Kellie Schorr is an HIV/AIDS Counselor and freelance writer who lives and works in Central Virginia. She writes the webcomics “The Beaglez” (political satire), and “Pea Green Coffee Cup” (slice-of-life – for people who don’t like to fight about politics). She is a sci-fi loving comic book collector covered in tattoos who loves kayaking, dogs, and her very patient life partner of 15 years.
The AIDS Lady
Karen Dempsey knew listening to Club Hits 101 would put her in a better frame of mind, but she tuned in to Fox Oldies anyway. Winding down the wooded path toward town, she and Smokey Robinson made good time.
“If you feel like lovin’ me, a lifetime of devotion… I second that emotion,” Karen belted, turning into the parking lot of the hotel. It wasn’t the best song to sing on her way to give sex workers their quarterly HIV test, but after dropping off her rent, it provided a much needed lift. Once that check cleared she would have exactly $22.83 in the bank until Friday, when (if) she got paid.
The cool, stale lobby air shot straight to her bones as the door whooshed open. The orange plaid easy chairs of the Pilgrim Inn were abandoned. Jim gave her a nod as she neared the desk.
“231. Far back corner,” he said, staring at her black, plastic box of tests and paperwork. In the winter, when tourism gave way to college kids, he could sell them a room for $25 a night as long as they didn’t bring clients around. But it was late summer. Jim would be in trouble if corporate found out he let a good room go cheap to four hookers who pooled their money for a shower and a safe place to sleep.
“You’re a saint, Jim-bo.”
“You’re the saint, Ms. Dempsey. I’m just trying to get by.” He didn’t take his eyes off the computer until she passed from his view. When Big T showed up late some night, asking if the AIDS Lady visited, he could look him in the eye and say honestly he hadn’t seen her. At Jim’s level of life, success was all about knowing who you should look at and who you shouldn’t see at all.
“AIDS LADY HERE,” Star screamed up the stairs when Karen turned the corner.
“How’s it going, Star?”
“I been good. I used them condoms you gave me when I could—even cheeked a few on some old johns who weren’t looking. Some fucking lawyer caught me and nearly made me eat one, but he got his. Big T caught him—‘cause we was out at Shangri La—and put that dude permanently off the list.”
“What did Big T do to you?” Karen asked, carefully walking up the steep metal staircase to the corner room.
“It’s all good.” At twenty-seven, Star was the veteran of the group. The fact she made it this long with few visible scars and still Negative was a testament to her strength and skill. Star worked the street before Big T moved the old silver airstreams onto a lot in the back woods, filled them with used mattresses, and called it Shangri La. For ten bucks a girl could rent a mattress to sleep for a night. If she wanted to use it for business, it only cost her Big T’s usual share.
“T got him a new girl. That’s why we called you early this month. She be needin’ some rubbers and a needle kit.”
“Needle kit? How old is she? How long has she been using?”
“I ain’t no damn social worker. That’s your job. We letting her share our place for five ‘til Friday. Then she got to pay her fourth or get out.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you.”
“Ain’t no thing. T’s using her as a ten dollar girl, ‘til she gets known anyway.”
“How’s she getting the smack, then?”
“You working for vice now, AIDS Lady?”
“No. Just trying to decide what to say to her, that’s all.” Karen was quick to erase any doubt that might affect the years of trust she’d built with the community. One slip of the tongue and she’d be shut out.
“Don’t matter,” Star said. “You say the same shit every time anyway.”
Fushia opened the door, revealing a mountain of cheap makeup and hair products on the TV stand.
“I saw your fancy car out there,” she said. “Someday I’m gonna get a car like that and live in it. I’ll have me a life of luxury.”
“It’s a Civic, Fuschia. The butler’s quarters are very small.”
“New Girl!” Star said. “Get your ass out here, AIDS Lady here. Don’t make her wait.”
Karen walked over to the circular table Melody and Fushia managed to clear for her. Unfolding the absorbent travel pad, she carefully placed four plastic trays with vials of reactive solution in each. She opened her clipboard and began filling out the paperwork for the women whose answers she knew by heart:
Date of last sexual experience? Today
Did you know the status of your sex partner? No
Did you use a condom or barrier? No
Was the activity vaginal, anal, or oral? All
Have you ever had an unwanted or forced sexual experience? Yes
When did that happen? Today.
The health department frowned on skipping the thirty minute interview, but Karen knew most of these women didn’t read well enough to fill out the form themselves, and if she actually asked the questions they would laugh her right off the balcony.
“Mel, go kick her ass.” Star sat down beside Fushia, and held her mouth open so Karen could swab her cheek and start the timer for the twenty minute wait. They could hear Melody cajoling the new girl through the locked bathroom door.
“Come on, Trenda. It don’t hurt. AIDS Lady gonna swab you and bam! In a few minutes, you know. We don’t tell nobody—not Big T, not the cops. Nobody. Come on now.”
“What’s her name?” Karen asked.
“Trenda,” Fuschia said.
“She says it’s like a trend—like something hot and happenin’ and that’s what she is, hot and happenin’.”
“New Girl need a damn new name,” Star said. They could hear Melody knocking and telling the girl to get out of the bathroom. “Sucking farm workers for ten bucks a bang. Ain’t nothin’ happenin’ about that.”
The door clicked. Melody took Trenda by the hand and walked her over to the table where two tests were processing and two waiting. Wide-eyed and malnourished, she was skittish prey. Melody leaned over and let Karen swab her cheek, then sat down on the bed beside Star. “See how easy that was?”
“Ain’t no white bitch putting something in my mouth.”
“Everyone else does,” Star said.
The girl shot a wounded glance. Star shrugged it off. Karen held up her hands in surrender. “I’ll wait if you guys want to talk it out, or I can come back in three months.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to say.” Trenda spit at Karen, looking at her ironed slacks and agency Polo shirt. “You don’t know me. You don’t know nothin’. You need to go back to your rich, white social club and play cards and shit, cause you ain’t nothin’ to me.”
“Don’t be that way,” Fuschia said. “AIDS Lady is here to help. When my babies needed shoes, AIDS Lady drove me to this place that gave them out. She got all kinds of stuff in that box.”
“Got a get out of jail free card?” Star asked.
“Fresh out,” Karen said. “Maybe next time.”
“’Scuse us.” Fuschia patted Karen on the shoulder as she walked by, dragging Trenda by her t-shirt. Star and Melody followed close behind. Karen watched the timer and kept one eye on the swabs, waiting for the single red line of relief, or the double red lines of disease. She heard their flip flops clop halfway down the metal stairs where they paused.
Karen leaned back and looked around the room. She smiled at the fake, purple cowhide belt on the dresser, studded with rhinestones, then watched as it changed in her mind’s eye to real leather, shiny and black. Her stepfather wore it with his Sunday suit or around his slacks when he took the family out to dinner. Most days it hung in his closet, waiting for her small, trembling hands to pull it down and carry it to him when it was time to learn something.
“What’s the meaning of this, young lady?” He’d held her report card for all to see. “Why is there a minus by the ‘S’ for your deportment? Are you acting the fool at school?”
“No Sir,” Karen answered, her voice jittering. “Everyone in my class got a minus. The substitute teacher said our class was unruly.”
“Not me! Not me, the class. The whole class got a minus. It wasn’t anything about me.” Her voice climbed two octaves as her step sisters gently put down their playing cards and backed away from the sofa.
“Well, the card in my hand is about you. And it’s time you learned how to act appropriately.” His hands began to undo the buckle; her breathing turned fast and deep. A tear rolled down her cheek. He pulled the leather through the loop of his slacks, the hiss sending a charge from her ears, down her spine. “Bend over.”
A few months later, the new youth minister began to show interest in her “spiritual insight,” and two weeks after graduation her step father walked her down the aisle to the altar called “out of here.” Jeff was a righteous man. For once, in her stepfather’s view, Karen had done something right. When Jeff heard a call to pastor a small church in the woodlands, they packed up their meager belongings and started their young married life in a pretty country parsonage.
Young and hopeful, Karen was a happy bride for a few months, until she realized Jeff had the educational passion her stepfather employed, and the same method of teaching it.
For two years the smiling Pastor’s wife wore long sleeves, heavy eye shadow, and a smile. Night after night she lay beneath him, her face pressed down against the bed, her hands gripping the covers as she bit her lip and prayed the latest hard, thrusting lesson would end soon.
One day he took his Sunday school class on a picnic, and she took the bus to a battered women’s shelter she found online, committing the address to memory before erasing her history. The shelter helped her find long-term housing, continue her education, and go through the process of becoming an outreach counselor. After confirming her body was probably too damaged to ever conceive, the shelter’s doctor dropped the other shoe, right on her head.
“Well, Karen, your husband may have been the king of your household, but you weren’t the only subject in his realm.”
The timer chimed, pulling her into the present where she was a single, happy, struggling counselor who had other appointments and no more time to wait. The women filed into the messy hotel room with Trenda in tow.
“The three of you are negative,” Karen said, to sighs of relief all around. Fuschia hugged Star, and Melody lifted her hands to the heavens.
“Thank you, Lord Jesus, thank you!”
They all turned to Trenda, still reticent, standing beside the bed. Melody shook her head and Star began to collect some makeup, get ready for a rough night’s work.
“Look.” Karen turned to the young girl. “I know. You think I don’t get you. I’m some spoiled white woman who barged into your life this morning. I don’t know what it’s like to be slapped for no reason. I don’t know how it feels to have a man own me, use me, or make me cry underneath him. I don’t live in a shelter, trailer, or motel room. I’m a clueless bitch from easy street who breezed up here to make myself feel better by helping the unfortunate. That’s what you want to think? Fine. I don’t know you. But I do know one thing.”
“What’s that?” Trenda backed away from the raging social worker. The others, who could tell the difference between passion and anger, watched in amusement.
“I know if you are HIV positive, today is the day I’m going to save your life.”
“How you know that? If I got the AIDS, I’m gonna die. There ain’t no savin’ me.”
“Wrong.” Karen said. “‘Cause there is medicine, and the state will give it to you. If you have HIV and you take the meds, you’re gonna live, maybe even long enough to get yourself out of this mess. If you don’t know you have it you will die, and take a lot of innocent people with you.”
“Innocent?” Trenda barked at the irony. “Nobody using me is innocent.”
“Not him,” Karen answered. “But his wife. She’s innocent. His kids? Losing two parents? They’re innocent. The old high school girlfriend he has a quick one night stand with? She’s innocent. How many people do you want to kill because you’re angry about the way your life turned out?”
Twenty minutes later, Karen walked down the stairs with 4 negative tests in her book, a few less condoms in her bag, and a smile on her face. She gave Jim a referral card for rehab, two for the local shelter and a handful of food pantry vouchers. If Big T found those in the room, he’d beat them all to death.
“I already have a stack of these from last time,” Jim complained, holding up the rehab code. “The only thing they want is food and clothes.”
“Someday, when they’re ready to get out, you’ll be ready too,” Karen said.
“Those girls don’t want out.”
“Trust me, Jim-bo, every woman who cries at night wants out of somewhere.”
Tossing her kit in the back seat, Karen was grateful to see she had thirty minutes to get back to the office. She popped open the glove compartment, turning to ensure none of the women were standing on the stairs still watching. She checked the notebook beside her pill keeper.
12:00 – Truvada – Take with food.
Opening a pack of crackers and the bottle of water she carried in her case, Karen held the pill up and repeated the phrase she said every time she ingested another drug in her daily cocktail.
“Here’s to you, Jeff Dempsey. I may be the AIDS Lady, but you’re the one in hell.” As she pulled out of the Pilgrim Inn she said a silent prayer for the women in room 231, and sang.