FOREWORD: So after years and years (lol), the writer of the budding series, Being Bruno, has returned to restart the series, much to my delight. It has only been two episodes so far – EPISODE 1 and EPISODE 2 – so y’all can catch up quickly and get into the rhythm of this here third episode.
Read and enjoy.
You woke sharply, sitting up abruptly, your eyes springing wide open so fast you should have been blinded by the rays of light that beamed from the electric bulb directly over your head. You were breathing heavily, gasping in air as if you had been drowning only a moment ago. In and out, in and out, air breezed through your fat nostrils. Up and down, your chest heaved.
You had had the scariest nightmare.
When you had caught your breath, when you could finally trust your body, you moved. You scooted to the edge of the bed, raised the mosquito net and stood up. Slowly, you walked to the mirror, feeling your heart beat against your chest, going 'boom boom boom' like a tribal drum.
You stood in front of the black-plastic-rimmed glass against the wall, feeling blank and apprehensive. You didn't know what you had expected, but you didn't look any different. The same high cheek bones, the fat nose, the full curly hair, the bulging eyes. All there.
The same old Bruno.
You raised your left hand consciously and brought it to the back of your left ear. When you touched the skin just behind the cartilage, you rubbed it; round and around.
Yes, same old Bruno, complete with the bump back there.
You closed your eyes and breathed softly. Your mind was starting to race, thoughts flying as it did a crazy dance with no rhythm. As the images flooded your mind, it hit you: yesterday hadn't been a dream after all. It was real. The nightmare was real. You were living it.
You counted down from five and opened your eyes, turning away from the mirror to grab your phone from the bed. 05:07. You had two hours before you had to go to school, so you turned on the cellular data connection on the phone and opened your default browser. You typed in 'Bump at the back of the ear' and scrolled through the results.
‘Inflammation of the lymph nodes,’ one said. You opened it and read through, pausing only when you came upon the hyperlink 'HIV' to open it on another tab. The new tab had hyperlinks that you also opened because they had new information that you devoured, drinking it up like a man that had been confined to the desert for six months.
Thirty minutes later, you had learned more about the virus than you knew an hour ago, and what you read scared you shitless. There were possible complications from the virus itself, or the medications that one took to control the virus: increased exposure to other diseases, organ failure, brain tumour. The last one had you incredibly frightened. You hadn't thought of it before, but your brain was your greatest asset. That's what made Bruno...Bruno. You could live without your limbs or some other impairment. You would still have your head. You can still think, live and be a functioning human being.
But brain tumour meant that one way or another, you'd end up dead.
You closed the app quickly and sped out of the room to the bathroom. You grabbed your toothbrush and worked paste onto it. You paid extra attention to the shape of the paste sitting atop the white bristles, then you brushed your teeth with your complete attention. You pushed the images at the edge of your mind even further away. You didn't want to see them, live them, and as long as you were thinking about brushing your teeth, you didn't have to.
"Do you want to uproot the teeth or what?" a familiar voice said behind you.
You turned to find your grandfather standing there, looking at you like he could see into you.
"Good morning, sir," you said automatically.
"Good morning. It's like you have an early money lecture?" he asked, meaning that you are usually never awake at this time.
"Yes,” you lied. You weren't about to tell him that you couldn't sleep, and why. Like most of your male family members, you didn't talk much with your grandfather. No, he is not a horrible person. He is smart and the kind of man that puts food on his family's table. But, he is a difficult person. He is one of those older people that expected their words to be obeyed because they are older, demanded for attention and picked offence at any slightest notion of disrespect. He has a thing for asking rhetorical questions except he actually expected an answer, in a particular way. You hadn't come to learn how to handle that yet, so you keep him at arm’s length, your relationship cordial.
You can't say that you paid attention in class that day. That would be another lie.
Whilst you sat in your normal sitting position at the corner by the window, feeling the wind blow in from time to time to rustle the leaves of your notebook, your mind wandered. It ventured to places so dark that you do not want to recall them. There was nothing normal about that.
It wasn't until noon that you got enough control over yourself to focus your brain activity in one direction: a solution. There was available medication, and you had to start it as soon as possible. It was a glimmer of light at the end of the very grey stormy cloud. It was not a cure, but it was a glimmer all the same. So you grabbed it like hot coal and blew at it till it became blazing hot.
“It isn't the 1980's anymore,” you told yourself, trying to bolster yourself. “You have a chance men like you back then didn't have.”
Anti-retroviral medications work. Eating right and staying faithful to the medication, you had read, meant that you could still live a long happy life – or as happy as is possible for a HIV positive gay man in Nigeria. You'd have to give up on the dream of meeting the man you would spend the rest of your life with. Nobody would want you now.
You realised that your mind was straying again and you reined it in. The meds. That was what you needed. That was what you had to focus on.
There was that bit about bringing a relative to the clinic. The thought of that made your stomach coil up in knots as you considered the options. Your mother was out of question. She would die before you'd get the chance to take her anywhere near the hospital. You wouldn't want to crush her like this. Your grandparents were out, too. You could imagine the family meeting that would be convened with you as the principal subject matter. You weren't close enough to your uncle to tell him something like this, so that left your aunt, the last born female in your mother’s family.
She was the person you were closest to in the family, apart from your mother. You two had some kind of bond, probably having more to do with the fact that she was merely six years older than you and you had similar interests. She’d been the one to give you the first Harlequin novel you read in JSS1, and when you returned it a day later, she gave you a knowing smile as you asked for another. You both discovered Alicia Keys together, pooling money to buy the album, Songs In A Minor, after you heard it on Cosmo FM. As you grew older, she introduced you to Gloria Estefan and you rewarded her with dozens of Bollywood pop music. You usually spent the evenings together, talking in her room, and you could imagine telling her about your diagnosis.
"Pay attention, mister..." a girl seated beside you said, prodding your arm. She was Sheba, your only friend in the faculty.
You smiled at her and returned your attention to the lecturer on the podium. He was supposed to be teaching you the Law of Contract, but per usual, he had found a way to commence a speech about how your generation had a poor reading culture and how he was intent on curing that with his rigorous teaching methods. You had heard that so many times in the past few weeks, so you tuned out and began thinking about your friend Sheba and how she could be a solution to a problem.
You two had clashed in your first week of school in your first year. She'd been pissed that you had sat on her favourite spot in class and you had been dismayed that someone could be as loud as she is and speak without a filter. The week after that, she heard Yanni playing on your phone and you two quickly made up. In the year that passed, you two have grown closer, being each other's only companion – mostly because no one could stand her and you couldn't reach out to anybody else, even if your life depended on it.
You would talk about novels, music, movies and the men in her life. It was splendid. You couldn't want for more in a friend and you imagined that she would be open to the idea of helping her friend out of a serious predicament.
She could go to the clinic with you and be your sister.
That was what friends were for, right?
So you ran a couple of scenarios through your mind, trying to decide how to approach the subject, but by the time the class ended at 3:30pm, you had nothing.
As your classmates trooped out behind the lecturer, Sheba turned toward you and said, "You won't believe what Ikenna did yesterday."
Ikenna was her boyfriend of eight months. You had gone on a double date with them when you were still with Chima, and Ikenna had seemed like a cool-enough person. He had good looks, charm and a good head on his shoulders. He could be a catch, but with Sheba, you'd never know.
So, you put your right hand under your chin and arched your eyebrow. "Okay... you have my attention."
Like always, that was all she needed. "So we went to New Berries in the evening. The weather was really nice and the DJ was playing a nice soft music playlist in the background. We had just sat down and I was telling him about my day when his phone rang and he answered the call while looking around. It turns out that he had invited his friends, too. Ugo showed up first, then Chinedu, then Ray. And just like that, our evening together went from being a date to a hangout with his besties."
"Ooohhh..." I said, seeing how that could have been a problem. "But you did say that you loved hanging out with them last weekend?"
"I did. It was nice meeting them all and hearing things he wouldn't tell me himself from them, but the novelty has worn off and I was really looking forward to having his attention all to myself, you know, have a personal conversation – those kinds that relationships are built on.”
"Oh..." I repeated, this time with no words to accompany the sound. The complexity of what she wanted and why she wanted them was confusing and I had learnt to go with the flow.
"However, that wasn't the stuff I wanted to talk about." I felt a frown cross my face as she continued, "He was about to drop me at the hostel when his mom called. Apparently, she had asked him to pick up a drug for her from a pharmacy and he'd forgotten. He answered the call and told her that we had checked out several pharmacies but hadn't found the medication. Then, he said, ‘Sheba was then in a hurry and I had to go and drop her off.’ His mom then wanted to speak to me and after the pleasantries, I was forced to tell her that we had indeed checked the pharmacies."
"So when she hung up, I screamed at him, of course. How could he put me on the spot like that? Make me lie for him?”
You managed to chuckle. "He's your boyfriend. You guys are supposed to have each other's backs, no matter how unpleasant it may seem at the time."
"Please..." she said, rolling her eyes. “I hated it. I felt dirty and guilty about the lie. What was he thinking?"
"Calm down, tigress. You straight couples and drama..." You rubbed your forehead with your forefinger. "I guess he counted on it not being a big deal. I mean, it's Ikenna. He wouldn't do anything to consciously hurt you. It's just an assumption and it's sad that you feel like this."
She thought about it for a minute, "No matter the intention, it still sucks."
You smiled wryly. "Relax joor. I get you. But you should try and see things from his angle. But wait o, does this mean that you wouldn't lie for me if I asked?"
Even though the question took considerable effort, you had to ask it. You hoped that it came off as a joke that required a frank answer.
She rolled her eyes. "Why would I do that? I can't lie for anyone. It comes at too much of a cost. I'd feel miserable."
You were quiet after that. You had the answer to your unasked question. You couldn't tell your best friend about your diagnosis, much more ask her to do what you’d intended.
In the end, a choice had been made for you.
Thinking it best to get the ordeal over with, and fuelled by a strength the source of which you didn't know then, you went into her room as soon as you’d changed out of the clothes you wore to school. She was on the bed, reading posts and collecting likes on Facebook whilst you people made small talk.
"Your grandfather was in a foul mood today," your aunt said flippantly, as if the subject wasn't her own father.
"He tends to be like that a lot lately."
"He should get a handle on it, biko. I cannot be dealing with his troubles all day, every day."
You didn't have a reply for that. Usually, you would laugh and then ask what exactly had happened. Then you would chuckle at whatever antic the old man had pulled and trade memories on other things he had done that were similar.
But you didn't do those things.
"Auntie…" you called, and when you heard her answer and then turn slightly toward you, you said, "I have HIV."
You saw her freeze, her expression go blank. "What?"
You felt the question echo through you. This was the first time you were saying those words out loud and they seemed to shatter the ground on which they were spilled. You felt the reverberation of its truth in your bones and you felt weak.
You swallowed nervously. "I have a bump at the back of my ear.” You turned your head and showed it to her. "I asked a friend about it and he suggested that I take a test. I did, and it came out positive. I have HIV.
"I have gone to the hospital," you continued, too afraid to stop now. "They are going to start me on treatment as soon as possible. However, they need a relative to come with me first – which is where I need you."
"Need me?" she said in a voice that suggested that she was out of breath.
"Yes. There is no one else I can talk to about this, no one else I can trust."
She was silent, her eyes wide. One minute passed. Two. Four.
"Auntie, say something," you said when you were unable to take the silence anymore. You hadn't imagined how the conversation would go. You didn't want to live the memory twice.
"How?" she said.
"What?" you asked confused.
"How come?" she reiterated. "How did you get it?"
It was now your turn to be quiet. This was a question you had avoided last night as you tossed and turned on the bed. How?
"The truth is," you sighed, "I don't know. I have had sex a few times this past year, but I used protection. Honestly, I don't know.”
She looked at you like you were out of your mind. "You don't know? You don't know? You have been having sex and you say that you don't know? What got into you? How could you be this stupid?"
Again, you had no answer. Truth be told, you agreed with her. You had indeed been stupid. So you just sat on the floor and closed your eyes in shame. You felt her eyes run you down in cold showers.
Slowly, the seconds dragged on and became minutes. But you didn't notice anymore. Your mind started that crazy dance, like a gas molecule, movement without pattern, no rhythm.
"We have to tell your mother,” she declared at last.
Your eyes snapped open and you looked at her to be sure she was serious.
"She's your mother,” she continued. “She deserves to know."
"But it would kill her,” you said softly.
"Well, you should have thought of that before you started engaging in sexual immorality. This is your fault, your punishment."
For the second time that day, you wished that the past forty-eight hours was only a dream, a very bad dream that you could wake up from and life would go back to normal.
Written by Uziel