“It just seems strange. Lou Reed dies, but I live? It doesn’t seem right.” Dr. Oswald furrowed his brow. Only a little over two years had passed since the death of The Velvet Underground frontman in late October, 2013.
“Oh right, right. The musician,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but for some patients, previous treatments make the new treatments impossible. His case was so far advanced. He’d had cancer, and a liver transplant.” Dr. Oswald put down the pen he was holding, and studied me for a moment. “Most patients mention Pamela Anderson,” he said. Pamela Anderson. “The Poison Pin-Up.” I loved her, and would have mentioned her, eventually.
In 2002, she’d revealed to the world she had Hepatitis C, a grimy, blood-borne pathogen, contrary to her healthy, blonde, Hugh Hefner-endorsed brand of sexiness. I’d sometimes use the media’s nickname for Anderson for myself: I, too, was a Poison Pin-Up. But according to Dr. Oswald, not for much longer.
“In six months, you’ll be Hepatitis C-free,” he said. “Cured! In the last six months, I’ve cured close to sixty patients. Cured! I want to see you smile!” He waited. I responded with a weak grin. “I want to see you dance! Come on! I’m curing you!”
“I’m grateful,” I said. “I’m just not overly demonstrative. I like to play it cool. It’s the influence of Lou Reed.”
It was annoying that Dr. Oswald kept saying he was curing me. The medication would be curing me. Dr. Oswald was a man with a pen I would be seeing for ten minutes, once a month.
Yes, this was a pivotal moment in my life, but Dr. Oswald was yet another man telling me I should smile.
The phone calls from the black-ops pharmacy started a few days later. I was on two medications: Sovaldi and Ribavirin. As Dr. Oswald had thoroughly impressed upon me (almost as if I should be honored), the Sovaldi cost $800 a pill. The black-ops pharmacy only sent me two weeks’ worth at a time, fourteen pills, in the event I might drop dead in the interim, and the government of the state that I lived in would be out the thousands of dollars in already dispensed medication.
I kind of couldn’t believe that “The Man” was willing to shell out so much money for me. For most of my early adult life, I’d been what fiscal conservatives (to put them kindly) considered (to put me kindly) a drain on the system: in and out of rehab, hardly paying any income taxes at all. Now, I made less than $20,000 a year, and wrote about sex work, addiction, and my appreciation of artistic reprobates. I’d had a Charles Manson scrapbook in junior high. I’d joined the Social Workers Party in high school. There had been no point in my life when I hadn’t been Marxist-leaning and/or fucked. But if my Hepatitis C advanced, say to the Lou Reed-stages of cirrhosis, then liver cancer, it could carry an even heavier price tag. My state government viewed treating me now as cost effective in the long run.
The black-ops pharmacy was very on top of my medication needs. Every other week, I’d get a phone call.
“Hello. It’s ****** Pharmacy. Could I have your name, and date of birth please?”
I’d give it.
“Your personal PIN number?”
I’d give it.
“Your high school boyfriend’s mom’s sister’s babysitter’s dad’s last name?”
I’d give it.
Then they’d arrange the drop off.
Sometimes this was a hassle, because I had to be there to sign for the medication. They wouldn’t leave it, and no one else could sign for it. If something went wrong with the first delivery attempt, they’d set up a second delivery for the next day, with a scheduled time.
It was an amazing procession to be a part of, all of it for my liver—the pharmacy and the delivery service with their outstretched hands shaking the branches of the over $100,000 money tree that was the total cost of my three months of treatment.
All self-deprecation aside, what had made my Hep C treatment possible, what had made my Hep C cure possible, was that the state that I live in had agreed to cover the cost for low-income patients. Most states don’t, or fight it first, requiring patients to have advanced liver disease, or to pass invasive drug tests. People die waiting to be approved for treatment that they would have had better access to had they lived a few states to the west, or a few states to the north, or in a poorer country, like India. In India, Sovaldi sells for four dollars a pill.
My access to a cure for my Hepatitis C came down to one thing: the vagaries of geography.
I had never had any side effects I could identify with having Hepatitis. I just knew that the virus was there in my body, lurking. The disease is known as “The Silent Killer” for a reason. Most people aren’t diagnosed until they have some form of liver damage. I experienced fatigue sometimes, but who doesn’t? Life is often physically and emotionally exhausting. I had no stomach ailments, no nausea, no “Coca-Cola colored urine.”
The first few days I took the medication, I felt a pronounced sense of tiredness, but that was it. It was unbelievably painless, easy, and uneventful. My life was not disrupted. In contrast, I’d watched a boyfriend take interferon treatments in 2004. The weekly, self-administered injections left him with aching muscles, migraines, and horrible nausea. It was like he was injecting himself with the flu. There were days he looked grey-green, rubbery and Gumby-like. He couldn’t handle it, and we started getting high a month into his treatment. Sometimes, we’d shoot up with his sanitized interferon syringes.
I hadn’t gotten Hepatitis C from him, but we’d been together when I learned I’d had it. By 2004, I’d been using heroin for ten years, and most of the drug users I knew had it. I’d been in and out of treatment by that point, and found myself surrounded by a more seasoned breed of addict: the hardcore. All of my friends who had used for a little bit, then picked themselves up, and gone off to college, had been replaced by those who might never get it together, who had caught diseases, worked shitty jobs, and lived with their mothers when not in jail or halfway houses. I’d become one in their ranks.
In spite of the necessary medical warnings, it’s hard to get Hepatitis C from sex. Some doctors describe it as being virtually impossible. I know who I got Hepatitis C from, which I only mention because I’m an oddly sentimental person. In a sense, it was like she was there in my body, waiting for the right moment to hit me, just as she’d been the last time I’d seen her.
Whenever I’d spend too long thinking about my virus, I’d always end up thinking about Callie*.
It was near the end of the 20th century; I was in my early twenties. I stopped paying income tax in 1997. I’d been an IV drug user since 1993. Needle use is an easy line to cross once you get over your childhood doctor’s office hang-ups. Drug addiction is, in a lot of ways, an extended exposure therapy to all the things you once feared.
I’m not proud, but even though I grew up in the 1990s, very aware of AIDS, I could be sloppy when it came to using clean needles. The precautions I took were usually contingent on the desperation I felt. If the desperation to get high wasn’t overwhelming, and there was bleach available, I would clean the needle I was sharing with bleach. But if the desperation to get high was less manageable, I would clean the needle I was sharing with water.
I had started using heroin when I was in high school. I got high with a close group of friends I’d grown up with, using needles my best friend’s mother had stored away in the basement after going through treatment for cancer. It wasn’t science, but we knew each other’s exposure risks, because we were each other’s exposure risks. It was dangerous and stupid, but as a group, we were contained. Once I ventured out into the wider world, this openness to being lackadaisical would become a problem.
My drug use is at the nexus of so many different threads in my life: punk rock, sex work, Lou Reed and past-epoch romanticism—in New York City all these divergent threads would meet. And, I suppose, the result was Hepatitis C. Perhaps this is what happens when you move to New York City looking to bleat a corpse.
When I was in junior high, I’d read two books. Most people have heard of the expression “gateway drug.” For me, these were “gateway books”—the kinds of books that inspired a life-long interest in similar subject matter. They were And I Don’t Want to Live This Life, and The Andy Warhol Diaries.
And I Don’t Want to Live This Life is a memoir about the troubled life, and gruesome death, of twenty-year-old Nancy Spungen, the much maligned girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. The Andy Warhol Diaries is the literary transcription of the artist’s oral diary, what he bought, who he saw, and what he thought, from the mid-1970s on.
There was something about the melding of those two worlds for me—of Warhol and punk rock. The glitterati and the gutterati. At its nexus, I thought I might find my place.
If I couldn’t live in New York City in the late 1970s, I would live there like it was still 1978. The reality of my post-high school plans was this: I wanted to be a character from a Lou Reed song.
I once got into an argument with a drug counselor about whether or not IV drugs could be done recreationally. She said they couldn’t. I said they could. Recreation (to me, as well as Webster’s) is fun. Recreation (to me, as well as Webster’s) is friends. IV drug use will never be viewed in those terms: it makes people too squeamish. It’s too ugly. It will always be seen as the end of the road, the last stop before death. And while this is often very true, there is also friendship in it, there is humor, there is fun. IV drug users aren’t just human pin cushions with bloody walls.
Callie and I shared needles, but we shared a lot of other things, too.
I met Callie through her boyfriend Juan. Juan was someone I’d see at punk rock shows when I was in high school. He was older, and somewhat intimidating, with vulgar tattoos on his hands and neck. He was a man of few words, unless he was drunk, then he was incomprehensible. I was just learning about drugs then, while Juan had already committed years of his life to them. I didn’t know him well, but when I moved to New York City, he was already living there. He became one of the people I’d buy drugs from. When he and Callie were evicted from where they’d been living, I agreed to let them stay with me. I liked the idea of having an in-house drug dealer. That Juan came with human baggage in the form of Callie, I agreed to suck up. But the more I got to know Callie, the more I liked her. The more I got to know Juan, the less I liked him. The first night they stayed with me, Juan tried to come onto me as Callie slept in the other room.
Callie was two years older than me. She had moved to New York City to go to art school, but had dropped out a few semesters short of graduation. She had short black hair that she wore in a Coco Chanel-style bob and, even while she and Juan were without a place to stay, always managed to look elegant and sophisticated. She was the first person I’d ever met who wore clothes by designers like Givenchy and Commes des Garçons, designers so far from my point of reference that at first I thought she was talking about bands I’d never heard of. While they’d been short on money, Juan had taken some of her clothes and sold them in the East Village. I’d listen as she described what she’d lost, enamored of the delicate language that she used. It was like she was talking about flaky pastries at a bakery.
Within a month of coming to my apartment, Juan was arrested for selling heroin to an undercover cop.
Juan was going to prison. He had an arrest history, and no one to bail him out before his court date, but what he seemed the most concerned with was having Callie smuggle him drugs when she came to visit. After her first visit with Juan, she came back to the apartment with an elaborate plan as to how she would bring him heroin the next time.
“You are crazy,” I said. “Crazy. You are going to get caught, and if you don’t get caught, he’ll ask you to do it again, and then you’ll get caught.”
I wondered if Juan would have preferred that Callie be in jail, too. Despite his own cheating (and cheating attempts), he was extremely possessive of her, and exuded machismo. It was clear from his collect calls that his paranoia about their relationship was escalating.
I gave Callie an ultimatum.
If you bring him drugs, you can’t stay here.
I think our burgeoning relationship gave her the confidence to make the decision. I could be her focus. I could fill her Juan-shaped hole.
Callie dropped the idea of bringing Juan drugs, and we fell into a period of best-friend bliss.
If Callie had an Achilles heel more detrimental than her drug use, it was men. No, it was love in general. Even before Juan, Callie had a history of making bad decisions while drunk on the idea of love. Her love was big and dramatic, like a Lana Turner movie from the 1950s, with fights on street corners, and life or death proclamations. Juan wasn’t the first man she’d dropped out of school for, nor was he the first for whom she’d cut off all communication with her family. He wasn’t the first she’d lived with on the street, and he wouldn’t be the last.
And like Lana Turner in those films, Callie dressed in garments with clean lines, in muted hues—grey, beige, and black—adding an element of noir ambiance to the pathos.
We stopped accepting Juan’s phone calls. Once in a while, she or I would answer his letters, which always included requests that either one of us send him naked pictures. (We’d heard from friends that other women were already visiting him in prison.) Juan’s supplier had a crush on Callie, said he wanted to help her “get on her feet,” and fronted her drugs to sell. Instead, we did them. Around this time, pharmacies started to get tougher about selling needles without a prescription. So sometimes, Callie and I would share. I tried to be thorough about cleaning the needle. I knew she had gotten Hepatitis C from sharing needles with an ex-boyfriend, but there were times I wanted to get high so badly.
Callie got on methadone. She viewed it as a security measure against dope sickness, and I decided to get on it, too. We’d spend hours walking around the East Village after going to our drug treatment programs. We’d go to Kim’s Video and to See Hear, the zine store. We’d browse the small boutiques, looking for Callie’s clothes that Juan had sold. They only bought on consignment, meaning the item had to be sold in the store before you got paid for it. We decided then that Juan must have sold her clothes on the street. The idea of her clothes spread out on the sidewalk for pedestrians to paw seemed to genuinely pain her.
But we’d spend most of our time in Tompkins Square Park, with the addicts and alcoholics. Some of the park regulars had played bit parts in the 1970s and ‘80s punk and no wave scene. I loved listening to their stories about drumming for Johnny Thunders, or acting in the early films of Eric Mitchell and Jim Jarmusch, or what had really happened the night Nancy Spungen died. Over the next few years, my favorite Tompkins Square Park storytellers would both die from complications related to Hepatitis C.
Callie and I were never put off by the downtrodden, but she was much more friendly and tolerant of the punk rock travelers who also hung out in and around the park. I liked to imagine that, unlike them, we were part of a larger, more romantic tradition, something I couldn’t see in their aggressive panhandling, and hostile pitbulls. In them I saw a ruthlessness born of desperation.
As she’d done with expensive clothing, Callie introduced me to expensive make-up, and we’d go shoplifting at Sephora. At night, we’d go see friends’ bands play at CBGB, or heroes like Lydia Lunch at Life, or Kembra Pfahler at Coney Island High, or we’d listen to Richard Hell read from his work at St. Mark’s Poetry Project.
One day, I saw Lou Reed walking down St. Mark’s Place. It wasn’t lost on me that St. Mark’s had been the site of the Electric Circus, “New York’s ultimate mixed-media pleasure dome,” where Reed had played with The Velvet Underground. St. Mark’s had also been the scene of the eponymous Sally’s decline in his song “Sally Can’t Dance.”
“Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism,” Lester Bangs once said. I’d moved to New York City because I’d believed in that dignity, and had immediately thrown myself into the demimonde.
For my birthday, Callie gave me a card with an inscription that read, “To my sister.” The message was pre-printed, in someone else’s words, but the sentiment was true.
We were like sisters. Demimondaines.
If the closeness of my relationship with Callie could be measured in bodily fluids:
For his birthday, we had a threesome with our friend Paul. As I gave him a blowjob, Callie went down on me. After they had sex, Paul rolled over to my side of the bed. Something about this struck me as too much. I grabbed a bottle of water from the nightstand and dumped it on his penis.
Callie thought she had an infection, but didn’t want to go the gynecologist if it wasn’t necessary. She put a finger inside herself, and held it up to my face. “Do you think I need to go?” she asked. I wasn’t sure. She put her finger under my nose. “No,” I said, “you’re fine.”
One night, we crashed into my bed after hours of drinking. I was never one to drink much, but on this night, we both got sloshed; I don’t know how we navigated the streets and the subway home. When we woke up in the morning, the bed and our clothes were soaked in pee. Was it hers? Was it mine? Did it matter? Somewhere between the LES and my apartment, Callie lost an Alexander McQueen scarf.
Callie said she’d worked as a dancer. I was working as an outcall escort, and Callie started escorting, too. We would sometimes do calls together, but Callie only wanted to work with me, as a team, which wasn’t always possible. This was our only steady source of income, and if she couldn’t work with me, Callie began to make excuses why she couldn’t go. She’d say she was sick, or had gotten her period; she never offered to show me the snot or the blood. I hated doing it, too. I still have dread dreams about it—but it provided fast money that we needed.
Callie had enjoyed her freedom from Juan, but she’d also been comfortable in his chains. Though he hadn’t done it well, often leaving her dope sick, or ignorant as to his whereabouts, Juan and her other boyfriends had taken care of her according to standards she had accepted. I didn’t see it as care; I saw it as laying claim. I cared about her, but I also expected an equal division of labor. There was nothing Lana Turner about our relationship.
In order to cut down on expenses, we both went up ungodly amounts on our methadone. It was futile for us to do heroin, since we couldn’t feel it, but we still tried.
Then one day, while standing outside my drug treatment program, I discovered Xanax.
And Callie discovered Perdition.
Perdition was the perfect name for him. Hell, only said smartly. Perdition looked (of all things) like a Hasidic Jew. He had wiry black hair, long, dark sideburns, and a colonial times beard. He cultivated darkness and gloom, wore it, and fine-tuned it as a weapon he shot from his mouth. His nihilism didn’t wear him down; on the contrary, it invigorated him. If he saw a flower growing from a crack in the pavement, he would pick up his boot and stomp on it. He was like a Nietzschean cartoon character. He reminded me of both Leopold and Loeb. I suspected he was gay.
He was also a homeless heroin addict. He had ended up in New York City after hopping trains from somewhere in the middle of the country, somewhere oppressively religious. Callie met him in Tompkins Square Park, where he’d been selling drugs. Their relationship moved fast. Faster than the Xanax in my brain allowed me to fully comprehend at the time. I knew that Perdition was obnoxious, but because he had drugs, I didn’t mind when Callie first brought him back to the apartment. But the more time I spent around him, it became clear that his drugs were not enough to warrant his presence in our lives. I don’t think he even liked Callie. I think he liked having a place to stay, and a woman at his side to insult.
At night, I’d go to work, and come home to Perdition’s Natural Born Killers votaries camped out in my living room, his gross boots outside my bedroom door, and my dogs hiding in the closet. He had zero respect for me, and less than zero for Callie. He would degrade her in front of his park-bench coterie with critiques of their sexual activities, what he liked her to do, and what she did that he didn’t like. He didn’t seem to understand or care that the apartment was mine. He was racist, homophobic, and misogynistic—but the worst part was that he was smart, and fast. I am often good with a fiery insult in a loved one’s defense, but under the influence of Xanax, I wasn’t working at full-brain capacity. I couldn’t even properly defend us in my own home.
He had to go.
But the real worst part was watching Callie try to defend him.
“He’s different when he’s not around his friends,” she’d say.
No. The real worst part was listening to Callie denigrate me as she stumped for him.
“He’s just like that because he knows you don’t like him. You haven’t given him a chance. If you did, you’d see that you have things in common.”
No. The only thing we had in common, besides drugs, was my juvenile interest in Charles Manson; that interest had passed. Perdition was a grown man holding tight to the fascination.
Was it the drugs? Was it the access to them that he provided that made Callie so willing to degrade herself? Was it me not yet willing to acknowledge that we were already degrading ourselves anyway—most nights when we went to work—so what was one more asshole, anyway? It made me think about her relationship with Juan. I’d never told her about the night he’d come onto me. Would she have just blamed me if I had?
Early one morning, Callie and Perdition got up to go to Tompkins Square Park. Once they were outside the building, I opened my bedroom window, and threw out Perdition’s coat.
“You’re not coming back!” I yelled. “Not you, Callie!” I said, registering the scowl on her face. “You can come back. But not him.”
Callie’s hands rose up to her shoulders, in tight little balls. Then she separated her fingers, so just the middle ones stood.
She flipped me off, and picked up Perdition’s coat. They continued walking down the street.
Fine. If that’s the way you want it, I said to no one. I went to Callie’s area of the closet to pack up her things, but found the space already cleared, and most of her clothes gone. She’d been complaining about the weight she’d put on being on methadone, but I couldn’t imagine her actually selling her clothes. I’d noticed that she’d been dressing more like Perdition. She’d been wearing a Rammstein T-shirt of his—a band he liked solely because of their association with the killers at Columbine. There were swatches of fabric from a Vivienne Westwood skirt on the floor. I’d seen patches of the same material on Perdition’s coat. He’d obviously cut it up to make some kind of embellishment.
Getting her things together took all of two minutes. I got dressed, went to my drug treatment program, bought some Xanax, and came home.
Somehow, I managed to avoid seeing her downtown, and she never came for the little she’d left behind. I assumed that they were either sleeping in cheap hotel rooms, or on the street. My anger towards her turned into resentment. The Xanax didn’t calm my feelings.
Then the mail started. Colton Burgess had been ticketed for drinking in the park. Colton Burgess had been taken by disco bus to Beth Israel, and owed the hospital thousands of dollars. The bill had an itemized line for Narcan. Obviously Colton Burgess had overdosed. Colton Burgess was Perdition. I was sure Callie had suggested using my address. It reminded me of when she and I would buy needles, before pharmacy sales had become more restrictive. Out of pure pettiness, we would sometimes give the pharmacy counter person the name of someone we didn’t like for the label that went on the syringe bag. Sometimes we would say we were someone we didn’t like. Sometimes we would say we were Rosie O’Donnell.
A few weeks later, I overdosed on a combination of Xanax and methadone. I was supposed to go to my mother’s house for the weekend, and when I didn’t show up, and my mother couldn’t get me on the phone, she sent my sister who lived on Long Island to investigate. The landlord let her in, and she found me naked on the couch in my living room, my dogs guarding my knocked-out form. My sister called for an ambulance, and dressed me quickly in a T-shirt and a pair of leopard print leggings. When I came to at the hospital, I became fixated on the leggings. Whose were they? Where had they had come from?
Since the hospital couldn’t take my word for it that it hadn’t been a suicide attempt, I had a crisis volunteer sitting with me in my room at all times. I didn’t want to wear the inexplicable leggings any longer, and the volunteer helped me change out of them, and into a hospital gown.
“I want to throw them out,” I said. “My family is bringing me more clothes tomorrow.”
“Are you sure?” the volunteer asked, holding them up. “They are ugly as sin, but the label says they’re Christian Dior.”
While I was in the hospital, a doctor noted the high levels of ALT and the low levels of proteins in my blood.
“It could be from the overdose, but have you ever been tested for Hepatitis C?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
I took a blood test, and got an appointment for a follow up visit, in a week, at a private practice. I would get the test results then.
When I came for my appointment, the doctor’s office was a madhouse, the waiting room filled with indigent patients, all on Medicaid, like myself. After ninety minutes of waiting, I finally got to see the doctor. He gave me a quick once over, poking me a few times with his fingers on my right side, and told me to schedule another appointment.
“Well, do I have it?” I asked.
“Have what?” he said, impatiently.
“Hepatitis C,” I answered.
“You have to take the antibody test,” he said.
“I know,” I answered. “I did.”
“Oh,” he said. He opened one of the many identical folders he was carrying under his arm, and moved around some papers.
“Uh…You’re fine,” he said. “But make sure to schedule another appointment.”
Was it even my folder? Could he even remember my name? The reality was, I wasn’t ready to deal with it. I didn’t schedule another appointment. I turned his sketchiness into a reprieve.
I am in Tompkins Square Park, and so is Callie. It’s early winter, and I’ve stopped by the park with the disgusting man I get my Xanax from, in spite of my overdose, who I now call my boyfriend, so he will just give me the Xanax for free. Callie is wearing something ridiculous: a long-sleeve shirt of some band she’d normally find appalling—Marilyn Manson, or Slipknot—and striped bondage pants, obviously a desperate outfit made up of someone else’s clothes. Something bad happened: Perdition did something, ripped her off in some way. Maybe his dealer would no longer supply him, so Callie starting selling, and Perdition stole the drugs, or the money. A mutual friend told me. Either way, he’s gone. I feel bad for her, but would never tell her that—she has to make some kind of overture first. Besides, I’m still getting all the Colton Burgess mail. Instead, we glare at each other, and whisper to the people standing closest to us. Finally, it’s too much, and I say, “I know you’re talking about me, you stupid bitch,” and she leaps the distance that separates us, and the dumb little strap on her bondage pants goes up in the air. She’s standing in front of me, and she says, “Fuck you, you stupid whore,” which is probably how Perdition always addressed me, but is rather nonsensible as an insult, as it could just as easily be applied to Callie, except if it were me saying it, I’d say, “Fuck you, you pussy whore,” because I know all those nights that she claimed to have her period, or to not feel well, she was really just scared of working alone. I had always hoped that we might talk about it, but we never did.
So it’s on, and what I pity her over, I throw in her face.
“So where’s your loser boyfriend? Ripped you off, then hopped a train back to Buttfucksville?”
My words are all juvenile. All that manages to cut through the fog in my brain is my anger at her, and the same is probably true of her feelings for me.
She lunges at me, and tries to hit me. I grab onto her ugly shirt. The people standing around us, the no wave bit players, and the desperate punk rock transients, and my scumbag boyfriend, pull us apart, and she’s still trying to hit me, as someone half-carries, half-drags her away. She still tries.
And that’s the last time I ever see my sister, Callie.
I was living at a women’s halfway house when I found out. The World Trade Center had fallen; Saddam Hussein had just been found hiding out in a spider hole. I’d gone with some of the other new clients of the halfway house to Planned Parenthood. I’d just wanted to get on birth control, but my roommate, who was HIV positive, pushed me to get a blood test.
“I’ll come into the room with you,” she said.
“They won’t let you,” I whimpered.
When the clinician called my name, my roommate stood up, too.
“For moral support,” she said, and the clinician just nodded.
“If everything’s normal with your blood test,” the nurse said, “We won’t contact you.”
About a week later, early in the morning, I was preparing to take a shower, listening to the new Lou Reed album, The Raven, that my current boyfriend had just bought for me, when the manager of the halfway house called me into her office.
“There’s a letter here for you from Planned Parenthood,” she said. The letter didn’t specify the results of my blood test, just that I had results, and needed to call.
Because it was early, Planned Parenthood wasn’t open yet. The wait was excruciating. Between cigarettes on the porch of the house, I sat with my roommate and the house manager in her office. Every few minutes she’d hit redial on the phone. I tried to keep the panic I felt under control. Despite my fear, I still recognized the inherent crassness of my losing it over potentially being diagnosed with an illness that my roommate was actively living with.
Finally, someone at Planned Parenthood answered the phone.
“Your blood test came back positive for Hepatitis C,” the clinician said.
Though I felt shock, I didn’t feel surprise. What I felt existed somewhere in the slim margin of their difference.
A few weeks into my Hep C treatment, Pamela Anderson announces to the world that she has been cured of the virus. She is no longer “The Poison Pin-up.”
As I read the news online, I wonder if Anderson and I will become representative of the demographics who end up cured: the rich, who can afford to pay for the treatments themselves, or have really good insurance, and the poor whose treatments individual state governments deign to cover. Anderson mentions the exorbitant cost of the medication in her statement.
At my next visit with Dr. Oswald, we talk about Anderson’s announcement, and I take a blood test. He says there is a likelihood that the virus is already gone, but even if it is, it’s imperative that I finish all the pills. The medication’s success is ruled at six months: three months after I’ve finished all the pills, I will take another blood test. It is then that I can say definitively that I am cured of Hepatitis C.
I get in touch with friends who I know have the virus, and recommend that they find out what their treatment options are, if they have any.
One of them is Callie. Though we haven’t seen each other in over fifteen years, we message from time to time online. Because of the internet, no one ever really disappears (except for Lou Reed’s ex-girlfriend Rachel, the inspiration for the album Coney Island Baby). Because of the internet, it’s much easier to say I’m sorry.
Perdition is dead. He didn’t make it much past 2001. Callie and he were not in contact when he died. Juan works as a drug counselor. He’s not big on the internet. I imagine he must put make-up on his vulgar tattoos.
Callie is married, and lives in a different state a few hours away. Neither one of us are still in New York City. I’ve been clean from heroin for over a decade. I don’t know how long it’s been for her, it would feel intrusive to ask, though she would probably tell me. She never made it back to art school, and works a job that pays her only a few dollars more than minimum wage. There are no more expensive clothes. Her parents had bought her most of the ones she wore back then, anyway. All these years later, her relationship with them is still touchy at best. In her posts online, I can tell she feels frustrated by the present. Let down by it. It’s clear that she misses the old days, and romanticizes them a bit.
I don’t think I romanticize them, but sometimes, I miss them, too.
“You should look into treatment,” I say to her in a message.
“I want to,” she says. “I was supposed to do interferon years ago, but couldn’t because of my depression. As soon as I get my insurance straightened out, I will.”
I read an article in The Atlantic about the disparity in the availability of treatment in the US. The article has a map of which states require that Hep C sufferers have advanced liver disease before they will pay for treatment. Callie’s state has this requirement.
Time goes by. It’s the beginning of February, and after I answer all my security questions, the operator at the black-ops pharmacy mentions something that I’ve somehow lost track of. This will be my last shipment of the golden pills.
“We wish you the best,” she says, breaking the third wall that has existed in all of our communications up to this point. “Take good care of yourself.”
I see Dr. Oswald a week later. It is my final visit with him, though I’ve been testing Hep C-free since December.
“Cured! Cured!” he says. He grabs my arms and makes me dance with him, though my May blood test will be the definitive one: the six-month mark.
May comes, and with it more thoughts about vagaries: not just of geography, or economics, but of temporality.
Though it never seemed that way when I was younger, I am so lucky to live now, in the year two thousand and sixteen.
What killed Lou Reed will not kill me.
I am cured.
*name has been changed.