Two men meet in the hospital during the AIDS epidemic.
| Very, very slowly, my eyes peel open and take in my surroundings. The wall straight ahead and to my right is an extreme, sterile white with a small window, but to my left is a dirty, off-white curtain that completely cuts me off from the world. A painfully loud beeping noise surrounds me, but I find that it comes from a large machine next to my bed, which sits among many other complex machines and bags. Tubes snake up my nose, in my arm, and just about any other place possible. I make a small, futile attempt to rise but my body gives a scream of protest and pushes a deep, hacking cough out of me. Somehow, my hand finds its way to my face to wipe the blood from my lips.
On the other side of the curtain, a radio clicks on and starts playing some odd tune; my roommate is awake.
“Hey,” I manage to croak out, “what day is it?”
“April 2nd, 1987. You’re in New York University hospital, your name is Alex North, 27 years of age, brought in because of pneumonia, which was made worse due to HIV, which could become AIDS any day now. Anything else?” he replied, sarcastically.
“I'm sick, but I don't have amnesia for Christ's sake. And what, have you been following me or something?”
“Oh, yes. I have been following you all around New York City in my little wheely bed and IVs. It’s amazing you never saw me!”
“Well, this place has obviously done wonders for your attitude.” As these words leave my mouth, a nurse opens the curtain that separated my roommate and me, allowing me a quick glance at him. His worn body is plastered to his bed and his eyes gaze straight up and through the ceiling. The skin on his face is stretched thin, causing an almost-yellowish tint to take over, which is an amazing contrast to his dark brown, moppy hair and the purple-ish lesions that cover bits of his exposed body. Almost double the amount of tubes surround him, completing his sickly demeanor. If the sight wasn’t so pitiful, it would be absolutely beautiful.
After checking the machines attached to me, the nurse comes to my bedside and begins to unbutton my shirt, consequentially blocking my view of the man. With each button that pops open, I take in more and more of my own lesion-covered torso. The KS lesions had started appearing a month ago but had remained in areas easily hidden. They had become increasingly worse once I started getting sick but this was unlike anything I had seen. A quick count came to 10 small lesions and a large one above my belly button. The nurse pulls a stethoscope from around her neck and places the nubs in her ears while placing the end to my chest. Surprisingly, the cold of the metal doesn’t make me shiver, not after I had just seen my own chest.
Without so much as a smile, the nurse turns and leaves, not bothering to close the curtain.
Turning my head, I begin to take in my roommate’s appearance once more. His hair is now matted to his head with sweat, and his large blue eyes stay completely still as I allow mine to roam over him completely. Only then does it strike me that he looks no older than 19.
“Since you seem to know so much about me, do you mind telling me why you’re here?” Silence. “Fine, can I at least have your name?”
“Dan,” he replies with a small sigh.
“That’s it? Fine. Do you want to tell me how I got pneumonia in APRIL, then? That seems to be a topic you like talking about.”
“You’re too paranoid. I overheard the doctors talking; I only know the basics: name, age, weight. The HIV was a given, that’s why we’re all here.” His voice never wavers from a monotone.
“Well, that answers my other question, I suppose. But you can’t be older than 19! How on Earth do you even manage to get a disease at that age? All you should be doing is playing video games and going to school.”
“That’s the problem with this country. Nobody wants to admit that AIDS doesn't care about what age you are or where you come from. If someone would just admit that this isn’t a very picky disease, maybe we would actually be able to start working towards making us better.”
“Oh, don't start. There are more advancements everyday. AZT is finally becoming easier to get, people are living longer!" I see his mouth open to respond but I continue on, positive of what he will say. "Sure, it isn't always too much longer, but you can't really say that that is the point. We're still alive. How can you really expect more than that?” I turn towards him as much as I possibly can to let him know that now I am finished, that now he can talk. Though he wants to appear hard and uncaring, he takes my hidden instructions and runs with them, finally breaking out of his straight-forward, monotone voice. I sit back and let him rant; I doubt anyone has listened to him in awhile.
“You can only say that because it hasn’t stopped working for you yet! Once this virus mutates in your body and can override the AZT, come and talk to me. Only when that has happened will you be able to see how horribly this country is dealing with this. I see nurses taking hundreds of people out of this hospital who have died from this every single day and the President hasn’t even acknowledged that it’s out there! The only people who have the guts to address this are the religious nuts who find no problem with the virus because it seems to only attack fags and junkies. But you go on and think that all will be well soon enough.”
Since he is hooked up to so many machines, he cannot turn to face away from me but he makes sure that I know he is done talking. If he hadn’t started sweating and shaking at such a perceptible rate, I would probably leave it alone, but I know that I am not able to do that.
“How did you get it?” I whisper softly, trying not to provoke his anger anymore than necessary.
“Oh, don’t act like you can’t tell. These definitely aren’t scars from all the IVs that nurses have shoved in my arm; no hospital has enough money or knowledge for that.” He shoots his words at me in an obvious attempt to make me back off. “They're track marks, you know, from heroin. I guess what they say isn’t too far from the truth, now is it?” He scoffs. “What about you? I know you weren’t sharing needles with junkies in a dark alley or anything.”
“Um…a blood transfusion. I got it from a blood transfusion. I was in a car accident a while back and lost a lot of blood. Apparently, every place doesn’t test the blood they get as thoroughly as they should.”
“My point exactly! How can you sit there, knowing that you are one of the exceptions to the “AIDS phenomena” and not be completely enraged that the government isn’t doing shit about this because of who it seems to effect! I mean, look around you! We are probably among the sickest people in this hospital and yet we are in their crappiest rooms with the least amount of help and the least amount of medication. Their rehab rooms are nicer than this!”
A small, exasperated sigh escapes me as I give in slightly.
“I guess I just want to believe that they are doing all that they can. I was one of the first in my group of friends to get this and I’m still alive because of the AZT. I like to think that if there was more they could do, they would.”
“But it’s bullshit! You know that is a lie! They don’t care! The government doesn’t care!” With this, Dan doubles over in a fit of coughing that wracks his entire body. The fit continues until a nurse saunters in and lays him on his back. His entire body seems to collapse from exhaustion once his eyes close but his breathing is more jagged in his sleep.
His words float around in my mind but I try to push them away but to no avail. The more I sit and think about what he said, the more I feel that he is right, but I have no idea what that means for me. Should I give up hope as he seems to have done? It seems stupid but I have had high hopes this whole time and I’ve ended up in the same place he has. Is hope really helping me?
Dan’s radio stops mid-song, interrupting my thoughts. The familiar voice of Ronald Reagan starts to leak through the small speakers, but it seems that the broadcast has started halfway through his speech.
“...How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let’s be honest with ourselves, AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral’. After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”
These words circle over and over in my head until I cannot discern any of the words. I hear the rest of the speech but it seems so far away.
Our president doesn’t want AIDS safety in our schools? Our president doesn’t want kids to know how to prevent getting AIDS?
Anger starts to rise in my body but I push it back down.
But isn’t this a step in the right direction? At least he is addressing the issue!
My mind continues to run in complete circles, unable to find one side of the argument to hold onto. It isn’t until random patients in the hospital start to cheer, despite their normal inability to even sit up in bed, that I realize that Reagan’s speech has made a turning point in our fight against this disease. He may have said the wrong thing altogether, but he has finally admitted it exists; we are no longer dying from some unmentionable disease.
A small feeling of regret passes through me when I realize that Dan was not awake to hear Reagan’s speech, so I grab the box of tissues that is sitting on my bed and chuck it at his body. It hits him hard enough in the chest to stir him and he wakes up just long enough for me to tell him the news. A smile flickers on his face for a moment before he falls back to sleep but I can tell it is only because of my enthusiasm. Though I have only known him for a few hours, I know that he thinks my high hopes are nothing but naïve and stupid. I know these are the last thoughts that enter his mind before he goes into his last, fitful sleep.
They call him two hours later. As the nurse begins to take the many IVs from his body, I feel the need to defend him.
“Aren’t you going to let his family come and see him before you just ship him off?”
“Family? You’ve got to be kidding me. This boy didn’t even list anybody to contact when he was admitted. Honey, this isn’t the ward where many people are sent off to meet their maker while their family sit and holds their hand."
And just as quickly as she appeared, the nurse is gone, but she has left Dan in the room. I assume it was so I could say goodbye to him, but once again, I know it is just high hopes. More than likely, they have no place for him to go as of yet. More than likely, they don’t even care. Only then do I realize just how far this country has to go before I can be admitted back into society. Only then do I realize that I probably will not live to see that day.