It happened on a Sunday. I remember every detail of that day. I was washing my hands. I was always washing my hands. I was twenty-four at the time. So I would wash my hands twenty-four times. I would roll the soap around my palms three times, clockwise to get the lather going, then I’d wash off the soap, shake my hands four times, then start the process all over again. Twenty-four times. Because… I was twenty-four at the time.
It was all about, Precaution. Protection. Prevention.
The three ‘P’s’.
I lived my life in fear.
If you had been there, that day with me, you would have seen me, standing at the kitchen sink. I always washed my hands at the kitchen sink. I think it’s because when I was little, that’s where I washed my hands before dinner. Where I became clean.
If you had been there, that day with me, I wouldn’t have noticed.
My flat was a cave. I was a hermit living on the edge of New York. People below, above, next to me, but I hadn’t seen another set of eyes, or heard a voice spoken properly, with out being muffled by a wall or door in over five years.
I’d disappeared. (It’s easy to do.)
Food was delivered to my door, left on the mat. Grocery shopping, clothes shopping, paying bills, everything. All dealt with at the click of a button. Even my job was conducted over emails and via a website. I never had to leave my cave. And so… I didn’t. I told myself it was safer for everyone else. (That was the lie I had been living for the past eight years, because… it was easier than dealing with the reality of my own existence.)
My mother had died when I was just sixteen years old.
If you had been there, that day with me, you would have seen a lot of geek chic taking place in my apartment. In my Bat Cave.
I loved superheroes. Still do, some loves last a lifetime. I especially loved the X-men. They used their makeup, their genetics, to fight crime. It was good verses evil. Right against wrong. Survival.
I felt, deep in my heart, that they would understand me better than anyone else in the world…
It wasn’t limited, my love, to just the X-Men. Any strong female character: Wonder Woman. She-ra. Catwoman. Zatanna! And it all started with the little guys, the Care Bears, My Little Pony, magical beings doing magical deeds.
I longed to be one of them.
I’m going to share a secret with you now, and please, don’t judge me. I used to have… costumes. NOTHING KINKY! I just liked dressing up in them, especially if I was treating myself to a DVD night. I’d order in pizza and an array of sugary goods, put on a costume and disappear in to another world… And for about two hours… I’d stop feeling lonely.
My mother was beautiful. Not in the physical sense. She was pretty; don’t get me wrong, but not beautiful. I mean… she was beautiful in herself. She laughed a lot and loved a silly joke, the Christmas cracker kind, that sort of silly joke. She once picked me up from school on roller skates. She thought it was funny. (It is to me now.)
She was HIV positive when I was born.
I love clothes. And even though I had shut myself away, I would still wake up every morning, shower, do my hair and makeup, put on my best outfit for work and start my day. I know no one was seeing me. I know it wouldn’t matter. But it felt important. Looking back on it now, maybe, deep down, I knew I wanted more.
Before I left my bedroom, to make the long journey to the front room, (that’s where my desk was) I would have to make and remake the bed three times. Always three. I don’t know what I thought would happen, if I didn’t do it three times. But there was this fear; this anxiety that sat deep in my belly and the fear, the worry if I didn’t do it would consume me, sending me in to a panic.
I didn’t want to make any mistakes. Get in to trouble. Hurt anybody.
My mother wasn’t aware she had HIV when she had me. The whole story reads like a script from one of those, bad daytime TV dramas. Except it’s real and was our lives.
I remember it was sunny, on that Sunday, the sun was shinning and it was coming through my front room window, hitting different objects, tickling them with rays of colour, oranges and yellows. I remember because the knocking on my front door had made me look up so suddenly that I pulled my neck slightly. I was frozen, staring out at my bat cave, the water still running.
My father left my mother soon after I was born. Transpired that he’d been sleeping with other women, at the same time him and my mother were trying to conceive. I think one stupid mistake and a lot of guilt drove him to run. My mother never followed. She told me in the early days, there was a lot of anger, a lot of tears. There are no words, she said, for what she felt. Nothing could describe or give it the justice she needed. So for a long time, she stopped talking.
The words were gone.
I’ve never been with a man… sexually. And, until recently… I’d never even been kissed. It would of sent me over the edge. I couldn’t cope with the idea of touching another human being. Let alone kissing one. A part of them, and a part of me… but I’m getting there. It’s getting easier.
My life was a routine. I knew the hour I’d wake every day. The amount of times I’d wash my hands whenever they needed washing. The number of times I’d make the bed. Brush my hair. The exact number of steps from the bedroom to the living room, I could tell you how much my shopping would come to before I hit the buy button on the screen. There was no room for spontaneity, for excitement, for change.
I would never have made it as a superhero in those days. Even if the opportunity arose. Could you imagine! The people are calling! And I’m not there because… oh… She’s making her bed for the second time that day. It just wouldn’t have worked.
But it was a nice daydream.
She had short brown hair. My mother. Not a bob, shorter. People would say it was a pixie cut. She looked like a warrior.
That banging, on that Sunday, it was so loud. And it was rapid. Hurried. Panicked. Something was wrong. No one had knocked on my door in five years. I tried to leave the sink, but I was stuck. There was shouting. I had two washes left… I turned back to the sink, and as quick as I could, finished my task.
My mother died of pneumonia. It was a Tuesday afternoon. I was led on the hospital bed with her. We didn’t speak. I just held her hand. My fingers stroking her skin, her breathing gently slowing down, in till, eventually, it stopped. I just lay beside her. It had always been that way, just her and me.
They were shouting, on that Sunday, after the banging. They started shouting.
My mother smoked. She drank. She ate all the wrong foods. She laughed. She danced. She lived her life the only way she knew how… Her way.
I was born HIV positive. There was a twenty five percent chance that I would have been infected.
My mother tried her best to keep me alive. All parents are given that one important task! Don’t kill the baby! What I mean (that was a joke before) is that, she tried her hardest to stop the fear I had from consuming me. Forcing me to get out in to the sunshine, to play, to run, to laugh, to live. But I felt… dangerous. Dirty… Shameful… I know it makes no sense, and you could have told me a thousand times that it was alright, that I was alright. But the thought, the idea, I had about myself… was as strong as any virus. Worse even.
‘Is anyone in there!’? That’s what they shouted through the door. I was stood so close to it, my hand hovering over the handle, but I couldn’t bring myself to open it.
Silence. We ended up in silence.
If you had been there, that day with me, you would have seen me wet myself.
The sirens came quickly. The people behind the door left.
Silence. I ended up in silence.
My mother wasn’t perfect. It’s easy to look back on the people we’ve loved and lost and think of them as super beings, that they never made mistakes, that they were perfect. My mother made mistakes. She had a mouth on her that could, at times, be frightening and tough. She always told me the truth and I think, now, sometimes, maybe… I was too young to hear the truth.
Kids need adults to shake sprinkles over their realty. It’s part of the job.
Fire. That’s what was happening that day. A fire had started in one of the top floor flats. (I found out later it was something electrical, the landlord was at fault. I think we made the headline of a small, daily newspaper.)
If you had been there, that day with me, you would have seen me make, the biggest decision of my life.
I think, eventually, it all got too tiring. That’s why I hid. Living with a constant anxiety is exhausting. I once, before my mother died, spent two hours cleaning a public toilet because I was so worried that I’d made a mess. That a part of me was on it and that I’d cause someone pain. I can’t tell you how I’d cause them pain, it’s not logical, but strong feelings are never logical. She found me in there, my mom, crying, scrubbing. And no matter what she said, no matter what I did, it only got worse.
But what do you do… When the door to your jail is left open? Do you make a run for it? Or do you sit quiet, and wait for your fate?
Part of me, the biggest part of me, if I’m honest, just wanted to go to bed.
I wanted to wash. I wanted to have my best PJ’s on, and I wanted to climb into my perfectly made bed and go to sleep, never to wake.
But I saw my mothers face. I heard the silence.
And so… If I was going out there… If I was choosing life! If I was going to face the world! … I was going to do it the only way I knew how. My way. (Great song, great title, Mr. Sinatra. When I think of that day, when I tell this story, that’s the theme tune.)
If you had been there, that day with me, you would have seen me walk in to my bedroom. Undress. (Quick baby wipe!) Pull open my wardrobe and stare in to a see of clothes. I had to choose. I had to decide. Who am I? (The biggest decision.)
I dressed as her and walked out of my apartment. Never looking back.
The front door… I left it open.
If you had been there, that day with me, you would have seen me, dressed in my Wonder Woman costume on the streets of New York, as my building battled a raging fire.
You would have seen the people staring at me from the corner of their eyes, the building alight and the fire spreading from window to window.
The smoke and flames lapping at the day, the wind blowing through tiny gaps of manmade obstacles, moving rubbish and teasing the life that was trying to grow in the dead earth of the city.
You would have heard a lady crying. Seen the firemen smiling at me.
But mostly, you would have seen, us. The people standing together, watching as the building succumbed to destruction.
You would have seen my life, melting away.
And as the wind wrapped itself around us, you would have seen the cape on my back rise, you would have watched as I placed my hands on my hips, standing firm and strong.
That’s what you would have seen, if you had been there, that day with me.