Authors: Pearl Cleage
Tags: #City and town life - Michigan, #Literary, #Health & Fitness, #Diseases, #Michigan, #Humorous, #Medical, #AIDS & HIV, #General, #Romance, #Patients, #African American women, #AIDS (Disease), #African American women - Michigan, #AIDS (Disease) - Patients - Michigan, #African American, #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #City and town life, #Love stories
At first glance Pearl Cleage’s
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day
seems pretty heavy going: HIV, suicide, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and drunk driving all figure prominently in the lives of narrator Ava Johnson and her older sister Joyce. It isn’t long before crack addiction, domestic violence and unwed motherhood have joined the list — so, where’s the pleasure? The answer lies in the sharp and funny attitude Cleage brings to her depiction of one African-American community in the troubled 1990s. Ava Johnson, for example, might be HIV-positive, but she’s refreshingly forthright about it:
“Most of us got it from the boys. Which is, when you think about it, a pretty good argument for cutting men loose, but if I could work up a strong physical reaction to women, I would already be having sex with them. I’m not knocking it. I’m just saying I can’t be a witness. Too many titties in one place to suit me.”
As the trials and tribulations pile on, the experiences of Cleage’s characters prove to be universal: death, love, second chances. Ava’s acerbic, smart-mouthed narrative keeps the story buoyant; by the time this endearingly imperfect heroine and her cohorts have negotiated the rocky road to a happy ending, readers will be sorry to see her go, even as they wish her well.
Copyright © 1997 by Pearl Cleage.
Cover illustration by Zita Asbaghi
Interior design by Kellan Peck
For Bill Bagwell,
21st-century love warrior
I will bring you a whole person
and you will bring me a whole person
and we will have us twice as much
of love and everything…
“Celebration,” Mari Evans
i’m sitting at
the bar in the airport, minding my own business, trying to get psyched up for my flight, and I made the mistake of listening to one of those TV talk shows. They were interviewing some women with what the host kept calling
As opposed to
I guess. There they were, weeping and wailing and wringing their hands, wearing their prissy little Laura Ashley dresses and telling their edited-for-TV life stories.
The audience was eating it up, but it got on my last nerve. The thing is, half these bitches are lying.
than half. They get diagnosed and all of a sudden they’re Mother Teresa.
I can’t be positive! It’s impossible! I’m practically a virgin!
Bullshit. They got it just like I got it: fucking men.
That’s not male bashing either. That’s the truth. Most of us got it from the boys. Which is, when you think about it, a pretty good argument for cutting men loose, but if I could work up a strong physical reaction to women, I would already be having sex with them. I’m not knocking it. I’m just saying I can’t be a witness. Too many titties in one place to suit me.
I try to tune out the
but they’re going on and on and now one is really sobbing and all of a sudden
I get it.
They’re just going through the purification ritual. This is how it goes: First, you have to confess that you did nasty, disgusting sex stuff with multiple partners who may even have been of your same gender.
you have to confess that you like to shoot illegal drugs into your veins and sometimes you use other people’s works when you want to get high and you came unprepared. Then you have to describe the sin you have confessed in as much detail as you can remember. Names, dates, places, faces. Specific sexual acts. Quantity and quality of orgasms. What kind of dope you shot. What park you bought it in. All the down and dirty. Then, once your listeners have been totally freaked out by what you’ve told them, they get to decide how much sympathy, attention, help, money, and understanding you’re entitled to based on how disgusted they are.
I’m not buying into that shit. I don’t think anything I did was bad enough for me to earn this as the payback, but it gets rough out here sometimes. If you’re not a little kid, or a heterosexual movie star’s doomed but devoted wife, or a hemophiliac who got it from a tainted transfusion, or a straight white woman who can prove she’s a virgin with a dirty dentist, you’re not eligible for any no-strings sympathy.
The truth is, people are usually relieved. It always makes them feel better when they know the specifics of your story. You can see their faces brighten up when your path is one they haven’t traveled. That’s why people keep asking me if I know who I got it from. Like all they’d have to do to ensure their safety is cross this specific guy’s name off their list of acceptable sexual partners the same way you do when somebody starts smoking crack:
no future here.
But I always tell them the truth:
I have no idea.
That’s when they frown and give me one last chance to redeem myself. If I don’t know
do I at least know
By that time I can’t decide if I’m supposed to be sorry about having had a lot of sex or sorry I got sick from it. And what difference does it make at this point anyway? It’s like lying about how much you loved the rush of the nicotine just because now you have lung cancer.
I’m babbling. I must be higher than I thought.
I hate to fly. I used to dread it so much I’d have to be falling-down drunk to get on a plane. For years I started every vacation with a hangover. That’s actually how I started drinking vodka, trying to get up the nerve to go to Jamaica for a reggae festival. Worked like a charm, too, and worth a little headache the first day out and the first day back.
I know I drink too much, but I’m trying to cut back. When I first got diagnosed, I stayed drunk for about three months until I realized it was going to be a lot harder to drink myself to death then it might be to wait it out and see what happens. Some people live a long time with HIV. Maybe I’ll be one of those, grinning like a maniac on the front of
magazine, talking about how I did it.
I never used to read those survivor testimonials, but now I do, for obvious reasons. The first thing they all say they had to do was learn how to calm the fuck down, which is exactly why I was drinking so much, trying to cool out. The problem was, after a while I couldn’t tell if it was the vodka or the HIV making me sick, and I wanted to know the difference.
But I figure a little lightweight backsliding at thirty thousand feet doesn’t really count, so by the time we boarded, I had polished off two doubles and was waiting for the flight attendant to smile that first-class-only smile and bring me two more. That’s why I pay all that extra money to sit up here, so they’ll bring me what I want before I have to ring the bell and ask for it.
The man sitting next to me is wearing a beautiful suit that cost him a couple of grand easy and he’s spread out calculators, calendars, and legal pads across his tray table like the plane is now his personal office in the air. I think all that shit is for show. I don’t believe anybody can really concentrate on business when they’re hurtling through the air at six hundred miles an hour. Besides, ain’t nobody that damn busy.
He was surprised as hell when I sat down next to him. White men in expensive suits are always a little pissed to find themselves seated next to me in first class, especially since I started wearing my hair so short. They seem to take it as some kind of personal affront that of all the seats on the airplane, the baldheaded black woman showed up next to them. It used to make me uncomfortable. Now I think of it as helping them take a small step toward higher consciousness. Discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment.
For the first time in a long time, I didn’t grip and pray during takeoff. It wasn’t that I was drunk. I’ve been a lot drunker on a lot of other airplanes. It’s just that at this point, a plane crash might be just what the doctor ordered.
i always forget
how small the terminal is in Grand Rapids. Two or three shops, a newsstand, and a lounge with a big-screen TV, but barely enough vodka to make me another double while I wait for Joyce, who is, of course, a little late. I truly love my big sister, but I swear if she was ever on time for anything, I’d probably have a heart attack at the shock of it.
The bartender seemed surprised when the drink he poured for me emptied his only bottle of Absolut. He set the glass down in front of me on a cocktail napkin printed with a full-color map of Michigan.
“Sorry I don’t have lime,” he said. “Most people come through here just drink a beer or something.”
“It’s fine,” I said, taking a long swallow to prove it. I knew that if he could think of something else to say, he would, but our brief exchange seemed to have exhausted his conversational skills. He headed back to the TV.
It feels strange to be sitting here writing all this down. The last time I kept a diary was when I first got to Atlanta in 1984. Things were happening so fast I started writing it all down to try and keep up. Just like now. I was nineteen. I had a brand-new cosmetology license, two years salon experience, and an absolute understanding of the fact that it was time for me to get the hell out of Detroit.
When I was growing up in Idlewild, my tiny hometown four hours north of the big city, the motor city had always seemed as close to paradise as I could probably stand. Two years of really being there showed me how truly wrong I could be.
I had heard that if you were young and black and had any sense, Atlanta was the place to be, and that was the damn truth. Those Negroes were living so good, they could hardly stand themselves. They had big dreams and big cars and good jobs and money in the bank. They had just elected another one of their own to the mayor’s office, they were selling plenty of wolf tickets downtown, and they partied hard and continuously.
My first week in town, I hooked up with a sister who was going to work for the new mayor, and she invited me to a cocktail reception at one of the big downtown hotels. When we got there, I felt like I had walked into one of those ads in
where the fine brother in the designer tux says to the beautiful sister in the gorgeous gown:
I assume you drink Martel?
Folks were standing around laughing and talking and pretending they had been doing this shit for years.
My friend was steadily working the crowd, and by the end of the evening, I had been introduced to everybody who was anybody among the new power people. My first impression was that they were the best-dressed, best-coifed, horniest crowd I had ever seen. I knew my salon was going to make a fortune, and it did. I’d still be making good money if I hadn’t tried to do the right thing.
When I got the bad news, I sat down and wrote to all the men I’d had sex with in the last ten years. It’s kind of depressing to make a list like that. Makes you remember how many times you had sex when you should have just said good night and gone home. Sometimes, at first, when I was really pissed off at the
of it all and some self-righteous anger seemed more appealing than another round of whining, I used to try and figure out who gave it to me in the first place, but I knew that line of thinking was bullshit. The question wasn’t who gave it to me. The question was what was I going to do about it. Still, when I think about all the men I slept with that I didn’t even really care about, it drives me crazy to think I could be paying with my life for some damn sex that didn’t even make the earth move.