This is the image that springs to my mind when I think of how I have maneuvered through the first 30 years of my life. I see myself as the child from the movie “The Red Balloon” transported through the streets of decaying Paris, or in my case the east coast of the United States, clinging to a tangled mass of brightly colored balloons.
Unlike the character in the mid century movie, I am not being rescued from a lonely isolated life by an archetype benevolence. For me the situation is less triumphant and more tenaciously survivalist.
For the years leading up to my 30th winter, I found myself clinging for dear life, not to balloons, but to vibrantly colored dreams and ambitions.
My life up to then had been measured by chance and circumstance. I was the middle child of three children, the only girl wedged between two bright and sensitive boys, all of us , like so many children in the world, victims of our birth.
Our mother had been left, abandoned by our mythical wayward father, to raise us alone on a teacher’s salary. Although tenacious in her desire to thrive, my mother was fatally narcissistic, unable to attend to the overwhelming needs of her three intelligent and creative children. Forever asking more than she could or would give, we were left to raise ourselves in a dangerous and unfriendly world.
As a result we quickly learned the survival skills we would need to carry us into some semblance of an adulthood.
Fantasy and belligerent optimism became my mask and shield. Unrealistic expectations became my method of transport. Anxiously clutching a knot of hopeful possibilities, I held my breath with buoyant relief, as fantasies lifted me out of the despair of my reality and into the tempestuous currents of my future. Currents that, although powerless to affect in any meaningful way, I was thankful for.
Despite years spent helplessly deflecting and absorbing painful collisions with granite hard edges; the “architectural details” of my life; I was managing to stay afloat.
Until one evening in November, 23 years ago, when that desperate floating carriage that I had fashioned to carry me through my life, came crashing out of the sky like a ball of lead, landing in the corner of a small beige room, where I sat flushed and breathless hearing only the words that no one ever wants to hear.
I was waiting for a test result. Through the exhausted rush of a New York City evening I had made my way to my doctor’s office. I had come to her with chronic bronchitis and asthma, nothing too earth shattering for a young smoker who had caught, yet another cold. She had casually suggested I test for HIV. I agreed, confident that I was beyond the touch of this new illness that I had been reading about in the Village Voice. I was expecting to get it over with quickly, impatient to get on with my long subway ride home, to some much-needed dinner and a well deserved beer.
I smiled in response to a casually spoken greeting as my doctor entered the room. A small pair of wire rimmed glasses, gave her face a warm and intelligent appearance. She was easy to talk to and usually had a comfortable presence. Not tonight.
As she sat down behind her desk, she hesitated. I could see that she was taking her time, mapping out what she was going to say. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming urge to leave. I don’t remember if I was breathing when she finally spoke.
“Your HIV test came back positive.”
Stunned, I blinked and continued to stare at her. Every cell in my body hardened as if to ward off blows
The meaning of what she was saying forced it’s way through my confusion, and released a flood of sounds so unfamiliar, I almost looked around to see who was making them. But I could feel them coming from me, loud sobs, amplifying the magnitude of my shock and grief .
I looked pleadingly at her face, waiting to hear her finish with some hopeful contingency. But she was busy arranging her belongings, wrapping up lose ends. With a concerned expression distorting her soft features, she tried to console me.
But I was unconsolable. Those words were lurking there in the room with us. They had no where to go but into the heart of me. And there was no where for me to run and no one to fight. The small room had transformed into an amphitheater, the sound of my shattering heart reverberating in my ears. I sat there looking at my hands, willing myself not to dissolve in to thin air.
” What comes next?” I asked, feeling completely lost and very small. “What should I do now?” I couldn’t look her in the eye. Everything I looked at reminded me of what I couldn’t have, what I couldn’t be. I felt the way I had as a child playing musical chairs. Someone had stopped the music and in that mad scramble, I had lost.
Some time later, collapsing in to the strong odor of yellow cab upholstery, I watched through grimy windows, as the streets of the city streamed by in beautiful arcs of fluorescent color. I felt cast out to sea.
What I couldn’t know during that painful taxi ride home was that my life would continue to go on long after that night. The vibrant dreams I had clung to during my early years had dropped like a carpet bomb, scattering everywhere, leaving me forever altered. The life I had imagined , I now realized was insignificant.
The hour I spent coming unglued in my doctor’s office 23 long years ago… marked the exact moment in time, when the universe that was my early life condensed into a black hole and then exploded outward, leaving bits and pieces of my identity suspended in space, slowly to make their way back to each other in propitious and new unfamiliar forms.