Oreoluwa Oladimeji is a recent graduate of the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University. Originally from Nigeria, she was a semifinalist in the Tulip Tree New Writers Story 2019 contest and has been published in African Writer, MeetCute Press, Raising Mothers, Please See Me, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.
by Oreoluwa Oladimeji
Is there someone we can call? Dr. Martins asked you that question after revealing your test results. There was no response. One, because the only thing that echoed like a beating drum in your ears was that word. HIV. Two, because your mind drew a blank on who to call.
He asked you again, in a gentler tone, his hand on your shoulder. You looked up at him, wishing you heard wrong, wishing there had been some type of mistake. You wanted to curse him out. You wanted to tell him he had the wrong person. Chizoba Agwu couldn’t have HIV. But instead, you told him who to call. Your sister, Chioma.
Chioma, who for most of her life, had been subjected to the constant comparison your parents made between the two of you. Chioma, whose grades could never match up to yours and whose praises were barely heard at the dining table. Chioma, who had chosen to form a dance group at school while you participated in national and international academic competitions.
Chioma, who cared less about the academic prospects of secondary school while you fought for the position of Senior Girl Prefect. Chioma! At the rate you are going, it will be difficult for you to make it in life. Look at your sister! Oh, why can’t you be like your sister Chizoba!
It was Chioma who worried your parents, made them constantly wonder where they had gone wrong in raising their second child. Often, you had caught yourself wondering the same, watching as she performed with her dance group – Heaven’s Girls she named them, and you thought it the cheesiest and dumbest name anyone could come up with for a dance group- on Social Night.
Why couldn’t she learn from you, make you her role model? Didn’t she see all the awards you took on Prize-Giving day? Didn’t she see the teachers and students worship the ground you walked on? But no. It was Chioma who had jumped for joy at being chosen to be a video vixen for a music video while you and your parents celebrated your acceptance into the Unilag School of Law.
On the day you discovered you were HIV-positive, the sister who lived under your shadow was the first person you could think of to call. You didn’t think of your mother. You didn’t think her heart capable of withstanding the terrible news over the phone. Your father? You didn’t think of him either. Your father had never hidden the fact that you were his favorite. He doted on you. Supported every decision you made. You didn’t fall far from what he wanted for you. How would you tell him?
But on that day, it was Chioma who rushed down to the hospital barely twenty minutes after receiving the call. It was Chioma who assured you that it wasn’t the end of the world, that everything would be alright as you stared in shock at the blank walls of the hospital, your eyes not seeing anything. It was Chioma who drove you to the apartment she had rented because she couldn’t stand your parents any longer.
She cooked your favorite food, held you as you cried, her voice soothing and warm as she said, “It’s alright, Chizoba. It’s not the end of the world, ehn. It’s not the end of the world. Stop crying, biko1.”
It was Chioma who threatened to get some area boys2 to deal with Isaac, your first love, the only boyfriend you ever had. “I will teach him to wear a condom next time he sleeps with a woman! Hmm!” she fumed, her hands flailing wildly in the air one minute and firm on her hips the next.
You pleaded with her to not go after him. You weren’t ready to see him because you knew you would probably end up killing him with your own hands. It was Chioma who accompanied you to break the news to your parents. It was also Chioma who stopped you from committing suicide.
You are 21 again. Your bar results have just been released. You are beyond relieved because it’s been all you can think about for the past month. You almost thought you would go mad from the time you spent thinking and re-thinking your answers. Isaac told you not to worry. You were the smartest girl he knew. There was no way you could fail the bar exams.
He was right. He was always right. At least, most of the time. It’s one of the things you love about him. You had the highest score in your class. The smile on your face is enough to split your face into two as you stare hard at the small piece of paper. You can’t stop staring at it. You’re afraid the score might change if you look away. Your friends are happy for you. You are the smartest one in the group, so they aren’t surprised.
You manage to break away from them, and fish out your phone from your purse, the paper still in your hand. You forgot to read Isaac’s text. Meet me at Senate Love Garden after you check it. I’m sure you did great, it reads.
It’s simple and sweet. That’s how you would describe Isaac. “He’s going to be so proud of me,” you think as you hastily construct a reply. You choose to tell him the news in person and rush down to Senate. Isaac is seated on one of the concrete slabs. His head is bent over a notebook and his eyebrows are drawn together in concentration. It’s a sight you’ve gotten accustomed to in the two years you’ve been together.
He was a medical student studying to become a cardiologist. You were a law student studying to become a divorce lawyer. You were both intelligent, top of your class. He desired to better the healthcare system. You desired to better the justice system. While you were more outspoken, he was more thoughtful, making sure to pick his words carefully.
You loved that he seemed to make the world his own. You loved that he listened to you, matched up to your wit. You loved that he desired a future for himself, that like you, he worked hard to please his parents. With one look he could unnerve you. With one touch, as he held your hand, he could send chills down your spine.
He kissed you with passion you had never thought possible. Sometimes you thought you would combust and burst into flames. But he didn’t rush you. He let you keep him in check. Let you let him know when he had to stop. What you two had was special. Special for you to wait till your wedding night. You told him in those exact words. He agreed.
Of course, he was proud of you. He called you his golden girl. His future lawyer. He took you out to celebrate. He didn’t go clubbing. Didn’t smoke. Didn’t drink. He wasn’t like the other guys on campus. He took you to an expensive restaurant near campus. The food was delicious, and the service was great.
You talked all night long. Even made out at some point. He teased you, called you ajebutter3 because of how much focus and care you put into dissecting the chicken on your plate. “You are the ajepako4 abi?” you teased back, feigning annoyance. He laughed.
You once told him his laughter sounded like an engine on the verge of ruin. Kabu Kabu5, you had said, referencing a run-down car with a run-down engine. After dinner, he drove you back to his place. He didn’t live on campus like most students. He shared a two-room apartment with a fellow medical student. You only knew his roommate as Tunde because you barely saw him at the apartment.
In all honesty, you barely went to his apartment. “To avoid temptation” had been one of the excuses you gave when he invited you to spend the night. But today, your heart is merry with joy at the reception of your bar results. Today, Isaac’s earlier kisses drove you wilder than before. Made you feel headier like you were floating atop the clouds.
When he joins you on the couch in the living room, his face is so close to yours your breaths are almost mixing. He moves even closer, his eyes on your face as if silently asking a question. You make out some more. His hand reaches down and tugs at your skirt. He draws back from kissing you to look down at you. Asking. Needing. You know he’s waiting for you to protest. Today you don’t. Isaac tugs at your skirt some more. It comes off eventually.
You meet every Thursday at five in one of the rooms that make up the second story of Amina Adelabu’s duplex. The house is old, but Amina says it has received its fair share of refurbishing over the five years it has served as an NGO. Amina is slim like a reed, with bony hands that are often adorned with intricately designed bracelets.
Her neck, long and fragile, bears the light weight of a black chain. It is always visible above the neckline of her blouses or flower-patterned bubas6. She is in her mid-forties, but you can swear she looks to be in her thirties with a voice that is mild as a child’s and eyes that seem to be aware of anyone in the room.
You can tell her eyes have learned to show empathy and kindness. They smiled warmly at you and lifted some of the weight off your chest the first time you entered the room and introduced yourself to the rest of the group. “I am Chizoba,” you said. “And I am a person living with HIV,” you added after a slight pause, Amina’s smile beckoning you to continue.
You didn’t think Amina a victim of tragedy. Her warmth and poise radiated peace. Peace you didn’t think was preceded by the stormy troubles of life. On a rainy day, midway through the support meeting, she disclosed to the group that she used to be married to a man whom she had met during her university days. She called him Mohammed, her eyes lighting up as if stuck on a memory.
For a second, Isaac’s face came up in your mind. You thought of all the plans that were ruined. All the promises that were left unfulfilled. You felt that familiar stab of anger shoot its way up from your stomach up to your heart. Your heart clenched with pain. Regret. Isaac had ruined your life. You closed your eyes. “Deep breaths,” you muttered in your head, hoping no one noticed. You felt the calm slowly return as you listened to the rest of Amina’s story.
Mohammed had proposed. The wedding was splendid. Their marriage was beautiful. But it was short-lived. Two years into their marriage, Mohammed had left for the north to work at a new branch his company opened. It was during his time there that he contracted HIV. He wasn’t aware until a good amount of time had passed. He died three years later, leaving Amina a widow.
A part of you thinks that Amina sees a Mohammed in every person that attends the support meetings. And maybe you see yourself in every person in the room. Sometimes you feel connected to the others, interwoven by your stories. Other times it scares you to listen to them, because with them, you can’t run away from what you have. You can’t pretend that you are not trapped by your condition.
So, you hold on to your stories while they tell theirs. You listen but hold back from letting them in. You want to protect the part of you that used to be. You listen to the woman who is shunned by her friends. You listen to the man who is ostracized by his family. You listen to the teenage boy who was beaten by a gang he used to call his friends.
You listen to the girl who was promised heaven and earth by her secondary school sweetheart but abandoned. You listen to the woman who spent years married to a man who slept around before ultimately passing the virus to her. Like most of them, you want to be one thing. Unashamed. Unashamed to say out loud that you are a person living with HIV, not just to them or your family, but to anyone you come across. You don’t want to repeatedly feel like you have something terrible to hide. But you are scared. And so, you choose the easier path. Or what you think is the easier path.
“Aunty you want make I chop am for you?” the elderly woman asks in pidgin, brandishing the okazi7 leaves you requested.
“Just package am like dat,” you tell her, watching as she wipes the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her blouse before fishing around for a plastic bag.
Sweat trickles down your back as you rummage through your handbag for your wallet. You wonder if the day can get any hotter with the burning intensity of the scorching sun. In the comfort of your car, you turn on the air-conditioning, relaxing as the cool air starts to circulate. You glance at the plastic bag nestled in the backseat. Today is one of the rare occasions you visit your parents. Or more specifically, your mother. You’ve made it a point to buy her okazi leaves every time you visit.
You drive away from Obalende Market, headed for the place you called home for most of your life. You careen past shops, houses, and churches. Places that, once upon a time, seemed so familiar, so normal. As you drive further into the heart of Ikoyi, closer to your parents’ neighborhood, you don’t miss the transition from bad, bumpy roads to smooth ones. Tightly-spaced shops to widely-spaced ones. Less secure houses to gated communities.
You grew up in one of these communities. Banana Island to be exact. Or what is known as the wealthiest place to live in Nigeria. The security man at the main gate waves you in after checking your ID. You wonder how many people have been stationed at that post.
From a distance, you can make out the home you grew up in. It has the same build as all the other houses, a three-story shadowed by trees with an electric barbed-wire fence. Somehow, it still stands out. You wonder if the Adiguns still live next door.
With your old key, you let yourself into the house. You are surprised the locks haven’t changed. The living room is exactly the way you remember it, except for the armchairs which have been replaced. Your eyes catch the family portraits still hanging off the cream-colored walls. You stare at one in particular. It is you on your graduation day. Your father has his arm around you in a tight embrace, his face full of pride.
You smile reluctantly, the picture slightly warming your heart. When the memories start to descend, you decide to go find your mother. She is in the kitchen, cooking ofe nsala8 soup and humming a tune you know so well.
“Good afternoon, Mama,” you greet after clearing your throat.
She whirls around, her eyes widening in shock. She stares at you for some seconds before rushing towards you and enveloping you in a hug.
“My daughter! Ehihie oma9! I prayed just this morning that you will come and visit us!”
Her voice is a little shaky and the guilt you feel doesn’t let you tear away from the hug. You relax against her, inhaling the familiar smell of maggi and onion that emanates from her blouse. When she releases you, you hand her the okazi leaves. She takes them from you and looks at them with longing, as if remembering the last time you brought some by.
You ask after Nkechi, the help you met the last time you were home. Your mother tells you she has gone back to the village for her mother’s burial. When you offer to help with the cooking, your mother insists you wait in the living room while she finishes up, her hands bouncing with excitement.
You are glad she doesn’t say anything about your father as you walk out of the kitchen. You know he isn’t home because his car isn’t parked outside. You go up to what used to be your room growing up, your hands trailing across the walls as you walk up the stairs. Chizoba and Chioma, don’t let me catch you touching the walls again! Another memory.
The image of your father yelling, although scary at the time, seems funny now. Almost enjoyable. Anything to push the old, cranky man’s buttons. He used a harsher tone to order you out of the house when you disclosed your HIV status to him.
The walls of your room have a different color. A pale blue has replaced the light pink paint that used to coat them. The Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus posters have been pulled down with no traces of them left behind.
You reach for the desk drawer by the side of the well-made bed and pull it out. Your secondary school yearbook is still in there, exactly how you left it. You begin to thumb through the pages, waiting for your mother to finish her cooking.
Most likely to be a lawyer – Chizoba Agwu. Your classmates had been right about one thing. You find yourself wondering if the others on the list had lived up to the teenage expectations you all shared back then. As you flip to the next page, your mother calls your name, her shrill voice reverberating against the walls.
Another memory floats to the surface as you respond and make your way downstairs. A vision of a younger version of you, nine or maybe ten, rushing down the stairs to tell your parents that Chioma had failed a subject. The dining table is set. Your stomach rumbles at the sight of the fufu10 and ofe nsala soup as you take a seat. Your mother laughs and dashes into the kitchen to get you a glass of water.
As you eat, she watches you intently, occasionally interrupting with questions. You can tell she has a lot of them. You try to focus on your food, her gaze burning and piercing. You relax against your seat and reach for your glass after finishing off a morsel of fufu coated with soup. “I hope work isn’t stressing you, my daughter.”
“Work is fine, Mama.” Your eyes dart to her untouched food. She reaches for her fufu, as if just realizing her food has been there all along. “I’m just so happy you came today. It’s been six months.” She sounds sad, her voice un-accusing. You both share a look. You know she understands why you don’t visit often. You pause from eating, deciding to address the elephant in the room before she does.
“What of Papa?”
Your mother is in the process of answering when the front door opens and closes. A short sound. The elephant is home. Against your will, your hands shake and your heart beats faster as the footsteps get nearer and nearer. When your mom says, “Dear, welcome,” you know he is already at the dining room. You turn slowly in your seat, your movements painfully calculated, to look at the man whose face is so much like yours.
A large, green kaftan11 complemented by green pants hides his lean frame. You don’t miss the new wrinkles on his face nor how his bald head gleams under the dining room light. “Good afternoon, Papa,” you greet, your eyes barely meeting his surprised ones. All of a sudden, the air around feels thick with tension. It worsens with each passing minute of your father’s silence.
“Good afternoon,” he says eventually, the creases on his forehead deepening in a frown. He glances at your mother before making his way hurriedly up the stairs. The clanging of plates as your mother prepares a plate of food for your father is all you can hear. Although the fufu in front of you still looks appealing, your appetite has flown out the window.
Memories of your last visit play across your mind as your mother sets a larger plate of food across from yours. You are a disappointment! A disgrace! How dare you walk into my house and talk to me in that manner? You have no respect. None! The sound of your father rushing down the stairs breaks you out of your reverie. Your hands are no longer shaking. You don’t even know if it’s fear or anger they shook from.
You decide it’s probably a mixture of both. Fear of what your father might say this time around. Fear of what you might scream back at him. Anger at the possibility that he might never see you as the daughter he used to be proud of. “My dear, come and join us for dinner,” your mother calls out to him.
He stops briefly, his eyes moving from the food to you. Back to the food, then to you. His expression is unreadable, but you can tell he is not as excited to see you as your mother was. More tension-filled silence. Your mother looks like she’s silently pleading with him. “I have something more important to attend to,” he grunts with a pointed look at you.
“But Chizoba is here to see us-” your mother starts to say but he is already matching off towards the front door. Your teeth grind against each other. The tightening in your chest expands into something else. Something more potent that you have to release. The foot of your chair screeches loudly as you stand up, causing your mother to let out a yelp.
Knowing what is about to transpire, your mother begins to call after you as well, her voice pleading and fearful. The ringing in your ears drowns out everything as you storm towards the front door. It swings shut behind you as you step outside. Your father is giving instructions to his driver, Laide.
“Papa, I will leave your house for you. Feel free to go back in and have your lunch!” you scream at him, catching his and Laide’s attention. Laide’s mouth opens. You can’t tell if it’s to greet you or if it’s due to shock. He wasn’t around for the previous exchange. Your father stalks towards you, his movements fast and punctuated by his apparent anger.
“You this disrespectful girl! You dare raise your voice at me again! I will teach you a lesson today!” he shouts, his right hand shaking in violent spurts in the air.
“Papa! You can do your worst. I am done taking any of your nonsense!” His eyes widen at that, but you continue. “For years you’ve made me feel ashamed, made me feel like I was nothing but a disgrace to the Agwu family-”
“Isn’t that what you are?” he counters, interrupting your stream of words.
“That’s what I am to you! Not to Chioma! And certainly not to Mama! But you, only you, you that I did my hardest to please, have been the only one to push me away simply because I have HIV!” You are fuming, your breath coming out in harsh sounds. Your hands are shaking more than ever. Your father’s eyes are red with anger.
“I am embarrassed to call you my daughter!” your father screams, his words intending to hurt. Your heart clenches.
“And I am embarrassed to call you my father!” At that moment, he lifts his hand like a weapon. You know what is coming next and you brace yourself, closing your eyes. Nothing happens, but when you hear a loud thud, you open your eyes. Your father isn’t standing in front of you. He is lying on the ground, still, motionless. You watch, unable to move, as your mother and Laide rush towards him.
A sliver of sunlight cuts across the room like a knife. You get up to close the blinds and resume your position at your father’s bedside. No one had thought it important to inform you that he had a heart attack two months ago, that the slightest provocation could trigger another episode.
“We didn’t want to worry you,” your mother and sister said simultaneously, their eyes not meeting yours.
They might as well have had someone else translate their excuse into: You already have HIV. We didn’t want to bother you with another sickness in the family. Although a part of you knows they didn’t deliberately leave you out of that important piece of news, it was easier for you to assume the position of offense. Why? Because it easily overshadowed the guilt in your chest.
You watch your father draw long, almost-shallow breaths, mystified at how serene he looks, how different he seems from the image of the man you’ve carried in your head for a while now. Why should you feel any guilt? You didn’t slip a hand in his chest and cause the heart attack. “But you could have triggered it,” the accusing voice you’ve been trying to shut out of your ears insists.
You stare at your father, long and hard, willing for the voice that says he deserves what happened to him to consume your mind. He deserved it for abandoning you when you needed him the most. He deserved it for not telling you it wasn’t the end of the world like Chioma had. As you stare at him now you want to tell him your grievances. Not in a shouting match, but in a simple conversation between a father and his daughter.
But when your father’s eyes flutter open as he wakes, and he requests a cup of water, you raise the cup gently to his parched lips. You place your left arm in a supporting motion behind his head and simply look into his eyes, so much like yours, losing every form of speech.
- Biko: Igbo word for please.
- Area boys: Nigerian slang for touts or thugs.
- Ajebutter: Nigerian slang for someone who is posh.
- Ajepako: Nigerian slang for someone who is not posh.
- Kabu Kabu: Nigerian slang for a run-down car or taxi.
- Buba: A top or blouse commonly worn by the Yoruba in Nigeria.
- Okazi: Vegetables commonly found in regions of Africa, Asia, and South America.
- Ofe nsala: Nigerian soup commonly eaten by the Igbo people of Nigeria.
- Ehihie oma: Igbo way of saying “Good afternoon.”
- Fufu: Popular West African dish made from boiled or ground plantain, yam, or cassava.
- Kaftan: A traditional two-piece design with sleeves and long pants that is commonly worn by the Hausas in Northern Nigeria but is now somewhat common among people of other tribes.