I had hoped with time she would let me go, but the more I distanced myself, the more she drew near.
Seven months after seeing Adjeley at a Christmas party in Accra, I stepped onto my balcony in Abidjan, and discovered she had moved into the fourth-floor apartment of the building opposite mine. I stumbled, almost dropped my supper. I rushed to the guardrail for a closer look, both hands clutching the bowl of chow mein Vivian brought the day before.
It was not Adjeley. Only a young woman who resembled her. Still, I leaned into the railing and watched, as she unpacked boxes and arranged books on a shelf.
I tried to make sense of her existence, the high forehead and wide eyes that were so much like Adjeley’s. Before I could arrive at an explanation, she jumped to her feet, and walked off. Seconds later, she returned with a man dressed in a dark green kaftan.
Side by side, they stood on the edge of the centre table, talking and surveying the room – the red sofa facing the sliding door, the standing fan in the corner, the television mounted on the wall opposite the two-seater. Chattering continuously, she took the white plastic bags the man was holding, and placed them on the dining table on the far side. They left the room, and I waited, my grip on the bowl tightening.
When they came back, the man had changed into shorts and a t-shirt. Deflated, I plumped myself down in the camping chair, deposited the chow mein on the tray table, and picked up the bottle of coke instead. A deep thirst had replaced my hunger, but the more I drank, the thirstier I became.
Across the street, they had sat at the dining table, and the woman was pulling out the contents of the plastic bags. Their dinner wrapped in foil. Probably attiéké, fish and alloco – typical Ivorian fare. The woman dished the man’s food, then hers. She smiled often as they carried on their conversation.
Once, I caught the ends of her smiles. Her eyes full of amusement, she gazed through the window in my direction, saw I was there, and invited me in.
In the days that followed, I dashed home from work, and went straight for the balcony. Shrouded in darkness, I watched the boxes disappear from the living room. Paintings appeared on the walls inside, and earthenware pots with geometric designs etched on their sides filled one corner of their balcony.
I preferred most the moments she was alone. Yet I stayed in my chair when the man entered the frame. His presence did not dampen my desire to see her moving, talking, being.
She had awakened something I had long suppressed, the intense longing only Adjeley had made me feel. I was distraught then, when, the second week, I came home to find her curtains drawn. Hopeful she would soon part the curtains, I sat in my camp chair and worked on my laptop.
I grew anxious, as an hour went by and the curtains remained closed. Was she late from work? Had she gone to the shops? Did she live elsewhere?
Around nine o’clock, the lights came on, but no one drew the curtains open.
I did not see the woman the next day or the day after, and I began to wish she had never moved into the building across the street. I phoned Vivian, but she too was unavailable, preparing for a work trip to Liberia.
By the weekend, I’d had enough of the woman’s absence. Unable to sleep, I set off for Bassam the moment the sun pierced the sky, and spent the day at a beachside maquis. In the evening, I accepted an invitation I had initially declined, and went for drinks with some colleagues.
Soon, I became impatient with the company of others. I retreated into myself, and ignored Vivian’s messages announcing her return. She came over all the same.
“Why aren’t you answering your phone?” she demanded, as soon as I opened the door.
I said nothing and gestured towards the living room, but she folded her arms and stood in the doorway. In her heels, she was as tall as I was, and her eyes searched mine, reaching and reaching for something.
When she didn’t get the response she sought, she pursed her lips and sauntered into the apartment. She crossed the long room to the other end, where she had suggested I place the sofa. Her back to the window, she examined the empty spaces that should have held the armchairs and dining set she said I needed. She did not complain, as she usually did, that the paintings she’d given me months ago still sat on the floor in a corner of the room.
I had never seen her so unsure of herself in the two years we’d been seeing each other. She looked hurt, but I did not go to her. Pointing at the juice on the coffee table, I asked if she wanted something to drink. She shook her head, and lowered herself onto the right side of the sofa. I sat on the left, in my usual corner.
The tennis match I was watching had moved on to the second set, and Nadal was preparing to serve. In a more insistent tone, Vivian repeated the question she’d asked at the door.
“I’m sorry. I meant to,” I said, with as much contrition as I could muster.
She continued to look puzzled, so I added, “Busy with a project.”
She shrugged, but the resigned look on her face told me she wasn’t convinced.
“Well, I’m back. Sorry I couldn’t see you before I left. I missed you, you know,” she said, her British accent deepening with genuine affection.
I nodded and turned back to the TV, hoping she would sit quietly and watch the match. Of course, she had other ideas.
As soon as the set ended, she slid across the sofa, and pressed her chest into my arm. She brushed me off when I protested I wanted to watch the tennis. Cupping my cheeks in both hands, she turned my head towards hers. Her face was angular, her lips thinner, her skin a light caramel. She was irresistible in her own way, but not enough.
When Vivian left, I went onto the balcony and contemplated once more the whereabouts of the woman across the street. The lights in her apartment were on, but someone else had switched them on. It was the man, whom I’d hardly seen since the woman left.
By the time she returned in the middle of the third week, grief had so overwhelmed me that I started to grin when I saw her lying on her red sofa. I raised my hand and waved, but obviously, she didn’t know I was there.
Later that evening, my elation faded as I watched her kiss the tall man. He caressed her back, slipped his hand under her blouse. She pulled away, laughing, then got up from the sofa and led him towards a part of the apartment I couldn’t see. I waited, but she did not come back.
I imagined what would come next: the frenzy of clothes being yanked off, kisses on her neck, her breasts full in his mouth.
I remembered a time when I was new at this, when I was unable to mould my desire into something containable. Even now, when I think of it, of how I fumbled, I feel a deep shame.
I saw the woman at the maquis in our neighbourhood the next day. I was picking up dinner, and it seemed she was too.
Seeing her up close confirmed my first impression. This was Adjeley, years younger. In fact, it could have been the Adjeley of today, for at the Christmas party in Accra, she had looked as youthful as this woman, slender and without the middle-aged bulge that had gathered around my stomach. Watching her dance azonto like a young girl, I was reminded of how much I’d aged, and that had kept me from going to her, even though I hadn’t seen her in years, not since our university days, when I had a head full of hair.
Adjeley and I grew up on the same street in Accra. Her older brother, T.T., and I were friends, so I visited their house often. Despite this, it was only in secondary school, when Adjeley and I both ended up at St. Stephen, that I got to know her.
Even then, we were like strangers initially, hardly saying hello when we passed each other on campus.
Things changed during our second year, the day Adjeley’s parents gave me a lift back to school. We had come home for midterm break, and my parents had a wedding to attend the Saturday we were to return to campus. We sat in the back of the car, Adjeley in the middle, her mother’s sister on the left, I on the right. It wasn’t a long drive to school, but by the time we were passing Dzorwulu, Adjeley’s head was drooping in sleep. Soon, her head dropped onto my shoulder, and peacefully she lay there for the rest of our journey.
I pretended not to have noticed as her parents and aunt chatted around us. I looked out the window at the passing cars and the looming green boundaries of Achimota forest. In another five, ten minutes we would be at school and her weight would be gone, but the imprint of her head would linger on my shoulder for days.
I was being dropped off first, and as we got closer to my dorm, I wondered how to rouse Adjeley. I tapped her hand gently and whispered her name. I had hoped to be discreet, but Adjeley’s aunt, looking to lend a hand, tapped Adjeley’s arm more forcefully.
“Adjeley, tee shi.” She tapped her arm again.
Adjeley lifted her head. She covered her mouth with her hand, and yawned. “Sorry,” she mumbled, her face contorted in embarrassment.
“Don’t worry,” I said, before glancing at the window.
“I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“No problem.” I turned and attempted a half-smile.
I began to greet Adjeley when I saw her, and sometimes, I approached her before she noticed me.
Soon, she waved at me from afar. She smiled and beckoned, and I, feeling light, said, hello, I’m going the same way.
The holidays came, and I crossed the street daily to see Adjeley, although it was T.T., Adjeley’s brother, I asked for. I knew Adjeley loved music, so whenever I saw her, I would ask whether she’d heard Kojo Antwi’s latest song or Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s.
In university, we discovered hiplife. I saved my pocket money and bought cassettes of Adjeley’s favourite musicians. Her reaction was always the same when I presented these gifts: first, surprise, then delight.
I held on to this, her delight, and pushed back the memory of Adjeley, walking hand in hand with another boy across the courtyard of her residential hall.
I decided to write a letter. It was the break after our third year at Legon, and we were home for the holidays. After long agonising about how to reveal my feelings, I finally tore a sheet from a notebook, and wrote about how beautiful she was, how she was the most fascinating person I knew, how I enjoyed listening to music with her, how her laughter made me want to laugh along.
My writing covered almost a page of the lined sheet. Nevertheless, I worried I had not captured exactly what I wanted to say. I tore another sheet, slowed my hand and thoughts, and tried to focus on the specifics: how much I enjoyed her company, how much I looked forward to seeing her.
I imagined Adjeley reading the letter, imagined the widening of her eyes, the slow lifting of the ends of her lips, as she reacted to this or that sentence. I wrote three more drafts, until I was happy with the words I had chosen and the sequence of sentences. Before I could change my mind, I crossed the street and pressed the doorbell.
The plan was to give her the letter after chatting about less significant things, but when she stepped onto the veranda, I became flustered, and thrust the envelope into her hands. Mortified, I scurried off down the stairs, towards the gate, and back to the safety of my room across the street.
I stayed away from our neighbourhood the next few days, afraid I would run into Adjeley. I wandered towards the beach and to the homes of friends in La and Osu. I hoped that in time we would be able to forget the letter, that we would pass each other and nod politely. I knew that things could never be as they were, that we would never sit together again to listen to the music Adjeley loved.
Several days later, I returned home in the evening, and found my mother reading some documents at the dining table. She lifted her head to return my greeting, and told me there was food in the kitchen. She remembered something else, and called out, “Oh, Naa said Adjeley Sowah came looking for you.”
I stopped in the corridor and stared at her, but Ma, oblivious of the effect of her message, had gone back to the papers strewn across the table.
I stood for a minute, and absorbed her words, turned them over and over in my mind until I was sure she had said Adjeley had come looking for me.
I went in search of Naa. She, however, did not sense the urgency when I repeated what Ma had said.
“That’s right,” she said, before raising the mirror once more to her face.
She peered at the pimple on her cheek, prodded and squeezed it, as if to test its firmness. I sank to the floor next to her, leaned against the bed, and stretched my legs out like she’d done.
“Did she say anything?”
“Like what?” Naa asked, her eyes fixed on the reflection of the pimple.
Annoyed, I went to my room to wrestle alone with my restlessness. Without Naa’s help, I conjured up an image of Adjeley, standing at our gate, asking for me. The possible disappointment when she learned I wasn’t home.
I hoped she would show up again, that the same boldness that had propelled her that afternoon would bring her back to our doorstep the next day.
Across the street I went the next morning, almost turned back, on seeing T.T. in their garden. He was watering the plants, and had spotted me however. He shouted a greeting, as I hesitated in front of the mesh gate. I let myself in, and after chatting for a bit, I asked if Adjeley was around.
I said this casually, but T.T. raised his eyebrows, like he knew why I wanted to see his sister.
“I want to borrow some cassettes,” I explained.
T.T. chuckled, and dropped the hose.
They came back together, Adjeley lean next to T.T.’s broad form. I repeated that I had come for some cassettes, and Adjeley nodded. “I’m going to buy aboboi,” she said. “Would you like to come? I can get the cassettes for you when we return.”
I was grateful she had thought of something.
We walked away in silence, ended up on the football field not far from our street. We sat on the steps of the Methodist church facing the sandy pitch, and watched a group of men jogging back and forth. I turned towards Adjeley just as she turned towards me.
“I read your letter,” she said, at the same time as I said, “I hear you came looking for me.”
She smiled, looked down, and twirled the branch she’d pulled from the guava tree at the front of her house.
“Why did you write the letter?”
Back at university, we spent all our free time together, discussing what we’d seen and heard during the day.
Saturday mornings, we took a tro-tro to Shiashie to buy waakye. But first, we stopped at the kiosk next to the waakye woman’s stand, and bought the few things we needed: milo, sugar, groundnuts, gari, sardines, StarKist tuna.
We joined the queue in front of the waakye woman’s table, ordered wele, egg, gari, spaghetti and kelewele with our waakye.
Sometimes, Adjeley’s friends came with us to Shiashie, but always we returned alone to her room, and ate together. I would pace my eating, conscious of her fingers slowly scooping up the mix of rice and black-eyed beans.
After, our fingers glistening with oil and grains of gari, we’d recall our conversation on the steps of the Methodist church. Adjeley would tease me and ask if I would have come over that morning if she hadn’t gone looking for me the day before. I would smile and say I was just giving her the space and time to read the letter and reflect on its contents.
The day of my humiliation, we chatted and laughed on Adjeley’s bed, until the breeze worked together with the waakye, and lulled us into sleep. I woke up first, remembering the last time her hand had worked its way under my t-shirt and stroked my chest. The same hand was now flung across my stomach, motionless in sleep. Aroused, I grazed my fingers on the back of her hand and along her arm. I went back and forth a few times before realising her thumb was moving in place, tracking half-circles on my stomach.
I wasn’t sure if she was awake, and I didn’t want to wake her if she wasn’t, so we lay like that for a while, until she lifted her head, and I saw that she was indeed awake.
We went the farthest we’d been, pulled clothes off frantically, fingers becoming hands grabbing hold of flesh. I had thought of this, anticipated it, imagined when we would get there. I had even planned the conversation to precede it – the assurance that I didn’t take sex lightly, that I respected her, that I wouldn’t “sleep and run,” as we said back in the day. I had bought a pack of condoms, preferring to spend money rather than grab the free condoms in the lobby of my residential hall. You spend money on important things, I thought. Free condoms implied easily available, quickly forgotten sex.
In the end, what I had imagined did not happen. For some reason, my body gave up, and even though Adjeley continued to run her fingers along my thighs, the moment was gone.
Not knowing what to say to each other, we kept silent, Adjeley nestled in the nook of my arm. After several long minutes, she got up, and turned on her cassette player. Kojo Antwi’s Adinkra filled the room.
She climbed back onto the top bunk and smiled softly. She was unabashed in her nakedness, alluring, and utterly desirable.
We left the maquis together, the woman and I, her dinner hidden in a blue polythene bag, mine to be picked up later, I told the waitress. The woman ahead, we descended the unevenly paved road towards the cul-de-sac, where our apartments sat, one across from the other. Around us, maids hurried home, leaving behind the smell of freshly baked baguette. The neighbourhood children, the ones who lived in the uncompleted buildings, shrieked, as they kicked a frayed ball in the street. I looked past them all, and followed the woman with Adjeley’s eyes, nose and mouth.
Every step I saw Adjeley, walking away the last time we spoke. It had been almost a week since the incident, and by then we’d graduated. On campus, I avoided her easily, but back home, I knew it wouldn’t be long before we bumped into each other at church or in the neighbourhood.
Fear held me back whenever I saw her. Fear and shame, for I couldn’t forget her bewildered eyes, and the way she whispered, “It doesn’t matter,” like one soothing a child. I couldn’t forget how her hands had become hesitant, then questioning, when she’d tried to help things along, and I had remained unresponsive. Would she be as indulgent if I fumbled again?
The morning Adjeley came over, I was in the front of the house washing my father’s car. I think she’d anticipated the alarm I must have expressed, because as soon as I opened the gate, she smiled brightly and said she wouldn’t stay long. I stepped back to let her in, but she gestured at the wall, and asked if we could speak outside.
We faced each other, the branches of the abrofo nkateε tree shielding us from the scorching sun. She smiled again, this time with her lips folded inwards in resignation.
“I heard you got the scholarship for LSE. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” I glanced at a passing car, wondered if T.T. had told her.
“I just wanted to come by to say that.” She paused and tucked a braid behind her ear. “And also, to ask when you’re leaving.”
“Oh, not for another month.” I looked down, then up, then at the electricity pole beyond her ear.
“Okay. Well, let me know if you want to do something.” She looked at me expectantly. I shifted my gaze to the hawker carrying an infant on her back, and an aluminium basin full of bofrot on her head.
“Everyone is saying they haven’t seen you in a while. Kwasi, Aku, James.” She tilts her head, gives me a puzzled look.
“So, I can organise and we can go to Kokrobite or Ada. We could also just go to Labadi beach if you want. We should do something, just in case you find someone there and decide to stay.” She forced a smile, but there was sadness in her eyes.
“How are they, Kwasi and the rest?”
“Oh, fine. Kwasi is looking for a newspaper to work for, Aku is planning to intern at her uncle’s law firm, and as for James, he’s trying to do his gospel music thing … They keep asking why they don’t see you anymore.”
It was inevitable that we would get to that point. The past and its need to be rehashed, dissected, and pulled apart for meaning.
I shrugged. “Ah, James only wants more people to preach to.”
She looked confused. I knew she wouldn’t ask again, that the invitation to spend some time together would hang between us, eternally unanswered. She required something precise – yes or no – but my tongue wavered between the two sounds, unsure of where to settle.
“Okay then,” she said, her eyebrows raised, her baffled look transforming into exasperation, resentment, maybe also disgust.
I should have gone after her. But again, that feeling that I hadn’t met her expectations. That fear that I wouldn’t be able to.
I let her walk away, then one day turned into two, and I left for LSE.
We arrived at the woman’s building. I considered following her in, but panicked when I saw the security guard sitting on a bench next to the entrance.
I turned around and ran across the street, barrelled up the stairs in my building. My chest hurt from my exertions, but I pushed forward, my target the balcony.
There, in the glow of the apartment across the street, was Adjeley. She waved, and it was the sign I needed.
+233 245 412 599. Adjeley’s number. Stored on my phone seven months ago. Retrieved from our St. Stephen WhatsApp group. A group I’d resisted joining, but after the Christmas party in Accra, I’d had no choice.
She didn’t pick up so I tried again in the morning.
“Hello?” she shouted.
“Hello? Hello, Adjeley?” The drilling on her side battered my ears.
“It’s Nii Tettey Addo.
“Nii Tettey Addo.” I softened my voice, as the drilling receded in the background.
“Oh, hi,” she said, with what I hoped was pleasant surprise.
“You crossed my mind recently, and I thought I’d call to see how you’re doing.”
“Oh, thank you for calling.” Her tone was polite, distant. I gripped the phone, desperate for a warmer response.
“I’m really sorry I haven’t kept in touch all these years. Moving from place to place, I just lost touch with everyone.”
“Ah don’t worry.” She grunted like she was bending or lifting something. “That’s what happens. We’ve all made new lives.”
At the Christmas party in Accra, I’d learned Adjeley was divorced, and ever since, I’d speculated that she too had never found complete happiness. But maybe I was wrong.
I tried again to direct her focus towards me. “I was wondering if we could meet up next time I’m in Accra.”
“Sure, sure,” she said, as the drilling started again.
Then, “Sorry, I’m in the middle of something. I’m renovating. This is not a good time.”
I hurled the phone at the sofa. It rebounded on the vertical side and fell on the floor.
Outside, I leaned against the guardrail, and searched for the woman across the street. She was on her balcony, hanging her washing on a drying rack.
Slowly, I regained the calmness of thought I needed to plan my next step. I would send Adjeley a message, I decided. After all, it was through writing that I expressed myself best.
Image: Hozanailson Andrade Hilson (Pixabay)