Roadside visions

Mama Biola settled in a red plastic chair, on the pavement, right beside the intersection leading out of Florence street. The street had grown and taken up a distinct character over the years. Driving in, you would find brown brick three-story buildings, the spaces between them uniform and precise, that existed before the owners started to tweak and tweak until some balconies were made of glass. A particular balcony stood out, as it was on top of a makeshift hairdressing salon where a dark woman sat, braiding and wiping sweat on her wrappa, her laps spread apart. Below the glass balcony was another makeshift barbing saloon, old white towels spread on the balcony, showing that as time passed some wages expanded faster than others. The children played in front of houses in mid-august when the schools were closed, their dirty feet and tangled hair coated in dust adding the feel of a community. The street reminded one of where you drove into and settled, where your lives twisted then intertwined with the neighbors until you become unsure of whose business belonged to whom.

Mama Biola had been sitting there, wide awake, when the intersection started taking up souls in broad daylight, when the men who smoked in front of the nearby shops spent the evenings hitting buttocks as women hurried by, when the drunk man drove right through the walls of the boarding school, when housewives settled with trays and sold fruits in front of the shops, when the task force came with cudgels and overturned fruit trays. Every morning she appeared promptly, bubba neatly tied around her large waist, there was a time when her waist was something men had fought to wrap their arms around but five children, including Biola, had made sure she expanded and never returned from the first child. Mama Biola, like the street, could never return, so she had settled on this intersection with a mission.

The mission came to her when her last son, Tolu, was off to the university. She found herself chasing this man right through her university campus, into the classroom where she took LIT 411, trying to tell him something. Every step was a step backward, doors leading further down the past, opening more doors, the second door took her to the large hostel where she spent her first year, 12 matrasses, with small spaces in between, littered across the room. Opening the third door she returned to the government school in Ekiti where she signed, “I was here” on the walls, watching the man slip through yet another door. She finally caught up with him in a small abandoned building on the field where the girls scout met, she opened this door to find the man, a knife in one hand, second arm around another stranger, his back to her. She was not able to keep moving, not because she was tired and out of breath but because she recognized the second stranger in the room without seeing him completely. She tried to make a sound, tried to move but could only feel her breath constricting, her chest tightening as she fell to the ground and woke up in her own sweat.

She stayed mute for weeks after, abandoning her shop, only going to the church fifteen minutes away, getting up at 6am and taking a keke off Florence street. She spent her days on the stairs of the elevated stage, lying on the red rug before the wooden cross, she ate nothing, not even when Biola came with large bowls of amala and ewedu from Iya Sade, and allowed her hunger pangs to go up with prayers. She stopped only when Tolu was home from the holiday and cooked his food in the special oil given by her pastor, she took him to the pastor too, watched and nodded as he knelt as the pastor brought down freedom upon him.

“Freedom from what?” Tolu always asked.

She could not bring herself to tell Tolu anything explicitly, she followed him out when he met his friends, she complained that his jeans were too tight, she invited young women from the church over. Somedays she stared and stared at him as if trying to wax a confession from his lips, he caught her pleading eyes and looked away. If Tolu was perturbed by his mother’s attitude, he did not show it. He retained the lightness he had carried from birth, taking morning strolls and greeting the neighbors, betting over matches at the garden in the evenings. He ignored how heavy and insistent she had become until the day he was visited by Sam.

Mama Biola was walking home from her shop when she met them under the large fruit tree across the road, Tolu had his hand on Sam’s back and his loud laughter was ringing in her ears. She ran toward them, dropping her bag on the floor, screaming, she spat on Sam and it landed on his black leather shoe. Tolu tried to hold his mother, pull her away, take her home, his eyes never meeting Sam’s.

That was the moment things started to change, when his mother spent the night crying loudly, when Tolu stopped coming home for breaks. Mama, at first, did not relent on her mission to exorcise this despicable thing, she visited his school often times and was told by his roommates that he was away, there was the time when she waited the whole night at his bedroom door and he did not come. She tried what she could, deprived him of money, deprived him of her, begged him in small notes to come home to a woman she would find.

Tolu, in his final year, graduated and did not invite his mother. By this time, she had become stubborn, she refused her urge to take a bus and head to Lagos, it was 7 months since she spat on Sam. She waited and waited but the distance only widened. She had support now, Biola, Demola and Simi had equally stopped speaking to their brother, she also had the proof that God abhorred that. What other rationale was needed? She sent Tolu a letter saying that he should consider himself motherless.

Tolu sent letters 2 years after his graduation, Mama Biola refused to open any of the, she put it under the fire and it crumbled under the soup she was making.

She had more dreams since then, for more strangers she would later run into at the intersection, dark cars with secrets she had learned to ignore, she always tried to put them out of her mind with more prayers. What finally drove her out of her home was the news she received from Biola, right before the Easter Sunday, when Biola came in crying, head scarf in hands and whispering to mama, “He’s gone”

She had seen it in more dreams but this did not in make it any lighter, any softer. It wasn’t so much that he was gone, but also the way he left, falling from a bridge in Lagos, drowning, falling without being pushed, jumping into the water, leaving more notes for his family, ones where he did not forgive his mother, ones where his words will forever remain bitter, there was no softening. No assurance that he had given up what he was.

Days after the burial, Mama Biola found the red chair and settled on the intersection at Florence street, she spoke about the visions she had seen to the strangers who would listen as they passed, bubba tied neatly around her waist.

Let me tell a story now… (After Bessie Head)

We are at a wedding watching white drops of light sparkling on the floor, the fountain seems to be pouring light and water, and the white tablecloths are lined with gold.  There is something elaborate about the large hall, about the silky gold linen that sways from the wall to the chandelier, as if to remind you that gold is not happiness but a pretty close substitute. There are over a hundred people in the large hall, most of whom are holding champagne flutes. Men are dressed in white agbadas, women in tight dresses and expensive geles. We sit close to the stage, on a table seating 10, a card reading friends of the groom is placed beside the centerpiece. The white plates have gold on the edges, I wonder how expensive all these would have been. I recognize most of the people on my table.

The bride has her veil dragging behind her as she dances, her skin I would write about as olive, so pure I imagine it gives off a glow in the dark, the skin of a woman who has held enough in her hands to truly know what plenty feels like. We all move to stand by the stage while the newlyweds danced to John Legend’s All of Me, phones raised, capturing the couple in slow-dance. I wish I could describe how beautiful it seemed in that very moment, there was no light in the room except for the stairs leading to the stage and the ceiling lit with stars, I look over my shoulder to find my boyfriend watching them, smiling, I wonder if this is what he wants for us too, a wedding, some sort of happy ending. Calling him a boyfriend is inaccurate, more like he is this man who picks me up every other day, I feed him on other days and we have sex as often as we like. He often mentions how he would always want to be alone, I say the same, I wonder if we both mean it. When he says he cares about me I don’t doubt him.

I should also mention that I’m 25 and never find a good enough reason to leave my house since I quit my last job 2 years ago and decided to do something I love. My boy-friend is the one who knows the groom and insists on taking me to many of these occasions where I have to put on dresses and talk to other people. I’m not sure why we’re so different and still together but he accepts my melancholia and this has been enough for me. I put my hand on his shoulder and he brings his head closer, his arm around my waist, I have to shout so he hears me even though he’s so close. I tell him, I’m going to the bathroom. He squeezes my waist gently and nods his head, there’s music by Brymo playing now, I can’t help smiling because I know he loves this.

The thing about attending so many of these events is that I have to frequently come up for air, find a bathroom and exhale. I head back to our table and sit, staring at my new heels, wondering if taking them off before they squeeze the life from my toes is a socially acceptable thing to do. Bayo is staring at me from across the table, he works with my boy-friend, I smile at him and his date Ada reaches for my hand and whispers

“it’s so nice to see you again”, we went to the same university.

“it’s been what? Four years now”

“Five” I correct her, trying hard to smile.

“Yes” she smiles back, “You used to be so odd”

I wonder in which world odd is a compliment. She still doesn’t let go of my hand and tells me about how my body looks great. She says that she wants my secret, she has a piece I should try on. For most of the night she has been talking about the new boutique she opened, it’s over a year since she returned to Nigeria after business school or fashion school. I wasn’t paying attention.

More people are returning to the table now, Adura is talking about her role at the investment bank. Her red lipstick is so perfectly lined that I do not realize that I’m staring at her lips until Tolu asks what I do for work.

There is another reason why I hate these occasions, people talk and talk and want to know the socially acceptable ways of making money we engage in. The other people on the table fall silent, I wonder if they’ve discussed this before. You see, it’s hard to answer these questions when you’re not sure exactly what you’re doing. The thing about a career is that you can’t avoid becoming what you do for so long, and so, this has become some sort of superficial shortcut for knowing more about a person. You say engineer, and we find some sort of precision, Lawyer, and we assume you know a lot about something, you own a store and we notice the red under your shoes, suddenly we are made aware of your expensive looking material, of your free spirit. What you do is used to validate you, and the other thing about careers is that I can’t keep one. I want to call myself a writer, but the truth is that I’ve truly never written anything. I haven’t submitted to any journals or online publications and my only validation is from my own mouth. I once wrote an entire manuscript which I submitted, and I still cringe with shame when I remember. The manuscript now sits in my junk folder on an old laptop where it truly belongs. I get by day to day expenses with a customer care job at an unknown online store. The thing about saying I’m a writer is getting the awkward questions that follow’

“oh, who do you write for? Published any novels”

“I mean what do you do for money?” the laughter that follows.

“I used to write, I mean I still have some old journal with my scribbling, I mean in a way, we’re all writers”

I just laugh off the snarky comments and pray they move on to something new. The truth is that this isn’t undeserved, the truth is that in between procrastinating and waiting for a story to arrive, I haven’t written in months.

I spend time imagining the type of story I would like to write, but the details fail me, I do not understand the characters, cannot find the setting, I do not know enough about politics or anything. I read and I read and read the wrong things. I would like to write a story about a man who lived in a small town and found a girl down the street, whose life also converged around this area, and when he kissed her for the first time, he felt this thing, this urge to make a promise that he would always love her. The neighbors in the small town all knew him and they shouted greetings as he drove by in the morning. I want to imagine that as age and time passed a yearning grew in his heart and like for most of the children who had grown there, this town was not enough anymore. He goes on a Monday morning to an agent instead of his office, I want this man to sit at the table of a darker, short man with eyes so large he wonders for a moment if it disturbs the owner. The big-eyed man passes him some brochures and tells him that he can leave, find the unknown, chase opportunities, change his life. The man turns it over in his mind, even as he drinks beer with men from the office after the workday. The idea has been planted in his heart, that he can leave this town where he was born. What the man does not understand is that the town left him first when everything started to change. He tried to make a future and it felt like building sandcastles in the wind. When he kissed his wife, he promised her that he would always love her, when he opened his eyes in the world it made no promises, he made no promises too, only the tears. The tears were a mere formality, meant he was here. The town started to change too, children went missing, his wife had a miscarriage from careless health care, men were thrown out of their jobs without warning and there was the subtle “leave while you can hanging in the air.”

The man started on a hot afternoon to look for buyers, he started with the furniture in the spare bedroom, spread to everything, the TV in the living room going last. There came a time when most of the furniture was gone, so, it was just the man, his wife, and the food on the floor and 9’o clock news on the TV, and they would cuddle under the blanket on the living room floor where they now slept. On another afternoon in August when the house was gone too, they stood with bags in the front of an airport when an older neighbor after dropping them off in his white hilux, sighs to say “there goes another man that could have changed our trajectory.”

The man proceeds with his ticket through the gate of the airport because he knows the truth, that his father died waiting for this miracle and that he too is just one man.

So there it is, if I could write a story, it would be one about a successful escape, but for now, I wait for my boy-friend to rejoin the table and pray the evening passes and that one day, this disorder of writing would bring me something worth having.