Two nights ago, I was at a housewarming party, holding a glass of wine, and admiring one of the paintings on the wall. The artwork seemed to have been made around the Renaissance period with its abundance of oil and brightness. Michelle, a temp from Kansas, in a turquoise dress, came over and stood by my side, and said, ‘Isn’t the social evolution of humans a strange oxymoron?’ I turned to see that she had her gaze to the artwork, her brunette hair neatly hanging just below her earlobes. This was the first time I’m seeing her face up-close. She had a mole just above her lip.
‘It seems every time humanity as a whole progresses in certain aspects, we go into regression as a result in other even more vital aspects.’
‘Take for example, the industrial revolution, although it put an end to the feudal system, and paved way for workers freedom to choose, it also ushered in the worst calamity to have ever befallen humans in our collective consciousness and sense of empathy. It made us lose sight of the real values of life.’
I wanted to ask her to be a little specific about what the real values of life were, but I decided against it. It was a subjective statement and subjectivity is as valid as objectivity in my books. Objectivity itself can only be understood within the provisions of subjectivity, which allows us to define what’s objective as the empirical, the factual according to data. So I asked what the worst calamity was.
‘The capitalist system.’ She then took a sip from her drink.
Right there, I was teleported back to my undergraduate years. It reminded me of Professor Olajuwon, my sociology professor, a hipster to the core. In his class, every vice can be traced back to the effects of capitalism. Michelle and I spoke more as the night deepened, and before I knew it, our talk on art, social inequalities had taken a softer turn, and we were, by the aid of several glasses, now giggling, and getting comfier.
The loneliness in the apartment when I got home at 1 a.m. crushed me, and for the first time in years, I became homesick. Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was the bout of depression hanging over me for months. I didn’t know. But right there laying down on my sofa, and the ceiling slowly turning, my mind drifted homewards. I had left Nigeria, and with it unknowingly, my religiosity. And now the memories of home, of grandma and mother began to filter back like ancient rivulets, and I remember the years of childhood.
I remember leaving the house when Wale Rufai announces the morning news headline on the radio. I remember how my grandma would fold five naira bill to fit my tiny school uniform pocket. I was in kindergarten then. I also remember Yetunde, the girl from the next door, whom I walked to school with. I remember our walks, holding hands, and people’s jokes when they call us husband and wife. I remember our apparent rejection of the titles, but what I don’t remember is how much or little we internalized that relationship.
I do remember my first kiss. Toyin was my first girlfriend and we began dating in the first year of senior secondary school. Those times seem like a different lifetime altogether now. It was at night in my grandma shop. She had on this purple ankara. She was supposed to be at church. Revival Church which her aunt attended was two blocks behind my grandma’s house. It was dark. Power had been cut. We kissed in silence, and I still remember how it felt. Her lips felt tender and firm. I was in love or maybe it was bare innocence and ignorance.
I remember my grandma calling my cousin and me down in the sitting room and telling us to be careful.
She could see we were being rallied here and there by the hurricanes of puberty. She wasn’t forbidding us from seeing girls, she was telling us to think deeply in what lies beyond. Toyin came to our house as usual that day. We went into my room, where we played video games. We played some more and more until she had tears running down her eyes. It was supposed to be painful I had assumed so the tears was normal. We dated for a while after that. On one of our last meetings I revealed to her something I hadn’t before. It was still early noon, and we were sitting in my grandmother’s living room. I asked her to point to her self. She rolled her eyes. Humor me, I said, with a solemn face. She gave in and then pointed at her head. That’s your head. She pointed at her chest. She pointed at her hand. She pointed at her entire body. Defeated, she asked, partly groaning, what my point was.
Your self is what makes you, you, I said. It’s you. So it’s incorrect to say you have a soul or he has a soul. You have a body, but your soul is you. The self is one of the things modern day psychology is still grappling to understand. It is called ‘consciousness.’ Can we really study consciousness? Cognitive Psychologists are still asking this. How would we when we have to be conscious to study consciousness? What makes the self knows himself? As in, how can we understand why you have inner voice? If your heart, kidney, vocal cords were to be changed medically, you would still be you. By now, Toyin’s gaze was cutting me with its sharpness. She caressed her hair and asked why I was telling her these.
Self is called ruh in Arabic. I held her hands. And it is this ruh that God will bring forth on the Day of Judgment. New bodies will be created for me and you. And then account of our worldly deeds will commence. Then, between sobs and tears, I told her we had to stop, come to a halt, and part ways. I love you, I do. I don’t want us to stop because you’re Christian and I am Muslim. No. I don’t even want us to stop at all. But we must stop because of our ruh (our selves.) I can still see her in her silk purple dress, mopping her tears with a white handkerchief, and looking at me with confusion and love.
If Toyin were to see me today, she would scream hypocrite. Once I got to America, the desire to move up, to gain social capital consumed me. So I tried to integrate, to be like them (White Middle Class), to attend their events, to dress and act in the ways they did, and my integration climaxed when I married Anastasia, a white girl from a Jewish background. And although we’re divorced now, the memory of our first date still lingers and brings a beautiful nostalgic rush to the mind. 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, sorry, therapy. Sun-bathing. I would later, owning to the persuasion of Anastasia, try it for one time that proved to be the first, and subsequently, the last.
Weeks later, we went to a restaurant in midtown, where a band was playing. Outside, the rain came down in light drizzles, and the dim lights of the restaurant along with the jazz made everything cozier, including my blood. Anastasia stood after she had finished her drink, looking dashingly beautiful in her chiffon maxi-dress, and held out her hand, I looked at it and my mouth dissolved into a smile.
We danced. Slowly. She put her arms around my shoulders. I held her hips and we had our first kiss.
Our romance would go on all the way to the time my proposal was rejected and it survived that period.
One Sunday, we drove to her parents’ house in Ditmars Park, Brooklyn, to formally announce our engagement, and the only thing I remember of that gloomy visit was her father, though liberal from Anastasia’s account of him, branding me with the tag goyim, and throwing me out of his house. That episode in our love story turned to be for the best because after that turn away, our passion intensified, and Anastasia cut off relations with her parents. Her defiance strengthened my resolve as well, and a week later, I would put my foot down, and tell my mother over the phone that I was marrying my “òyìnbó” girlfriend. A great mother, she accepted, albeit reluctantly, and gave her blessings.
I woke up to a severe headache. The time on the cable decoder said 5:30 am. That sight took me back to last night’s homesickness because it reminded me of the exact time my mother would wake me and my little sister up for the dawn prayers. I couldn’t remember exactly the last time I had put my head down in prayers, but I had a rough idea of it being during my first year at the graduate school.
Anastasia and I had considered ourselves humanists. But for the purpose of nostalgia, I decided to pray. I washed my hands, face and feet with water in the bathroom, and wore a kaftan. I did the prayer well, save for a few times I stumbled during the recitations. I seemed to have forgotten some of the lines. By the time I took a shower and got dressed, it was quarter to seven. I rushed out of the apartment straight into the elevator where I saw Mark in pajamas, his cheek red and sore.
Mark was a friend who lived on the upper floor. I asked if everything was fine, and he said not to worry, that his wife, Catherine, had a manic episode last night and threw things at him. She’s calm now so he’s taking the day off to look after her.
Sometimes I wondered how Mark did it. How he could stay with her despite her illness. Anastasia was nothing compared to Catherine yet we fell apart.
She had developed a sense of insecurity that was just out of this world because of what happened to her.
No matter how much I said I loved her, she was scared I would leave her. If I spent so little as thirty minutes out than normal before getting home, she’d be scared I had left her. I remember the day everything changed. It was on a Friday, 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. The Imam was black and he had a red dyed beard. When he announced that this was his topic, my ears perked. I wanted to hear what he had to say. 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. . 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 later that night. 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 survivors) 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.’
Anastasia slowly regained herself and was able to master her insecurities, somewhat. But the remnants were still detrimental to our marriage.
She still feared that I would ultimately leave her because she had become overweight so all discussions towards having a child were terminated. We argued and argued, until one evening of sparse snowflakes, she kicked me out and said we should take a break for a while. Divorce usually began with taking times apart. ***
Break time, at the office, I was in the lounge, dialing my mother’s phone number, when I lifted my gaze to see Michelle, bending by the table to put a wrap of hummus into the microwave. She looked nice in the slim skirt. I put my phone in my pocket as she turned to me. I rekindled our discussion from the night before.
‘I enjoyed our discussions last night.’ I said as she did a quick typing on her phone.’
‘Oh, yeah me too.’
This morning, on my way to work, I walked past a hardware store and remembered that I needed to buy some bulbs and a new reading lamp. But I told myself I would rather get it from an online store as it would be cheaper and that way I don’t lose time shopping through aisles. Then Michelle’s takes revisited me. We’re now in the digital age and manufacturing and service industries are now going out of style. Those who wish to stay in the market must rebrand and go digital, create a website and have an App. We choose who we want to meet and when. We live in our own bubble. Our sense of individualism and egoism becomes overhyped, diminishing collective consciousness.
‘If you do not have a lot in your hands tonight, how about we continue tonight? I know a good place on the corner of Lexington and Nostrand.’
She pouted her lips and walked closer to me. ‘Are you trying to ask me on a date?
‘Would it be that bad if I did?
‘I would say I don’t eat out.’
‘Okay, what if I say we can stay in and I would cook?
The clinking of the microwave interrupted before she could give an answer.
Her hummus was now done.
She took them out and asked if I’d like some. I declined and thanked her. She drew back a strand of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear, and then to exit the lounge. At the door, she turned back. ‘Tell me you cook good fufu.’
The mistake I made was cooking for myself and not her. I erred by putting the same amount of cayenne pepper I use for myself in the vegetable. It was too spicy for her taste. So after a few morsels, she was done. We sat on the rug in the living room. Two glass cups sitting beside a bottle of cognac she brought. Our discussion took a different turn when she noticed my mother’s photograph on the wall.
‘She’s beautiful!’ She said. ‘You must miss her!’
‘I do, I really do.’
While coming home, I had branched at the Deli Store around the corner to buy a calling card to call my mother. Ahmad, the Pakistani cashier, had told me they didn’t carry calling cards anymore as people didn’t buy them again. There wasn’t any need anymore, he had said. Don’t you have internet on your phone? My internet was not connecting well so it was hard to make a call to Nigeria. I took a glance at her photo, following Anastasia’s remark, and the beauty in her slanting tribal marks over her brown smiling face sent me further into bouts of emotions. In that split second, I decided I would go home that summer. There was no Anastasia to consider. I was free.
‘When was the last time you saw her?’
As if she could read my mind. There was something special about Michelle. She seemed able to see right through me.
‘Not since ten years ago when I came to America.’
‘That’s a long time. Why didn’t you go back and see her?’
‘My, ‘ I stammered. ‘My ex.’
‘Tell me more about your mom.’
‘She’s kind, gentle and very sweet. She can’t read or write. But she likes to listen to the news. She raised my sister and me as a single mother. Our father died very young. She sold fish at the roadside to raise us, but now she has a cold room where she sells wholesale frozen fish and meat…’
‘Strong woman, eh. I had an anthropology professor from Nigeria. I always wanted to visit. Talking about your mother and seeing her photo reminds me of her. I would love to visit Nigeria someday.’
You can with me this summer. Just get pregnant for me, and I will introduce you to my mother as the good òyìnbó wife that is carrying her grandchild. Of course, I said this to myself.
‘Say I visit, How welcoming would she be, your mother?’
‘She would treat you like a queen.’
‘That’s some corny line for black women, right there. ‘She reached for a cup and winked. Then she resumed. ‘But I love the way you said it. It’s from Coming to America, right?’
‘Yes, and you’re my Lisa.’ I laughed.
She took the cup away from her lip and looked at me, tipsy. ‘I like your accent. God, it gets to me!’
It was not the first time. Anastasia said the same thing on our first date. But right there, I was too intoxicated by her to respond, so I kept gazing at her, blushing, and smiling. Then like a spark, something ignited in my heart and my body became tepid. Her eyes were now wide. Just like in the movies, we locked eyes, tilted towards each other, and the night began with our cleaving lips.
When Michelle woke up, I was sitting at the foot of the bed, crying. The tears just wouldn’t stop gushing out. She wrapped her arms around me and comforted me without asking what was wrong at first. Then after a few minutes, she asked if it was because she said she wasn’t on birth control pills, or if I was feeling sad that I had sex with someone who wasn’t Anastasia. I mumbled a ‘no’ for both, and cried more, now resting my head on her bosom.
‘This is really strange. What’s wrong? ‘She caressed my hair and kissed my forehead.
I sniffled, took in a few sobs, and turned my gaze at her.
‘My, my… my mother died last night.’