The patients were unremarkable on that particular day, July 17, 1996; however, there was one older man who we treated for secondary syphilis that might be worth mentioning. He was roughly fifty years old and lived around 15th Avenue and Tonto. When describing the situation of his meetings with the unknown people with whom he had sex, he said that it is similar to being thirsty in the middle of the night and going to the refrigerator for a glass of milk. It was that simple. He just goes out to the street, finds some female walking past and asks if she’s interested in having sex. Of course, there are a few dollars that must change hands, and given that this wasn’t one of the more posh districts of town, there were literally only a “few” dollars that must be exchanged. The prostitutes in this part of Phoenix did not require much in exchange for their wares, five to ten dollars, sometimes as much as twenty dollars, was all that one must have to find a willing sex partner on or near West Buckeye Road. Any amount would help them get what they needed in the way of rock cocaine. With the fee paid, they got down to business. They cleared a spot on the alley floor, consummated the act, redressed, and went about their respective ways; the woman continued down the sidewalk and the older man turned the corner and walked back to his house. Free enterprise, supply and demand, capitalism at its finest. Thirsty for a glass of milk in the middle of the night….
Every now and then, we do something that we end up regretting later. We may deplore our actions or performance because it was not the best we could do. It is ‘just our luck,’ sometimes, to have our hindsight end up being better than our foresight. At times, we would like to erase certain events because they have caused damage to ourselves or someone else. If we are lucky, the injury was not too severe and we can make reparations. Occasionally, life forgives the mistake and allows us to go on without too much of a scar. And then there are times when nothing will change the results of our actions. What has been done is done. No matter how much we repent, no matter how many times we swear that we will never do that again, the damage is done and we will not be forgiven.
* * * * * * * * *
Jennie’s life was not unlike the lives of many people we might have known. Her origins were probably similar even to those of our own. Her family life was just a touch out of the ordinary, but not too uncommon. At twenty years of age, she was still living with her aunt and uncle, in a respectable, middle-class neighborhood in northwest Phoenix. She was old enough to be out on her own, but just hadn’t quite made the final break; she wasn’t completely ready to take that first, big, fluttering attempt to launch out of the safe nest of home.
Shortly before Christmas, Jennie started hanging around with a different crowd. She met a guy named Todd, who had a bunch of friends on the south side of town. They were new people, unlike the ones with whom she had previously surrounded herself. These folks had a certain twist to their lives. There was something peculiar or almost ‘naughty’ about them. They lived outside of the norm, and to her, this was exciting. At first, it bothered her that her aunt and uncle didn’t like them, but after a while, that didn’t matter. Jennie started staying out later and spending more time with Todd and his friends. They became more appealing to her. These other people were somehow more alluring than when she first met them.
Right after the New Year, Jennie went down to Broadway and Seventh Street with Todd. He introduced her to some more people and showed her what good friends they were. At first, the parties she attended included only alcohol and marijuana. When the people began to trust her, however, they reincorporated their normal fare into the party course – cocaine and crystal-methamphetamine. They either smoked it or shot it. The needles were a trip; they were so scary that they were immediately exciting. She held her breath, closed her eyes, felt the little stick in the skin, the tingling in her arm and then it was there – – the feeling Todd had told her about – a rush and a blast – she thought it was wonderful.
The one thing Jennie didn’t consider was that she might become entirely wrapped up in this other world. She thought she was just going to a really long party and would be home in a few days, but months went by before she realized how much time had passed. Was that possible? She partied every night for a week, slept for two or three days, ate like a starving maniac when she finally woke up, and then…she repeated the cycle over and over for four months – four months of getting high and having indiscriminate sex. Having sex just for the pure pleasure of the animalistic rut. The crystal made her desire so intense, she literally ached for the sex. So, there it was – a group of young males and one or two equally young, willing and high females, who desperately wanted to have sex.
There was never the thought of consequence. It hadn’t really entered Jennie’s mind that something bad might come of this. A half-thought or premonition was there at one time, but it never materialized into a complete, solid idea. The substances she was using numbed her conscience and intellect. As they wore off, she only wanted more – more cocaine and more crystal.
Sometimes, rational thought comes back to us in the middle of our folly. It seems to burst through the clouds of delusion like a ray of sunlight, almost blinding us with the sudden recognition of our errors and then leading us back to our sensibilities. Jennie was struck with the stark realization of her mistake on the last Sunday in April. She woke up at about noon, lying on a beer and urine stained mattress. Crumpled next to her were the bodies of other people, some partially clothed and some not. During the night, someone had vomited in the corner of the room and had then passed-out with the side of his face lying in the puddle. On the other side of the room was another mattress covered with more half-clad bodies, all dead asleep. Full daylight shone through the broken-glass rimmed window frames, lighting this hellhole she had called home for the past four months. “My God!” she thought, “What am I doing here?” The linoleum had been ripped from the floor years ago and the bare plywood was coming apart from the rain and sun that had streamed in through the broken windows. Every manner of dirt and filth littered the floor. Through the door to her right, she could smell the human excrement that had been smeared on the bathroom floor. The last visitor had missed the full, broken toilet and had then stepped in his mess while stumbling back to the main room. Flies were buzzing everywhere. Cobwebs had strung themselves across the ceiling rafters with reckless design. Gaping holes stared blankly from the walls where the plaster had been punched and kicked.
Jennie pushed herself off the mattress and followed the tide of filth and destruction that spilled down the hallway and into the back bedroom. This room’s outer walls had been stripped from the outside and light shone in through holes where the electrical outlets had been. On the floor of the closet, she found a shard of mirror. Without hesitation, she picked it up and shoved it before her face. She gasped aloud when she saw her reflection. Facing her was a stranger; a shadow of the person she had been when she arrived there in January. Jennie had lost forty pounds in the past four months. While the one hand held the fractured mirror, her other hand absently held up her soiled and stained pants. How had she not noticed her clothes hanging from her bony shoulders and hips? Her hair was crusted with some kind of dried food that had been forgotten on the mattress. Stringy, filthy, blonde, tangled mess. Dark rings circled her once bright, blue eyes and a road map of burning veins pulsed through the sclera.
Right then, at that exact moment, Jennie knew that she had to get out of there. She had to leave. This was all wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to her. Clenched jaws prevented her from screaming “Get me out of here!”
Somehow, Jennie made it home. She made the seventeen-mile trek in about four hours, mostly on foot and the rest by hitching a ride with whomever would stop for her. Her aunt and uncle were not home when she got there, so she climbed the wall and tried getting into the house from the back yard. After checking all of the windows and doors and finding none of them unlocked, she sat down in a patio chair and waited. She must have still been incredibly tired because she fell asleep within minutes. Several hours later, her aunt shook her awake and took her into the house. There was no celebration or joyous reunion, but her aunt was relieved to have her home, alive and in one piece.
The next three weeks was a time of healing for Jennie. Her body began to mend from the abuse it had suffered and her mind began to become whole again. There were still the urges to feel the rush from the chemicals she had been using, but now she had the mental capacity to withstand the temptations and get past them. Her aunt and uncle were wonderful in the care they provided her, basically nursing her along in her recovery. Very little was said about the past four months. When she would mention a certain event or talk about specific people, they would listen attentively, but not offer much in response. They had been crushed by her absence and still couldn’t understand why she had left.
Toward the end of May, Jennie was back to her normal self. One could almost have said that the past four months hadn’t even happened. She had gained back a portion of the weight she had lost. Her hair once again had a healthy shine and her eyes were bright and beautiful, full of hope and appreciation for life.
With her new outlook, Jennie began to plan for her future. First, she went to several local restaurants and department stores and completed applications for work. Then, her aunt took her to the community college and helped her complete the forms for registration and financial aid. Life was good again. Jennie and her aunt became closer than they had ever been before she left. They would spend hours talking about dreams and possibilities, hopes and aspirations. It would be grand to finish school, get a great paying job and succeed in life. Jennie’s hope was to meet the man of her dreams, settle down, make a few babies and then live the full life – with all of the best – even the white picket-fence.
Part of Jennie’s response to her new perspective on life was taking responsibility for herself. She realized that if she would become anything, it would be by her own making. Along with this realization, was the new awareness she had of her health. The one drawback was that she had no health insurance. Her aunt and uncle couldn’t carry her on their plan because they were not her legal guardians. Her biological parents couldn’t do anything for her because she was no longer a minor and she was not yet a full-time student. So, what could she do?
Jennie’s aunt checked with some of her friends and learned of the free clinic on Sixteenth Street. They didn’t perform complete physicals there, but they could at least detect whether or not she had a sexually transmitted disease. This was a significant concern of Jennie’s because of the number and type of people with whom she had had sex in the past four months.
Sometime in the second week of June, Jennie went to the clinic and had a checkup. While she was there, she spoke to one of the counselors who suggested that she also get a test for HIV. “Sure, why not. I’m down here anyway, so I might as well. I don’t think I have it, but it can’t hurt to get it done, right?” The counselor assured her that it was probably the best thing to do. Considering the high-risk activities of her recent past, it would almost be negligent not to have the test.
A week later, the counselor called to inform her that she had tested positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Jennie still had to wait another week for the HIV results. She wasn’t concerned, though; she had hardly given it a second thought. For some reason, it hadn’t really occurred to her that she might be positive.
When another week had passed, she went to the clinic to get her test results. The same counselor greeted her and then asked for her copy of the lab slip. He compared the numbers to make sure he was giving the results to the proper person, and then told her in a calm, slightly wavering voice, that she tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
A minute went by, and then another. Jennie just sat there. Her mouth was literally hanging open and those blue eyes were like saucers, staring, wide with disbelief. “Are you sure?” He placed the two lab slips side by side and showed her the numbers. They were identical. He then pointed to the results: POSITIVE.
“Oh shit! Oh my God! I’m only twenty years old and I’ve fucked-up my life!”
That single line seemed to bounce from wall to wall in the small counseling room. It held such finality. It wrapped up the whole situation in one statement. Sure, there was supposed to be hope. This wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world. But…it was. At that point in time, there was not a cure. The odds were against the positive patients in that they would probably get sick; and then, they would die. It was only a matter of time.
The counselor just sat there, waiting for the echo of her words to fade away. Training and practice were designed to almost skirt the emotions and face the altered truth that it really was not the end of the world and there really was hope. But…how could one refute the truth in Jennie’s pronouncement of doom? Would one be correct to dismiss the blatant reality of her words? Carefully, the counselor validated her feelings and tried to steer her toward a more optimistic view. He told her that her life would certainly be different, but there were things that she could do to help postpone the end. It was in her control. If she lived a healthy lifestyle, she could possibly achieve some of her dreams….
* * * * * * * * *
And then there are times when nothing will change the results of our actions. What has been done is done. No matter how much we repent, no matter how many times we swear that we will never do that again; the damage is done and we will not be forgiven.