AIDS and
Big Brother

Paula Peterson
One time Big Brother bring over an electric keyboard he borrowed offa someone and teach Terrence how to play his scales. Then he play something for Terrence, something long and slow and soft. I listen in, standing in the hallway. Big Brother can see me, all right, but he don't let on. The music so pretty I have to hold my breath so I won't miss none. And sad. The sadness creep up on me little by little till I just standing there with my throat closed up with grief, tears ready to squeeze out.

When he finish, he look up at me quickly, to make sure I'm still there, and then he scratch his neck and blush a little and say [to the boy], "That's Chopin, dude." And right then I know he really playing that music for me even though he appear to be playing it for Terrence. The thought don't make me so comfortable.

Terrence's jaw hanging open. "Man, how did you do that without looking at no music sheet?"

Big Brother a little proud of himself, and excited too. "I got that in my head. I remembered it. I still remember it, I didn't know that. "

Then he sneak a glance at me just to see am I proud of him. I can't help thinking, Big Brother, do your momma know where you is? He want someone to put out cookies and milk for him, and remind him to wipe his behind twice. He looking at me hopefully, but I think to myself, hell, boy, don't you know that I ain't got nothing left over for nobody? That Eugene took it out of me. Took it all out, and then give me something I can't ever get rid of. Men is all children, it don't matter how old they are or how big they are, they all squirming to get back to that nice warm comfy place they come from. That the only time they feel safe. But what about us, I say? We making them safe but what they doing for us in the meantime? Unh-uhn. All that business ain't for Nickie no more.

But don't you know it, the minute you show them you ain't interested, that when they can't leave you alone. One week Big Brother show up too early. He know that Terrence don't come home from school for another hour. He making up excuses, saying his watch be running too fast. Stand there with his ponytail and his blue eyes blinking, saying, well, uh, do you think I could come in for a little while, I don't have anywhere else to go at this particular time. So I open the door just a little wider and make a motion with my hand and say, "Well, it ain't no skin off my ass."

He sprawl on my couch with his legs spread far apart. You know the way men sit, taking up more room than they need. Tap on the armrest with his fingers, look around him, humming something soft. Today he wearing shorts and his legs is covered with long curly blond hair. Got some tattoo I never noticed before on his left calf, a seahorse or some kinda shit like that. I move back and forth picking up Terrence's toys and he follow me with his gaze; I can see he trying not to, but his eyeballs is sliding over my hips and my breasts and I can't get away, wouldn't matter if I went into another room, his eyes would burn a hole through the walls, and I be lost, cause you know that young boy can even see me with his eyes closed, and when that happen, you finished, girl. I think to myself, why a woman built like this to make a man dream on her body. I mad at my titties and my pussy and all the rest of it.

I mad at him. I be tired and diseased and I ain't even good-looking no more. I got a right to be left alone. I think, why he messing with me, anyhow? He so hard up he got to make it with an HIV lady? Huh, dumb kid.

But it like he don't see how angry I am 'cause he got that goofy expression on his face when he stare at me, that moony look like he wandered in from outer space.

"Nickie, can I ask you a question?" he say finally.

I shrug. I be wearing my pout, the same one Terrence inherited from me.

"Are you afraid of dying?"

I just stare at him.

He hold out his hands and wave them a little in front of him. "Okay, okay, I know that's kind of personal, everyone's idea of, well, mortality and everything, but I just thought I'd ask because when I look at you, you seem to be so strong, I think of you as the kind of person who's made her peace with death. You just radiate an inner strength that way, you know what I mean? Like I know you're not up at three in the morning worrying whether if you're in a coma someone's going to mistake you for dead and bury you alive." That boy chuckle and rub his hand over the front of his shirt. His knees twitch. "Or what it's going to feel like, whether it's going to be all darkness and shit or whether you're going to be walking through some tunnel with a light on the other side. What's waiting for you there. When I see you, I see someone who's so beyond that. Fear. I met this American Indian guy once who had the same kind of attitude. With him it was really spiritual, you know? He took me to a sweat lodge with him --- wow, what an incredible experience. You can learn so much about yourself that way. Sweating. It's like everything opens up, man."

What this boy babbling about? What this boy babbling about?

Then I sit down next to him on the couch. He jump a bit, knees twitching. "Where you get all these crazy ideas? What you worrying about all that Indian bullshit for? You know how to play the piano, why don't you do that. Ain't that enough? Shit."

Big Brother shake his head and say, "I can't play the piano anymore. I forgot how."

"Huh! You was playin' it the other day." "What good's playing the piano," Big Brother insist. "I used to know lots of musicians. They don't know anything about life. They don't know what it all means, man." Then he look down at his hands lying palm up on his knees like he never seen them before in his life and is surprised to find them at the ends of his arms. He say softly, "I got it too, Nickie."

"You got what?" But then, a second later, I know what he talking about and I feel bad for asking. I shake my head. Umm, times are hard. And he no more than just a boy, too.

Suddenly Big Brother's nose and the sides of his nose turn all red and he make this awful sucking sound and I think, shit, that boy crying. He lean back and pinch the bridge of his nose like he pinching off a nosebleed and he shake his head and say, "This is bad, man. Oh man, this is bad." He suck and snort some more like he trying to vacuum away the tears. Some snot run down onto that idiot mustache of his. "Oh God, I got to stop this."

I go to the kitchen and get him a tall glass of ice water. He gulp it down fast like all the thirst in the world is inside of him and it need quenching, quick. Then he wipe his mouth. He all shaken up. "It ain't no death sentence no more," I say to him. "Look at me, I'm still kickin'." Maybe that just the problem, I think, suddenly. it ain't dying, it living that give us such a hard time. I don't know how to do it no more. Everything I once knew about it don't mean nothing now. My heart feel heavy. I can't go on with no pep talk.

--- From "Big Brother"
Reprinted from Iowa Review in
The Best American
Required Reading

©2004, Dave Eggers, Editor
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