There was a part of Abazu’s life he kept away from everyone, including his closest friends, Dilibe and Dakota. Every three months, as part of his health check routine, he had to have his blood tested to check his CD4 count, viral load and to ensure he had not picked up any infection. He kept to these appointments religiously, invisibly. It was not that he feared his CD4 count would have dropped or that his viral load would have increased. For the last couple of years all his tests had come back quite good; his CD4 count was always above 600 and, his viral load was always undetectable. Yet, he kept these visits private and secret. As much as he loved his friends, those of them who knew of his HIV status, and felt grateful to them for their unwavering support, he was much happier that they did not display any form of pity for him. Pity was what he was afraid of the most. He suspected that this emotion would be what could ultimately unravel him, break down all the defensive walls he had built around himself to deal with his condition and finally knock down whatever internal defences he had, which had kept him relatively healthy all this time.
In this way he felt that adults were not much different from babies or little children. Years ago, while he was still living with his parents, an uncle of his and his wife had come to visit with their toddler. While the adults socialized like they usually do, drinking their beverages while watching television and discussing everything from whom among their friends just bought a new car to the dire effects of the structural adjustment program recently introduced by the government, Abazu was fascinated by the toddler who seemed to want to touch everything and put everything into her mouth. And then, with her still wobbly legs the child raised herself up using the coffee table as some kind of balance, and slowly made her way toward the television’s remote control that was sitting idly on the table. With each unsteady step Dilibe rooted quietly for this determined baby. Just when the girl child was near enough to the remote control gadget and was about to grab it, she stumbled, lost her balance and fell, slamming her bum forcefully on the carpeted floor. Dilibe watched as the baby’s face crinkled up with uncertainty; the adults were silent and their eyes were now fixed on the child and he sprang up to calm the child who seemed about to burst out in tears.
“Don’t,” his mother said, waving her hands at him to remain where he was.
The baby had looked from her parents to him and then his mother. After a few seconds with no one doing anything about the baby’s fall, the baby looked around, propped herself up again and grabbed the remote control. She smiled to herself, stuck the edge of gadget into her small mouth and began chewing on it.
“Next time ignore a child that falls like that, Abazu. As long as the child is not injured or in harm’s way,” his mother had said afterward, when the toddler and her parents had left. “The minute you begin to fawn over the child or show pity because it fell, the child will start crying.”
This was very much how he felt about his infection and visits to the clinic. More importantly though, he felt that this deliberate concealing had much more to do with the very first time he had to visit a clinic in Nigeria after he had been diagnosed as HIV positive. Newly back from the United Kingdom, and still in some shock and denial at the result of the blood test, Abazu had slowly decided not to be a victim. He simply would not let himself go like that. This fighting urge was precipitated by what he had christened the “Andrew Beckett” complex, a fictional character from the movie Philadelphia. For Abazu and many people of his generation in Nigeria and, when he thought about it, probably the entire Africa, Andrew Beckett and Philadelphia was their first true encounter with the phenomenon, AIDS. And for Abazu, watching Tom Hanks’ transformation as the movie progressed until the character’s ultimate demise—from the frail man to the even frailer patient in the hospital bed—more than made the point that HIV/AIDS was not a thing anyone wanted to have. For many weeks after watching the movie, Abazu remained in a state of melancholy and emotional distress, a distress he could not as yet explain to anyone who knew him then, other than this haunting, vague fear that somehow that movie had shown him his death. So, this thought and recalling of Andrew Beckett gave him the much needed impetus to want to do something, to not become an Andrew Beckett himself, lying deflated in a hospital bed, thin as bones and dying while everyone he knew watched and pitied him.
And what was it that transpired that first time he visited a clinic in Lagos? What was it that had scarred him so, made him too protective and reticent about further visits? A month after his return, he had gone to see his doctor, clutching in his hands the printed test result he had obtained from the clinic in London. It was an unscheduled visit, but he waited patiently until his doctor was free to see him. When Abazu got into the cold, sterilized consulting room, he sat down and after waiting for his doctor to ask him if he was sick and what brought him there that day, Abazu simply gave him the test results. He watched quietly, but with keen intent as his doctor’s eyes scanned through the sheet of paper that, more or less, summed up his life. Every squint, every slight flaring of the nostril as he inhaled; the delicate throbbing of the vein at the side of his head—Abazu observed it all.
“This test was done recently,” the doctor said as though it were a question that needed affirmation.
“A few weeks ago,” Abazu said.
“It was done in London,” the doctor continued, his tone implying that since it was done in London, the result could not be refuted. “And you are here because you want another test done?”
“I’m here because I want—I want to know what to do.”
“Mr. Igwenatu,” the doctor said, referring to Abazu by his surname. “We don’t handle that kind of treatment in this clinic. I’m sorry. I suggest you go to the General Hospital or the Military Hospital.”
Abazu took his test result and left. That weekend, very early in the morning, he got dressed, tucked the test result in the back pocket of his jeans and drove to the General Hospital. It was his first time there. It would be his last time as well. Sickness and death hovered in the air there, like laundry drying out on a clothesline in a backyard—something that was normal and at home there. With that came the nonchalance, rudeness and aggression by the staff; they treated everyone with disdain, noses scrunched up as they barked their orders “MOVE THERE,” “SIT DOWN,” “WAIT THERE.” It was all so pathetic, so impersonal and so well practiced, their unpleasant behaviour and commands, as though the staff had gotten so used to people coming there just to die or wait for death, not for treatment, not to get better. Abazu was horrified by what he saw: people with broken bones waiting to be treated; women and men crying and bleeding; old people sleeping on the cement floor from the night before because either the wards were too full or hoping that they would be attended to that day. It was all so depressing. He did not see himself being treated here. If anything, he felt that the little spark of hope he had for surviving and not becoming an Andrew Beckett in the final scenes of Philadelphia would be quenched here, in this gloomy hopeless place, faster than a fire in a rainstorm. He imagined coming here month after month for drugs and treatment, enduring the shame, swallowing the abuse like a bitter pill each time. This he could not do. He was so much better than this place. He got up from where he had been waiting, his test result still in his pocket and walked away, not looking back even when one of the orderlies kept shouting at him to go back to his seat.
He did not know why, but he found himself back at his clinic. He could not say how he got there; everything seemed to be in a haze of floating scenery, memories inverted and played out before his eyes as though he was watching a passé Sunday matinée on NTA. Yet, somehow in his blindness he drove there as though he had been programmed to do so.
His doctor was surprised when he was led in.
“Mr. Igwenatu,” he said. “Were you able to visit any of the hospitals I recommended for you?”
Abazu stared at him. Moments passed.
“The one I went to was terrible. They don’t treat people well there. I can’t go back.”
“Treatment for HIV patients is highly subsidised in those hospitals by the Government. You have to be patient if—”
Abazu stopped him. “I didn’t ask for subsidy. I can afford to pay for better healthcare. That is why I came to you.”
And then Abazu saw it in his eyes, the look of pity. He recognised it for its unconscious, smug superiority despite what it tried to convey, a feeling of empathy, a show of concern. Just when Abazu thought he was going to get up and leave yet again from a place where he had sought aid, he noticed the quick change in the doctor’s countenance. There was a sudden spark in his eyes, and a jolt to his movement.
“What was I thinking?” the doctor said, smacking his forehead with an open palm. He tore out a sheet of paper and began writing on it. “There’s a hospital not too far from here. It’s a private clinic. They are very good there. They do treat HIV positive patients. Go there,” the doctor said, handing him the paper. “Ask for Dr. Ola. Tell him I referred you to him.”
A ray of hope!
After Abazu left his old clinic, he never returned there again. The new clinic was what he had been looking for.
“You are very lucky they detected this early,” Dr. Ola was saying as he examined Abazu that very first time. “We would still have to do another test to know if you should be on antiretroviral medication.”
There was something very reassuring about Dr.Ola. He was a small sized man with very delicate hands and an amiable smile. To Abazu, he resembled a gerbil with his big glasses and protruding front teeth. What Abazu found most agreeable about him was his straight-forwardness and direct approach to things. Abazu liked that he looked him in the eyes when he shook his hand. He was direct with his answers and encouraged Abazu to probe deeper for clarity if he needed to. He discussed the advancement medical researchers had made regarding finding a cure for the HIV virus, and was quick to add, “We are still a long way from finding a cure for HIV or AIDS. The best medical science can do for now is to help patients manage the disease. It’s almost like having diabetes. People are living longer and healthier lives with good treatment.”
Abazu liked him from the very first day. He knew with Dr. Ola, he would not get pity. And Dr. Ola was not a friend, not in the way Dilibe and Dakota were, thus Abazu knew he could be open to the point of vulnerable with him knowing that as soon as he was done with his health checks and had gone home, he would cease to exist as an individual, a being, and would become simply just a patient. Nameless. Faceless. Without form, but simply a file tucked away in a steel cabinet and locked up to protect his and others’ identities. At least this was what Abazu hoped. He did not find the notion of this degrading, but rather redemptive in its own way. Here, in this hospital he was treated with dignity by the staff. They were polite to everyone and this politeness did not smack of condescension.
At the Government hospital, he had felt violated in a way he did not think was possible until he experienced it. Being at the mercy of people who believed they were better off than other people simply because they were ill, who displayed a shocking level of arrogance and contempt, was something that would stay with Abazu for a long time. For him it crystallised what his new life would be like with this HIV status: he had joined the ranks of the damned. If people knew, he would be treated differently no matter what. And so Abazu knew he had to choose carefully who got to know about his status.
It was after his first consultation with Dr. Ola that Abazu decided he would tell Dilibe about being HIV positive. There was a relief that came with letting someone else know. Not that Abazu expected Dilibe to do anything about it, but just the fact that he knew and was not outwardly affected by it or judgemental was on its own quite calming. After Dilibe, Abazu told four other people including Dakota, and none of them was a member of his family. They all had listened. They all had said all the right things like “It’s OK!”, “Are you seeing a doctor?”, “It’s not a death sentence, you know”, “I’m here for you if you need anything”. And they meant it all, he knew. But that was the limit of his sharing. He could not bear to give them more access to his disease; he could not let them see him take his drugs or know when he went for his check-ups at the clinic. He feared that if he did, with time their show of courage and support might become tainted as they watched him go through this, and soon pity would surely creep in, lodging itself like an unwelcome squatter one could simply not wish away.
Abazu looked forward to these quarterly consultations. It was the closest he came to therapy sessions. Often he would talk to Dr. Ola about his bouts of depression; he asked if it were possible for him to father a healthy child; he would talk about subtle side effects from his drugs like the infrequent diarrhoea. Sometimes he would talk about his friends with Dr. Ola, who never seemed to mind or hurried him but almost always had something insightful to say in return.
Abazu had an appointment with Dr. Ola that morning.
“My friend, Dakota, wants to get pregnant. She’s determined about it, from what she says. Her man has no idea that she is trying.”
Abazu was sitting on a chair in Dr. Ola’s office while the latter checked his blood pressure and other vital signs. Earlier he had jumped on the scale and noted he had added some weight.
“Dakota is the multiracial one, isn’t she?” Dr. Ola asked, smiling his usual indulgent smile.
“Yes,” said Abazu, then he frowned a little. “I guess I should be happy for her, as her friend, and I am in a way, but—”
“It just seems so rushed, almost so reactionary! I’ve always felt that she blames herself for not fighting hard enough for the child she had for her ex-husband. She gave in too easily, almost as if she felt the child they shared together was a burden. It’s just a feeling I have and I may be wrong.”
“Hmmm! So now, this feels to you like she is overcompensating for not loving her other child enough.”
“Yes. You understand me.”
“What about the fact that the person she is seeing has no idea of this?”
“It’s about control,” Abazu said. “She wants to be in control this time. The last time she wasn’t in control. This may explain why she fell for a much younger man, don’t you think?”
“Hmmm!” Dr. Ola said. “What I think is, is there a reason why you are adding so much weight?”
Abazu was quiet.
“I am worried about this weight increase and your cholesterol level. We have to do a test for that. Is there a reason why you are adding so much weight?”
Just like that, Abazu forgot all about Dakota and her issues. He had his own issues to contend with. This, after all, was the one place he had to face all his demons.
“I thought it was the only way I could look normal.”
“Normal as against what?” Dr. Ola asked. He was seated across from Abazu now, his elbows resting on his sparsely littered desk. “Normal is a very relative term, you know!”
Abazu closed his eyes for a moment. He took in several deep breaths, trying to give a proper structure to his answer. Saying that he had never consciously thought of it would have been editing the truth, what was more accurate was that he never allowed himself to consciously think of it, his weight!
“It is funny that these days when a young person, man or woman, falls sick and dies, the unspeakable thing on everyone’s lips is the suspicion that the person must have died of AIDS. It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, you see it in their eyes; a young healthy person is not supposed to die.”
Abazu fell silent again. His head was hurting so he placed the fingers of his right hand on his forehead, massaging it in a circular motion. As he did this, he recalled a documentary he had watched some years ago about people living with HIV in Uganda. The images were still fresh in his head as if it were only yesterday he had seen the documentary.
“It’s the same if you are young and suddenly start to lose weight for no reason,” Abazu continued. “People will think you are sick and behind all that inquisitiveness and curiosity they begin to whisper among themselves ‘Why has he lost so much weight? Maybe he is sick! Maybe he has AIDS.’ You just know that they are thinking it even if they do not say it out loud.”
“Your weight gain is deliberate!” Dr. Ola said.
“Because you don’t want people to know or think that you are HIV positive!”
“You are aware that gaining the wrong kind of weight can be harmful to your health!”
“Yes. It is better to look a little overweight than scrawny and sickly. If I had a penny for every time I had overheard people talking about skinny people or describing them as suffering from AIDS, I would be a very rich man now.”
“Do your friends share this same view that thin looking adults are suffering from AIDS?”
“Not my good friends,” Abazu said. “But I do know people who think like that and make flippant statements in that vein!”
“I kid you not,” Abazu said. “There was this young fellow I used to know. He is dead now. Died about ten years ago. I remember I was shocked when I heard of his death. I didn’t know he had been ill. What shocked me the most was what some of our friends were saying about his mysterious death; that he had grown so lean, that they were sure he must have had AIDS. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, I will never know. But it was a little strange that shortly after his death his family were quick to let the news spread that he had cancer. Cancer! The rumour of AIDS was quickly quelled and the same friends who were whispering all those horrible stuff were the first to show compassion. Can’t you see? You are better off if people think you have cancer than HIV!”
“Your world view seems to be coloured by your HIV status,” Dr. Ola said. “Everything you do, everything you think and even how you interact with people, it all seems to lead to and end up with this disease. I don’t think this is healthy. Neither is adding unnecessary weight. You may be doing yourself more harm than good.”
Abazu closed his eyes. He was thinking of coloured lenses. Sepia. Gray scales. Lucozade foil-orange. He wondered what colour lenses his eyes now saw the world through. What colour did HIV shade his world with? Red? Perhaps sepia! His life felt fractured; split into two—of past and present. There was the life before HIV and the life after HIV. It was that simple really. Before he was diagnosed as positive, everything seemed infinite; the future, growing old—there was a substance to time. Now, time felt immediate, intangible, almost completely spent.
“Have you told your family about your status?”
“No,” Abazu answered. He shivered inwardly just thinking about his family and how disappointed they would feel with him if they knew.
“They will not understand.”
“Your friends understand. Why can’t you make your family understand?”
“They will not understand.” Abazu repeated.
“Is this because you are different— gay?”
“Yes,” said Abazu, feeling a heavy weight lift from his shoulders. “And because to them, this is what happens to gay people. It’s God’s curse to our kind. We deserve it. I deserve it!”
Abazu looked up and his eyes held those of Dr. Ola. His eyes, behind his glasses, were gentle. So gentle that Abazu thought of ferrets’ eyes. It occurred to him that this was the first time he had admitted to being gay to the doctor or anyone outside his circle of trust. The question had never been asked, but in the ways that people knew things without asking or being told, Abazu had always suspected Dr. Ola knew about his sexuality. His suspicion had now been confirmed. He wondered if it was right to ask him how he knew. Was it something Abazu had said during one of their consultations? Or was it something about the way he carried himself? Was it because he was a man living with HIV?
It did not matter how he knew or that he knew, Abazu resolved within himself, he would not ask.
“No one deserves to be sick,” Dr. Ola said. “No one deserves HIV.”
Abazu exhaled. It seemed as if he had been holding his breath for the longest time. And then he smiled. This was the reason he came here; not so much for the drugs, but for how it made him feel whole again.
He left the clinic feeling uplifted, like he always felt after every consultation. But today was different. He had a lot to reflect about, like the fact that Dr. Ola now knew he was a gay man. Strangely he did not feel threatened by this, as he would have thought. There were only a few of his heterosexual friends that he had come out to and the decision to do so had not been easy for him. For every person he had come out to, he always had to wonder—even though he was sure they shared liberal views and couldn’t care less that he was gay, he wondered if underneath all those layers of tolerance a minuscule part of them still judged him. When they interacted and socialized with him, did they make an extra effort to be politically correct at all times, avoiding the use of certain words and subjects that might be construed as offensive to him, and did they consciously condition themselves not to think about how it was for him to be intimate with someone of the same sex? These were some of the things he had to consider every time he came out to someone he trusted.
Trust. It was such a small word, five letters in all, but with big significance. Was that what it was he felt for Dr. Ola? It had been so easy to not deny that he was gay with him. It might have been easier and less complicated if he had simply said nothing, acknowledged nothing. But he did. And yet he still left the clinic feeling quite good with himself. He had expanded his circle of trust.
Sitting in the back seat of the taxi that drove him to his restaurant, he thought of his friends, Dilibe and Dakota, and the things happening in their lives. Dilibe seemed to have a lot on his plate: parents pushing him to get married and co-habiting with a younger sibling. He suspected that behind the calm Dilibe displayed hid all sorts of frustration and pent up resentments. And then, there was Dakota! She had woken up one morning and decided that she wanted to be a mother again.
In a way he envied his friends and the lives they lived, the challenges they faced; the choices they had! Their lives were not perfect. And yet whatever it was they both had to overcome, it never seemed insurmountable. Dilibe could choose to get married tomorrow and start a family, or not. He could choose to put up with the living arrangement with his brother, or not. Dakota could choose to have a child and tell the man she was seeing, or not. They both had clear definite choices. On the other hand, Abazu knew it was different for him. He could not choose not to be HIV positive. Some people still had that choice. Not him.
Abazu had his restaurant and he had his friends. He had for too long used these to distract himself from his condition, from also moving on. But somehow, he felt something changed within him. It wasn’t just the visit to the clinic that triggered this; it was everything else that had been happening with him and his friends in the last few months. He no longer wanted to be just an observer.
His phone rang. He looked at the caller ID; it was the bistro.
“Yes, Bunmi! I’m on my way back. The client can wait for me in my office. Thank you!”
He hung up the phone and stared at the screen for a while. He punched at the directory and began going over the contact details of the over three hundred names stored within, one after the other. He realised that apart from the few clients, he had not called or spoken with a majority of the contacts, friends and family, stored on the phone. A lot of them represented for him a life before HIV. He had severed the link to so many of them almost five years ago now, since he became aware of his status. It just happened. He let depression take hold of him; ignoring calls, not bothering to call back, until there was no point calling back and the people stopped calling; emails and text messages stopped flittering in. When he emerged from the cocoon he had created for himself, his old life seemed so distant, like it belonged to someone else.
He stopped scrolling when he got to the name Godwin. He stared at the name for a long time. He wondered if the number was still in use. For a moment he was tempted to call, but at the last minute he sent off a hurried text message that simply said: Hi. This is Abazu.
Immediately after Abazu had sent off that text message, regret settled on him like a heavy blanket. He had stared at the tiny screen of his mobile phone willing the message not to deliver. He wondered at what he was thinking! In a moment of hopelessness he had cursed the failed state of the federal telecommunications infrastructure; this was one time he wished for a functional telephone booth where he could call the number and if it rang, he would hang up before anyone answered the phone. It would not be traced back to him, not like these mobile phones that delivered not only the intended message, but also the phone number of the sender.
Every ring of the phone or alert of a text message that came afterward, Abazu expected it to be Godwin, but it was either a client or some other friend and the text messages were mostly bank deposit alerts. After an hour of tormenting suspense, Abazu turned off his phone. He could not bear it any longer, the waiting and the fact that every ring of the phone felt very much like Taser jolts. He tossed the phone into the desk drawer in his office and forgot about it until he was about to depart for home.
He did not switch on the phone until he was home and almost immediately the phone rang. The name flashing on the luminous screen gave Abazu pause; Godwin. He felt an excitement tinged with fear. His heart beat faster and he stood still like a salt statue. The phone rang out and after a brief pause started again.
“Abazu, it is really you!”
The voice was as he remembered it, thick like timber and flavoured with the essence of expensive education. His voice was mesmerising, it was assured and held faint promises of something indescribable but real, very real.
“I tried calling you as soon as I read your text message, but your phone wasn’t going through. I have been trying your number almost every half hour until now. How are you?”
Abazu was simply lost for words. He did not know what to say or how to be with him any longer. It had been so long. The voice felt like that of a stranger, a familiar stranger.
The voice stopped speaking and instead joined him in the silence. This silence that felt comforting in its own way like a picture book filled with water colour drawings of a past that could have been. Their breathing became synced with the silence.
“I wasn’t sure you still used that number,” Abazu said, cutting through the quietness.
He had not expected a reaction or response and Godwin did not offer any. Abazu understood. He recognised that it was Godwin’s turn to be quiet.
“I should have called you sooner than this,” Abazu continued. “I am sorry.”
Silence. A sharp intake of breath from the other end of the phone, but nothing else.
“The last couple of years have not been the easiest for me. I needed time for myself and could not handle a lot of people and—you. I felt like I had lost myself somewhere and I needed to reassess everything.”
“It’s been five years, Abazu! You went for a simple holiday in England and that was it. You returned and refused to take my calls and from what our mutual friends tell me, you also cut them off. You moved house and changed your mobile number. At least, I knew your restaurant business was flourishing. I decided not to go to you. Your message was clear.”
Another wave of silence passed.
“For a while I believed you had met someone and that was why you stayed away. I thought I read you wrong and there was really nothing to the chemistry I thought we had. I was glad to receive your text today but I kept asking myself, why now?”
“I don’t have the answers you are looking for,” Abazu said.
“Fair enough,” Godwin said. “I will take whatever you give me. I’m just happy you called.”
“I thought it would be nice to maybe have a drink or something, if that’s OK!”
“Abazu,” he said. “I don’t live in Lagos anymore. I moved to Abuja. I run the family business from there.”
Abazu felt like someone had punched the air out of him hearing those words. Five years was a long time to wait for someone to call you. It felt crushing that for a moment he had clung to a flimsy hope that perhaps there was something there for the both of them. Hearing Godwin’s voice, its closeness, made him forget distance and the years, like a solid wall that had separated them. He had not expected this news of moving to another city.
“—but I still come to Lagos once in a while,” Godwin said, his voice reassuring in its measured calmness. “I will like to have that drink with you.”
“Oh, if that is fine with your partner!”
Abazu was startled by Godwin’s teasing laughter, it held a mocking note, but he found himself smiling to the sound of it.
“Abazu, I know you too well. Stop fishing. I’m not in a relationship and it’s not because I was waiting for you.”
Abazu’s smile deepened. In that space and time he did not think of or remember his health status. He simply existed in a bubble that blocked out anything negative, illuminating instead all that was possible. Later when he would reflect on this moment, he would wonder where his ever-present fear had fled to, the fear he bore like a tattoo, a permanent reminder that he was no longer pure but forever stained! He would remember that moment for its liberating magic.
Houses were always too close together and they were all built differently, with no semblance of harmony—conflicting colours, uneven heights, some with exaggerated opulence that tried too hard to stand out, others content with being just simple. Streets were narrow and usually littered with debris, people and vehicles, both stationary and in motion. The sun was always too hot when it was out, the air was never fresh but dense with smog and the nights were always too dark and noisy with the mixed sounds of generators, hooting cars and impatient, screaming sirens. Lagos city life was not what it was hyped to be, so Abazu was not that surprised that Godwin had packed up and moved to Abuja.
Abazu was at home now, a three bedroom bungalow in the outskirts of Lekki peninsula, an area almost removed from the bedlam that was Lagos city but was catching up slowly, like a distant cousin keen on flaunting his nouveau riche status. Abazu was still on a high from Godwin’s visit and kept thinking of how unchanged he looked. He hadn’t aged at all in the five years.
He uncorked a bottle of red wine and filled three glasses. Dilibe and Dakota had come to visit. He knew they would come. He knew Dakota would not keep away, especially as he had not been able to tell her anything more about Godwin. Shortly after her arrival at the bistro, he had left with Godwin who wanted his opinion on some art works he was planning to purchase for his office. By the time he got back, Dakota was gone.
“How come you’ve never mentioned this Godwin fella before?” Dakota asked. She grabbed one of the glasses of wine and took a sip. “Did you meet him online?”
“Secrets, secrets, secrets,” Dilibe said. “Someone has been keeping secrets!”
“Godwin is not a secret,” Abazu snapped. He could not keep his irritation away from his tone. “He is someone I haven’t seen in a very long time. We used to be friends.”
“Friends or lovers?” Dakota asked.
“Friends,” Abazu insisted. “We did not have a chance to go any further before I discovered I was positive.”
“Did you tell him and then he abandoned you?” Dilibe asked. “If that’s the case, he does not deserve you now.”
“Oh God, no!” Abazu laughed; a forced laugh. “I didn’t tell him. I was the one who cut off links to him and many of my old friends. You have to understand I was going through a lot of stuff after I discovered I was positive. You know; depression and all. The idea of going into any kind of relationship was not in my bucket list of things to do. I knew he liked me a lot, but I couldn’t see myself telling him I was positive.”
“But you told me!” Dilibe said.
“That was different. You are not gay. It was easier to tell you.”
“So you cut him off and now he is back,” Dakota said. “What are your plans?”
Plans. Abazu had tried not to think too much about this. He still feared the thought of dreaming of normalcy and stability when he knew his health was anything but normal or perfect. He had long stopped having long term plans or goals because of his status; because he was aware that he could fall terribly sick at any moment and become useless to himself and to anyone else—and what then, what good would plans be to him when that happened? He was being very practical with himself. He had learned and accepted to live in the moment, take whatever life had to offer him while he still could move about and look ordinary. Did this constitute a plan?
“I don’t know,” Abazu said in answer to Dakota’s question.
“You two looked quite cosy together.” Dakota’s smile was wide.
“God, I hope not! I wouldn’t want my staff and patrons taking an interest in my private affairs. And like I told you, Godwin is not out. Hell, I am not out either. It’s not like we can celebrate any form of relationship in this country.”
A thought crossed Abazu’s mind and he smiled.
“Why are you smiling?” Dilibe asked.
“Just something Godwin said to me. He said he will gladly do fourteen years behind bars if that was what it took to love me!”
Of course when Godwin had said it, Abazu knew how ludicrous it sounded—how utterly idealistic and impractical it was, but he had been grateful for the words, finding some gratification in the knowledge that someone could still feel that way about him.
“Ah! So your stint with celibacy has finally come to an end!” Dakota said.
“I don’t know about that! He lives in Abuja and I live here.”
“I’m sure you will find a way,” Dakota said. “But a very important question; will you tell him about your condition?”
Abazu felt his irritation creeping back.
“Have you told Akeem that you are trying to get pregnant and have stopped taking your birth control pills?” he asked.
“But you must tell him,” Dilibe said. “I mean, if you are considering having a relationship with him, he has a right to know.”
“I think both of you are getting carried away! I met with an old friend I used to like a lot. We had lunch and caught up on good old times. That was all it was.”
Abazu knew from the sudden silence that they did not believe him. But what would they know of how he felt! None of them knew what it was to be HIV positive or to fear that no one would truly love you in an intimate way again if they discovered. So what if he was reluctant to disclose his status to a person who truly liked him for fear of rejection and losing what they could have!
“I’m entitled to my privacy as you are, Dakota,” Abazu said. “And Dilibe, it’s so easy for you to look on in judgement whereas you are incapable of falling in love. You can’t even live with your sibling who grew up with you let alone make the necessary adjustments to accommodate him, how do you expect to live with a spouse or significant other?”
It was as if it were someone else speaking. Abazu saw the look of shock on his friends’ faces but he looked away. There was just this need to inflict pain, to erect a fence between himself and them so that for once he would not feel the need to justify his actions to anyone. He also felt an anger rising from the sole of his feet to the top of his head like burning flames; he was angry that he felt he was being judged, and angry because he knew that his friends were right.
The minutes ticked away and they all said nothing. Abazu wished they would both go away and leave him alone. He got up and walked to the television stand; he retrieved the remote control and switched on the TV just so that he could break the silence.
“You won’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into!” Dilibe said. Abazu could tell that the smile on his friend’s face was strained.
“What have you gotten yourself into, Dilly?” Dakota asked.
Abazu noticed that neither Dilibe nor Dakota looked in his direction as they spoke. It felt as if he were transparent or not there and they spoke as if they had not heard a thing of what he had said earlier.
“My mum called the other day to tell me that she had arranged a date for me.”
“Oh my God! You are kidding, right!” Dakota exclaimed. “Do parents still do that, fix up their grown kids?”
“Apparently, mine still do. A desperate attempt to get their wayward son settled!”
“Will you meet the girl?” Abazu’s voice sounded reluctant and distant.
“What do you intend to do?” Dakota asked.
Dilibe smiled. “I know the lady. We grew up together. I will invite her to lunch. No harm in that.”
“Uh-la-la! I guess we are all changing. Look at us; there was a time all of us would have balked at the thought of being in any form of relationship with a significant other, and now—”
“Easy sister,” Dilibe laughed. “I said I would consider lunch with this woman, not marry her. She’s almost the same age as I am.”
“So, does that make her any less desirable?” Dakota said.
“Come on, you know what I meant!”
“No, educate me—”
They carried on with their banter but Abazu felt very much cut off from it and from them. He tried to smile when it was appropriate but said little or nothing.
Something significant had happened to their friendship that night and Abazu knew he was mostly responsible for it. There was a fracturing and the cracks were clearly visible. The remorse he harboured was much. He felt like a circus act juggling guilt, like balls, at the same time. Part of his guilt was the jealously and anger he had kept hidden for so long at their good health, the fact that he was still resentful that he was the one saddled with this HIV thing; what he would give to exchange his HIV positive life for either of theirs and be encumbered instead with their seemingly mundane challenges! And then there was the more immediate guilt that nagged at him; to tell or not to tell!
Jude Dibia (@JudeDibia ) is the author of three well received novels; Walking with Shadows (2005), Unbridled (2007) and Blackbird (2011). Dibia is a recipient of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Prose prize and has been shortlisted twice for the Nigeria Literature Prize. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies and also online.