The fire of youth. The wreckage of addiction. The thunder of punk. The ravages of disease. The remainder: friendship.
Punk Rock Girl—1995
Felicia. I remember you. After the Promise Keepers threw rocks at me and tore protest signs out of my eighteen-year-old hands, you sat on the porch with a hand-rolled up cigarette between your fingers and said, They wouldn’t have taken your poster if I was there. The forty ounce rested between your thighs.
Or the time I was afraid to change gears and the car stalled out repeatedly and you said, I’m not your dad. I’m not going to yell at you. I don’t care if you mess up this car. I drove without mistakes.
She weaves in and out of memory, sometimes shining and other times dim but always burning. Punk rock with hair cut close to the scalp and a jailhouse tattoo of a star beneath her right eye. She lived with other punks on a street with beautiful houses. The one next door had a pool in the backyard and a white picket fence in the front. The house they lived in, the punk house, was off an unpaved driveway. I remember it swaying in the breeze, two stories of white paint chipped away to gray and rot. I met her when I was eighteen and still living at home with my mother. She grew up in a trailer with a mother lost on alcohol. My mother was afraid of her, the way she looked, something gone in her eyes. We gave her a bike and a futon. Our way of apologizing for the world.
The End of Spring—2013
The month of May had been a triumph—I’d quit smoking, graduated college, and took up running. I believed everything was going to be okay. That summer I was to shed pounds and become healthy—body, mind, blood. I didn’t have insurance but the clinic I belonged to sent my records to a place that did pharmaceutical trials for the treatment of Hepatitis C. There were preliminary appointments. Blood work, EKG, blood pressure, weight, temperature.
I was 22 years old when I found out I had it. One of my junky friends got a letter from the blood bank informing him that he could not sell blood anymore. A few days later, I went to the health department and got tested for HIV and Hepatitis C. I was HIV negative. Hep C didn’t really mean much to me except that I thought it somehow sealed my fate as a junky, like I was officially in the club. I glamorized it like everything else. Then 11 years later I met Richard. I was five years clean and back in college when we fell in love. He didn’t have a past like mine. He could drink and go on living. He never touched drugs. I suddenly became aware that I had a disease, a virus, a dirtiness in my blood that would one day kill me—slowly, through the liver, or the heart, or the immune system after the liver was dead.
Day One—Lab Rat
Nurse Carol hands me one pink pill. There are no injections of interferon, the poison drug that hurts people, topples them over and chains them to bed, eyelids too tired to open. These drugs are new and are called the miracle cure. This is the study drug. Two drugs combined in one tablet. Sofosbuvir and Ledipasvir. Neither drug FDA approved. “When was the last time you ate?”
She looks at the clock. 10:30. She hands me three blue pills. These blue pills make me blue, make me swim—in navy, thick liquid, my limbs sinking—and they make me lose my way. I drown in the blue of the Ribavirin. It isn’t immediate. The first day my head gets stuck in fog and my body loses energy, not all, just a little. One pink, three blue in the morning. Three blue at night.
Big Girls Don’t Cry
Felicia. One night at the punk house, Rachael was in town. Rachel was a squatter punk and Felicia’s best friend. She was tall and looked like a model but with purple hair. Her walk was slightly masculine and her voice graveled out a Nawlins accent. She hated me. She hated all that was still clean inside me. She wanted to scrape away my delicate skin and make me bleed, like she thought she bled. I wanted to tell her about my dead brother, the one whose body had been destroyed by AIDS and who the church said was burning in hell. I wanted to tell her about my drunk father and about how I always felt ugly and less than, less than her and all the girls with loud mouths who spit fire into the night. Like her. Like Felicia. But I didn’t cover my wounds in filth and fuck boys in shit-stained abandoned houses. Not yet. Back then, I hid. I sat quietly. To hurt me, Rachael fucked Lee, the boy I liked. I walked past the room, his room, the room where I slept next to him most nights. There was no door. The lights were off but I could hear the motion. I ran out of the house.
I sat in my car with the headlights on, staring out at the gravel driveway. Felicia ran out the front door and got in the passenger’s side. “Fuck her! Fuck that ugly bitch!” Felicia’s voice filled the car and rattled my insides.
“I don’t even care.”
“Bullshit. Fuck her. She needs to fucking leave. I am going to kick her out of my house.” She rolled down the window and lit a cigarette or maybe she pulled on her beer, but she rolled down the window and looked like a tough girl. She didn’t want anyone being mean to me. “Yeah,” Felicia said. “I’ll be back.” She went inside.
I don’t know what happened, what snapped in her mind, but ten minutes later she came outside with her huge hiker’s backpack demanding that I take her to the interstate and drop her off. She was going to leave Memphis, hitchhike her way out of pain. “I have to get out.” A tear dripped down her face and her lips shook. I learned that night about the cop in New Orleans.
Initial Viral Load—9 million
Week Two—HCV undetected
I find an online forum of others in the same trial. Other lab rats. Most of them are grateful and only on the pink pill which means side effect free. The study is nationwide. 600 people split into three groups.
Group One—12 weeks. Pink pill only.
Group Two—8 weeks. Pink pill only.
Group Three—8 weeks. Pink pill plus the dreadful blues.
The people on the forum sometimes give advice like to eat a meal with the Ribavirin but mostly they don’t want their bubble of hope broken. I continue to post anyways. I am hoping the ones on the Ribavirin will chime in. Finally, two appear. By week two, the three of us have insomnia, itchy scalps, and sores in our mouths. The virus, though—the virus is gone.
On Ribavirin, I am close to the body, stuck in the body, behind pain and heart rattles. Every night at 9:30, I believe I am dying. Not slowly, but right then, at that exact moment, my life force is being wrenched out. There’s something on my leg. On the right calf. I noticed it two weeks ago. I showed it to Richard. He said it was probably a bug bite. Now, it is bigger. A growth on the muscle. It isn’t the only thing. Bruises on my knees and red welts on both sides of the shins. I have visions of blood dripping instead of tears. I wait for my eyes to bleed.
We Accept You
Felicia. We went down to New Orleans. Felicia had pressed charges against the cop who raped her. It was time for the next step. Rachel and I had made up and she came with us. She said my innocent face would get us lots of money spare changing in the French Quarter. Felicia drove drunk most of the way.
Rachel’s mom lived in New Orleans and we stayed with her one night. Her mom looked like an art teacher and drank cheap white wine out of a cheap wine glass. She cornered me and asked, “What are you doing with them? You don’t look like one of them.”
I shrugged. I thought about the bullet hole in the ceiling of my dad’s apartment and the picture of my brother that he liked to carry around when he was drunk, which was daily. He said he almost shot himself but a light had danced through the window and lit up a picture of me on his bookshelf. He fired into the ceiling instead. I wasn’t like my friends in high school with their proms and safe rebellions. There was anger in me ready to explode. I wanted to explode. I wanted to not care anymore and just let go.
Felicia called her court-assigned advocate to find out where she needed to go. The lady insisted that Felicia tell her where she was. This freaked us out. We didn’t trust cops or grown-ups anymore. We walked around Jackson Square and drank whiskey out of two-liter soda bottles. Eventually, we drove back to Memphis.
The Center for Disease Control’s website states that approximately 3.2 million are infected with Hepatitis C in the United States. It also talks about the liver and the immune system and, of course, the blood. The virus comes in through the blood and only the blood. Sharing needles is very intimate, like little girls pricking their fingers and rubbing the tips against each other’s. Connected for life.
Pamela Anderson caught Hep C through a tattoo needle. According to Wikipedia, Natasha Lyonne is infected. Alice Notley wrote In the Pines while undergoing Hepatitis C treatment—I didn’t understand those poems, until now.
Silence Can Kill a Shout
Felicia. She was asleep in a squat in New Orleans. I wasn’t there but I can imagine it. I picture a huge warehouse with cracked glass windows and splintered panes. The inside is mostly hollowed out and sectioned off by palletes of rotted wood. Homeless kids sleep on top of blankets next to empty beer cans and syringes. Felicia is on the second floor. Her friend Wolf is next to her. They sleep, a drunken sleep, as the moonlight shines through cracks in the frame and lights up their faces, the sallow skin stretched over bones. A couple of cops bust in on the first floor, and kids scatter like bugs. One cop heads upstairs. He jerks Wolf into handcuffs. He overpowers Felicia.
I see this. But in my mind, I change the ending—Wolf breaks loose and rips the cop off of her before he has time to do anything. The cop scrambles down the stairs. Felicia walks over to the window and looks down to see him rushing out the warehouse door directly beneath her. She pushes a brick over the ledge.
But this isn’t what happened. He wrapped a hand around her neck, ready to snap it if she squealed, and he penetrated her.
Nurse Carol doesn’t listen. I hobble into her office. It reminds me of a storage closet. I sit in my usual spot in the chair in front of the window. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead. She looks at my legs and says, “The medicine doesn’t do that.”
But it does. I stare back through the film of gray between us and it sounds like the pounding of my heart is echoing off the walls. Two days later I make an appointment through the clinic to see my regular doctor who isn’t a doctor but a nurse practitioner.
“Thrombophlebitis,” Dr. Wallace says. Mr. Wallace, but I have a real need to call him doctor.
“What?” I say through tears. I cried all the time, but no one seemed to notice.
“A blood clot. A superficial one.”
My blood clot doesn’t care about things that matter. When I bend my legs it feels like it’s going to burst through the skin. It’s an angry clot.
“In a superficial vein, like a varicose vein.”
“I don’t have varicose veins.”
“You do now.”
“Can running cause it?”
“Yes. Go buy some compression hose. Wear them to work and to run in.”
“I can’t run anymore.”
“Running is good just wear the hose. There’s a store that sells some with designs like stripes and polka dots. You’d like those.”
“Why would I like those?”
He leaves the room. My knees hurt and have bruises on either side. Both knees, both sides. I thought I had injured myself from running. I thought I had runner’s knee even though I stopped running two weeks ago. The last time I ran was after work in Richard’s neighborhood. The ground moved the wrong way and each time my feet hit the pavement I thought I’d collapse and never get up. But I had done so well. I’d been running for over a whole month. It felt good, healthy. My lungs grinded out the tar from the cigarettes and I ran, for the first time ever, I ran. But now that was over.
A woman enters the room. “We are sending you to Baptist Hospital for an ultrasound of your leg.”
“I thought it was superficial.”
“Yes, but sometimes it is caused by a deep vein thrombosis.” Now my clot had depth.
I drive to Baptist. My mother meets me. It’s quick. A lady in a lab coat rubs goo all over my right leg. I cry. “What if there’s a clot?”
“I won’t let you leave the hospital if there’s a clot.”
I like her. She takes this seriously. But there is no clot. There isn’t even a varicose vein.
“So it isn’t thrombophlebitis?”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know.”
Clenched Fist and Screaming
Felicia. Some of the punk kids called me Bruce’s backdoor woman. I snuck out the back door of the apartment he shared with the other punks above a dry cleaner store. I didn’t have sex with him. We only fooled around. I was a virgin and too afraid of losing it. He told people different things. A week later, on Halloween, Felicia and I found him passed out in her roommate’s bed. It was the one room with a TV and we were in there watching it. Bruce woke up and called me names. “Flounder,” he said. I didn’t know what that meant but he thought it was the greatest insult ever. I yelled things back at him, trying to act tough and unafraid like Felicia, like most of the punk girls. He jumped up and then came toward me. He shoved me hard. My breath left. I thought he was going to pummel me. Felicia was on him. Her fist hit his face over and over again. Then she stopped and grabbed my hand. We ran out of the room and down the stairs away from him.
Where did it go? The virus? It drifted out as the blue roared in. It slithered. I can see it around the edges of the house, out of the corner of my eye. Dark goo oozing down the wall. I always wondered what it looked like. I imagined yellow and brown but now it turns into the color of the sea at night, too dark to look beneath. It runs from room to room, perched on top of dresser mirrors, ready to jump back in to me. Jesus, I trust you. I hear it slide on its belly. Jesus, I am touching the hem of your garment.
It hurts to walk. I soak in a hot bath. Steam rises, fills the air, and shields me. I pray for apocalypse. I pray for Jesus. I ask if He is real. I pray for Him to come and make the world end. My cat walks on the edges of the tub and I wait for her to fall in but she never does.
Felicia. Late one night, I found her with sliced wrists lying in the bathtub. Droplets of blood shined against the porcelain. Her eyes fluttered. I screamed for one of her roommates. My arm extended up over my head, then my hand swooped down and smacked into her face. She hadn’t quite reached the vein and she lived. I washed her blood off my hands and joked that we were blood sisters. Our blood wasn’t infected back then.
The Body Will Eat Itself
I am on a table that slides in and out of a CAT scan. The room is dim despite the fluorescent lights that flicker overhead. This isn’t real light or soft light, it just takes away the dark of the room. A woman stands next to me with a clipboard in her hand. My bra crumples black on the floor. A thin robe covers my torso and my stiff aching legs.
Mr. Wallace diagnosed me with erythema nodosum. An autoimmune disorder. Basically, after the meds killed the virus, my immune system turned on itself and began to attack my legs. The bruises, the bright red nodules, the unidentified growth on the right calf, my body is doing this—my body is a traitor. He ran blood tests and did an X-ray of my lungs. Two nodules. He sent me to the hospital again.
The woman in the lab coat holding a clipboard says, “You circled that you didn’t know if you were allergic to the dye. Why?”
“I have never been injected with dye.”
“Oh, ok. We are going to use dye.”
She tries to start an IV. I won’t let her.
“I’m on medicine for Hepatitis C.”
“Yes, the doctor knows.”
“But I am not allowed anything unless the study doctor approves it.”
“The doctor here, at the hospital, he knows what medicine you are taking and says this is fine.”
“The medicine isn’t FDA approved. No one knows what will happen.”
She glares at me and breathes. She softens her voice, “I will inject the dye through an IV. You will feel warm and feel like you are going to pee. For 30 seconds. Then it’s over.”
I dissolve into the table, tears flow that won’t stop. I am sure I was already crying. But now, I lose it. I want to hop up and run away, but my bra is on the floor under a chair and my legs don’t work right anymore. My legs swell and ache and I hold onto walls to walk. I don’t want anything else in my body.
The People Who Died
Jim Carroll. Musician, poet, and writer. Heart attack from the way Hepatitis C ravaged his body.
Allen Ginsberg. Poet. Genius. Liver cancer from Hepatitis C.
Ken Kesey. Writer. Liver tumor from Hepatitis C.
Lou Reed. Musician. Liver disease aka Hepatitis C.
Dwight. I never knew his last name. He went to twelve step meetings and said mmmkay at the end of every sentence. He was nice. He turned yellow. Then one day his funeral arrangements were on the dry erase board.
Taylor. He worked with me at a Perkins restaurant. He was a bus boy and carried a black plastic tub from table to table clearing off dishes. He always felt it was beneath him. He was over six feet tall and handsome like a movie star. His sobriety didn’t last long. He fell asleep one night and never woke up. His liver stopped.
Girl with the Starry Eyes
Felicia. I ran off to the west coast of Canada to live with my favorite punk band and Felicia hopped trains to California and then Alaska to work in a fish cannery. She took off quite often. We lost touch with each other but found heroin. And heroin brought us together again in her warehouse apartment in Midtown Memphis, both of us infected separately with the same disease from the same affliction. I was proud that I was finally like her. The dope man had moved in with her, the same dope man I used. The further down I slipped, she always stayed a few steps ahead.
She almost left me again. Her lips blue, a syringe dangling from the curve of her arm, her body curled like a baby, cold as the icy water I threw in her face. Another friend was there. I called 911. We dragged her across the hardware floors to the shower, white t-shirt soaked against her skin, splinters pricking her back. It didn’t help . We laid her flat out on the floor. “Do you know CPR?” the woman on the phone asked. “Do you know CPR?” I repeated to the air, to the other person in the room. He put his mouth over hers.
The ambulance came and took her away. The medic told us the police would come. We hid dope in air vents and I flushed Felicia’s syringe down the toilet. She came home a few hours later, clothes still damp, and she stomped around angry because we’d finished off the drugs.
Then, I got sober and didn’t see her except sometimes, late at night, driving home from work, there she was, walking down the sidewalk, shuffling electric on crack or some other drug that steals sparks.
The room is cold and dark. I am on a massage table, a pillow under my head, a blanket draped over my body. Heather, a reiki practitioner, guides me through what she is going to do. She says it is all energy. This makes me cringe. This goes against my beliefs. The medicine still pumps through my body. I have stopped working, and this is the first time I have left the bed in over a week. I am living from one dark room to the next. The pain has crippled me. Heather begins. I am still as her hands float over me.
She starts with the head, and I see light as cold runs down my spine and into my legs. I think of Jesus, the hem of His garment and the ragged woman with the dirty blood. He healed her without medicine. Without the blue. I see the blue float in swirls around His body but I can’t see His face. I can never see His face. And then Heather moves her hands down my body. The throat where the pills go down, the right shoulder where the liver hurts, then the crook of the arm…that’s it. That’s where it entered my body. That dark room that held us, me and Missy. Missy the prostitute who comforted me after that man tore me in two without my permission. She took care of me, the way she knew how. All she had left was a needle loaded with cocaine, a drop of her blood inside, she couldn’t hit the vein so she offered it to me.
“If you get HIV or anything, then you will know it was me.” And I took it, there, in the pit of my right arm, back when I still had veins that worked. Heather’s hands continue down, and the blue twists me through memories.
To Be a Statistic
Felicia. I didn’t find out until almost a year after. A friend found her obituary on the internet. She contacted the preacher. He said, “Between the alcohol and Hepatitis C, her liver couldn’t take it anymore.”
Her obituary said she went to be with the Lord. Next to it was a picture of her as a little girl.
This is not an Elegy is an Elegy
My dear F,
I should be asleep, but the poison won’t let me rest. This bed curves and sags from weight. The sheets taste of ash and sweat from memories of when we were young and believed that somehow, someday, we would just walk away. My body tosses with souvenirs, years away from the cause of this tough skin. I escaped death and cracked bones and hard earth to be here. No longer mangled from the sugar of the streets— my legs kick out the fever, a different fever, a blue fever. Secrets with voices telling me, it will rise again, unexpected, coil around my veins, and choke out my new insides. Can you hear the whispers? Are you floating with them now?
Lights from passing cars cross the ceiling, fragmented into splinters of shine. I see your eyes, blue with black stars. We sang together, breath blew out our mouths into the air, loud sounds that echoed. You said we’d start a band. I’m sorry I didn’t stop when I saw you walking down Madison, eyes big as an owl’s. Lost, homeless. I wasn’t sure if any of you was still in there.
I relive the concrete and the scraping of steel to the flesh, the images of the dead who feel nothing now, knowing it would one day be over. Are you glad it’s over? I remember your voice and how it was taken from you. All those years, I thought you were tough but it was to hide the fear, to hide what they did to you. The cop in New Orleans, the dope dealers. I’m sorry we never got revenge.
I am scared of the awful disease that withered you, shut down your insides. I want to grow old for you, walk in shoes that tread the highways, breathe in train rust and sunrises, fall in love with the ocean again, the blue again, the cool water that heals,
take the cure,
At my next appointment, Nurse Carol offers the chance to stop the Ribavirin. I don’t.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.