By Ezinne Arua
"Please, what's today's date?" Nkoli asked the man standing next to her at the counter as she filled her bank slip. The two-day public holiday that followed the weekend had messed up the calendar in her head.
"23rd," he said. "23rd March."
Coincidence? Nkoli smiled to herself. Although it’s been three years, the events of that sunny afternoon of March 23, 2014, are still fresh in her head—as bright and clear as the pictures on her new 12 megapixels Samsung S9. What was supposed to be an exciting, even gainful, participation in a local health initiative had become a turning point in her life.
She’d attended an NGO programme that was offering two weeks of free medical counselling and tests in the local government. Everything seemed normal at first. She went to the eye-care team as she was experiencing some discomfort in her eyes and then afterwards went to the HIV testing tent. She aced all the general questions on HIV awareness and knowledge.
"I just came for the test; I know all these," she said, rather confidently, to the middle-aged man in charge of the unit.
"It's good you know," he said, smiling.
It was easy and fast, just a prick of her index finger. She watched as the blood spurt out, almost reluctantly, as though it were shy. At least it wasn’t the needle, she thought. She hated needles. How people could calmly watch a needle slowly dig into their veins and suck out blood like a vampire was one of the few things that confounded her. A prick of the fingers was bearable.
She watched as queasy patients waited anxiously for the results of their tests. There was a lady in the corner pressing her palms against her chest like she expected her heart to pop out any moment. She smiled. There was nothing to fear, she told herself.
Although she had a few sexual relationships here and there, she wasn't reckless. Ejike was her campus boyfriend and she knew he was not that type of person. Anthony was smooth but he always used condoms, “for peace of mind”. And it happened just once with Anayo. So, she was calm.
A few minutes passed and the medic said they could check the result together. He explained that a single-line meant the test was negative and she did not have the virus; a double-line suggested more confirmatory tests, however.
Side-by-side they stood as she saw the double-line that redefined her life.
"Oh, no. It can't be," she blurted out in a mixture of shock and utter disbelief.
"Well, it may not be," the medic said. "Even if it were so, you yourself have acknowledged that there are treatments now, so it will not be the end of the world."
"Are you sure the kit is not expired?"
"Calm down, Miss," he said with a warm reassuring smile. "You will undergo another test, this time in a proper lab. That one will tell."
"Okay," Nkoli muttered holding on the shred of hope this offered. She looked around the room as if to check that no one had seen her results. It was eerily quiet. The young chatty medic was now pensive as he scribbled on a paper and then handed it to her.
That evening, Nkoli underwent another test at the hospital. She grimaced as the needle tore into her flesh, watched helplessly as the dark red blood surged out, this time more courageously. It was an excruciating wait for the results. Days of fear and anguish and then, finally, the results were out.
She was HIV positive.
It has been three years since and nothing has changed. From all she had read, nothing would have changed yet whether or not she took medications. But it would not stay so forever unless she took the medications. That was why she did, still does and will continue to do.
Just like her father, every day now she swallows her medications; just that her father took his to keep his sugar level normal. Unlike her father, no one reminds her of it. They both just wanted to live a little longer.
Her results read negative now. It has been so for almost two years now. Her nurse Rachael explained that the virus was suppressed. Too suppressed to appear in test results. Too suppressed to be passed to someone else.
She was honest about it to Okechukwu but that didn’t make him stay. She understood. Gabriel too. Steven knew and he was still there. One day, she might call his phone and he wouldn’t answer too and she will understand again.
On days that she remembers, she stares at herself in the mirror—young and bubbly, full of flesh. She bears no semblance to the ghoulish and emaciated figures that she had seen on Google Images. She looked no different from Abigail, her youngest sister, or Ngozi, the loquacious office mate, or even Buchi, her neighbour, whose Gospel music could be heard every morning even before the cock crowed. She looked no different from the young lady at the counter who processed her teller with an exaggerated sense of seriousness.
They cannot tell that she lives with HIV, neither can she tell of them.
"Thank you for banking with us," the security guard at the door said.
"Thank you," she said as she extended her palm to him in a handshake, leaving a two hundred naira note in his.
"Have a nice day," she greeted as the man's face lit up, more alive than the perfunctory courteous smile he had on earlier.
It is warm and sunny as Nkoli walks rather briskly to her neatly parked Golf. She has to be quick to avoid the heavy afternoon traffic. She takes a moment to look at herself in the driver's mirror. She smiles. The past three years have been better than she could have ever imagined. She should treat herself to her glass of wine in the evening, she thinks. She grins, almost excitedly, at the thought.
Ezinne Arua is a writer based in Nigeria. She blogs at ezinnearua.com and her debut novel Shades of Us is expected in December 2018.
Featured Image: Jacinta LLuch Valero.