[previous chapter] [start from the beginning] You’ve never really known despair until you have been faced with the unmovable reality of a respectable world closing its doors in your face. I was a good person. I had a lot to offer. But nobody in the real world wanted to give me a chance to earn a living honourably, doing something useful. I even applied for jobs in restaurants, grocery stores, warehouses. I was desperate.
It didn’t matter.
Eventually, my savings ran out and I got kicked out of my apartment. I wound up on welfare, living in a cockroach-infested dump in a social-housing complex near the highway. About the only good thing that happened there was to meet the love of my life.
Claire had barely turned 20 when I met her. She was so beautiful. She’d run away from home in Abitibi a few years before. She lived off welfare and the occasional week or so working under the table (and sometimes on top of it) at a “gentleman’s club” to help her friends when they were short a few girls.
Her friends were not the respectable kind. But let’s be clear about one thing: Claire is not, and never has been, a prostitute. She only danced. She didn’t let people touch her. She had eyes that looked like moonlight on a still lake, and at the risk of sounding overly poetic, I lost my soul in them.
Then she gave me HIV. She didn’t know she had it, and to this day has no idea where she picked it up. We discovered it last winter, after she kept getting sick with the flu and nasty colds one after the other. She had been feeling tired and feverish for weeks and one day decided to go to the local community clinic to get checked out.
Well. It didn’t take long for the doctors at the community clinic to suspect it. They were used to dealing with patients from the local social housing complex, along with the area’s prostitutes and migrant workers, and as a result of this they tended to see more than their fair share of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, including this one.
“We’re going to have to get some blood tests done,” the doctor, a tall lanky nerd type had told her, to make sure it’s not mono or something. Yeesh, mono. Claire was scared of that one. Ironic, huh.
Two weeks later they called her back into the office to discuss her test results and that’s when they dropped the bomb.
“I’m sorry to tell you the test came back positive for HIV. We’re going to do another test, to rule out what we call a false positive, but just in case you should refrain from having unprotected sex with anyone for now.”
Well, great timing. We had just started getting serious, and had stopped using condoms about a month earlier. We had agreed to be faithful to each other as a first step towards a bigger, longer commitment. Gives a whole new meaning to ’til death do us part, HIV does.
I’d like to say I reacted like a good person, but that would be lying. I went to bits. I withdrew for a couple of days, to mull things over. Claire was of course feeling terribly guilty about what had happened to us, even though she knew in the back of her mind and even suggested that it was possible that I’d given her the virus, not the other way around.
I hadn’t thought about that. But I suppose we’ll never be able to rule it out. Regardless of whose fault it was, we both had it now, and she felt responsible. And scared to death of what life was going to be like for us.
“So I guess that kind of traps us together, does it,” is what I said when I emerged from my apartment at the end of the third day. She wanted to scream she was so relieved.
“Oh, Jean, I don’t see this as a trap. I’m sorry we’re both stuck with that disease, but I like the idea of being with you for better or worse.” She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. “You’ve made a romantic out of me,” she added, risking half a smile.
And so it had been and would remain for a while, two lovebirds – sick with a disease that did not forgive and that would not be forgotten – but very much attached to each other. That was one way to turn a bad situation into something positive, I guess.