Infectious diseases we pass on to the people we love are painful tragedies. We are vectors. Sometimes we’re a vector for change, for good, but sometimes what we pass on is a virus that’s fatal – and one we didn’t even know we had.
Dramatized in the Screen Actor’s Guild Award-winning “The Normal Heart”, in January 2015 Mark Ruffalo won best best male actor in a TV movie or miniseries for his portrait of facing HIV/AIDS. Male or female, young or old, black or white, no one is immune to the ever changing and highly mutable HIV virus. And it’s not because people are afraid of getting their immunizations, like we’ve seen with measles in the United States, or because we have a good reason not to get our shots. It’s only because we have no vaccine to prevent HIV infection.
Anyone could pass on viruses they don’t know they have, to someone else who has no idea what they are getting. Testing to find out if you are infected is getting easier, for the HIV virus. The latest is an HIV diagnostic smartphone dongle that gives results in 15 minutes, invented by a group at Columbia in New York City. Health workers are using it in areas of Rwanda in Africa, where access to healthcare is difficult for rural people.
In the United States, and even in New York City where I live, HIV infections are still surprisingly common. Many New Yorkers don’t know our status. For those who got tested and do know, NYC’s records show 2,832 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in 2013, and 1,527 people died of it here, with 117,618 now living in the city with an HIV positive diagnosis – this is in New York City’s 5 boroughs alone. On National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day February 7th, groups around the country are having events to raise awareness and get more people in their community tested. We don’t have a vaccine, but other prevention steps work, like using condoms and having safe sex.
“Get educated, get tested, get involved, get treated,” urges the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Strategic Planning Committee. There is so much a person can do. You can be an angel and prevent an infection. You can be a dragon slayer and get into a treatment program that controls the virus, to keep it from expanding further into our communities.
I wrote the novel Vector, a story of a singer coming of age in New York City during the HIV epidemic, based on my own experiences in healthcare and biomedical research over the years as a scientist. Readers see the young woman’s HIV/AIDS journey through the eyes of her doctor who runs a clinic in New York.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, after a benefit ball to support the doctor’s HIV/AIDS foundation, when he is walking home through the city streets with his partner.
Vector a Modern Love Story – J.J.Brown
When Louis and Victor walked out of the hotel together onto Forty-Ninth Street, arm in arm, it was nearly three in the morning and cold, and a misty rain was falling. It was the tail end of the storm. The sidewalks were wet and crosswalks flooded at the corners where debris had collected in the runoff from the rain throughout the night.
“Are you alright?” Louis asked as they turned on Park Avenue.
Victor shrugged. He wondered why Louis seemed never to get tired.
“Worried about Julio?” Louis persisted.
“You want us to get a ride?”
“No, no, let’s walk, please. It would be good for me to walk a bit. The thing is, no one’s seen him in a while, not at the clinic, no follow-up appointments, not at the counseling sessions, you know? It’s concerning.”
“Julio’s been depressed before. He’s been sick for a long time, Vic.”
Victor looked down as he spoke to avoid stepping in the deep pools of water at the corners. “And now he has the AIDS dementia. That’s the worst part of the disease, in my opinion. He’s been sick for years, four or five years, but now it’s changed him. It’s changed him completely. So difficult for Raul. And I think it, it may be more than that now, you know? It may be, it may be…”
He looked up and saw a homeless woman with thin blonde hair who was wearing a beautiful, billowing golden overcoat. She walked past them, drifting along in the middle of the street like an apparition. The contrast between the wretched woman and the fashionable coat was jarring. Dr. Victor stopped, looked at her and continued. “It may be the end.”
Louis snorted. “Don’t fixate on that part of it. Even if it is the end for Julio, death doesn’t define you. How many people in the history of the world died of one kind of venereal disease or another? How many plagues have come and gone? If you’re spared, what does it mean? Does it mean anything at all? And if a person died, do we say, ‘Well, so and so, they died of this or that’? It’s your life, not your death, that defines you.”
Victor looked up at him quizzically and felt infinitely grateful for the diversion Louis always provided on nights like this one.
“I’ll say a name and you say what you think of—ready? What you think of immediately, what you associate the name with. Don’t take time with it, don’t work on it.”
Victor nodded in agreement.
“Sonatas. The Appassionata. Bliss.”
“That’s what I mean. How many people, when you say his name, think immediately of syphilis?”
Victor thought about it; in his profession, possibly a few.
“Casanova,” Louis continued.
“You see? You don’t right away think, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who used sheep’s gut for a condom tied with a pretty pink ribbon, and he still got syphilis anyway,’ do you? No. What about Shubert?”
“Dances. Ländler. Piano music.”
“I see your point. Sculpture. Italy.” Victor laughed lightly.
“That’s what I’m saying. You don’t think about how they died from VD. Arthur Ashe?”
“First black tennis champion.”
“And Anthony Perkins—Psycho, right? The movie? Tell me: When I say their names, you remember what they did when they were alive, not how each of these men died from AIDS. Can’t you tell me that? I know you can.” Louis was almost pleading now.
“Ach! They did die of AIDS. Terrible. I’m a doctor. I think about these things. Let’s change the subject, can’t we? I’m afraid I’m going to cry.”
Louis continued very gently but determined. “Dear, I’m not finished with you yet. When I say ‘Rudolf Nureyev,’ what do you think? Hmm?”
“Of the most beautiful dancing of all time. Ballet. Russia. I know. I know.”
Victor observed the old woman in the yellow coat wandering in front of them. She sat down on a sidewalk bench in front of a dark café that was closed for the night. He watched her and he was immobilized. “I thought they were open all night,” he said weakly.
“Vic. Come on,” Louis urged.
“There’s nothing you can do right now, dear. Really, there isn’t.”
“Something isn’t right.”
“In there?” Louis gestured back toward the hotel. “Or out here?” Louis nodded toward the woman. She leaned back on the bench and covered her body carefully with the overcoat, pulling it around her bare, red and swollen feet. She was making a bed for herself.
“I don’t know.” Victor put a hand over his heart. “But I think in here.”
– J.J.Brown, Vector a Modern Love Story
Where to Find the Book
You can buy Vector in print and ebook editions here: Amazon / iTunes / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound / Smashwords
And read reviews of Vector here: Goodreads / Sharon Buchbinder’s Reviews / Cynthia Robertson’s Reviews / Shoot Your Eye Out Publisher Review