We have come home
I played with the hairs on his chest, feeling sated and woman for the first time since my return. The fan rolled lazily and barely stirred the hot air that settled on the room like an oversized blanket. The walls were hot and I was sure that if I stared hard enough, I might see the heat escaping the walls in mists. The subject of my affection opened an eye and grinned at me, swiping my firm buttocks. It was moments like this, that brought home brutal honesty to me and even though Ikenna did not press me for details, I always opened up to him a little afterwards.
I sat upright on the tired mattress. It was depressed due to the burden of our combined weights. It had surely seen better days. The bed sheet lay tangled at the foot of the mattress. Realising, momentarily, that I lay on an unclothed mattress prompted me to get up immediately. I had gotten used to many things, – the major being to lower myself onto a mattress that sat on the floor. I advanced towards the window, looking out into the yard. I wished I were a tree, like the Neem tree standing majestically in the yard. It swayed gently in the hot afternoon breeze. The tree commanded respect without needing to speak, but then, maybe not. Children in this neighbourhood loved to climb trees anyways.
“Soon.” I said, staring blankly out the window. I knew he wouldn’t understand. I’d felt the need to speak aloud. My thoughts were jumping from one end of the world to another, yet constricted within the frame of my body.
“What is ‘soon’?” He asked. He got up to pull on his briefs, which were rather worn. “Here, wrap this around yourself.” He said, throwing a freshly laundered wrapper at me.
“Thank you.” I said, wrapping my naked self. My skin still glistened due to the sweat but I was no longer feeling euphoric as of minutes ago.
“What is ‘soon’?” He asked again.
A pregnant pause engulfed the room, intermittently punctuated by discordant beats of palm-wine drinkers. Outside the sky was maturing into a darker hue.
“Soon, I will pick up the broken pieces of my life. Soon...” I probably sounded as though trying to convince myself. I wasn’t sure and didn’t care. What was important was that I laid bare my thoughts. I parted the curtains fully, making room for some air.
I had known Ikenna for all of three weeks, following my arrival, and he was getting to know me, rather too well, if I would admit the truth to myself. He did not speak. He wrapped his arms around me from behind we swayed together as one. Many minutes later, he asked:
“What would you like us to do this evening?”
“Nothing.” I replied.
He held me still, for a long time, as if I was the most precious thing he had ever held. Before darkness fully descended, he released me to pick up my Marks and Spencer double D-cup bra with its matching panties and handed them to me.
I parked my borrowed car at the only eatery miles away from Ikenna’s home. To make sure the parking attendants left my car in peace and kept an eye on it, I bought a bottle of water from the eatery, tipped them and lied I would only take a short while to ‘run my errand’. They did not seem to mind since the tip bought them a pack of cigarettes each to caress pending when their shift ended.
Ikenna took me to a crowded bar. Highlife music drummed out from the speakers at a volume designed to drown out all conversation. I was feeling particularly melancholic on the way and it frustrated much discussion between us. We found a practically hidden table, far away from the stale smoke that hung above the heads of the patrons. It was just slightly below ceiling level, contributing to its grey and drab pallor. I was not particularly fond of bars but I was determined to enjoy it. The music helped a bit to improve the mood but I still wanted to talk.
“Where did you learn how to sing Sunny Ade so well? I mean...”
“I know what you mean,” I interjected him. We laughed. “Yes o, even Oyinbo knows how to sing KSA.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised.”
We were quiet when a waiter came to take our orders. I tried a Guinness. Wine could not be found at the bar. He wanted to introduce me to the smoke-grilled meat, Suya, so he excused himself to go buy directly from the stand. As he waited for his package, he caught my eye and beckoned me over. The man in charge of the grill was almost as black as the charcoal he used and was very slim. He was obviously hot, standing directly beneath a single exposed bulb and by an overheated grill. His skin was sleek with sweat. Ikenna pointed out the different parts of meat he had selected and we chatted about irrelevancies until we got the newspaper wrapped package. Oil seeped from it into the plastic wrapping.
Ikenna dragged his chair closer to mine and invited me to try the package. I smiled, brows raised. He picked up a toothpick and dipped it in meats, onions, cabbage and tomatoes. He brought the arrangement to my mouth. It exploded in a burst of flavour, sharp, peppery and exciting, and brought tears to my eyes. I chewed and swallowed in a hurry and lunged for the drink. I gulped straight from the bottle, savouring the tantalising effect the chilled liquid affected on my hot tongue. He guffawed, seemingly, at my distress and sat back, watching me.
“Welcome to Nigeria, welcome home.”He said.
“Yeah, that was good. Hot!”
“Just go slowly and you’ll enjoy it... So, what’s your story?”
“Oh that, don’t remind me. I’m actually starting to enjoy myself.”
He smiled. He was quiet, I loved it. We descended on the Suya in silence. Soon we were through and sipping our drinks.
“I have two sisters, both in the U.S.’ I started, ’We used to be so close but then marriage happened. They are married with kids and I hardly get to speak to them anymore.”
I giggled at the thought of drifting apart from my siblings like a slowly multi-ripped photograph.
“I am the oldest and that has my mother praying day and night. I guess God was tired of her giving detailed instructions so He has not responded yet.
“I was in a relationship with this guy, Gilbert for a little over three years, – three years, four months and ten days to be exact. Bert was the funniest guy ever and I was madly in love with him. Sometimes, I went into a mood just because no one should be so happy, the way I was with him. I loved everything about him and I still can’t remember his faults. He is married now though. A doctor, – a pediatrician. At first, I thought my parents loved him. They knew of our relationship and I once traveled to meet his parents in Canada. His siblings are all married. As the last child, his folks were quite fond of him. Just when things were starting to get really serious, my parents gave me a shocker of my life. I needed to break it off with Bert.”
Ikenna cleared his throat and sipped the last of his drink, forcing a slurping sound off the bottle. I continued, nonetheless.
“They said he was Catholic and by his own admission, he didn’t take religion seriously. I mean, we dated for over three years and that was no news to them. We’d even started planning our wedding. Try as I may, they remained adamant and Bert would not marry me without my parent’s blessings. He was traditional that way. I moved out of the house shortly before my immediate younger sister, Lara, got married. It has been over two years now and no one else appeals to me.”
Ikenna let the straw slide out of his mouth, at its unconsciously slow pace. He released a deep breath as though resurfacing from underwater. He cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry Lynda. Do you still talk with your parents?”
I dragged the silence as I chewed on a bit of meat I’d scavenged from the empty oil-soggy paper. I longed for more of its peppery hotness.
“We visited Nigeria together. In fact, they took a trip to Lagos. I refused to go with them and I’m staying with my Grandparents until they return. I keep my distance now especially as Mother is out to match-make me with any eligible male I’m not related to. I get the feeling that they don’t want me to marry a whitey. My sisters are both married to Nigerians. Mother says my work cannot give me children. I lecture in a university over there, Law.”
“That’s nice; I also recently started lecturing myself. Although, I am an assistant lecturer.” He nodded his head in tune to the music, bringing it back to my consciousness.
“What a coincidence! So that is my story. Maybe I should write a book.” I cocked my head aside, contemplating the magnitude of such endeavour.
“A book about what?”
“Inter-cultural marriages and the role family plays, – both positively and negatively. Oh yeah, that’s a thought.”
“Your parents are not going to like it. They are probably going to freak out.” We burst into peals of laughter, punctuated by a sudden glance at my watch.
“It’s late.” I announced. He looked at me, over the five contrasting bottles we’d had and nodded.
“We should go.” He signalled the waiter and arched his right hand to bring out his wallet. I was quick and extended some notes to the approaching waiter from my purse.
“Keep the change.” I blurted.
“Thank you madam. God will bless you plenty, plenty.” He knelt profusely. Ikenna grinned at him, then at me.
“You!” He said and stood up. He held my hand, possessively, out the bar into the deserting street and into a taxi he stopped. He caressed and pecked my hand as we exited the taxi and made to my borrowed car outside the eatery. A single light illuminated the eatery wanly. No soul stirred inside. The parking attendants took turns puffing smokes out of their cigarettes, greedily stuffing in the taste of gradual death like an interesting, yet incomprehensible mistress.
Static mingled with music playing on the radio. I sang along, accompanying it with a rhythmical tapping on the steering wheel. I’d not felt any better than this in a long time. In front of my Grandparent’s house, I parked. He stared at the house, an ungated, newly painted bungalow sitting proudly amidst rows of dilapidated, unpainted houses. He took his time, careful to hide his trepidation of going in from me but I sensed it. He knotted and unknotted his fingers and shifted his legs nervously.
“I will miss you.” I said. He turned to me and smiled. A flush of relief spread over his face. I drew closer and hugged him.
“So are you going to find another underage guy? You know…” He asked, regaining his self-confidence and breaking off from my embrace.
“You sound jealous. Ikenna, I am five years your senior. I’d be thirty-four next month.” I retorted.
“It’s okay; I was just running my mouth. I felt, after exercising your limbs seven times, with the wild performance you put in today, I had a right to ask.”
“Y’all Nigerian men like to get all territorial and all. It was supposed to be ‘no strings attached’ man.” I couldn’t place if I was annoyed or playing along anymore.
“Forget I said so but don’t you ever forget you’re a Nigerian too!” He said, raising his hands in surrender.
“I’d give you a call when I get back. Okay?” I sighed.
“Alright, but try and get back into the swing of things. I’d pray for you from here.”
I watched him alight the car and disappear into the night before driving into the compound. He was gone faster than he came into my life. He retained a place in my heart, even after I returned to the States. I set to write him a letter as soon as I resumed work. I mentioned the new lecturer in the office, happenings with me, my family, the brief ruckus at the Airport customs where I lost my phone and my return to the States. Everything but that I was missing him.
I never got a reply from him.
Eleven months after my trip to Nigeria, I stumbled on a piece of paper rumpled in one of my jeans trouser. A hurried scribbling revealed Ikenna and an improbable mix of numbers. My heart raced and I picked the landline by my bed hurriedly. I punched in the numbers. No response. The call was about to disconnect the third time, when an engaging tone unnerved me. A panting sound filtered through the receiver.
“Ikenna Okafor?” I stuttered.
“Speaking.” He panted.
“Arinola?” He asked, sucking in a breath.
“Yes. I found him. I found the guy.” I could only manage.
“When is the wedding?” He joked.
“In six months and you’re coming.”
“I was actually pulling your legs but I’m happy for you. Sure, I will. Have you written that book yet?”
“Yes, I owe you a copy. It is titled ’We have come home.’”
“That sounds about right. Yes, we have come home!”
We giggled and talked, about everything and nothing, save for our secret on the depressed mattress. Once again, I felt much better simply talking to him. We were in different worlds but had made a home in a world of our own.