It takes talent to make a love story between an AIDS victim and a convicted murderer work, but playwright/essayist Cleage (Deals with the Devil) more than meets the challenge in this gutsy, very likable fiction debut.
As a teenager, Ava Johnson couldn't wait to move away from tiny Idlewild, Michigan, a lakefront village originally conceivedand enjoyed for decadesas a resort town for people of color. Now just a half-abandoned dot on the map like any other (except that still, most of its residents are black), Idlewild offers the only safe haven when Ava, now nearly 30, learns she's contracted the HIV virus and is forced to close down her hair salon in Atlanta. Telling herself she's just visiting her older sister, Joyce, for a few weeks before she moves on to San Francisco, sophisticated Ava (whose voice is always feisty and humorous, even when the subject is death) is nevertheless impressed by bighearted Joyce's efforts to help the teenaged girls in her small community. She's also intrigued by handsome, sexily 'together' Eddie Jefferson, a once-wild childhood acquaintance who's returned to Idlewild to raise vegetables, grow dreadlocks, and practice t'ai chi. While giving support to Joyce as she fights her conservative church for the right to teach parenting to adolescents, and assisting (a bit skeptically) when Joyce takes in an addict's abandoned baby, Ava finds herself falling hard for sensitive, nurturing Eddie. Obviously, he's interested, toobut won't he run once he learns she's carrying the virus? Ava hardly dares hope for a final chance at love, even when Eddie reveals his own terribleand, finally, forgivablepast. Lively, topical, and fantasy-filled. Watch out, Terry McMillan. Cleage is on your tail.
Read an ExcerptChapter One
I'm sitting at the bar in the airport, minding my own business, trying to get psyched up for my flight, and I made the mistake of listening to one of those TV talk shows. They were interviewing some women with what the host kept calling full blown AIDS. As opposed to half-blown AIDS, I guess. There they were, weeping and wailing and wringing their hands, wearing their prissy little Laura Ashley dresses and telling their edited-for-TV life stories.
The audience was eating it up, but it got on my last nerve. The thing is, half these women are lying. More than half. They get diagnosed and all of a sudden they're Mother Teresa. I can't be positive! It's impossible! I_m practically a Virgin! Bull.... They got it just like I got it f...... men.
That's not male bashing either. That's the truth. Most of us got it from the boys. Which is, when you think about it, a pretty good argument for cutting men loose, but if I could work up a strong physical reaction to women, I would already be having sex with them. I'm not knocking it. I'm just saying I can't be a witness. Too many breasts in one place to suit me.
I try to tune out the almost-a-virgins, but they're going on and on and now one is really sobbing and all of a sudden I get it. They're just going through the purification ritual. This is how it goes: First, you have to confess that you did nasty, disgusting sex stuff with multiple partners who may even have been of your same gender. Or you have to confess that you like to shoot illegal drugs into your veins and sometimes you use other people's works when you want to get high and you came unprepared. Then you have to describe the sin you haveconfessed in as much detail as you can remember. Names, dates, places, faces. Specific sexual acts. Quantity and quality of orgasms. What kind of dope you shot. What park you bought it in. All the down and dirty. Then, once your listeners have been totally freaked out by what you've told them, they get to decide how much sympathy, attention help, money, and understanding you're entitled to based on how disgusted they are.
I'm not buying into that. I don't think anything I did was bad enough for me to earn this as the payback, but it gets rough out here sometimes. If you're not a little kid, or a heterosexual movie star's doomed but devoted wife, or a hemophiliac who got it from a tainted transfusion, or a straight white woman who can prove she's a virgin with a dirty dentist, you're not eligible for any no-strings sympathy.
The truth is, people are usually relieved. It always makes them feel better when they know the specifics of your story. You can see their faces brighten up when your path is one they haven't traveled. That's why people keep asking me if I know who I got it from. Like all they'd have to do to ensure their safety is cross this specific guy's name off their list of acceptable sexual partners the same way you do when somebody starts smoking crack no future here. But I always tell them the truth I have no idea. That's when they frown and give me one last chance to redeem myself. If I don't know who, do I at least know how many?
By that time I can't decide if I'm supposed to be sorry about having had a lot of sex or sorry I got sick from it. And what difference does it make at this point anyway? It's like lying about how much you loved the rush of the nicotine just because now you have lung cancer.
I'm babbling. I must be higher than I thought. Good. I hate to fly. I used to dread it so much I'd have to be falling down drunk to get on a plane. For years I started every vacation with a hangover. That's actually how I started drinking vodka, trying to get up the nerve to go to Jamaica for a reggae festival. Worked like a charm, too, and worth a little headache the first day out and the first day back.
I know I drink too much, but I'm trying to cut back. When I first got diagnosed, I stayed drunk for about three months until I realized it was going to be a lot harder to drink myself to death then it might be to wait it out and see what happens. Some people live a long time with HIV. Maybe I'll be one of those, grinning like a maniac on the front of Parade magazine, talking about how I did it.
I never used to read those survivor testimonials, but now I do, for obvious reasons. The first thing they all say they had to do was learn how to calm down, which is exactly why I was drinking so much, trying to cool out. The problem was, after a while I couldn't tell if it was the vodka or the HIV making me sick, and I wanted to know the difference.
But I figure a little lightweight backsliding at thirty thousand feet doesn't really count, so by the time we boarded, I had polished of two doubles and was waiting for the flight attendant to smile that first-class-only smile and bring me two more. That's why I pay all that extra money to sit up here, so they'll bring me what I want before I have to ring the bell and ask for it.
The man sitting next to me is wearing a beautiful suit that cost him a couple of grand easy and he's spread out calculators, calendars, and legal pads across his tray table like the plane is now his personal office in the air. I think all that is for show. I don't believe anybody can really concentrate on business when they're hurtling through the air at six hundred miles an hour. Besides, ain't nobody that damn busy.
He was surprised as hell when I sat down next to him White men in expensive suits are always a little pissed to find themselves seated next to me in first class, especially since I started wearing my hair so short. They seem to take it as some kind of personal affront that of all the seats on the airplane, the bald headed black woman showed up next to them. It used to make me uncomfortable. Now I think of it as helping them take a small step toward higher consciousness. Discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment.
For the first time in a long time, I didn't grip and pray during takeoff. It wasn't that I was drunk. I've been a lot drunker on a lot of other airplanes. It's just that at this point, a plane crash might be just what the doctor ordered.
Copyright ) 1997 by Pearl Cleage What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day. Copyright © by Pearl Cleage. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.