A few weeks ago, I started writing a short story titled In America. It was supposed to be about this Nigeria girl that moves to America to study, and how she begins to see her whole life change before her eyes in an exciting way. An early blurb I wrote reads: ‘In America examines the idea of home, and how much people can change when they’re far from it.’ Now, 5,000 words and ten pages written, I’ve decided that I can’t go on with it – not least because it doesn’t feel authentic: you see, I’ve never been to America, and I don’t know what it means to experience change at that level. However, because I’m the sort of writer that falls in love with my words (don’t judge me, I know it’s dangerous), I feel reluctant to let the work go completely. Below is an excerpt from that story, beginning from somewhere in the middle. I’ve been biting to share!!
TWO THINGS happen when we count our lives in years: (1) it travels fast, like the subway train; (2) the past curls up into one tiny ball which is then thrown out the window of that train. But when we count our lives in moments, it slows down, and the past becomes a slideshow that we’re able to observe with Moonlight Sonata playing in the background. In Nigeria, I counted my life in months and years: (five months of ASUP strike, four months between school resumption and vacation, four years at Yabatech, three years of relationship with Oje.) Now, much of that is lost to me; and the little I do retain is vague and unfamiliar. Here in America, I’ve learnt to count my life in moments. Each moment flows into the next, and the next, and the next, like a continuum, so that in the end, what I have is one divinely delicious moment.
I take the subway back to the apartment, too tired to make the walk. The Spanish doorman has just begun his shift. He greets me cheerfully. I take the elevator up to the second floor.
Taiye is not home, but she’s left the tv on, tuned to E! Network. An advert is playing on the screen. I turn the tv off and fall in a couch. Downstairs, the buzz of traffic, some dude with a thick Indian accent yelling something across the street. But for that, quiet. It’s nice to have some quiet here sometimes. Most times, Taiye’s friends come around, and they make a lot of noise. Most of them are guys; only a few of them are black. The rest are either Caucasian or Hispanic or Asian-American. The whites are mostly successful and well-to-do, unwittingly confirming ideas of white supremacy I’d heard people talk about back home. They come here dressed chicly, with their latest iPhones buzzing and car keys dangling from their fingers. One was here yesterday – Hank. He handles the tax returns for a big company in New York and goes to Manhattan every week. Another who hasn’t been here a month is writing his dissertation for a doctor’s degree. I envy them, how they can all be so young and have their lives sorted out.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the blacks that are unplaced. They’re either local rappers trying to make it, or playing for some local basketball team or the other; only a few of them went to college. There’s one, though, who is different: Matt – and not just because he’s a novelist. He’s the only one of Taiye’s friends I treat with more than mere politeness. He comes around less often than the rest, and the days between his visits are like the lines at a filling station in Nigeria when fuel is scarce. It’s the conversations: lively and intelligent. I talk with Matt in ways I can’t talk with Taiye. He gets things. In the beginning, we disagreed strongly on issues: for example, he doesn’t see anything wrong with a woman exposing her body. He says it’s her decision, and she has a right to make it herself. Although, now I somewhat share this belief, then, I was alarmed.
‘What? What about modesty?’ I said. ‘What about chastity?’
‘What do those words mean? I don’t know, you tell me,’ he said, raising his voice a bit, aiding his words with his hands. ‘You see, the first thing a writer must learn is how dangerous language is. What’s that popular saying: words are dangerous, be careful how you use them? It’s not so much the words themselves that are bad as the ideas they convey, and these ideas are not inherent, they’re ascribed. By the society. The word ‘nigger’, for example. It’s a derivative of Negro, yeah? And Negro used to be a neutral word, just a mere description of a race of people, like Hispanic or Caucasian. But then racism happened: the white race decided that the black race was inferior, called them ‘nigger’ to drive the point home, and it became a bad word. Now, I feel offended when a non-black person calls me nigger. What happened there? The society ascribed a different meaning to the word. They decided ‘white’ was good, and everything outside it was bad. The same with that word ‘chastity’: we’ve decided that’s what’s good, and everything outside it is bad. I don’t like the word. In fact, I don’t use it. It teaches shame; it destroys self-esteem. Where’s the recognition of human diversity? Some people want to cover their body – fine. But some don’t – and that’s got to be valid too.’
Matt’s clearedheadedness made me realise how confused I was about many things. We spend more time together alone when he comes over than with Taiye, and she doesn’t bother us. He asks me about Nigeria, and I tell him. About how Taiye and I had lived in the same apartment building since we were eight, and how her parents had moved out of the neighbourhood when we were twelve. About my parents: my father, who is a car dealer, and my mother who works for a security firm that works for Chevron. About the high school I went to; many of the students had rich parents, unlike me, and for a long time, it was a battle for acceptance. About graduating from that school and not attending the valedictory service because I was too ashamed to wear the ugly clothes my mother had bought. About Oje; about the three years I spent at Yaba College of Technology studying Mass Communication. Here, he asked why I was starting all over again, applying to college as a freshman.
‘Yabatech is a polytechnic,’ I said, ‘and in Nigeria, polytechnics are like high school for twenty-year-olds.’
Once, he asked me to talk about the political climate of Nigeria, ‘the corruption and everything, you know.’ He said he’d read a special report on corruption in Nigeria in The Economist, and wanted a real-life account. I laughed and said Oje was the one he wanted to talk to. When I broke up with Oje, I told him. He blinked a little, then said, ‘Wow. That’s a surprise. How’d he take it?’
I shrugged: ‘Bad – how else?’
I shook the wineglass in my hand and watched the liquid in it whirl around. Then I took a short sip. Matt held his own glass with both hands, like an offering. It was dark, and we were huddled together in a crowd, in a luxurious New Jersey apartment belonging to a friend of Taiye’s and Matt who’s an architect. The slow music in the background coupled with the ethanol of the wine to instil a dizzy feeling into me.
‘Do you feel bad?’
I looked at him: ‘Bad? No. I don’t feel bad. I don’t feel anything.’
‘Why’d you do it? Why’d you break up with him?’
‘I don’t know. I guess I was feeling tied down. I don’t want to be tied down. I want to be free. Something’s happening to me – I don’t know what, but I can feel it. And I like it.’
In turn, he tells me about himself. His parents are Jamaican immigrants. They moved to California in 1977, a month after the attack on Bob Marley’s life the previous year. His father is a senior correspondent on CNN, his mother a matron in a clinic in LA. They had him in 1986, their third and last child. His brothers are both doctors: one in Seattle, Washington; the other in Lorraine, Ohio. He wrote his first novel while he was at the New York University; his second novel was published last year.
I’ve been to his house once. That day, he showed me his study. It was an airy, high-ceilinged room in the basement. The door was soundproof and the lights were dull, as in other parts of the house. He said noise and light distracted him; he preferred to do things in the dark, really, ‘but that’s not possible, right?’ In the filtered light of the room, the many paintings on the wall took on a mystical presence, like ghosts watching us from the back of beyond. Right in the middle of the room stood a large oak table. In a corner, there was a tiny record player with speakers. He went over and pressed a button and soft jazz music started.
‘I don’t know.’ I shrugged. ‘I guess.’
In that room, with the lights dull like that, we held each other and danced slowly to the music. And it was the best moment of my life.
ALL OF Taiye’s friends flirt with me, but it is in the playful, casual way you yank at something you’re sure won’t come off – the same way they flirt with Taiye. I became sure about Taiye within the first month of my arrival. Although the signs had been there all along: (in that hug three months ago at the airport; in the ‘oh, look at her ass!’, and ‘Damn, she’s hot!’, and the rubbing of palms that accompanied these; in the subtle tomboyishness (although I’ve learnt that you can be perfectly feminine too, like Sara); in the hundreds of male friends and only a handful of female ones), it came as a shock to me, especially with how casually she said it, not allowing for me to react, not assuming that I’d have a reaction. ‘Hey, you know Sara and me are dating, right?’
I was offended. All of a sudden, all the knowing smiles and tepid flirting of her masculine friends finally made sense: they had assumed I was like her, that we were a pair. In Nigeria, the term ‘homosexual’ is derogatory, something you’d call that male friend who behaves like a lady, something he’d pick a fight with you over. But here, people say it freely, about themselves and about other people, and no fights are picked. It terrified me.
‘That’s homophobic. It’s rude,’ said Matt the next day.
‘It is?’ I was confused.
‘Yes, it is. I’m sure Taiye doesn’t want to hear you saying all that.’
‘But this is new to me. I don’t know how to handle it.’
He sighed. ‘I get that. Really, I do. But lemme ask one question.’
‘Before yesterday, before she told you, what was your feeling towards her?’
‘I don’t know. She was my friend. That was how I felt towards her.’
‘Great. Now that she’s told you, what has changed?’
‘I don’t know, Matt. It’s just…difficult to process.’
‘Has she stopped being kind?’
‘Has she stopped being human?’
‘Then what’s the problem? She’s still the same person you’ve always known. How she loves does not – should not! – affect your relationship in anyway. And that’s the thing people don’t understand. The world is too diverse to be just one thing.’
When I read Richard Wright’s Native Son, I discovered something about the nature of fear. Now, I know that the reason why I was offended by Taiye’s homosexuality, the same reason why the Nigerian government has placed a 14-year-sentence on its practice is fear. In high school, a group of boys in my class had consistently bullied another boy because he was feminine. That boy was small and frail, and exceedingly terrified of them, certainly, but now I understand that they’d been more terrified of him. Here was the world as they knew it, happy and normal, and here was this strange thing coming to upset that. Fear can move people to do violent things.
Now, I have no patience for homophobes. And it’s not just because of that one night Taiye and I spent together. That night in Chicago, far away from home – doubly for me – when passion and desire had overridden sense and sensibility. It still seems like a dream even now, a week later. It was her birthday, and we’d both been drunk (but somehow we both know that it had nothing to do with that; that we’d known exactly what we were doing, and even if we weren’t drunk, we’d have still done it all the same.) It was in a hotel room; Hank had paid for it – his little birthday gift for Taiye. ‘One amazing night in a five-star hotel,’ he’d announced on the phone, to dramatic effect. ‘Just the two of you. You guys are gonna love it. Take your dildos and vibrators. You’re gonna have great sex!’
He still thought we were a couple.
‘Dude’s crazy!’ I laughed after he hung up. ‘What happens when he finds out that we’re not dating after all?’
‘We better make sure that doesn’t happen before the trip!’
We packed excessively for one night and almost missed our flight. Hank picked us up at the airport and drove us straight to the hotel to drop our bags, then out again, to celebrate. When he dropped us back at the hotel, it was midnight, and we could barely keep on our feet. Before he drove off, Hank said, ‘Don’t forget to fuck, guys. You have to tell me about it later. Ciao for now.’
The room was dark and cold. Taiye flicked on the lights. I was was more drunk; I stumbled towards the bed and fell in it, hands spread out beside me like Jesus, saying gibberish. I heard Taiye laugh.
‘Hey, you should change. You’re a mess.’
‘I’m gonna go take a shower,’ she said. ‘Get up, Fola.’
In that drunken state, I heard her take off her clothes. Then there was the spatter of the shower. After a while, the shower went off and almost immediately, I felt her climb in beside me, her presence wet and fragrant.
‘You’re still awake?’ There was laughter in her voice. ‘Damn! Bitch’s so drunk she can’t even sleep! Hank’s gonna hear this.’
‘Hey,’ she tapped me. ‘Get up. You should change.’
That’s how much I remember. The sex is mostly fuzzy in my mind now, so I only know what Taiye said about it the next morning: that I took her hand and kissed it, and she didn’t try to stop me; that she tasted the wine in my mouth, but there was something else there too, something sour; that I said her tongue was good on my nipples and good between my thighs too; that I groaned when she put a finger in me and she thought it hurt, but when she looked at my face, she put the second finger in, and the third, and soon I was screaming; that afterwards, I said she’d made me feel real good.
‘How about you? Did I make you feel good?’ I asked.
‘No. It was all about you, and I didn’t mind, really. I was – well, I guess I was shocked that you wanted me so bad. It must have been the wine.’
A minute passed and I didn’t say anything, just looked fixedly on the Moroccan patterns on the tiled floor of the room. The lights were red, and in that crimson glow, the patterns in all their intricacies became solid, and their shadows were cast behind them like the past.
‘No, it was not,’ I said finally, emerging from a depth I hadn’t realised I’d fallen into, looking up at her face. The light had the same effect on it. ‘I don’t think it was.’
‘No, I don’t think so, either,’ Taiye said. ‘It was too good to be the wine.’
Another minute of silence.
‘Do you think there’s a bit of homosexuality in everybody?’ I asked.
‘Maybe there is. You know, locked up deep inside, like a monster everyone is terrified of. Maybe it’s not really scary, and we just need to get to know it, and let it know us. Maybe it’s not so bad.’
‘What about Sara?’
‘What about her?’
‘Are you going to tell her?’
‘No. Nothing has changed between us. I still love her. This was just – it was just a mistake, right?’
Matt says I’ve changed. He says he no longer recognises me, and I take it as a compliment. I’ve not told him about that night with Taiye.
‘You’re so different from who you were when we first met. Such transformation in so little time is a miracle!’
True: I can no longer recognise myself these days. I wonder what Oje would think of me now, this new me. This me that has found ideas that’d shock him. This me that has begun to wish, somewhere deep within me, that something would go wrong between Sara and Taiye. This me that has finally read Open City. I can think of a few words: shocked, incredulous, appalled, angry, disgusted…
In case you’re thinking of stealing this, I have copyright. Lol. Thanks for reading!!!