So, I’m sitting here in the kitchen, staring at a blank page of Microsoft Word, and thinking of what to write. Last night, my thesis advisor, Fatima, had told me to dig deep into myself and let the story come out. And then it will be true just like in Langston Hughes’ Theme B. Her black long hair fell smoothly over her blue sari, and the few greys by her temple caught my eyes. She’s in her early forties and save for the few grays in her hair she can be mistaken for a twenty eight years old. Her face somehow reminds me of Rani Mukherjee a Bollywood actress whose TV persona had made me fall headlong in love during my adolescent years in Nigeria. Fatima has been very helpful to me, especially when I told her how I dropped out of my PhD program in Anthropology because my department coordinators rejected my thesis. They weren’t comfortable with my proposal to study the eccentricities of White People in Lower Manhattan.
So, I write Tinúkẹ́’s story:
Today’s morning hot cup of coffee is interrupted by a rather sad news. The phone rings and I set the cup down on the kitchen counter, watching the vapor rise. It is Uncle Tunde, my mother’s little brother, and he tells me he is travelling to Nigeria that morning, something terrible has happened. I ask what, and he hesitates, his voice muffled. It’s your cousin, Tinuke, he says after a sigh. She’s been missing for two days. I’m mute for a second, but when I finally get back my voice, he’s already concluding the conversation. I just thought I should tell you, he says sharply. I’ll call you when I get to Lagos.
I put the phone away, and stare at the TV. The anchor is outside a deli store, and behind her, I see active crime scene yellow tapes. A police car is also in the background. She’s saying something, but I don’t register. I can’t. I only see Tinuke. I pick my phone again and begin my search operation. I go through Tinuke’s Facebook page, and the farther I scroll down, the more I return to the past. I did the same thing two years ago. Searched for Tinuke.
Tinuke had returned abruptly from school in the middle of a fall semester. No one knew what happened, but we saw she was different from the girl that left for school a number of weeks back. She was extremely lean and her hair was cut. I was living at my uncle’s house then. She frequently had fights with her mother, and during their exchange of words, I began to notice something strange in her word pattern. They were like a bowl of salad. Often at night when I returned from the Graduate Center, we would sit by the porch, as the September was still in a summer mode, gaze at the moon. We would be dscussing A, and then out of the blue, my cousin would bring in Z with no connection in between. I had an idea of what was transpiring before me, but subconsciously I told myself it was some sort of student syndrome. She was apprehensive and louder.
One night, shortly after my first day of ethnography at the Battery City Park where I met Anastasia, I returned home to find Tinuke’s mother in tears. Tinuke was missing. She had left home that morning, saying she was going to the hair salon, and she hadn’t returned. It was eleven at night. Her phone was not going through. No one knew where she was. For three days, we combed Brooklyn to no avail. On the fourth day, she was found by two police officers, beside a fast-food outlet, in tattered clothes, and on the edge of passing out. During our search, in her cluttered room, with heaps of clothes on the bed and floor, I stumbled upon a journal under her shoe rack. In one entry dated September 2nd 2013, the day she began college, she wrote about how delightful it was leaving home, and becoming free. In another she wrote about the, in her own word, “inexplicable intoxicatingly fabulous euphoric feeling” meth brings. And went on detailing her sexual explorations. I was nauseated. Then this one last entry brought me to tears. She had succumbed to hazing of the sorority, and had become a statistic instead.
She was put in a psychiatric center for a week, and then discharged. Months later, one evening, we both went to Battery Park City for sight-seeing and walks. Past the north cove, we sat on a wooden bench, by the green fields of the Jewish Museum, and just watched the moving ferries, the luxury yachts, and the selfie taking tourists, in silence. What happened to you in school? I asked, rubbing my shoulder against hers.
At first she kept staring, then later stood up, redressing her hat. She walked father away from me, towards the railing and placed her hand on it. Her other hand was akimbo. She then turned to me, and her eyes all of a sudden were wet. The path was quiet, no passerby. The ferry was far from the shore so no rattling. Tinuke opened her mouth, her gaze still on me, and mine on her. I saw she was trying to speak, but only her eyes were speaking. Unable to speak, she ran towards me and I met her halfway. In my arms, she wept those tears until the corner of my shirt became damp. In the distant, a French woman stood poised holding a symbol of liberty in the air.
But I’m still restless. This story doesn’t seem as powerful as I would want to. I’m starting a new page. I need to write what I want people to read. A story that evokes emotions, that means so much to me. Anastasia, my girlfriend is on the treadmill. She’s been exercising for the past twenty minutes. Sweat is oozing out of her. She wipes them off, and continues to run. I bang my hand on the kitchen counter, and she reflexively look towards the kitchen. I rub my face in frustration and she presses a button on the treadmill. The speed starts to come down. She comes off the treadmill and walks towards me. Her purple track is so fitting that her jutting hips are somehow magnified. She picks up my cup of coffee and take a sip.
‘Are you okay?’ She asks.
‘No, I’m not. I have this darn story to write, and all I’ve been writing is crap!’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. Don’t stress it. It will come.’ She kisses me in the forehead and rubs my head. I love it when she does that.
‘Now, close the laptop, ‘she says, using her hand to press down the screen herself, ‘and watch me as I do yozikr.’
I push the laptop to a side and fold my arms. She’s now spreading her yozikr mat in the living room close to my bookshelf. She begins by standing on toes and stretching her hands upward. She closes her eyes, then goes to a bent position, and begins chanting zikr. Yozikr is Anastasia’s creolization of Yoga and the Sufi’s method of remembering God, zikr. Sufism is sect of Islam that practices mysticism. Anastasia is influenced by Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi mystic. She begins to sing in a sweet monotone the name of God: Allah, Allah…
I feel tears well up in the corners of my eyes, and my mind races to a past I wish I am able to change or better yet prevent. The aura of her chanting merged with flakes of snow falling outside the window sends bouts of emotions and I begin to remember, and remember.
I remember how in “shape” and beautiful Anastasia was. How woke she was. How our meeting was a poetry itself. I was a young Afrocentric Nigerian graduate in New York on a mission to document the bizarre behaviors of the whites in Lower Manhattan. On a summer day, I walked down Chambers Street, and got into Battery Park City through the entrance near the Real World. I observed the tourists with their ever shuttling cameras and wondering gazes, the dog walkers picking up behind their pets, and some parents cautioning their children: junior don’t go there, no you can’t have ice cream, do you want to go on time-out? It was a very hot day, but to New Yorkers it was a beautiful day. I was on the green field, shocked by the sight of virtually naked white people, getting punished under the scorching sun. At first, I wondered what they had done to deserve this cruelty, but I would later learn it was a self-induced penalty, no, therapy. Sun-bathing. I would later, owing to the persuasion of Anastasia, try it for one time that proved to be the first, and subsequently, the last.
That afternoon, I had stumbled upon the sight of a slim, beautiful white woman, lying face down on the green grass. Her skin was smooth and tanned. I sat down on a bench and waited until she rose and began to take out a new blue jeans and shirt from a leather bag besides her. I walked up to her.
I remember her voice, soothing and bold. Her face petite and beautiful. Her hair brunette and neatly cut, falling just below her earlobe. I remember our first night together at her apartment in Crown Heights, with a window looking over the 2 and 3 trains. That night was terrifically and outrageously a dashing one in terms of sexual fulfillment. Let’s just leave it at that. At dawn, her hands on my chest, I asked her about her ex- boyfriends, and she said, ‘Not boyfriends. Girl-friends.’
‘What do you mean?’
In response, she reached for her phone under a pillow, and showed me photos of her with a white blondie, who obviously was her lover. I got the gist and acted as if it wasn’t a surprise.
I remember the day everything changed. It was on a Friday. I was coming out of a mosque where I’d prayed the Jumua. It was my first Jumua in years. I had left not only Islam, but religion all together during my first year of graduate studies. It was all a social construct. Anastasia and I considered ourselves humanists, and resisted the urge to get married because of its linkage to religion. Anastasia was from a Hassidic Jewish family. We both hated Israel aggression. That day however, I went to a mosque without any reason. I was walking around the neighborhood and saw a mosque, and just decided to enter and reminisce.
The Imam’s sermon was about living Islam in a postmodern, capitalist, liberal world. When he announced that this was his topic, my ears perked. I wanted to hear what he had to say. He said quite interesting things, but it was all still through the prism of the Qur’an and Muhammad, and I was ultimately disappointed. He asked the believers to be meticulous of the alliance between the liberal left and the Muslims. It was an alliance of convenience, not of ideology, he said. Secularism and liberalism are the religion of the day, he went further. And they’re perpetuating the tyranny of the majority when it comes to public thoughts and discourse. He quoted Tocqueville.
‘Take for example the LGBTQ issue,’ he said, and at this I could feel my blood boiling. ‘My invitation to give a talk on climate change at Cornell University was canceled because the LGBTQ movement of that campus said I had once expressed that homosexuality is a sin in Islam and petitioned the administration to bar me from ever speaking in Cornell. They said my view is not inclusive. But I ask, where is my first amendment, brothers and sisters? Where’s my freedom to self-expression? Is freedom of thoughts only the right of liberals?’
There were mumbles from the congregation.
I was so angry I couldn’t sit anymore so I walked out of the mosque. On my way out, my phone rang. It was Anastasia. Her voice was subdued and passive. Something had happened to her.
I dipped a white towel in hot water, squeezed it, and caressed Anastasia swollen cheek with it. Then I rubbed her bruised arms and thighs with ointment balm. She shut her eyes throughout until I was done. It was one of her clients. It was around the time I randomly went to the mosque. Normally, it takes time for victims (or survivals) to be able to talk about it, but Anastasia was an exception. She was calm and collected, and somewhat emotionless. She recounted the tragic incident as though she was narrating a film. How she ripped her blouse and fondled her breast with force. How she got inside her until she was done. How she had felt groggy throughout, trying but unable to resist.
I suggested we go down to the precinct, and file charges. She stared at the wall for long before returning to my suggestion. Her eyes were red like lava and even with her disheveled hair she looked defiant. She smiled and kissed me in the forehead. ‘I was raped by an upper west side woman, Tareq.’ She stood slowly and said, ‘Let’s go to bed.’
By this time, Anastasia has finished her Yozikr. She comes over and opens my laptop. She reads in silence. Her gaze still fixed on the story, ‘Tareq,’ she calls, nudging me with her arm, ‘this story is good! Fatimah will like it.’