I scampered over puddles, walked to the road and stood by the wayside. The umbrella I was holding could barely shield me from the downpour, but the sound of its thumps on the umbrella was rhythmical, imitating drum-beats from a piece of soul music. It reminded me of the soothing tempo from the ‘Boys II men’ songs I once played on my radio-cassette player on a day like this; a day when the rain would be thundering on the roof top of my single room, self-contained apartment, lightning tearing through the dark clouds that shrouded the sky. Ekaette, my girl, would coil her self up in a ball, by my side, in bed. I thought of the times when my hand would move gently and drop itself, as if by some form of sorcery, on her protruding buttocks. I’d squeeze the succulent mass, and her body would move in accordance, actuating closer to me as if to say: Take me! I’d fondle, kiss and suckle her until we’d lay naked together, breathing heavily, and a tad exhausted from the sweet sex that had ensued; Ekaette’s chest heaving from a shortage of breath, breasts vibrating. Me. Sprawled, and bedraggled
I stood in the rain, hands quivering intermittently, but I was able to clasp tightly around the umbrella’s handle. My shoes and khaki pants were soaked-up to my knees from the rushing water in which I stood. I had just picked up the items required for fixing my 1998 BMW five – series car from a vendor along Bedwell street, and stood there waiting for the next taxi cab to arrive.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally spotted, from the corner of my eye, an old Volkswagen jetta car speeding towards me. I gestured and it skidded to a stop.
‘You go carry me for drop?’ I asked the driver in broken English.
‘Enter make we go, Oga na five hundred naira.’
I could not possibly pit a bargaining conversation with this man: my clothes were half -soaked by the rain, the cold that came with it had started getting through my shirt and on to my skin, I was shivering. I threw the items in on the back seat and jumped in with it.
At first, I did not notice her. But it was the beige jacket with thin black lapels that caught my eyes. When I turned to look at her I noticed she wore a black skimpy skirt, a pair of beige-colored ballerina flats, and the stretch of her legs which were uncovered shimmered just like a bar of gold beneath sunlight. I gulped saliva, finally raised my eyes to behold a face I thought was the description of Athena – one of those Greek goddesses mentioned in the old Greek myth books I used to read as a child. She was, ravishingly, a thing of utter words-can’t-describe beauty.
‘Hi!’ I managed to say to my copassanger, and with a voice that sounded as if laced with honey, the girl replied, ‘Hi’.
‘A rainy day it is.’ I was frantically searching for a conversation starter. It was as if my larynx had varnished at the sight of the bundle of gorgeousness heaped beside me in the taxi cab. Breathing became hard, my heart raced, and the quivering surged to great heights.
‘Yes, it is,’ she replied. My heart leaped. We both fell silent. It was deafening. The world shut out, I couldn’t hear anything. I felt nothing except the aura of sheer beauty.
The driver changed gears and the car started moving. It came to an abrupt stop shortly afterwards. The driver had stepped on the brakes to avoid running over some school children who had rushed on to the street.
‘See all these devil children’ , the driver said, in broken English, as he was forced to fiddle with his gear lever and the car started off, again.
‘They always blame the devil for their carelessness,’ I said in a whisper to the girl.
She turned and looked at me with a smirk on her face. I died a million deaths. I had just been thrown out from heaven and the gates shut, leaving me out in the cold. She turned to the driver and said ‘driver please stop here,’ forcing the car to another abrupt stop. ‘This is my destination.’
She opened the door, winced, and shut it as soon as she did. The rain was pouring heavily and she couldn’t disembark from the vehicle. I noticed and offered my umbrella. She shrugged, but took it anyway. She agreed to give me her phone number, and I assured that I would give her a call once the rain stopped.
‘I’ll come pick it up later,’ I said. I watched her leave the taxi, her wide hips swaying as she walked across the street. I caught the driver’s stare on me from his rear-view mirror, he looked away abruptly.
By the time I had dropped the parts I bought with the repairman and returned home, I was heavily beaten by the rain. I stood drenched at the doorstep of my apartment, soaked and dripping, my clothes all but stuck to my skin. I fiddled with the bunch of keys in my hands and finally unlocked the door with the right key.
I was shivering. My temperature had dramatically risen too, and my head was now pounding from an all too familiar headache.
A certain fear gripped me. I know this fear, it knows me. This fear.
A fear that began years ago when Ekaette’s fever didn’t break after the birth of our son.
We hadn’t been married, Ekaette and I, but she became pregnant with a child. My seed.
In the first month of her pregnancy, I was skeptical about letting her keeping the child. I did agree to it later on, after much contemplation. We did have our fights and quarrels, though, I manned-up and agreed to have it born.
Both of us were students, but I had a small business I oversaw; I was able to start and keep the business running from the little pocket money I got from my parents.
It was a small restaurant which was attached to an even smaller beverage store. I squeezed everything I could, leaving just about enough space for a few customers to sit, eat and drink. Ekaette was helpful, doing some of the cooking and often going to the local market, buying beverages at cheap rates to replace whatever had been sold in the store. That was the thing about Ekaette: beauty with a lot of energy for hard work.
Through it all, we managed to find a way to shuffle between running this small business empire and attending lectures in school.
My consenting to Ekaette having a child for me didn’t come without consequences: My father, Ugogbuzue, was the Igwe – king – of our village, a highly revered position. I was his first son, the crowned prince and heir to the throne. By custom and tradition, I was forbidden to marry any woman outside the sphere of our village.
When news broke that I lived with an Efik girl in my apartment – which was off campus -and had eventually gotten her pregnant, Ugogbuzue summoned me, demanded that I make the six-hour journey back to the village at once.
When I sat with him, he started out in parables, saying things like “okirikiri ka ana gba ukwu ose, anaghi a ri ya enu,” – you pick pepper by going round the pepper shrub; you do not climb it.
I could already sense the heavy loathing sitting deep in my father’s innards, blaming my mother, Aku, for being so shielding and overly protective of her children.
Ugogbuzue warned that I go back to see that Ekaette’s pregnancy is aborted, and that I desist from ever seeing her. What I said next made him shudder, the creases that formed on his face when he frowned looked like lightening bolts on stormy days.
‘I will never do that, Papa,’ I said. He looked at me hard and scornfully, then rose and left me in his Obi. I was befuddled. A man renowned for his rigidity, an unyielding beholder of culture and tradition, and morals, had turned his back on me and went into his inner chambers. He left me without saying a word. Of course he knew what I was walking into and, just like Pontius Pilate, he had washed his hands off the situation. The brunt was mine to bear. Later that evening, while I lay in bed, staring hard at the ceiling for answers, pondering, Ada, my sister, would come up to my room, tried to talk me into doing what Papa had told me to do. When I remained adamant, and told her that I had no intention of going back on my decision, she said I shouldn’t bring shame to the family name, and most of all, to the throne.
Early the next morning, I set out for my journey back to school. On the long drive back, I kept thinking; I’m barely twenty one, still heavily depended on my parents for support, still lived in their house. The business didn’t promise much; just churned up enough profit to pay for text books, and help in course registrations. How was I going to cope with the undulating, pothole-filled narrow dirt road I had set out to walk. Yet, I was unrelenting in my decision. Unyielding, but I would later struggle with life, existence and living.
Three months into the pregnancy, Ekaette registered at the General Hospital for antenatal care. At the antenatal clinic, procedures included a laboratory test to be done on the mother. The result came, and revealed that Ekaette had HIV.
Ekaette blatantly rebuked the laboratory test result. Cussed the nurses and doctors, and absconded. She stopped visiting for her antenatal clinics. Then the fear. Fear that I, too, might be infected gripped me. Fear of stigma and mockery. A silly fear. I took a stance, supported Ekaette for scuttling away from the General hospital. Agreed with her that the test result was not hers, that the nurses might have miss marched the papers.
We arranged for a mid-wife who would care for Ekaette until the day of delivery. Later, Ekaette would give birth to a boy amidst her battles with an unceasing fever. I saw her give off a weak smile as I rocked the boy gently in my arms. She lay gaunt on the delivery table, life escaping her once thick frame. We had let the infection metamorphose to AIDS. Ekaette died two weeks later, leaving me to groom our son alone.
Ekaette was gone, but she left traces of her last days with me. The baby suffered a series of incessant illnesses. The condition forced me to rethink my earlier stance of not heeding to a laboratory test, or even going to the hospital to have my son treated.
One day, my son, whom I had christened Tyler, convulsed due to a high fever. It was my mother, who had come to see me from the village, that alerted me with a loud, crackling shriek. I ran in from the opposite room where I was studying to find Tyler fixated in his cot, eyes a clear white, he was gasping for breath, froth exuded from the corner of his lips. I picked him up in a flash, made my way quickly to the hospital where Ekaette had initially registered for antenatal clinics. I met with a doctor and with a constant flow of tears, I narrated what had happened. I had no option, I no longer feared stigma. I just wanted to save my son’s life. She assured me that everything would be fine. I agreed to a test to be done on me, and my son, too. It turned out that the boy had become infected with HIV at birth but, I, magically, tested negative. I broke down into more sobs, heavily wailing as the doctor explained to me that it was possible I had a stronger immune system that could’ve prevented me from getting infected.
After the initial phase of treatments, anti retro-viral drugs were issued for Tyler, along with food supplements.
I, in a mix of bewilderment and despair, silently cursed the heavens, asking why they had not bestowed Ekaette or the child with the same immunity I possessed. While in a taxi, on our way home, MLTR’s ‘Someday’ came up on the car stereo. The local FM station was running a special request program and the song was being played to fulfill a request from a widowed school teacher. Listening to the lyrics, my eyes teared-up heavily.
Now, standing in my apartment’s foyer, pulling off my rain-soaked clothes with much difficulty, I thought of my son, Tyler, who was now ten years old, and living with mama in Ebunuland – our village, his face bearing much of Ekaette’s features, constantly reminding me of a love lost yet, posing as a beacon of renewed hope. I wondered what answer I’d give if he ever asked why he keeps taking those tablets. My mind raced back; flashes of how Ekaette had struggled with breathing and finally gave up life appeared. I thought of the distraught and grogginess that struck me as they rolled away her body, how I wanted to jump with her coffin when she was being buried. I’m thinking, now, of the girl who had been in the taxi with me earlier today, who had given her name as Aisha. I picked up my phone and dialled a number. The voice on the other end of the line was husky:
‘Hello!’ Dr. Stan said. ‘Obi how are you?’
‘Its the fever again,’ I replied. ‘I’m coming over for my monthly check – up.’