Before we broke up, he took me to Mercyland – the famed bookshop. The air could freeze bones and the doors slid so easily I considered them imported. Two young men and a lady attended to customers filing into the store. Outside, the sun shone mercilessly.
Bolaji wanted to get novels. Get me novels. Said I would appreciate the words on immersing myself in novels and poems. We checked Adichie, some Dekkers, The Secret Life of Baba Segi’s wives. I watched him approach the lady, how he smiled, so naturally – the way a butterfly would pollinate. His hair flew about his head like a crown.
He wore starched denims and laughed with the lady-attendant.
‘Books are a gift.’
‘They are,’ the lady said. Her lips were flat.
Later, we stopped and bought boli. He told me he’d always wanted to do this.
‘Buy books and eat boli with the one I love.’
He did not let his gaze linger on me in a way that would make me start wondering what effect he wanted to achieve, or if he was thinking of kissing me again. He said it, just as though he was saying, ‘wake up and urinate.’
That night, I went to my sketchpad and flipped the pages to my drawing of him. The carbon pencil felt light in the cradle of my fingers. Books were stacked against my work materials, I flipped my gaze away and shut my eyes, painting my mind with images of him, images I captured while he laughed and glowed in the air of words. I traced his jawbones and cheeks.
When I held the work to the white hues spreading from the incandescent bulb, it smelled of him. Of longing.
We met on Instagram. It was a Friday and I had posted the finished version of a graphite drawing I’d poured hours into during the week. And despite all the immature urges to go back and check the number of hearts it had gathered, I waited till night. 78 hearts and six comments, one of them reading, ‘Like my page if you are interested in artworks,’ three from my regulars, another ‘Get ten thousand followers….’
His came last. It read, ‘this is unearthly.’
I was deliberating a response when I noticed a new message. It was him.
‘Hello, miss. You draw well.’
Out of social politeness, I left a thank you. Then he messaged. And I responded, telling myself it was out of politeness, not because I wanted to know this stranger who had suddenly invaded my Instagram feed. He told me he was a creative too, asked if I had heard about One-Four-Nine.
‘What’s it?’ I asked.
It was an online group of creatives studying in Lagos tertiary institutions – UNILAG, LASU, YABATECH. He referred me to the page on Instagram, then added me to the WhatsApp group. I did not think it was a move to get my number.
About a month on, I woke to two hundred plus messages from the group. They were planning their second meet-up for the creatives.
When he asked if I could send my picture so he could identify me, I told him it was not needed. Then he sent his.
‘I won’t download it,’ I wrote back.
I did not.
The day of the meet-up, I wore a long-sleeved shirt, shampooed my hair, took some of my best drawings with me. Mother suggested I eat breakfast.
‘It’s okay to be nervous.’
‘Yeah, right,’ I said.
They had gotten a large hall with leather chairs arranged in three columns. I made a note to leave a message later on the group, how they had done well with the token we contributed. At first, we sat randomly. As the meeting progressed, we were sectioned: prose writers, artists, poets, songwriters, designers, photographers. Each section was asked to choose a head. I watched the group of prose writers, and then the poets. The latter had no struggle finding someone who would represent them, it seemed they had done it before.
The prose writers broke into a subtle melee:
No, I’m shy.
Writers are naturally a bunch of shy people.
Oh they are. Then it was, why are poets not always counted as writers, but as poets?
A river ran somewhere behind the building. There was a church in the compound and the tones of a violin streamed into the hall. At intervals, I closed my eyes and captured the scenery.
It was during the review of works that I saw him. There was a line in his story that read, ‘But then, it wasn’t the boy again, it was Lola.’ The story focused on a woman struggling with the weight of living up to motherhood, even as her past creeped into the present.
I could not keep my eyes off him. Soon, he began watching me too. He would smile with the corner of his lips. There was a calling in his eyes, Come, come, I’ve been waiting. It was as though he was drawing me without drawing me, making the tension more disturbing.
I walked up to him and said, ‘Bolaji.’
It was all I needed to say.
His mother met his father in a bus. No, not the yellow rickety, decrepit varieties. It was in London, and it was summer, and classes were on, and both parties were running late.
The bus was early. They got on. There was just one seat left. She looked at him and he looked at her, and they realized they were both black.
‘You have it,’ the man said, and it wasn’t because he was trying to be chivalrous. They met after classes, swapped numbers. Then addresses. Date one. By the third date, they were talking about settling down and if they would be returning to Nigeria – neither wanted to return immediately.
Bolaji was conceived on a thick bed with silk bed sheets. Two months later, the man took the woman to the altar.
He did not hesitate to present his thoughts – it’s a pitch, he told me, I can’t afford to be hesitant, who knows the guy watching you, waiting for the perfect moment.
‘I would like to date you,’ he said.
‘That’s a lot to ask.’
‘I know.’ His fingers touched my skin. My blood grew hot and cold. ‘I love you.’ Voice so sweet you could pour it in a bottle and tag it, honey.
I called Mum.
‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t know, mum. If I did, I would not have asked you.’
The sound of rushing water filled the background. ‘Consider your classes. You say he’s in his third year like you too. Would it affect your academics? Would you be able to sacrifice?’
She took a long breath – a breath I would later interpret as, would you let go of what you have for what you could have? – ‘Angela, are you happy?’
Mum says I’ve gotten leaner, lost a few pounds. I smile and tell her it’s school, you know I have to think of internship placement too.
I stuff the nylon bags she brought in a corner and, shutting the room’s door, see her to the car. I take in the environment, the other blocks in Moremi hostel, the ATMs, the road leading towards the school gate, so clean I almost leap for joy.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to come home for a few days?’
I roll my eyes. ‘Mum, it’s why I didn’t want to come to UNILAG in the first place.’
‘Thank you,’ I say when she belts herself in the driver’s seat. She winds the window down and I peek inside. ‘I’ll be fine, mum.’
I want to tell her I always expected it, that it was apparent all through the dating season, how the chances of our break up rose with each breath we shared, each laughter we treasured, like an investment scheme yielding dangerous profits – it bugs you, the thought that something is wrong and you do not know it. I want to tell Mum too that whenever I was at home, whenever I had to stand up midway into our Friday Movie Nights or pause a Chess game or excuse myself from practising a new soup recipe with her so I could pick Bolaji’s call or force a laugh at one of her jokes because my mind was occupied with him and I hadn’t heard the joke, it felt as if there was something I was doing wrong, and no matter how I considered it, it always came down to not being able to have them both at once.
I have two papers left and then I will spend a few days sorting out my internship placement with a lecturer, then I will pack my bags and iron my favourite shirt and go home, and I will not return for six months, and the memory of this place would only be alive by the moments I can capture well.
I watch as mum drives away, her black Lexus roaring, kicking dust, like the hooves of the horse.
Before we broke up, he won a writing contest. His message went, ‘Gela, are you busy around six?’
I took a cab. Posters of political aspirants smeared the walls on both sides, the driver talked relentlessly about politics in Nigeria, how the whole system was messed up. You know say the money wey they talk say EFCC collect from that minister, e no even reach half of the thing wey he don chop.
I nodded. He stopped talking soon, so when I alighted, I told him to keep the change, because I did not want him to be offended and talk about me to his next passenger.
Bolaji and I ordered ice-cream in small plastics. An ache ran around my head.
Bolaji slid his phone across the table. My eyes grew wide as I reread the congratulatory mail. I tightened my fingers around his and squeezed. His cheeks lit up again.
We watched sunset, and he told me the sun was like a ball of fire gradually fading until finally, it could not glow again. I looked at him and then away, afraid someday, our love would become like sunset, afraid I would be unable to carry on with this. A bright moon spread across the sky like curtains. A starless night. He walked me back to Moremi, and nearby, Falz’s “Cinderella” crooned from a speaker. I asked when he was going to kiss me again, I had missed it.
He tickled me in the ribs.
‘You are beautiful in your smile,’ he said, as though my smile was a plate of sauce and I was dipped into the sauce.
At fellowship, the choir renders an extended version of Travis Greene’s Intentional. They wear blue shirts and big grins, and when the pastor asks that they continue before he takes his sermon, they ask everyone to rise and clap. The congregation breaks into grumbles and cadenced claps.
The pastor – he’s in reality a five-hundred level guy, studying the six-year medicine; calling him pastor is only a way of showing respect – preaches from the last chapters of John. Talks about the resurrection of the Messiah. I look down the row and see no one else is puzzled, only then do I realize it’s Easter. I check my phone, and true to it, there’s a text from mum.
One from Sewa, my closest niece. Then there’s Bolaji. I do not read his.
I listen to the pastor’s words, how sometimes you have to let go of the ones you love for the greater purpose, says he likes to think of Mary, who ran to Jesus, Mary who poured oil on Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, and how she must have loved the Master so much it hurt, and how she had to learn the way of transformed love, renewed love, love unlike what we see play out in the world. And don’t forget, Mary was the only one who could make Jesus cry.
There’s an altar call. For those who want to give their lives to the Messiah. An usher passes yellow envelopes for offering, prayers ensue towards the ongoing examination. I walk home alone after service, my bag draped over my shoulders, gaze forward, Bolaji’s text unread.
We talked about fears. He was worried about after school, writing wouldn’t sustain him, and of course, he was studying Cell Genetics for the sole purpose of going to school and having a degree.
‘I’m not saying anything about it at home though,’ he said, ‘they would almost kill me.’
‘But writing’s not impossible.’
‘Yeah, though you have to consider daily expenses, bills, how to be a creative without being pressured by the need to earn.’
We talked about my fears too. How I didn’t know if I wanted to be serious with drawing, how for me, it was a way of releasing, of keeping, of capturing and repainting, and I wasn’t so certain if I could sustain the process for two, five, a dozen years, not to talk of making it a lifetime career.
I was afraid of childbirth. What if something went wrong, despite all the planning? What if there was not enough money to make the necessary preparations? How I wanted kids so much but wasn’t sure if I could endure the process of birthing them. And then how I was afraid I was thinking about childbirth. It wasn’t like I was pregnant or anything. I watched him but couldn’t talk about my fear of this, these moments we shared. How I might not be able to carry on with it because…because, our love was too perfect and I didn’t think one could have two perfect relationships at once, and I definitely wouldn’t leave Mother.
He held my fingers.
He swallowed. He didn’t swallow often. ‘I’m afraid of losing you.’
‘You know that wouldn’t happen.’
‘Gela.’ Softly, like the call of a breeze. His eyes were distant and near, as though he was departing and he was present. ‘I can’t stop thinking that we might not be together in two years.’
I kissed him. He kissed me back. I think I started to let go of him then, when we kissed and I realized he shared my fears too, that this was too perfect and perfect didn’t work in this world.
‘Don’t think about it,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ he said.
A message pops up on Instagram. Someone wants me to do a graphite drawing for her. I ask her to forward the picture, when she does, I send her a direct message.
‘The picture’s weird,’ I write.
She explains – she was reaching back for her bag when her sister took the snapshot, her palms were spread, as though she was waving at someone behind her. She tells me she likes it that way, how it reminds her that sometimes, we have to turn to look back, and say goodbye.
A tear drops onto the screen.
I work six hours straight, doing a lot of tracing and little erasing. The rules I learned come to me afresh – use grids, ensure the tip of your pencil is sharp, press lightly, very lightly, keep erasing to a minimum, it roughens the sheet, start with rough sheets, then as you get better and practice more, you would find you don’t even need to do a rough sketch before you get to the real work.
My phone’s on mute all along. When I check, there are four missed calls. I call Mum back.
‘I wanted to be certain you are coming home tomorrow.’
She says she will prepare my preferred meal.
‘You don’t have to go through the stress.’
‘Anything for my girl.’
I start to ask if she’s happier now than when I was dating, but do not. I only need to watch her eyes light up, like a girl dancing on Broadway. As her voice drops, I wonder if I would make the same call a second time, if I would choose what I had over what I could have.
I share the portrait on Instagram. The number of hearts set a new record – 176. Nine messages. Two from new followers. The client leaves a, ‘She’s so good, you can trust her for a portrait that looks alive.’
I get two new orders before the day closes.
I pack three bags. Two of my roommates help me with them, each balancing a piece on her head.
‘Gela, we will miss you o,’ the one in her final year says.
‘No one for me to do small-sister on again,’ Ebere says. She turns to look at me. ‘Will you still continue drawing?’
I smile and direct my gaze to the bag in my hands. ‘My materials are in there.’
Outside the gates, we find a queue of buses going towards Mainland. Ebere negotiates the fare with the driver, eventually I pay only half of what I should. It’s what I love about her, the fierceness of a tiger she carries about.
‘I don’t know why you didn’t allow Mummy come pick you.’
When they say they will stay till the bus takes off, I wave them away. My phone vibrates. Mum. I update her and say amen to her prayers for a safe trip.
There are two passengers left for the bus to be filled. Behind us, the gates leading into the campus swing as students mill by, University of Lagos inscribed in boastful fonts on a platform above the gates. Commercial buses chase one another. I check my phone. There’s still an unread message.
Bolaji once told me about Lang Leav, a poet, and a piece he wrote, The Saddest Thing. I close my eyes and play images of the day I first called his name, at that meet-up, ‘Bolaji.’ Lang says there is never one particular reason why two lovers are torn apart, how sometimes, we could think of it as a learning process, preparing them for other love partners.
But mostly, it happens. Just happens.
The bus fills up. The driver settles in and fires off. As the gates of UNILAG fade in the distance, I close my eyes again and wipe my mind clean of all the images.
This, in Leav’s words, is to stop looking for answers.
Michael Emmanuel lives in Lagos and is currently a Chemistry student. He was shortlisted for the 2017 edition of Okike Prize for Literature in the prose category, and his works have appeared on Brittle Paper and Kalahari Review. Most recently, he won the Quramo Writers’ Prize 2018. When not writing or reading, he keeps up with basketball and tennis and does some graphics design. He posts writing bits on Instagram @elumike_works.