You would’ve thought I was going to the Grammys. I was in my closet, searching for something fierce, when the phone rang.
“Peace,” I muttered.
“What’s up, Mark? You excited about your anniversary tonight? I know you gonna give them fever with a new outfit.”
I was busted—and relieved. It was one of my best friends, Marvin. Later that night, at our Narcotics Anonymous meeting, I was going to celebrate nine years of living clean and serene in “the program.” Only Marvin would know I was coordinating my outfit—at eight in the morning.
Marvin and I had met at an NA meeting in Harlem. We clicked immediately, talking every day for hours. I was shocked that a complete stranger could have so much in common with me: AIDS, addiction, alienation, anxiety. We were two same-gender-loving men of African descent learning how to live without drugs by God’s grace.
As the day went on, I got more congratulatory calls. When my older sister phoned from Florida, I felt an uneasy mix of pride, happiness, guilt and sadness. I once stole her bike so I could buy crack. All she had said was, “Boy, where is my money?” I paid her back and never stole another bike.
In my excitement, I forgot to call my parents in Chicago to thank them for their support; both have attended my NA anniversaries in years past. Talking honestly to them about AIDS is difficult. A few years ago, when I called to say my T cells had dropped to 57, my gregarious father was speechless. My mother changed the subject. I was hurt by their reaction, so I went to a meeting and bared my soul. Since then, meds have boosted my T cells to 225. My parents call periodically to make sure I’m OK. Their concern makes me feel better about myself.
That evening, dressing for the meeting—settling finally on old Levi’s and a vintage shirt—I reflected on the winter of ’94, when I was diagnosed with HIV. Though I was safe in rehab here in New York, my partner of 16 years was still struggling in Chicago, negotiating T cells for crack vials. Lost and confused, I desperately needed something to believe in.
The following May, I surrendered to NA’s suggestions for a new way of life: I made three meetings daily, prayed for guidance and talked on the phone at night with fellow members. I got a sponsor (someone you can call anytime for support). My sponsor was living with AIDS herself—and suggested holistic health, support groups and psychotherapy to help me cope with the virus. I faithfully complied. When my partner died the next spring, I found solace not in drugs but in a bereavement group. I took up acupuncture, gym workouts, multivitamins, rest and water. I started to believe in myself—and in a loving God.
Since then, I’ve come to see my mistakes as opportunities for learning. I love myself today and feel neither shame nor regret about who I am or what I’ve done.
When I arrived at the meeting, I was showered with cards, flowers and gifts from friends, both in and outside NA. A new member said, “Mark’s compassionate support gave me hope and a sense of belonging.” I was humbled.
Afterward, some of us went uptown to my favorite BBQ joint. (I’m not too spiritual for buffalo wings and French fries now and then.) Marvin and I dropped quarters in the jukebox, fighting over Beyoncé, Janet, Mary J. and Whitney.
“So how does it feel to have nine years clean?” he asked.
“I feel good,” I said. “Like James Brown.”
As the food arrived, someone offered a toast. “Here’s to Mark, the happy homo from Harlem.”
All I could do was just laugh.