I had to lose to understand
Strung out from all this
Pour out a thousand tears
I never knew a kinder man
― Light, Michael Kiwanuka
“Whenever you are ready, Kemi.”
“Uhm, okay . . . so . . . he left a note. I do not know what to think because Yahaya said if he ever left by his own accord, he wouldn’t leave a note to remind the living. It’s not like he told me he had plans of going, you know. It’s . . . it’s just one of those things that came up in casual how-would-you-like-to-go conversations years ago. These conversations sounded so light and we never acted as if we took them seriously, we never spoke like going was going to be by our individual doing. We. . .just. . .”
“Have you read it?”
“I couldn’t bring myself to open the note alone. I was hoping here, today, could be the right space and time, if any.”
“Well, we have time. Go on . . . as long as you need to.”
“I once heard a guy say clothes are just what they are: clothes. And then for the next hour, I went on to argue the sentimental attachment a person can have to these pieces of fabric. He said I shared this line of reasoning because I was too broke to own a lot of clothes and so I had the memory space to keep in mind every shirt I had. Yes, this was back in my university days and, yes, I did not have a lot of shirts and their values were all in my mind. So I believed him for a time. Until I went home for the holidays and saw this big, plaid shirt I had not worn in a long time. And then it reminded me of you, Kemi. Not because you’d worn it before or that it smelled like you. Hell, I cannot even remember what you smelled like back then. But this shirt had you etched on it because it was the same one I wore the night you first spoke to me and said you loved my shirt. He was wrong. That guy, whose name doesn’t even come to mind, was wrong. And even though I stopped wearing that shirt after some years, it still reminded me of you. So, I kept it. And that was the first part of you I got: a compliment. Not hello or some pretentious question to feign interest. But a compliment to a shirt 3 times larger than I was. That was the beginning of getting and keeping parts of you, falling in love with them, singularly as I got them. And then in whole.
“The first time I confirmed this wholeness, I was in a car returning home from school for the semester’s break. This first true feeling that I could not describe was real, and I had tears to show for it. I do not know if it was the song I was listening to or the wind against my face coming from the window as we sped off but there was this heaviness in my chest. It was not the type that came from the weight of consequences, but the type that wanted to burst forth with emotions. And as I smiled at the stranger who waved at me, thinking I was someone else, my mind got caught in the net of our goodbye. That was the best fucking kiss. With you out there, bare; not in some dark corner of an ETF classroom, not under the safety of broken light bulbs of Science Theatre or Conv. Ground, but in the open. Outside. Like we always joked about having it. For years I begged for something as indescribably real, something I could desperately feel, like the characters of my stories. I’m grateful it led to you. I love you, K. By God, I fucking love you. It was finally in that moment, then, sitting there by the window of that car as tears rolled down my cheeks, that I was reminded of reality, of not seeing you again, and how this growing feeling would turn to an emptiness which would make me begin to seek desperate relationships later on. I was grateful for that present, but not satisfied with a future where I’d have to unlearn loving you. Even a blind man would not lose sight of all you had given to me. It had always been there but only in that moment did that wholeness become describable and made me realize that happiness lay, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what . . .
“Deep breaths, Kemi.”
“I cannot go on with it, Doctor. Here. Please, carry it on.”
“. . . Happiness lay, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have. So, I got off the taxi and took another car back to you, to start a new life, fully on the terms of being whole.
“I had no regrets with my choice back then, neither do I now. But we do not talk about a whole lot of things anymore. I mean you try to talk and I make a show of listening. I know you can tell when I do this. Yesterday, I turned 30. And there’s just something about that number that makes a man gauge his journey so far. I thought by now, I’d have a book published. Maybe two; a novel and perhaps a collection of short stories, definitely not poetry. Perhaps, a writing residency. Maybe an award with enough merit that would have people not asking about any books I had written because they would know at the mention of my name. A prestigious award to not make people’s faces contort when they found out I was a full-time writer for a living. Any of those things I told you I would become, back when I loved me and my dreams. I cannot even manage to get a thick business card now. I wear the same bland scarf around my neck to the same pretentious literary festivals. I pretend I know how to hold a glass of wine so I can be taken seriously when I talk. I have forgotten what it feels like to have hope. I am sorry I lost my faith, in us, in life, in religion. I still carry some of those verses with me like a shadow and they read out in my head sometimes. I do not have the strength to care about religion anymore. I wonder what I could have done better or not better before I became this way. Before I preferred a dead consciousness to the hope of eternal life.
“If you are reading this, it means I’m dead. I always said if I ever would leave, I’d go without some note. But here I am. Writing. I cannot apologize for what I am about to do or for my audacity to write you this note; it would be insulting to say it wasn’t you but me. I do not even have the right to tell you not to be angry. I am simply grateful for the scale of my life with you. But you see that’s the thing with scales in an imperfect world: one’s weight would always tip the other. I have long been dead inside, and the weight of continually watching my despair kill you is something I cannot have, something that pales in comparison to the weight of carrying on living. I have come to know and believe just how powerful love can be. But power isn’t the only thing strong enough to keep one going. More is needed. I needed more. More than I do not possess. More that I’ve never truly possessed. More than I should ask of you. And so, as I leave, take pleasure in the good times we shared. And the nights we stayed up in worlds of heightened passion and heavy breaths. Believe me, you were worth it, K.
“With love, or something closely whole,
“Doctor Juliana, if I took this paper and burnt it, even under fire, these words will take their time to fade gradually with the flame. And it will be more time than it took my husband to spray his brain across our bedroom walls and sheets. These words will fade because the flame leaves them with no choice. The fire made them disappear into ashes. Unlike my husband who couldn’t fucking understand that everybody also fucking cries and still have the chance to choose. Choices, Juliana. Choices. There is always a fucking cho―”
The room space reeks of silence as seconds turn into lengthy minutes amidst the sound of tears and paper getting snatched and then squeezed.
“I feel like I never knew him.”
“Oh, but you did. You wouldn’t be crying as much if you didn’t.”
“I don’t mean it like that, Doctor.”
“I know. But still. Okay, let’s try this. Tell me the version of him you knew, the version you met and loved. Don’t dig deep―simply tell it as it comes.”
“And how would that help?”
“You will know when you are done talking.”
“Okay . . . Uhm . . . Yahaya . . . he was a piece of many versions in different ways. Always listened when someone spoke, you know. When he listened and talked, it was the same―he would hold you with his eyes like whatever was happening around did not matter except you and the words. Yahaya knew how to tell painful truths in a way that made a person feel happy about hearing them. I remember the night he first told me he liked me. ‘You distracted me, and I am never distracted.’ In words that were as cryptic and simple at the same time, that was his way of being vulnerable. He said he was with a girl that he had just kissed. But that when he did, he got distracted by the memory of me and stopped. Ha-ha! My God, this sounds like shit now. But back then, I tell you, I did not even care about the girl whom he kissed. I didn’t even ask, at the time. You see, I . . . I, no one else but I, had distracted him, and that was all that mattered to me.
“He loved wristwatches and cold yoghurt and snakes. He hated chocolate and the word cute. He had dreams. He . . . he pretended like he wasn’t competitive or sensitive but if you looked carefully, you could see the glassy film of tears in his eyes when you told him J. Cole was just another boring rapper and that Quentin Tarantino was nothing more than an average film director. For Pete’s sake, the man cried in movies, and for a guy who rarely showed emotions, he listened to way too much Celine Dion.
“My Yahaya made ironing clothes seem like a religion. I could never understand his love for the sour taste of beer. I tried it once on my own accord and that was the only time I willingly took a bottle. He was a terrible dancer, too. The only time I ever saw him dance was at his sister’s wedding. It was more of the slow pacing kind, here and there, but he genuinely believed he danced. Growing up with three sisters, an aunt, and a mother, was his excuse for not knowing how to make anything eatable asides from pasta and noodles, which, if you ask me, are the same thing with differing weights.
“Uhm . . . he was a loud singer if we were to call what he did singing.
“He held on to principles like he would not exist without them. While texting, he ended sentences with periods. I even found myself talking and texting as he did after we got married. He knew how to keep secrets. He would rather show understanding than get angry at my mood swings. He knew how to make a person feel included. He liked to bury things deep within himself. He would cry when he thought I was asleep. And the little times he was able to sleep, he had this dead-ish way of sleeping like a log. He drank a lot. He had anxiety phases where he’d get anxious and start crying amidst heavy breaths. And he was the man I fell in love with.
“But my Yahaya never came to terms with certain odd corners of his life. I watched him try, but some things just don’t get reconciled. We both tried. For years. We really did. And it seemed to be working. I slowly began to forget that he cried. However, inside, I’ve come to learn that however little or vast a person desires change, it is solely dependent on how tolerable the person wants to be to the past. It is that plain. I watched how my husband struggled with family and death. He would say, ‘if you go to my home and you pay attention to the walls even now, you can still hear the vibrations of Danlami screaming over Baba, but you wouldn’t hear Mama, and that was her sin: silence.’ And then his aunt Keturah died. The guilt came alive. Guilt was in every conversation with strangers and friends that made the sad error of straying towards the topic of a family as he would go on and on and on without actually talking about anything that answered the question why.
“The most I ever knew about this Aunt was from a note I found in his pocket some day when trying to sort the laundry. It read something like: she stayed back in the family house. We left with marriage mates and jobs and new lives and death but she stayed back in the family house. And while we who left didn’t forget, we chose to not remember. For how do we keep memories of hot afternoons where the sun heated the bareback of Aunty Keturah as she swept the streets of Ruga Juli, singing and dancing and swaying to forces of rhythm only she understood―
“I watched all over again the struggle. I say watched because that was the only role he permitted me to play. I watched him dig deep into himself to bury and not talk about his pain. And talking about her was an unspoken rule. So, for years, he buried and buried and fucking buried until the very thing left of the memory of her was his intention to forget. But you see, even with the hiding and the burying, he still talked a great deal about some selective past. Ha-ha! Yahaya was annoyingly a piece of different versions.
“I found it intentional―the ease to which he could recant selected events of the past. It was almost as if he preferred that era, like they were perfect to him. I’m not one to say what was perfect or not. I just remember them too as moments that made him smile. And there wasn’t a whole lot of that in these past few years. But suppose if I was to marry intention to an act and call it perfect, it will be the intention to which my Yahaya remembered―to always relive. And by influence, I started to relive, too. And the imagery would become clearer with each remembrance.”
“And when you relive, Kemi, how did these images made you feel?”
“I would say solace. More often than not, a little solace because of the times I picked to relive. Again, Juliana, choices.”
“I understand. Can you tell me how they worked?”
“He told me to start keeping these moments in, what he referred to as, ‘small packets of truthful proportions’, for times when I will need them. You see, back then, there were days I’d feel unentitled to him. Like his love was some form of performance all so that I could leave school happy. Like I told you weeks ago, we met at the university. I was 2 years ahead of him and so this feeling came up a lot in my final year of the university. This choking feeling became tighter with each day. He noticed this without ever mentioning it to me. On the last night of my final exams, we walked and talked and walked for hours. This wasn’t how I expected the night was going to go. I assumed he was going to get physical with me. I’m not saying I wanted him to. Or not to. Or maybe I did. It . . . you see, it would have been my first time. And I wanted him to be my first time. I don’t know. I just . . . I simply wanted something worth remembering genuinely as love even though he was yet to say those words at the time. You know, not just talking, however nice it was. As I remember, I like that he held my hand as much as he did and he didn’t stop trying to look me in the eyes and getting me to laugh.
“At about 3 a.m., he made to drop me off at my hostel. Certain that this was our final time together in school, Yahaya hugged me in front of my hostel, amidst the many eyes around. It doesn’t seem like a big thing nowadays but anyone who knew him back then knew how hard it was to see him even walking a girl back to her hostel. Yet here he was, on that chilly night, with arms carelessly wrapped around me. ‘I’ll miss you,’ he said with the gentleness of the breeze that blew that night. And just before I could say this same truth back, he kissed me. At that moment, we didn’t care much about the consequences. Weeks after that, when the feeling of being unentitled to his love would well up in his absence, I’d take out my phone and scroll down to a screenshot of his WhatsApp story 5 minutes after that kiss. In that bright yellow background, it read, Butterflies are real. That was enough solace from doubt. And as time moved, these acts of remembered love shown became footnotes to a larger body of intentions.
“Something else he made me start to remember then was movie quotes. God, our lives were filled with movie quotes he considered too poetic to forget. I knew a few that would contradict his despair back then but I never quoted them. Those I kept to myself because even though I didn’t share in his despair, I still didn’t want to demean it.”
“Tell me one.”
““Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.” I heard it from First Reformed.”
“Kemi, let’s imagine you told him this back then, how do you think things would have been when he heard it―at that moment?”
“It doesn’t seem like it would have made a difference if I told him. Maybe I should have said it. I don’t know. Would he have listened? I don’t know. Simple truths can be unbearable, Doc. One has to be listening to even feel pain from words. He was getting so absent. I saw it and talked. You know how you sense these things but never in that particular moment know for sure what it is but yet you still raise concerns over them? I did. I told him. I told him, Doc. And I met the best elusive version of Yahaya. Gradually, the shadow of loneliness became clearer, even when both of us were together. It did come in variations: the bottles increased; he’d prefer lying with his back to the wall to feel something else rather than me; I’d be woken up to songs by Dido at 3 a.m.; the knives he used from the kitchen became sharper than I remembered them to be only whenever he used them.”
“And do you, now, believe you are guilty because he made you feel like you were not enough?”
“Oh, Juliana, I got tired of guilt long before the day of his death. If there’s anything I’d like to still be guilty of, it’s lacking the intensity to remember his choices. Today, I see reason. Tomorrow, I let emotions wash over me and I can’t stomach his choices. I think we are all faced with two problems, Doc: being logical, and being emotional. It is delusion when we assume complete control of logic. Finding a balance would mean trying to be logical as much as we can because only logic can inform us when to use emotion. But we are firstly emotional beings. Seldom do we agree to remain balanced. This is why I consider them as problems because they both require a struggle to not be practiced in their extremes. And in the struggle for balance, we find each to be essential in its ways: one essentially oblivious, and the other essentially human. Only now, I believe one must possess a certain level of despair to see and understand that of another person.”
“And there you have; I do believe you understood him, Kemi.”
“What does it matter anyway, Doc? He is gone, and these are the reflections of a woman caught between the muddy pool of lonely memories and the rocky hill path of starting all over and recovering. Reflections that do not provide certitude on what next to do. It’s been 7 months and this fact is now the challenge, one I don’t intend to resolve for now. Or pretend to know how to. I don’t know what to do with this fixed memory of pain, Juliana. I don’t know if I’m to, in quote, move on, and bank on hope for some distant future of happiness. My Yahaya used to have this saying that, ‘in fighting battles no one knows about, or healing from scars no one apologized for, be sincere enough to cry.’ I don’t know, also, if I’m to swallow honesty and weep like my heart cannot be repaired for God knows how long.”
“These reflections are the pieces to certitude. We would just have to piece this one day at a time, Kemi. Slowly, but surely. I went through some of the movie quotes you had talked about from before.”
“They all sound stupid now, yes?”
“No. No, not to me. Many made practical sense and I see why he loved to not forget them. I see why his favorite character was Raymond Reddington. There were more quotes from him in his quotes journal.”
“Practical sense isn’t always helpful, Doctor Juliana.”
“True, it isn’t, always. But for now, perhaps, this one quote does apply. Would you like to hear it?”
“There is nothing that can take the pain away. But eventually, you will find a way to live with it. There will be nightmares. And every day when you wake up, it will be the first thing you think about. Until one day, it will be the second thing.”
“Until. One. Day. And now? What do I do with all this present?”
“Now, let’s make a choice. Let’s choose to believe in the hope of the physics being in our favour. The hope that we may no longer be the seeds rain never reaches.”