- A grin of possums
- Nipple clamps forged from the finest Nepalese meteorites
- Possum-shaped pasties (set of three)
- His and hers menstrual cups
- Baby monitor lizards with custom Balenciaga booties
- Starbucks gift cards in increments of $19.48
- Sexy IOUs
- The $25,000 Pyramid home game
- One heaping handful of Peruvian cocaine (no baggie due to eco concerns)
- Monogrammed washcloths
- Cocaine-scented washcloths
- Rear bumpers stolen from double-parked Lincoln Town Cars
- Jamaican pie
I never got to meet my uncle Stuart.
He was the brother of my birth mother, Callie. By the time I finally began looking for her in 2001, Stuart had been dead for 15 years.
If we had met, though, I know we would’ve gotten on like a house on fire. (I’m not entirely sure what that expression means, but I’m quite the flamer, so it seems apt.) We have so much in common.
For starters, we both love New Orleans. We even have some of the same friends. They miss him to this day.
We also have a thing for theatre. In fact, I studied one of his performances when I was in grad school. It was among my favorites from that period–and of course, this was long before I knew his name, much less that we were related, so the admiration is legit.
Stuart and I shared something else, too: at one point in our lives, doctors looked us both in the eye and told us that we were HIV-positive.
As an actor, Stuart understood the importance of timing. Pause too long before the punch line, and you’ll lose the audience. Rush it, go a beat too early, and you’ll kill the joke.
With our disease, timing has also played a role. HIV found Stuart too soon, in the early 1980s. He had no chance to prepare. Nor did scientists or doctors. Six long years passed between the first mention of AIDS in the New York Times and the development of drugs to fight HIV. By then, Stuart was gone.
If I were born a few years earlier, I might’ve been in the same boat, but like I said, timing is everything: HIV and AIDS made headlines just before I hit my sexual stride. As I entered puberty, kids my age were being urged to be careful, be safe, and for better or worse, I mostly did as I was told. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I was regularly tested, and every time the results came back, I breathed a sigh of relief.
By the time I hit my 40s, I thought I was in the clear. I wasn’t naive, but I knew that my most precocious days were behind me.
Which was why it felt like I’d been sucker-punched on that bright winter’s day when the counselor at the testing center quietly shut the door, took a seat behind his second-hand desk, and told me that HIV was coursing through my veins. The room spun, my mouth went dry, I eased myself out of a chair and onto the carpet.
Apparently, that wasn’t the typical reaction. The poor counselor peered over his desk, then began flitting around the office like a bird in a cage, not sure what to do. I laughed, because I would’ve cried if I didn’t. Finally, he ran for help and returned with another jittery man and a glass of water, bless them both. I have always depended on the strangeness of the kind-hearted.
My doctor was more even-keeled. I brought him my charts, and he scribbled out a prescription: one pill a day at bedtime. He warned me that it might cause some hallucinations, but I’d gone to a liberal arts college, and I’d spent almost all of my adult life in New Orleans, so I had a hunch I could handle it. (P.S. I totally could.)
I wonder what Stuart did when he got The Talk? Before meds, before science began chiseling away at stigma, before we turned a corner and gay became okay? Talking to his friends, it doesn’t sound as if he curled up and waited to die. He was too smart, too optimistic, too brave for that. Smarter and braver than me, anyway.
The day after my diagnosis, I cut my finger in the kitchen and thought, “What do I do now? How do I keep this toxic sludge from poisoning everyone in the house?”
The next few weeks, things got worse. I’ve never been depressed in my life, but I came awfully close then. So, I did what I always do when I’m worried about something: I dove into distractions. I stayed home from work for a few days (I never use my sick time, so why not?), and I binge-watched the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, all 70something episodes. I also read a lot of the Fug Girls because every now and then, I needed a laugh that the alt-righty cylons weren’t giving me.
After about a month, I went back to my doctor and discovered that my viral load–which was very low to begin with–had fallen further to undetectable levels, and my T-cells were on the rebound. I read up on my new illness, poring over study after study suggesting that undetectable = untransmittable. Back then, that was a bold, new idea, but today, it’s accepted science. It’s surprising how many people–people who should theoretically be well-informed–don’t know this.
Realizing that I wasn’t cast in the role of Typhoid Mary or the mythical Patient Zero made me feel about 1,000% times better. It didn’t mean much for me personally–not for my veins, for my heart, or for the reservoirs of HIV amassing in my body, waiting to flood my bloodstream when my meds killed off what was there–but that wasn’t such a big deal. Like a lot of folks, I’ve always worried more about others than myself. Knowing that I wouldn’t, couldn’t infect anyone around me–friends or friends with benefits–gave me some breathing room. I felt less like a leper, more like my old self.
But not entirely. Stigma takes a long time to dissipate. It was true when I came out as gay, and it’s been true with HIV, too.
A few years down the line, and I’m still not bringing up my viral load and T-cell counts in random conversations with strangers. I haven’t mentioned my HIV to anyone in my family–biological or adoptive–though since my birth mom reads this blog, I suppose the cat’s out of the bag. (Hi, Callie!)
That said, I don’t hide my status, either. When asked, or when the situation calls for it, I’m frank and honest. And I like to think that I’ve been good about educating folks with uninformed opinions whenever possible.
Which is why I’m posting this now. Today, I turn 50. And if I’m lucky enough to live another 50 years, I want to live them as I’ve lived most of my first 50: openly, with no regrets.
Now for the obligatory lecture.
If you haven’t been tested in a while, now is the time. I know some of you are probably scared to get the results, but in this situation, like many others, it’s better to know than to remain ignorant.
If you’re negative, get on PrEP. Ignore the sexphobic assholes at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation: it works. If you have insurance, it’s probably covered. If you don’t, there are many clinics that offer PrEP at a reduced rate or free.
If you’re positive, that’s perfectly fine, too. Speak to your doctor or make an appointment with a clinic and get on medication immediately. Take it regularly, and you’ll likely hit “undetectable” in no time. Keep it up, and chances are good that you’ll live a long, perfectly normal life, with highs and lows and plenty of dull bits in-between.
Be honest with yourself and your partners, too. How you disclose your status depends on you, but HIV stigma will never die as long as we remain shy about discussing it.
And most of all: know that you’re not alone. In fact, if you start asking around, you’ll probably find that more than a few of your friends are positive. Far more will be taking PrEP, and in my experience, those are the sort of intelligent, informed folks you want to know. Counseling and support groups are available, too.
In time, the virus will become just another part of your identity, one of diminishing importance: brown hair, hazel eyes, casual vegan, husband, boyfriend, animal-lover, and far, far, far down the list, HIV-positive.
There are movies that go like this.
The hero reads a book. He is engrossed. Or she is engrossed. (As with so many things, gender is irrelevant.) Someone reads a book and can’t stop reading it.
The character in the book hears floorboards creak in the bedroom. The character on screen does, too.
On screen, an eyebrow goes up, then down again. No, just a curious coincidence.
More reading. The character in the book sees a shadow flit past the window. The character on screen does, too.
On screen, a pause. Eerie music begins to rise.
In the book, there’s a knock at the door, echoed by one on screen.
Our protagonist stifles a scream, tries to pull themselves together, and walks slowly to the door…
This usually turns into a horror story, but it’s also what getting older is like.
* * * * *
The complaints about aging are timeless: bones groan, hair wilts and turns gray, the body goes slack, no longer taut enough to turn heads. You hear these laments repeated everywhere you go, in fairy tales and magazines and news exposes.
You think, Oh, that’s too bad. You think of these stories as stories, as things that happen to other people, never to you.
Time marches on. Your metabolism slows, arthritis cuts into your workouts, and looming in the background, always the specter of sciatica, butt of senior jokes.
One morning, you awake with a stiff ankle or a twinge of pain along your back, and you think, Wait, why didn’t anyone warn me it would be like this? Suddenly it dawns on you: they did. Everyone did. The book you’ve been reading, the movie you’ve been watching, the complaints around the dinner table, the jokes, the jokes, the jokes–the joke’s on you.
And you realize, Holy shit. I thought Prufrock was just a whiner.
* * * * *
There at least four different reactions to this epiphany.
1. You can immediately Google “plastic surgeons near me” and spend a small fortune on nips, tucks, and tamed botulism. (Not recommended. The procedures rarely yield the desired results, and even if they come close, the science is always improving, luring you back to the outpatient clinic with promises of a newer, better, younger-looking you.)
2. You can spend money on hookers and rent boys or trophy wives and husbands to make yourself feel desirable. (Recommended with qualifications. This only works until the money runs out, which is likely to happen faster if you pursue option #1 and option #2 simultaneously.)
3. You can do yourself in, go out on a high-ish note. (Also not recommended. There’s no refund policy.)
4. You can do like most of us do: let your jaw (and your chin and your ass) drop a bit further and keep reading. Be amazed that the story of your life has already been written so many times in so many ways. Be humbled that you are part of humanity’s long, long, strikingly similar lineage. The DNA that’s given you an expiration date is the same DNA that makes you socially inclined, offers you the ability to eat meat and vegetables alike, and gave our ancestors just enough variation in hair and skin color to prevent bigger killing machines from slaughtering them all in the jungles, deserts, and arctic wastes of a younger-looking Earth.
And more importantly: it’s not over. When most people experience this kind of epiphany, they still have decades to go. There’s more written about the later years, too. It’s engrossing. Read to the end.
The human mind likes finite things. We like beginnings and endings. (Middles, less so.) You may tell someone that he’s your BFF, but neither of you truly believes the “forever” part.
It’s hard work, thinking about infinity–real infinity, real forever–but as a kid raised in the Southern Baptist church, I was obsessed with it. That’s what heaven is supposed to be, right? Infinity? Another day in paradise. And another. And another. Until you just want to kill yourself from boredom. But of course….
Anyway, I couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp the word “never-ending”. Then, I heard about the many-worlds interpretation, often referred to by non-sciencey people as the parallel universes theory.
The many-worlds interpretation is one of many theories that pops up when people discuss time travel. It’s the idea that every time we take an action–for example, making a decision–we create a new universe. In one universe, I chose to break with tradition and wear a pink shirt to work today. In another, I wore blue. In another, I wore my usual black.
In another universe, I went to work stark naked, and the cops were called. In another, I did the same, but nobody really cared. And in yet another, I went to work stark naked, and everyone else did, too, because clothing hadn’t been invented.
But even that isn’t technically “infinite”. Yes, I make a lot of decisions over the course of the day–so do you, so does everyone. If I make 1,080 decisions today–one every minute of the day, except for the six hours I sleep, I’ve created 1,080 parallel universes. If all 7,000,000,000 people on the planet do the same, we’ve created a 7.56 trillion parallel universes in a day, 2.76 quadrillion parallel universes each year, 276 quadrillion universes every century. Multiply that times the number of sentient species on this planet and every other planet that supports life throughout all of history, and wow.
And yet, that’s not infinite. It’s a lot, but it’s nowhere close to infinite.
To tackle infinity–real infinity–consider the multiverse theory. It suggests that ours is one of an infinite number of universes bumping up against one-another, like bubbles in a non-stop bubble bath.
In one of those universes, my genetic twin is sitting next to your genetic twin as he types this. In another, he’s just walked out on your twin after 20 years of living together. In another, he’s walked out after 19 years. And in yet another, he’s walked out after 19 years, and he’s taken the dog.
You’ve heard of rule #34, which says that if it exists, there’s porn of it? The multiverse theory is a little like that: if you can conceive of it, it’s happening somewhere in the multiverse. Even if you can’t conceive of it, it’s happening.
But wait, there’s more: if the multiverse theory is correct, all of that–the shirts we choose, the walking out, the dog–all of that is happening simultaneously. And it keeps happening simultaneously. Forever.
That’s infinity, dammit.
Old Havana, Habana Vieja, was designed to repel invaders, seawater, and most of all, the sun. Even at high noon, shadows edge the narrow streets, making the city marginally cooler.
By night, though, all of Havana glows with artificial sunlight. Sickly green fluorescent bulbs flicker like a million stars trapped on a million ceilings. The false daylight radiates from windows, filling stuffy rooms with a grim, efficient hue. Me, I’m like my homegirl, Blanche DuBois: I prefer my light warm and aggressively shaded.
So yes, green is the color of Havana: not only the light, but also the trees, the Gulf, the houses. There are pinks, aquas, yellows, and grays, too. The texture of the city is concrete, plaster, and marble, with accents of trash bags, rubble, and refuse.
Like any major city, the sound of Havana is cacophonous at all but the wee-est of wee hours. Cars that predate Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained, Chanel-knockoff suit roam the streets, their ancient motors roaring almost as loudly as those of the motorcycles beside them. Barkers sell wares from carts, people shout to friends, family, and strangers blocks away. In rare quiet moments, Cuban flags snap in the breeze.
* * * * *
There is a rule in chemistry, a universal law: matter moves from lowest energy to highest entropy. Havana flouts that law, bends it, maybe even breaks it. To my untrained eyes, the city is hot and chaotic, yet everything runs in slow motion, particularly people and progress.
The buildings of Havana are collapsing piece by piece. As a New Orleanian, that’s not particularly strange, but Louisiana houses are organic, made of cypress and pine. Allowing concrete to decay? That’s some next-level neglect. Everything in the city is under (re)construction, but I’m not sure how much has been achieved.
Amid all the hubbub, dogs and cats lie unharmed on slivers of sidewalk and in the centers of streets. In a country like the U.S., they’d be picked up, taken to the pound, mostly euthanized, a few adopted. Here, they’re like feral children, running in packs. They are befriended, maybe even beloved, but rarely owned. They live their lives out of doors, cared for by the community. Somehow, it works. After a week in the city, I haven’t seen a single cat or dog hit by a car.
And the people? The people are friendly, but when you tell them that you’re a tourist–by your words, your accent, your clothes–their friendliness often evolves a purpose. You’re told about a restaurant, a festival, a bar, taken into this shop or that for rum or taxi rides or girls. The hustle never ends. Sometimes it is straightforward, but often, it is duplicitous. “Oh, I love your tattoo. I have a small one on my thigh. Where are you from, amigo?” And eventually, you find yourself in a small room being sold a box of overpriced cigars. The constant threat of ulterior motives erects a border wall between you and them where there was a demilitarized zone before.
* * * * *
She told me her name was Shirley. Well, she looked like a Shirley, anyway.
She followed me home, from the rough, green edge of Vedado, through the wreckage of Centro, all the way to our door in Habana Vieja. She tip-toed along the narrow sidewalks, always making sure to keep my well-nourished calves between her frail frame and the road. She flinched when cars raced by, but she never bolted, as my own dogs would have done off-leash. She knew enough to understand that she’d found an easy mark.
Food is often hard to come by in Havana, at least compared to here in the U.S. Convenience stores are rare, grocery stores rarer still, fast food joints nonexistent. Finding a snack is an ordeal. During our hour together, I looked for something, anything to buy so that Shirley could have a decent meal, but I came up empty-handed. I had to shut the door in her face like a stranger.
As soon as I did, I raced up the four floors of our building and looked down from the balcony, watching her pace in front of the apartment as she made her appeal to others. “Hi!” “Hello there!” “Could I have just a moment of your time?” Every time she disappeared from view, I counted to ten. When she reappeared, I started over. It took a dozen tries before she was gone.
I found her again a few hours later, a few blocks away. Or maybe she found me. She’d made her way to the San Jose Artisans’ Market, a sprawling free-for-all of artwork and tchotchkes for the hundreds of tourists who arrive in Havana each day on cruise ships. She was snuggling up to another guy, another easy mark, a tourist whose family were laughing at him. “Oh, what a sucker you are for a pretty face.”
She left his side, sniffed me, and moved on.
Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 12: A B+ of a Christmas Eve
I look down at my watch and tap on the glass to make sure it ain’t stopped. Sure enough, the little red hand is circling Minnie’s head, just like it always does. Unless my eyesight’s started to go all of a sudden, it ain’t even nine o’clock yet! So what in the devil can that man be shouting about?
I don’t have to wait long to find out. Stouge’s voice is still bouncing off the trailers when he rounds the bend, running up the row like a bat out of Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Whatever he’s upset about, it’s got to be big. Under normal circumstances, the man don’t even walk fast.
Before Stouge gets too close, I shoot a look at Earl, hoping for some backup, but he’s still in his chair by the barbecue grill. How that man can sleep through all this racket, I’ll never know. Some folks in white coats ought to take him to a lab and put him under a microscope.
I notice my husband did wake up long enough to get himself a beer, though, ‘cause there’s a cold one sitting in his lap. Must’ve been when Gladys and I was inside cooking, the sneaky so-and-so. Good thing, too–if I’d seen him awake, you can bet your bottom dollar I would’ve asked him to help clean up. Not that he’d have actually lent a hand, mind you.
Marriage is a complicated thing, is what I’m trying to say.
By the time I look around from checking on Earl, Stouge is within spitting distance. “Grenadine! Grenadine!” he hollers again at the top of his lungs. Lord, someone needs to tell that man about mouthwash.
“Look here, Mr. Stouge,” I say, trying to keep my wits together. “It’s barely half past eight, and we’ve done an awful good job of keeping our voices down ‘til now. I ain’t no lawyer, but I believe that we are perfectly within our rights to have a little get-together once a year to celebrate the birth of our lord and—”
“Merry Christmas!” Stouge shouts from three feet away, looking around at all of us. “Merry Christmas, everybody!”
Now, I’ve seen a lot of stuff today, including a few things I shouldn’t have. And I’m not even talking about what I glimpsed on Earl’s computer while I was making breakfast. Good goobity goo, that internet’s a mess, ain’t it?
But nothing–and I mean nothing with a capital “NO”–compares with Ephraim Stouge wishing everyone at the Everlasting Arms Motor Park a merry Christmas.
Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 11: Dinner and a Show
How in blue blazes Gladys and I managed to whip this party into shape in less than an hour, I’ll never know. I just hope to high heaven we did everything right and ain’t gonna poison nobody. She and I was working like Santa’s elves in my little ol’ kitchen, opening this and defrosting that, singing along to the music of Miss Gloria Estefan. Don’t nothing get me and Gladys moving like a conga beat.
I reckon some of the credit for tonight’s lickety-split meal goes to the folks who make them dried onions, too. About three years ago, they was having a sale on ‘em down at the Piggly Wiggly, and I stocked up. Hadn’t gone through two cans since then, but tonight we put ‘em in everything, even the upside-down cake. I don’t know why those dried little boogers make everything taste so dang good, but so long as they’re legal–and I got no reason to think they ain’t–I’m not gonna ask questions. Too bad I didn’t pick up no breath mints, though. Loretta’s peppermint shrimp casserole will have to do. Provided folks can keep it down.
Oh, and the cherry on top of all this mess? Gladys and I worked so fast in the kitchen, we even managed to rustle up a runner for the card table. Technically, it’s just an old sheet from the rollaway that Tater used to sleep on as a boy, and it’s got some unfortunate stains here and there, but Gladys put the covered dishes in just the right spots to cover ‘em up. The baby Jesus himself would be proud to see it.
* * * * *
Madge is the first to arrive, still in that cute sweater set I’ve been eyeing since this afternoon. I can tell from thirty paces that the woman is excited about something or other. I know because Madge don’t get excited about nothing. Even when Hank Williams Junior’s tour bus blew a tire at the county line, she was as cool as a cucumber. But the way she’s trotting up the row, waving her arms and trying to flag me down–like I can’t see her plain as day–I know something’s up.
Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 10: Piles of Problems
Good lord, where do I even begin with Gladys Finkelstein?
Well, for starters, she’s one of my newer friends here in Pittsville–though “new” is a pretty relative term, seeing as how we’ve been knowing each other for over thirty years. She was born and reared way up north, someplace that starts with a “B”, I think. Boston? Baltimore? Birmingham? If she’s told me once, she’s told me a thousand times, and I still can’t recall. I need to start taking my ginko biloba again, I reckon.
But that don’t matter none. She’s been down here more than half her life, so as far as I’m concerned, Gladys is one of us.
I admit, there are some narrow-minded folks in this here town who think she’s a heathen or some such, seeing as how she’s Jewish. Of course, those folks are idiots. Most don’t have two brain cells to rub together, much less the Pittsville pedigree of Gladys and her family.
The Finkelsteins have lived in Hogwalla County for well over a century. Gladys’ great-great-grandaddy opened Finkelstein’s Mercantile when my own great-great-grandaddy was still in grade school. We’ve been trading with ‘em ever since. In fact, Gladys’ aunt Doris sold me my first-ever pair of Mary Janes the week before I started first grade. Best pair of shoes I ever had.
So, them rednecks who don’t think the Finkelsteins are part of Pittsville don’t know what they’re talking about. Folks like that ought not to breed, as far as I’m concerned.
Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 9:
Two Epiphanies for the Price of One
Lurleen and Punkin have been thick as thieves since they was knee-high to a roly-poly. They were in the same class as Tater down at the Pittsville Elementary, and every afternoon when I drove by to pick up my son, there they’d be: Lurleen on the corner, directing traffic with a couple of pine limbs she’d picked up off the playground, and Punkin offering to check the air pressure on everybody’s tires–for a quarter, no less. By the time Tater got out of detention, they’d be on their way to the Dairy Queen, where Mamie Sumrall says Punkin would buy them a Blizzard to share with the money he’d made that day.
Most people change as they grow up, but Lurleen and Punkin never did. By the time they got to Pittsville High, Lurleen had won three gold medals in the state crossing-guard championships, and Punkin was the youngest-ever president of the school’s Automotive and Fashion Technology Club.
The way I see it, they was lucky. You and me, we probably went through a whole bunch of careers when we was kids. In addition to wanting to be a postmistress, I once had dreams of being an international spy, a tap dancer, a nuclear scientist, a tennis pro, and one of them people that designs lampshades–a lampshade designer? I thought there was a fancier name for it, but I guess that’ll have to do.
Lurleen and Punkin, though? They knew exactly what they was supposed to do from the time they could walk, and bless their hearts, they’ve just kept on doing it.
These days, Lurleen is Pittsville’s highest-ranking crossing guard. Granted, she’s the only one we’ve got, and there’s not a lot for her to do when school ain’t in session, but she finds other ways to keep busy. In the summer, she parks down by Route 32 where it runs along Ronnie Gordon’s back forty, and she helps the turtles migrate across to Hobowamba Creek so they can do their business. I ain’t never seen a car, truck, four-wheeler, or Rascal that won’t come to a full stop when Lurleen’s got her hand up.
As for Punkin, that boy’s just about the best mechanic you ever saw. I can take my old station wagon in when it’s acting up, and he’ll say, “Why don’t you let me fix that such-and-such for you while I’m at it?” And he’ll pop the hood and show me a whole mess of things just on the brink of going wrong. That boy’s got the gift, I’ll tell you what. We ought to call him “The Station Wagon Whisperer”. Or maybe just “The Wagon Whisperer”? Lemme work on that some more and get back to you.
Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas, Chapter 8:
Dance of the Sugar Plum Tarts
If you read the arrest reports in Hogwalla Weekly, you are no doubt familiar with the names Crystal and China Pitts. In the past year alone, they’ve been cited five times for disturbing the peace (they said they was having a “band rehearsal”, but it sounded more like they was hosting a cat-breeding convention in the middle of a fireworks festival); three times for disorderly conduct (they was probably drunk, too, but the county’s only breathalyzer has been broken since before Reagan took office); and one time for impersonating a passel of hogs (which is apparently something that somebody did once back in olden times and caused a whole lot of commotion, leading to a law that had never been enforced until Crystal and China came along).
For those who don’t subscribe to Hogwalla Weekly–and I don’t recommend you do, seeing as how they stopped running Paul Harvey about six months back–I’ll fill you in real quick.
But first, you ought to know a bit about my family tree.
Crystal and China were born to my daddy, Donald Berry, and his first wife, Cherry Shows. Daddy and Cherry didn’t last more than a year on account of Cherry didn’t like the fact that her married name had become Cherry Berry, which just sounded too cutesy for her tastes. You’d think she might’ve seen that one coming before walking down the aisle.