I keep hearing gunshots from downstairs. The nine o’clock news bulletin is over and my cousins must be watching a movie. The gunshots, blood and death in action movies excite them. These things make them lean closer to the TV, not sweaty like they do to me. I am sitting at the edge of my bed with the lights off. On my left hand is a bottle of water, while on my right hand is four tablets. Two are the size of a KSL sweet, while two are smaller, like tic tacs. In my mind I am wishing I had leukemia, or a sarcoma, or even stage four lung cancer. I am only wishing for such terrible things because my reality feels so much worse; I am twenty and I have a more shameful sickness. People haven’t been kind to me. Auntie Akinyi has never stopped being paranoid. She does a big job in town, she went to university and passed it. She should know better, but instead she never allows me to hold my baby cousin. She never handles any of my belongings without gloves. She never lets me hold cutlery, or even cook.
Everyone stands with cancer patients. People think it is unfair that they got cancer, but the world shows us its back. We are immoral or so it is assumed. We got AIDS; it must have been through sex, right? I am twenty years old and positive yes, but I am not sexually active. I have never been. I have had girlfriends. I have fantasized about sex. There are days I wake up when the earth is still dark with an erection and a sticky wetness on my thighs – that is as close to a sex I have ever been. I don’t even know if I will live long enough or if I will get lucky enough to find love and sex. But we all know those are not the biggest things in life; there is achievement, there is happiness, there are many, many other things that I might never live to experience even with these tablets.
I think of a life free of pills momentarily then I toss the tablets, one after another into my mouth, then wash them down with plenty of water. I can feel them descend down my throat and into my esophagus and eventually my stomach. I have always felt them as they travel down each day, the way they scratch their way down the pipe and make me choke a little. But it is the aftertaste, and the hyper-salivation that comes minutes after I swallowing that I dread most.
Moments later I am lying on my bed, the gunshots downstairs continue. It is going to be difficult to fall asleep with all that noise. Whoever invented Zuku did a great mistake, I think. Because of Zuku Fiber, Omosh is not going to sleep; he is going to watch movies until two in the morning. Then he will sleep and wake up at two in the afternoon, shower for hours like a woman, eat breakfast and lunch at the same time, then come to my room to brag about his new Kikuyu girl. I am praying for the holidays to end faster so he can go back and leave me in peace. He makes me feel cursed now that I have never even had a kiss, but he has had more than a kiss and he is still negative.
I could have had my first kiss three years ago when I met her. I was seventeen, she was twenty. I fell in love the first time our eyes met; she was resting on one of the benches of the Comprehensive Care Centre in Nakuru Provincial General Hospital. We had both collected our drugs. I was standing, leaning against a loquat tree, buying a bit of time before walking back home to the rules and eyes of Auntie Akinyi. She looked like she was waiting for someone to pick her up. I considered her. She had a herpetic scar on her left cheek; she was skinny, but pretty and tall, taller than me.
“Hey,” she called out, walking towards me. She must have caught me staring at her. I didn’t respond. It was unusual for a girl to not only talk, but also smile at my direction. My heart was pounding so hard that I could hear it in my mouth. I tried to speak, to say something; I parted my lips but nothing came out other than my breath. Words rose up to my mouth and sat there, they crossed their legs, made themselves comfortable and refused to come out. They protested and left me to my mute devices. I must have looked really stupid. “I came for my drugs.” (I already knew that, I had seen her line up in front of the pharmacy, she was three women ahead of me). ‘I am on my second line. My name is Nyambura.”
I looked up at her and realized that her teeth had a tinge of brown; dental fluorosis (she must have been born and brought up in Nakuru).
“I am still on my first line, “ That wasn’t necessary. She looked at me and I saw sadness.
“How did you get it? “She asked.
“I inherited it from my mother; it was passed down to me.”
She looked at me, then at her sandaled feet and told be her story. Hers was different from mine. Unlike her, I was born sick; my father died before my mother, then my mother follwed shortly afterwards. My auntie took me in after my mother‘s death. I was twelve. She brought me to Nakuru town, showed me the hospital and the Comprehensive Care Centre; afterwards she left me on my own. She never supervised me as I took my drugs like the way my mom used to. She never ever reminded me to swallow my meds; it was up to me.
I dropped out of school one year after coming to Nakuru. I was in standard five when the doctor introduced me to the word Tuberculosis. I could not even say it correctly for the one month I was admitted. During this time, I was given more tablets besides the my usual pills. I took them for a whole six months. I used to cough up blood, mixed with greenish yellow sputum that I spat into a metallic cup with a lid. Days after being started on anti tuberculosis drugs, my urine become orange, my eyes became yellow, and my sweat smelled like medicine. I used to refuse swallowing them, but the nurses always got me to take them. Sometimes they could crush them and mix them in juice and then hand it over to me. Sometimes they could threaten to give me jabs, and I feared jabs too much.
Auntie Akinyi visited after every two days, but one day she came and found a small noisy machine besides my bed and tubes connected into my nostrils; I was being given oxygen. I heard her scream (she cared about me!). She left without talking to me; she never visited again until the day I was discharged.
I went back to school after three months. Everybody in class already knew I had Tuberculosis. Our class teacher shifted me to the back of the class (she didn’t want me coughing close to her, although I wasn’t coughing anymore). The whole school had known my little secret; a little girl in class four once told me I was thin like someone with AIDS. The boys could not let me play football with them. I told auntie, she said she couldn’t help. So I stopped going to school. It wasn’t important after all; I knew I was going to die. I had seen my father cough and die. He took drugs upon drugs but he still continued coughing. He gave up, defaulted on his ARVs, stopped talking and eating. He died on a Friday morning after a bout of coughing.
I saw Nyambura one more time at the centre. She was there for a routine checkup. I had gone for my drug refill. She looked sicker; her hands were pale, and she had ulcers at the angles of her mouth. Her mother was with her. We couldn’t talk but she wrote me a note. Every time I shut my eyes tightly, I see the writings on that note.
Call me on 0718550198
I called her three days later using Aunti Akinyi’s phone when she was asleep. Nyambura had been admitted. I visited her, in the hospital. She was elated when she saw me. The doctors had said she had PCP, a type of pneumonia for people who are immunosuppressed. She was on drugs for the PCP, and prophylaxis against cryptococcal meningitis. Her CD4 count had also drastically dropped to 6. I sat on her bed and we talked; we talked about everything except that she was in stage four of AIDS. We talked about our families. She cried when I told her my parents were dead. I felt teary but I didn’t cry; men don’t cry. I held her hand kissed her on her forehead, she looked into my eyes, I blushed. I wanted to pull her closer and hold her tightly against my chest. I wanted to feel her heart beat with my own chest. I wanted to proceed and kiss her on her lips, then on the nape of her neck, and further down in the space between her breasts. I wanted to, I wanted to, but I couldn’t. We were in a hospital ward, and she was too sick for romance. A drip tube ran into her skin, and she had thrush inside her mouth. She couldn’t even eat, let alone kiss. I hurriedly left when her parents came to visit only to realize at the hospital gate that I had left with the two oranges I had bought for her.
I called again three days later. No one answered her phone. I wanted to go and visit her in the hospital but my auntie couldn’t let me. I called again, week later. Someone answered.
“No, not Nyambura, I am her mother. We buried her yesterday, in Nyeri…” The phone went silent. I never called again, but I cried. I cried more than I had cried years earlier when my mother was being lowered into a hole that had been dug behind our house.
These days I sit sit in my room, listening to gunshots below and wondering how she had died. Did she close her eyes, or did she die with them open like my mother? Did she have a sort of premonition? Did she feel any pain? These questions haunt me. I want to find answers before I am gone, as I know I will be. I know I will die sooner than my age-mates. We have ARVs yes, and I am compliant, I take those tablets because my life depends on them, but there are days when I wish I was like other people. There are days when I wish I didn’t have to take them. They make sweet things taste bad, they make white ugly; the nausea that they give me drives me crazy.
I want to be read for my death which will be soon. I am scared, not because I will be gone soon, but how I will exit. I am scared because the people who have died of my disease die in an undignified manner. My mother died of diarrhea, my father had severe headaches, and visual hallucinations that turned him blue. Sometimes I think of taking all my tablets at once because I would not want to have the kind of final moments on earth that my parents had. I hate diarrhea; it leaves me brown and messy. I am ashamed of my height and being skinny, I don’t want to get like the rashes on my face.
I hope people won’t be relieved by death. I hope someone will mourn my death honestly. I hope I will be missed, and I hope they will find things to write in my eulogy; things like “he fought,”
“He watched sunsets.”
“He took drugs everyday for twenty or thirty years.”
“He never passed on the family heirloom to anyone else, he took it to his grave. He helped us get to zero.”
“He found love once.”
“He always wanted to learn how to sing”.
“He could have lived longer, he could have kissed gently. He came silently and left silently.”
I hope so many things about my departure, but until then, I shall open my bedroom window and listen to the night for a while.