Swallowed Things

Amara Okolo

Nigeria

“Love has a way of killing people. Slow, but definite. Uncertain, but true.
My love began to kill me the day I met you.”

Lagos, 1976

Today I will tell a story of a man I never married.  Like water, some things are meant to be swallowed, the others wash away your dust, soothe your skin with their coolness. These things that should be swallowed, must be swallowed whole. You must still air from your nose; let them slide down your oesophagus, contracting with discomfort until they settle in you, forgotten things. These are the things you learn to bear, the things you must digest. Because God forbid you vomit these things, God forbid that you bare these things at the feet of stranger because they will mix them with sand and throw them at your face. They will force you to eat these things until you choke. They will force you to eat it with grains of sand until it tastes sharp, like granite, and hard to swallow. But those things that wash over your skin? Keep them. Never let them dry. Make them your memory. Let them settle, even in transparent droplets, let them settle on your skin and remind you of what fresh water feels like, of what breeze and green leaves misty with dew look like after a rainy morning. Let them remind you because one day you will forget. You will be sitting beside a shuttered window, your hands immobile on your skinny lap. You will be watching the perm hair of a thirty-two year old woman (or did she say thirty-eight?), the dusty brown curls greasy with pomade as she massages your withered, paralyzed limbs. You will watch quietly as she removes a pair of woollen stockings from your limp feet, and places them on the propellers of the wheelchair you are sitting on. She will straighten up, the cracks of her popping joints the only sound in the room. You will watch as she smiles at you, a rehearsed practice, then she will place the tray of warm okra soup you have come to love even though you had once detested okra one time in your life. You will watch her feed you, not because you cannot feed yourself but because your children had instructed her to ‘make sure you feed Mama yourself, her hands are shaky, she will spill the food.’ You are tired of telling them you can feed yourself because nobody listens anyway. So you oblige and let another human being feed you because that is what happens when you become an old invalid. The feeder becomes the fed. And as the warm okra slides down your throat, you remember those things you swallowed. Those things you held down for thirty-five years until they burst through you like a cannon, until they froze your logical thinking with depression, until they deadened your nerves with stroke. You feel the rush of regret until the things that fell on your skin remind you of the time before the time, before the things you swallowed. You remember the fragrant morning of 1977, and you remember that your life was not filled with hopelessness, regrets and choking bile.

***

You remember the man you never married. The first day you met Frank you knew he was not your husband. You even told your friend Alero, who was standing beside you that balmy Tuesday morning at Gbadaga bus stop, waiting for the bus that would take you to the Ministry where you both worked. The bus always came late, a rickety tired thing, whining with agony as more people climbed aboard and sat on its seats. That morning was like every other morning; people were standing in twos and threes at the shaded bus top, still drowsy from their severed sleep. Most of the people here were government workers headed to the island where the government offices were located, and traders who were making their early morning trip to Oshodi market. They all smelled like Lagos, the humidity sticking to them. But this man that you never married, he looked different. He was standing a few feet away from everyone else, leaning against the metal pole of a streetlight, his face in a half-smile. He was tall, fair and had the crown of a black rich Afro on his head. In his left hand was a brown leather satchel, and a lit cigarette in the other. You stared at him until he looked at you with eyes that were a brown hazel pool of mystery. Mystery suddenly mixed with amusement, attraction and desire when he matched your gaze. You lowered your eyes and your knees knocked together, and you tapped Alero’s shoulder.

“Look at that man over there,” you said with a slight nudge of your head.

Alero glanced at him. Her upper lip curled. “He’s smoking.”

The judgement in her voice pleased you. Clearly, she finds him unattractive. Good.

You egged her on. “Can you imagine?”

“That one is not marriage material.”

“Yes.”

“See how he is blowing out smoke. Such arrogance; he looks like trouble.”

“Aren’t all men?”

The bus arrived and the people began to climb aboard. You followed Alero, glancing once towards the man you never married. He was staring at you, and his eyes were speaking. I see you, and I know you see me. The Afro glistened in the sun as he walked forward, his lean body in stride, like a gliding cat. His indigo bellbottoms floated on the concrete, his suit tailored to his frame. You knew he was coming for you, so you panicked. As Alero got on and found a seat, you quickly followed her, settling beside her on the hard wooden panel, your eyes straight ahead but staring at nothing. The man you never married walked by, a heady aroma of Old Spice and starched linen, and you finally exhaled. Then a voice, laced with mint and tobacco, whispered in your ear. “Hello.”

Your mother once said that if a man will eventually marry you, you will know from the first day he speaks to you. Maybe that was why you never married this man—maybe it was his voice, rich with a deepness funnelled from his soul and bubbling with confidence. Cigarette smoke, breath freshened with mint, a voice that spoke to you even in dreams. It was that voice that did you in, you told Alero two weeks later. Two weeks later, after that time in the bus, when he never took your silence serious, when he took your nonchalance as an agreement to his advances. When you came down at Carter Bridge, waving goodbye to the bemused Alero who crossed the road to her office, he still did not leave you alone. He followed you to the doors of the Ministry, the morning air breezy with the winds from the sea. You told him no repeatedly, and he said yes to each no. Finally, when the sun hit the pavement, slicing his face a colourful yellow, you pitied him and gave him your telephone number. He was not the one, you said to yourself. He will never be the one. So as he left, his shoulders shaking with laughter, his cheeks pulled with a smile, you knew you will never marry this man. You had heard it in his voice, just like your mother promised. But you knew you would love him.

And you did. It was two weeks, thirteen days — a moment of knowledge. That afternoon as you stood in the cracked mirror of your room patting the waves of your perm rods, your black lace blouse and rayon skirt smoothened as you waited for him to arrive. You were going to Festac ‘77. You stared at your eyes and you knew you loved him. There are things you can deny, loving someone is not one of them. So when he arrived in the blue spluttering Volkswagen Beetle, laughing and walking in that swagger you were used to, you led him through the door with the white lacy curtain, the door of your bedroom. When you straddled him, still clad in your rayon skirt, the memory of the future besotted you. You thought about the man you will finally marry, the man you will not love with this much fire in your bones. You thought about that man as you kissed Frank, as he undressed you and licked the sweat on your neck, you thought about that man and wished you would never meet him. You saw your future and rebuked it. You hated the woman you would become. But for now, you can love the present. After your frenzied lovemaking, he drove you to the National Theatre where you danced to Fela’s afrobeat until you were both drenched in sweat and vigour. He laughed at your sudden wildness; you admired his adoration for you. People stopped and stared, pointing, their tongues rift with gossip, lips turned downwards with distaste. But this man you never married, he did not care about them, just like you wanted him not to. He held your hand and kissed your lips. He laughed into the night, small clouds of cigarette smoke escaping his bearded nostrils as he held you to his chest. Right there, under the heavens and the twinkling stars, on the backseat of the Beetle that smelled of leather and Marlboros, you laughed and kissed and smiled and made love again, this time with excitement and unbridled lust.

Our love was a fire that burnt us, leaving scars to remind us of its fierceness. How many times did you fight, did you nearly tear his handsome face with your long, painted nails when your eyes sparkled with fury? But you always reconciled, a pact reached when overcome with loneliness and the fright of losing each other. But you did not have to wait for the time to come, because when it did, it surprised you even till this day. February 1979. It was two years and you were twenty-six, ready for marriage, ready for a family. But Frank had the dreams of a thirsty man wandering the desert, in search of an oasis. He found that oasis in New York City, far away in America.

“I want us to go there,” he said that afternoon, the afternoon you had come to visit him. The room was thick with smoke, and the gramophone was on with Prince Nico Mbarga. You were both naked and under the sheets, sated from loving each other. You had your hair in cornrows, his Afro bushy and speckled with lint.

“Where?” You ask dreamily.

“America. New York City; precisely.” He was stubbing out his cigarette and sitting up, looking at you with excitement. He was serious.

“But why? What’s wrong with here?”

“Can’t you see? America is the land of the free…it is where everything is happening now! It is the future, our future.” He paused, stewed on it for a moment. Then, “I can marry you in America.”

“No. Let’s get married here.”

Later, you blamed it on the finality of your voice. You blamed him for suggesting it, for giving you the dilemma of choosing a life of uncertainty to the comfort of home. But you should have remembered that the man you will not marry was never going to stay. Dreams haunt the ambitious until they succumb, but Frank was lucid with aspirations. That was the cushion that cradled you that day you came to his flat and met his brother Azuka, rearranging an empty house. Maybe it was the chilly wind, but you felt the coldness before the dread enveloped you. You heard the unwillingness in Azuka’s voice as he answered your questions with the words you did not want to hear.

“Where is he?”

“He has gone.”

“Gone where?”

“I thought he told you? He has travelled to America. He left last night.”

“What part of America?”

“New York. He loves that place. But are you saying he never told you?”

You did not answer because shock has silenced your voice. In 1980, you married your husband . This was when life began again. When the man you never married left you in the humidity of Lagos for the winters of New York, you died to the world and its existence. Black holes of memory lost as you paced through the days and the rest of the year with shrouded delusion. But when you married your husband, you tried to live again. You willed for resurrection, for a joy you were not sure will come. It came in fleeting blessings— the birth of your son, a promotion at work. And you tried to love again, but there is something terrifying about watering stones. They will shine but still break your toenail open. And when your husband never loved you back, you did not blame him because he had never known what it felt like to be consumed with unseen fires of pleasure, of suns that never go down, of rains that never cease.

You began to swallow these things in 1982, and they bloated you with silence. You began to live with insecurity, you became comfortable in misery. 1985, the year you had the twins who died, you looked at the red sand under the hibiscus bush you buried them and cried for the future that had come to be. You cried for Frank, for the seven years of silence, for the life that should have been, the life of days waking up in New York to the smells of frying bacon and melting butter. The nights of walking down Times Square as Frank Sinatra reminded you to do it your way. He must be married now, you said to yourself. You imagined the woman that had replaced you, and your imagination made you weak. Your husband noticed the withdrawals, the blank look of a woman living in memory, lost in the pages she has written in her head, a life unlived. It became worse when you were pregnant again, and he began to ask questions.

“What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You look like a ghost…something must be wrong with you.”

“Sorry, please don’t shout. It must be the baby.”

When baby girl finally came, even though joy came with her, your ghostly stares never went away.

***

The sun is going down against a beautiful pink sky, there is a knock on the front door. Your husband is upstairs, reading the newspaper; your children are in the backyard, waddling happily in a tub of water. But on the other side of the door is Azuka. He is older and bulkier, his forehead wrinkled with stress, the thoughts of living. He has a beard eerily similar to his brother’s, and for a moment you remember everything you wanted to forget. Then you see Azuka’s eyes.

How can you not know ?

“I just had to find you,” Azuka says to the floor. “Frank died, Reggie. Last month.” The tears came, slicing his baritone. “He died in an accident.”

You are looking at him but he is not there. You are seeing Frank now, the smile, the familiar haze of cigarette smoke. You are hearing his laughter, you are relishing the aftertaste of his kisses, the way he rubs his nose against yours. You are seeing your life end after you had already died.

The sound of your children’s laughter brings you back to reality, and you nod. Stepping backwards, you say the only thing you can say with a voice that has not yet crumbled.

“Come in.”




Amara Okolo is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.