Tina is another of our tiny, dying clients. She has a stick figure body and a face that makes me think of a child's little drawing: mouth, nose, and eyes all sketched with a few straight lines, a fringe of short bangs on her forehead. It's a sweet, slightly quizzical look without much force behind it. Often, as she feels the effects of her methadone -- considerably enhanced by high dose xanex bought on the street -- she moves like a little stick figure losing its animation, swaying and bobbing, eyes shut and mouth open, taking minutes to raise or lower the Styrofoam cup filled with lukewarm coffee. Even her hands are like something a child would draw, although, in this case, we're talking about a bored or slightly malevolent child. She has some fingernails that stop short of the end of her fingers and then grow straight up, so that they're perpendicular to where they're supposed to be. They can get quite long, and thick, and rather yellow. These witchy growths on her otherwise unmarked body are caused by a virus.
Tina, who is in her late 30s, spent much of last winter sleeping in her boyfriend's mother's garage. She has AIDS, which she says was acquired through being regularly injected with heroin at the age of 14 by her aunt. She has many of the diseases and the fungal infections that typically go with it. Her t-cell count (often 800 or more in a healthy person, dipping below 200 for someone with AIDS) tends to remain below 40. She is, appropriately, on none of the AIDS medications. She couldn't maintain the regime, and the drugs do more harm than good if they're started and stopped, mixed with everything else she buys on the street. She says that her doctor is frustrated with her, and it's obvious that she doesn't blame him. Tina's blood pressure is also extraordinarily low, and she speaks matter of factly about her body's lack of oxygen. When she goes to the E.R. she's like a t.v. character going to Cheers -- everybody knows her name.
And everybody seems to like Tina, or feel sorry for her, or tolerate her anyway. She is so much like a little disabled child that it's hard to remember she's a woman, but she is. She has a boyfriend. She has a two-year-old child she adores (don't worry, too much, anyway, the dad's family has custody). She can get very angry when she thinks she's been insulted, and she will apologize at length weeks after an incident if she sees a person she thinks she spoke to rudely. She is aware enough of what her life is to feel despair. Suicide is a recurring consideration.
It was both reassuring and depressing to listen to her yesterday talk about her past. Boys in the Hood was on our little V.C.R., and Tina, looking over at it, remarked that if the characters got revenge they'd go to prison. Then she continued in her soft, slightly gravelly, no-preliminaries monotone to tell about her own revenge history. "In my family," she said,"When anything happens to anybody, mom, sister, brother, grandma, doesn't matter, the first thing we think about is revenge." I can believe that. Not too many months ago, her mother hit her in the face. Tina didn't react because her little daughter and niece were in the room. Tina's mother called her a "pussy" for not hitting back. Normally, the women would fight.
Tina told me that when she was in a half way house when she heard that someone had hurt a close friend. The first thing she did was call a cab, then go on trash can duty so she could get outside. The cab came, and she ran for it, but somebody at the halfway house stopped the cab from taking off. Didn't matter to Tina. Nobody had hands on her yet, and she went flying down the street in a bright green sweatsuit, ducked in an alley, unzipped it, and reappeared in the red sweatsuit she'd hidden underneath, flagged down another cab and kept moving. "You'd of thought I did murder someone," she said. "The way they kept showing my picture on the T.V. They said I'd escaped from prison, but it was a halfway house." I asked if she got revenge while she was out, and Tina made one of her mild adjustments of expression, tending towards surprise. Of course she had gotten revenge. And later, when she and the offending woman were both in the same jail, she got it again.
And she didn't get caught anytime soon, either. Police came to her home, and helicopters circled the skies above it. She ran to the roof of her stepfather's club, white trash bag in her hand. Tina hid in the snow, beneath the white bag, unseen. I'm (inappropriately?) delighted by this image of her determination, her foresight in grabbing the trash bag, her winning something for once. Perhaps with some of the same feelings I'm having, Tina went on to talk about her little sister who, as a teenager, tried to jump out of a moving police car. She named the two police who had her at the time, one of them, Officer Smith, is a man I've heard quite a bit about. Officer Smith and partner took the little sister into a walled alley for a discussion of her escape attempt. While Officer Smith was cracking her ribs, Tina's little sister managed to blacken his eye and give him a bloody nose. Tina modified her expression again towards slight amusement. "I heard the other police made fun of him for that 'cause she didn't weigh but a hundred pounds."
Tina quietly chatted a bit more. She said she didn't mind prison except for the first few days she spent in drug withdrawal. Otherwise it was fine. "I skate all over there," she said with a tiny smile. "It's because I was locked up so much when I was a minor. I became institutionalized." A fair enough assessment, I suppose. She'd probably be better off in prison now, but there's life inside that little doll-like figure and surprising sweetness too. I hope she'll keep coming back.