“Paul, please stop…”
His lips were between mine, his hand underneath my dress, his body pressing into me. Weeks of seduction had led me here – but not as an unwilling subject. On my own, I followed Paul to this hotel room, after falling heedlessly for his charm. I knew it would lead to this but I did nothing to stop it. Now, my hypocritical conscience was ringing a bell in my head as thoughts of Eben crossed my mind.
“You know I can’t, Paul.”
My words were weak, as was my resistance. I was pushing away from him but halfheartedly. My body had been persuaded into this moment, and I knew that it would take only Eben himself bursting in through the door to stop me from being ravished by Paul.
It was affection I had been looking for when Paul came into my life. Although everything seemed okay amorously with me, I needed more. But I was in denial then. I told myself I wasn’t necessarily dying from lack of affection from Eben. Neither was there a fall in communication. The hole in our relationship was something I was used to, of which I had hoped that in some way, marriage would close. Hence, when Paul showed up from nowhere and became a constant in my life, I felt I didn’t need him. Or rather, I didn’t know that I was going to need him.
He had come with a team from a reputable financial audit firm, Starks and Cole, which had their headquarters in the UK and branches all over the world. I had always wanted to work with them, but the process of applying for and getting a job there was something akin to being hired by the CIA. In the financial world, employees of Starks and Cole are often looked upon as demigods. And it was with that attitude that Paul and his colleagues made an appearance at the bank where I worked.
He was intimidating at first, but was soon seducing the ladies with effortless charm. With suits perfectly-tailored and a swag that was too much heat for anyone to handle, it became some sort of unspoken competition to get his attention. However, he seemed to have eyes for only me, and each time he caught a break from his auditing, he would find some way to drop by at my cubicle to have a chat with me.
I found him harmless initially. Maybe it was because I was too confident in my loyalty to Eben. The thought of cheating on him never crossed my mind. But as Paul’s work-related visits increased, our harmless encounters began to take root. I soon found that we had similar taste in fashion and music. And there was the issue of being raised by single mothers that had lived against the morals of the society. In many ways, Paul understood me, and he alone could bring out the effervescent side of me that I always suppressed.
On the day we had sex, it hadn’t been intended. I had casually mentioned to him the day before that I was going to Lagos for an audition for a fashion reality show.
“How early are you leaving?” he had asked. “Because I have to be in Lagos too. My boss wants to see me.”
“As early as 5 a.m.”
“You want to come with me?” he asked.
I didn’t hesitate. It was a free ride with fewer inconveniences. Plus Paul was a friend already.
I hopped into his car the next morning and we were off to Lagos, although my mood was in a damper. I hadn’t spoken to Eben in a week and when I had called him the night before to complain about it, he had dismissed my concerns as he always did and asked if I would like him to get me something special.
“If he doesn’t know he has to always get me something special on his trips back, then maybe we need to rethink our relationship,” I had blurted to Paul.
“Pele.” His right hand left the steering and rested on my lap. “Don’t get yourself worked up over nothing.”
“I just hate his coldness. I don’t know if it’s pride or he just won’t connect with me. And yet, he can be such an awesome friend.”
“So, he’s not romantic?”
“But he’s a good friend?”
“Yes! Can you imagine!”
Paul took his hand off mine and put it back on the wheel. “You think maybe you’re being friend-zoned?”
“Friend-zoned?” I repeated. “By my own boyfriend?” I laughed.
“Well, you told me the other day that your mothers basically pushed both of you into a relationship. Maybe you guys aren’t meant to be.”
His words made me uncomfortable. I sat in brief silence, staring ahead of me. It was beginning to drizzle, and daylight, which had just come with the morning, was fast switching back to darkness.
“Are you there?”
I sighed and looked up at Paul with a smile. “You know what? I have an audition to go for, so I need to focus. No more depressing talk.”
“Will music inspire?”
“How do you read my mind so easily?” I giggled, looking away shyly at the same time. There was a manner in which he looked at me that always left me undone.
“We’re connected, Halim.” He poked my forehead with his finger and touched his in the same manner before coming back to my face to pinch my nose.
He turned on the CD player and Maroon 5 came on. While music played, we talked, sang along and snacked on packs of plantain chips we bought from a roadside vendor until we got to Lagos.
He dropped me off at the location for my audition and promised to pick me up later as he had something he needed to sort out at the office with his boss.
The day went by in a long, winding manner and came to a close by 5 p.m. When I stepped out of the venue, I found Paul waiting, still dressed in his outfit from the morning – a pair of navy shorts and a pink t-shirt that loosely hugged his torso. His sense of style was irresistible. I found men who wore pink stimulating.
“So, how did it go?”
Dipping my hand into the bag that was slung across my shoulder, I pulled out a fabric card on which my name was embroidered.
“I made it!” I shrieked.
He lifted me up in a hug.
“Told you you’d make it. I’m so proud of you, Halim.”
The hug lingered, not because he couldn’t let go but because I didn’t want him to. When he pulled away, I felt some form of emptiness, realizing how deep a hole Eben had left in me that Paul was beginning to fill. It was at that moment the lines began to blur. The rest of the evening was spent in mindless flirtations that budded into something I was unable to control much later.
Paul had neither intoxicated nor forced me. On my own, I gave myself to him. I was so thirsty for him that I lost all reasoning and had sex without protection. I didn’t do it once or twice. The entire night witnessed the death of my commonsense which came alive only when I hit the comfort of my own bed in Abeokuta at the dawn of the next day.
I had thought guilt was the worst thing that could come out of that night. But here I am, three months later, staring down the barrel of a gun. I am hoping someone somewhere squeezes the trigger.
“Just one more day and all of this will be over,” Aunty Ada tells me in a cheery voice as she brings me breakfast in bed. “Cheer up.”
How does one cheer up when they have been told that they are HIV positive? Burning tears attack my inflamed eyes that have borne the burden of shock and brokenness this past two weeks. I can’t begin to explain how I’d felt when I received the news. Eben had been right there with me, both of us tired after a long day. We had just wanted to get the results for our premarital blood tests and then find a place to have dinner. But instead, we spent most of the night in his car with me in tears and him consoling me, while it rained heavily outside. I remember stepping out of the car when the pain became too much and walking all the way home, my shoes in my hand, the rain slapping me from every direction. Eben had not come after me because I had begged him not to. I had needed to be alone to let the news sink in.
Things didn’t get better by the next morning when I told Aunty Ada that I had been confirmed HIV positive. Her first reaction was confusion that morphed to disbelief, which also gave way to denial and lastly, hope.
I look at her now. She holds the same hopeful expression.
“You’re not HIV positive,” she reminds me all the time. And then she does everything to cheer me up. But nothing she has said or done has lifted my mood. I have been in the pits, a place so dark I can’t see any tunnel, let alone a light at the end of it. Plus, there’s restlessness over the impending confirmatory test result that grows by the minute.
Eben, like Aunty Ada, doesn’t share my sentiments. He is hopeful too, but I catch an unvoiced question in his eyes sometimes. Or maybe it’s my glumness that fills me with all this negativity. But can you blame me? The direction of my life changes in a wink, and without warning, too. And the only person that can give me an explanation as to why I’m suffering this way has conveniently disappeared from the surface of the earth.
Yes, Paul is gone without a trace. No one has seen or heard from him in a while. When he disappeared without telling me, I was grateful, but now, he has officially been declared missing, gone with answers to my questions.
“You’ve lost much weight, sweetheart.” Aunty Ada regards me with worried eyes. I look at the meal she has brought and then stare up at her. I’ve always considered her a beautiful woman, without all the bleaching and makeup. Her face, with a narrow nose and prominent chin always gives her a lingering smile that takes years off her age. These past few days, however, I have found that characteristic smile missing. Instead, it is replaced with an expression of anger which loiters in the space between her eyes, the type I know her to have when someone hurts me and she aims to get revenge. Still, she uplifts me with encouraging words at every turn.
“Everything’s going to be fine. The confirmatory test will come out negative and you and Eben will go ahead and get married.”
I don’t want to hear one more word about the wedding and my HIV status. I just want to be left alone, and luckily, Aunty Ada does not hang around today. She announces that she has to shop. I don’t know what time it is; I feel it’s too early to go shopping. I suspect she has a new boyfriend. It’s this type of excuse she gives when she goes on her numerous rendezvouses. But I don’t say anything as she makes her exit.
I push my breakfast aside. My hand goes for my phone and I try Paul’s number, hoping that somehow, he picks up.
But I get the same dead tone I’ve been getting for two weeks. I dump the phone and burrow beneath my blanket. I have lost the strength to cry, and so I remain there until sleep takes me.
I see my father, a man who visits my dreams whenever I’m at my lowest. Aunty Ada never talks about him; hence I build this image of a man, tall, strong and wise. He takes me on calm walks on busy streets, with cars flying past us but none of them running into us. In him, I find safety. He never speaks to me. He simply holds my hand and we walk. Today, he looks like he has something to say. I stop walking and lift my gaze up at him but nothing comes from his lips.
I wake up alone, and straightaway, that intensifying anxiety finds its way back into my guts. It’s just a day before the confirmatory test results are released. The torture of waiting is as bad as being told I have the disease. But I don’t think I can handle waiting one more minute to know what the result would say.
I leave my bed for the bathroom and in a short while, I’m on my way to the clinic. In the quietness of the cab I’m seated in, I get lost in my thoughts, head bowed, eyes grainy from too much crying and too little sleep. I’m cold but I won’t tell the cab driver to turn off the air conditioner. He asks me if I’m okay after a long stretch of silence. Usually, I’d be chatting him up, asking about his ever-nagging wife and naughty twin boys who seem to find some new mischief to engage themselves in every week.
I reply that I’m a little under the weather, hence my visit to the clinic. He tells me to get well soon and jokingly asks me if my oga has done a fast one on me. I don’t have the strength to speak further. I simply shake my head.
“Make una do o. I wan come drink mineral.”
I don’t respond, and before long, the cab comes to a stop.
“Make I wait for you?” he asks. I nod. He tries to catch my face in the rearview mirror but I leave the car. Just in front of me is a huge, brown gate that presents a view of a white, towering building on which is written ‘Ako Clinic and Diagnostic Center’.
I walk in through the gate and pass by a small parking lot reserved for the medical director and two ambulance vans. Ahead is the main entrance to the clinic and I go through it, pushing in one half of double-doors. My tummy churns at the smell of antiseptic as white blinding walls hit me. I’m in a large waiting room in which patients and visitors are seated, most of them watching some Yoruba movie on a plasma TV held up high on one of the walls.
I push wonky legs to the front desk where two nurses are seated and in discussion. They break off and smile at me, leaving me unnerved. I feel like they know my HIV status. Both of them are ladies I know from church. I don’t remember them ever being this friendly towards me.
“Good morning, Sister Halim,” one of them greets.
“Good morning,” I respond in a shaky voice.
“Are you okay?”
I clear my throat. “I’m fine.”
She nods and comments about my dress, a small floral piece I put together a few months ago. She tells me she wants me to become her tailor.
“Everything you sew always fits. I love your fashion taste.”
The other nurse is not speaking. Her attention is on the movie.
“So, what can we do for you today?” her colleague asks.
“I’m here to see Eniola.”
And I swear, she almost rolls her eyes.
“I didn’t know you two were close like that.”
“She’s a family friend.”
“Is she in?”
“Yes, she just passed here now. Go in through that door and turn left to get to the labs.”
I thank her and follow the direction she has led me through which I now know well. Both nurses hadn’t been at the desk on the days Eben and I came visiting. I don’t think they are aware that we had come for our pre-wedding tests.
I follow the corridor that leads me to the lab and when I go through a glassy door that opens to a small waiting room, I catch Eniola discussing with an attendant by the front desk. It’s not a smooth discussion, as Eniola’s voice is loud and reprimanding and the attendant keeps pleading in Yoruba to be forgiven.
“Eni?” I call. Eniola spins around. Her angry face lingers on me for a bit before it softens.
“Hi Halim.” She smiles.
“Are we supposed to meet today or tomorrow?”
She looks around the empty waiting room. “And you’re here alone. Where’s Eben?”
“Can I see you, privately, please?”
“Okay. Come with me.”
She leaves one last harsh word with the attendant before leading me to her office. Bad memories rush at me when we get in.
“Sit,” she points at the same chair I had sat in when she broke the devastating news to me two weeks ago.
“I want to stand, please.”
“Okay.” She perches on her desk, her face softening more. “How are you, dear?”
“No, you’re not. You’ve lost weight and your eyes are all swollen and have bags under them.”
I flash a faint smile. Eniola is a nice person. We could have been close friends if our mothers hadn’t hated each other when we were kids.
“I came because of the confirmatory result. Is it ready? I’ve been restless. I don’t think I can wait, Eni. Please, can you tell me if it’s negative or positive? I’m losing my mind here.”
“Relax, Halim. The result is ready but Eben is supposed to be here.”
“He mustn’t be here. Please, just tell me what it says. I can take it. Please…”
She sighs and goes behind her desk. After a short pause, she pulls open a drawer. “You know I have to send a copy of this to the church, right?”
“I know. Just…let me know what’s in it, first.”
She takes out an envelope from the drawer and out of it, she tugs out a paper, similar to the first test result. She looks at it and pushes it to me. My eyes quickly scan the results, and then I sink into the chair I had been offered earlier. I begin to cry.
Eniola comes to me and holds me. “It’s okay, Halim. You’ll be fine. HIV is not the end of your life.”
I’m too traumatized to respond. Her hug gives me little comfort but I cling to it as I unburden myself. She is the first person I’m talking to since this saga began. I tell her how one night of meaningless sex has ruined my life, how I feel cheap and useless, how I’m sure Eben will dump me, how I fear that I may never recover from this…
I pause, I stare into thin air and continue again.
People will make fun of me, I say. They will avoid me. The church will ostracize me. Mothers will use me as a byword to warn their daughters on the dangers of waywardness. In the end, I’ll die alone and miserable.
Eniola is quiet through all of this. I see that her glasses have clouded over. She sniffles. She tells me she’s so sorry. Her gentleness and concern pushes me farther into my emotions. I cry until I’m bereft of tears.
“Maybe you should go away for some time until the heat of this blows over because, trust me, once the marriage department gets this result, the gist will spread. So just disappear for a while, regroup and come back.”
Her suggestion seems good but it’s not something I’m considering. Right now, I need to confess to Eben about Paul. I don’t want him assuming that I was sleeping around in his absence. He needs to know that it was just that one, stupid night with another man that has brought this hell on me. If he then wishes to end things with me, I’ll be fine with it.
“Thank you, Eni. You’re a true friend.”
She pats my hand. “I’m so sorry.”
I force myself up. She hugs me and walks me to the door. When I’m out of her sight, I keep my head low until I’m back in the cab.
“Take me to Ebenezer’s house.”
The cab driver wants to know if a doctor attended to me but I repeat my instructions tersely.
He starts the car. I shut my eyes. Eben won’t be home but I’ll wait for him. I’ve never had need to visit his place on my own before. I was given the key a few months ago but I kept it in the inner compartment of my favorite handbag and abandoned it there. The handbag is now clutched in my hands as I journey to his place.
I keep my eyes shut. The pain is too much for me to face the world that goes on happily while my life crumbles. The cab driver asks me again how I’m feeling. I don’t respond. He drives on until we arrive at Eben’s.
“We don reach.”
I open my eyes and step out. Eben lives in a compound owned by the Nosakhares which houses a two story-building that holds four apartments. Unlike most compounds with similar settings, this one has a wide berth for cars to park in and kids to play.
As I step into the compound, led in by the gateman, I am surprised to find Aunty Ada’s SUV parked in front of Eben’s apartment. Beside it is what looks like Uncle Greg’s Mercedes. I’m not sure what to make of the vehicles being there but I walk to the front door which is slightly open.
I am about to make my entrance when I hear a sudden eruption of familiar voices. They are all yelling at the same time and I can’t make what the argument is about until Eben’s voice increases in tempo, drowning the rest.
“I am not marrying Halim because of her money! I’m calling the whole thing off and you guys will tell her who she really is and what she’s worth! This whole HIV has opened my eyes to the nonsense we’re all doing here! She needs to know the truth first before I can continue with the wedding! That’s if we’re even going to get married again with this latest development! But whatever it is, I’m done with this farce!”
Silence falls. The door gives way and I find myself staring at Eben. In my peripheral view are his parents and Aunty Ada. On their faces, I read shock. Clearly, I am the last person they expect to see at this moment.
“What’s going on, Ebee?”
“Let’s get out of here.” Eben tries to take my hand but I pull back.
“Aunty Ada?” I look at my mom.
“Just a minor argument, dear. Nothing serious.”
“Minor argument that involves Eben canceling our wedding? Shouldn’t I have been invited to this meeting?”
“Sweetheart,” Aunty Bisi says, “we were just talking about the HIV thing…”
“You insist on lying to her, mom?” Eben throws a harsh glare at Aunty Bisi. They all pass stares around and after unspoken deliberation, I am invited in.
I sit alone on a long couch while the parents share a three-sitter and Eben remains standing. I wait for them to reveal whatever it is they are hiding. It can’t be worse than confirming twice that I’m HIV positive.
Uncle Greg takes the mantle of speaking, and in a long, miserable tale, unravels the mystery of my paternity which Aunty Ada had hidden from me all my life. He also tells me about the world of wealth I have waiting for me as the only heir to the Diobi fortune.
I’m dumbfounded. What I have just heard has sapped what little strength is left of me. I don’t have words to define the emotions that burn beneath the surface. I feel betrayed by those who mean the most to me. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked to know the truth. The pain I feel now is more than I can stomach. The silence that comes on everyone, the held breaths, the cold air in Eben’s living room and the sounds from kids playing in the apartment above us become overwhelming. Not uttering a word, I rise to my feet and head for the door like a zombie.
Eben runs after me. He stops me with a hand going above my head to hold the doorpost, blocking my movement.
“Please, say something, Hali.”
I look at him—at his serious stare, his knowing eyes, the almost-invisible spots on his face I have come to know intimately over time—and I realize that maybe what I feel for him is a little stronger than I have admitted.
“I was not supposed to know any of this, right?” I ask.
“That was the initial plan…”
“Let it remain like that. By the way, the second test is out. I still have HIV, and just to let you know, I got it from some guy when you were away. It was only one night but we didn’t use a condom.”
There is disappointment on Eben’s face as he lets his hand down.
“Yes, I’m trash, Ebenezer. So, feel free to dump me because I cheated and got HIV, and not because you want to prove that you’re better than everyone else in this room.”
I begin out. He comes after me still. Aunty Ada has also left the house. I blank them out and walk on. Eben won’t let me. He stands in front of me but I can’t see him. When he touches me, I recoil as if his hand stings. I let out a scream that has Aunty Ada in front of me in a wink.
“Leave her alone, Eben. Leave her. She’s traumatized. I’ll take her home.”
“I’m following you…”
“No, no, no,” Aunty Ada insists, leading me to her SUV. Eben opens the door and helps me into the passenger seat. Aunty Ada secures my seatbelt. I fix my eyes outwards to stare at Eben who stands, watching us until we drive away.
I don’t want to see his face after this.