By Elnathan John
It is June 20. I am in pain. The surgery was a success but I hate these crutches; hate the lingering pain around my right ankle, the heaviness in my arms and shoulders. The doctor gave me Tramadol to ease my pain – one in the morning, one in the evening. Ten days. Not more, or else I become a junkie.
I have taken the tab for this evening. I am still in pain. My bag of pills sits by my bed, illuminated, so that I can read the pack from where I lie: PENGESIC 50. TRAMADOL HCl 50mg CAPSULES. I am hungry. Tempted. In pain. I reach for the pack. Pop out another capsule. One minute. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. The pain has reduced to a dull throbbing. I am floating. ‘I’m fucking high,’ I say to myself. But then I am hungry and my girlfriend, who was supposed to come yesterday, and the day before, still hasn’t come. What kind of girlfriend sends you a text saying she’s shopping and will see you later when she knows you are currently an invalid? I don’t need her. I don’t fucking need her. She can shop all she wants. Epiphanies. She drinks too much. She loves her job more than she loves me. More epiphanies. She is a Kenyan. Kikuyu. They killed people in the Rift Valley. The painkiller kills more than my pain. I send her a text message. I have had enough of this relationship.
I wonder if I can make it to the Farafina Trust/Chimamanda Adichie Writers Workshop in Lagos next week because I am in pain and have only one good leg and have broken up with my girlfriend, whom I still love, and I am very broke and am very high very often. I think of cancelling. But I don’t. I buy a ticket and prepare for Lagos.
On the plane I wonder what kind of people will be there – I know only Chimamanda Adichie and Eghosa Imasuen. I have popped another painkiller and am starting to get sleepy. It is drizzling when we land. The pain is only slight as I hobble to get a taxi. Lekki Waterside Hotel. On the way I call Okey, the workshop administrator. He is patient. He does not get exasperated when we lose our way. I want to meet him.
The fair, flat faced woman at the door gives me a cocktail of suspicious stares and customary politeness. She does not smile.
‘I am here for Farafina.’ Her face softens. She checks my name on the list. Room 114. First floor. I order dinner and look forward to seeing the rest of the class. Irene, a maid at the hotel, brings my meal. She is slim, dark complexioned, with a nice smile. I ask her where she is from.
‘Naago,’ I tell her. Thank you. I am truly grateful for the first real warmth I have experienced in a week.
June 23. I hobble down for breakfast. I will say hello to everyone in the room, I tell myself. I will be nice. I practice my smile. Chinyere is the first person I meet. I know Chinyere from Abuja. We both are members of the Abuja Literary Society. I succeed in being nice to everyone. Gimba Kakanda, who I know only from Facebook, helps me get a plate of food and a cup of tea. I sit at the same table with Chinyere, the white woman, and another black woman – light skinned, wise eyes, low voice…
I ask them their names. The white woman is Lauri. With an ‘i’ not ‘ie’.
‘I am from a little village in Botswana,’ she says, ‘Mahalapye. Forty-thousand people.’ I can’t place her accent; her voice is a cocktail of American, Southern African, and maybe Brazilian inflections.
I ask the other woman her name. She whispers something I cannot hear. Already I love her voice, even though I can barely hear what she says.
‘Wame,’ Lauri echoes loudly.
‘Are you from Botswana too?’
She is Motswana and is speaking in a combination of soft words and whispers and I am carried away. That is until Chinyere decides to take over the conversation. I indulge her for a bit but no, I want to hear the black Botswana woman. She looks over 40, as does Lauri, but her skin is beautiful and her eyes are lovely, dark watery deeps; I stare.
Wame says little. Sometimes she answers with a nod or shrug or just a gentle sweet smile.
I note that a few people are uncomfortable with the hazel-eyed Dutch journalist, Femke. She comes across as the stereotype: bored, white, sexually unsatisfied, desperate for sad African stories to sell to a Western magazine. She joins us at lunch and whips out her little notepad, asking questions. Wame and Chinyere are at the table. Somehow the conversation slips into my not wanting to have children. Chinyere is disgusted. ‘If your parents refused to have children would you have been here?’
Femke smiles. Chinyere turns to Femke. ‘Do you want children?’
Chinyere is silent for a few seconds. I want to burst into laughter. Not only does Femke not want children, she’s an atheist and is in an open marriage. Chinyere will pass out if she knows. All the while I can tell Wame is not interested. She does not want to be a subject for this white journalist. She does not want to answer any questions. We start talking about God, well, Chinyere does, and Femke excuses herself. I am not in the mood to argue about anyone’s God. I get up too.
Femke is shocked when she hears that I have never been outside Nigeria. She has not met a black, African man in Africa who holds the views I hold about family, about alternative sexuality, about God. She shows me her new book, Gin-tonic and Cholera, written in Dutch. Too bad I can’t read it, I tell her. We keep talking and I think she is not that bad after all.
The night is beautiful, warm and humid. Okey is buying drinks. I am careful not to drink too much because I know I will have to climb the stairs with my crutches. Damn I hate getting up to pee. I hate having to balance while I hurry to let loose my penis before I wet myself. I should pee before my bladder becomes so damn full. Okey is bent on getting me drunk.
Olumide is a charming guy and I am having fun making fun of him. My first exercise in class is about him. I like the way he half leans, half crouches, the drawl in his trace American accent, his smile… These fuckers are gonna think I’m gay by the time I’m done here. Can’t you just say a man is good looking without being called homo?
Chimamanda looks even better than she does in her photos. And her skin, damn! I would have said smooth, velvety skin but that’s such a cliché and in a writing class a cliché is a mortal sin.
Pemi asks me: ‘Please, are you a partial homosexual?’ She asks because I have done two exercises with gay characters. Her eyes widen and she looks away, as if she regrets the question, is afraid to offend me. I can’t help laughing.
‘How is one a partial homosexual?’ I ask.
Back on the bus. Wame. I sit with her everyday and I can’t get anything out of her. I want to take off her glasses and say to her, like in the movies: Look into my eyes and tell me you don’t wanna talk to me. She looks out the window and smiles when I compliment her. I want to tell her: I can read your thoughts, you think: I heard it all, you don’t move me. Not that I am sure that she is thinking that, I just want to get something. Anything. I am at a wall and all I can hear are the answers to my questions bouncing back. I want to tear it down and run right through. I am almost sure what I would see beyond it: Sad and happy and afraid and hopeful and beautiful, mostly beautiful; a distilled beauty fortified by experience and adversity and a good heart.
June 25. I have spoken to Tahirah a few times and I discover that the slim, pretty, even-toned brown girl is on the same floor as me. She describes herself as neurotic and blinks a lot when she speaks. She says yes, a bit reluctantly, when I ask her to have dinner with me.
It’s 9:30pm and we are having tea and toast in my room. I am glad to have her. I love sharing meals. After a few words, Tahirah takes over the conversation, moving so swiftly between topics, she leaves me dizzy. I try to contribute in vain; she is not listening. She keeps on and on and doesn’t realise when I doze off. Tahirah is sweet and doesn’t hold it against me. She leaves at midnight having eaten only two slices of my eight slices of toast.
I am loving this workshop. Loving the challenge; the fact that there are writers more intelligent and impressive than I am. Loving Gboyega’s funny stories, Uncle Emezuom’s occasional wise sayings, Morenike’s streetwise analysis, the glint in Chimamanda’s big beautiful brown eyes, Nkem’s big hair and nerdy glasses, Glory’s confounded look. These guys are great. I am forgetting all my woes. Forgetting the Kiswahili I have learnt to say over the past three months. Nakumiss sana. I miss you much. Forgetting my homelessness. The pain in my arms and legs. I am loving Lagos and the bus rides from Lekki to Victoria Island. Ah, the bus rides! The rides into Wame’s soul; the waiting for her to say: come in, come into my world.
June 27. Adewale Maja-Pearce is in the room when we arrive. I have met him before in Abuja. We shake hands and he asks what happened to my leg in clean British accent. I like listening to this half Scottish, half Yoruba, 58-year-old man. He doesn’t have a lesson plan so he asks us what we want to do. After four days with the deliberate, structured Chimamanda, most people are taken aback at his question. I like him anyway. He has a lot in his head, this man.
I hobble until I reach room 105. I want to knock on the door, ask if Wame will spend some time with me. I want to hear her Botswana stories, the things that make her sad, her dreams, her fears. My spirit is eager but my body is cowardly. In my room, I pick up the intercom and dial 105.
‘Did you get the attachment with the email?’
‘No, I didn’t.’ Silence. ‘Ok, bye.’
Coward! Fucking coward! I can’t even tell her I want to see her. So what if she says no? Coward!
I lie down, but cannot sleep. I read her story. It is beautiful and sad, just the way I like my stories. She is beautiful and there is a hint of sadness in her eyes, just the way I like my women. It doesn’t matter to me that she is 47, or did she say 48? I close my eyes and wonder what she is doing in her room. Is she lying down, reading? Is she staring at the ceiling, thinking? What is she thinking?
I am grateful to Tolu. He takes my laptop downstairs in the mornings. Everyone is so sweet – they hold open the doors for me, get my food and pull out a chair for me. I can’t think of anyone who isn’t lovely. I like the way Irene laughs – a deep resonant giggle. She insists that what she is wearing is a weave and not a Chinese wig as Gimba calls it. She is sweet and young.
I try to avoid Chimamanda at lunch. The image of her in my head is perfect. Overexposure may reveal something I do not want to see.
June 29. Binyavanga Wainaina is cracking us up with all his funny, vulgar examples. Chinyere, the unofficial representative of Jesus in this workshop, is scandalised. She can’t believe how easy it is for Binj to say fuck or dick or cunnilingus. How comfortable he is drinking local ‘man-power’ while he teaches. If only Nkem’s mother could hear what he is teaching her 19-year old. I laugh. This crazy Kenyan writer is intelligent, in spite of his hangover, his bloodshot eyes and his haphazard teaching style. Every joke has an important lesson embedded in it. I wonder if everyone is getting it.
I stare at Wame in class. A few times she catches my eyes, smiles. I want to tell her, Wame, I am waiting for you. I am waiting for you to take down the high brick wall guarding your lovely soul. I want to tell her, but again I am that coward. I only smile and ask silly questions.
Funke is really a talented writer. Her approach to storytelling is fresh. She strokes her beautiful healthy hair when she reads. Uncle Emezuom reminds me of Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi when he reads. Wame gives me her collection of short stories, Go Tell the Sun. She signs it: Elnathan, For the conversations we have shared that I hope will continue. Wame. I read those lines again and again. I hope the conversations will continue. I really do.
July 1. Tash Aw leaves me in awe of his brilliance. I want to be like this good-looking, lanky Chinese Malaysian when I grow up. Perhaps this is the only time I don’t stare at Wame. Today is the final day and still I stand behind that brick wall. Somehow I am comforted by the fact that I may have stood closer to that wall than most people here. She gives me joy, this Wame. I feel everything around me freeze when she reads her breathtaking stories, her voice – sotto voce, slightly tremulous, but clear and lovely. Time stops and I am in Botswana, a Motswana for the few minutes that feel like hours; I travel through her smoky eyes to heaven. This Wame.
July 2. Faith Adiele. Elegant, mixed race, confident, short brown spiral curls dyed gold in front. She reminds us that she speaks in a thick American accent just in case we didn’t notice and wonders if we can understand her. This is not rural Masailand I want to tell her. Your culture is the most exported culture in the world, of course we understand you! She has an Igbo tattoo on her right wrist as well as a red string. She is Buddhist. She is colourful. The teacher with the most structured lesson plan. We do a lot of exercises. Again I see just how intelligent the members of the workshop are. I am proud to be part of this.
July 4. Departure. Yesterday we had the dinner-and-literary evening and stayed out until almost 3am chatting with Chimamanda and Ivara. Last night was my last chance to see Wame. I am sad as I pack dirty and clean clothes into the same bag. I stop and think I need to try one last time. I need to tell Wame how I really feel; I am tired of waiting. My body is reluctant, but I say to myself: Mind over matter. Mind over matter.
I pick up my crutches and head to room 105. My heart is banging against my ribcage. I have already been here this morning, but just asked the same silly questions: When is your flight? Who is taking you to the airport? Now I am back for the real thing. I will tell her that when I see her I cannot breathe and when she reads time stops and when she smiles my soul is glad.
Knock Knock. Knock Knock. She opens and I see someone else is in the room. Fuck no! Not today! Not now. I smile, and say we have packed and are ready to go. I say goodbye to both of them, hobble back to my room. My hands are trembling. I light a fag and drag harder and longer than I ever have. Shit! I had it all planned. Say it all. Hug her tightly. And if she hugs back, be audacious, kiss her and tell her you have always wanted to. You will miss her. You will miss her. You like her. You like her very much.
We are downstairs waiting for a bus to pick us up. I hate goodbyes. Osemhen and Funke go out to negotiate with the bus driver. Lagos girls do it better. I sit and think of Wame. Waiting has cost me. I will never wait again I tell myself, never! I will reach out until I am rejected; hold on until I am blown off.
The bus is here. Wame comes downstairs and suddenly energy leaves my body. There is nothing to say now but goodbyes. I hobble slowly toward the door, look into her eyes and say: ‘I will miss you’. She cannot know how much. She cannot feel the beating of my heart and the coldness in my bones. She cannot see that I waited, patiently, foolishly at the entrance.
We hug tightly and I plant a firm long kiss on her soft right cheek.
‘Keep in touch,’ I say.
‘I will,’ she says, smiling through smoky eyes.
I can feel in that hug that perhaps she knew I was waiting. In those few seconds I feel the brick wall fall and I embrace it all – rich naked beauty, just like I had imagined it. She knew! She fucking knew!
I hobble away from this woman I may never see again, who made me wait 10 days, who gave me more than she gave most people here, who took me to dizzying heights of pleasure just by living, speaking, smiling.
I was patient. I waited. I waited for Wame.
In commemoration of our 20th year, we will be digging through our extensive archive.
This story, and others, features in the Chronic (April 2013). In this inaugural issue of the Chronic, stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD.
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