Someone once said, when we are born, we start to die. Maybe that’s why babies cry when they are born. A baby feels and smells death from the moment air enters its lungs. It invades the new body and starts its mission of destruction. So we learn to fear death from birth. We have been indoctrinated into thinking death is the worse thing that can happen to a person, just because it is final and irreversible. What a misconception. Death may not be a thing to look forward to, but there is something else that creeps up on us … something worse than death. Loss. And everything that comes with it. Loss of freedom, loss of a loved one, loss of independence, loss of a job, loss of money, loss of the ability to eat, feel, taste, speak, walk, fuck, hug, laugh, cry, jump, sing, play an instrument…you name…you are apt to lose it. It’s the rung on the ladder to the realization that, you know, death ain’t such a bad idea after all.
Hafsat’s life had been a series of losses. Many so minute and ignorable that she hadn’t realized she has suffered those losses. But when you lose something, however small, you become a changed person. When the opportunity came for Hafsat to live in a foreign country back in 1998, it was seen as blessing. At the time, she felt was hope, not loss. Now, Hafsat has come to realize the move she made to a foreign land has been the biggest loss of her life. She lost the daily contact with those who mattered the most. She missed fighting with her sisters, gossiping with her friends, she missed laying on the open deck at the top of the family home in Lagos, she missed the warm and comforting late afternoon breeze she felt up there. She even missed the irritating busy traffic sounds, and the occasional fight that broke out in the busy urban-suburban neighborhood of Ire-Akari. When Hafsat made her bi-weekly phone call to her family, she made sure it was short and full of lies. It was the same every time.
“Yes mama, I am eating well,” she would say, trying not to think of the noodles she had had for dinner for two straight weeks.
“Yes, I went to Mass, Baba,” she would say to her dad, rubbing her foot which ached from working a double shift as a nurses aide at the local nursing home – on a Sunday.
She always lied. What else could she say? If she told her parents how she really felt, they would ask her to come home. That was tantamount to failure. She had a lot riding on her success in the United States. She had to prove to her relatives who told Baba she had to let a male take her place. Some firmly believed would not survive the harsh world. Well, she showed them didn’t she? She was thriving, a little more than she expected. But Hafsat’s success as a buyer for a department store chain was intermingled with the feeling of having lost too much to prove something to people she didn’t know that well or cared too much for.
A new loss for her was sitting across the table, telling her how much he loved her, how he could not do this without her. He was begging her not to leave and she was saddened by how familiar the growing discomfort, the tightening of her chest, how so familiar it felt.
Hafsat sat rigidly at the table of the restaurant, a few blocks away from her downtown Detroit loft. You couldn’t tell by looking at her, she was one of the many immigrants that cleaned up bedpans, washed dishes in a restaurant and swept floors, while taking night classes at the local community college. Certainly not in her black business suit and her black laptop and her black rimmed glasses. Not in her jet-black hair pulled into a tight bun. Her carefully put-together presentation declared, “don’t mess with me.” Her African accent had been dulled down to a few lilts in her pronunciation. No, you couldn’t tell from looking at her that she worked herself to the bone to put herself through college. You could not tell from looking at her that she was not a trust fund baby. Actually she liked to spend her time playing with other people’s conception of her. To her, it was an amusing game of guess my age, guess where I am from, the Caribbean or West Africa, Jamaica or the Bahamas, okay guess what my hobbies are, guess if I like hip hop or rock, reggae or soukous, guess, guess, if you can.
At the moment, there was no game on the table, just reality. She was sitting across Matthew, the love of her life for the past six months, and trying to ignore the dull ache that was working its way from her chest to her stomach.
“It’s who they are Haffie. You can’t blame me for the stupid things that my family say. That’s who they are,” Matthew said.
Hafsat watched him emphasize his point with his palms opened upward as though in prayer. She watched him push back his own black-rimmed glasses, a fraternal twin to hers. His eyes were small and beady. It reminded her of chicken little when he blinked rapidly, like he was doing at the moment. He was genuinely upset. But it was not her problem now. She had made her decision. Problem was, he didn’t know the real reason she had reached that decision. So she let him think what he wanted. She let him think she had had it with sitting through his family dinners with his clan of ignorant fools throwing around words like ‘faggot’ and ‘nigger,’ when in reality, it did not bother her as much as she let on. You can’t make Kennedys from a clan of hicks.
The Erlensbusch family is well-known in their small town in South Dakota. She remembered the first time Matthew took her to meet them. It was so cliché, the way they went out of their way to be nice and welcoming. They might as well have put up a sign on their front lawn that read, “See … we treat black people well.”
Hafsat did not let on she overheard Matt’s mother furiously whisper to grandpa Erlensbusch, “you behave yourself now,” just as she entered the room. Ah, Grandpa Erlensbusch, the stories she heard from Matt, of how much of a drunk he was and how he said whatever came to his mind. The “N” word included. Funny thing was, after all this time, she like grandpa Erlensbusch the most. He was the only one who never said anything that made her feel she did not belong. They were kindred spirits who spent a lot of time in his garage tinkering with his collection of stuffed monkeys. Their camaraderie amazed the entire family. He loved his beer, Hafsat loved vodka. He was a germaphobe, she was a neatness freak. Grandpa Erlenbusch had three sons; each son had four or five more sons. There seemed to be a dominance of the Y chromosome in the Russian-German Erlensbusch sperm. Maybe that was one reason he had well-known and heard misogynist views. No one understood why Hafsat and Grandpa got along well. It was unspoken; his melancholy and her quiet sadness when they sat side by side by the lake sharing a Budlight, hers mixed in with Smirnoff. Mirroring her relationship with Matthew, Grandpa Erblensbusch and Hafsat made an odd couple.
Like every small town in west, hunting was a way of life for the Erlensbuschs. So two weekends a month, Hafsat would leave her comfortable downtown Detroit loft with Matt and fly to the family lodge near the Missouri river. It was one of the reasons she loved dating Matt. They were so different, yet connected in the strangest of ways. He was what she called “her hick from South Dakota,” she was “his naughty Nigerian.” She would have gone on a weeklong hike in the Badlands if he asked her after she got her hair and nails done, and she would have complied, happily.
All weekend long, the Erlensbuschs hunted and fished. Hafsat ate deer meat during the deer-hunting season; she learned how to clean and cook pheasants and how to use rifles and shotguns. She figured out which bullets did the most damage and did not flinch when asked to help cut up her first deer. She enjoyed the food and the company so much, they forgot she was there. Sometimes someone in the family would launch into a discussion of politics, one of the forbidden three topics she and Matt agreed never to talk about; race, religion and politics. The agreement was with good reason, since Matt was republican and she was a democrat-leaning moderate, although both were catholic, he is pro-life, she is pro-choice, he is white, she is black – African to be exact.
The fiercely republican Erlensbuschs family hated liberals and every discussion was started thus; “those gaddamn liberals…they are going to be the end of this country, I can tell you that.”
Once, one of the numerous teenage Erlensbuschkins said, “awwwww…don’t say that…Hafie is a liberal!” It sounded like an accusatory declaration, more like, “she is a babykiller!”
Hafsat smiled graciously and replied, “free speech Mike, that’s why I love this country.” The family turned their attention back to de-basing liberals and other Bush-hating Americans. Hafsat saw Matt let out a sigh of relief from the corner of her eye. That was a month ago.
Today, she was saying, “my disgust is not with you or your family. We are just too different. This was going to happen sooner or later,” she said to him, not looking into his eyes. She concentrated on a lesion near the bridge of his nose.
“Haffie…come on…,” he said. He reached for her hand and grabbed it. She almost gasped. It never ceased to amaze her how much contrast there was in their skin tone. Her caramel-colored hand next to his lily-white hands looked like her favorite ice cream, vanilla and chocolate twist on a cone. She giggled. Matthew looked at her quizzically. She withdrew her hand and gathered her things.
“Pay for my cup of coffee?’ She asked.
“Oh, never mind…” she said as she reached into her purse and scrambled for a few dollar bills.
“I will take care of your coffee, Haffie, just don’t go. Not like this.” Matt pleaded.
Hafsat did not look at him. She was afraid she would start to cry. Her tears were not for particularly for the breakup, rather it was for the irony of the situation. She loved him. And like almost all she had loved, she was walking away from him. She felt his sadness mingle with hers into an unbearable twist of fate. Her eyes burned from holding back so much of her tears as she made her way though the maze tables filled with city slickers sipping the lattes on starched white tablecloths.
Once outside, as if on cue, her cell phone rang.
“Hafisatu? It’s your mother.”
“Hello mama. What are you up to?”
“Oh you are not going to believe who I ran into, and I could not resist, I had to invite him to the wedding.”
“Chief Adekunle! You remember him? You almost married his son. Well, he was pleased with the invitation … not at all angry you chose Lekan over that wimp he calls his son. What a coup! The VIP section is filling up fast! Oh, your wedding is going to be the talk of town … did you buy your ticket yet? You know flights to Lagos don’t come cheap anymore, this is not the time to procrastinate. And don’t forget to make sure the material for the bridesmaids dresses are shipped this week…”
Hafsat let her mother ramble on, as the downtown people-mover train rambled overhead.