Is that you?’ the burly black social worker asked me. pointing to a 13-digit code handwritten on a page in a huge and dirty ledger. The code was my Social Security number plus four digits I had selected to guard my identity even further from God knows-who might be prying— my wife, employer, insurance company, or, in my particular case, even the FBI or CIA. I read the columns to the right of my uniquely identifying code: ELISA 1: Positive. ELISA 2: Positive. Western Blot: Positive.
“Yeah.” the social worker grunted, slamming the big book shut lest I see more than I should. “You got it.”
I sat inert...less stunned by the news than I was at a loss for what to say in response to the tactless revelation.
“If you're going to kill yourself, don’t do it here,” the gruff voice of compassion intruded into my apparent catatonia. Well, at least now I knew what to say to him.
“Fuck you. asshole!”
I got up. walked out of the Inner City AIDS Prevention Clinic and into the damp chill of a New Orleans spring. Completely numbed by the disclosure. I walked on. mindlessly passing my pickup truck, shaking my head over and over and. no doubt, muttering out loud to myself. In this seedy. Third World-looking neighborhood of the Big Easy, that sort of behavior didn't stand out. in spite of my being encased in the mandatory Bally's and Brooks Brothers of my profession. Damn, I've got fucking AIDS was my mantra.
After a few blocks, my mental cursor jumped to the next line. How the fuck could I have gotten this shit? Got to be a mistake. I rationalized. After all. I'm neither a faggot nor a junkie...well, at least I hadn't shot any dope in the last 11 or 12 years. I’m an ex-biker with a black belt in tae kwon do; a veteran of shitty little jungle wars from Vietnam to Surinam, with a couple in between; I had even spent a few months searching for the Truth a la Thomas Merton in a Trappist monastery between hitches in the U.S. Army; after killing a street hoodlum who mistook me for a hippie. I managed to graduate cum laude in only eight years from Leavenworth; I then decided that a real college might be more fun than the American gulag and went on to acquire several degrees, including a doctorate; as recently as 1989 and 1990, I won the California State Masters' Powerlifting championship and in *90 took the national title for heavyweight powerlifters over 50 years of age. Not your typical AIDS patient, right?
There had to be a mistake. Stupid assholes at that clinic probably mixed up my blood sample with some fruit loop’s. All I had was a mysterious and unmerciful case of diarrhea — food poisoning, no doubt — and some weird white patches in my throat that weren’t even painful. Some kind of strange bug from a Cajun kitchen...but not AIDS. Not AIDS. Not fucking AIDS!
Besides, my grandmother, a member of the German-American Bund in the 1930s who had raised me in accordance with true National Socialist values while her sons fought the Japanese, told me I was a born rebel and probably destined to hang or be shot by a jealous husband. Or, as had been predicted by a South American diplomat back in '83 when I was running around in the jungles of Nicaragua with Commander Zero. I might die by an assassin’s bullet. That was to be my fate...a manly death, if you will, worthy of my radical. Teutonic heritage. But to waste away to skeletal frailty, shitting and puking, blinded and demented by a vicious little virus that wouldn't quit until it had totally destroyed me? No way. Life might be meaningless, but there is usually some consistency to it. You know...live by the sword, and all that shit.
I felt the almost pleasurable cramping of the diarrhea and snapped out of my reverie. Even in New Orleans, one does not shit in the streets. New York or Philly, maybe, but not N’Awlins. Leaving my morbid introspection for another time. I beat feet back to the truck and headed home to evacuate my distended bowels.
For the past month I had been shitting my guts out an average of ten times a day. And I’m not talking about the squirty little runs you get from drinking the water in Tijuana...the kind that a swig of Pepto-Bismol will dry up. I'm talking about a liter to a liter and a half of brownish-yellow fluid that comes out with fire hose pressure. I amused the local medical community by describing it as “the anal equivalent of projectile vomiting.”
This monster had hit me exactly two and a half hours after I had downed a burger at a fast-food place and returned to my office. I felt an unfamiliar urgency in my gut and hurried to the men’s room. Everything south of my esophagus gushed into the toilet bowl, leaving behind an acrid, almost burning odor as if molten brimstone from the fires of hell had been doused in the water beneath me. A man from another office entered as I was cleaning myself; he immediately retreated, unable to mask his revulsion and returned with a handkerchief held over his nose and a spray can of room deodorant extended in front of him like an amulet that would ward off the evil so apparent in that odor. Thirty minutes later, it hit me again. All water this time, brown and vile with the same caustic, odious aroma.
“Honey, I had the weirdest diarrhea hit me today." I complained to my wife that evening. She commiserated appropriately and fixed me some chicken soup and crackers. The bland fluid hit my stomach, and I hit the bathroom running. Nothing, it seemed, would stay in my system very long except Jell-O. which probably contains the nutritional equivalent of the box it comes in. Pepto-Bismol made it worse; other over-the-counter preparations did nothing to abate the insidious malady.