Monday, August 6, 2007

My Nekkid Chicken Booty (Part 1: The MnM-I-love-you-song)

Recently, things have changed in my life and it is all very Chinua Achebe meets Charles Dickens. Things fell apart and then a plague of locusts dropped plucky street urchins on my stoop. Or maybe there was some political upheaval and men with guns forced me take cover in my home where I will live out my days, in a four-poster bed while wearing an old wedding dress. Or maybe a new health epidemic arose in the 1980’s and sometime in the 1990’s I decided to get involved for a few weeks. You know, so I might have something to pat myself on the back for. Everyone loves a good deed, almost as much as they love a good epidemic.

In 1997 I was 23 and back in school after 18 months of working then traveling. I hated college. I had always been a truly terrible student, which was in direct conflict with my desired career path, research scientist. I had a sweet, green-eyed, stoner boyfriend, a job in a developmental biology lab, lived in a city where the average summer highs are 75 degrees, and owned my own apartment. When I look back at it now, it seems strange that I was so discontent. I’m 33 now and I am still a student in a biology lab, rent my apartment, it is 96 F outside, I’m single, and I have gained a solid 25 pounds. I have no idea why we can’t all be happier, but I do know that at 23 I was willing to try almost anything to feel more connected to the world at large. When one of my coworkers suggested I volunteer as a camp counselor for two weeks that summer, I jumped at the chance.

AIDS camp. “For Kids and Teens Whose Lives are affected by HIV and AIDS”. I thought that it would be great and of course, noble. I already liked working with kids and my coworker/friend who had suggested it was older, thinner, and cooler than I was. It was flattering. There was an interview with the camp directors complete with questions to make sure that I would be suitable for the job.

There were questions to make sure I could get along with other people:

Q: What do you do in a conflict?
Wrong Answer: Cry like a baby.
Correct Answer: Confront it directly and listen to the other person.

Questions to make sure I wasn’t a religious conservative:

Q: Why do you think AIDS exists?
Wrong Answer: Because God will always punish sodomy.
Correct Answer: Viruses are opportunistic, which sucks.

Questions to make sure I knew something about kids:

Q: What do you like about kids?
Wrong Answer: Their silence.
Correct Answer: Their honesty and spontaneity! (Said with a straight face)

But there were no questions to make sure that I had my own immunity in place. I was never asked if I would be able to walk away once engaged or if I would think twice before taxing my own support system to the utmost limits. By the end of this story I will have dropped out of college two more times, be living in Alabama, have several best friends who no longer be speak to me, and I will have involved my mother in a story that leaves her just as heart-broken as I am.

We are however, only at the beginning. This is Part One, before the drought and locusts. I will introduce you to ‘Froggie’ and tell you that she has AIDS. But she won’t die at the end of this story so it is safe to fall in love with her. You can know that now but we didn’t know that then and for years to follow we waited for her body to stop. We held our breath and alternated between trying no to love her and loving her even more fiercely when guilt and joy got the best of us. By the end of this story she will have been hospitalized multiple times, expelled from school at least once a year, homeless twice, and in her teens will become her own mother’s end-of-life caregiver. But for now she’s safe, and so you are too. It’s okay to love her.

At seven years old her head was the biggest part of her body. The rest was sinew and brown skin. When she stepped out of her clothes she was so tiny it surprised even those people who saw her every day. Her bottom was comprised only of where her legs met her back bone. A shock of wooly hair and large brown eyes were the only things to grab attention from her face splitting grin. Mostly she refused to eat unless it was chicken or pancakes and then she would comfortably consume her own body weight. She was in my cabin, a total pain in the ass and rapidly becoming my favorite.

That summer was unusually hot and the camp lake was overgrown with vicious algae. The campers, especially those few with HIV, weren’t allowed to swim for fear of incurable swimmer’s itch. Everyone was becoming restless and the arts and crafts shed was always overcrowded, being the only cool spot in camp. On the fourth day of camp we decided to take Froggie’s cabin on a hike into the sweltering woods. To call it a hike was a bit of a stretch on our part but it sounded more exciting than “a-little-walk-up-that-hill-by-the-big-tree” and the girls were ready to do anything that was more daring than making paper plate masks.

There were five girls and three counselors. The way up the hill was filled with happy chatter. There was the occasional name-calling but it was mostly ignored by the counselors and enjoyed by the girls. At the crest of the hill we rested, fed them juice and peanuts, and then got ready to head back down. The girls had lost most of their enthusiasm by then and so, to distract them from the heat and dust, one of the counselors started the “I love you” game/song. It was a progressive song, requiring that each person repeated what had come before and then added a new verse. The rules were laid out as follows: “You say ‘I love you like’ and then you say what it is you love. For example ‘I love you like some popcorn’. Then the next person says what you said and adds a verse, like this ‘I love you like some popcorn, I love you like some ice cream’ and so on.”

The girls, between seven and nine years old, took the examples literally and all of the verses involved food.

“I love you like some popcorn
I love you like some ice cream
I love you like some M n’ Ms
I love you like some pizza….”

Froggie, as usual, wasn’t listening but instead was running in circles around the rest of the group as we descended.

“It’s your turn” we told her.
“My turn for what?” she called.
“Your turn for the song.”
“What song?”
And so she was coached through the first four verses, repeating after us:
“I love you like some popcorn
I love you like some ice cream
I love you like some M n’ Ms
I love you like some pizza!”

She looked triumphant at the end and then exasperated when we called her back to hear her verse.

She thought for a moment and then laughed; the voice booming out of her tiny body was as surprising as a gallon poured from a Dixie cup. She did a little dance shaking the air where her hips would be, if she were anything more than vertical.

“I love you like some POPcorn
I love you like some ice CREAM
I love you like some MnMmmmmmmmms
I love you like some Pizz-uh…


As adults, setting an example for impressionable children, we tried not to laugh and then gave up. Froggie ran down the rest of the hill, leaving a trail of laughter and choking dust in her wake. I was completely charmed and on a path that would change my life forever and throw into question many of the things I thought I knew about America, family, friendship, responsibility, obligation, HIV and love.

I can't always write about this. It's too hard. But from time to time, when I'm feeling strong, I'll try to tell you this story. In the end, it is a story about an epidemic but not about AIDS. I hope I'll be able to show you, through only one family, and my involvement with them, how difficult life can be in America. You might not believe me now, but if I tell it right, if I don't leave out too much, or get caught up in my own issues, you might be able to see how living in this country can be so bad that a life-threatening illness became the closest thing they had to salvation even as it was killing them.

Between the three of them, Dickens, Achebe, and Froggie, they had it right. From Dickens: There is much comedy in tragedy, from Achebe: the randomness of life will not always reward good people and from Froggie: nothing says 'love' like shaking your nekkid chicken booty. Not even Mn'Ms.


RT said...

Really beautiful M.

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