Fighting HIV Isolation (One Belly Rub at a Time)

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In From the Cold
How a stray cat changed the game
by John Francis Leonard

Pumpkin webI love animals. In particular, I love dogs. Cats, however, not so much. A man with whom I lived in my early days in NYC had a lot of Persians in too small of an apartment. Through no fault of the cats, the one-bedroom was an absolute mess that was impossible to keep on top of. I remember neither that man nor the cats with much fondness. Being something of a stray that the man had taken in myself, I was in no position to complain. Obligation can either breed great fondness or much contempt.

Recently, a stray cat started hanging around the back entrance to my apartment building. It’s happened before; our complex itself has more than a few cat owners and is surrounded by a large development of homes. I took little notice of other strays, always assuming that they would find their way home. This time, however, I did take notice. She was a chatty little thing and would follow me and neighbors to the door. I don’t know what about her fascinated me, but something did. Soon enough I had her coming to me and letting me scratch her ears and rub her head. Then, she would run away as quickly as she came. It was obvious to me that she wasn’t feral; she had belonged to someone rather recently.

One morning, I sat at my table writing. It was five a.m.; I get up very early to work, run, or just putter around the house, and I had my window open to the chilly, late April air. I live on the lower floor and my windows are at ground level. There, staring at me with her big green eyes and crying was the cat. My heart was breaking. All I could think about was the fact that she might be hungry and cold. Before I could come up with a plan, she was gone as quickly as she had appeared.

That same evening, I was texting with my boyfriend, Jeremy, who lives in Canada and is also an animal lover. She showed up again, crying and staring at me with her big sad eyes. We both decided that the least I had to do was try and feed her, but there was nothing appropriate in the house. Jeremy was also of the opinion that I should bring her indoors, just for a little while, he said. I was not quite sold on that idea. I ran to the store to buy a few cans of food and even stopped to price litter and pans, just in case. You can see where this is leading. I returned home and put out food and water for her. She wouldn’t eat, so by the next morning my decision was made.

I had to bring her in. Just for a little while anyway…

Well, she’s still with me and I can’t imagine what I ever did without Pumpkin. I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I was so ready for a pet and I’ve come to some conclusions. Whether I like to admit it or not, I, like many others with HIV and AIDS, can feel isolated. Only some people know I am positive, close friends, family and others. It’s not a secret necessarily but nor is it something I share with everyone. I learned the hard way at work that if you share your serostatus with one person you risk them sharing it with someone else, and often for the wrong reasons.

Dating again, especially in a smaller city like mine, has also provided some hard knocks. I’ve faced rejection and judgment from those who have no idea how HIV is actually transmitted. Even family has been judgmental. Recently, my mom was bragging to my stepsister about my writing. When I explained what this magazine was about she clammed right up. This is a young woman who never is quiet and loves to pepper people with questions. She is also a registered nurse and often brags about how “adorable” her gay friends are. She speaks of them as if they are so many poodles who entertain her and boost her ego. Personally, I’d rather be vilified than patronized. Ignorance is everywhere and can often leave us feeling bruised and battered as well as alone.

Pets love us unconditionally. They are always there, never judging and always grateful for the care we give them. Pumpkin has been like a balm to me. Nothing is better than coming home to a house that is no longer empty. I didn’t think I was lonely but my closest friends are far away now and I’m realizing at forty-seven that people come in and out of your life for a reason. There’s something so reassuring about a loving pet as a companion. If you had told me not long ago that I would be a cat person, I would have laughed. If you had told me I was feeling isolated or lonely, I would have laughed harder still.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for twelve years and his currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.