How can I forget that day? It was the 1st of July, a Friday. I was returning back from work with the wage packet in my handbag. I was having a ‘cappuccino’ at Café Nero in the town square. It was then that I saw him – coffee cup in hand, coming over to my table. He was a hunk of a man with film star looks. “May I?” he said. “You’re welcome” I replied.
“It’s my first time here, the place is full,” he said. “I’ve never been here myself,” I replied. First impressions are important and my first impression of Jim, there in that crowded coffee shop, was wonderful and absorbing, both at the same time.
We were two persons finding ourselves around one small table. We could not but strike a conversation. I studied him between words and sips of coffee. He had startling green eyes set wide apart, curly black hair, an aristocratic high-bridged nose, a beautifully modeled mouth and lovely artistic hands with long tapering fingers. I was hooked at first sight.
From that day on we met regularly and got to know each other – our likes and dislikes, our jobs and work habits, our expectations from life, our exhilarations and disappointments. We had so much in common. Our education had been the same; we both had the same propensity for talking our heads off about anything and nothing. It seemed that after we finished chatting, the world was a better place to live in, in theory of course!
As days, weeks and months rolled by, our friendship grew into love and our love into a romantic roller coaster which left us breathless. Isn’t strange, the way two people manage to find each other out of all the other men and women in the world? Somehow, someway, they get thrown together and that’s it, there will never be anyone else. Isn’t that how real love works? If I had to pick out a word to describe the first months of my relationship with Jim, it would be ‘gasping’. That’s the romantic word for it anyway.
“You’re the person I thought I’d never find. Now I’m afraid I might lose you,” he said. “But you won’t lose me. I’ll always be by your side,” I replied. He cupped my face in his hands. “I hope not, but hope seems a little flimsy sometimes. Hope is not so reliable.”
I had, by then, moved to his apartment. It made more sense in our torrid relationship. We were engaged, promised to each other. We were sure of our love but thought it wiser to get married when our financial position would get better. One day in the dusk evening of a cold February, I came home to see Jim sitting in the dark on the sofa. “Why are you so early?” I asked while switching on the lampshade by his side. He buried his hands and slowly shook his head. “What’s happened? What is it? Did someone you know die?” I asked once again. “No, No,” he replied. “What? What then?” I pressed seeking an answer. I saw tears running down his face. “I’ve been going to the hospital lately. I’ve been tested. They gave me the result today. I’m HIV positive!”
Suddenly, a lump of dread lodged stubbornly in my throat. “You’re what??” “It’s the virus that causes AIDS. I have it!” he said resignedly. I felt like reeling, feeling as if I was falling from a high place, as if the earth had been pulled out from beneath me, sending me into a freefall with no probability of stopping. “No!” I cried. “It cannot be true.” “You need to get tested”, he said. “Me? You mean ………..” I responded angrily. He looked sad. “I was informed by the hospital that any partner I had needed to be tested”. His eyes filled with tears and he shook his head. “My life would be ended if I infected you.” “You don’t think that I ………..?” I exclaimed. “I don’t know”, he said while he took my hands in his. He began to cry – “I love you”. I was silent, weeping, as we stood clinging tightly to one another.
Jim kept going to hospital for treatment but it was evident that his health was deteriorating fast. I was, by then, practically living in his hospital room. I remembered our promise – to love each other for ever. But forever does not exist for any of us. It’s infinity, it’s intangible and it’s unreachable. Forever sounds a long time but in reality it is such a short time. We can only live one second at a time. Take what we can from life. We cannot live in the time that passed or in the time that’s ahead. I recalled Dolly Parton’s song, “One day at a Time” which we both loved to listen to. But even with his illness, Jim was a pillar of strength. It was I who was weakening. “Dying is not as bad as everyone thinks”, he told me. “After a while you accept it. The worst part is realizing that you’ll be leaving everyone and everything you love. It is then when you realize that you’ll be slipping into the unknown.”
Jim was always theorizing, trying to understand what cannot be understood. “But then that passes and you get a little curious,” he continued. “People spend their lives pondering what’s out there beyond death – heaven, hell or nothing at all! But I’ll now know.” A smile covered his face. There, by his hospital bed, I let tears slide freely, slipping over the bridge of my nose, down the side of my face and into the pillow I held in my hands. I wondered then, how many tears that hospital pillow’s life had already seen and how many more yet it would see. I don’t know exactly when it changed from morning to night. I didn’t turn on the lights and I didn’t note the time. I moved my mouth against his cheek and kissed him. I put my lips to his ear and whispered –“Jim. I love you. I love you. I need you.” I took hold of his hands and caressed his fingers.
I prayed for a miracle to happen. But there were no miracles. Jesus had used them all up in Galilee. My Jim died as the early morning light began to filter through the half-opened window. Ten days after the funeral, the phone rang. “Hello” I said. “This is Dr. Helen Marsden from St. Barth’s Hospital,” was the reply from the other end. “Are you Ms Olivia Jones?” she continued. “Yes. Yes.” I answered. “I understand that you had to call the hospital for tests,” said the stern voice. I had completely forgotten that Jim had asked me to get tested. He must have given them my name and phone number. He had said that if diagnosed early and treatment started immediately, the HIV sufferer may not necessarily become an AIDS victim.
The day after, I called at the hospital, asked for Dr Marsden, made the necessary blood tests and was requested to call for the result the following week. These were seven nightmare days for me. I was nervous; afraid; panic gripped me; I did not know what I was doing. Am I positive or negative? That question was on my mind all the time. I could not sleep. The nights, when your mind is at its most fertile, were terrible. After the week passed, I went to the hospital early in the morning. I must have been the first one there until people started coming in and sat in chairs besides me. I looked around and saw people waiting, like me, for their results. The handsome young man next to me – was he ………..? The blonde girl facing me on the chair opposite, so young and beautiful – was she …………? The mother holding her ten year old son by her side – who …………?
Then the nurse called me. I stood up and followed her through the corridor. She ushered me into a small room where another woman in a blue uniform was seated behind a desk. As she looked directly at me, I knew that my life would forever be measured against the moment I was told this result – the before and after. “Good morning Ms Jones. I’m Dr Helen Marsden. We spoke last week on the phone,” she said. “Yes, yes,” I replied timidly. “I’m here to give you the results of your tests,” she said. “Yes, yes”, I replied once again, words failing me. “Why did you feel that you wanted to do this test?” “Because my boyfriend had been diagnosed with AIDS.” “Do you know what HIV means?” “Yes.” “Do you know what a positive or negative result means?”
“AIDS,” I stammered. “Not exactly, it depends” said Dr Marsden. “Positive means that a person is infected with the virus that causes AIDS; negative means ……………” My world was silent after these words. It was also crumbling. I must be HIV positive .My life was over; declared so by simple blood test. “Are you listening to what I’m saying,” she said.
I started to stand up mechanically. “That’s it,” I murmured. “But just because you’re not infected does not mean that you should not …………” said the doctor in front of me. “Not? Not infected you said?” I replied. “You are not infected, I just told you. Are you OK?” “I’m negative? I’m negative?” “Yes. Negative. Look, here are the results of your blood test.” Suddenly everything was beautiful and colourful. Time was suddenly a gift. It made me feel generous. I wanted to sing, hug someone, dance and tell the whole world. I closed my eyes briefly, bringing my hands together, my fingers pointing upward under my chin, and mumbled – “Thank you God, thank you so much!” Dr. Marsden stood up; looked at me, puzzled; then she smiled and opened the door indicating that my appointment was over. I looked around. There were others waiting for their results. And hoping.