I met him on Christmas day. One of those cold Harmattan days that has a certain sting and pleasantness about it. The kind of day that makes you believe that everything can be right with the world. The kind of weather that Femi Kuti sang about in his song, and one that also makes you wish you were doing what he sang about in the song, though not exactly in the way he prescribed.

It was another Christmas spent in the city. The city almost always becomes a ghost town during this period. It happens almost dramatically; first, there is a lot of frenetic and frantic activity, and then you go to sleep and wake up, and it’s like, “Where did everybody go?” You could do a drag race on the streets if you wanted to. The point of all this is that spending Christmas in the city is a boring affair. And in the days before social media became more widespread, it could be a real struggle just trying to get through the day without screaming out in frustration.

Christmas had become routine for me, the meal with all the trimmings, the cake, drinks, time with family… Yeah, so what else is new? I wanted more. Femi Kuti sort of knew what. Excitement! So I got up and left the house just to walk around in the street. Anything but spending another minute feeling like I was being consumed by a deep, dark void hovering above my head.

So there I was, walking on the road, and all of a sudden this guy on a motorcycle stopped by me and said, “Hi, how are you?”

“I’m fine,” I replied, “and you?”

“I’m fine too. Do you stay around here? I haven’t seen you before.”

“Not really, I just came in for the Christmas, but my parents stay close by.”

“Okay. I was just thinking that you look very good and I want to be your friend.”

“Cool, there’s nothing wrong with having friends.”

As this exchange was going on, I was assessing him. He was young, good looking with a punk hairstyle. He was fair in complexion with a round, open and welcoming face, the kind that makes you feel you can trust whoever it belongs to. I’ve always associated that facie with the name, Innocent. For the purpose of this narrative, I think that’s what I’ll call him.

He was young and from his stature, I imagined he had a well-defined body, with muscles recently ripened by the effects of testosterone, just enough to give the proper silhouette. Muscles that still worked like a new well-oiled machine eager to take on the travails of life, not yet hardened by toils or covered by years of accumulated and unguarded consumption. His clothes were neither particularly rich nor stylish, and I remember he was wearing a pair of blue slippers with white stripes that was the rage at that time. I found them quite peculiar in that though I am not a fan of wearing jeans with slippers, these particular ones seemed to go well with jeans.

All in all, not bad, I was thinking as we exchanged numbers.

I knew what he was about and I admired his courage. I smiled a bit to myself at the realisation. You see, that was the first time a guy had walked up to me and tried to chat me up. I wondered why he even came up to me. True, I’m not bad looking in the least and a lot of girls had died many deaths over me, but it was still something I had never encountered. I wondered if it had to do with the muscles I had built over years showing through the form-fitting T shirt I was wearing or the equally fitted trousers that, I didn’t know then, showed off my appealing backside. Part of my awareness of that came in the form of a cousin who I was running errands with while wearing the same trousers, who as she walked behind me suddenly asked, “Where did you buy those trousers?” And when I replied, she said, “You should get more of it.” Of course, the trousers became inducted into my Hall of Fame for clothes for special purposes.

To put things in perspective, up until that day, I had practically lived a life of quiet desperation. I knew I was attracted to men but had not had any physical relations with one for over two and a half decades of my existence (Not exactly true, but some things that occurred before the penis became a dick don’t really count). At the time of this meeting, it was just barely two weeks after my first ever make-out session with a guy that ended in my ejaculating all over his face after a few seconds of oral sex. I had warned him I was on the verge, but he couldn’t get away fast enough to avoid being hit or maybe he had reached what he felt was a safe distance but hadn’t counted on the magnitude of what came at him. I don’t know which. I was lying down while he was kneeling with his torso bent towards my nether regions. It was like the boys inside me erupted in praise and celebration that the time they waited for had finally come. Like a restive army, that’d been denied action for a while, erupting in cheers when finally called into battle. I have never understood that.

Back to Innocent, I knew what he wanted and I knew I was willing to have that experience again. However you don’t live through nearly three decades of celibacy without coming up with reasons why your chosen course of action is actually a good one. With the risk of diseases and the religion out there, it wasn’t hard for me. So it is that I was torn between giving in to my desires and turning away from them.

He called later that day and invited me to his place. Out of curiosity, I went. It wasn’t a grand place. Could have been a ‘Face me I face you’, if not that it was in a huge undeveloped compound, a room in what was meant to be the boys quarters and was therefore facing only a fence. There were two other rooms and his was in the middle. All had inhabitants who were comparable to Innocent.

His room was dingy but had a semblance of order. There was a mattress in one corner covered by a patterned bed sheet that was brownish in colour. Probably the brown from years of accumulated dirt that never really washed off. He had clothes on a wooden clothes hanger, a carpet that was fading, and a fridge in one corner. There was something pink in one corner of the room, maybe a bucket, but I can’t now recall. He offered me a seat and food. I accepted the seat but declined the food. There was nothing he could offer that would match the feast I had earlier in the day. We got talking, inane and mundane stuff. He gave me his picture album and from the ensuing question-and-answer session, I got to know about him.

He was a student at a state university studying one of those courses that in my mind are tucked into the folder of one of the reasons to answer a degree holder. He was also working to support himself as a steward in one of the hotels in town. He had an eight-year-old son and he was in his early twenties. Oddly enough, I admired that. The child was borne by a woman who was some years older than him and had taken a shine to him. She had since married and the child was brought to him by her family a couple of years after he was born. The child lived with his parents. I later got to know that event helped quell some suspicions over his sexuality in his family.

That day, I was still ambivalent as to what I would do should things progress from the inane. However, after some time spent in his company, I decided to leave. He was sad to see me go.

In the next couple of days, we kept exchanging messages and I forget how the situation turned. I think he sent me a message saying he was attracted to me and really liked me. And I was thrilled at the message, almost like a school girl getting a love letter from one of the hot guys. I didn’t act it though. I decided to play it cool. Maybe not decided; I’d developed such a numbness in my psyche that all I replied was in the lines of: “It’s okay to be attracted to me, I don’t mind it.” That was enough to convey to him that I was willing.

The next time I went to his place two days later, my clothes couldn’t leave my body fast enough and we got down to business. There was a lot of kissing as we explored our bodies. He did more of the work. I in my inexperience tried to give as good as I got, acting out some of the moves I had seen in the many pornographic videos I had watched. But boy! Was it an experience?! He sucked my dick while exclaiming at its size, then my nipples, then my ears and then he rimmed me. I felt like I was in heaven. I had never felt anything like it. I had seen it in videos but never imagined I would experience it. The sensations were coursing through my body, bringing my unused nerves to life and giving my pleasure centres more work to do than they had in years. They lit up, each with a different colour of the rainbow, overcharged with the impulses they were transmitting and emitting golden sparks along the way. That first day, he asked if he should bring a condom and I declined. It was sort of an anti-climax to the tumbling, but I wasn’t ready.

I left his place elated, but as I walked home, the joy was slowly and steadily replaced by guilt, dread and fear all mixed together.

What had I just done? How could I just let go of my reasoning? What if he had diseases?

Looking back, it was the years of religion I had indulged in, the voice of my upbringing and that of society all combining to condemn me from within my head. I went home and inspected my whole body for any tears or breaks in my skin. I examined my mouth and gums in a mirror. I washed out my mouth with some solution (I forget the name), and of course I took a bath, probably hoping to wash away my transgressions. However some time that night, I allowed myself to relive the experience and I managed a smile, thoughts of misdeed forgotten.

Sometime after that I had to return to work for the week after Christmas. The texts and calls kept coming. We talked about everything and nothing. I got to know even more about him. Not much more though. He had a friend – or boyfriend, and they were quite close; their friendship was known to their families. Though I doubt their families knew what they did when they were alone. He told me how the manager at the hotel where he worked was randy and had had sex with all the young men that worked there, except him of course. I heard about his school work and all. I hadn’t planned on returning to the city for the New Year, but I did. I had initially planned to just stay in his place overnight and then head home in the morning, but by sheer force of habit, I found my way home before going to his place. He was disappointed at the change of plans. This time I allowed him use the condom. It was a painful experience and I was glad when it was over and he removed the condom with the cream-filled inside.

One incident that stayed with me during the time spent in his place was a call he got from someone previously unknown to him. I could tell because he had to ask who the person was. The caller apparently told him he got his number from someone else, but when asked, refused to divulge his source. Innocent got angry at this point and ended the call. “He is not serious, when he becomes serious, I will know,” he said to me. On further inquiry, he told me the call was from someone in a neighbouring state. It was a bit strange to me, and I wondered why he would have guys pass around his number. Was he well-known in that type of circle? I didn’t get an answer to that but the idea was lodged in a corner of my mind.

Fast-forward to my birthday some weeks later. By this time he had started referring to me as ‘Baby’ on the phone. His reason was so that he could tell me all the nice things he wanted without having an eavesdropper wondering why he was saying such things to a man. It sounded plausible and I didn’t object. He was far away and no one at my end would hear. He decided to visit me on my birthday and I was more than excited at the prospect. He went to great lengths to get someone to cover his shift, and true to his word, travelled to my state of abode to see me. Birthday sex, Yes! Life was suddenly looking up. It was all very heady.

“You know you haven’t welcomed me properly,” he said once we had arrived at my flat from the stop where I went to meet him.

I gave him a hug which quickly turned into a kiss and subsequently a full blown make-out session. With the raw passion over, we got talking and had a meal all in preparation for the main event. In that interlude, a flat-mate of mine came in; thankfully it was dark then, and NEPA had done what they do best. My flat-mate could tell I had company, he didn’t know who it was. (I later found out he thought it was a lady who had been on my case at the time, at which I smiled inwardly)

Finally, it was time for the main purpose of the visit, my birthday present, if you will. It started well enough and was progressing normally. But my head ever present and functioning got in the way, warning me and accusing at the same time. What the hell do you think you are doing? How do you know he doesn’t have a disease you will contract?

The first time I ever saw a person with HIV was as a new student to the medical clinics. That was before the NGOs came in and medication became available. It was a 26 year old man and the consulting doctor explained one of the signs he found in the lad. There were huge lumps on his face just in front of his ears, beneath his jaw and some other parts of his body. I felt both envy and pity for him. I remember thinking: Only 26 and has already had enough sex to get HIV?! I wasn’t much younger then, was uninitiated and didn’t have any prospects in sight.

“It is called PGL and it’s one of the features of Stage 3 disease,” the consultant had told us in that matter-of-fact manner that doctors are wont to adopt. That stayed with me.

So as my mind was screaming at me that night, I managed to disengage mentally from the intercourse and decided to feel him out for lumps, just to calm the thoughts. I guided my hands to his armpit, trying my best to disguise it as part of the foreplay and felt for lumps.

And there, in both armpits, somewhat bunched up like smooth grapes, were a lot of lumps of varying sizes. It took very little time for my brain to process what I had just felt, interpret it, and make me check again. I did, and they were still there. In that instant, almost like a reflex, I recoiled from him, disentangled my limbs from his in a flash, and folded myself into a ball as I screamed, “Oh my God!”

“What is it?” he asked, looking bewildered.

I couldn’t answer. I was shivering in a corner, the horror of it all! One of the things I dreaded most was unfolding right before my eyes. Had I contracted the disease? I played back our sexcapades in my mind. He had used a condom. Yes, I remembered seeing it when he pulled it off the other time and he definitely used one today. It couldn’t be transmitted through kissing and saliva, right? What if I had got it? How do I face my family, my colleagues and friends? Would they believe I got it at work and not like this? They may, I thought, everyone thinks I’m a good person.

While these thoughts were running through my head, he sat there looking at me with a puzzled look on his face.

“What is it?” he asked again. “I know you were touching my armpits, and then suddenly you shouted… Is there anything there… Please tell me.”

I couldn’t talk; he was the least of my worries in that moment. I sat in a corner staring into the darkness. After a long while, I managed to tell him what was up. I knew it was a sensitive issue.

“I found something on your body that is associated with HIV carriers,” I eventually said. “I am not saying that it is it,” I continued, trying to soften the blow, “but I think you need to get tested.”

Surprisingly he agreed. I arranged to have the test done at the hospital where I worked. It goes without saying that I slept very fitfully that night. In the morning I drove him there, collected the sample and sent it to the lab under a fictitious name, and then I gave him some money to find his way back home.

The result which I received later that day was as I expected. He was positive. I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t let it overwhelm me. I needed to act. I went to the centre for patients with HIV, and I claimed I had been pricked by a needle while attending to an exposed patient; which, in a manner of speaking, wasn’t totally untrue. I got tested and was Negative. I was then placed on drugs for a month.

It was surreal. Like an out-of-body experience. I watched as I became a patient. Got a folder, had doctors write into it and prescribe medication for me. I remember going to the pharmacy and meeting two young interns there. They looked at me with pity. They had seen cases like the one I made up before. One of them tried to be officious, saying, “The problem is that we don’t have enough drugs for the patients.” To which the other replied, “Eh? You have to give him the drugs o!” I wondered if she would have been so accommodating if she knew how I had my brush with the virus. I got the drugs and it was then off to the counseling room. There I met another lady who was equally sorry for me and she explained the side effects of the drugs to me. One of which was that I may have nightmares from taking the drugs. She was right about that. It all added to the gory episode I was passing through. It was difficult and I wanted to stop the drugs, but was encouraged by a friend who didn’t know the actual story to continue. As he put it, “One month is better than the rest of your life.”

I searched through the web and read articles on risks of HIV transmission. I stumbled upon a site, avert.org, which seemed to have a lot of information. I read and reread all their posts, and each time I analyzed it with all I had done with Innocent. The main route was unprotected intercourse. Kissing, oral sex and the rest had low risks. I read the advice about using condoms for oral sex and berated myself for not doing so. I even posted my story on a forum and the commenters largely agreed that I had nothing to fear and shouldn’t have started the medication. The month passed, but I didn’t return for another test. An action which gave me a lot of anxiety, because from then on, anytime I had an illness, I would wonder if it was AIDS. I would feel my armpit, continually checking for the buggers. I did this so much I now know the position of every structure there. It wasn’t until a year later that I had to get tested for an entirely different reason that I got to know I hadn’t got the virus. I would love to say that the experience turned me away from sex, but I can’t honestly do that. The way I saw it, I had seen the worst. I had started at the bottom as it were; the only way to go was up. Though of course it was always protected or not at all.

As for Innocent, he called soon after I got his results to ask about what it said. After avoiding the calls for a few days, I eventually told him. “It is positive. You should go see a doctor.” A week later he called and said he had been to see a doctor, who had another test done, and the result was the same. He however told me he was okay at the time and didn’t need medication. I didn’t dispute it because it was one of the things I found strange about the treatment for HIV. They wait till the white cells drop to a certain level before treatment is commenced. I felt it would make more sense to start before that time to prevent such an eventuality, but I guess there are other considerations. He also told me he knew who gave him the virus, a student at Nsukka and that he had called the boy to confront him, to which he was told “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” I echoed, with a mixture of annoyance and incredulity at what I’d just heard. ‘Sorry’ was for stepping on someone’s toes, not for knowingly giving someone freaking HIV. But it wasn’t my battle to fight. Truth be told, I didn’t really believe his story. How could he have known it was that particular guy? From my perception of him, he knew his way around. Sometimes I wondered if he already knew before we hooked up. He had accepted the whole thing with such equanimity as opposed to myself, who had been reduced to a bundle of frayed and tattered nerves at just the thought of contracting the virus.

I lost contact with Innocent for a while, about two years, and then, I saw him once at a monument to capitalism erected in our city, where you are most likely to meet long lost relatives. He looked well. We talked for a short while and I learned he had graduated and was on the verge of completing his NYSC. I wished him luck with it and continued my shopping. He stood there for a while, looking at me, a wistful expression on his face. Then he turned and left, or I left, I can’t remember which.

That was the last I saw of him. Sadly, the last I will ever see of him.

While going through my Facebook profile some weeks ago, I came across a post with Innocent’s face on it. A friend was wishing him farewell on his journey to the afterlife. I was shocked and somewhat surprised. From what I pieced together, he had suffered an illness, typhoid and malaria allegedly. The writer was confused because at the time he saw him, he was recovering from the illness and had been discharged from the hospital, but got news a few days later that he had passed on. I navigated to Innocent’s page and saw many messages from friends, some of whom we had as mutual friends on that profile, wishing him a peaceful rest. I wondered why he came to this end; HIV is now a manageable condition. Was he not placed on medication or was it too late by the time he started? Maybe he didn’t follow up on his appointments. Another thing that bothered me was the number of young men he had as “friends.” Many of them posted pictures they took together. All these after my experience with him. I wondered at what kind of friendship he had with those guys. I wondered if he did anything with them. I wondered if they used protection. I wondered if he told them of his status. I wondered what may happen if he didn’t, because from what I saw on his page, he really had a lot of friends.

This experience changed me. I got to realise that I could easily have caught the virus doing something that came naturally to me. It opened my eyes to the fact that people with the virus are humans and have done nothing wrong or out of the ordinary. The culprit is the virus, and the carriers are the victims. My reaction to Innocent was out of fear, ignorance and probably some primordial self-preservation instinct.

Since then, in my work and life, I admonish myself to treat people living with HIV as people deserving of all the love and support I can muster. I know how it feels to live outside the mainstream of society and I refuse to be another affliction anyone will have to endure. After all, it could have been me.

Written by Dimkpa