I took pictures of you jumping out of the bed as if you weren’t just holding onto me. I could hear your breath running to catch up with reality, with the silence that enveloped us after you said you loved me.
My tongue pushed back at my teeth, making a similar click sound to the camera in my hand as I watched you amble into the bathroom.
‘I meant it. What I said back then, it wasn’t passion speaking. I meant it,’ you said, halfway to the restroom, your back still turned to me.
‘Hmm, hmm,’ I murmured, smiling at your departing figure. I stared at your shoulders, hunched like you were trying to apologise for your height. I watched you hesitate at the door.
‘I’ll just take a minute. Don’t disappear like the last time,’ you said before closing the bathroom door.
I enjoyed the art of touching you, learning your body: a scar here, a bump there, but the silence that came when I could no longer bury myself in your moans, I did not know what to do with that. What do lovers talk about in those periods after sex? Do they pretend to sleep? Or do they allow themselves to build a sandcastle of hopes?
This is the genesis of many broken hearts. These silent periods where couples try to fill in something, anything, and so they make promises they will never keep. And then one day, the waves come and sweep their sandcastles away. I didn’t want that to be us. I jumped up and began to look around for my clothes. I dropped my camera in my bag just as I heard you flush the toilet. I was gone before you made it back to the bedroom.
I took pictures of you leaving the students’ car park at the University of Ibadan that afternoon after you had asked if you would ever mean more to me than comfort food. I did not say anything. I did not know what to say. You were right, I ran to you for bliss, a safe place where I didn’t have to be anything. With you, I didn’t have to be the photographer whose work lacked soul and spark. I didn’t have to be the daughter of a man who dressed in his Sunday best, sat in his dusty study, cleaned his old revolver and pumped bullets down his own throat.
When I was with you, I didn’t have to be a girlfriend either. You had told me you couldn’t offer me much in those early days and I had embraced what we were and what we didn’t have to be. I didn’t have to be saddled with the fear of loving, of losing. I came to you hoping not to be anything. A narrow space of life where I can exist without being.
How could you suddenly start asking for more?
‘I want to focus on my photography, I don’t want more for now,’ I said. And not with you. I’d like to see other men. Explore the world,’ I added quietly.
‘Why are you telling me about other men?’ the white in your eyes was clouded. That was how much anger you let yourself show. You are too in control to yell or say mean things.
My hands itched for my camera to capture the hurt in your eyes, a desire to immortalise you at your weakest.
‘Because you are my friend and that’s what friends do. They talk about things,’ I said instead.
‘Do you want us to take a break? If you think you need to see other men, then maybe we need to take a break,’ you had said, your hand gripping an old copy of Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog From Hell. You had just bought the book from a book vendor by the school gate.
‘Maybe,’ I had said, staring ahead at students rushing into a lecture hall.
‘I need to return to Lagos now,’ you said after a long period of silence. ‘My brother is visiting tonight to fight me again, over my share of our father’s property.’
‘You see? That’s what friends do.’ I teased. My voice is unnecessarily high. ‘They talk about the siblings they dislike.’
‘I hate you, and your imaginary new men,’ you said as you got up, but you were smiling as you left the car and hopped on an okada to take you to the bus garage.
So, I took pictures of you vanishing on the bike flying carelessly towards the university gate. I knew at that moment that I would crawl back to you. I always did.
The first time I took your picture was at your home in Ikoyi. You had jokingly called it your prison as you ushered me in, your hand pressing my lower back slightly: not too hard so I didn’t flinch, not too light, so I noticed. I figured you had done this a thousand times with girls more sophisticated than me. You, a very much older man with city experience and charisma; me, a young undergraduate reeking of naivety and anxiety so deep you detected it from the measured steps I took as we approached your room.
‘Relax,’ you said. ‘I promise I don’t bite.’
I brought out my Canon from my cross bag and took pictures of you standing over me, a lazy smile dancing on your lips as you waited for me to tell you what I would love to drink.
I chose red wine; you chose Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You” and slot the tape into a stereo sitting primly on a tan shelf. And that is what I remember of our first time: me swirling the wine before tasting it; you swirling to Simone before tasting me.
Was it me who put a spell on you? Was it you who had me locked tight like a padlock, the key thrown far into the sea? I would never know this.
I took a picture of you as you drifted from me into the dreamland after our first night together. The flash from my Nikon camera caught your attention.
‘If you want a picture, just ask,’ you said, beads of sweat still on your body despite the sea breeze from the open windows.
I smiled. I didn’t talk much even in those early days.
You reached over and grabbed my camera, placed it on a stool beside the bed and returned to wrap your hands around me, your head resting on my chest. My breast ached but I didn’t say this. I thought of what I’d just done with you. What my mother would say. What the world would say. This was how the morning met us, entangled but separated in our thoughts.
I know you waited for me to ask questions.
What are we now?
What will people say if words get out that I am sleeping with my late father’s friend?
I did not ask any questions. I did not want an answer to what we were; what we could be. I took my bag and returned to my hall in Ibadan.
I took a picture of you leaving that little café with artificial flowers and plastic pots tucked in a corner of Allen Avenue. You had asked me to meet you there one sunny afternoon after I graduated from the University of Ibadan. You were angry. I knew because your shoulders weren’t hunched forward as you walked away from me. It was only in anger that you didn’t try to hide your height.
‘We have been together for three years now. I know I said we needn’t put a name on this when we started, but that was years ago. I want to marry you. I don’t care what anyone has to say. Why won’t you marry me?’ you had asked. I should have captured the thin veil of anger spreading across your forehead.
‘You were my late father’s friend,’ I replied calmly, my index finger tracing the rim of my coffee mug.
‘I don’t care.’
‘I do. I am the woman, and the world will judge me more than you.’
‘I know you. You don’t care what the world has to say. You are not one of those women who care about what anyone says about them. Why don’t you want to be with me? Tell me the truth.’
‘Because you are home,’ I had snapped at you.
‘What? I am here with you. What do you mean?’
‘I mean that you are my home,’ I had sighed, exasperated because I didn’t know how to explain it better.
‘Do you mean I am like a relative because I was your father’s friend? Oh, please.’
‘It’s not that!’
‘Then what is it?’
‘After my father’s death, you took me under your wings, introduced me to books, to good music. You bought me my first camera. You showed me the path to healing, unorthodox as it might seem. You are the home I returned to when I am scared, hurt, or unsure. No one takes home on a journey.’
‘You are not making sense.’
‘You cannot be part of my life the way you wanted. I need you to be away— a place I can return to when I am broken,’ I said.
‘You are broken already as it is. What are you talking about, woman?’ The cloud was back in your eyes.
‘I am saying the only thing I want you to be, the only thing I need you to be is a refuge. Can you do that for me?’
‘This is ridiculous,’ you said.
‘I met someone. I think it is time. He is a kind man. A major in the army,’ I said.
‘What do you mean by you met someone?’ There was panic in your voice now. A wall was cracking.
I reached for the camera in my tote bag and aimed it at your face — there was an emotion on it that needed to be captured. You snatched the camera and dumped it on the table, crushing my sachets of sugar.
‘A man,’ I said calmly, retrieving my camera from the table. ‘Someone I might consider marrying somebody.’
‘Is this a joke to you? Are you twisting the knife right now to see how far this rejection can go?’
‘I am not twisting any knife. He is safe. He doesn’t set me on fire; he can’t burn me.’
‘So, you are just going to leave me and marry this man because he can’t hurt you? Isn’t that childish?’
‘I am not a child! You should know that better since you are fucking me.’ I was angry at that point too. How did you not see what I was trying to protect us from?
‘Why can’t you just be like every other normal girl?’ you had said, rifling through your wallet for some change to pay for our coffee. ‘Why can’t you just be normal for once? Is this what your parents’ marriage did to you? Or was it being with me that broke you so?’
You were waiting for me to answer your questions, but I didn’t know what to say. So, I raised my camera and aimed the lens at you.
I took a picture of you as you stormed out of the café. Your hands were jammed into the pockets of your Khaki pants, your back ramrod straight. I should have followed you. I didn’t. The picture was blurry. I kept it.
I crawled to you in my darkest hours. It was easy to let myself into you and hide. So, it was your arms I crawled into when my mother died. I hadn’t seen you in two years, yet when I showed up at your door the morning after her burial, you didn’t ask me any questions. You didn’t ask me to fill the silence of those years.
Can you remember the sex that night? Me, holding onto your chair, you, right behind me, your fingers digging into my waist, your scream burying my sorrow; that was a gift of healing.
I was gone before you woke up the next morning. You said it was as if I was never there. That was exactly how I wanted it to be.
Did you ever wonder why I always crawled back to you? It was because people died. People I loved. People I didn’t. Random people whose obituaries I read in passing. Death scared me. Death reminded me that you were home and I could return to you when the world became cold.
I grabbed your camera and took a picture of you running out of your room after you heard of my daughter’s death. You wore black shorts with tiny white stars, I remember. When I stared without blinking for too long, the shorts transformed into a night with twinkling stars
My husband’s call came through your phone just as you climaxed and rolled off me. I saw the guilt chasing fear on your face when you heard his voice over the phone.
I imagined what my husband was saying from the growing concern on your face. He must have told you that my daughter had died some weeks ago. He must have told you I snuck out of the house as soon as clerics and relatives arrived to perform the final dua for her journey to the beyond.
You had looked at me with something locked in between shock and disbelief. I’ll never forget that look. ‘She is not here, Major. I am so sorry about your loss. I had no idea. I will drive over now, and we can go check places she might be.’ I watched you say.
You had looked at me with disbelief. I remember the slack of your mouth, and the furrow on your forehead becoming more prominent as you dropped the phone and sat on the armchair in the room.
‘What the hell is going on? Why didn’t you tell me Idera died?’ you had asked me after it seemed like we would both be crushed by the silence that enveloped us.
‘She died three weeks ago. You know she was born with a critical CHD,’ I had said, my voice breaking. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to sit there and mourn my child in the company of people I barely know.
‘Your child died and the first place you wanted to be was in my bed? Child, I thought you were the one who fucked me up, but damn, you are broken. You are a mess.’
I didn’t know what to say so I grabbed your Canon SD600 from a pyramid of old books in the corner of your room and aimed it at you.
‘It’s that damn camera every fucking time!’ you cursed, and I flinched. You don’t curse. Perhaps I had asked too much of you at that point.
I know you did not understand why I did that. It’s been years and I still do not understand fully. Those first three weeks after Idera died, a part of me withered as well. I had allowed myself to love one human, unconditionally, and I couldn’t even protect her from pain and death. I wanted to be far away from my failure as a mother and you were the only one who knew how to wring the sorrow out of me.
I watched you through the lens of the Canon as you scrambled for your scattered clothes and hurried into the living room. The string of curses you let loose as you made your way out of the door, were they for me or the situation?
I heard you sat through the dua for my baby. She was your goddaughter anyway, she could have been yours.
I took a picture of you leaving the altar with your bride. She was a radiant girl with a smile that broke me. She was everyone’s sweetheart, this girl you married. We all loved her. She was different, different from me. It was why you chose her; it was also why you left her.
I remembered the day you asked her to marry you. I had been staring hard at a blonde man in a dark suit on CNN preparing the world for what might be America’s first black president.
She had been bustling in and out of your kitchen, offering beer here, suya there — a perfect wife material. Perhaps that was why she didn’t notice your hand, reaching out to hold mine under the gazillion of throw pillows she had bought for your couch.
Yet, when the man on the TV announced a black man as America’s next president, and it seemed there was nothing more impossible in this world, the woman you turned to kiss, the woman you bent a knee for and asked if she would spend the rest of her life with you, was not me.
I grabbed my Sony Alpha 900 and watched you two through the lens. How does one take pictures of a moment forever etched in their brain?
I took a picture of you leaving the lawyer’s office the day you filed for your divorce papers. You had been with her for five years and I had thought you were never going to leave her, but you did, one quiet Wednesday morning. You called me and asked if I could drive you to your lawyer’s office.
‘What for?’ I had asked you.
‘I am leaving her,’ you said.
‘Leaving who?’ I had asked.
‘I am leaving my wife,’ you had said, and I could hear the sob building in your throat. ‘I mean, she’s left me already. She packed her bags and left two weeks ago. I am just hastening her wish.’
‘Why? What did you do,’ I asked.
‘Why must I be the one who did something?’ you laughed. I heard the faint catch in your throat.
‘Don’t play smart, old man. What did you do to her?’ I scolded.
‘Nothing. She is an intelligent woman, you know. In love, but smart. And every smart woman knows when she is not the object of her husband’s affection.’
‘Oh dear,’ I had sobbed.
‘Thank you for your concern, dear friend. Now, will you come to accompany me to my lawyer or shall I find a new friend to sit and watch me toast to my failure tonight?’
The pictures of you leaving her were the clearest I had ever taken. You, walking out of the huge ugly building that housed the attorney’s firm, one hand curved in front of your face to keep the sun away, the other holding the documents the lawyer had given you. I stood by the car, camera in hand and took pictures of you walking towards me.
I took a picture of your back at the Murtala Muhammad International Airport. You had refused to look back as I stood at the check-in point, capturing your retreating back. I could hear the final call for passengers to board my flight, but I stood rooted to the spot, hoping that you would turn around.
I wanted so badly to be one of the other normal couples there. I wanted you to hug me, kiss me, bribe the airport attendants to let you escort me to the boarding gate, but you didn’t do any of those. You left my bag in the middle of the room and turned your back. I thought maybe goodbyes were no longer difficult between us.
You had begged me the previous night not to leave for Rome, but I had lost a baby and then a husband, there was nothing to stay for. You said it was wrong to leave the country ten days after my husband died, but you already knew I was terrible at dealing with loss. I didn’t want to be a widow. I didn’t want to feel guilty that I was relieved when I got the news that he was killed by the enemies’ bullets.
Did he realise before his death that the rope that tethered our marriage was the same that held our baby alive? Perhaps he took all that many deployments to the front because he’d rather face death than see my lifeless face?
On the eve of my departure, when you covered my body with yours, your hand slightly wrapped around my neck as orgasms wracked your body and I tried to hide my sobs behind your moans, what was going through your mind?
Did I ever mention it to you that you were most beautiful at that point—the point where passion mixed with pain in your eyes and you dug into my skin, into my soul?
When you left me standing in the middle of the airport lobby the next morning, your face straight ahead, I wished you’d turn back, just once, so I could capture your face.
They said you left quietly in the early hours of the morning, too considerate to wake your neighbours from the sweet sleep that set in at such hours.
They said your heart just stopped. No warnings, no pain. You left while sitting on your favourite reclining seat, peaceful as if the world would never notice your exit; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Long as I Can See the Light’ was on replay.
I had thought we had more time. I had dreamt of the day I’d return home, to you. They said you never remarried after your wife. I heard the gossip that you missed her a lot, and I laughed at their ignorance. I know the woman your heart longed for. I know because I read those letters you sent in the first few years after I moved to Rome. I read those letters to sleep on nights I felt so alone, and I read them on the mornings I felt too tired or scared to take a step into the future. I am sorry I didn’t write back.
The news of your passing met me on a warm Saturday morning in Rome. I was exhibiting my work in a tiny Testaccio gallery. Several pictures of you leaving; I called the exhibition Exit.
I had made countless plans to call you in the last few weeks as I got ready for the exhibition. Some days, I had picked my phone to send you a message, but I couldn’t.
How does one write to a lover they hadn’t spoken to in fifteen years? How was I supposed to start the letter?
Your brother’s voice was devoid of sadness when he called to say you were gone. I know that you didn’t get along with him, but isn’t death the one excuse for us all to pretend we love the departed? I stood long at the spot where I had received his call, staring at my phone screen.
My agent, a mousy, little man with grey hair and glasses bigger than his face, stood in front of me and tried to get my attention.
‘Some potential buyers would love to meet you?’ he said, but I did not want to meet them, my mind was on you, on your last moment.
I tried to imagine how you left, but I couldn’t. All I could conjure was your body lifeless on your favourite recliner.
‘That phone call,’ my agent asked, ‘is everything okay?’
‘No,’ I said or maybe I didn’t say it out loud. I cannot remember at this point.
‘What is it?’ he asked, worried. ‘Are you okay? Is there anyone I can call for you?’
No, I am not okay, I might have said to him. I’m not sure. No, there is no one you can call for me, I probably said. No one.
I did not wait for him to say anything more. I did not wait to see the buyers too. I booked my flight to Nigeria on my phone as I drove home to pack my luggage.
I am here, but I am late. They have the cheapest candles around your coffin. I am watching as strangers come to peer at your body.
I don’t know why this lying-in-state is necessary. What does it mean to leave a corpse vulnerable for people to feast their eyes on as if that one glance means they would never forget the face? Or is this display for the living? A subtle reminder of what their end will look like. I don’t know.
I am staring at your body, but I do not recognise this man blackened by death and formaldehyde. I stare anyway. I am trying to picture what the last fifteen years was like for you. Were those years kind to you, my friend? When you picked your letters from the post office in the early years after I left, did you wish one of them was from me? Did you wonder why I didn’t write back? Did you struggle with yourself a lot before you vowed to stop writing to me? I am sorry but I didn’t write back because I didn’t want to be that woman—the one hoping a lover does not forget her as soon as the oceans and thousands of miles separate them.
I can’t take pictures of you in this ridiculous neon green suit. Why did your brother put you in this awful attire? And why does it look like the coffin is too small and your knees are slightly raised to accommodate your height?
I am biting back tears because emotions are useless. I don’t want to be that sad woman flinging herself at the body of a late lover.
So here I am, taking pictures of you leaving, your coffin balanced regally on the shoulders of pallbearers dressed in ridiculous matching purple suits.
Photo by Alfaz Sayed on Unsplash