Year 2004 Nonfiction prize winner
 
A Positive Adjournment
 

Ehichoya Ekozilen
 

© Copyright 2004 by Ehichoya Ekozilen
 
 
 
                             2004 General Nonfiction Winner
 

 

Photo of a microscope.

I have to be grateful to Richard and the site for providing me the impetus to write this story. It is an old story. Earlier this year I wrote one for Storyhouse, but when I was through, I found I had 13,000 words on my hands! Just when I was thinking I was not going to send in anything this year, I remembered this. I have been meaning to write it since February 14, 2001, when it took place.
 

Ekpoma: February 2001

“I am going to sue you for this. In fact, as soon as I leave here now, I will go and see the CNO. Then I will go to the CMD. This will be the last time you treat someone in this manner. I am going to tell you that I know my rights….” The young man, who I can tell is of the AAU – who else will unleash basso profundo on an innocent federal teaching hospital this afternoon? – goes on and on.

Then the consulting room door opens and he is invited in. As he enters, he mellows somewhat. He would, for once you are inside these white antiseptic walls, a doctor is some kind of god. And even an angry undergraduate who knows his rights is pervious to such.

I leave him and reroute my mind to my own much ado about something. You may try to imagine how Louis XVI of France was feeling on the morning of January 21, 1793. That is how I am feeling today. Honestly, at this moment in my mind’s eyes I can see the headline of Campus Express (our campus tabloid which, I am sure, can teach the Rupert Murdoch clan a few things about the trade). “HIV/AIDS Saga: Student on Death Row!” “Male Undergraduate in HIV Mess, Tests Positive!” “Pity: Law Student Dying of AIDS!” The opening sentence would read: “A male law student of the AAU (names withheld) has tested positive for the dreaded Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).” The last paragraph would almost certainly read: “He is known to have romped around with countless girls in Ekpoma metropolis and beyond. Unconfirmed reports say several girls on campus now live in fear. Our efforts to interview him, however, failed as he was said to be unavailable.”

It is not that I reckon myself a probable candidate for HIV infection – if that means anything at all. I do not philander. I have never taken blood transfusion. I have never used unsterilised syringes as far as I know. So you can say I do not partake in any “dangerous behaviour”…

The erstwhile angry young man comes out of the consulting room, his face wreathed with smiles. Obviously the test results have turned out well. He is through! All thoughts of nonfeasance charges have evaporated in the face of balsamic tidings. He smiles and makes eye contact with me on his way out. I perceive he is having a hard struggle restraining himself from running out of there screaming at the top of his voice, “I passed! I am HIV-negative!” His eyes plainly tell me, “No, that slip of paper is not the harbinger of all the ills in the world that I thought it was.” On my way in.

Dr Ajibola is a small man. He is good-looking and would be in his mid-30’s. When I hand him the slips of paper I am holding, he asks, “Did I inform you that I was going to perform HIV tests on you?”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Oh, you see, sometimes, one forgets,” he says, reading the first slip. “I forgot to inform the other fellow and he was really angry.”

He opens the second slip of paper and reads it, while I stand there, hoping this one will be passed and the “other” forgotten. “Well, this is not it. I need to see the other one.”

“But the lady has given it to you.”

He looks lost for a second or so. Then sees the stapled document on his table. “Oh.”

Both of us still standing, he removes the staple pin from the folded paper, then as he is about to unfold it, he takes a look at me and must have seen the angst on my face – I am at this moment trying to recall things. Has the president promised to make anti-retroviral drugs available to HIV-positive people? Has the pharmaceutical companies caved in to pressure to cut prices and if they do will it be such that folks can afford them? And – I am getting desperate – did George Bush say something, in his inauguration speech the other day, remotely revealing any desire to take further the commitment Clinton made, when he came calling last year, to help fight AIDS in Africa, and will Nigeria be listed to benefit from any ARV subsidy programme he might initiate?

“Sit down.” His voice is grave. Much too grave. Inadvertently. It is not reassuring. He obviously is not a dab hand at handling this.

I may not have engaged in what journalists, the NGOs, and other HIV evangelists sometimes call “dangerous behaviour” or “irresponsible behaviour” but since coming to the hospital this morning, I have seen enough as would have left Zeno of Citium flustered. I sit down the way you sit down when you are about to hear the news that could change your life. While I am still sweating – well, who can take so much pressure at 2 in the afternoon? – he unfolds the paper, looks at it and then up at me.

*****

It has been on for a long time. It has relentlessly pursued me. Nay, it has firmly nested on my shoulders like a congenital dwarf. You probably know how Sindbad the Sailor, Prince of Baghdad, handled a similar problem. A hag leaps on his shoulders, embeds herself there and refuses to let go. Nor does her diabolical designs stop at merely appropriating the wandering prince’s top. She cordons off Sindbad’s mouth and diverts every scrap of fodder he scavenges to her own. Sindbad the genius feeds the witch potent grapes till she gets soused and loses it. The moral of the story? Grapes are good if you know how to use them. Wrong! I can tell you this one has made a hole in the main bowl of my vineyard. (I admit that was never much.) This one would have defied all the ingenuities of old Sindbad the Solomon. It is troublesome. I want out. Not that I am too ill to study. But when no one is paying, and you have no savings, and you have no student loan, you have to work. Now it has proved a triple sentence to combine all killing three. I am increasingly spending too much on the health angle. Several weeks into the commencement of this semester, I did not attend a single class because during the holidays I was too ill to work and earn money. It is a catch-22.

When an old pal saw the letter and heard from me how I had become a feature at hospitals, he asked why I had kept mum while things moved so far along this lane. Of course, this was bunkum, as I have not exactly kept mute. What I have not done is to be persistent. I have asked for pecuniary assistance here once and got nothing. Well, I got something. I got the impression that it was not a smart thing to have come asking. Having no illusions as to my importance, I had not bothered to revisit the issue. He advised me to come to this teaching hospital where he happens to be a big shot so I would see a “consultant physician”.

I am not keen on hospitals these days. I had refused to pay heed to the problem at the onset. Then I had realised I had to. I have probably seen more doctors than Kofi Annan has seen diplomats. I guess I am developing an allergy to them now. But when you have a problem the size of Lake Chad, allergies do not get the prime consideration, especially if they are still developing.

It happened that the day I went to the hospital was not the day for the doctor my pal had in mind. The person he asked to ensure I saw the doctor then sent my card to another. When I got to the lobby, there were two consulting rooms that were occupied. The doctor that had my card was in the second one. Each had a queue, sitting on long chairs.

I soon noticed that the queue for the first room moved much faster than the second. I wished I had been placed on the first. I was last on my queue. I was preparing my mind to wait till Godot comes by the time it got to my turn. It was about 1PM when the doctor came out to see if his queue was still long. I was the last person. He was exhausted. I was later grateful to be on this queue because the doctor was a thoroughgoing man. I gave him a letter, detailing the symptoms, which I wrote and sent to a radio doctor some months earlier.

“Ah, I don’t have time to read anything now!” he said.

I made a gesture and said, “Please read it. It is all there.”

He sat down and read the two-page letter.

He asked some questions and had me lie down and surrender the body. His hands journeyed to several parts of it. He asked about the eczema,– a notorious, fiendish skin disorder. I read somewhere its skin pigmentation reordering feature can be referred to as “furfuraceous” matter! The doctor did not use that word. He probably does not read some of these wonderful materials. More questions.

And then, “Have you ever taken an HIV test?” He was looking straight into my eyes and his voice had that pressured tone.

“No.” I said it as if he only asked me if I knew who fired the first shot in the Biafra war.

I was not surprised. Here is a man whose ailment not only has symptoms that remind you of a kaleidoscope, but has reacted to every medication the way the Kashmiri conflict reacts to every UN initiative. What else was a doctor to think?

“I think you should take it.” He had that grave expression on his face. He could have been a barrister telling a client that everything had been done to obviate the death penalty to no avail.

“Ok,” was all I said. I wanted the test so that that one would be behind me and these guys can try to find the problem elsewhere. I was sure I was not HIV-positive.

He wrote the prescription form and handed it to me. HIV test and urinalysis. I went to the laboratory and handed it to a lady. I did not have enough money on me and so had to go home. I came back the following morning, Tuesday, for the tests. I was handed a small container and directed to fill it with my urine. I then had blood drawn from a vein in my right arm. I was asked to come back the following day for the results. It was hard to contemplate a 24-hour wait to get such a result. It is the kind of negative adjournment that aches the heart. I had thought this thing was as easy as finding out if you are pregnant – which I hear only takes two minutes.

I took a bus from the hospital to Ekpoma metropolis. I then took a motorcycle taxi to my apartment. We were two blocks beyond my place by the time I ordered the cyclist to stop – so lost was I in thoughts. As I got down from the bike, I held on to the iron bar between the seats and shuffled my feet to prevent myself staggering. While waiting a few seconds for the vertigo to pass, my left hand holding the iron bar, my right went into my breast pocket and dug out twenty naira for the cyclist.

Mr Obiozor (some of these names have been changed), a pal of mine who teaches philosophy at the university came to see me in the evening. He came to fetch me actually. He was having problems with his computer. I wanted to be alone but I always follow this man, even when I want to be alone. I recalled that he it was who first muted the idea of HIV test. I did not tell him that I had just submitted my samples. I did not tell anyone. We went and fixed the problem and I came back to my apartment where I sequestered myself until the following morning. During the night, I did have thoughts about the test – was it going to be positive, or negative? Was I going to be told that this was my end? That there was no balsam left in Gilead for me? – but these thoughtful times were few and far between. I was confident of a positive day ahead because (i) “dangerous behaviour” is not my forte (ii) from my analysis of HIV/AIDS, my symptoms do not qualify.

The following morning at the hospital, I was surprised that while those who arrived after me were being attended to, I was shunned. I got up and reminded the lady that I had been waiting. Her reply was voiced in a conversational manner, but the force of the words hit me like a tsunami.

“You have to wait because they are going to get your file from Isolation.”

My God! So I was already on isolation list. That could only mean one thing! I felt heartsick. What did I do to deserve this? My file was eventually brought from Isolation. I was directed to go to the lab to get my test results. The woman took her time to find my forms. She carefully stapled them before giving them to me. She muttered something to the effect that the other one was not ready. I should go wait somewhere.

By now I had recovered from the initial shock of finding myself on isolation list. I went straight to a toilet and locked myself inside. My heart ramming against my chest, I pressed the two edges of the paper together so that it almost became ovoid at one side. Peering, I could see inside up to the point of the staple pin. I then peered in from the other side. I saw enough text to tell me that HIV was negative. Neg-a-tive! I did not bother to look at the other. Who cared about urinalysis when there was the matter of HIV?

A cangue had just been cut off my neck and I felt it. I walked out of the toilet feeling ten foot tall. I still had a little uneasy feeling. These slips apparently contained both the results for urinalysis and HIV tests. So what was this that was not ready? I made my way to the accounting department of the hospital where I had acquaintances, having collaborated to work on their payroll database a few months earlier. I passed the time there, chatting with Tina, the computer operator. I got up at intervals to go to the lab to see if the other result was ready. Meanwhile, I learnt the name of the doctor from Tina and asked her what “Isolation” meant. I learnt it is the department where people with mental problems as well as terrible infectious diseases are minded. I sighed, careful to keep it imperceptible.

The “other one” was finally ready. Maybe I was imagining things, but the woman was acting like a totalitarian state judge on judgement day. She made sure I did not see the face of it and then stapled it with utmost care. She then set it on my hand the way Hercules must have set down the world.

Then as I was about to leave, she had a brainwave. She called me back and took the consignment from me. She proceeded to inform me that she would hand it to the doctor herself. I should go and wait in the lobby.

She did not want me to see the result unprepared for it! They are usually careful how they disclose HIV status to people. Many people react badly to it. This lady’s action could only mean one thing. So while I waited in the lobby, feeling like a tiger’s dinner, she flounced past, tapped on the consulting room door and entered. She came out promptly and left without glancing my way.

My mind was racing. It is one thing to have a lingering, disorientating health problem. But the revelation that you have been weighed in the scales and found deficient, that your life has been measured as with a rule, that your days have been counted as off a finger, cynically appropriated by a vile virus called AIDS, the apocalypse of the generation, is at another level. And to have your name smeared indelibly. I could imagine in another year or two, appearing in public, with sunken eyes and a skinful of furfuraceous elements, and being shunned. And in another four years or so, catatonic and lying on a stinking mat on a floor, folks coming around to see what an AIDS patient looks like, one or two of them pausing long enough to express their crass pity and persuade me to eat something, assuring me they know someone who knows someone who will move and banish this adamantine mountain. Not to talk of the churchy junkie – and those are many these days – who will blame it all on me. Is it the case that I have faith, he would expostulate, this thing will disappear this very moment. Why, since he met Christ nine years ago he has never fallen ill, the blood of Jesus shed on the cross having underwritten to banish every misfortune and infirmity. Of course, talking about AIDS and discrimination in this part of the world is as trite as having Florida and recount in the same sentence – you usually find them together. It is no more than a whiff of the choking miasma of hypocrisy and insensitivity that is rampant. And like racism in all its forms, it is senseless – except to those who pursue it – and has no basis in science for anyone who cares to look. There are government- and NGO-sponsored campaigns against it, surely. But in the modus vivendi of our learned – often Calvinistic – elite, superstition and orthodoxy go almost invariably together. That is why everyone would repudiate the idea of having a test. This was going to be a huge scandal.

How on earth could I have got it? I have never lived dangerously. I have read some reports about people who get it accidentally. But how could mine have happened? From the barber’s shop? From body contact with an injured person? Why was the world so unfair? I knew several guys who were sultans in the skirt-chasing business. They go to hospitals and come out, no isolations, no life-shattering diagnoses. I made some effort and calmed myself. But the result was only temporary. Inwardly I felt no calmer than a hen being pursued by a bicycle boy.

When the erudite fellow began to rave about his rights I felt temporary relief due to amusement. Temporary. My mind kept going back to the “other” result. (I was later to learn the second test is of a more specific nature. The other is of a more general nature and therefore not relied upon by doctors for HIV diagnosis.)

*****

I know the result a moment before Dr Ajibola speaks. The smile that starts in his lips and reaches the eyes as they meet mine cannot be mistaken. It is not.

On my way home, I observe a mishmash of young men and women, zanily clad, some holding hands, some smooching, on the streets, on verandas, in shops, in open roof cars, everywhere. When I get home I notice that my single neighbours all have their girlfriends noisily visiting, their garbs screaming louder than the musical brew issuing from the hi-fi sets. Booze is flowing like blood at a vampire festival. There is Phillip, wearing one of his expensive designer jeans without any trace of vanity. There is Festus, renowned throughout his apartment for his expertise on condoms, wearing shorts, topless, and carrying on with that schoolboy swagger he always assumes whenever he has a girl visiting. There is Idemudia, unbathed and looking as bored as ever.

Later in the day I leave for Mr Obiozor’s place. On the way I stop at the place of Felix, my poverty-stricken neighbour – too many poverty-stricken guys in this town. There is a girl here too. This guy owes me some money, and he is so adept at spinning tales I am looking to have a heart-to-heart discussion with him to suggest to him he should be writing fiction and earning some money to positively ease his poverty rather being an engineering student. Today he tells me he is sorry his father did not bring the money he was to bring for him. That he has been looking for money all over town. That… I let him know how dissatisfied I am with him and leave, angry. I had given out the item because Eric was an old pal and had assured me of prompt payment when he personally came to collect it for his pal. Both have turned out to be such unprincipled men.

I meet Mr Obiozor at home. In case you are wondering, there is no female here. In the course of our discussion I mention that I submitted samples for HIV test yesterday. The keen interest this statement arouses in him could have been writ on his face with a typewriter. I know he has been researching on the HIV/AIDS issue, with emphasis on possible cures or claims of it. I know also that he does not have anyone close to him who is known to be positive – and he would love to. He knows of my state of health and has in the past suggested taking an HIV test. He seems to be pretty sure it is HIV because on one occasion he has said something to the effect that since HIV is manageable there is no need to be afraid of going for the test. I know many who would have been peeved, in spite of the grovelling manner the suggestion was delivered. I was amused. I was amused because I considered it miserably uninformed of this PhD fellow to reach that conclusion based on what I told him.

I keep my face blank. My eyes are not fixed on him, but every sense of mine is trained on him as I answer the thousand questions writ on his face.

“And it was negative.”

“It was negative.” It is voiced in the form of a statement, but it is wholly a question going by the slight change in pace that attends the last two or three syllables and the facial expression. When someone says something that directly contrasts with what you are expecting, you usually wish them to repeat it, so you will be sure you heard right.

“It is negative.”

“That is the worst of all. Thank God it is not it.” His voice is low-pitched.

The disappointment his philosophic mind feels is etched on his face. He wanted it to be HIV so he would study me!

On the way home, more guys, more girls, more outlandish outfits, more hands holding hands. There are also girls who are evidently looking for guys who are looking girls, and vice versa. Then I remember. It is the day of Valentine, one of the newer western imports which gets a rise in discipleship this side of the Atlantic with every passing year. It is the sort of thing people in a romanticist university town underwrite and do overtime at.

Once I get out of my clothes, I go to the veranda. Fortunately the love parishioners are to one end of the place. I go to the other side and sit down, in the hope that Magdalene or Joel, two lovely friends of mine, will tumble out of the house and play with me. None of them does. Magdalene must be sleeping or sitting quietly and staring at the television. Joel must be sucking – that boy sucks too much – or ruining things for his mum inside the house. I am on my own. There is a thud at the side of my face, usually the onset of migraine or something like it – I pay it no attention. I feel happy. Someone begins to play a tune by Femi Kuti and the Positive Force.

I still have to wait for a diagnosis to this, which is disturbing. But when you get a result like I just got, you consider even that a tiny matter. It is a positive adjournment.

I live in Lagos. I work as a secretary, sometimes as a computer instructor. A Positive Adjournment is the first story I have ever written in one day. Because it is the first story I have ever written directly on the computer. Normally I write with ink on paper - because I cannot afford to purchase a computer for my home - and writing on paper takes time especially as I sometimes to have to write in lying position if there is a relapse in my shape.  My present workplace affords me some breathing space, hence I am able to write this on my office comp.
 

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