows. He’s taken calls for more than a year. People are scared. Fear drives them to do reckless things.
I don’t understand, but I’m trying.
I comeback to the old, charming building on Plessis street, the CPAVIH’s headquarters, every Wednesday morning for five months. I leave my daughters with my cousin and take the metro, my stomach knotted with anxiety. it’s hard. I hate it. But I’m hooked. The place, its people, the cause…it’s in me now. I want to help. More. I don’t know how. I take calls. All sorts of calls. But I’m better now. Yvan doesn’t sit in the tiny room with me anymore. He just walks by the open door and gives me an assessing, pleased look. Slowly, the boys start dropping by. They plop down in the chair across me, and between calls, we talk. One is a painter. He got it when he was eighteen. He’s thirty-three now. No, he’s not doing too good. Another is unemployed, but hopeful. He’ll find something. Once he gets better. He’s going through a rough patch, they changed his meds. It’s hard to work when you’ve got to run to the bathroom every hour. Another, a younger kid, cute and deadly smart tells me that his grand mother bleaches the utensils he’s used after he visits. They have good stories too. But mostly, they tell me the dark stuff.
They trust me. And I find myself trusting them. Anyone who knows me, knows that’s big.
One morning, my cousin can’t babysit. What should I do? I debate for five point three seconds, then, the matter is settled. I’m taking the girls to the centre. We climb the five flights of stairs–I’m toting the baby on my hip, holding the oldest by the hand–sweating under my coat…Nervous. Very nervous. What would my family think if they knew I was bringing the girls here?
I realise, five months into this, and I DON’T GIVE A SHIT what they’ll think. I’ve changed. I am greeted by Yvan. he nearly drops his coffee. He stands there, lips parted. They’ve never had kids here before. Nobody brings kids. Oh boy. Suddenly, curious faces appear in doorways. And my oldest daughter, a precocious little elf, finds all this amusing. She likes it here. She runs in and out of offices, lathering the hardwood floor with wet snow. The baby is calm in my arms. I need to take my coat off. I look around. The boys, all of them, have surrounded me. I feel like the Madonna. Who can take my baby for a moment so I can slip this coat off before I pass out? No offers. The boys stand, eyes wide as loonies, their arms at their sides. I understand and I try not to cry. I feel all of it now, the stigma, the hurt, the hope, the intense desire to survive this thing. I literally drop the baby in someone’s arms. I don’t know who, but he looks down at the baby–she is smiling, but she always smiles–and he holds her to his breast. They take turns holding her.
That morning, I don’t need to worry about being disturbed while I take my calls. The girls have fifteen babysitters.
Later that year, two of those fantastic babysitters are dead. It hurts, but it’s part of the deal, right? Yes, until we CHANGE that.
My maternity leave is over, and I have to back to work. I call Yvan and tell him. He thanks me for my time and friendship. We promise to keep in touch. A grenade goes off in my personal life that year, dismantling every thing around me, and so consequently, I lose touch with every one, including myself.
It’s been years now. Recently, I looked the CPAVIH up. It closed two years ago. Lack of funds, you know. Where are the boys? Part of me wants to know, part of me, doesn’t.
Now, I donate to la Fondation du Sida every month, that’s my small, mediocre contribution. But lately, the idea of joining the red soldiers once more has been haunting me. Go back. Go see about them again. Things have changed since I volunteered nine years a go. For one thing, there is much more awareness out there, and maybe a little less prejudice, but can I do it again? Can I take those calls once more? I’m older now. I’m angrier. I’m much more combatant than I was back then. But maybe that’s what’s needed.
Today, I sit at my desk and type these words, but I want you to know, that inside, I am in that hallway, in that old, charming building of the CPAVIH’s headquarters, and I am twenty-five, holding my baby girl in my arms, surrounded by brave men and women. And I feel them now. And it hurts, but oh, it’s a good hurt. I’m blessed to know it.
For those living with HIV/AIDS and for those who love them, I’m with you today.