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Then came the process of learning to make a living legally, no small task when you've been using sex to pay the bills (if you've paid the bills), and when the only hours you've managed to keep were when you needed a fix. Cheatham says it was all she could do to stay at her first job after treatment, at a fast food restaurant where she could see prostitutes on the street outside making $100 an hour.
She discovered the substance-abuse support groups at Mount Tabor, but at first she had "no use for Christians or religion. I still wasn't convinced this God stuff would work. All He'd done was sit back and watch me make a total mess of my life A and on top of that I got AIDS." Eventually, Cheatham says, she came to see God not as something that assumed responsibility for her life -- "a permanent condom in my vagina," as she puts it -- but as a power to enable her to live fully with her present circumstances. "I didn't want to die miserable; just not getting high wasn't enough for me," she says. "God is something I could put in place of all those feelings and fears that come to the surface."
It was at Mount Tabor that she found acceptance for the first time. "They let me have AIDS and be okay."
Her family, Cheatham adds, has not entirely come to terms with her illness or her past. She didn't want them contacted for this story.
Seated on a small sofa in the living room of her apartment on Miami's Upper Eastside, Cheatham is working a word game in the Herald and talking about her relationship with her late husband. On a desk by the door, next to a basket of condoms that she sets out as an offering and reminder to all who enter, rests a copy of Josephine: The Hungry Heart, a biography of Josephine Baker; and an anthology of short stories and poems by black women. Pork ribs are marinating in the fridge (her father's sauce recipe) and she's waiting for a friend to come over and do her hair in braids, an eight-hour process that will leave it looking good for the upcoming Mothers' Voices award ceremony.
Beginning with the first months of drug rehab, Cheatham worked at several different jobs -- among them debris cleanup after Hurricane Andrew, homeless-outreach work for the City of Miami, and selling customized children's books with a close friend. She grew to be a critical voice in the local AIDS community after attending meetings of organizations that channel federal and state money to AIDS programs and services. "I became very disenchanted," she says. "They spent a lot of time arguing about who got to sit on what committee and who was going to be the chair, and fighting over which community [of AIDS victims] should get money. I've given up working within the system."
Still, organizers of local World AIDS Day events were impressed enough with her to invite her to make appearances the past three years. Her presentations have been unscripted dramatic monologues; in one, which she called "My Virus," she had an impromptu conversation with the AIDS virus in its various manifestations within her body. "Rhaynetta has a style," says Lori Jordahl, program manager for HIV counseling and testing for HRS and chairwoman of the South Florida World AIDS Day Coalition. "She can make people laugh, she can make people cry, she can spin their heads around and make them think." In 1993 she called the Ricki Lake Show in response to an inquiry seeking "reformed" prostitutes, and the program's producers flew her up to New York for the taping.
Through it all Joe McDonald was there, the reserved man with the shy smile whom Cheatham came home to, went to church with, turned to for help and comfort when she got sick. They met in late 1991 in treatment. Both had burned their bridges and alienated their families. "But we were like night and day," she says. "Here's an educated woman, traveled, articulate, and this was a man who stopped school in the ninth grade and was drinking at fourteen. There wasn't a snowball's chance in hell. Our therapist didn't think so. But I had to have him."
Besides the chemistry, Cheatham says, it was McDonald's genuineness, a lack of pretense and jealousy, that captivated her. "What you saw was what you got. He wasn't threatened by me. And he was so damn supportive it scared me." Married in September 1995, they got by on their disability checks and Joe's maintenance and delivery jobs -- and her job when she was healthy enough to work -- but their insurance wasn't enough to cover his funeral. Mount Tabor and friends' donations took care of that. Their small one-bedroom apartment is still full of reminders of their four years together, the history they were reclaiming -- lots of snapshots, stuffed bears he gave her, a tattered striped robe he wore that still bears his familiar smell.
Lately she has been feeling stronger physically, but she still lives with a plastic tube surgically threaded through to her heart so that antibiotics, blood, or other fluids may be administered. Though she has gained ten pounds since her March hospitalization, her figure has lost its old curves, and the cushion of fat under the skin of her face is gone, leaving hollows to accentuate her prominent cheekbones and Sphinx-like eyes. "I want my booty back," she complains, knowing the best she can do is have patience with her weakened body and its tiny, besieged band of T cells. But she struggles, frustrated, against her new memory problems and the unaccustomed difficulty in ordering her thoughts. At one point, when she can't remember how to summon the friend who has been driving her to the hospital in emergencies, an ambulance has to take her.