I’m Going Out Like a Fucking Meteor

I’m Going Out Like a Fucking Meteor
Craig G. Harris

“I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my nose-holes – everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” – Audre Lorde

It is a beautifully warm Monday afternoon, and I wake with good spirits to receive a telephone call from a former colleague in Washington, D.C. We talk about my current situation, I crack jokes in the face of adversity, and we laugh hilariously like old times. After a few minutes, she tells me that someone is waiting outside her office, that she must run but had just wanted to holler at me for a second. She tells me that I haven’t changed a bit and that she loves me. She’ll keep in touch.

I remember that today is the last day I can remit my rent check without penalty of a 5-percent late fee. I find my checkbook and cringe as I write the check. When I signed the lease almost two years ago, I knew full well that the rent was outrageous. But now, my hand shakes a little more nervously each month as I sign the check.

I take the check to the management office on my way to the corner bodega. I notice that somehow I have only one dollar bill in my wallet and realize I must stop at the automatic teller machine before I can buy milk, juice, and butter for breakfast. Two twenties are ejaculated from the machine along with a receipt. The record indicates that the current balance of my checking account is only four dollars more than the amount of the check I have just given to my property management. That doesn’t worry me as much as the fact that my savings account is at a zero balance, and pay day isn’t until Friday.

I head to the bodega. I buy a pint of half-and-half, a can of papaya nectar, and a pack of cigarettes. I hand the Arab woman behind the counter a twenty-dollar bill. She packs my groceries and hands me six dollars change. I stare at the change in my hand, thinking that if I could really get around like I used to, I could have gotten a better bargain at Balducci’s. Small matter. This place is grossly overpriced, but it is convenient.

By the time I return to my complex, the mail has been delivered. Despite appearances, my life has become so solitary that I am forced to look forward to this daily ritual. As I lock the box and peruse the envelopes, I am overjoyed to find that today’s assortment contains two reimbursements checks from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

I return to my apartment, pour my fist cup of coffee and sit with a cigarette to open the good news. The checks total $325 – an amount I have already paid my therapist and hematologist. This will carry me through the remainder of the week. I open the next envelope, which is a $380 bill from my radiology every word on the bill three times, I conclude be billed directly to my insurance carrier as I had been led to believe. I must remit payment and then submit a claim for reimbursement. The worst of it is that this bill only covers the cost of two radiology treatments, and I receive four treatments per week. I lose my appetite and decide to skip breakfast, though I know quite well that my body is in desperate need of the vitamins and nutrients, calories and bulk. It is six hours later when I read the bill for a fourth time and realize that it can be directly submitted to the Blue Cross/Blue Shield. By this time, however, I have missed two meals and spent the day in a depressed mood.

I could bitch and complain. I could become depressed and withdrawn.

But what good would either do? So I sit and contemplate my situation. I am one of the lucky ones. No matter how unfortunate my situation may seem, I know that I am a “privileged nigger.” I know this because not only have I worked every day of my life, but for the last seven years I have worked in various positions in HIV prevention. I have a good job. I have health-insurance coverage. I have access to the most updated medical information and a stellar medical team. In no way could I compare my case to Evelyn, a former client.

I met Evelyn shortly after returning to New York in the spring of 1988 to assume the position of executive director of the Minority Task Force on AIDS. Evelyn had been diagnosed with Lupus in addition to HIV disease. Her drug habit was one she had great difficulty shaking. She was only somewhat literate, and dependent on social services as her man had left her to marry another woman. She had a five-year-old son, but couldn’t depend on the father for child care because his wife was afraid that the young boy would infect her infant. Bureaucratic systems both baffled and intimidated Evelyn.

Through Evelyn I gained my first real insights into the horrors of the American health care and social services systems. It is not that I was totally naïve until this time. Like most progressive activists, I had a conceptual handle on such injustices, but had really never encountered them first hand. I had that opportunity the day that Evelyn came into my office sobbing, interrupting my work on a grant proposal which, if approved, would allow the Task Force to increase its over-stressed staff of two. Evelyn explained to me that she had no money, her food stamps had been cut off, and no one at the local welfare office could explain why.

I called the welfare office, explained my position and politely requested to speak with a manager. That request was initially denied by the most surly public servant I have ever encountered. She told me that Evelyn’s food stamps had been discontinued because she was “too stupid” to know how to fill out the forms. I informed her that I would be happy to send someone to the office to pick up the forms. I would then complete the forms for Evelyn and have them returned by the close of business. The clerk told me that they didn’t operate that way. That I couldn’t push through the process, and that Evelyn would have to make an appointment later in the month to pick up the forms.

I realized it was now time for me to demonstrate my trilingual roots (I am fluent in Anglo, Afro, and Homo). “Look girlfriend,” I warned her, “I run this muthafuckin’ agency and I would strongly suggest that you go find someone in a comparable position at yours quick, fast, and in a hurry, because you’re dancing on my last damn nerve and your office is only nine blocks from mine. I will not hesitate to jump into a gypsy cab and before you can blink, suck your teeth, roll your eyes and head, I’ll be whipping your ass all up and down 125th Street.” Within moments, a supervisor was on the line and the situation was corrected. Nonetheless, when I returned home that evening I cried at the day’s events knowing that there were a lot more Evelyns out there and, more often than not, they do not have advocates for their cause.

On January 29, 1991, my hematologist informed me of my diagnosis of pulmonary Kaposi’s sarcoma. He compassionately explained to me that I would probably have to undergo aggressive chemotherapy treatments for several months. When I complained, he explained that the most recent studies from San Francisco indicated that left untreated, the average post-diagnosis life expectancy of someone with my condition was three months. He ordered blood drawn, X-rays and a gallium scan. On the way home, I stopped at a liquor store and purchased a bottle of Haig & Haig Pinch Scotch. I also stopped at Li-Lac Chocolates and purchased a pound of champagne truffles.

Back at my apartment, I poured myself a drink and placed half a dozen of the chocolates on a china dish. I surveyed my mail, paid bills, renewed my subscription to Out/ Look and proceeded to conduct my personal business. I played back my telephone messages and copied the numbers of callers onto a message pad. I bad received a call from my friend Lauri, with whom I cochair the African-American Alumnae/i of Vassar College.

Positioned with my Scotch, chocolate and cigarettes and my Vassar file, I returned the call. Lauri and I discussed pending business, divided up assignments and made lists of the items we would fax to each other the next day from our offices. With all business efficiently taken care of, the conversation became more social.

“So, how are you doing anyway?”

“Okay, I guess. But my doctor diagnosed me with AIDS today. Pulmonary Kaposi’s sarcoma, more specifically.”

“What? And you let me go on like that about business? Why didn’t you stop me?”

“Well, you know, the shit has to get done, and life does go on.”

After I finished talking with Lauri, I started to make a few of the perceived obligatory calls to inform people of my condition. The first call was to George. George and I have worked together on these issues for numerous years. I suppose that’s why I expected him to react to the news in a very enlightened, professional manner (whatever that might be). George listened to the details and then asked me what I was doing. I explained to him that I was having cocktails and eating,chocolates. He told me that I was in denial.

“No, I’m not in denial. I just told you I’m drinking Scotch, eating chocolates, and I have Al D S. That’s not denial, George.”

I firmly believe that every individual has the right to select a support group that works for him or her. Mine, for the moment, happened to consist of Benson & Hedges menthol lights, 12-year-old whiskey and expensive confections. Without them I don’t know how I would have made it through that first night. With them I managed to call my brother, some cousins and assorted friends, realizing that each time I’d have to assist them in dealing with their issues before they could assist me in dealing with mine. Disclosure is a very tedious task.

After completing the calls, I turned on the television set hoping to find something other than coverage of the war in the Middle East which our country had entered into thirteen days earlier. I had no idea that I would find President George Bush delivering his State of the Union Address. It seemed as though he talked forever about the wonderful job the troops were doing in Kuwait. He insisted upon referring to Saddam Hussein only by his first name, which he consistently mispronounced. He tried to assure us that adding to the devastation in the Persian Gulf was what made the United States a great country – the greatest!

President Bush dedicated only a short potion of his speech to domestic issues. Somehow he managed to work AIDS, illiteracy and homelessness into one sentence and indicated that the government really couldn’t solve these problems. He did not, however, make the logical leap proposing combined efforts on the part of government, private industry, philanthropic societies, etc. Wizard political electrician that he is, Bush suggested that U.S. citizens become a thousand points of light to tackle these dark, despairing, social ills, and recommended that each American visit a person with AIDS.

I was too plucked to even get angry. I just turned off the set thinking to myself, “Darling, the last thing I need right now is company. What I could really use is the assurance that you are doing everything within your means to ensure that Anthony Fauci and his buddies at NIH [National Institutes of Health] are getting all the perks they desire. I don’t care what it takes, keep that buckaroo happy and hovering over a petri dish!”

Feces, or the lack thereof, figure prominently in my life these days. Like many other individuals infected with HIV, shit has become a friend, a confidant, a significant other, an adversary, an enemy, and a nemesis. It is rarely a source of pleasure. Recently, it has had an almost liquid consistency which burns vehemently upon exit – leaving my rectum with a sensation similar to those occasions when I attempted to accommodate suitors who were larger than life.

The rotation of chemotherapy drugs (Doxorubicin, Bleomycin, and Vincristine) which I receive weekly may be the cause of the unrelenting constipation or uncontrollable diarrhea. I must schedule event according to these side-effects with little advance warning. On several occasions, I have had to forego parties or dates to go dancing because my bowels were so incredibly constipated that it caused severe pains in my abdomen and back, making it difficult to walk or even stand for an extended period of time. At other times, warnings of upcoming diarrhea have caused me to reschedule appointments, calling ahead to say that I’d be late. On these occasions, I have sat on the toilet with a book, counting time by the quarter hour and carefully investigating anything that lands in the lavender water so that I will be able to report it to my physicians.

Yes, my shit has become something I study. My shit has become an anticipated activity. My shit has become a topic I have had to learn to become comfortable discussing with my service providers. My shit is no longer a private matter. In fact, my shit, at times, has gone quite public.

A few weeks ago, after a relaxing weekend, I spent Monday morning and afternoon at the computer and taking care of other business from my home office. I organized all my files and computer discs with the intent of stopping at my office between my 6:30 cobalt radiation treatment and my 8:30 appointment with my therapist. Preparing to go to the city, I showered and dressed in a Senegalese suit I had taken out of the cleaners over the weekend. I looked into the mirror and found it to be one of those days when I felt somewhat good about the way I looked, despite minimal weight loss and skin imperfections. As I boarded the PATH train at about 5:45, I thought to myself that my timing, so far, was pretty good. I was pleased at the thought that I had completed a great deal at home and should have just enough time for printing, xeroxing, and transmittals between appointments.

Between the Pavonia/Newport, and Christopher Street Stations, I felt a churning and heard a bubbling in my abdomen. First, I thought it was just a case of gas. That happens quite frequently. Then I panicked, remembering that as often as not, it is impossible to distinguish gas from pending defecation until after the fact. Then it happened. I felt the mass of shit filling the scant space between my hips and cotton briefs – a felling of outrageous discomfort, not particularly because of the tactile sensation, but rather because of the social awkwardness.

Situations such as this really challenge one’s problem-solving abilities. I exited the train station at Christopher Street, then thought that this was a poor choice because of the potential number of friends and associates I might bump into in that area. Thoughts flashed quickly, what ifs, and how tos. I stepped out of myself in order to address myself in the second person.

“Take a taxi home – You can’t take a taxi to go New Jersey, you only have two dollars in your wallet – Get to a bank machine – No, don’t use the one at Sheridan Square, you’ll definitely be spotted there – Use the Chase on Eighth at Twelfth, no one is ever around there – Check yourself, is it showing through? – Okay, honey, you’re at the bank, it’s gonna be okay – No, no, take out more money – Yeah, eighty dollars is good, that will get you out of this one – Now, find a nice restaurant that will let you use their men’s room – Clean up – Hide the soiled briefs in the paper towels before you place them in the trash can – Find a discount store on Fourteenth Street so you can get yourself a new pair of underwear and a washcloth – Okay, so they didn’t sell washcloths, you got the underwear you’re gonna be okay – Call your radiology technician and see if she’ll wait – She wont wait? Oh well – Take a taxi to your office, it’s late enough that almost everyone is gone – Sit on one hip in the taxi, and tip well – Smile really friendly at your office’s security guard, they’ll never suspect anything – Beeline it to the men’s room – Take your time to wash up more thoroughly – Change into the clean underwear – There, that’s better – Now, go salvage the rest of your evening, honey, ’cause you haven’t seen the worst of it.”

I went to my desk, printed from my computer files, xeroxed, addressed envelopes, read my mail, etc. I completed all the tasks I had planned. Then I took a taxi to my therapist’s. I didn’t tell about the incident. We spent the hour discussing other issues. After all, with how many people do I have to sit and chat casually about my shit?

During my second visit to my hematologist, he prescribed a number of medications. Aside from the antiviral Retrovir, I was instructed to purchase Myambutol tablets, Zovirax capsules and a five-day supply of Vepesid oral chemotherapy capsules. I went to a nearby pharmacist who had been recommended by my physician, hoping that he would assign the costs to my insurance carrier.

When I presented the prescriptions to the pharmacist and asked about assignment, be explained to me that he couldn’t do this with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but that there shouldn’t be a problem. If necessary, I could write a check. Thinking to myself that I don’t possess any major credit cards, that I carry a New York State driver’s license but live in New Jersey, and I have no identification that bears any reasonable resemblance to my current look, I figured there could be a problem if the acceptance of my check were to be based on any of these qualifiers.

The pharmacist packaged the drugs and used an electric calculator to tally the costs. When be reached the balance, he looked up at me with a smile and said, “Mr. Harris, that will be $1,329.55. Oh, and you can postdate the check.”

“THIRTEEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY-NINE DOLLARS! AND I CAN POSTDATE THE CHECK? UNTIL WHEN?”

I picked my chin up from the counter and nervously wrote the check. The lack of identification wasn’t a problem. The pharmacist explained to me that he didn’t have to see any ID because he was fully aware that my doctor didn’t see “riff-raff.” But what if I were one of the many who received medical attention in a clinic or emergency room? What if I didn’t have health-insurance coverage that would reimburse me eventually? Thirteen hundred dollars for four prescriptions. And I knew that this was only the beginning. There would be lots more drugs to be bought.

I told this story to a friend who suggested that I might be eligible for free AZT under the ADAP program. I explained that only New York State residents are eligible for this program and that New Jersey has nothing similar. It was around this time that I realized that while I have worked for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the world’s oldest and largest AIDS education, advocacy, and service provider for over two years, I was not eligible to become a client because GMHC only services residents of the five boroughs of New York City.

Access becomes a relative issue. I am thankful for the privileges I have. I resent the fact that these are not readily available to the bulk of people of color dealing with the HIV disease. I am angry that because of the differences in the manner in which local municipalities and state health agencies set health policies, I am cut off from certain benefits as a result of the county of my residence. And sure, there are times when I can beat the system, but the real solution will only come when the system is destroyed, demolished!

I suppose that my romantic and sexual involvements have not diminished considerably over the past few years. It’s difficult to assess this situation, however, as HIV has totally warped our perspectives on sexuality – both individually and collectively.

Without a clear understanding of safer-sex guidelines, so many have adopted the practice of celibacy (which frequently manifests itself in drunken or drug-induced forays of unsafe sex that are lamented the morning after) or the limiting of sexual partners on the basis of medical membership in my “Church.” Despite increasing rates of HIV infection and venereal diseases, it seems that no one is having sex, or at least they’re not talking about it. I, for one, couldn’t prove them wrong.

I was able to successfully dissolve a lover relationship during the winter of 1988. During the three years that followed, I spent a great deal of time contemplating what went wrong, and why the relationship lasted much longer than it should have. I’ve concluded that at age thirty, I was determined to settle down, and that I had enough false confidence in myself to have believed that I could make that union work. But the obstacles of fear of intimacy, codependence, lack of commitment, political differences, and poor communication were too much to overcome.

The question I have asked myself most about that relationship is why I tolerated so much so long. My basic rule is: one strike, you’re out, and preferably far, far away. The answer I have come up with is laziness.

It is a real chore to acquire and maintain a loving, working relationship during the age of AIDS. Fear of HIV and its related problems have entered every recess of our consciousness, constricting even more barriers than those which already existed for gay men of African descent. The stamina to keep searching, to keeping trying, is very difficult to muster. More frequently, I am included to agree with the lyrics of an old Mary Clayton tune, “Love me or let me be lonely.”

Entering into a conversation with each new sexual partner regarding one’s personal interpretation of safer sex and sexual boundaries is a very emotionally loaded situation. In it, one usually uncovers one’s personal sexual history, political viewpoints, medical knowledge, fantasies, and fears. Of course, I contend that communication need not take the form of conversation, and in certain situations (baths, tearooms, parks) such chatter would be totally inappropriate. In many anonymous sexual situations, actions speak much louder. But in dating situations, the silence around such issues is noticeably deliberate.

Since my diagnosis, I have shared details of my health with two men whom I am attracted to. The initial news of my illness and subsequent updates have been met with compassion and consideration. Both of these men have been a major part of my support system, offering varying levels of affection. I have not had sex with either of them. At least I don’t think I have. One of the strange things about this era is that we interpret sex very differently now, and no not always reach a consensus. The lines become fuzzy and we never know if we have crossed them. Was this a sexual act? Was anyone penetrated? Did anyone have an orgasm? Are we having fun yet?

No. I’m not having fun. Six months of unintentional celibacy is not fun. But rather than push harder to solidify either of my two existing relationships (neither of these men is looking for what I am looking for within a relationship), or to seek other suitors, I try to satisfy myself with video lovers who don’t ask questions, shy away from the intricate details of my body’s malfunctions, or tell me during intimate moments that they are really having difficulty dealing with my “terminal illness.”

This approach is not without its merits. When I become fatigued in the middle of the act, I can always push a pause button on the remote and resume activity with a second wind at any time. I do not have to fear exposing my body and its multiple lesions. I do not have to listen to any arguments about why I decided not to take my medication this morning. I do not have to explain why the soreness of my rectal tissue will not allow penetration.

On the other hand, I haven’t been held tightly in bed in four months. I haven’t been allowed to curl up with my back against another’s chest and feel his arms around me. I haven’t been awakened by a light kiss on my eyelashes, I have not shared a bath or received a message from someone who cares from more than professional perspective. My sex life has been sanitized far beyond the impact of the intrusion of latex props.

I do not at all feel lonely. There are always enough telephone interruptions, cards, and even occasional floral arrangements sent by friends. My family has been there for me constantly, offering support, money, transportation, and hands to hold for support during medical procedures. My many friends are good to me. But I still feel alone.

I feel alone on Friday nights when I want to celebrate making it through the seven medical appointments of the week. I feel alone on Monday evenings when I stop at a flower stand on the way from my therapist. I feel alone when I am particularly pleased with a new poem or essay I have just finished, but there is no one I can immediately turn to share these words with. I feel alone most when I realize that through the years I have become strong. I have become stronger than would be necessary if I had a shoulder to sob on, arms that reassured me, lips that passed on a reason to live.

I’m not waiting for a cure. I’m not looking for a miracle. I am not resisting the inevitable. I will die. I will die much sooner than I would like to accept, and there is little I can do about this fact. Kubler-Ross can call that acceptance if she wants, but in doing so, I believe she minimizes one’s will to fight. It is precisely because I know I will die that I work even more diligently for the causes I believe in.

It is within this framework that I make decisions about my medical care. It is within this framework that I have made decisions to increase my activities or lessen my involvement in certain organizations. It is within this framework that I continue to plan and conduct HIV-prevention programs for African-American gay men. It is this philosophy that has caused me to renew work on a manuscript of poetry and fiction I began more than two years ago.

It is all about the quality of life I have found. My quality of life is a control issue. I refuse to be controlled by a daily regimen of oral medications and radiation therapy, controlled by weekly chemotherapy, treatments, controlled by the increasing number of side effects, fatigue or depression, medical bills or reimbursement checks. I refuse to be controlled by limitations imposed on me by my race and ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and health.

I have made a commitment to relinquish control only as a last resort. I want to live the rest of my life with an energy that ignites and irritates, burns and bubbles, soothes and inspires until it bursts from the atmosphere, dissipating into the cosmos.

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