By Charles King

Find Charles’ Blog at http://btflmind.blogspot.com/

I want to write about HIV/AIDS. I want to write about it differently. I can no longer ignore this scourge in my city, in my country. I am compelled to write about it, to sink myself into it. There’s both writer and reader fatigue around the subject, particularly in South Africa, one of the worst hit countries in the world by the AIDS pandemic. Personally, I’ve stopped noticing the billboards, the print advertising campaigns.

Adam Levin’s book, Aidsafari (the ‘inspiration’ for both my piece below, and for me plucking up my courage to get tested) gutted me, got me into the space of a personal confrontation. Then, not long after reading his book I bumped into the author at a nightclub. That chance encounter inspired the piece below, which I wrote from my perspective, where I find myself right now.

Then, earlier this year Levin and Edwin Cameron (also mentioned in my piece) jointly won the South African Sunday Times Alan Paton Non-fiction literature award.

Two Pink Stripes

“One pink stripe means HIV- and two pink stripes means HIV+,” says the squat, bespectacled and businesslike doctor in the chilly, air-conditioned consulting room at the Meldene Medicross in Melville. He’s peeling back the seal on the 5-minute HIV test that has some irrelevant clinical name.

In five minutes the course of my life might have to drastically alter. My stomach knots and I’m flooded with nausea. How would the doctor tell me the bad news? Would he put his hand on my shoulder and say, “Unfortunately you’re HIV+ and I would strongly suggest you see a counsellor?” as he reaches for a card on his desk. Maybe, because we have some sort of a relationship, he would ask me how I’m feeling.

How many times has this doctor had to tell the person in front of him that their status is changed, forever? (I’ve never been a great one for status.) Then to lift yourself off the chair and to walk out of the consulting room bravely, strongly, fighting back tears. To the receptionist: “Do I owe you anything (for confirmation my death sentence in writing)?”

I mutter a quick prayer. This a religious moment, one where my life and my choices flash before my eyes. Yeah, as you can hear I’m having a sense of humour failure.

I’ve put this test off since June 2003. A lot has happened in two and a half years. I’ve just read local journalist and writer, Adam Levin’s book Aidsafari, so it’s very clear in my head that in this time I could have developed full blown AIDS and would have been suffering terribly by now, if not been dead.

Levin’s book is what finally got me to where I am now in the doctor’s room. It’s a fear of suffering, and wondering if, and wondering how I would have coped with the implications – both physically and psychologically – if I had his CD4 count. (Would I have wanted to live?)

Suddenly it’s also numbingly clear that all the billboards have failed. Instead it was the gut numbing fear of suffering and the contemplation, through reading a book, of a possible and prolonged death so awful that got me to the test. And to making personal promises to never again get myself to this place through my own slackness, and of taking life (already so cheap in this city) for granted.

“Fucking idiot!” I think to myself as I taste my own emotion, it’s that strong. I owe it to me to know my status and I owe it to all the people in my life, as doctor jabs my left thumb and a bright scarlet and glistening pearl blobs to the surface. “Five minutes…” doctor reiterates as he smears the blob on to the pale plastic receptacle.

I’ve had unsafe sex during this period, numerous times, sometimes by choice with people I trusted. Once, by accident, the condom came off. Never knew it until the show was over.

There is nothing to say. Five minutes is five hours as we both sit in silence, me staring at the tester, him pretending to be interested – over his silver rimmed spectacles – in something on his computer screen, but both waiting for one stripe or two.

Have you ever held a revolver to your head with just one bullet in the chamber? Now I know that I have. A few times. It’s called Russian Roulette.

Coffee

I’m just out from the doctor and I’m sitting at one of my favourite joints in Melville having coffee and most grateful for the thin, but single, pink line across the otherwise elephant grey western horizon. Yes, I’m celebrating being alive, young, thus far HIV- and filled with anger that I should have got myself into this situation, so easily, by the choices I’ve made.

I want the people in my life to know that I’m going to strive to do all that I can to fight this virus, both in my own life and by not shutting up about it in theirs… I’m not going to contribute to the abyss of silence shrouding this disease.

And I could just as easily have been writing now about my tears and HIV+ status. Maybe I will still be doing that in a mere three months time when the window period is over and I’m tested again?

I want to scream from the rooftops – get tested so that you know your status. Then do all that you can to stay alive and to keep this disease in people’s faces. It’s no joke. It’s certainly not a protracted bout of flu. I have too much I still want to do and life is too beautiful to die young and stupidly.

The billboards didn’t impact me in any way whatsoever: HIV: Face it. HIV loves skin on skin. HIV loves sleeping around. HIV loves pelegi go supa bosadi. So what? Although I can identify with most of them, their impact has been zero.

Another Gauteng thunderstorm is about to blast Melville and young, beautiful people of all colours, shapes and sizes are running to find cover. I can smell rain, I can smell life, on the blustery wind from the south.

Window period

The window period is three months, says doctor. “You can be pretty sure that you’re in the clear if you’ve had no exposure to unsafe, unprotected sex since your last test.”

“Only pretty sure?” is my knee-jerk retort. I’m tired of being on the edge; I don’t want anymore hazy, grey areas when it comes to the AIDS virus.

And having sat through another hour long five minutes waiting for the results of my second test, almost as nerve wracking as the first, and with the results negative, I’ve now got the courage to start asking questions. I want to know how often he has had to tell people sitting in front of him that they’re HIV+?”

“Plenty of times!” is his sharp retort. It’s his harsh response that, ironically, for the first time reveals the hairline crack in his business-like façade and it warrants him looking straight at me, unblinking, with his strangely dark and shiny eyes beneath equally dark, Mediterranean eyebrows. Suddenly he’s real.

And I need to know how do people handle this news?

When the first test is positive, I have to test them again, more comprehensively. There is a very small degree of error, however the chances of an error second time around is, I’d say, impossible,” he says unblinking.

“Some people never come back for their second set of results and I really never hear from them again. Others cry and breakdown in front of me. And then there’s some who already knew they were positive and only took the test for confirmation.”

I’m appalled, again imagining myself in the situation, having just been told that my test was positive and having to confront waiting for the results of the second test, sent off to a lab for scrutinising.

“But testing HIV+ is no longer the death sentence that it was,” he says.

He says that AIDS can now be medically managed. When the virus’s replication within the body is disabled, its effects become remediable. And drug treatment can now stop viral replication, meaning that AIDS really is now a manageable condition.

“AIDS illnesses and deaths have been reduced by as much as 90 per cent.”

As I get up to go, despite my shoulders feeling wonderfully burden free and light, I’m aware that this epidemic is a moral issue that presses business and political leaders… that among other issues, millions in Africa are dying because they are poor, despite the fact that death from AIDS can be prevented.

Edwin Cameron in his Witness to AIDS, published last year, writes that our country will not be whole until we have sought to understand and have confronted and dealt with our own fears and failures and denials in dealing with the epidemic.

Bingo! My AIDS test, and even this attempt at capturing the experience in words, has been my first fumbling attempt at understanding, confronting and dealing with my “own fears, failures and denials in dealing” with the scourge.

Courage

It’s approximately 2h30 am on Saturday morning, not even four days after my second test, and I’m with a friend at a Braamfontein nightclub, two blocks from Wits university. She points to a frail man with an Amstel in his hand, gingerly, awkwardly walking towards the dance floor and trying, unsuccessfully, to look as though he’s having a great time jigging to the music.

My heart plugs my mouth. I’m both amazed that he’s here, as well as at my resistance to talking to him (and to confronting me). I pluck up the courage to walk over to him and put my hand on his thin right arm.

Holding his arm bone I can feel the myriad of tiny bumps on his papery, dry skin. This is another awkward jab at confronting the disease and my response to its hooded, dark appearance in my world. It feels as though the music has stopped and he has become the focus of my world.

“Are you Adam Levin?” I ask, swallowing. “Yes,” he says with an unexpected smile on a god looking face in the ghastly, surreal club light. “I have just read your book,” I mouth against the background noise. “Thank you for writing it. This might or might not sound trite, but your book both opened my heart and my eyes, and has impacted me in a way that nothing else has managed to do.”

He unexpectedly leans forward and hugs me.

I’m overwhelmed by his courage… the courage to write the book, and most of all the courage to live his life without compromise in full view of a harsh, critical and very scared world.

“I’m proud of you… that you’re out tonight,” I say to him before turning around and walking away. Especially as I know from reading his book that, he suffers excruciating pain in his feet, that every step is a misery. It was just one of the side effects, other than three different cancer types, and TB, of his particular version of the virus.

Charles King

Charles is a good friend of BarefootClients and a freelance writer. He’s available to write on many topics – contact him at charles.king@vodamail.co.za