Fiction in response to Good Health and Well-being
By Ilana Arougheti
CC Image Courtesy of US Army Africa
I had always thought that secrets were the most dangerous thing that could spread. Until I met Ari.
The first time I heard his name we were dancing. Not together, but in the same place, at the same gathering, united by the sort of common interest never explicitly mentioned in our village. Denoted instead by a sudden recognizing cast of the eye, a murmur of strange reputation, judgmental fingers pointing out proof in the tone of a voice and the sway of a hip; the same little cues of isolation that had, that night, turned instead to an invitation.
A dance turned into a walk through the square, tentative, light. Then a meal, and a change of venue.
When did you first realize you were gay? I asked him a few weeks later, perched in his favorite spot on the floor of my home.
Ari didn’t answer. He was slow to open up. Getting as far we had was already, to him, a burden.
The burden proved too much. Too soon, he tore his silhouette from the landscape of my days, one sentence, one neat, brutal stroke. He thought we had gotten too close. I didn’t understand why he seemed so afraid, and it turned out he would rather walk away than explain.
I had thought he was avoiding me, after. He seemed tired, ill at ease. When I tried to talk to him he turned away, citing stomachaches, sore throat, headache, too weakened to focus on putting us back together. I called him a coward and tried to forget the comfort of the culture he had shown me.
Until the day he knocked on my door. It was late but I wasn’t sleeping, kept up by the ache of bones in my arm, shattered in two places when I was six and never quite set properly by the closest clinic’s earnest but rudimentary efforts at a cast, still sore when it stormed outside, wide awake now to hear his pounding on my door.
What would the neighbors think? With the noise, the rain, the hour, I almost feared that local authorities would be called. People still feared the love that Ari and I had nurtured. Too much fear surrounded our union, still too new and taboo in a place still burying children from minor infections allowed to progress, still praying underaged brides through unresearched and dangerous childbirths. But since meeting Ari I had done a little research on my own, waiting for the old modem in my parents’ house to pull slow searches from distant wireless lines.
He was crying. His breath came in rasps. He told me everything.
I had seen not tactics of evasion, but symptoms. Ari was dying.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. The sound of it is too ominous to bear, the prognosis too dire to ignore. But we were never taught how to face up to it. When did the world turn away from its needs, scared of their sources?
It couldn’t have been his fault. Even with all of the hours in classrooms, scraping together enough teachers and pencils and books, attempting to prepare us for life, no one ever taught us how to be safe beyond abstinence. Even with all of the other cautions in our lives, no one would ever have suggested that he get tested. Even with all of the thought that goes into love, no one around him ever would have known until it was too late. 37 million with the potential to spread – 40 percent of those just like Ari was once, walking around unknown. A game of Russian roulette he had never intended to play, a sudden magic bullet altering his course – how could he have known?
We had been young when we met, but not so young that our histories hadn’t begun to accrue. (Ari would say, not too young to have made our first mistakes.) From the outside, the story seems simple. Ari met a boy. Some years later the boy died with Ari at his bedside, and grieving, he had understood, but told no one. Nobody would have helped him, or so he believed, in a village where two boys kissing on a street corner still drew open shock. He had heard about the disease only in rumors – it was only between homosexuals, it was God’s punishment, it had inhuman origins. None true, but none reassuring. So he told no one, for nine and a half years – stayed home for weeks at a time, feared every cough and cold as their threats to his body grew.
I was to have been his final fling, he told me. He hadn’t expected, he said to lose conviction – or, perhaps, to regain it – at the end. Hadn’t realize that the steady rustlings inside the hollow of his chest would not be convinced so easily to lie down and cease.
Somewhere across the ocean, I learned, they have figured out how to quell its appetite. To shrink the disease back to a single flare of intrusion and hold it there, to stop time, body unsundered, future unlimited. The promise of a little red pill somewhere across the ocean isn’t good enough for me, though. It might as well exist on another planet, in another time. Ari’s eyes light up to picture such progress, but he can find no true salvation in faraway hopes.
He said, this is what I love about you, the way you never stop fighting. But darling, it’s too late for me.
I told him, It’s never too late for you.
So I wrote a letter.
One month later, the woman in the white coat made her way to the edge of town.
Her name was Karen. She was almost as young as me, but the official suffix tacked freshly onto her last name made me confident in her skill. My neighbors grumbled when she set up shop in her canvas tent.
We don’t need her help, they said. We don’t need her disdain. She calls this the Third World. What can we stand to gain from her when her eyes shine thus with pity?
I shook their words off as I approached her tent. Ari wouldn’t come with me. That was alright, though. Some old indignities are carried even to the grave.
She told me it was impossible to reverse AIDS completely. She told me the best I could do was slow it down, stop the weakness in its tracks.
She told me I could still save Ari’s life.
She told me about the little red pill.
Ari could not be convinced to visit her clinic, but Karen had promised to send for a course of the red pills. Every day I lay back by his side as he coughed and shook and closed my eyes, picturing the progress of the pills. Now they were moving through a production line, stirred into existence by bright minds in long white coats. Now they were falling neatly into boxes and blister-seals, now they were on a truck, then an air-plane, passed from factory to charity, hand to hand.
I cared not that everyone in town would know why I had become so desperate to get my hands on the little red pills. I cared not that the fear, the ignorance, once compelling Ari to keep his condition a secret from the town, might render me the next to live out a life as a living anachronism, a relic of a future yet untold where homosexuality would finally become a conversation and not an unknown. Such an existence was worth everything if I could stop time and live it out with Ari by my side.
The obstacles felt endless. Risings costs overseas as the men who might have been seen as manufacturers of medical miracles held cures hostage to drive up personal profits. Intimidation from local medics who refused to discuss the purpose of the little red pill long enough to recognize its validity. Trucks and medical shipments destroyed or delayed, unable to circumvent the danger of national skirmishes near the coastline. The constant call for triage between the desperation of Ari and I and the similar cries of a thousand other Aris, urban and rural, young and old. Still I visited Karen in her little canvas building twice a week, walking miles, never wavering.
The night before I made my ninth visit to the clinic felt eternal, my hope and terror punctuated by the sounds of a body’s waning efforts to hold on. Ari had caught some kind of bug, a bad cold or mild influenza, common to the region and the season. But it was spiraling out of control, urged on by the sickness, and Ari’s body shook.
“It’s too late,” he whispered as he lapsed into a fitful sleep, just as the light finally began to creep over the horizon.
“Hold on, just a little while longer,” I begged, and rushed out the door.
There was a package waiting for me on Karen’s desk; a box of medication, enough to hold Ari over until Karen and I could work out a more permanent plan. I seized the box at once, screaming out in triumph.
But even as I stood there, little red pills clenched tightly in my palm, there was a strange sensation in my chest. A fear, a pressure, and then a horrible, hollow release.
I ran all the way home, patchy terrain stinging my bare feet, not willing to think about what my feeling met, not willing to trust my gut on this one, not willing to let go of the hope that had started to bloom.
When I arrived at the apartment, his eyes were open, the trace of my name still resting on his lips.
I opened my hands. Let the pills fall to the ground.
For it was too late. Ari’s clock had already stopped on its own.