Before we broke up, he took me to Mercyland – the famed bookshop. The air felt like ice and the doors slid so easily I could bet they were imported. Two young men and a lady attended to customers filing into the store. Outside, the sun shone mercilessly. He wanted to get novels. Said I would appreciate words on immersing myself in novels and poems. I did not resist. We checked Adichie, some Dekkers, The Secret Life of Baba Segi’s wives. I watched him when he approached the lady, how he smiled, so natural, the way a butterfly would pollinate. His hair flew about his head like a crown. He wore starched denims and laughed with the lady-attendant. ‘Books are a gift.’ ‘They are,’ the lady said. Her lips were flat. Later, we stopped and bought boli. He told me he’d always wanted to do this. ‘What?’ ‘Buy books and eat boli with the one I love.’ He did not let his gaze linger on me in a way that would make me start wondering what effect he wanted to achieve, or if he was thinking of kissing me again. He said it, just. As though he was saying, ‘wake up and urinate,’ like it was the norm. That night, I went to my sketchpad and opened to his drawing. The carbon pencil felt light in the cradle of my fingers. Books were stacked against my work materials, I flipped my gaze away and clasped my eyes shut, painting my mind with images of him, images I captured while he laughed and glowed in the air of words. I traced his jawbones and the highness of his cheeks. When I held the work to the white hues spreading from the incandescent bulb, it smelled of him, of longing.
We met on Instagram. It was on a Friday, I had posted the finished version of a graphite drawing. And despite all the immature urges to go back and check the number of hearts it had gathered, I waited till night. 78 hearts. Six comments, one of them reading, ‘Like my page if you are interested in artworks,’ three from my regulars, another ‘Get ten thousand followers…’ His came last. It read, ‘This is unearthly.’ I was deliberating a response when I noticed a new message. It was him. ‘Hello, miss. You draw well.’ Out of social politeness, I left a thank you. Then he messaged. And I responded, telling myself it was out of social politeness, not because I wanted to know this stranger who had suddenly invaded my Instagram. He told me he was a creative too, asked if I had heard about One-Four-Nine. ‘What’s it?’ It was an online group of creatives studying in Lagos institutions– UNILAG, LASU, YABATECH. He referred me to the page on Instagram, then added me to the Whatsapp group. I did not think it was a move to get my contact. A month later, he invited to a creative meet-up.
When he asked if I could send my picture so he would identify me, I told him it was not needed. Then he sent his. ‘I won’t download it,’ I wrote back. I did not. The day of the meet-up, I wore a long-sleeved shirt, shampooed my hair, took with me some of my best drawings. Mother suggested I eat breakfast. ‘It’s okay to be nervous.’ ‘Yeah, right,’ I said. They had gotten a large hall, the chairs were leather. I made a note to leave a message later on the group, how they had done well with the token we contributed. At first, we sat randomly. As it progressed, we were sectioned: prose writers, artists, poets, songwriters, designers, photographers. Each section was asked to choose a head. I watched the group of poets, and then the prose writers. The prose writers broke into a subtle melee: No, I’m shy. Writers are naturally a bunch of shy people. They’re not. A river ran somewhere behind the building. There was a church in the compound and the tones of a violin streamed into the hall. Sometimes, I closed my eyes and captured the scenery. It was during review of works that I saw him. There was a line in his story that read, ‘But then, it wasn’t the boy again, it was Lola.’ The story focused on a woman struggling with the weight of living up to motherhood. I did not keep my eyes off him. Soon, he began watching me too. He would smile with the corner of his lips. There was a calling in his eyes, Come, come, I’ve been waiting. It was as though he was drawing me without drawing me, making the tension more disturbing. I walked up to him and said, ‘Bolaji.’ It was all I needed to say.
His mother met his father in a bus. No, not the yellow rickety, decrepit varieties. It was in London, and it was summer, and classes were on, and both parties were running late. The bus was early. They got on. There was just one seat left. She looked at him and he looked at her, and they realized that they were both black. ‘You can have it,’ the man said, and it wasn’t because he was trying to be chivalrous. They met after classes, swapped numbers. Then addresses. Date one. By the third date, they were talking about settling down and if they would be returning to Nigeria – neither wanted to return immediately. Bolaji was conceived on a thick bed with silk bedsheets. Two months later, the man took the woman to the altar.
He did not hesitate to present his intentions. ‘I would like to date you,’ he said. ‘That’s a lot to ask.’ ‘I know.’ His fingers touched my skin. ‘I love you.’ Voice so sweet you could pour it in a bottle and tag it honey. I called mum. ‘What do you think?’ ‘I don’t know, mum. If I did, I would not have asked you.’ The sound of rushing water filled the background. ‘Consider your classes. You say he’s in his third year like you too. Would it affect your academics? Would you be able to sacrifice?’ ‘Yes.’ She took a long breath. ‘Angela, are you happy?’
Mum says I’ve gotten leaner, lost a few pounds. I smile and tell her it’s school, you know I have to think of internship placement too. I stuff the nylon bags she brought in a corner and, shutting the room’s door, see her to the car. I take in the environment, the ATMs, the other blocks in Moremi hostel, the road leading towards the school gate, so clean I almost leap for joy. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to come home for a few?’ I roll my eyes. ‘Mum, it’s why I didn’t want to come to UNILAG in the first place.’ ‘Fine, fine.’ ‘Thank you,’ I say when she belts herself in the driver’s seat. She winds down and I peek. ‘I’ll be fine, mum.’ I want to tell her I always expected it, that it was apparent all through the dating season, how the chances of our break up rose with each breath we shared, each laughter we treasured, like an investment scheme yielding dangerous profits – it bugs you, the thought that something might be wrong and you do not know it. I have two papers left and then I will spend a few days sorting out academics, then I will pack my bags and iron my favourite shirt and go home, and I will be on IT for six months, and the memory of this place would only be alive by the moments I can capture well. I watch as mum drive away, her black Lexus roaring, kicking dust, like the hooves of the horse of a knight in shining armour.
Before we broke up, he won a writing contest. His message went, ‘Gela, are you busy around six?’ I called a friend and told her I would not be making the Don’t-Hurt-The-Girl-Child campaign meeting, she said it had been brought forward to half past four. I left an hour into the meeting. Took a cab. Posters of political aspirants smeared the walls on both sides, the driver talked relentlessly about politics in Nigeria, how the whole system was messed up. You know say the money wey they talk say EFCC collect from that minister, e no even reach half of the thing wey he don chop. I nodded. He stopped talking minutes on, so when I alighted, I told him to keep the change, because I did not want him to be offended and talk about me to his next passenger. We ordered small plates of ice-cream. Headache ran around my head. Bolaji slid his phone across the table. My eyes grew wide as I filtered the news. I tightened my fingers around his and squeezed. His cheeks lit up again. We watched sunset, and he said the sun was like fading summers. A bright moon spread across the sky like curtains. A starless night. He walked me back to Moremi, and nearby, Falz Cinderella crooned from a speaker. I asked when he was going to kiss me again, I had missed it. He tickled me in the ribs. ‘You are beautiful in your smile,’ he said, as though my smile was a plate of sauce and I was dipped into the sauce.
At fellowship, the choir renders an extended version of Travis Greene’s Intentional. They wear blue shirts and big grins, and when the pastor asks that they continue before he takes his sermon, they ask everyone to rise and clap. The congregation breaks into grumbles and cadenced claps. The pastor – he’s in reality a five-hundred level guy, studying medicine – preaches from the last chapters of John. Talks about the resurrection of the Messiah. I look down the row and see no one else is puzzled, only then do I realize it’s Easter. I check my phone, and true to it, there’s a text from mum. One from Sewa, my closest niece. Then there’s Bolaji. I do not read his. I listen to the pastor’s words, how sometimes you have to let go of the ones you love for the greater purpose, says he likes to think of Mary, who ran to Jesus, Mary who poured oil on Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, and how she must have loved the Master so much it hurt, and how she had to learn the way of transforming love, renewed love, love unlike what we see play out in the world. And don’t forget, Mary was the only one who could make Jesus cry. There’s an altar call. For those who want to give their lives to the Messiah. An usher passes yellow envelopes for offering, prayers ensue towards the ongoing examination. During the announcement, they say all part four brethren going on IT would be having their thanksgiving the following Sunday, and should see their coordinator to make necessary contributions – keep it in mind. I walk home alone after service, my bag draped over my shoulders, gaze forward, Bolaji’s text unread.
We talked about fears. He was worried after school, writing wouldn’t come through, and of course, he was studying Cell Genetics for the sole purpose of going to school and having a degree. ‘I’m not saying anything about it at home though,’ he said, ‘they would almost kill me.’ ‘But writing’s not impossible.’ ‘Yeah, though you have to consider daily expenses, bills, how to be a Creative without being pressured by the need to earn.’ We talked about my fears too. How I didn’t know if I wanted to be serious with my drawing, how for me, it was a way of releasing, of keeping, of capturing and repainting, and I wasn’t so certain if I could sustain the process for two, five, a dozen years, not to talk of making it a lifetime career. I was afraid of childbirth. What if something went wrong, despite all the planning? What if there was not enough money to make the necessary preparations? How I wanted kids so much but wasn’t sure if I could endure the process of birthing them. He held my fingers. ‘Your turn.’ He swallowed. He didn’t swallow often. ‘I’m afraid of losing you.’ ‘You know that wouldn’t happen.’ ‘Gela.’ Softly, like breeze. His eyes were distant and near, as though he was departing and he was present. ‘I can’t stop thinking that we might not be together in two years.’ I kissed him. He kissed me back. ‘Don’t think about it,’ I said. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’m serious.’ ‘Okay.’
A message pops up on Instagram. Someone wants me to do a graphite drawing for her. I ask her to forward the picture, when she does, I rush to her wall. ‘The picture’s weird,’ I write. She explains – she was reaching back for her bag when her sister took the snapshot, her palms were spread, as though she was waving at someone behind her. She tells me she likes it that way, how it reminds her that sometimes, we have to turn to look back, and say goodbye. I understand. So much. I work six hours straight, doing a lot of tracing and little erasing. The rules I learned come to me afresh – use grids, ensure the tip of your pencil is sharp, press lightly, very lightly, keep erasing to a minimum, it roughens the sheet, start with rough sheets, then as you get better and practice more, you would find you don’t even need to do a rough sketch before you get to the real work. My phone’s on mute all along. When I check, there are four missed calls. I call mum back. ‘I wanted to be certain you are coming home tomorrow.’ ‘Yes.’ She says she will prepare my preferred vegetable. ‘You don’t have to go through the stress.’ ‘Anything for my girl.’ I think because her husband died when I was four, she has learned to pour all her love on me, the love meant for two people. It’s overwhelming, so much I think I might choke. I share the portrait on Instagram. The number of hearts set a new record – 176. Nine messages. Two from new followers. The client leaves a, ‘She’s so good, you can trust her for a portrait that’s so alive.’ I get two new orders before the day closes.
I pack three bags. Two of my roommates help me. ‘Gela, we will miss you o,’ the one in her final year says. ‘No one for me to do small-sister on again,’ the other says. Her name is Ebere. She turns to look at me. ‘Would you still continue drawing?’ I smile and direct my gaze to the bag in my hands. ‘Yes.’ Outside the gates, we find a queue of bus going towards Mainland. Ebere negotiates the fare with the driver, eventually I pay only half of what I should. It’s what I love about her, the fierceness of a tiger she carries about. ‘Thank you.’ ‘I don’t know why you didn’t allow mummy come pick you.’ When they say they will stay till the bus takes off, I shush them away. My phone vibrates. Mum. I update her and say amen to her prayers for a safe trip. There are two passengers left for the bus to be filled. Behind us, the gates leading into the campus swing as students mill by, University of Lagos inscribed in boastful fonts on a platform above the gates. Commercial buses chase one another. I check my phone. There’s still an unread message. Bolaji once told me about Lang Leav, a poet, and a piece he wrote, The Saddest Thing. I close my eyes and play images of the day I first called his name, at that meet-up, ‘Bolaji.’ Lang says there is never one particular reason why two lovers are torn apart, how sometimes, we could think of it as a learning process, preparing them for other love partners. But mostly, it happens. Just happens. The bus fills up. The driver settles in and fires off. As the gates of UNILAG fade in the distance, I close my eyes again and wipe my mind clean of all the images. This, in Lang’s words, is to stop looking for answers.