by Julia McCloy
Last summer I didn’t have a boyfriend. I still don’t have a boyfriend but last summer the fact that I didn’t seemed more significant.
I thought about the fact that I didn’t almost on an hourly basis. I thought about it when I was home washing the dishes and when I was listening to the faxes come through the front office at work and when I was wrapping my hands around cold beers at barbecues. I spent a great deal of time thinking about it. And I think this was because I was also expending a lot of effort trying to get AIDS.
I had volunteered for a study at St. Jude, which is a research center and hospital primarily known for commercials involving bald, dying children smiling very hard.
St. Jude is a very large facility. It covers more than nine city blocks in downtown Memphis. It is full of researchers researching and doctors doctoring and hopefully children getting better. St Jude describes itself as “internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases.” One of those diseases is HIV.
I had volunteered in order to help test a vaccine. Some people spend their summers assuaging their parent’s fears about whitewater canoe trips or mountain bike trips in Glacier National Park. I spent my summer telling my family, “Hey, don’t worry. They are almost 90% sure I won’t get AIDS or have any side effects that will kill me.”
I am a thirty-one year old female who is HIV negative. I don’t share needles, or use needles, or really look at needles at all unless in a doctor’s office. And even then I usually think, “Needle, huh. You sure there’s not another way?”
Also, I don’t get paid for sex, unless by paid you mean dinner and/or whatever alcohol it takes for me to eventually think you can’t regret it, if you don’t remember it. On top of that I am generally healthy. For that reason I was accepted as a volunteer in a HIV vaccine study that would take about six months and would involve one month where I would be “you know, sick. Not really sick, but sick like a bad cold …maybe flu.” This was according to the nurse who had accepted me for the study.
The nurse was my personal guide through the process. I spoke to her on the phone when I called to volunteer and she was the first person to shake my hand when I entered the St. Jude campus. She was going to walk me through the entire process. She was there for every meeting, including the last one where I held my face and cried, “I can’t. I am sorry I know this is my fault… it is not you, but I can’t.”
But before the moment that I broke down (both ridiculously and humiliatingly) in the examining room and cried because I felt I was too much of a coward to complete the study, I had to meet the nurse.
She truly was the closest thing I had to a boyfriend the whole summer. She gave me her phone number and told me to call her at home. She held my hand every time I came in the office and told me to tell her about my feelings. She bragged about me to other workers. When I left her a message that I “was worried and nervous,” she called me back within an hour at home and said she would like to meet me as soon as possible. I liked her and I began to really hope she liked me.
She was a woman in her fifties who wore her hair in a manner that yelled, “I am not a lesbian, but 5 out of 6 lesbians in their fifties would give my haircut a thumbs-up.”
She was tall and when I spoke to her I said, “yes, ma’am.” She asked me why I wanted to do the study and I answered honestly, “because I feel really badly about people being in pain for whatever reason, like it makes my stomach hurt, I assume that is why I became a social worker — and maybe this will help lessen it.” She stared at me. I assumed there was a follow-up question, but there wasn’t. There was just an awkward couple of minutes where she stared at me and I realized my answer to that question may have been both too honest and also in no way clarifying.
As she stared at me I remembered a story a friend once told me about in which she ruined a first date by blurting out, “My dad molested me, so I don’t know… I am kinda weird about dating men, but I am having a great time right now, wanna get pizza?”
I met with the nurse several times. Despite all the anatomy and physiology classes I took in college (including a few where I was required to handle cadavers), I didn’t really understand the mechanism in which the vaccine worked or how my body responded.
When the nurse spoke to me, all I could think of was those shows I watched as a child where animated versions of germs with fists and grimaces crawled into the mouth of a boy’s body causing the boy to double over and say “ I don’t feel well.” All the while the germs jumped up and down in the boy’s body cavity. After I tried to explain the cartoon to the nurse, she asked, ”Did you ever take a biology class in high school? Do you know what I mean when I say the word ‘immunity’?” She said it very softly and patted the top of my hand. She was the best boyfriend in the entire world.
She gave me a green folder to keep all the material I was learning about the vaccine, the study, and my part in it. I only looked at it when I had to pick it up in order to clean under it.
I had other things to remind me of the nurse anyway, like a bruise on my arm from where she extracted what I can only describe as a buttload of blood. This was on the third meeting. During this meeting she rubbed my shoulders as another nurse repeated, “Yeah, we have to get a lot of blood. It takes a long time.” She repeated this over and over. She said it in a breathy manner and in a rush. I couldn’t help but imagining her saying it while having sex. I was thoroughly uncomfortable.
Despite the nurse’s patience and calls at home and handholding (literal handholding), in the end I couldn’t go through with the study. There were too many worries. The vaccine by definition would cause me to test positive for HIV on the Western Blot test, despite the fact that I wouldn’t have HIV. This would affect my insurance coverage, range of possible occupations, and dating.
I tried to imagine explaining to a date, “Okay here’s the thing. You know how you want us to get tested for AIDS, well I got a kooky, crazy story to tell you and it involves al lot of science and a little love and a woman named Julia who doesn’t have HIV, but tests positive for it. But mostly this story involves you and a plan. A plan so crazy…it just might work.” It was funny in my head. It would be funnier in real life. I didn’t want it to ever happen.
So it didn’t. Because I dropped out of the study. I called the nurse and made an emergency meeting. Like most breakups, it was awkward and weird and too long and I spent most of the time thinking, ”Just let them talk. Be quiet, and be glad you just didn’t get any venereal diseases. Just nod and get up and walk away.” And I did.
Julia McCloy is a writer living in Memphis. This is her first time writing in these pages.
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
I could stay in bed.
Like my momma said don’t just do something.
Sit around instead.