by Jess Craig
The Jordan Project
It is winter but Clarisse’s light-brown skin glistens with sweat as she methodically lays out her pills on burgundy and gold tribal-print bedding. Iron and vitamin C for anemia, Amlodipine for tachycardia, Prednisone and Cetirizine for asthma, Clopidogrel and aspirin to thin the blood, Metformin for diabetes, and Truvada for HIV. “It isn’t pretty,” she says over her shoulder to a girl, college-aged, leaning against the unpainted bedroom wall, not wanting to get to close, knowing that she has to.
“There is nothing pretty about HIV, but my story could be anybody’s story.” Clarisse presses a pill through her lips, follows it with stale water from her nightstand where an antique alarm clock and worn bible set. Then she kneels at her bedside, covers her face, prays.
The girl stands awkwardly, scribbling in a water-damaged notebook, recording the names of the medicines, botching the spellings, reminding herself to check those later. She is a journalist, or at least, is trying to be. She wonders if it’s okay to take a picture now or leave the moment to her amateur description, details strained and twisted, because she couldn’t find that single word or phrase to capture the desolation and the sadness and the hope.
“The only reason I’m here is because of God, doctors have told me so many times—‘Clarisse, we don’t know why you are still here.’ Have to properly thank God,” Clarisse tells the girl.
On a good day, Clarisse packs her bible into a black satchel; by early afternoon, she leaves her apartment at 115 Beatty, walks down the tree-lined street to the bus stop at the corner of Hanover and Whitfield. She makes casual conversation with a group of teenagers lingering at the doorway of Small Smiles Dental Center smoking cheap cigars, waiting for younger siblings to finish getting their cavities filled.
On a good day, Clarisse boards the 88 and rides to the Penn Avenue Building, where she works as a den mother for Project Silk counseling teenagers and young adults recently diagnosed with HIV. Or she boards the 86 to the nearest grocery store where, after spending the ten-minute ride scouring over dessert recipes and finding nothing satisfactory, buys ingredients for her favorite dessert: double chocolate-chip brownies.
On most days, Clarisse boards the 71 and rides into Oakland to visit her doctors and fill any of her fourteen prescriptions. On a good day, Clarisse will call her mother and the two will talk about everything except Clarisse’s illness. On a good day, Clarisse will visit her church or her pastor at his house.
But today is a bad day and a lonely day. When her bible studies no longer hold her interest, she walks to her record player, desperately searching the shelves for anything to drown her thoughts. She pulls the first record her fingers grasp, slides the disk from its torn paper covering. The slow melody of a piano crackles and finally materializes as the choir begins to sing. Richard Smallwood beckons listeners to their feet. He preaches and sings and fills the silence of the two-bedroom apartment. Clarisse turns slowly, eyes closed, hands lifted, tapping the air with a beat. She sways with the music, and for a moment, before she remembers where she left the girl at her dining room table in the adjoining room, her body is not dying, her past is not failing her present, her father is a phone call away, and she can talk to her mother about everything.
Perhaps she goes back to high school, before she was diagnosed with HIV, when she sang in the church choir and ran track and captained The Westinghouse High School Majorette Dance Team. She goes back to winter 1983—the bare floor beneath the dressed Christmas tree and her mother crying in the kitchen because Uncle Julius forgot to pick up the presents from the toy store’s warehouse. It was not the year without presents; it was the year of two Christmases.
“I am saved and born again,” she calls out to the girl. “Even on my worst days, there is always somebody worse off than me.” She sings along, voice harmonizing with Smallwood’s as they move through the smooth timbres of “My Everything.”
The song fades away and the apartment is quiet again. The peace drifts from Clarisse’s face as she takes a seat across from the girl.
“The worst thing I thought you could get was pregnant,” she begins. “Clarisse was sixteen when she met T.J.,” the girl would later type into an untitled, unsaved document on her home laptop. “They dated for two years—until the day she discovered he had given her HIV.”
“T.J. tried t’ get into the service, but he tested positive for HIV, and he wasn’t allowed. My brother found out and told my mother and she told me to get myself tested. But that was 1987. I wasn’t a gay man and I wasn’t white, so I wasn’t worried. But I made the appointment with Dr. Curshner. I called her up and told her I might uh been with someone with HIV. She made the appointment for the next day.”
“Back then HIV tests still took a month and a half, but I wasn’t worried.” Two months after Clarisse’s high school graduation, Dr. Curshner called her into the office.
“She walked right in and said ‘I got your test results back, Clarisse. You’re HIV-positive, you’re gonna die by the time you are 24.’ I was in total shock. ‘Yeah, okay,’ was all I said back to her, then I got on an elevator, went to a pay phone and called my mother. ‘God will provide’ is what my mother said to me. A month and half later she put me out. She thought I blamed her for gettin’ HIV, it was easier for her not to deal with it, so she put me out. I respect that.”
Clarisse was silent, and so was the journalist who never looked up from her journal, missed the expression in Clarisse’s eye.
In the year following her diagnosis, Clarisse discovered that T.J. had been a drug addict, had prostituted himself out for drug money. “I thought that I was stupid. I wanted to show that I could learn, but I had to wait and see what God said. I wanted people to know that even though tragedy happens, you can still overcome it and live. There is no woe me for me,” she adds. “My life does not revolve around my illness.”
Clarisse sits quietly, waiting for the journalist to prompt her with another question. The girl does not.
“There is no woe me for me. My life does not revolve around my illness, don’t let it define me” Clarisse says again, trying to convince herself.
“Maybe she has come to a point in her life where she has given away all her motivation and inspiration,” the journalist will later write. “Even her search for God is a search for forgiveness, purpose, justification that she deserves to live. She is no longer living, her disease is living, she is simply the body that carries it around.”
Jess Craig is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing degrees in English Nonfiction writing and Microbiology. She writes a biweekly opinions column in The Pitt News and serves as Editor-in-Chief of The Pitt Pulse, a science and health professions magazine.