Smoke

I was an idiot a year ago. When I try to evaluate how time has gone by, I’m not sure I consider the things that matter. I turned 27 and there’s a subtle you’re running out of time as permanent background noise. Over every phone call, at every visit. It’s become embarrassing. The well-meaning relatives who spill out prayers, I remember Mama Dele, prayers oozing from her belly, her hands around mine, she smelled of ginger, her powder caked around her wrinkles, age fighting beauty and winning.

I wish they were more concerned about the fact that I’m a freelancer and still living off my parents, or that I make a lot of fucked up decisions, quitting jobs all the time.

A year ago I was an idiot. You think 26 would tell me that I’m no alchemist. I tried to create love, tried so hard. You’d think at 26, I would search for the responsible man, a room in one place, a house to sleep in. No, I had found a 24-year-old gym instructor.

His body promised what mine never could. It was just the sex at first, then I started wanting more, longer phone calls. A night over, a weekend over. I assumed he did too.

For love, I’ve made a lot of fucked up decisions and there’s the fact that I fancy myself a liberal cultivated on Lagos soil. There was Dare at 21 who decided after a year that he could still see all the men I had been with when he looked at me. Fucking Dare. I stayed up that night searching my body for fingerprint, scars, anything these men left. When you stare for so long all you see is why no one wants you, the parts that stick out, for years I tried to tame my body into beautiful, a finger down my throat, living off lemon and water. I never felt enough.

Back to my recent mistake, I tried to create love from nothing but yeses. Yes to his stupid suggestion to turn my balcony into a studio, to stay up for nights and nights on nothing but liquor. He didn’t say a word, but he could locate all the desperate tucked under my lips, and when he kissed me it came pouring through. I said yes to the liquor, the strange women he fucked while I was away, the times without a condom. The last yes was with the other woman, her breath down my neck, her lips on my stomach, he watched us for most of the time, till he was with her and there was no me. I felt like smoke in my own damn bedroom and I realized that he had been looking through me the whole damn time, the whole two years. I was with a man who had barely seen me.

Turning 27 was the right time to clean out my closet again, he came with questions and all I had left were Nos. So he kissed me and that was all that poured out. He didn’t leave any apologies, didn’t try to find what parts of our picture ripped, he was gone.

Reincarnation

Taiye is as much as a man as he is a cartographer, it may be a weird way to describe him, but his large hands are skilled, slowly moving down your skin like he was taking coordinates. Taiye a twin, yes, but the only child. He lost his father to a bottle, his mother to the water and his twin in a hospital that already lingered with the smell of death.

Taiye was a man unmoved by tragedies and when his hands went around you, you’d imagine the vacant look in his eyes and curse yourself. You had become the woman who your mother cursed from her belly, everything around you growing wildly like trouble. It was your second year at an investment firm, he was the client, with bad jokes and a smile intent on pleasing.

You became that woman without notice, a reincarnation of the snake that tore your family apart. In your younger years, your mother would wake up in the morning and ask if she wasn’t enough, you swore never to be this, the cause of this question.

Taiye with wild hands told you that in his life had ever stayed, he vowed you were the only thing he cared about. You tried to avoid it, you tried to not to believe it, but you were convinced it was inevitably true. It’s not that he hated his wife, it was just that he was with her from duty, when he was with her he had to be this person, this person whole and stable. With you, he was messy, from the friendly beginnings and long phone calls. You don’t remember how you got here, through staying careful, through the warnings from Tolu “There is only one thing men want.” To which you would have retorted that she was small minded, if she wasn’t your only friend.

There are things people like Tolu, who act like it’s cut and dry do not understand, that people grow, people change, need evolve. Maybe marriage shouldn’t be so inflexible, possessive. Men may be liars. but when Taiye told you he was alone you felt it, you felt the man who had lived mostly to obligation.

You knew that for him it wasn’t just the thrill of still being adored or the pride of a man with the virility to keep a younger woman.

He swore he would leave her, if not for God and everyone else, he swore he knew what he wanted.

You told him that was a really stupid thing to say

And he just asked what I would do if no one else existed

The two of you had mostly those type of conversations, hypotheses and thought experiments because there was nothing final for you, nothing possible. It was a painful dream that dampened reality.

You ignored it all, through the rains, your neighbor’s questioning gazes, his car parked down your street by 1am.

You honestly never imagined it being more than it was, but you both knew what you wanted and there was comfort in that.

All his hypotheticals ended with fictional question marks, maybe a question, a hint, a plan to run away.

He let you take his son out on weekends and you could feel the curse growing in you

Your mother’s words blocking your ears

Her prayers specially customized by her pastors of Fire Ministries

“Something bitter and ugly will always live in her, she will have no home”

You feared for months and even imagined flinging yourself out the window of the 7th floor, to stop it from growing.

Last month, you held the baby in your hands and named him Kehinde.

You hadn’t seen his father in 4 months.

Lessons in Necessity

You were heavy in your mother’s womb on her 21st birthday. That day she sat beside her husband, smiling at the photographer, playing along to the unwritten script for Nigerian women of her time. 

She had recently gained admission to the university and found a boy, not any boy. A boy fresh out of UniLag with a medical degree and the ability to pay a bride price. Your grandfather, who had recently started questioning his memory did not express his surprise that someone wanted his problem child. He wrote a note on his bedroom mirror. 

“Do not ask if he’s sure.”

Months later, the boy visited with his father as your grandpa counted the tubers of yam and pinched the fat on the goat.

You were born of necessity because what else is expected from a 27 year old doctor but to settle down? This was the way life manifested in your society, there was no time for useless soul searching or chasing unattainable answers, just the comfortable and familiar. You now remember your younger years like a hazy dream, you remember only the things that don’t make sense, sometimes it was your mother wrapping moi moi in leaves, other days it was your father’s laughter. You tell your mother that you remember a locked room with toys from when you were 5 and she tells you that you can’t possibly remember all that.
Your early years were oblivious as it should be till you started to notice things, the things you did not understand anyway, your mother away sick for months. Being alone for months with your father who brought several aunties whenever she was away. At school you noticed that children did not come in ones and most of your friends had siblings. Then there was the time in primary 2 you told your mum you wanted a sister and she got upset. You could not understand all these things until you could. You got into a boarding school pretty early and found sisterhood in your mates at the junior school, girls who slept in the same room showered together and shared cutlery. You hated it and only wanted to go home to your mother. 
Senior secondary came and so did letters from the boy’s school on the opposite end of the street, girls pitted against their friends in competition over boys and you were a part of it. You never got far with that anyway.
Graduation came and you learned your mother wanted a divorce, you learned about the locked room prepared in anticipation of a sibling, the miscarriages, your learned your father’s mistresses by their names, you also met your younger brother, taller, darker, eyes like your father. He arrived on a Sunday in a luxury bus and just never left. The divorce never happened.
You were out of the university when you realized you were feeding off your mother’s betrayal and never learned to properly cultivate relationships. Friendship to you was something transient and you abandoned necessity, taking a liking to fiction, withdrawing into yourself, most things you did to convince yourself you were nothing like your parents. Your father who was convinced he was a god and your mother unwilling to leave. Still they were etched in your very being, strangers would see you and recognize the face of your father and mannerisms of your mother.
You soon learned that necessity was a big part of your life in a society where nothing worked unless it was imperative. This did not comfort you. You were also a late bloomer, chest swelling and hips widening into your 20’s, realizing that this also came with the attention of strange men, mostly older. You enjoyed the sway you held over them till you began to recognize the entitlement in them, the dominating personalities you swore you’d never be suppressed by.
By 21, you found alcohol as an elixir, harsh and tasteless down your throat. It taught you to dance, made you feel like a god, and helped you forget. You also realized how easy it was to love a boy and forget to leave, looking into his eyes and losing your senses, tasting mints and cigarettes. You realized how endorphins could be released and how for a moment a life of necessity wouldn’t be the most horrible thing in the world.

Ninety Eight

I did not deserve you.

I was a coward. I didn’t give you any explanations because I couldn’t face the truth. I couldn’t face that I had betrayed you. That I was such a disappointment. I was so ashamed. I had no excuse for leaving like that, I failed you.

I got married in 2004. Her name is Elizabeth, I don’t think she’s happy, she treats me as one would regard a houseguest, formal but polite. Perhaps I’ve failed her too.

I remember what early 98’ felt like, and I realize that being with you is the only time I ever felt alive. I often remember when you started teaching History at the government school, when I stayed home most of the day filling out applications, the evenings we laid naked in bed for the heat. The memories still create a dull ache in my chest. I long for every moment we had, even the not so good ones when you complained about the school for hours. How you hated when the principal called you a liberal extremist. I’d give anything to hear you complaining while I held your hand one more time.

I’m sorry I left like that, I thought of you often, I still think of you. How you saw me as much more than I was or ever would be. I could not bear watching your dark eyes fill with disappointment. I’ve not been able to forget the days we spent under the birch tree. The first time your lips touched mine, the confusion, and the denial. The realization that we craved the forbidden. I long for the past.

Life has taught me a lot of things but I can’t get over the regret, the feeling of going on so long without what I truly wanted. I must sound ridiculous hurting for 16 years ago. This isn’t the first time I’ve written to you, there have been hundreds of letters, written and destroyed. Perhaps I would destroy this too.

I wonder why you never got married, if you ever had another lover. I wonder if you still think of me.

I’d give anything to get you back but I know that isn’t fair to you. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to stand up for what I wanted. What we wanted.

I wonder how things turned out for you. You were always the bigger man. I once came across a paper you wrote on Abacha’s foreign policy on the internet and I remembered the day you took to the streets celebrating his death. Sometimes I think the universe is chuckling at his own brilliance.

I’m not asking that we pick up from where the past but…I’ve been unhappy for a long time

I don’t know how to explain that the worries of yesterday pale in comparison and I can’t help thinking “What if?” I’m constantly haunted by the things I wanted most and ignored.

You may think me crazy but please I’d love to hear from you.

Maybe one day you could forgive me.

Your Old Friend,

Dapo.

Forgotten

Pastor: What did you lose?
Woman: A grandfather clock, a bicycle, a truck load of baby clothes, a child.
Pastor: When did you notice this?
Woman: A month ago. Tiny round holes on the living room wall, the shattered clock, the gun on the floor,
holding my breath, counting
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…..
Blackness
Pastor: You passed out?
Woman: Yes
Pastor: Who fired the gun?
Woman: My husband
Pastor: Why did he shoot the wall?
Woman: because he couldn’t hit his real target
Pastor: Who?
Woman: Himself
Pastor: Where is your child?
Woman: Gone
Pastor: God gives and takes away. Ask what you want of him
Woman: I don’t want his help anymore, I just want answers
Pastor: What are your questions?
Woman: Where He spends his time?
How he can stand watching us?
Pastor: Where is your husband?
Woman: Maybe God can answer that too
Pastor: Your husband left you?
Woman: A large part of him left
Pastor: The sun shines in the morning, it is important to have faith in your time of despair
Woman: Is burning skin the worst kind of punishment? Ask him that
Pastor: Do not question His ways
Woman: I waited 23 years for a child. Hell is when he stopped breathing
Pastor: Be careful what you say. He’s your father, he hasn’t forgotten you
Woman: He should

Across

The winged termites kept creeping in through the tiny hole in the window. Their buzzing added to the night’s orchestra, the frogs and the crickets joined in the rainy season melody, perhaps a reminder that they were far from their studio apartment in New York.

In the dark room in Ogun, you might have walked in and only noticed him, she was hidden in darkness, his pale milky skin, wrapped around her dark thighs and their fingers intertwined as if in prayer.

She was breathing softly, her mind walking down the dark street in Ota in her blue pinafore, catching termites in large pails of water, the other children dancing around without a care in the world, capturing insects in the palm of their hands. Somehow the Ogun damp air had always followed her around, she could taste her home while she was away, hear mama’s voice weighing every decision.

What would Mama think of this? Her only daughter wanting to marry an oyinbo, Mother had told many tales (hints) about Nigerian girls who married foreigners and neglected their mothers, about mothers who were sick with loneliness. It didn’t make any sense mother declared.

Life still made sense when she arrived in Manhattan, even when she breathed the air of a different continent. That was 2 years ago, before his blue eyes quietly followed her around the Bobst Library, before his long hands stretched for her book on the higher shelf and his pink lips quoted David Foster Wallace.

That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” His fingers slightly pink on the knuckles touched his mouth in mock concentration “That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness.” He finished handing her the book.

She smiled courteously.

He could tell she wasn’t asleep, she never slept quietly, dragging him closer then rolling away. Today she stayed still, holding his fingers too tight. He hoped she would say something, anything in her cheery Yoruba drawl.

Anything was better than silence, he thought of the way she carried words inside her chest when they first met. She told him it was an internalized trait from her mother and her mother, women were supposed to carry their voices in their belly, swelling as the years went by.

He thought of home too, surrounded by mountains, the steep, rocky, jagged, instill-fear-of-heights kind of mountains he dared to climb and yet she was his greatest feat. How she at first avoided his eyes, speaking only in monosyllables, he had waited patiently through the summer until the words start to spill out and she could keep nothing in.

“I love you” he said out loud

She lifted her head, pressing her lips on his.

Found

‘You whole life could learn to balance delicately on 4 inch heels’

She was wrapped in a peach hijab that only made her uncovered features scream, eyes dark as deceit. Her face a little more plump, maybe darker, she had obviously matured, and probably gained a few pounds but her skin looked softer than ever.

My mind began to gamble on the unnecessary, unsure whether to stare as she approached or to look away.

‘I don’t want to scare her away by being too eager’ I stared at my fingers on the raffia table mat, studying the intertwined little boxes.

For a second I became 21 again, walking across the campus contemplating if she would like my new haircut.

‘I don’t want to seem nonchalant either’ I flashed a nervous smile while raising my eyebrow

I couldn’t think anymore when she smiled back, warmth flowed from her intimately, her eyes embracing every inch of me, 18 lost years, my failing marriage, receding hairline, my overpriced red neck tie. In that very moment I could almost explain why I spent over a decade searching for her, ignoring common sense.

 ‘Everyone has those past lovers that are harder to forget. They are the deep ugly scars’

If she was a scar, she was definitely a revered type giving superpowers. I had to reconnect with my mirage, to feel again, to watch the ugly and unwanted pieces of my existence turned beautiful in her eyes.

I held her in my arms, eyes shut, she smelt like blue grass and Jasmin, her voice came out wispy

“I’ve imagined this moment in a thousand different ways”

Maybe we had another chance.

Missed Connection

You were last seen beside the birch tree.

No

Commanding elements, causing the tree to sway towards you, yellow leaves dancing carelessly, throwing music to the wind

No

Ruling the third floor corridor, constructing symphonies out of laughter

Last seen floating on metaphors, on clouds of admiration stitched into a flying carpet

You wore too much, padded with the heavy words stuck in your chest. Those words you carried around because there was nowhere to put them.

I was the quiet smile at the end of the corridor, the one with too many fictional stories and you as my protagonist

The one who drew a different hue to remember each eye contact

No

The one twirling her hair while conjuring conversations too afraid to start

The conversation would be about the words around your neck, the secrets tattooed in invisible ink, I’ll begin by saying I’m a pensive you can pour yourself into.

A volunteer therapist who takes 3am baths with lavender just for you

I was the faux power walk at the opposite end of the corridor -watching you walk past me for the last time- with shaky hands and an unsteady heartbeat, same as the last 3 years, throwing out all the conversations I no longer needed as the door closed.

My grandmother had a farm that could have grown a birch tree. I could have learnt to speak in a higher pitch or tried cultivating my own garden.

There’s just me now and the endless list I carry around, I’m at number sixty-something. Meet me at the café near the city park. I’ll be at the end of the corridor with a script this time, a whole book I wrote for you that we’ll never have to follow.

Don’t forget to bring your smile and the gap in your teeth.

I still haven’t.

Love in a coffe shop

When she finally looked my way, I had to struggle to keep my heartbeat steady.

“I don’t want you to leave” I yelled again.

The absurdity of the situation slapped my consciousness in vain, my lips kept moving, words tumbling out stupidly.

Even as she stared blankly, I contemplated whether my Nikon could capture a moment so beautiful, her large curls falling over lined brown eyes and how the red lipstick was suffocated by the glow of her skin

“You’ve sat in this same coffee shop for 14 days straight”

With no time to stop and think I added “and this might sound crazy but I finally understood the weight of the word ‘incomplete’ when you didn’t show up yesterday”

Never love a woman who doesn’t fear hell

Never love a woman who doesn’t fear hell, this single piece of advice will save you light years of heartache. I sincerely hope you find redemption through your own forgotten story; it was another lifetime when you met her.

Her name was Tola and she had whole galaxies in her eyes, nebula collapsing and stars being born. Perhaps that was enough to make anyone unstable, the extent of destruction that had already taken place within them. It sometimes seeped through her pores and settled on her skin like oil, and in that very moment of realization you wondered how could you love such a shimmering and terribly ugly woman. The moment was immediately followed by the same rational decision, the packing of several bags only to abandon them at the door. So many times, again and again you tried to leave; your room became the door at her house. The last time you packed your bags was when her father died; one look at her sinister smile and you were sure she was incapable of loving you.

There were also mornings after the night rain in which she could only be described in unknown beautiful colors, she would get so close and put your hands under her bra, there was the one time you made love on top your bags, filling her filled the holes in you.

You tried to save her, to warn her about hell and eternal damnation; you even burnt her finger, a lighter and burning skin without logic. Something about her turned people into beasts, even words escaped wickedly from her lips

“If you burn my finger, I would learn how bad hell could be”

You tried to help her if only to let go of all the wickedness tucked under her lips, to abandon her worship of Oya who pulled structures from their root, -like Oya, Tola didn’t have problem with pulling out roots- she shaved her head staring at the mirror one hot afternoon as her long dreadlocks fell on the cream tiles.

On the last day of your life she called you her angel and convinced you to fly off the building. That life didn’t end well.