Christmas Eve. The street decorations, especially the ones on Ajose Adeogun, arrest my attention. I peer outside from the backseat of a cab, taking in the sights like a little girl. Yemi gazes at me. He is tickled that I’m carried away by mere Christmas lights. He teases me about it when we get home a while later and I’m undressing in my bedroom. He also teases me about my addiction for baby food. In retaliation, I playfully call him out on his clumsy habit of not being able to pour anything without spilling it. But he has more jabs for me, and seeing that I’m going to lose, I push him to the bed and tickle him. I found out just a few days ago that he is ticklish. Straddling him, I torture him with my fingers, marveling at how he responds like a little child, laughing in a manner that also leaves me in fits. And weirdly, I’m turned on.
So, I stop and kiss him. His lips are soft between mine. The room is suddenly silent. All we hear are the wet smacking sounds we make as we caress each other’s lips. This is a distraction we now both know how to do, having lost ourselves to endless kisses over the past couple of weeks.
But tonight, I want to know more than those lips. After unending days of hankering for more, I don’t think I can stand the torture anymore. But I don’t need to communicate this to Yemi, as he responds to my need by turning me around and pinning my body beneath his. I become feverish under his touch. He unlocks the doors of my arousal without much effort as his hands explore places on and in my body he has never touched before. When he takes my clothes off and I do the same to him, I’m already soaking in hunger. I think he’s the most handsome man I’ve seen in the nude; and no, I’m not referring to anywhere above his waistline.
“Do you want to do this, Halim?” he asks. I don’t answer his question. He drags me away to his room where he straps on a condom.
“I don’t make love,” he says to me bluntly. I laugh. Famous lines from Fifty Shades of Grey. Yemi doesn’t need to break it down, I understand what he means and I’m ready for him. I learned long ago that the slow, gentle thing that lovers do with a song in the background has never been my cup of tea. And it’s ironic that Yemi who can’t go a minute without listening to music decides to shake my world in our first sexual encounter with only the background sounds of the street outside us, our combined moans and the whining bed beneath us.
He unleashes on me four years of stored heat in phases. In each phase, my heart sinks deeper into him. And when I think I have had enough pleasure and can’t take in any more, he touches a spot on my body and I’m off again. It’s not an all-night affair, but it lasts long enough to leave me spent like I have been drugged out. We don’t sleep in each other’s arms afterwards. Yemi leaves me to do some work on his laptop the moment my eyes shut.
I wake up sore and slightly limping in the morning, much to his entertainment. But this doesn’t stop us from having a go at each other on one of the sofas in the living room. We cuddle this time, and fall asleep, waking up at noon, hungry and tired. Yemi orders lunch while I shower. He joins me in the shower. Nothing beyond kisses occurs because we’re out of condoms.
Christmas is spent with Yemi’s friends, at some resort in Epe. My memories of this holiday would be filled with images of beachfronts, arching palm trees, boat rides, parties under the December sky, steamy sex sessions with the sights and sounds of the ocean, and of course, me telling Yemi I love him when he’s deep inside of me and driving me insane.
“Did you mean it?” he asks me just a couple of hours before we return to Lagos. We’re sitting out on the balcony of our hotel suite. The beach stretches out in front of us and Yemi’s friends are at the shoreline, playing a game of volleyball.
“Did I mean what?”
“You said you loved me. You want to say it again or look for some reason like when I’m banging your ass or something?”
I giggle and swivel my head from left to right at the same time. I don’t want to say it again. It was uttered in the heat of the moment, and I think Yemi realizes this. He doesn’t ask me about it again. But when we get back home we both know that our relationship has unlocked another new level. It begins to occur to us how serious we’re getting. This causes a sort of break in communication, mostly on Yemi’s side. He hides away to his bedroom to finish up on some work. I remain in mine too. After a warm shower, I fall asleep.
Drab Christmas. The worst ever. Lekan is not home. Kolapo, our younger brother, who somehow managed to come into this world while Mommy was in the throes of hating Daddy, is also not in town. Daddy is with his friends in Abuja and I’m alone at home, my only companion being Mommy who is mad at me. And what are her reasons?
“You went to Lagos to sell yourself cheap to that Nosakhare boy. This is not what we agreed that you’d go and do there. You went and lost focus. Shame on you, Eniola!”
And I have been treated unkindly from that moment. Yet she calls me to oil and comb her hair, as if that is all I’m good for.
She is silent at first, as I partition her thick, long, greying African roots to apply Shea butter to her scalp. I conclude that it’s going to be one of those silent sessions in which she’ll grunt all through. But she breaks into a long, sad sigh and starts to weep when I begin massaging her scalp.
I freeze. I have never seen her in tears before, apart from when Tope passed away. Before now, I always believed she was too much of a strong woman to cry.
“Mommy?” I remain standing, afraid to lower myself and look at her to see her weakness.
“Your father is leaving me,” she cries. “He’s divorcing me. After thirty-three years, iya mi. He’s leaving your mother.”
Her locks slip out of my hold as her head drops to the cradle of her palms. I sit on the bed beside her. I am stunned.
“Why? What happened?”
“Have you not seen the way he walks these days? His clothes? His liveliness?” She gives her eyes a rub and wheezes at the same time. “He’s always smiling at something only he knows about. Always with his phone! He’s gone already, Eniola! Your father, they’ve taken him again!”
She grabs a pillow and cries into it. I’m looking at her, at her frailness and the brownish-grey in her hair. I’m staring at how time has left its mark on her. I had always seen her as that woman who fought her way through life, whose stubbornness and anger made her everyone’s enemy. I had thought there was a stony heart in there that couldn’t be smashed.
She takes out her inhaler from the pocket of her nightgown and holds it between her lips, pressing the nozzle a couple of times.
According to Kolapo, she’s having more attacks than normal these days. We all know that the trigger is her emotional state, but no one has the guts to say that to her. I think in our own sick way, we don’t really care.
“I should have walked away when I was younger,” she says huskily. “When I was still desirable. When you children were still babies. Now, that he’s leaving me, who will want me as I am?”
She has stretches out her arms to look at herself. Her long nightgown which is reminiscent of something from a horror movie, like those ghosts that wear long robes haunting people, hides her frail figure but fails to conceal the wrinkles in her hands which I am just noticing. She has aged fast.
“They will laugh at me. They will say, ‘Tolulope, look at what you’ve become, all because of a man!’ Ah! Dairo! God curse the day I met you! And God curse you too! You’ll never know peace! You will die a thousand deaths if you leave me! I gave you my virginity! I gave you my years! I gave you children! I stood by you when you were nothing! When you went mad like a man whom the gods had cursed! People said I should leave you then, that it was God punishing you for your sins! But I didn’t listen! I stayed by you and sweated to keep you alive! I fasted for months and my knees bruised because I knelt in prayer for you every night! I would have sold my soul for you, Dairo! Ah! You will never know peace! Your joy will be taken from you like the eagle snatches away the chick from its mother. You will see the evil day hovering over you but you will not be able to stop it! Ah! Dairo!”
“Mommy, it’s okay.” I reach for her. “Please, stop…”
She shoves me away and glares at me like I’m my father. “How won’t you tell me to stop?! Is he not your father?! You must support him in everything, whether bad or evil!”
I exhale. I have no energy for her drama.
“You better check your ways or you will end up being like him! A total failure!”
I rise up, my pity for her disappearing fast. “Mommy, I’m going to bed.”
“Finish combing my hair, my friend!” she shouts.
I want to scream back and tell her all manner of things but I’m afraid of the outcome. I pick the comb from the bed and begin the arduous job of stretching out her mane. When I’m done, I leave her room drained. I return to mine in good time to find my phone ringing. Seeing Eben’s name on the screen brightens my mood. I take his call.
“Can you step out of your house? I’m outside.”
“Really?” My tummy whips in excitement.
“Yeah. I’m thinking I owe you a Christmas present.”
“Okay.” I giggle.
“Wear something sexy. We’re going to my place.”
He hangs up. I quickly change into a dress that stops just after it covers my bum. I powder my face and apply some perfume. On a second thought, I pick one of my big handbags and toss in a few things for a sleepover. It’s past 9 p.m. already.
I tiptoe out of the house, locking the front door with a spare key. I find Eben parked at the entrance to our street. I walk all the way and get into the car. The familiar scent of his signature perfume takes me to a place of pleasant memories.
“Hey, sexy.” He rests his hand on my exposed thigh and reaches for my lips. “How are you?”
I’m smiling like a virgin bride. I don’t know how to contain myself whenever I’m around this man.
“I’m good. You?”
“Never been better.”
But he doesn’t look so. I still see the sadness in his eyes he had carried around upon his return to Lagos after his trip to see his parents with Halim. Eben had withdrawn from me then, hiding himself in work, spending the nights in his office. When we drove down to Abeokuta for the holidays, he made it clear that we were to go on a break.
“We’ll resume after the holidays,” he had assured. “I need to spend time with my family.”
I knew he was hurting over Halim. I was told that she had brought her new boyfriend to visit her mom not long after the family meeting she had with the Nosakhares. A friend had seen her and the guy about town. It hurt me then to know that Eben was still pining after her, and even now, I can still sense some residue of feelings he continues to have for her. I also notice he’s tipsy.
“Have you been drinking?” I ask.
“You don’t mind if I drive, do you?”
He doesn’t complain. We switch places, and as I drive, his fingers work up the folds of my most sensitive spot. When we get to his house, I return the gesture by going down on him. Afterwards, we pop open bottles of wine. Eben is practically wasted but not so much that he can’t make love to me. And he does so twice before passing out.
I stay awake a little longer, and when the sun comes up, I find that I’m alone in bed, or so I think, until Eben slips in beside me, taking my breast in his hand and pressing his erection on my bum.
“Would this be a nice way to say good morning?” His breath leaves goosebumps on my neck. I purr in response. It doesn’t take long for him to slip on a condom and find his way inside me. We engage in this slow, silent undertaking in a spooning position that lasts quite a while. Later, we’re stretched out in bed and he’s handing me a Michael Kors wristwatch.
I kiss him.
“I’m heading back to Lagos today,” he notifies me. “It would be nice if you came along.”
“I can’t. We have this family prayer and fasting thing on the 30th and 31st before the New Year…”
I pause, wondering how things will go this year with Daddy wanting to leave Mommy.
“Well, I’ll be in Lagos,” Eben reiterates. “In case you change your mind.”
“I just might.”
“Dress up, let me take you home.”
I put on the spare outfit I have come with it, which is more conservative than the dress I had on last night. Eben uses a different vehicle from the one he had come to pick me with. This one is an SUV with tinted windows. He had bought it for his sisters but their father stopped them from using it because he was scared it would chase potential bachelors away.
Eben and I leave the house and start a slow drive down the street on which he lives. The estate is called Laderin Estate. Halim and her mom stay here too.
“Do you mind if I make a quick stop?” he requests, reaching to pick a gift bag from his backseat. He then steers the car onto the next street as I wonder what he has in the gift bag and who it is for. It isn’t until after we stop outside Aunty Ada’s home that I realize that the gift is for her. Or maybe for Halim.
I try not to be annoyed. Some things are not worth the stress.
“I’ll miss you.”
Yemi’s lips are on mine. In the back of a keke, we sit, holding hands.
“It’s just three days,” he laughs. “I’ll be back to count down to the New Year with you.”
“Still, I’ll miss you.”
I get a soft caress of his lips on my forehead before he steps out of the keke.
“My love to your family!” I say, above the noise in the motor park as he walks away, strapping on his backpack.
“Make we dey go?” The keke rider revs up his engine.
He puts the tricycle in motion and starts toward the exit of the motor park. I give him directions to the HCT center. We journey there with my mind still on Yemi and how the house is going to suck without him. I am tempted to travel to Abeokuta to be with Aunty Ada until he returns.
“Na here?” the keke rider asks, slowing down at the gate of the center.
He stops. I pay him and make my way in, following the wide pathway that leads me to the lab. The lady at the front desk greets me with a full smile. On her head is a Christmas hat with twinkling lights.
“I’m here for my results,” I inform her.
“Yes. They have been ready since. Just go in and see the lab technician.”
I take the corridor to the technician’s office. When I walk in, I’m surprised to find him waiting. I apologize for not knocking.
“Oh, it’s fine. Please sit.”
I take the chair offered, now used to this whole process.
“Halimnye Diobi,” he says, pronouncing my name without error.
“Yep. That’s me.”
He looks at me for a bit, as if searching for something on my body. He’s a tall man with a playful air. Working with children would suit him better.
“Your results are ready.”
“The whole thing took a while because we conducted a third generation test. We’re thorough with our process.”
“Well, I have good news for you.”
“Let me guess, my CD4 count is high and my viral load is low.”
He lets out a laugh. “Even better.”
“Halim, following the tests I conducted personally, I announce…or should I say, gladly declare to you that you are HIV negative.”
My brows shoot up and then down, coming to a furrow. “What did you just say?”
“I conducted the test twice, Halim. I am not known to make mistakes. I used different methods of testing and it gave the same result. I had the test done in another facility we usually work with, just to be sure, and they brought the result to me yesterday. All negative.”
“I don’t understand.” I stare at him in confusion. “Something is wrong.”
“Unless you’re in the window period and the timing you gave me the last time concerning when you were infected was a lie.”
“I was infected almost seven months ago. I am sure of that.”
“Well, then it means whoever conducted the test for you misdiagnosed you.”
I go weak. I still can’t comprehend what he’s saying.
“You said you ran your first HIV test at Ako Diagnostic?”
“They are reputable.”
“The test was done twice. The first one and then one western-something…”
“Yes. And twice they confirmed that I have HIV. Are you sure you did the test well?”
“Yes, Halim,” he replies patiently. “But what we can do is run another instant test right now so that you can be sure. I’m sure of my results. This is for your benefit.”
I stick out my arm and this gets him laughing. But I’m not amused.
He stands up and goes to his apparatus table. “Come over.”
I walk to the table and sit on a plastic chair he offers. I stick out my arm again, ready to go through the process once more, but he takes only a pin prick of blood from my middle finger and draws it in a tiny plastic tube. He then pulls out an instant HIV test kit from a drawer, opens it and proceeds to drop the blood sample on a test card.
“How long does it take?”
“Five to ten minutes.”
I sit in silence, waiting, while he busies himself with something on his table. Ten minutes go by and I alert him. He walks back to the table and pushes the test card towards me.
“See that line? It means it’s non-reactive. You are still HIV negative. Double lines would have indicated that you’re positive.”
“This still doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I suggest you return to Ako Diagnostic and demand answers. There’s probably a mix-up somewhere.”
I rise up. “Thank you.”
He hands me the envelope with my test result. I leave the place in a cloud of confusion. I go home only to pack a few things I might need for my trip to Abeokuta. I need to see Eniola so that she can clarify this mess.
The crow of a cockerel welcomes me when I show up at the doorstep of the Adeoyes. It’s a quiet house in a large compound, surrounded by shrubs and flowers of different colors. Aunty Tolu has always been one to pride in the way she keeps her house. I once overheard her brag to a woman at church about how much time she takes to cultivate her plants and the care she also gives to the interior of her house. In her words, ‘if a woman fails at home, she has failed in life.’
Aunty Ada would laugh her ass off at statements like that. She has always put down housewives, especially those whose husbands blatantly engage in extramarital affairs while they perform wifely duties. Aunty Tolu is one of such women. It is rumored that when I was a child, while we still lived in Lagos, Aunty Ada was having an affair with Uncle Dairo. I have questioned Aunty Ada about this, but she has denied the claims, and I believe her. After all, she has openly confessed to the other affairs she’s had. Why lie about this?
But clearly, Aunty Tolu thinks otherwise. She hates Aunty Ada and has transferred that hate to me. I was unfortunate to tag along with Eben to this same house some months ago. Let’s just say that pit of snakes would have made me feel more at home.
This is why my heart thumps as my fist raps on the door. I’m praying to God that it’s not her that steps out.
Fortunately for me, Eniola opens the door.
“Halim,” she says, surprise in her tone. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi Eni. First of all, Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, jare. Pardon my manners. So, what’s up? To what do we owe this visit?”
“Can you wear your slippers so that we can talk outside?”
She retreats into the house and comes back wearing a pair of fancy flip-flops.
“Let’s stroll,” she says, walking hurriedly away from the house. I know she doesn’t want her mom to know I’m here.
We leave the house and begin a short stroll down her street.
“Eni, I came because of the HIV tests you ran on me.”
“I ran other tests in a HCT center in Lagos and they all came out negative.”
Eniola stops. Her face is squeezed in a frown. “Come again.”
“I am HIV negative.”
“Me too. That’s why I came to ask if you ran the tests yourself.”
“I did. I ran both tests.”
“Then how come there are conflicting results?”
“That’s what is baffling me. Are you sure they did the test accurately there?”
I take out the result sheet from my handbag and hand it to her. She goes through it. “This seems legit.”
“So, what do you think the problem is?”
“Halim, I have no idea. I am shocked as we speak. I have never misdiagnosed anyone, let alone a good friend. You and Eben are like family to me. Why would I play with such a thing?”
“That’s what I kept asking myself. Maybe you took our blood samples and kept them in the lab and someone mixed them?”
Eniola goes into thought. “It could be…”
“But how do we explain that happening twice?”
“I don’t know, Halim. All I know is that I ran both tests and the results were the same.”
I sigh. This is getting more confusing. I have traveled all the way, hoping that Eniola would have some answer for me but I’m left more perplexed.
“I’ll have to go back to the clinic and run one last one,” I tell her.
“What clinic? Ako or the one in Lagos?”
“Where I used to work?”
“Em…why don’t I join you? That way, I’ll try and figure out what happened, because this is really strange to me. Wait here.”
She runs back to the house, and soon, I see a car driving out of their compound. It stops beside me.
“Enter,” Eniola says. I take the passenger seat. We chat a little on our way to the hospital. She wants to hear about my new boyfriend. I tell her little about Yemi, not because I don’t trust her, but because I’m still on nerves over the HIV thing.
We get to Ako Diagnostic Center and Clinic, and luckily for me, the owner of the place, Pastor Love, is at the reception. She’s the wife of our late Pastor who was a doctor and co-owner of the clinic. He passed away two years ago and she has been in charge of the place.
I rush into her arms to hug her. I haven’t seen her in ages.
“Halimnye!” She looks at me with a loving smile. “You have gone back to your old looks.”
“How is Lagos treating you, my dear?”
She turns her eyes on Eniola.
“This my runaway staff sef. Na wa for you o. You don’t use to call people again as per sisi eko.”
We all laugh. Pastor Love returns to me. “How are you, Halim?”
I catch the meaning in her question. “I’m good. Never felt better.”
“Great. So, why are you here?”
“Em…funny story. Maybe a miracle, I don’t know.” I chuckle. I catch Eniola giving me a disapproving look but I don’t grasp it until I take my test results out of my handbag and show Pastor Love. Only then do I realize that I might be putting Eniola in trouble.
“Is this yours?” Pastor Love asks, studying the contents of the paper.
“You’re non-reactive in all the tests done here,” she says, eyes on the paper. “HIV negative?”
I nod. She looks around. “We can’t have this talk here. Follow me to my office and explain this confusion to me.”
She leads the way as Eniola pulls me aside. “You shouldn’t have told her.”
“I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”
Inside Pastor Love’s office, I give details of the situation as the woman sits in rapt attention, staring at me, chin resting on her hand.
“This is interesting.” She faces Eniola. “Eni, you conducted both tests?”
“Is there any chance that you made a mistake?”
“No… I don’t know.”
“Maybe you switched blood samples?”
Pastor Love’s words set my heart racing. “Switch blood samples? You mean, switch mine with Eben’s?”
“Maybe,” she responds. “That seems the only logical explanation. Eniola was one of our best here. She has never made that type of dangerous mistake before.”
“No. Eben is not… It’s not possible.”
“Eniola,” Pastor Love calls again. “Think really well, my dear. Did you switch the samples?”
Eniola looks on the verge of tears. Pastor Love glances my way. “Halim, excuse us for a bit.”
I do as she orders. Outside the office, I pick a chair and sit in restlessness. The new twist to the story makes my chest hurt with as much pain it did when I was first diagnosed with HIV. Eben and I may not be together but he is someone that is still dear to my heart, and the fact that he didn’t throw me away when he discovered I was infected makes me respect him even more. If Eniola has made this terrible blunder of switching the blood samples, I will not forgive her. The first test might have been a mistake, but I don’t think the second was. Something doesn’t smell right here.
Pastor Love pokes out her head from her office. “Halim, come in.”
I hurry into the office and halt in my steps when I see Eniola weeping.
“Halim, your friend has something she wants to tell you.”
My racing heart slows at the sight of Eniola’s tears, but it begins to race again when she opens her mouth and starts to utter words that cut right through me.
Here’s what she reveals: She deliberately misdiagnosed me with HIV, switching my blood sample with someone else’s that was infected.
“Why?” My voice cracks.
“I didn’t want you to marry Eben,” she weeps. “I was in love with him.”
My hands go weak and my handbag falls to the floor. “Eni,” I whisper. “You gave me HIV because you wanted my man?”
Eniola goes on her knees and starts to beg.
“I’m trying to understand this but I can’t.”
“You gave me HIV and when I broke down from the news, you hugged me and patted my back and told me things would be fine?”
“Halim, I’m so sorry. I was desperate.”
“All to get a man who has no feelings for you? Eni, so you’re this heartless?”
“Apparently,” Pastor Love mutters.
“I… I don’t understand. What did I do to deserve this wickedness?”
“I’m sorry, Halim. I’m sorry. Pastor Love, help me beg her! Please, don’t tell Eben! I’m sorry!”
I am too shaken to speak further. I pick my handbag from the floor and turn around. She calls after me, as does Pastor Love, but I can’t hear a thing. Outside the office, Pastor Love charges in front of me and stops me.
“You’re in shock, Halim. You’re not thinking straight right now and I can’t let you go home to your mom like this. We can’t have Aunty Ada’s wrath on anyone right now. She will literally kill Eniola and every Adeoye that comes in her path. I’ll take you to my house and you’ll stay there until I get you back to your functioning mind. Okay?”
I nod several times like a robot whose battery is running out. Pastor Love has to put her finger beneath my chin to stop me. She dashes back to her office. When she returns, Eniola is with her, sobbing and seeking my forgiveness, but I’m deaf to her cries. I follow Pastor Love to her car and together we leave to her house.
It takes almost an hour for the shock to leave me. But I continue to sit like a zombie, staring at the sparkling white walls in Pastor Love’s living room. When Eben enters the house, I don’t acknowledge his presence. Pastor Love takes him to a corner and explains things to him in hushed tones. In his usual mode of reacting to any situation, he remains passive. All I can hear him say is ‘I understand’ and ‘thank you.’ He then comes over to where I’m seated, pulls a side stool before me and grasps my hands.
“I am so sorry, Hali. I was on my way to Lagos when Pastor Love called. I had to turn back and come here and hear this…” He shakes his head. “I am so sorry for all you went through. So, so sorry. I can’t believe Eni would do a thing like that. I’m just… I don’t have words.”
“All because of you.”
“And that scares the hell out of me.”
He goes quiet for a spell, head bowed, releasing heavy sighs.
“Eben, did you cheat on me with her?”
“God, no.” He raises his head. “Not even with a casual glance.”
“How about now? Are you dating her?”
I see regret in his eyes. “Just sex.”
“So it worked. Her plans worked.”
I don’t know why this makes me sad, but this is where I start to cry. Eben takes the space beside me and enfolds me in his arms.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Hali,” he assures me, rocking me.
I should believe him. I shouldn’t let this get to me. Being diagnosed wrongly is a blessing in the end. It has led me to Yemi and helped me find myself, saving me from a marriage to Eben that would probably have ended badly.
But getting an accurate diagnosis is also a blessing. It should make me happy, however it doesn’t. Instead, I feel sad and afraid. I fear that something worse may come. Is there a way I can go back to being HIV positive again?