Do you remember the time that your stepmother walked in on us? God, the humiliation. There was something about that night, though. I felt more connected to you than before. I wanted to talk about it, but I felt a bit daft, blathering on and on afterwards while you smoked and smiled and humored me.
We were so close then. I hadn’t been that way with anyone before, and I haven’t been since. It happened unexpectedly too. We met…Freya and I…when we met, we smiled, barely spoke, smiled some more. It was all quietly dramatic. Or perhaps I’m only remembering it that way, like an American film, because it’s easier than remembering the intensity and my hesitation. I knew I would find a way to spoil it. I wanted her. I just didn’t want to be gay.
It was during Thanksgiving break when her stepmother walked in on us. We were at her parents’ house upstate, and it was late, close to midnight. I was mortified. God I almost died, but Freya just laughed and laughed. She slammed the door shut, her stepmother did, in her shock, and I think I heard her laugh too, as she apologized.
It wasn’t the first time we’d slept together, but it was different, I think because we were trying to be quiet. It was in waves of playful laughter and crashes of intense depth, our lovemaking. And when she came, she told me that she loved me. It was barely audible. Convulsive. And her face was buried in my neck, but I heard. I didn’t respond.
I’m moving, and I found some of your things while I was clearing out my bedroom. I’m not sure what to do with them. It’s just a few things—some T-shirts, a couple of Fela CDs, some perfume bottles, your hairbrush, the mp3 player you thought you lost on the train, and the blue lace dress you said you stole for me. I know that I refused it then, but I think I’ll keep it. I tried it on, and it’s very flattering. If they fit in a box, your things I mean, if they fit in one box, I’ll mail it to you. Otherwise I’ll leave them here.
The next morning I made Freya lock the bathroom door so we wouldn’t get walked in on again. She wanted me to massage coconut oil into her scalp to condition her short curls before a wash. She has a tattoo on the back of her neck, high up at the base of her skull: VII-XIV-MCMLXIV, the date her birth mother was born. I am still in awe of how she can love both her birth mother and stepmother the way that she does, without the strain of obligation or loyalty. Her parents had a hideous divorce, but she refuses to portion out her love. Everyone gets a full cup. Different flavors maybe, but always a full cup.
I’ve been having those dreams again, the ones where I lose my teeth. They’re always different, you know, sometimes they just crumble to dust, and other times they’re a jagged bloody mess, as if someone that really doesn’t like me took a hammer to my mouth. Last night’s dream was different. I dreamed that I was looking at myself in the mirror and my reflection smiled and began pulling her teeth out, slowly, with what seemed to be very little effort. I, the me that wasn’t my reflection, I put my hand to my mouth and felt what I could only imagine to be blood, even though it was more black than red, pouring down my chin. I’ve been told that dreams like these indicate severe anxiety; which would be fitting, as I find myself severely anxious these days.
She loves the smell of coconut oil. The second time we saw each other on purpose, we met at the park, and I wore this loose lace dress that was really barely there. It was made with coral colored French lace, with a sheer satin lining. I loved that dress. After we had established that it was okay to touch each other, that we wanted to touch each other, she cupped her face with my hands to her face and breathed deep.
“What’s that smell?” she had asked, “like cake”, with only a hint of a smile, just barely curving the edges of her mouth. I use the oil on my skin and in my hair. She could smell it from all over me. She leaned in so close that I expected to be kissed, but she only sniffed me.
So that day, when your step mother walked in on us, after I had recovered from the humiliation and we continued and you told me you loved me, I want you to know that it was just my cowardice not speaking. I was so envious of how open you were with me, it seemed impossible to match. I did love you. I guess I just don’t have the kind of courage it takes to own that fully.
Her family was impossibly warm. I tend to be suspicious of excessive affection, but I believed them. It felt genuine.
“They knew I was queer before I did,” she had said to me about her parents a few weeks before Thanksgiving.
“I was like, fucking terrified of telling them, and at the end of first semester they were just like ‘so any cute girls in your classes?’” She ran her hands over her freshly shaved head and smiled.
“I’d like you to meet them actually. Maybe Thanksgiving?”
You accused me of treating us like an experiment, but it wasn’t like that. I swear. Us together was like a different, safer world. I wanted to be there always. But there’s this world too, I don’t even know, I’m just writing nonsense now. I know that’s not good enough, Freya. The truth is that I didn’t know how to come out to my family. I still don’t. There’s just no room for that kind of difference where I’m from, and I don’t know how to challenge that. I thought about it a lot, I still do. I’ve written so many ‘coming out’ letters to my mother that I’ve never mailed. I’ve started to tell her over the phone whenever she asks about my ‘boyfriend.” But I always stop short of the word ‘gay’.
We drove back to the city the night after Thanksgiving. It was a short break, only three days off, and I had three courses back to back on Monday morning. I felt quite useless because I don’t know how to drive, and Freya had stayed up the night before helping her father set up a website to sell his carvings. They had taken pictures of every carving from several angles. There were over seventy of them. She was yawning so often, I suggested we take a break at the next rest stop and get some tea.
“You know all my secrets now,” she said to me laughing, “the mystique is gone.” She poured one of those tiny cups of cream into her paper cup of coffee.
“Frey, I love your family,” I reached across the plastic table for her hand and snapped the colored rubber bands on her wrist. “But, you don’t love me?” She asked with a smile, trying to make a joke out of it, but I could sense that she was serious. Her smile was wrong. It didn’t reach her eyes.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. I interlaced my fingers with hers.
She shrugged, “You didn’t say it back the other night…” she trailed of and looked away “I don’t know, I wasn’t saying it for a response, but when you didn’t say it back…I don’t know Zai.” Her grasp on my hand tightened, and her eyes fell to her cup.
“But you already know. What does it matter if I didn’t say it back?” I was trying to keep my voice even, but I felt as though I was being found out.
“It matters that you say it babe,” a sigh escaped her in raspy trembles “It matters that you tell your parents about me. It matters that you hold my hand when we walk downtown, or by your church, that you’re not scared to touch me in front of your Nigerian friends,” Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. She let go of my hand to lift her cup to her mouth.
“Freya, where’s this coming from? You haven’t mentioned any of that befo-“
“Well, yeah ‘cause I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but I’ve been so…I don’t know. I’ve never been so vulnerable with anyone the way I am with you.” She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply. “Fuck, I hate the way I sound right now,” her voice cracked. She swallowed and looked away. “I’m just totally at your mercy, and I need to know that we can have a future that doesn’t include us pretending to be ‘classmates’ when your mother comes round”
“But I’ve told you,” I started to say, but my voice caught in my throat.
“Maybe I’m just tired.” She mumbled quickly when she saw the tears well up in my eyes “we don’t have to talk about this now.”
There were, maybe, three other people in the coffee shop where we sat, and they didn’t seem to notice us at all, but I still felt foolish crying in public like that.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want you to cry…” she held both my hands with both of hers and rested her forehead on top of the stack that our hands made.
“I’m just so fucking tired” she yawned “you know I’m hella bitchy when I’m tir-“
“You’re right though,” I cut in “I’m a ‘closet case’, the worst kind.” We were clutching each other’s hands so tightly it hurt a bit. “I don’t know that I can ever come out to my family. They’re not like yours.”
“Zainab,” she said my name slowly and shook her head “I don’t know that I can keep not being a proper part of your life.”
I couldn’t wipe the tears off my face because my hands were in hers, and I could see them glistening in my reflection on the window, catching the stark white fluorescent light and bouncing it off the glass.
“But Freya, I love you,” it was more of a plea than anything else.
What was this love that I was talking about, anyway? The way we throw it around, as if we know what it will do. We don’t know what it will do. We cannot possibly know of the havoc it wrecks until it is much too late. Otherwise, we would never invoke it the way we do, or we would never mean it.
“Is it enough though?”
I didn’t answer. I wanted it to be enough. I wanted it to be enough. I want it to be enough, but I don’t know that it is.
Her eyes were red and brimming, but her voice was steady when she said, “Babe, I don’t want to break up.”
I didn’t want to either, but even I couldn’t be so selfish.
I can’t claim that loving you was enough and then hide our love from all the people that matter to me; it makes no sense. And being in your home with your family, being introduced as your ‘girlfriend’ with no shame or anything, I knew that it was too good. It was too simple, and there was just no way I could be confronted with something so lovely and not spoil it with my fear. I don’t know if that explains anything.
Anyway, I’m moving back to Lagos for a while. I thought I should let you know. My father passed away a few weeks ago. I’m not heartbroken or anything, the man was quite the bastard, but I need to be with my mother right now. The in-laws and other wives have already begun to torment her. I don’t know when I’m coming back, and I hate the way we left it, so I just want you to know that I’m sorry, and I wish I had been better. And I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.
Image by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr
About the Author:
My name is Francesca Ekwuyasi, I’m currently live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but I am from Lagos Nigeria. I have just defended my masters thesis on Labour Migration and Human Trafficking in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and have had the good fortune of presenting some of my academic work at conferences. However, my true love is creative writing. I am particularly interested in reading about and writing queer African narratives reckoning with faith and family.