Jenessa sat on the cold examination table with her posture rigid as always, nothing giving away the silent avalanche going on inside her. Minute by minute, the only hint of the devastation was a growing quiver in her maroon-painted lips. Just moments ago, she had been snapping photo after photo of her perfect face, trying to capture the perfect doctor’s office selfie worth sharing. She had even been thinking on what to say in the caption, something witty and cute that would convey the message of being beautiful and healthy. The only trouble in her head was what kind of outfit she’d able to find for the New Year’s Eve party later tonight and if she would once again be able to outshine all her friends. This “little stop” she’d had to make was smack in the middle of her already full afternoon and she almost wished she’d ignored that steady, but small voice that talked her into showing up. She had even considered prattling off her plans to the nurse, but that was all before she came in with the serious face of bad news. Now, Jenessa’s mind was a million miles from the thought of how many likes she would get today and who she’s see this evening. Each time she tried to get back to planning her night around the glitter stilettos waiting for her at home, everything broke into the grey and black pieces of now and the bitter taste of a tragedy that she would never be able to outrun.
The nurse’s shoes clicked outside the closed door and Janessa steeled herself for what could possibly be next, hoping that some of the hopelessness she was feeling would escape once the door opened again. It didn’t. A doctor with a pleasant brown face led the way inside, the nurse was behind him this time, the cold, mock-like concern still in her eyes. Jenessa wanted to fall off the table. Sure, she expected to see the doctor, but why now? What was the point after the death blow had already been delivered. She could feel the panic showing through her hazel eyes, a look she actively discouraged all her adult life, and decided to stare at the ceiling as they talked to her.
“I understand this is very difficult news for you, Ms. Jennings” The doctor’s accent laced with curry and the dramatic strumming of a sitar. Yeah, right, she thought. He most likely had no clue how difficult this was- most people didn’t and good for them. She did her best to tune out his words and tune into her own ” … There are many support groups and medical therapies…. this is, however, only manageable. It is not curable….”. This isn’t really happening to me. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong…
Her eyes filled with warm unwanted tears with each pause in his speech about the best way to move forward. The last thing she wanted, other than this news, was to have swollen eyes for Alexa and Chanel to keep asking about. This cannot be happening to someone like me.
It took every bit of her pride just to become humble enough to ask a simple, loaded question.
“Am I going… to die?”
The five second silence made her snap her eyes down to meet the doctor’s, a pool of tears escaping as she stared at him in need of a quicker, easier answer than what he obviously had in mind.
” Well, if you take care of yourself, not necessarily. You’ll need to start a course of medications right away and we will refer you to all available therapies. There are many available.” He read her mind and patted her arm, a touch she would have normally rebuked if she hadn’t been feeling so alien. “You can be treated here if you like, or at another clinic of your choice, but you must be in regular treatment somewhere. HIV is not like it used to be. The illness is the same, but the treatments are lifesaving. With proper care, you could most likely live a normal lifespan.”
” Most likely?” her eyes were now much wider and afraid than they’d ever be allowed to be outside of this room. She wondered how she’d keep this look at bay after all this.
” We still need to run a few more tests so we have a better understanding of what we are dealing with.” Again, he read her mind. “How advanced it is at this point.”
Jenessa opened her mouth and a quiet sound of ruin fell out and she went back to staring at the ceiling. Her eyes, clouded again, landed on the clock. Five after three.
“I have to go.” she abruptly got off the table, grateful that she hadn’t had to undress. What she really wanted to do was sit there and listen to everything the doctor could tell here, maybe follow him home so he could answer any question she had as they popped into her head. Perhaps even move into his office so he could answer any questions she ever had and tell her every day that it would be ok. But, for right now, appearances called.
“Here are your prescriptions, and I have made you an appointment for the additional lab work and a follow up here next Thursday.”
She jammed the papers into her purse without looking at them.
Once she got into her car, a brand-new, jet black treat she was leasing for all her latest accomplishments, Jenessa stared into the mirror searching her face for any traces of shock or pain. There they sat in every crease and smudge and in the distance of her gaze. Her eyes were still worried looking and unacceptable. Tears had run her mascara and put streaks in her blush. Nothing Visine and a fresh face can’t cure. That word ran cold through her whole body like a childhood taunt as she attempted for fifteen minutes to redo her whole face with shaky hands. Cure. Again, she tried to fantasize about the treasures she’d find at the mall she was on her way to, the joy of seeing her two best friends she could never mention a word of this to. They would never understand. She even forced her train of thought onto the student loans she didn’t want to repay while squiggling the lines of usually flawless cat eye- anything to get away from the knowledge of what she would never be rid of. Incurable. Jenessa became still, aware of the growing desire to smash her own face into the steering wheel as many times as it would take to die. Instead, she gripped the felt eyeliner pen that she’d worked so hard to master holding between long fingernails and bent it until it broke, flinging bits of wet kohl onto her tan, calfskin coat.
“Fuck!” she hadn’t meant to bang on the horn, nor did she think so many eyes would be on her when she finally stopped pounding it after seven or eight blows. She sped away from the clinic as fast as the icy streets would allow, welcoming any wreck that might claim her life.
“Ugh. look at you,” Alexa’s sharp eyes peered over the rim of a coffee cup at Jenessa approaching, nearly an hour late for their weekly shopping trip. The puffy bun at the top of her head making her look smart that she was, or so Jenessa thought upon seeing her this time. Still, she immediately wondered what about her was off. What naked emotions were still bleeding though even after she’d sat in her car for another twenty minutes, just around the corner, trying again to blend away sorrow. Chanel just smirked as they both watched her join their small table, noting the way she sank into her chair but saying nothing. Looking into the faces of the women who knew her best, she knew they had been talking about her.
“Well, I’m here now.” Jenessa heard the tired whisper of her own voice and it surprised them all.
“That’s all?” Chanel just wanted to see if she would sound like a dying monarch again. Jenessa couldn’t help it.
“Are we gonna eat first or no?”
“We ate. You want to order?” Alexa kept her gaze steady, always looking down her nose at whoever she was talking too. They all did. That look so commonly described as smug or, in her circle, bougie was the brand of their trio. Jenessa being considered the worst. She, in her younger years, she had even prided herself on her ability to make a person question their entire existence with a cold stare. Second best was Alexa and Chanel would just tell a person flat out, they were “not up to standard”. Their clique was wider than the three of them, but many a girl had been expelled from this inner circle and it didn’t take much to get cut out of their perfect picture. Now, in this new filter, Jenessa felt for the first time in her life what it was like to not be able to stand against the heat of that look. No, they would never even care to understand this. Already, she felt the sharp pain of splintering ties even though she couldn’t fully say why.
“No. let’s hit the stores.”
The three queens of Hamlin Park walked as they always did, in a fashionable row, heels in sync and gabbing about the latest who’s and what’s. Jenessa tried to stay in the loop, tossing in whatever dirt she had on each topic, always highlighting someone else caught in a lesser moment. She spoke even though the hiss and fire in her usual gossiping voice was gone. Like three birds they squawked, two not hearing the third fading back to silence. They had been in and out of two stores before Chanel noticed and stopped in her fancy heeled tracks to look at the woman whom she considered closer than a sister.
“Jenessa. What’s wrong?” her expressive, chocolate face showed true concern. Jenessa knew that if she could tell any of her friends, Chanel would be the least likely to give her secret away or save it to be thrown in her face at a later time. Now was just not the time.
“Nothing. I just want to get an outfit that will look good with those shoes.”
“I told you they were going to be hard to match.” Alexa chimed in with a playful frown. It was true, the glitter of the heels was a rose gold that wouldn’t go with any color, even the neutrals she had in her closet already didn’t look completely right. So far, fining her dream outfit wasn’t turning out easy and she was sick of looking. The whole while they’d been here, she’d been trying to force her mind off the pills she needed to get before all the pharmacies closed and stop being mad at herself for not going there instead coming here or wasting time tearing up her car and makeup along the way. Then, the thought of were exactly this sickness had come from popped up with horns of its own. She hadn’t been with too many guys, but had preferred not to keep track in the past few years. Most, she never even asked for their phone numbers or real names. What her mother called “whorish”, she and her friends called “free”, often trading the wild details of their latest “freedoms” over spiked coffee and pancakes in the mornings after. The high price of freedom was something left out, a unwanted drop from the cloud nine of their own created legacies. Now, she had no idea who to kill for cursing her or how long ago it might have happened. Really, Jenessa just wanted to go home and fall apart alone.
“You should give them to me, I got the perfect dress for ‘em. I would loan it to you but, well, you know.” They chuckled at the familiar cattiness and walked on.
By the time Jenessa got home, it was after seven and she had just one bag from the mall- six chocolate chip cookies and a sub from the food court. Every pharmacy was closed as she’d predicted, leaving her most important task to wait until after the weekend. She drew a bubble bath and slid in, Coltrane played softly in the living room as she contemplated sliding under the water and what it would be like to force herself to stay there. If it was possible to drown yourself when it seemed so much easier than facing life. She sat back and cried into the stream rising from the water, not sure if she would be alive come Monday. She was expecting to be picked up by their limousine around ten. Any party or event they attended to bring in a new year had to be over the top. There would be seven divas inside, including Chanel and Alexa, herself being the unspoken leader of the pack. It had been her idea as always and, as she stared at the frothy bubbles covering her breasts, she wished to be poured into the mold of the confident woman she had been just this morning.
“Aye, I was hoping you’d be here!” Alejandro air-kissed both sides of her face as soon as she stepped into the crowded ballroom. “You look fabulous as always!” as gay as he was, he still made a show of looking her over from head to toe, the mess panels of her black dress accentuating her perfect hourglass shape, a pair of old but gorgeous black booties on her feet. Jenessa silently thanked herself for sticking it out at the gym all these months and put out of her mind the memory of her brand-new glitter heels full of knife holes and now resting in the dumpster outside of her apartment. It was show time, not a moment for reflection upon her latest outsource of rage. She batted her long lashes gratefully and made her way through the crowd.
At the table, the chatter from was even more like the chirping of birds. A flock of beautiful, brown birds all in the height of their lives and silently, savagely competing with each other. When any one of them got up to dance or otherwise, the others would close in on themselves and whisper about her. A coven for the lonely and glamorous, but not for the ruined. Even as they all glanced at her for approval, Jenessa could smell her own blood in the water and found herself falling silent and afraid to leave the table for the knives that would be thrown at her own back.
As midnight drew near, the table was empty except her. The many men who knew her flocked to her, one or two at a time, for the chance to talk to her without being eaten alive. Normally she would never go home alone and, still now, she didn’t have to if she could stand her own recklessness afterward. When a pair got the hint that she had no intention of leaving her seat to dance or do otherwise, they’d leave and quickly be replaced by one or two new contenders.
Nothing was pulling Jenessa out of herself and, when the coast was clear of both spying friends and eager men, she made a break for the balcony. In the cold night air, she found herself mostly alone looking at the open black sky above her and wondering where she’d go if she fell by accident. Would onlookers be fooled? would God? She looked at phone for the time. ten to midnight. Soon, fireworks would light up the winter sky and, if she chose, would be the background to her suicide. What a way to go. If mama could see me now.
She leaned on the railing to look down at the city below her, not a soul down there or anywhere knowing what she was about to. Who would know and catch her? Who would care enough to stop her if she told? as she tried to imagine when she might land, Chanel appeared next to her, a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, girl. You look kinda sad. What’s up?” she looked down to see what Jenessa could be looking at and only saw traffic like toy cars with lights.
For a moment, their eyes lingered in each other’s, the transmission of plans too painful to be spoken aloud. Chanel’s eyes went wide and she cocked her head to the side. It was three minutes to a new year.
Behind them, more people began to crowd the balcony, waiting for the impending lightshow, pushing the two friends even closer together. Their eyes never left each other’s, and Chanel watched as Jenessa’s face hardened to sad determination. She moved closer until they were mouth to ear.
“What happened?” Chanel had whispered it so softly that even Jenessa wasn’t sure she had really heard anything, even though she could only tear up in response. Slowly, her lips parted, ready to push out the words necessary for signaling help.
Just then, their other friends found them and the bird chatter resumed on all sides. The crowd got louder as the last minute of 2016 began and Jenessa found herself jammed in place by the railing, the balcony now too packed for that accident to happen gracefully. She didn’t have space to climb over the railing even if she wanted to, so she looked back at Chanel, who was now smiling passed her.
“Today, I- “, Chanel put up a hand to Jenessa’s face, stopping the poisonous truth from oozing out.
“There’s Jason! Oh, my God, I knew he would come. Please. Excuse me for a sec.” she kept her hand up as she pushed through the masses and had no true plan of returning from the company of a guy that Jenessa was secretly finished with last year. Chanel didn’t even look back. If not now, then soon. Maybe never, I don’t know. Everyone around her shouted the countdown
from ten, and for the first year that she could remember, she didn’t shout with them. When the sky lit up with plumes of blue, red and gold, Jenessa stood alone, surrounded by her closest enemies, and counting the growing list of things she’d have to keep locked away safely inside herself.