By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
TWO MONTHS LATER, JUST A FEW DAYS BEFORE Thanksgiving, Dorothy got herself into a hospice. Carl Bean House, situated on the northern edge of South L.A., has a friendly staff and state-of-the-art care, but Dorothy was used to being surrounded by her children, and she was lonely. She hung her youngest child's drawings on the walls and put her plush-bear collection on prominent display. Bears sat at the foot of her narrow hospital bed, on the windowsill, on top of the television and on the counter alongside her makeup next to the sink. Her favorite was a grinning polar bear in a tasseled graduation hat, a gift from her 12-year-old daughter, Kiniesha*, the last time Dorothy got out of the hospital. "You took that first step to getting better," Kiniesha told her. "You graduated to Carl Bean."
That it took Dorothy so long to take that step -- getting the help she needed to treat the virus -- could be considered puzzling at best and downright crazy at worst. But it was just the most recent of a string of delays and denials that began the moment Dorothy learned she had AIDS.
Though the details of Dorothy's life are her own, her experience with AIDS tells the larger story about where the virus is now -- deeply entrenched in the American underclass, particularly among African-Americans. The self-deception at the heart of Dorothy's attitude about AIDS is universal -- anyone with a serious illness can relate. But AIDS is different, because it is transmitted through the intimacy of sex and shared needles, because there is no cure and because the medical regimen required to combat it is arguably the toughest ever encountered by human beings. As a result, AIDS hits hardest those sectors of society least equipped to defend themselves against it, a group that is disproportionately black and poor. What Dorothy did -- and didn't do -- once she knew she had HIV sheds light on a community whose affliction remains largely hidden, but where the epidemic is taking an increasingly heavy toll.
Shortly after her arrival at Carl Bean, Dorothy sat at a round meeting table down the hall from her room and considered her life. She was a wispy, quiet presence in shorts, gold-framed glasses, and a white T-shirt stretched awkwardly over her stomach, distended from AIDS drug therapy. Her voice raspy and dry, she seemed eager to reveal the difficult road that got her to this unbearable point. But on this day she made it clear that she didn't want the information publicized. "I don't want anything in the paper that's gonna say 'Dorothy Travis has AIDS,'" she said firmly. "It's been hard enough on me already."
During dozens of conversations over the next five months, Dorothy shared the most intimate details of her life, the misdeeds done to her as well as the mistakes she herself had made all spilling out in an even, unaffected tone. Eventually she changed her mind about having her story told, saying she hoped the information might help someone else in her situation. "Maybe if I'd seen something like that, I'd felt less alone," she said. "More brave to act right." Today, though, she was just happy to have someone to help take the edge off her loneliness. "Up until I got AIDS I was doing okay," she said. "Sometimes I still can't believe this is me."
DOROTHY JEAN TRAVIS LEARNED EARLY ON TO distance herself from painful things. She and four brothers grew up in a cramped apartment on Chicago's South Side, getting by on their mother's schoolteacher salary. When Dorothy was 5, her oldest brother, whom she adored, died from an allergic reaction to penicillin at age 11. Another brother, who was often charged with looking after her while their mom was at work, seemed to have little concern for her well-being and made her the target of cruel games. Sometimes he would stand her in front of a playground swing and launch it into her head, knocking her to the ground. On one occasion the swing gashed her forehead, leaving a jagged scar that remained throughout her life. "I never did cry," she said, shaking her head as if talking about someone else. "I just got up and let him do it again."
School held little interest for Dorothy. She regularly skipped class to hang out with her friends, listen to music and look for boys -- with her high cheekbones, wide-set eyes and open, unassuming air, she never lacked for male attention. "I liked the boys," she said, "and the boys liked me." It wasn't until she was 15 and the family moved to Compton that she discovered another passion: ROTC. "That was one time in my life I was good at something," she said. "I thought maybe later to go into the military." At her high school graduation, she had four stripes on her uniform and plans to join the Army. But by the fall she was pregnant, and her enlistment application was denied.
In May of 1987, just after Dorothy turned 19, Antoinette* was born. Though Dorothy's relationship with the child's father was rocky, she could not get enough of their daughter's sweet innocence. "I loved that baby smell. That baby smile," she said. "It lifted me right up." When Antoinette was 4 months old, Dorothy got pregnant again. By the time Kiniesha* was born, the father of the two girls was history. "We wasn't compatible," Dorothy said. "He was always goin' around with other girls."