THE SCENT OF WATER
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth and the stock thereof die in the ground. Yet through the scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant. Job 14.7- 9 KJV.
She was not beautiful. Yet she had things that made one notice her, and notice her in the most civilized manner. It was her hands; they were the first things about her I noticed as we both reached for the same tape at the checkout counter of the home video rental club. They looked soft and fresh; manicured, the nails were painted a very lady like pink, with just the right touch of chipping on one or two nails to discourage a verdict of perfection. I murmured ‘Ladies first’ and she accepted, graciously, like a lady. I followed the hands up to and past her elbow to her face.
She was not beautiful. But her face was intriguing, huge expressive eyes in a small elfin face with generous lips. Like God had fashioned her out of different spare parts. No, she was not ugly; on the contrary she had a magnetism that held me. Her voice however was truly God given, deep, cool and clear, like spring water on a hot day. The kind that hits a high note in a song, and you feel the electricity all down your spine, at least if you were alive. I was. Later I asked her why she never thought of singing professionally, and she laughed it off as if I was a clown, and as if I thought this country was America with all its myriad opportunities. I remember teasing her that success was three parts talent and seven parts hard work but she shrugged. That was how she hoisted a white flag when she was losing a war. A shrug. It seemed so inconsequential then. Then if your eyes wandered down to her physique, you made a mental wolf call. She was built like what we used to call a true African woman big soft mounds softly straining out of her chest with enormous nipples that seemed to have a life of their own to give, they jiggled deliciously when she spoke. It was hard not to stare. Then wander down further and be enraptured by a flat almost nonexistent stomach that flared into the most rounded hips in the world.
She carried a great sadness with immense dignity, only her eyes complained, detached and hurt. At first I credited her detachment to maturity; she was older than I was by at least a decade. We were of course Africans and to be African is to be traditional. I was never so wrong in all my life. I met her twice or thrice after that inaugural episode and she always answered my polite nods with gestures of her own, a smile, a casual toss of her head, her soft breasts trembling or a petite wave of her wrist, very individual.
I soon forgot she existed. I was job hunting then and soon became caught up in the frenzy and rush that was Abuja, from one office to the next, encouraging myself that maybe the next application would be the successful one. It went on for months. My savings got leaner and my cousin Bulus got meaner. It was no fault of his; I myself would be irritable. Both at himself and myself. I began to avoid the squalid one bedroom flat we shared, going for long walks in the evenings that left me tired and sleepy so I could escape conversations with him. Conversations that were always filled with venom, grumbling and complaining and which almost invariably ended with a question about my job hunting. It was on one of those lengthy aimless walks that I met her again. I was lost in thought when a sharp screech brought me back to reality. There I was in the middle of the road, bathed in the harsh headlights of a 1992 Honda Accord, the one Hausa men call ‘Hala’. I apologized stupidly and stepped back on the kerb waiting for the car to proceed. It did not.
“Are you alright?” it was the Voice coming from the dark innards of the car.
“Yes.” I lied, shaken.
“Come in, are you headed for the club? I’ll drop you off.”
That was how it started. Innocently I believe. Her name was Tani, short for Evratanioremi. Pregnant clouds heralding the rain. She ran her own public relations firm and she knew how to make one laugh. It was easy talking to her so I found myself telling her I was looking for a job and that my dream, my very own private dream was to win the Booker Prize. We had so much in common. We shared the same alma mater, loved the saxophonist Kenny G, hated heavy metal rock with a passion and lived for books. Books. That simple word never seems to convey the world of meaning that each book encapsules. I inherited the genes of the love of books from my father, a genuine intellectual if there ever was one and she was a Literature graduate. I remember her face visibly brightened when I mentioned books.
“You read?” she asked. A seemingly foolish question. Until one considers that in the busy existence that we call life, we forget to spice the journey with distillates from another time and or place. It was not a part of our popular culture so it was strange, weird in fact to meet a soul mate.
“Yes, all kinds. Danielle Steele, James Joyce, Yeats, Soyinka, Steinbeck, Robbins, James Hadley Chase, anything.”
Once in a lifetime if God likes you, you get to meet your soul mate, casually, in a fleeting passing moment, a moment you remember for the rest of your life, and a moment you regret for the rest of your life, filled with questions. What if? What if you had talked to him or to her? What if you had played beautiful music together? What if you had shared the rest of your lives? Together?
And once in a lifetime if God really really likes you, you get to be involved with your soul mate. I felt that way about her, two separate halves of a whole, complimentary and even symbiotic. Your differences, backgrounds, ages, education fade to become insignificant, there is only the two of you. Tani was my soul mate pure and simple. She had an insight that almost always left me breathless and contemplative, and where I had disdained many of my colleagues and contemporaries for being shallow and light, she was dazzlingly intelligent. Honest. And sincerely that was how it began. I had been raised in a conservative home and the last thing on my mind was an intimate relationship with an older woman. So we were friends, just friends for a long time. She helped me get a job as a floor manager in a department store and we spent quality time together mostly in her house listening to jazz or having heated discussions about the contributions of Japan to world culture while she cooked banga soup. Or we would read the same book separately and dissect it, seeking meaning and nuances. Very intellectual. I saw it coming though; the signs were there. Times when we would brush against each other, looks that said volumes and most of all our words to each other filled with subliminal invitations. Yet we never dared to cross that line, just as I never penetrated the wall of insulation that she built around her memories. She never talked about the pictures of the kids on her mantleplace and I never asked. It was not my place.
Bulus of course was born a cynic and he would sneer at my denials and leer at me. Then make exaggerated wolf calls, his snout pointing moonwards. She never really met my other friends as I never did meet any except her closest inner circle of friends, as if we were each an embarrassment to the other, a shameful secret to be closeted away. She had a few close friends, Ekaete, a plump bookish type who wore unfashionable glasses and hid a passionate nature behind a school marm façade. She ran an NGO that dealt with women related health issues and was forever fighting with someone over gender related issues. It was pathetic when I realized she did not really believe in what she preached. She also had a son out of wedlock.
There was Franca, a bank executive who was a fallen born again Christian who was so man- hungry as to have a radar for the subject. She had been married once but her husband had run off with a nymphet nearly twenty years younger. Once when Tani was not home she had turned up in the flat on some pretext of forgetting something, and stayed boring me for two hours until I gently threw her out pretending not to see the flashes of thigh and cleavage she was challenging me with. I was no saint but decency demanded there was a courting ritual before mating. Her other friend was Salamatu, a slim beautiful Moslem who had been raped at age thirteen and whose goal in life was to castrate all men. It was natural that none of them liked me.
Tani and me? What happened? We were watching cable news one day in her home when a report about a drunken driver whose car careened into a family of four’s station wagon, came on. Before I knew it she was crying, softly at first, then in loud sobs that wracked her whole body. I was at a loss so I just drew closer and put my arms around her. She was so pliant and soft and her perfume, I remember her perfume, Lotus Bomb, it stung my nostrils and I inhaled sharply, like a bull. It was so natural. Our lips and hands sought each other, and with a moan I finally held her breasts in my hands, Desperately as if we needed to feed on each other, we discarded our clothing in the low light, searching and finding protection. She was a painting done in human pastels. I remember little of it except I was in her and she was in me and the cosmos was one in our pleasure.
That was how it started. I later found out from Salamatu that Tani had lost her husband and two kids in an automobile accident caused by a drunken driver and somehow she had never learned to live with her memories. Until I came into her life. Looking back, I put my heart into that project, and I enjoyed those days, those moments of bliss when the world retreated and became lost to us. A relationship, intimate, deep and very personal developed.
Puppy love, all the words the world put together to describe what we had seems so inadequate now. I literally breathed and lived her, like all the great love songs were written for us. And it made me afraid that this thing that fate entrusted me with was not going to last. There was a desperation in my hunger then, like a starving man let loose on a kings feast yet under a hangsmans loose. A dream destined to be tragic. It never lasted.
One night I arrived the flat we shared from an out of town trip early. There were two cars apart from Tani’s in the driveway. Franca’s and Ekaete’s, her gossip club members. I was about to let myself into the house when I heard Franca’s shrill voice.
“For God’s sake Tani, don’t tell me you’ve fallen for that boy. You know how it is.”
“Use them and dump them.” Completed Ekaete.
“You don’t understand. This is different.” Tani said in her sad deep voice.
“Can you imagine two of you walking down a church aisle? Or worse even going to that warlike village of yours?”
“Can he hold even a candle to Lanre?”
Her silence said much.
I chose that moment to begin to fiddle with the door. Their silence was deafening. I knew she knew I had heard. Lanre? He turned out to be a suitor, the kind any girl could do without, the kind that doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know the difference between persistence and nuisance. He was not my pain though. I wondered why she had not stood up for me before her friends. She shrugged. I believed in her so I stayed. But the devil had already taken an interest in our lives. It became too much for us. Slowly like a cancer it grew, we began to drift apart. No not deep inside, but on the surface, the words we said easily once were now hard to come by, the pressures grew too powerful. I cannot boast I remained exclusive and I know Lanre’s persistence paid off more than once.
There was no ritual. I just came home, dropped her car keys in the bedroom, her front door keys under the footmat, no good byes. It was better that way, no emotions, no second-guessing, and not even a note. She would understand. She would understand that in another world, in another place, things would have been different. I knew even then that I was being selfish, re-opening old wounds, but I had my own soul to think about. She moved to the US. At least it eased her pain.
It was odd at first not having her presence about me. More than odd, it was strange. I would walk into a restaurant and half way into my meal, I would absent- mindedly say something to her waiting for her comment, and she would not be there. Or I would wake up in the night, staring at the dark and wondering what in the name of God was happening to me, aching inside. I threw myself at my new job as a sales manager with a carbonated soft drinks company and soon over the months she became an elusive memory, a dull ache, a ghost I never pursued, afraid of my own shadow, afraid of the pain of lacerating old wounds.
I tried to make new friends, to get on with my life, but it was all bland and empty, the new rituals too immature and burdensome. I lived a struggle, I lived a lie. I still feel her, when the night is cold or when inexplicably I am afraid, or when I hear our song on the radio. I feel her presence when I watch the movies we once shared or when NEPA strikes and I expect to hear her dry humorous wisecrack. Somehow now, the sadness is gone, swallowed by something infinitely more beautiful. Why do we kick against destiny? When you love and you lose there is little hope in the dawn. Perhaps she is free now, I am not. Why did I not take that which the Universe offered me? But she left something precious behind: that there is hope and for now that is all I ask.
Lulufa Vongtau, Country of Residence: Nigeria
A wordsmith who seeks to capture the Pheonix like nature of love. Love cannot be destroyed, but it can die and be reborn elsewhere.