“There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.”– Dante
This morning, I am greeted by a crisp breeze as soon as I open the door. The place is calm and the white sand glitters in the semi-darkness as the sun rises. I walk along the shoreline and listen to the gentle ebb of the sea and the crickets chirping in the distance. The air is so salty that I can almost taste it when I inhale. The sand is cool on my bare feet; I shiver as a chilly breeze breathes heavily on me. I stop under a coconut tree and observe the radiant sunrise, the atmosphere becoming warmer.
Soon the beach is full of colours as people come to enjoy the day with their families. There are brightly coloured blankets and umbrellas which they set up as the kids run around shouting. I see two people in swimsuits; hands locked, laughing as they brush past the crowd. A wave of sadness washes over me. I arch my back to relieve myself of the pain, but not the sac of grief I have carried these few years. I sit on the sand. The tears come in drizzles, wetting the dark curly hairs on my chest as I remember you. Tip. Tap. Tip. Tap. Tap.
You were the newcomer every student in class wanted to be seen around with. The girls desired you as their guy, that boyfriend so tall and fair. The guys burnt with rage and jealousy because you snatched their girlfriends without any effort.
Anytime you stepped in, the whole class became quiet and still as though an angel had appeared. Even the Mathematics teacher noticed you; he would later ask you to introduce yourself.
After class one day, you ambled towards me.
Not sure but I think you were actually strolling out of the class for recess, and then you decided to stop by my locker. The minute my eyes caught yours, I buried my face in my textbook, pretending I was actually reading. “Americannah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,” you said before adding, “is it not a big book for your age.” as though you knew my age.
Slowly, like a child caught stealing a piece of meat from the pot, my face rose from the pages. “It doesn’t matter,” I said blandly without turning to look at you. “I love Chimamanda and her books.”
“Hmm…” you said before the silence briefly took over. Oops! What did I just say? Bad move. I thought.
“I don’t like Chimamanda or her books,” you said.
“Why?” I scowled. My hands hardened into a fist as my fingers dug into the pages. “Who doesn’t like Chimamanda?”
“Me,” you replied. “I think she’s just too feminist for my liking.”
“Seriously,” I rolled my eyes, “is that a thing?”
For a while we went on with Chimamanda, thinning, pruning our points in order to sound convincing so the other could buy. Trying and failing at the same time, you finally gave up and I won.
I said something which I felt wasn’t too funny but you laughed a loud and boisterous laugh, attracting many creepy eyes to us. In the process of laughing you propped your right hand against my left shoulder, so you wouldn’t fall. Perhaps it was an unconscious move, you didn’t noticed but something was ignited in me, something more than just a moment of shivers running down my spine; something more than just two bodies making brief contact. It was a moment that would linger forever and not wear out, a feeling that would stick to our skin, our nostrils like air.
You didn’t let go of my shoulders until you were done scratching your ankle enveloped in a white sock. You smelled of strawberry, and I felt like tasting you, your warmth.
“I don’t know. But this thing has been itching me.” Momentarily, you shut your eyes.
Let me help you scratch it, I mused.
“Sorry, what’s your name?” You let go.
At this point i was still in doubt if you were one of them, I was only imagining.
“Moyo,” I said.
“As you’ve heard, Chike is my name. Nice to meet you.” You held out a hand to me. And I latched on it. “My pleasure,” I said. I was in a hurry to let go, not to make it look like I was desperate, but you held on longer than necessary, head straightened, arched eyebrows, and eyes fastened. A storm was gathering in my stomach. Instead of being carried away by your alluring grey eyes, I stared at you, searching for clues, something that was undoubtedly convincing. Suddenly I felt a flirtatious squeeze on my palms, and then, you winked, briefly breaking the eye-contact. Then it became as clear.
It wasn’t too long after we became friends that I realized the reason you disliked Chimamanda and her books. Sitting underneath the mango tree of your house in the half-light of night, I took your hand hanging limply on your side, and until now I hadn’t realized how thin and flabby like a leaf it had grown. With our hands locked into each other gently, you told me everything.
Your anger wasn’t directed at the author or her books since you had said that you loved both Americannah and Purple Hibiscus when you first read it from cover to cover; but this dislike was thrown at women. And, especially, you blamed your mother. Although you had been gay—a realization you made very early, it didn’t bother you—yet you always carried your dislike for women; so that no matter how much the girls tried to seduce you, you always rebuffed them.
You paused halfway, and then continued. “My mother was mean to my father when he lost his job. But she was not like that; she used to be so sweet to him, to me,” you said in-between sobs. I stretched my hand to wipe the tears from your eyes.
“Then she became a monster to everyone, screaming at every little thing my father did, everything he did was so wrong to her. Soon, she would extend such cruelty to me: every time she got the chance she would insult and beat me without cause. If you see my body eh, you will pity me.” You rolled out your shirt and I saw those thick black scars sandwiched on your back. Tears almost rolled down my eyes.
Immediately, your heart would skip a beat as your father grunted from the parlor where he lay. You rose and strutted into the house, panicking.
This was the fifth time you were checking on him. Although the doctors had ascertained that your father was fine after the last heart attack that almost claimed his life, you had always carried your heart in your mouth each time you sense something unusual while your Pa grunted or coughed or sneezed or snored.
After your mother left, your father suffered a stroke, what you had not stopped blaming your mother for. But later, through the assistance of family friends and your perseverance,, your father pulled through. He got a better job and could afford to see you through school.
“It was nothing. He just coughed.” You heaved a deep sigh.
I wanted to say more, to beg you to forgive your mother, but, seeing the redness on the inflated rim of your eyes, I hesitated, agreeing with my instinct. Now was not the best time to talk to you about forgiveness. Forgiveness wasn’t something one resolved to achieve in a day. Sometimes it took days or weeks or months to attain, depending on the severity of the hurt. Yet I was determined to help you let go, so you could heal properly.
I was the type of person that wore that veil of I was ashamed to be in the crowd. Yet you came along and tore that veil of trepidation, of timidity, letting me share the spotlight with you. In class when the students or teachers applauded because you attempted a question correctly or on the assembly ground where you were lauded for winning gold in the Science Olympiad and Cowbell Mathematics Competitions, we shared that glory together, and your never tried to blame me for anything happening in your life. You helped me learn seemingly difficult algebra, despite how sluggish my ability to comprehend was.
One time you had given me some money, half of the prize money, to get a pair of new brown sandals because my parents, who were in serious debts, could not afford the money. And my jaw dropped the instance I saw the money.
“Five thousand, Chike!” I exclaimed. “What will you tell your father if he asks?”
“It’s nothing. Just manage it. I will explain to him, don’t worry. He will understand.”
The first time we kissed, it felt like heaven.
Sitting beside you on the bed, in your room, staring at the characters on the TV screen, suddenly your hands left its position and crawled towards mine. In that split moment, my heart skipped a beat as you drew closer, closing up the thin space between us. . The warmth of our bodies glued to each other filtered into my nostrils. The tremors continued to rise. Tension gained momentum.
We dare not speak. Our body language was enough.
And then that moment where our gaze crossed, your palms cupping my face, and my feet swelling with unruly emotions, your lips pressed firmly against mine, dragging from side to side. Your father was out for a drink with friends. So the exchange of spittle, of breath, of body heat was not rushed.
Before we could realize it and bring our bodies under control, we were far gone, already peeling our clothes from each other’s body and flinging them on the floor in a bid to drown in the river of passion.
For a while I hadn’t known the taste of sadness enough until your lips showed it.
I was at home, at the backyard of our house, trying to help my mother peel the sac full of freshly harvested cassava tubers, when my phone rang.
“This boy, you won’t change that rubbish ring tone,” I overhead my mother say, holding her chest as though she had just run out of the room after seeing a ghost, before I picked the call.
“What?” my voice exploded and I felt my chest heave with pain.
“Who was that?” My mother inquired, but my mind had wandered off.
I felt a huge hand tap me strongly, bringing me into reality.
“Chike!” I called out in anxiety.
“What happened to him?”
“I have to go and see him.” I stood. I almost brushed past my father who was stepping into the scorching sun, through the kitchen door. Stalling me at the door, he asked me what the matter was but I said, “Chike… I want to go and see him.”
“Who is Chike?” he queried. I didn’t look at him. Who is Chike? He turned to my mother who said, “ehm, Chike, is his friend.” “Eh, kilode? Moyo now has a friend!” I saw the mock-surprise on his face.
There was no time to start explaining, I dashed out of the room. Sadly that was all they knew about Chike. Even if I tried to explain to them that he was more than a friend, they wouldn’t understand. My parents were not religious but they were too preoccupied with their lives to be bothered about mine, too preoccupied with chasing after money which, sometimes, never entered their hands.
“Thank God you are here. Please, come in,” your father said, the anxiety breaking his voice. He ushered me upstairs to your room.
Seeing you lay there on the bed I couldn’t believe my eyes. I held your hand and it felt as thin and light as air. Those once beautiful grey eyes were almost invisible. Your cheekbones looked like something that had been partially chewed, swallowed and regurgitated. Your collar bones stuck out, and your skin so dry and pale felt sticky in my hand. It felt as though I was staring at a corpse.
“How? When?” I began to cry.
“You told him?” You gave your father the accusatory glance.
“I had to. I’m sorry, son. Why didn’t you tell him?”
“Tell me what?” I was flustered.
“Hmm… Daddy, please, can you excuse us for a while?”
“Tell me what, Chike? What are you hiding from me?” I inquired immediately he stepped out.
“I’m sorry,” you started off after a brief silence, and then your words hit me like a blow.
“I’m SS,” you said. I didn’t know how to tell you. The doctor says I have barely a month to live.”
A sharp pain like a sword would pierce my heart. You would try to stop me from crying but I won’t oblige until you stretched forward, writhing with pain, the tears snaking down the white patches on your face, and kissed my lips. Instantly I tasted sadness; it was raw and sour. Unlike before, here our lips held on for a short, very short while until you groaned out of contact, and fell with your back to the bed, like a drop of water on a pillow. That instance I knew death was just by the corner.
I would start to panic the second you close your eyes and no more words came from you. Then you would open your eyes and say, “stop that nonsense, I’m still here. At least for now.” It was a joke, your own usual way of creaming every situation—good or bad— with words that culminated in a hilarious respond, trying to make others see the beauty, the light in every tunnel.
“Stop jor, just stop. It’s not funny.” I managed to draw a laugh. Trying to still myself from crying.
“And please stop crying, ok. You would do that for me, won’t you?”
I knew the weight of loss, the extent of grief, when you passed on.
The reality of your absence did not dawn on me immediately. At least not during your burial where all and sundry dressed in black, crying and wearing their sadness about them, came to pay their respect. Your father knelt beside your grave, weeping profusely. For the first time I saw your mother. Tall, a hat on, wearing a black patterned gown and I knew where you had inherited such fairness. She wore a dark shade and stood some distance away from your father as though she were afraid.The rage sprang up within me and began to burn. But the moment she drew closer, took off the shade and grabbed lightly my shoulders, the fire dounced. I didn’t know what or how to feel anymore.
“I guess you’re Moyo. He told me a lot about you.”
My intention at this point was to scream at her, to ask her the reason she left her son and husband but for her words, “thank you for getting my son to love me again. Thank you for loving him better than I could have done,” I became bereft of what to say.
But slowly, after the burial, I became more aware of your absence in the silence which sat beside me underneath the mango tree behind our classroom, the same tree we often took shelter during recess, or the loneliness which always followed me home after school.
A gust of wind splashes over me. I feel your presence; the sweet smell of strawberry that often steamed from your body caresses my nostrils and wets my taste buds. But it’s only a while until you leave with the wind, I think. The smell lingers. Strongly.
The tears have started to stream down my eyes. A hand holds out a handkerchief over my shoulders. I snort before receiving it and using it to wipe my stuffy nose. Turning around, I see no one. A shiver would trickle down my spine. And at this moment I know you are here.
Shedrack Opeyemi Akanbi is a third year student of History and International Studies at the University of Ilorin. His words have appeared or forthcoming on the Quills, EroGospel, Undivided Magazine, Praxis Magazine, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. Shedrack is a believer in Christ. He tweets @ShedrackAkanbi.