We Grew Up Singing Rent, But No One Talked About HIV. We Waited.
The first time I said "fuck" was the winter of 2005. I screamed it out of car window in the abandoned parking lot of a Dairy Queen, singing along to songs about HIV/AIDS from a burned CD copy of the Rent movie soundtrack. I'd never really cursed before, but in the oddly sharp Pittsburgh fall, when everything smells like sweet rot and the air feels like cut glass, fucking the world seemed to fit.
I can't tell you the car -- it had to have belonged to one of the girls; none of the boys (all pimply and swollen with future promise in their polo shirts) would have let us play Rent, not such a "queer" musical. So it was in the one of the girls' cars, some fourth-hand ride one of us had inherited from a parent, an older brother, an aunt who'd moved.
But we were there, sixteen and excited and scared, in clothes that didn't fit right. Waiting for our lives to start, convinced that if we whispered our dreams of fame and money and security to ourselves before bed each night, we'd arise in the morning, beautiful and celebrated. We had complicated loves, alliances of friendship and fights. We waited for adulthood in bodies that seemed alternatively too tight and too loose, half-formed but strong. We waited.
We had simple truths, though, hammered into us in health class and through the Disney Channel and Sunday school. Good guys win. Don't drink and drive. Friendship is golden. Don't smoke; you'll get cancer. Work hard. Don't do drugs; you'll die. Go to college. Don't have sex; you'll get pregnant. Grow up and grow out of here, before this city ties you down into a life where you find yourself staring out of your coffee each morning, wondering what would happen if today you walked onto the Fort Pitt Bridge's concrete railing and just stood, just to stand, not to jump, but just to feel as if you could.
So we sat in parking lots and sang along to songs about people dying of AIDS and living with HIV, people who didn't have heat or food or health but had love and friendship. We belted out off-key tunes about other people's pain, convinced that our trials were just as large but fundamentally different, convinced that love could bring back the almost-dead, that there was an inherent beauty in disease and hope in poverty. We waited to be okay, because this -- this moment in the Dairy Queen parking lot, smoking a cigarette because we could make choices that were dangerous -- was going to be the worst that life was ever going to be.
We grew up and we left and came back, and we realized slowly that life is a period of waiting, of trying to figure things out. That our skin would never fit right, the tightness of our shoulder blades fighting with the elasticity of our waists, as we saw our bodies becoming the foreign, strange, fleshy ones of our parents.
But while we waited, some of us got sick. Not with the cancers we courted with youthful abandon, because prom tans and Black and Mild cigarillos only lead to illness in sad young-adult books where everyone dies. But with other insidious diseases, mental ones that crawled out from somewhere deep inside of us and made us crave things we knew we shouldn't.
I was lucky -- my brand of crazy required the memorization of books, the careful ordering of paper margins, the intensive recording of each penny spent. Others courted disorder, first with tiny pills helpfully handed out and then with needles, putting poison in to draw it out.
In Rent, Rosario Dawson croons to Adam Pascal that she likes shooting up between her fingers, as if it's a sensual thing, a thing we never thought about twice while singing along. There's no chorus about swollen fingers, the fleshy joint between thumb and pointer turning green-black on the hand of a boy you danced with, once, at a seventh grade social. Too nervous to look him in the eye you stared at his collar bones then ran off to the bathroom and hid, your face flushed -- and ten years later you see him in a CVS, all skin and gray fingernails, and hide again.
People kept getting sicker, but no one talked about anything beyond the drugs. OD and die, or get Narcan and go to rehab or jail, or get clean or repeat the whole cycle over again. I wrote sympathy cards I never sent, saying things such as:
We used to sit next to each other in biology, do you remember? You used to wear this red sweater; it made you look really pretty, and one day Adam said it made you look like Mr. Kool-Aid. It didn't; you were beautiful, and I'm sorry that I didn't say that then; please don't be dead.
Your son was kind and nice, but what can I say now that he's dead and the newspaper told me you found him?
No one ever talked about HIV. We -- straight, mostly white, mostly lower middle class, those of Advanced Placement tests and college degrees, of student loan repayments and cross-fit gyms -- don't get HIV. It's a disease of the movies, of gay guys in the '80s who didn't use condoms. We were safe, protected from the disease we had sung about by who we were.
The problem, of course, is that HIV doesn't care who you are, or the songs that you sing, or how you got it. It lives by numbers, by the ratios of chance of exposure and infection, of the need to constantly multiply and spread.
And while we wait for jobs we'd like, for health insurance, for the belief in ourselves we used to have, more of us are getting sick, but this time with things that have names like foul incantations: Kaposi's sarcoma, angiosarcoma, candidiasis.
But we don't talk about it. We wait. We fucking wait.
JJ Janflone is a graduate student at the University of Denver Josef Korbel School of International Studies. There she serves as the graduate director of the Human Trafficking Center and focuses on East Asia, exploitative labor and human trafficking and perception of the self within stigma-affected populations.