I felt sorry for him and he felt contempt for me. I looked for all the possible futures and he looked for all the possible pasts and with all these possibilities, we found ourselves in an impossible situation of having to live with each other. He's like an old companion, who shadows me wherever I go but could never really turn into a friend.
Of course I wouldn't always see him and on many occasions I would only just remember him and hear his voice. One such occasion when I hear his voice is whenever I open the fridge door. He tells me to drink from the bottle directly while causing my thoughts to drift to unsubstantiated fears of contamination. It's always him that tells me that it doesn't matter if I infect another, trying to convince me that it's okay if those I love share what I may suffer for if they discovered what I might have, they'd let me suffer too and in all likelihood disown me.
Every time I use a fork or a spoon that will be used by someone else other than me I feel that same struggle and that same inner fear, the fear that someone will contract the virus. I've read so much and I know that this is highly unlikely but when I look into the spoon that same contemptuous face stares back and tells me different. He also reminds me that people won't shake my hand even though they can't contract the disease, he tells me that they won't want me around even if I'm wrapped in a sterile wrapping. Sometimes I'd listen to him till he wears me down and sometimes he'd listen to me till I wore him down, for there was no escape from our joint fate.
I remember the time we went to Dubai after I had landed my dream job in one of the largest architectural firms there. It was perfect, a new life and a new chance to start over without the fear of being discovered, without the instability caused by that constant fear of having to spend the rest of my life in quarantine. In short it was the chance to start living out my dream. I arrived on a visit visa that lasts three months but should be changed to a residential visa. I was in a hurry to make that move and settle down. I had left everything behind in Egypt, and I wasn't really prepared to look back, and even my old companion had disappeared for a long time and I thought I had left him back there.
But one day, well into my second month of stay in Dubai I went out with an acquaintance from work. We went to a nightclub. I can't remember much about it except that it was mostly blue and dimly lit. A band was playing for the first half of the night as we drank our beers followed by tequila shots. When we had lost our senses enough they switched to a DJ with loads of house music and everyone was dancing. The loud music and the drinks made me feel like I was in a dream. I heard the words I said as if spoken by a stranger as I talked to random people at the club. I was aware of what I was saying and yet I seemed to be just an observer, looking at myself from behind a glass. I headed to the bathroom and as the sound of loud music became distant I became more and more aware of that voice. It sounded familiar to me and not quite me. Dazed and drunk I looked into the mirror and I caught a glimpse of that familiar face that I knew all too well. It was only a moment and it felt like a dream to have seen him after a long time. I shook it off though and went back to dancing.
We left the night club and I was half drunk and half sleepy but we decided to have a little snack. We walked down a street with lots of food shops to choose from, but I discovered that this wasn't the only thing in plenty. The street flooded with a plethora of prostitutes. I didn't know if my mind was playing tricks on me or if these were really women who sold pleasure, and so I asked my friend, and he confirmed that they were.
"It's a form of tourism over here, it' not exactly legal, but the government doesn't stop it either," he said.
"Yes, but how does it work here?" I asked.
"Simple, you just walk up to them and ask 'how much', and they'll tell you their prices, but alternatively they may give you a piece of paper with their number and you can call them and negotiate a price," he responded.
"Why would they give you a piece of paper instead of just talking?" I asked.
"Well lately the police have been harassing them and asking questions whenever they talked to people so they talk on the phone instead to steer clear from trouble, but it's all just for show anyway," he replied.
"But isn't it dangerous to do that, considering they might carry AIDS?" I said as my phobia started to take its old shape.
"That shouldn't be a problem here if they have a residential visa, because everyone gets an HIV test and has to pass before they're granted the visa, if they test positive, they have to leave the country or are deported or something"
This piece of news awaked my long dormant old companion who seemed to have been determined to visit me that night. He awakened frightened and frightened me to death. What if they were on visit visa or if they had engaged in their activities with clients that were on visit visa and carried the virus, I thought to myself.
I started dreading the blood test and I was once more surrounded by that feeling of instability. Once more my old companion surfaced and looked at me with contempt. By the end of the visit visa my fear had turned to a living nightmare thanks to my old companion who seemed to have never left me from that day. I eventually listened to him and turned down my dream job, opting to live obscurely in reality. He won that time and continues to survive as long as I'm ignorant as to whether I carry the virus.
So there we were right where we started, facing each other through a body length mirror, looking at me with contempt for blowing away his dream, he had hopes to be somewhere safe with all that he ever dreamed of. He's such an odd character, this old companion, he speaks with such contempt about those carrying the virus, and yet he doesn't want me to try and find out if I have it or not. It's as if he's stealthily willing the virus to spread if I actually do have it and willing me to live in utter fear if I don't.
The odd thing about him too is that he's right about a great many things, about how people will treat me and how they will put distance between us, even my closest friends and he's right about how my life will never be the same and none of the normalcy which I enjoy now will be taken when I cross that gate. But the only reason that's true is because of him. Yes, it's because of how he feels, and how he can never accept me. It's his desire to be in denial, even though he's my own denial.
He's taken me down a spiral of despair. He's taken me to judge, he's taken me to deny and he's taken me to look upon others with disgust. He's taken me to phobia and he's taken me to mania and all the time I knew I wasn't in the right places.
It's a horrible thing to live in fear, and worse yet to be judged by someone living inside you. But even with this fear and discomfort, I think it better and more bearable than for everyone to know and never let you forget the discomfort of their harsh judgment. Even my old companion inside, who is me, thought of everyone that had the virus with disgust and blamed them for their misfortune without even knowing their story. But he knew mine and never dared blame me.
If people should find out, like my mirror companion they won't care about my story and they will blame me and judge me and punish me. They will punish me not knowing that I have enough punishment to bear and that I carry a burden with me that they can't ever imagine, not considering that I too had hopes and dreams that have diminished with the impossibility of achieving them. There's a bit of comfort with my old companion for he knows that even with his harsh judgment some cases are beyond his evil reach. Those children bearing the virus from their mothers, children abused at a young age, those who have been raped and those whom others' neglect transferred the virus into their blood stream. My old companion cannot blame those but I know that some of these people look for forgiveness from others even though they shouldn't need any.
Once in a while when I look into a shiny spoon or a shiny doorknob or a reflective glass he stares at me with disgust, but at the same time urging me to remain in hidden shame. He is my fear and he embodies all what I fear if I find out I'm infected. How I wish I could kill him, but that would mean killing everyone who would look at me with disgust; how I wish he would change, but that would mean changing everyone around who lacks sympathy or understanding; the understanding that I too have hopes and dreams and without their help, they are crushed.
This story is a work of fiction sent in to the "Creative Art Competition" organized by UNAIDS as a part of the 2007 World AIDS Campaign, the category was 'Journalism and Creative Writing'.