Joey never feels the New Year’s Eve. There is usually a wall between what he wants to feel and what lodges itself in his chest, but he has mastered the grace of smiling back at his children when they point orange-filled wheelbarrows and laughing Hausa men out through the wound up glass windows. They refuse to sit still, and he remembers his wife with a new clutch in his throat. She knew how to keep them still. She would have insisted on “not straining the seat belt now, boys,” her husky voice lilting, stretching out the diphthong in “boys” until he imagined her performing yet another opera on stage in university, where they first met and realized they wanted to be breathing each other’s air.
She died in the “End SARS” march, almost two years now. Flying shrapnel had slit her belly open, cleanly; everyone in Lagos, perhaps in the whole country, had seen the color of her intestines. He had never seen them before; he had had no reason to. We don’t realize how much love does not reveal until loss shows us.
“Daddy?” His youngest son, Charles, touches him on the arm, the one curled around the wheel.
“Yes, Lee?” He calls him “Lee”. All his children (except one) have decided to be called names from their favorite -Woods. Gabriel is “Gun Jun Pyo”. Kingsley is “Khan”. His twin, Ainsley, a sometimes-somber child with wild eyes, said everybody should call him “Einstein” or he would tell “Mummy hanging in Daddy’s room” that they were flouting her orders and making her dear son cry.
“Einstein and Khan are fighting again,” Charles says, strapped beside his dad like an agent. “Can’t you hear them?” He hitches up his right eyebrow in reprimand.
Joey flings a word of caution over the seat, and then concentrates on the road. New Year’s Eve in Lagos fills the road with crazies more than any other moment in the year. Layabouts suddenly want to go to church to commit the year to the Lord; strippers, too. Even atheists—whom he does not take seriously—duck into the nearest Cross-Over Night center, hooded up and sulking, to reaffirm their unbelief in God. The excitement in the air is generally heightened, and motorcycles become more notorious. One of them is scraping itself along Joey’s chassis now, and is flying away into the night, the rider and his passenger yelling “Happy New Year”, their legs flaring out like those of turkeys. A caterwauling of curses and horns trails them. Joey shakes his head. He remembers a book someone at his office had been reading during lunch break. “Nearly All the Men in Lagos are Crazy”. He disagreed right then even as he does now. Not “nearly”. All the men—and by extension, the women—in Lagos are crazy. The children, too, because things that happen in Lagos keep the children of Lagos on their feet.
“Daddy?” Charles again. He has said he wanted to be a politician. It is one of the things that excite Joey about his children: he sees so many dreams in their eyes.
“Will Aunty Marline come tonight?”
A child from the back—Joey does not check the rearview mirror, but it sounds like Gabriel—is imitating a Moses’ Staff crackshot to match the bangers and ‘bombs’ raging outside like a happy war. Gabriel now wants to be an actor because Aunty Marline had said he couldn’t be a model. Because models were homosexuals. And Gabriel had had to go look up the word “homosexual” because of that. He came back frowning and asking, “What about actors?” “Actors are fine,” Aunty Marline said, rubbing his head, “but go for tough roles. Like a drug lord or a wicked king.”
“Aunty Marline won’t be coming tonight,” Joey replies, quickly sliding into the space before him before another motorcycle could whiz through. At least the traffic is moving. “Or ever again.”
Silence from the back seat. Charles seems undecided whether to look hurt or to look pleased. The twins finally say a “Hurray!”, high-five, and start chortling. Joey smiles. Marline was the girl he had thought to marry; she was the one who cared for him, always calling to check on him, always coming to drag him out of his rut, after his wife died. But her obsession with his kitchen left an unsettled sludge in his belly. Marline would complain about him not letting her exercise her birthright and he would say, “Whoa! I did not know you were born in a kitchen.” He didn’t let her cook for his children, either; he did it himself, and on the days he felt lazy, he took them all out, ignoring her whining about “wasting money”. The truth is, he couldn’t bear her reigning in his kitchen, moving in spaces his wife had moved, touching the things his wife had touched. The twins called her “Marine”, deliberately, and then blamed the malapropism on their post-toddler tongues.
“But why?” Gabriel from the back. A small, wounded voice.
Joey’s head works swiftly. “She stole my money and ran off to be with her boyfriend, who is an actor in Nollywood.” He tut-tuts. “All these actors.”
An ambush of young beggars scatters across his windshield, slapping the windows, frantic with the season. They make gestures towards their mouths and smile with broken teeth. Shaken by the thought that he could have rammed his Benz into them, Joey peels some 1000 naira notes from his wallet and winds down the glass. They widen their eyes, regale him with “thank you” in all Nigerian dialects and vanish into the night, leaving in their wake the noise of their squabbles over the money. Above Lagos, the starry sprays of fire across the sky freeze the moment. Joey sighs. Let everyone experience a miracle tonight.
An impatient honk behind. He should have geared the car forward. A drunken man lurches past his side, holding a green bottle, and “booms!” in his face. Joey sends the glass flying up again. The man cackles away into the night. Joey knows that’s not the last bottle he would be having. He would probably end up in the gutters and say his own “Happy new year” there. Joey finds himself not resenting the imagery as usual, which was strange. He could see the church building already, the choir procession lining up outside, in their robes, holding their hymn books.
“Daddy?” Charles again.
“Yes, Lee?” Joey turns sharply to look at the boy. Charles’ voice came laden with something musical.
“Happy new year.”
The boy is grinning.
Joey glances up at the rearview mirror to catch Gabriel’s face. Then, suffused with pleasure, he smiles through the windshield, and turns the car into the church’s parking lot.
“Happy new year, my boy.” He parks, then twists around to look at the three other boys. “Happy new year, kings.”
Gabriel begins to cry. From relief or from agony, Joey cannot say. And he does not care. He is mystified, instead, that the tightness in his chest has gone. He is actually looking forward to saying “Happy new year” to more people out there. He is finally feeling it. He could see the big bright moon on the edge of the city. What an augury.
He unclasps his seat belt to free his body—an act suddenly heavy with significance—and tells his children to do the same.
Image: Daniela Mackova Pixabay (remixed)