Yemi is having himself a merry little Christmas today. The classic Frank Sinatra piece invades my privacy and drags me out to the living room. Christmas is a month away, but not for Yemi who began playing yuletide music from the night before. He also seems to be in a good mood as I find the living room spotless. The bachelor space with its blue-themed décor and wall-to-wall shelves lined with books is not something I’d exactly call modish. It gives more of a laidback vibe, much like Yemi himself.
He emerges from the kitchen, bare-chested, his lower body clad in jeans.
“She finally wakes up from her hibernation. I thought you’d be sleeping in all year.”
“Actually, good afternoon.” He wipes wet hands on a napkin he’s holding. “I’m about to have lunch. You want some?”
“Halim…” More wiping of hands on the towel. I know I’m about to be scolded. “This is not me being a gentleman. I’m only looking out for myself here. You’re my tenant, and you’re not in the best of health. Not with the way you look. I don’t want to wake up one morning and find you dead. You didn’t eat anything on Saturday, and yesterday you had only a couple of bread slices. I know you’re going through some emotional thing, triggered by your ex who dropped by on Saturday, but as someone with HIV, you need to take better care of yourself.”
“So when are you going to have yourself tested and commenced on treatment?”
“Tested? I already did two tests.”
“Your CD4 count and viral load have to be checked. If you’re lucky to have your CD4 count high, you may not be placed on antiretroviral. You could be advised to live healthy and eat well. But if your CD4 count is low, you’ll have to be placed on ARV. This is why you have to go and get tested and start up on your health journey.”
Everything he has just said sounds Greek to me.
“Yemi, I’ll do it, but not now. I need to sort myself out first and know the direction my life is taking.”
“First, you need to know where you stand health-wise.”
I begin to feel bumpy. I don’t want to hear any more of what he’s saying, but I feel it’ll be rude to brush him off.
“By the way, I’ll be attending a support group session later. You may want to come along.”
I want to say no, but there’s something about Yemi’s eyes that says more than what I see on the outside. It’s like having a different person inside him; a quieter, deeper man. And I’m drawn to that.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll go with you.”
“Awesome. So, come and have lunch.”
I follow him to the kitchen as some unfamiliar Christmas song takes over from Frank Sinatra.
My personal assistant has sent me home. She says I need to get to a hospital and get better treated for my flu. That’s what happens when you hire someone who is older than you to organize your life. They try to take control of it.
“I’ll cancel all your appointments for three days. You can take calls but that would be all you’ll do.”
I try to speak but a sudden sneeze comes out, not giving me enough time to cover my mouth. Her face becomes the receptacle for my nasal relief. I wince.
Standing stiff-necked, bearing a frown, she orders, “Go home, sir.”
I don’t argue further. I pick my laptop and leave the office. It’s just some minutes to 3 p.m. on a Monday, but it feels to me like I have worked for two weeks nonstop.
Out on the parking lot I sight my car and grunt. This is one of the rare times I long for a driver.
My assistant comes after me, handing me my private phone. I smile in gratitude. I don’t know what I’d do without her sometimes. She has worked with me for five years. She’s sweet, but she sometimes plays the age card on me when she feels I’m being unprofessional or unethical in handling business issues. Her intuition and experience have never failed me, though. Sometimes I rely on her like she’s oxygen.
Lekan crushes on her, but I won’t let him get close. He has been known to cause damage to many a female with his third leg.
“Eniola was calling,” she informs me. I see meaning in her eyes. She has always been a fan of Halim. Last month, after much badgering about the whereabouts of Halim, I told her Halim and I were no longer together. She was upset by the news, begging me to reconcile with her, and then, marry her immediately I do so. Last week, when I asked her to help clean up the room Eniola would be staying in, she had shown some form of disapproval without uttering any words. Knowing that she must obey my orders at all times and respect me, she has become queen of sending subliminal messages when she disagrees with me. For instance, I can get spilled coffee on my desk if I lose my cool and yell at her unfairly. Other times, I am not reminded about an appointment, or I may be made to go there earlier or later than the agreed time. She gets on my nerves now and then, but she is family, and I don’t think anyone can handle my business like she does.
I take my phone from her.
“Halim knew how to take care of you whenever you were sick. Don’t you miss her?”
“What I miss is you minding your business, Grace.”
She gives me a pressed-lips smile as she picks the items from my hands and escorts me to my car.
“If you had gotten me a car and I learned how to drive, I would be taking you home now, so you won’t have to stress yourself.”
“You’re not a driver, Grace,” I respond as I get behind the wheel. “You want a car? Earn it.”
I take my stuff from her and shut the door, while she stands staring. I drive away. My first stop is a hospital close to the house. They run tests on me and the doctor comes up with malaria. He writes down prescriptions, I get the drugs and head home.
Eniola is just walking into the compound upon my entrance. We haven’t spoken since the girl on girl incident. She had left for Abeokuta early the next morning. Out of shame, I guess.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at work?” I ask as I step out of the car. She is holding her handbag in front of her. It’s one of those big ones that can pass for an overnight case. She drops it and I see a large pink stain on her sparking white shirt which is tucked into a grey, fitted skirt. The skirt also got some of the stain; same with a white lab coat she’s holding.
“Awful first day at work. First, I arrived late. I got to work and was told that my boss was at the hematology lab. He had been waiting for me for two hours. I got there and apologized. Dude was not impressed. He had needed me to do some blood work. I took over from him, but a call was coming in at the same time. I was trying to reach for my phone to switch it off when the test tube I had in my hand with a client’s blood sample fell to the floor and shattered. My boss almost lost it. The blood sample was the only one we had of the client, and she had just left the country.”
“You’d think that was enough. Out of nervousness, I went ahead and splashed eosin on myself and my boss.”
“It’s a dye used to stain cytoplasm, collagen and muscle fibers for examination under the microscope,” she explains rapidly. “The man finally lost his cool and told me I wasn’t ready to work. I begged him, explaining that I made such mistakes without my glasses, and I had forgotten them at home. After much begging, he sha told me to take the day off and return tomorrow, ready to work. I was so embarrassed. Everyone was staring at me. I think I’m presently the gossip of the lab.”
“Sorry about your stress. Some days are like that at work. You should just chill and prepare better for tomorrow.”
“What happened to your key, though?”
“I left it inside.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Still down with catarrh. I now have malaria to go with it. Annoying.”
“Sorry. If you stay in all week, sleep, rest, lazy about, you’ll bounce back stronger. You need to rest.”
Inside the house, I take off my shoes and switch off lights I had left on. Eniola also steps out of her heels but comes to stand in front of me with a bashful face.
“Actually, Eben, the reason I was out of sorts today was because of what happened on Saturday. I’ve not been myself since.”
“Okay? But you seemed to have been enjoying what Sandra was doing to you. If I hadn’t shown up…”
“Yes, I might still have enjoyed it, but you showed up and I came to my senses and apologized to you. But I couldn’t face you, so I went home.”
I push my hands into my pockets. “Are you a lesbian, Nini?”
“No, no. I already told you that. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“So why did you do it?”
“Curiosity, I guess.”
“Or you were seduced?”
“Nini, I know girls like Sandra. They are straight. Lesbianism is just a way to meet their financial needs because a lot of men have sexual fantasies of lesbian sex.”
Eniola tilts her head. “Really?”
“Absolutely,” I reply, hoping I am not exposing the side of me that is an active part of that percentage of men.
“Sandra is simply initiating you into that world, being that you are beautiful and em…curvy, the way many men like. She’s doing that, so that tomorrow, she can throw you into that world. Now, I’m not saying you can’t do what you feel like doing with your body. I’m just telling you to think twice before you get invested in any sort of relationship with her.”
“Are you saying I should stay away?”
“Lagos has many of her type, Nini. If you want a million more Sandras, you’ll find them quite easily. What else apart from lesbian sex and clubs can she offer you as a friend? What else do you gain from her? Does she motivate you to be a better person? Do you talk about life’s goals and the future? Of course, you’ll get money and attention if you keep towing the path she takes, but you’ll become a statistic. Lagos will give as much magic to keep you blinded while it screws your life over. And it would be a tragedy because you’re from a good home, and you’re a nice girl. I’m advising you like I’ll advise my younger sisters. Don’t let Lagos ruin you.”
Her hands go to her face to stop a sob. But I had seen it coming with the way her cheeks had reddened while I was speaking to her.
“I’m sorry for disappointing you, Eben.”
I pull her in for a hug. A big brother hug, like the type I give my sisters. I don’t let it last. I step back.
“Please, don’t tell Lekan or my mom,” she requests.
“They don’t even know I’m staying here.”
“Why didn’t you tell them?”
“I just want to do my own thing, I guess.”
“But that would be difficult, especially on Lekan’s side. I’m planning to surprise him with a managerial role at Crafter next week.”
“Really?” Her wet eyes pop. But they soon go back to normal as she becomes overwhelmed with gratitude. “Oh my God! You’d really do that for him?”
“I’ve always wanted to, but your brother is proud. He keeps telling me something will come up. Years have gone by and nothing is coming up. He needs to be stable, to earn something good. It’s the least I can do.”
“Thank you, Eben.” She curtsies. It touches some part of me that is hardly reached. I don’t know when I reach out and rest my hand on her cheek. She’s soft to the touch. My male constitution prods me to do more, but I don’t. I drop my hand.
“Can I ask you something, Nini?”
“Is it me or your mom doesn’t like us?”
“You think so?”
“I sense so. When my family visited yours last month, she seemed distant. And it isn’t the first time she has acted that way towards us.”
Nini’s shoulders jiggle in a shrug. “Well, you know she’s different. A lot of people don’t understand her.” An uncomfortable laugh follows. “Sometimes if feels like she doesn’t like me either but that’s just the way she is.”
“Okay. But you should tell her soon where you’re staying. I don’t want wahala.”
“He’ll be coming to live with us. I know you don’t want that but think of it as having two big brothers.
She giggles. “Sounds like fun.”
“It should be.”
“Okay o. Let me run up and change.”
She starts upstairs. I try not to stare but my eyes follow her until she disappears.
Saturday won’t leave my mind. It comes in flashes – the ampleness of her breasts, her glossy skin, her thighs spread open, the pink wetness between them…
I dreamt about her yesterday. A detailed dream of things she and I could do together, much like the ones I used to have of her as a teenager. She was the first girl amongst her peers to attain puberty, and she had shot into it like she was on some growth hormone. I was away on a short vacation to the US, just to return home to find her full at the chest area. All the boys had wanted her then, but she was quite withdrawn and terrified of what her mother would do to her if she as much as saw her being winked at by the opposite sex. Yet she had let me kiss her. I had wanted to do more, specifically to her breasts, but she didn’t let me.
Years later, that desire returns with a vengeance. Even with Halim burning brightly in my heart. This is why I need Lekan in the house. His presence is sure to keep me in check.
I force unruly thoughts away, distracting myself with the afternoon news on BBC as I hear Eniola slapping her way downstairs. I don’t look. She walks into the living room, passes by the TV and bends over the extension box to charge her phone. I drink in a good view of her bum. When she straightens up, her breasts beneath her top bounce abundantly. I have come to realize that she doesn’t wear bras at home.
I gulp. Our eyes meet. She enters the kitchen.
I suddenly feel annoyed at her. The same way I feel about Halim who is toying with my emotions. This is not me. I’m not a marionette in the hands of women. I need to get my head in the right place.
I switch to a sports channel to distract me. Lekan needs to move in ASAP!
In movies, support groups sit in circles, on single chairs. Most group members are in their middle ages and wear drab clothing. They do not inspire or leave you desiring to be in settings similar to theirs.
But not Yemi’s HIV support group. This one consists mainly of young people who are colorful, creative and boisterous. They are seated on equally-colorful couches in what looks like someone’s sitting room. The place is inspired by art, literature and music. On the walls are paintings of Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti, Wizkid, Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Angelique Kidjo, The Weeknd, Tupac Shakur, Maya Angelou, Barrack Obama, and a few others that I don’t recognize. On the wall that has no painting, which shares space with the door, there is a bookshelf with a collection of what I suspect to be only African novels. I have picked out a few notable titles. I’m not much of a reader, but Yemi is, and the moment we enter, he engages in a conversation with some pretty girl about some book they are both reading.
I sit alone. I am done looking at the paintings and trying to figure out the title of the books. I am now staring out the only window in the room which is facing the couch on which I sit. It’s a wide window that hangs low; one does not need to get up to see what goes on outside. Vaguely, through a dark mosquito net, I observe people in white lab coats walking about. The exterior, which I hardly took notice of when we came in, resembles a typical hospital environment. But the place is only a HIV Counseling and Testing Center. Yemi tells me it’s like a second home to him. The doctors, nurses and counselors were good to him four years ago when he discovered he had the disease and wanted to end his life. Now, he is repaying the kindness as a counselor himself, dedicated to helping young people, especially the creative ones, find their footing as people living with HIV in the society.
I hear laughter beside me. I turn. Yemi is still in hearty conversation with the pretty girl. She is also the curviest and creamiest in the room, a good example of ‘AIDS no dey show for face’. Her arm is linked in his, lips pressed to his ear in a whisper. Whatever she is telling him makes him laugh hard. I have never seen him so entertained, but then I don’t know him – or anyone else in the room. I seem to be the only stranger, but I catch a guy and a girl, seated awkwardly. The guy doesn’t look so healthy. He has been coughing into a handkerchief since we arrived, and has refused to speak with anyone. Yemi had tried to be friendly but had gotten a curt dismissal.
The door opens and a middle-aged woman comes in. I see that she has a wedding ring on, and also a cordial smile. The low chatter beneath the sound of background music dies down. She greets everyone in a general note and rests a warm smile on Yemi.
“I almost didn’t make it here,” she says.
“I was just about to start without you. I figured something delayed you.”
“An antsy toddler,” she replies apologetically, her eyes briefly hovering over me before they take in the coughing guy.
“Shall we?” she says at the top of her voice. Silence falls.
“So, did you have fun?”
“Yeah. At the support group meeting.”
I don’t have a straight answer to give Yemi. Fun is not the word I’d use exactly. It had been an interesting experience. Totally new to me. But I don’t want to do it again.
“It was okay,” I reply.
I can’t see Yemi’s face clearly. It’s a dark night and we’re sitting in the back of a taxi, heading home. If I am to be honest with him, I’d say a huge part of me felt uncomfortable at the meeting.
“You didn’t really want to be there?” he specifies.
I shake my head. “No.”
I know silence is about to follow, and I don’t want that. So, I ask, “Is Queen your girlfriend?”
I hear a low chuckle. Queen is the girl that sat on the same couch with us. She had had his attention all evening.
“She’s a friend,” Yemi answers. We have just come to an area with streetlights and I can now see his face. There’s a pensive look to it.
“I must have misread your chemistry…”
“There is no chemistry between us.” His reply is almost brusque. I withdraw. Our journey progresses.
“You’re going through denial.”
“It’s a stage of grief all HIV patients go through when they are diagnosed. It’s supposed to follow a certain process over time, but working with different kinds of people, I’ve found out that the stages can vary with each individual. Like you, for instance, one would expect that you’d be in the phase of acceptance now, but you’re not. And I’m guessing you’ve been through shock, numbness, anger and depression. Anger at the person who infected you. Anger at yourself for allowing it happen. Anger at God. And then depression, which was what made you go away from everyone you love.”
“It’s more complicated than that. The people I love betrayed me.”
“No, you don’t, Yemi,” I say in sudden irritation. “You overheard me and my ex and you now feel you know everything about me.”
“I’m not saying I do. And I might be wrong with my analysis. I’m not a psychologist. But one thing I’m sure of is that you’re going through denial right now. You’re fighting so hard to accept that where you are is your reality.”
“Are you saying this because I didn’t participate in the group therapy session?”
“I’m saying this because you just want to wake up tomorrow and find that everything is a nightmare. And I’m hoping that would happen. I sincerely do, because you’re a beautiful girl, HIV or not…”
“You don’t know anything about me. And I’m not a girl. I’m a woman.”
I’m angry at him. Clearly he feels because he has been living with HIV for four years and has this respectable status in the community of HIVers, he can try to get into my head.
“You know nothing about me,” I repeat.
“I sincerely apologize again, Halim.”
My eyes burn. “It was just one night,” I murmur as I bite my fingernail hard to get a grip on my anger.
“I was celibate. I hadn’t even slept with Eben before. We were waiting until our wedding night. But I went and foolishly slept with someone else. Just one stupid night.”
My eyes burn still. The tears are there but they won’t come.
“And then he disappeared into thin air. The guy I slept with. He’s nowhere to be found. Gone, like I imagined his existence. So, please forgive me if this still feels surreal to me. Nothing adds up. I’m very sure I’ve been misdiagnosed.”
A tear finally drops.
“Just one night.”
More tears come.
“Queen,” Yemi mutters. “She was like you. Happy, lively, giggly, no care in the world. She loved parties and enjoyed spending her weekends clubbing. She had a high paying job. She could afford to reward herself with indulgence. But all it took for everything to crumble was just a night. He was a stranger she met at the club. They didn’t use a condom. Three months after, she was diagnosed with HIV. In cases like yours and hers, they say the odds are about one in a thousand. But it happens still. You’re not alone, Halim.”
I wipe my face. “And the others? How did they get infected?”
“Well, let’s see. Mike…his boyfriend was cheating on him.”
“Yeah. His boyfriend died last year. Adenike was married to a serial cheat too. She got tired of his lifestyle and filed for a divorce. It was during the process she discovered she was HIV positive. She told him to get tested. He did, and after getting the results, he committed suicide.”
“Flora was down on her luck. First, she tested HIV positive. Later, when her boyfriend of two years tested negative, he promptly left her. Then the same week of the breakup, she lost her job, her car and her dad. Who else? Em…Azuka was born with it. She is now engaged to Osagie.”
“The guy with the burn scar. He got infected from his baby mama. Their two year old child is also HIV positive.”
“I think I’ve heard enough,” I tell him with a raised hand. “It’s depressing.”
He goes silent and remains so until we get home.
“I’ll make dinner,” I offer the moment we step into the house.
“I’m picky about who cooks for me. I’m on a diet.”
“Oh. Okay, then. Thanks for today.”
“But you didn’t enjoy it.”
I hate the way he talks to me, like he knows me, like he understands things about me. His perceptions always come with a quiet, discerning smile in his eyes that never spread to his lips.
“I’m glad you tagged along, though. Cool.”
I know he wants to say more. He’s standing a few inches away, staring down at me like a father would a child.
“Yeah?” he answers immediately.
“You didn’t tell me how you got infected.”
He smiles. “Some other time.”
He walks away to his bedroom. I got into mine. The solace welcomes me. I open the windows. Sounds from the street outside the house filter in. I peer out and all I get is a view of the houses surrounding us. A window here, the top of a tree there, a water tank, a telecoms mast and a slice of the street itself where all one sees during the day are cars speeding past.
I move away from the window to change into my nightdress. I tie my hair in a head wrap. I’m yet to make up my mind on what to do with the hair. I’m thinking of going natural, but I’m not sure if I should crop the whole thing and start afresh or just transition.
I suddenly feel stressed over it. Aunty Ada would know what would be best for me. She would even suggest good products to use, and help me in the process. I have to admit that I miss her. She does have her importance, and maybe Eben is right when he always reminds me that I’m a spoilt child.
I lie on my bed and pick a novel Yemi has lent to me. It’s Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta. As I begin to read, my mouth starts to water for a cup of tea, but I ignore the thirst and go through three pages before I give in and step out of the room. I hear Yemi in the kitchen, on the phone with someone. When he calls out Clement’s name, I stop. I fear that he’s telling on me over my blatant refusal to have myself registered as a HIV patient.
But his laughter halts my thoughts. “Nothing like that,” he says, as if responding to my apprehension. “I was going to call you in a bit, though.”
He goes silent, listening to Clement on the other end.
“Clem, the thing is…my cousin is coming. And he’ll be here for a while. I can’t have Halim around any longer.”
I frown and pull back a little.
“Yeah,” he speaks on. “You don’t know this cousin. He’s coming from out of town.”
There’s a little pause and then, “But I stressed that I didn’t want a girl here.”
A prolonged silence follows and I remain where I am, holding my breath.
“Fine. Your friend…she has baggage. The other day, her ex was here. There was drama. I had to send him away… Clem, I already wired your money back to you… Guy, no talk too much. My mind is made up. She has to find somewhere else. I can recommend an agent…”
I know Clement. I know he’s angry right now. But not as angry as I am soon going to be. Why can’t Yemi speak directly to me and tell me he doesn’t want me around? Why tell Clement first?
“What’s funny?” he asks Clement. The question seems out of place. And he adds, “How? How am I crazy about her? What are you talking about?”
“Admit what?” he asks, now laughing. “That I have feelings for her? And if I do you’ll do the dirty work of telling her yourself that she’s no longer welcome here?”
My annoyance rises.
“Okay, great. So, here it goes. First day, she’s at the door, looking a mess, sweaty, dress sticking to her body, untidy hair, sad eyes, tired expression… But I stand there, staring back and wondering why she smells so freaking delicious! And yes, beautiful in an understated way. I can’t look away. It’s like she’s holding me there. I don’t even hear half of what she says. And I swear, every day, it gets a little tight around here. It’s also getting complicated. I didn’t fully realize what was happening to me until today. We went for group therapy and came back, and then it hit me that I’m liking this girl more than I should. And so, I wired the money back to you.”
Now, I’m speechless. I don’t know whether to believe him or not. But I’m definitely stunned at his words.
“She has to go, man. I don’t want the past repeating itself.”
I pick out the sound of movement and dash back to my bedroom, chest heaving. I’m not sure I understand all I just heard. Was Yemi joking or simply trying to convince Clement that he is serious about asking me to leave? I don’t want to believe that actually falling for me could be a genuine reason.
I shut my door. I can’t process anything right now. I won’t even think about it. I pick my phone, hook it up with a pair of earphones and lie on my bed, listening to The Weeknd on repeat. Several minutes pass before my agitation turns to quieter thoughts. Still, I’m confused.
Sleep is unkind to me. It takes an eternity for it to drop in. When it eventually does, I find myself dreaming about a HIV support group, quite like the one Yemi took me too. They are all seated by the shore of some beach, the waves splashing over them. I don’t find Yemi amongst them at first, but as I move closer, they all turn to look at me. And I realize that they are all but one person.
I have no idea what the dream means.