Twelve years ago Tom would never hesitate to introduce himself to a new face or friend. But with the high risks of revealing his HIV status, Tom now lives in a dimmer, isolated world with fears of rejection.
Tom's house is filled with language books and mementos of his travels, from Kenyan safaris to Brazilian festival beads. He has started to give away many of his belongings, preparing for the day when he might have to return home to the arms of his brother and mother.
Tom's excitement ignites at the mention of another country or a word in another language. He remembers his life prior to HIV/AIDS when he frequently traveled, totalling nearly 75 different countries on his journies.
Worn letters and numbers on a detailed pill box reveal Tom's diligent efforts to strengthen his vulnerable health, and remind him of his never-ending battle with HIV/AIDS.
Tom consumes 25-30 pills daily, including anti-retro viral medication and Morphine, to keep the virus at bay, and dull the intensity of his leg pain.
While Tom is unable to drive, and suffers acute leg pain with each step, he enjoys going for walks along LA's busy shopping streets to absorb the liveliness of people interacting.
Tom dresses with sophistication, always wearing neatly pressed shirts and two splashes of Aqua de Gio, but still feels as if he is naked among a crowd of judging eyes.
Unable to expose his true character, Tom's diverse talents, language skills, and international experiences are overshadowed by his HIV infection.
My name is Tom. I come from the Czech Republic. I left my country when I was 18 to escape communism. I came to the US when I was 27. I lived in Montreal and California. I studied languages. I love to meet people and travel. When I was young, I wanted to travel to 100 countries before I die. I have been to about 75. But with neuropathy in my legs I cannot travel. I could do many things with language and my education. Bu this dreadful disease prevents me from working. I hope that this project will help me make some contacts and maybe to help me get a job. I would like to be an activist for young people and to tell people about how AIDS robs you of many things.
When I got sick after traveling I assumed that I had Malaria. After doing a blood test they said, "t may be HIV". I didn't say anything. I didn't scream, cry, nothing. How could I have HIV? I was in a relationship and wasn't messing around! I work hard. Only my brother knows about the AIDS. Where I come from you can't talk about these things. People gossip. People think if you have AIDS you have slept with the whole city.
I have Neuropathy. It's like walking on broken glass all the time and it doesn't go away.
I take 25-30 pills a day with Morphine and Norontine. People ask me, ‘How are you doing? You don't complain anymore'. I would have to complain 24 hours a day and I'm tired of the broken record.
I have to take the bus in LA. To even try to go to the doctor kills the whole day. And how will you feel? I have to get to know where the bathrooms are along my bus route. You never know when you have to get off the bus and run to find a bathroom.
I call myself, ‘from the old book'. I like to talk about the old days. People hear my accent and they don't want to get to know me. But all of my friends have died, and if you don't go out, if you don't drive... then you don't meet anyone. In support groups, I don't relate to people who only talk about drugs and sex. I don't do that stuff. I consider myself a-sexual. All I want is a friend to go to the movies with.
"I would like to peel off my skin, layer after layer, and become who I was before. And just be me. What you see is not me. I feel isolated, like everyone is watching me. I just happen to be how I am and I have no control over it. We are not monsters. I didn't decide to be HIV positive. We are all just trying to live normal lives."
I was often suicidal. I used to walk towards the freeway. I wanted to jump over many times, saying 'should I? Should I?' It would be so easy. But then I would look down at the people below. I didn't want to hurt any of them. I would even look on the Internet about suicide and how to do it. But somehow I got out of it. I thought of my mother and brother. I wouldn't want to put them through mourning. They are all that I have."