Victorious

I want to feel victorious.
I want to say I faced a dragon
and I slayed it
say I saw the beast
and betrayed it
say I danced with the devil till he died
and flew with angels on high
played with the players on Capitol Hill
drank coffee with those guys on Olympus
maybe you know them?
once they were gods
but they’ve gone out of style.
I want to say the greatest monster I’ve faced
was twice my size and haloed in fire
bathed in the brimstone of hell itself
a beast bursting through cities
and killing in the middle of the night
a demon from the dawn of time
remnants of the chaos before creation
two-faced and smiling in greed, certain
that I would be its next victim
but in the end this monster
though all of these things
lacks the size to be seen
it isn’t even cellular–it’s deeper than that
a fragment of DNA coiled and encoded
an acronym of fear and loathing
I want to say I was victorious
that night when I slipped away
in a taxi at two in the morning
that night when I met them
two guys I had never known before
that night when I had sex
and survived

but the truth is we didn’t have sex
we were sexual
but never made it all the way
I knew better than
to take it all off
I kept my pants on
between the naked men around me
huddled in the darkness
of thick comforters and satin sheets
of breath on body
and body on breath
the sacrament of knowledge
the delusion of desire
that information is power
and power is protection
against a disease
that feeds on your blood
and drains your life by the hour

The truth is it felt pretty great actually
in my mind I could already imagine
the outpouring of words
from the experience–
that’s what I do,
when I experience,
I imagine how the world
can be distilled into words
how the moments
can be memorialized
into mismatched metaphors
and prose for the poor–
I latched on an image, I said,
in my head, “An excess of hands”
so many–
grabbing me, holding me, touching me
–theirs and mine both
sensual, and sensuous, and sexual
and part of it made me eager
to snuggle up closer
to feel their warmth of their bodies,
the beating
of their hearts in harmony with mine
the taste of air saturated
with the perspiration of passion
“An excess of hands,” I said
in my head
catching release, and
dozing off in their bed

In the morning I was the first to get dressed
the first to wait for the keys
to be found
to go back home
I paged through the magazines in their living room
as I waited while they searched
I looked around their house–
it’s nice, I remarked to myself, I could live like this
but not for the price they have to pay
not for the pills and the check-ups and the stigma
of death at their door
of death in their pores
of death. just death.
I stumbled home in the end
and when I got back I showered.
the water couldn’t get hot enough
to burn the virus away–
but I tried, trust me, I tried–
and I didn’t know what to do with myself
–what had I done to myself?–
I hadn’t eaten all day. It was afternoon now.
I had to eat. So I forced myself to eat.
But it wasn’t quite eating.
It was
simply said
habitually meeting the dining hall
for an awkward encounter
in which neither says much to other
but fluids are exchanged
and particles ingested
and though it feels like sustenance
and scientifically has substance
it leaves the soul full of absence
since the soul was absent already
and the body–
borne by muscle and bone
–is nothing more than a vessel anyways
empty and broken and rotted on the inside.

In the medical profession we call this shock
we call it post-traumatic stress
or depression
we call it the symptom of an action
or the result faced by a victim
and it would be so easy to say this was rape
to push the blame on the men I had slept with
to expunge myself of the guilt and
free myself from the chains I had gathered
like a sweater in a cold room
the only comfort I could hold onto
each link the only link
still holding me together

But the truth is it wasn’t rape
it was consensual
at two in the morning I told them
I want to come over
and at two in the morning they told me
the door’s open
and I can’t even say I went in ignorance
because I knew
I had asked, he had told me
and at first I was afraid, but I was ignorant
I said, I know how to be safe
I know what to do, and I know what not to do
but after the fact
when looking back
huddled in darkness
stirred in the night
did I really believe I could outsmart a disease?

I want to feel victorious.
I want to think my actions kept me negative
but it was only chance
I want to say knowledge is power
but too much power is dangerous
and I want to say I’m free of the disease
but this disease is still a part of me
In class discussing world poverty
the AIDS epidemic in Africa
I felt a glacier glide down my spine
when my teacher told us it’s not a big problem here
I wanted to tell him–to yell at him–it’s still in our backyard
I’ve seen it
I’ve touched it
I’ve shared words with it over traffic jams
“I haven’t told my mother yet,” he told me
“I don’t know what to say.”
He looked me in the eyes–for a moment
as the cars drove by–and he told me
“I told everyone we used protection
but we didn’t
and even though he’s on his meds
and undetectable–I still got infected”
His hands were shaking on the wheel
we scraped against another car as we moved to turn
grinding closer, losing color, he told me
“Use protection. Always use protection”
And I want to be proud and say that I have
but sometimes I haven’t
and I want to be proud that I went to get help
but sometimes I didn’t
and I want to be proud that I’ve made it this far
but sometimes I feel I haven’t made it all
because I can stand up in a room and say I’m still negative
but not all of my friends can, and even though I do
what am I doing?
it’s a part of me. this disease is a part of me
Maybe not in my veins and not in my blood
but in my spirit, my soul
it gnaws at me, tugs at me, tears me to pieces
and fills me with tears
and I see the suffering on the news
I hear the kids say it’s no big deal
the drugs are cheap now, it’s not a death sentence anymore
–and that’s true. all of it’s true.

but the truth is this truth is only an excuse
a fact of the matter that says it won’t matter
but I saw the look in his eyes
as he told me he wished it wasn’t this way
and the scars on his body
from being this way
and I’ve heard high officials speak in DC
saying that we can defeat this disease
we can create a world where our children
won’t know what it means
what these three letters mean
and they won’t have the fear
the terror I’ve faced
and I know it’s in sight. I see it in sight
it’s a worthy fight
and now it’s my fight.
I am going to be victorious.

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