Meet Clay Brown
by Christina Renee Milliner
“My name is Clay Brown, I’m 19, and I was born with HIV.”
Four sets of questioning eyes glared at me. This was my second meeting at Baptist Hope Church. In the first meeting, I listened as the other group members introduced themselves. It was a sort of rule for every new person, “listen and don’t speak,” as the Reverend had said. He never wanted to make anyone feel pressured at their first meeting. It didn’t matter; we all had the same story anyway. Our story. We were all under the age of 25, living with HIV.
“It’s good to see everyone again.” The Reverend pulled up a brown folding chair joining us in the circle. “And young lady, I’m glad you decided to return.”
I don’t know why I came back. There wasn’t anything special about this place. It was an old brick building, with shabby carpet, dim lights, and a cold draft. The only nice thing about the sanctuary was the huge gold chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling.
The Reverend crossed his long legs, his blue jeans rising above his ankles, displaying his clean, white socks. He folded his arms across his chest and looked around with his black-framed glasses. “Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself?”
I pulled my beanie tighter over my dreads. Damn. Wasn’t my introduction enough. Let’s see…ya already know my name. According to Jimmy, I didn’t need school because I was gonna die soon, just like my mother, so I dropped out. Turns out he was wrong, cause right now I could have a diploma, but instead I’m here sitting with these people, wondering how in the hell this is going to help me at all.
“Clay,” the Reverend said.
I felt the moisture under my armpits trickle slowly down my torso. “Like I said earlier I was born with it.”
“Man, born with it,” Isiah said, as he rubbed his bald head.
“My mother had it. She gave it to me and Jimmy. She died when I was ten.”
“Who is Jimmy?” The Reverend asked.
“My father,” Those words felt as if they had come from someone else.
“What brought you here?” The Reverend’s voice was full of empathy.
“I found the card on the train.” It was stuck in one of the metal frames that lined the train walls with advertisements. Its words HIV Ministry, printed in bold gold letters, popped out.
“My cards are getting around,” the Reverend said. “Well, that’s good to know.”
Laughter filled the room. The Reverend had kind brown eyes. He seemed to genuinely care about people. At my last meeting, he told me he moved to Brooklyn from North Carolina in hopes of starting a healing ministry.
“Another mamí in the house,” Martina said, getting up from her seat and taking a few short steps toward me, her curvy body swaying to its own rhythm. She hugged me while placing a light kiss on my cheek.
“Sit your ass down,” Brianna said. Her bright purple sweater made her short red bob stand out. Both colors contrasting against her pale skin.
Martina returned to her seat and gave Brianna the finger.
“Ok,” the Reverend said. “Let’s not scare Clay off.”
“She’s all right, Rev,” Asher said, staring at me from across the circle. His dark hair roamed freely on his head. He leaned back in his chair, playing with the zipper on his worn out leather jacket.
I folded my hands, then quickly unfolded them.
“Updates,” the Reverend said. “I need updates.” From my last meeting, I learned updates were how he asked about everyone’s week.
Martina stood, although it wasn’t required—it seemed like she tried to show off her curves whenever possible. “I’m struggling a little with my GED classes. My teacher suggested I get some tutoring.”
“I can help you,” Brianna said, stretching her legs in her seat and pulling on her sweater. She was a part-time bartender who had dropped out of law school after her first year.
“Gracias, mamí,” Martina said before sitting down.
“Who’s next?” The Reverend asked.
“I’m writing a new song,” Isiah said. “About Paulina.” I wondered why he shaved his head.
“Who’s Paulina?” I blurted regretfully. “Never mind.”
“It’s all good, Clay,” he said. “She’s a girl I slept with. A girl who gave me HIV.”
“It’s a good first step you’re taking toward healing through your music,” the Reverend said, breaking my uneasiness. “You all have to take that first step toward healing.”
Healing. As if one day the virus could magically disappear. Last time I checked, my body wasn’t curable.
“Some guy grabbed some of my incense off my table and ran,” Asher said, still playing with the zipper. “I chased him for about two blocks.”
“That bastard,” Brianna said. “Did you catch him?”
Asher leaned forward. “Na, he was too quick. I lost fifty dollars.”
“Damn, man,” Isiah said.
“Don’t stress it,” the Reverend said. “You’ll earn that money back in no time.”
Asher leaned back again. “I better. It’s getting harder to sell.”
“How was your week, Brianna?” the Reverend asked.
“The usual,” Brianna said. The black eye shadow around her green eyes made them glisten in the dim light. “My mother calling harassing me about all the stupid choices I made in my twenty-three years on this earth. Who knew I messed up even at birth? Like her shit don’t stink.”
“She will come around,” the Reverend said.
“When hell freezes over,” Brianna shot back.
I didn’t want to share my week. But the Reverend’s sudden look in my direction told me otherwise.
“I worked.” I said. That’s really it. That’s all there ever is. Work to keep the bills steady. Work to keep the crappy apartment that Mr. Lee rents to us. Work to at least have some food in the refrigerator so when Jimmy tries to sell the food stamps for his next hit, we won’t starve to death.
“Where do you work?” the Reverend asked.
“At a Mexican café in Williamsburg.”
“Mexican.” The Reverend said. “Interesting.”
“The owners are Mexican,” I said, wanting the topic to already end.
“Doesn’t necessarily make it a Mexican café,” Brianna said.
“What’s the food like?” Isiah asked.
Couldn’t they just shut up about it.
“That’s all you do?” Asher asked, his sudden forwardness catching me off-guard.
“Umm, yeah,” I answered hesitantly. “I’m a waitress.” If that’s what I wanted to call myself. The truth was we barely got any customers to even consider myself one. “No big deal.”
“What we speak has power over us,” the Reverend said. “We all need to have a little faith in ourselves.”
I dropped faith when my mother died. It took the only person who loved me away.
During the rest of the hour-long meeting, the Reverend told us about his week involving a hobo and some blessing oil, then we talked about politics, entertainment, and crazy random things we came across in the city. There was no pressure to talk about the virus. The floor was open to anything.
“Remember, guys, don’t pity yourself,” the Reverend said as we folded our chairs and placed them in the center of our now broken circle. “It will get better.”
“Sorry about earlier,” Asher said, walking by my side as I headed out.
“What was that about?” I asked. He barely knew me. So what was his problem?
“I thought I saw you somewhere before here,” he said. “Just forget it.”
We made our way out the double doors. The sun was beginning to set, although it was only 5 pm. I stuffed my hands into my pockets.
“Later,” I said, walking away from him to cross the street. Two cars passed by, not giving me a chance to cross sooner.
“Wait,” Asher said. “I did see you before.”
“So?” I crossed the one-way street.
“You was with some white girl. With the short blond hair. How do you know her?”
He meant Mimi. Why the hell did he care?
Asher followed behind me, ignoring the fact that I was ignoring him.
“What’s it to you?” I asked, stopping and turning around.
He walked closer to me. “A girl like you shouldn’t be hanging with a girl like her.”
“Mind your business.” I felt he wanted to know something. If I was like Mimi. I didn’t want to think about her. At least not right now.
“Hey,” he said, putting his hands up in defense. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the train.”
Our walk was silent. The small blocks that led us to the subway seemed longer than usual. Sirens blared in the near distance before slowly fading. A girl on her bike rode toward us, rolling her eyes, before turning onto the street. When we reached the subway, I was ready to say goodbye.
“For the record, I’m not like Mimi,” I blurted. “She’s just someone I know.”
“Whatever,” he said with a smirk. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Too bad,” he said, his eyes searching mine.
“Why?” I asked.
“Nothing, forget it,” he said, looking away from me. “I’ll see you at the next meeting … right?”
“Yeah,” I answered. Not completely sure if I was going to come back.
He reached into his pocket and handed me something wrapped in foil. “Later, Clay.”
I watched him run back the way we came, then unwrapped the foil, finding four incense sticks, before I ran down the filthy steps to the train.
Christina Renee Milliner lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is currently writing her first novel. She holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University and a BA in English literature from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her work has been published in The Gordian Review and Beautiful Losers Magazine. “Meet Clay Brown” is part of a novel-in-progress.