Mahlatse makes this noise like he’s going to be sick. He jumps up off the old couch where he’s been trying to get up close and personal with me, and rushes out of the room.
I stay sitting for a few moments, with a feeling inside me like something is closing down. Hope, maybe.
My other thoughts and feelings – they haven’t shut down. My head knows exactly what just happened, and why. It’s a moment of painful understanding. As for my feelings: there’s anger, but fear too. Is it always going to be like this?
Slowly, I stand up and follow him – to our small bathroom. Part of me is worrying about whether we’ve left the place clean. Auntie Hlomisa, Gogo and I are sometimes so busy, we don’t always give the house a proper cleaning; more like a quick once-over, as Auntie calls it.
The basin tap is running, and Mahlatse is scooping up water, but he’s in such a panic he doesn’t know what to do first. He splashes water all over his face, then starts washing his hands. Next, he cups them under the tap, collecting water to rinse his mouth.
“Mahlatse,” I say, as he swills and spits it out, and I hate how my voice trembles.
He spins round, and the wild fear twisting his face pierces my heart.
“You–” he splutters. “How come you … I can’t believe you’ve done this to me, Ritlatla.”
“Done what?” I gather my anger to me, like a shield that will protect me from his hurtful words.
“Let me–” He breaks off to scoop up more water, scrubbing it over his lips. “Shit! I’ll have to get tested.”
I feel like I’m shrinking. Is this what humiliation is: feeling small?
“You’re being … stupid, Mahlatse.” I clasp my hands tightly in front of me, trying to stop them shaking. “I was busy explaining to you why I need to be extra careful. You were mocking me because I don’t want to go to Dzanga’s party, but a crowd like that? And a lot of them have stopped wearing their Covid-19 masks. I know things are opening up, but it still feels like a risk for someone like me.”
“’Someone like you’! And you only told me at this late stage.” His eyes are wild.
“Didn’t you hear what I was saying?”
“Only too clearly. I can’t believe you waited until now to tell me.”
“There was no need until we looked like getting close.”
We’d only got to getting our heads in the right position, ready to go. But with that, and with Mahlatse making fun of me for not wanting to go to Dzanga’s party, I decided I owed him the truth. Because some people can get weird.
Turns out he’s one of those people, all casual about Covid-19, but not about this.
“I suppose you’re ashamed, and that’s why you didn’t tell me from the beginning.”
“I have nothing to be ashamed of.” I need to keep believing that.
“You’re … diseased.”
I can’t believe he’s said that. Rage is this huge, hot wave rolling through me.
“No, I’m not. I have HIV, that’s all, but if that’s what you believe, why are you still here?” I force a hard laugh out of my mouth. “I use this bathroom every day, Mahlatse. Aren’t you scared?”
Yes, he’s scared. I see how my words hit him; the way panic twists his face. He rushes out of the bathroom, careful not to touch me as he passes.
I wait until I hear him leaving the house. Then I start to cry.
Tell us what you think: Why has Mahlatse reacted so strongly to learning that Ritlatla has HIV?