On an early Sunday morning a reporter called to ask me questions about women with AIDS. Don’t waste your time with me, I told her, I’m nothing more in the scheme of things than a rather charming statistical anomaly.
Meaning I come from a wealthy family, supportive, who provided me with a safety net, its resemblance to a spiderweb notwithstanding. I don’t have children, I don’t have problems getting access to medical care, I don’t have to buy the groceries for the family when I’m too exhausted to stand up for more than ten minutes straight, and I don’t have a husband who will feel betrayed enough to resort to physical expression if the house is still cluttered and dusty at the end of the day. I don’t have your usual problems, in other words, either girl- or boystyle. Go talk to somebody else.
For instance, I suggested, you could talk to Amelio. He repaired broken air conditioners and refrigerators, a trade he picked up upstate—upstate being how a certain East Coast demographic refers to prison, the prisons being mostly upstate.
I hooked up with him mainly because he was half Puerto Rican and he looked entirely Puerto Rican and therefore must’ve had access to drugs. He was the kind of Puerto Rican man I could relate to, not like most Puerto Rican men, who seemed mainly involved in going to work, taking out the garbage, and teasing their children.
He was also just the kind of boy I would hook up with. His heart was in the right place for being a street-smart tough guy, but his physique was unsuited. He was bird-skinny, with painful shoulder blades and long-lashed emerald eyes. Beautiful, but girly-girl. When we walked together on the street, if anyone said anything to me he would draw himself up and issue a series of threats. During the time that I knew him his nose got broken once and his ribs fractured several times.
We drove around in his employer’s van at night when I could sneak out of one of the places I was staying—either my boyfriend’s or my parents’. I didn’t allow him to meet my parents, naturally. They’d put up with men who had beaten me up, they’d put up with thirty-three-year-old homeless musicians, they’d put up with painters who constantly asked them to invest in their art, but they would not put up with air conditioner repairmen, they would not put up with someone who looked like he was coming to do apartment maintenance. My parents are intellectuals.
Amelio often said he loved me, and I liked him very much. He had a sweet spirit, and as much of a fuck-up as he was, he had a certain bravery. Even when we were in the early stages of opiate withdrawal he managed to stay cheerful, but I began to see less of him when it became apparent that outside of his van, which was a good place to fix, he was as much of a liability as an asset. He never had any money. I told him I was going to have sex with a local drygoods merchant, in the neighborhood where we went to buy drugs, on an exchange basis. I was still well enough then that I could consider the arrangement. “If you do that I will tell everyone that you are a slut,” he said regretfully. Who was “everyone,” I wondered; who did he know that knew me outside of one or two passing junkies with whom our exchanges were limited to “you know what’s open?” and “they’ll be back in five minutes they said.”
Amelio, feeling flush, once brought me some flowers which we put in a can of water on the dashboard of his van, and after that I didn’t see him for a while.
The next time I heard from him was when the wife of a friend of his called me saying he’d given the friend my number as a possible source of bail. My boyfriend, who was ready to kick me out of his apartment, hovered ragefully over my shoulder as I took the call. He knew what was up. My parents knew what was up. Money was missing everywhere, and they wouldn’t let me in the house. I didn’t want to stay on the street, having no skill for it. I was considering suicide, but I wanted to die happy, and that would take drug money, which, in turn, would take time and effort to come by. In other words, it was a normal day. “Sorry, can’t help you today.”
He called a week later while my boyfriend was out. I was in a better mood, having obtained what I needed to want to live a little longer and having injected it into a vein in my wrist about ten minutes earlier. “Why are you in jail?” “Well, you know. I was driving the wrong car at the wrong time. Listen,” he went on, “sometimes some of the girls send us stuffin here. A pair of your panties, a ribbon from your hair, whatever.” I told him I’d see what I could do. I rarely wore underwear and my hair was too short for ribbons. Women only wore ribbons in their hair in old songs, anyway. The poor man, to have only me for his idea of a woman out there. “Don’t call me again, though,” I said. “I’ll write to you. My boyfriend gets angry.” “I thought you said he didn’t mind?” which was something I’d told him once when I was expecting him to call with some dope, to bypass all the bullshit.
Things were getting a little more desperate in my corner. My boyfriend was certainly going to kick me out any minute if I couldn’t think of any more excuses about missing objects and pawn tickets. The phone rang during one of our morning conversations.
“It’s Amelio. Listen, sweetheart, I have to tell you something.”
“Amelio,” I said, with one eye on my boyfriend who was pointing to the door he wanted me to walk out of with $1.15 in my pocket and a January sleet-storm spattering the street, “I told you not to call me.”
“Okay,” he said, with perfect equanimity, and hung up.
Do you have to be a brilliant plot-predictor to guess what it was Amelio had to tell me, and how he thought I should know and go get the test? No you do not, and in hindsight there’s not a doubt in my mind what news Amelio had to share. What he was trying to do was the decent thing. Now, eight years later, where is Amelio? You might as well ask me a question on quantum physics. He had no girlfriend, no mother, no father, no friends who could come and see him. He may have died there, he may have died soon after, he may still be alive, spending his life shuttling between methadone and medical clinics. I’m living in the love of my family and the bosom of my world. I live within the warm, firelit circle of privilege, under a whispering midwestern sky that blushes down on the snow-crushed streets these January mornings.