I. Prelude, Marianne and Darrell, Gwinnett County, 1999
The ferris wheel and a funnel cake, just after dusk at the fairgrounds. The big lights blink and the metal creaks to life as he scoots closer to her. After the ride she blows powdered sugar on him and he chases her over the mulch, holding a greasy paper plate, trying to blow some back. He helps her up the steps of the other rides; on the Scrambler he sits to her left, knowing the force will squish her into his arms. He wins her a stuffed horse, which she gives to a kid standing in line. The only thing he wants is to be with her—to be as close to her as he can. He is aware of her story, has heard about all the terrible things that happened to her. She’s sure that no one will want to be with her again.
She doesn’t think it’s a date but will later change her mind.
Photograph by Audra Melton
She’s given him rides to their church. She’s cooked him spaghetti and made the sauce from scratch. One night they dress up like the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood and go to a party. He babysits her beagle and sits in the bleachers to see her only living son march with his tuba on the football field. He’s divorced, with five kids, and he considers meeting her some kind of miracle. Her friends call him a Bubba, and his sister warns that she’ll literally be the death of him. At first she isn’t that into him. But tonight she sees him differently, not as the quiet little guy at church, but as a simple man without artifice, powdered sugar on his forehead. He makes her laugh the whole night. She doesn’t want to break his heart, and he doesn’t want her to be alone the rest of her life. He keeps telling her that he doesn’t care about her disease. No kissing, she tells him—not out of fear for his safety, but out of chastity. They’re both in their mid-forties.
There are two stories of her life. One really begins that night, with the Ferris wheel and the funnel cake, just after dusk at the fairgrounds. The other—well, that’s her story alone; she’s lived it. It’s been hers every day: when she gets up to take her pills in the morning; when she passes the pictures on the refrigerator; when her head spins after she takes more pills at night; when she wakes up from the vivid dreams; and when she goes to work and looks at the bulletin board, when the knob turns and her office door opens and . . .
II. Grady Infectious Disease Clinic, Room 188, 2011
. . . another young man comes in. He sits down and the wooden chair knocks against the wall. He’s in his early twenties, with high cheekbones, cornrows pulled tightly behind his forehead. He tells Marianne Swanson that he’s a model, just starting his career. She looks at him, spectacles pushed down below her eyes. She’s fifty-five, a nurse, presiding at her desk. There’s a red ribbon above her name on the left breast of her white lab coat; she had it sewn on at Bass Pro Shops. On her desk sits a rectangular plastic tray filled with gigantic pills.
Though he doesn’t seem completely aware of its implications, the young man is beginning a new life. He scratches his elbow, picks at the hole in the knee of his designer jeans. He briefly reciprocates the eye contact, yawns to reveal a row of perfect teeth. He looks at her calendar, turned to April, with horses stomping through a stream; the faded Polaroids of two children, pinned with thumbtacks to a bulletin board; the drawing of a cartoon boy saying, “I have AIDS, please hug me—I can’t make you sick,” framed on the wall.
“Do you know what T cells are?” she asks in a Brooklyn accent.
The room is small, barely two feet between them.
“They’re the good guys,” she says.
In his bloodstream, the good guys have dwindled to a discomfiting count of 189. Someone with a healthy immune system, by comparison, would have hundreds—maybe a thousand—more.
For months the young man has battled pneumonia and hepatitis B. He’s been in a sickbed at a hospital, where he found out the secret he now keeps from his family and friends, but not his lover. He nods when asked if he was sexually active and engaging in at-risk behavior long before he knew. He is part of a burgeoning group of HIV/AIDS patients in Atlanta, a group particularly hard for doctors and health workers to reach out to: young men who come from a background of poverty, little education, and single-parent families; young men who are disenfranchised and often brutally stigmatized, disempowered compared to the middle-class men who mobilized in the face of their deaths in the eighties. It’s a disease you don’t hear much about anymore, but one that is certainly not going away. This young man doesn’t know where else to go.