When the heart beats at nothing but itself, she wonders
When the belly twitches for nothing in particular, she wonders
When the shivering starts and the weather isn’t chilling, she wonders
When the life seems devoid of plan or purpose, she wonders
On whose path is she treading?
What does she long for
A snippet of truth will bring clarity
That God is he who satisfies her longing.
Leah sat at the desk in her room. One leg on the floor, the other drawn up on the chair pressed into her body, she sat twirling a black pen between her fingers. The sun was out after all the rain and the weather was hot now. She wore a simple black spaghetti strap with white slacks. Her poetry journal lay open in front of her, a few lines of the page already filled.
She tried to write but constantly her mind flit to other things, J.J’s outburst at last night’s meeting being foremost. She had been so angry at him. Simply looking at him had twisted her insides but then he’d started speaking and everything in her melted. When he spoke about hurting people, she’d known he’d been talking to her, and as he continued she’d known exactly what he meant. She understood what he was talking about so clearly that he could have been talking about her. How many times had she called out to God to save her and he hadn’t? How many times had she longed to hear something from him and heard nothing?
She had been in church since she was a child. Her grandfather had insisted they go each Sunday to the big Catholic Church in their area. She found the rituals comforting, the familiarity peaceful. Every night as children their mother would force her and Stephen to pray but afterwards the nightmares would still come.
She thought about J.J.’s expression right before he walked out. He understood pain the same way she did.
Earlier in the day Dr Sulo had noticed her reserve. Leah had sat folded in the chair, staring at nothing.
“Are you alright? You look troubled, Leah,” she observed.
Leah turned her head slowly, staring at her openly without her usual guard. “Can we please not talk today? I don’t feel like it.”
Dr. Sulo examined her for a moment then nodded. “Yes, that’s fine,” she replied, setting her book down on a little glass side table and rose to turn up the music. They spent the rest of the session listening to the soothing sounds without saying anything. As she’d walked out of her office, Dr. Sulo had reminded her about their gathering later. As if she could forget.
Leah sighed and rose from the desk. She shut the book, grabbed her oversized pashmina and slipped her feet into sandals. When she turned, Mamita was standing at the connecting door.
“Hey,” Leah said, her eyes on Mamita’s face. It was the first time she had ever seen her without make up. She looked like a lost little girl.
“Are you going out?” Mamita asked softly.
Leah nodded. “I have to see Ter.”
Mamita nodded, and rubbed her arms like she was cold.
“Everything okay?” Leah asked.
“Is this guy talk? Because Ter can wait,” Leah said.
Mamita didn’t smile as she usually did, just looked straight at Leah with something in her eyes that made Leah apprehensive.
“It’s nothing. Later,” she said, closing her eyes and waving her it off.
“Are you sure?” Leah asked, not persuaded.
She nodded, and walked back through the door, shutting it with a click behind her.
After a moment, Leah left too, going straight to the rec room which was teaming with people as usual. She entered and scanned the room, spotting Ter on the sofa with a few other patients. She walked along the edge of the room, keeping her gaze on him and waving, trying to catch his attention. Eventually, he glanced towards her and she jutted her chin towards the corner of the room. He nodded in acknowledgement. He spoke to the people he was with and rose from chair.
Leah headed to the corner of the room and watched him as he moved towards her.
“Hi,” she said when he arrived.
“Hi,” he said, bundling her up into a long hug.
A laugh bubbled out of her. He always made her feel better.
“Sorry,” she said. “I was in a hurry last time.”
He looked relieved. “Really? What was happening?”
Leah hesitated. She didn’t really want to talk about that night anymore. “Oh, don’t worry.”
She changed the topic swiftly, inquiring about him. They spoke briefly. She kept glancing towards the door, checking to make sure none of the attendants came in. They’d been more watchful the first few days, but luckily they were lazy and had begun slacking off over time.
After a while, Leah told him she had to leave.
“Let’s hang out tonight,” he said.
Leah looked regretful. “Sorry,” she said. “I have that Dr. Sulo’s thing tonight.”
He nodded, seeming disappointed but didn’t complain. He hugged her again and held on for a long moment. Leah smiled up at him as he released her.
“Bye Ter,” she said.
Leah took her time getting ready for Dr. Sulo’s gathering. It had been a while since she had an opportunity to dress up. She had forgotten the little pleasures of having a place to go and looking pretty to go there.
A loud bang startled her and she swiveled as Ita barged into the room, huffing in exertion. Sweat poured down her forehead. Her eyes were red and desperate.
“What happened?” Leah immediately asked, stepping forward.
Ita wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. The Arsenal jersey she wore clung to her full body.
“Leah,” Ita said, her eyes filling with tears. “Mamita tried to kill herself.”
Leah sucked in a loud breath and froze in shock.
Ita, stormed on, oblivious to Leah. “Why would she do this? Why? Why?” Ita demanded.
“How do you know?” Leah asked, refusing to believe it. “Are you sure?”
“I am positive. I saw her. She was behind the chapel. There was so much blood. I saw the razor.”
Leah cringed visibly, the picture filling her head. “Stop,” she said. “Where is she?”
“They carried her to the Clinic. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Leah stared down at her feet in her favourite ankle boots, unable wrap her head around it. Not Mamita. She didn’t seem like the type. Even in her sadness, she had a strength to her that made it difficult to imagine she would.
“She will live,” Ita said, talking more to herself than to Leah. “She will live.”
Leah’s eyes stung. She tried to remind herself that they barely knew each other, but that didn’t matter really. In a place this small everyone felt like they were family, either nuclear or extended.
Leah started to move, heading to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“The Clinic. I’m going to see her,” Leah said, leaving the room and beginning to walk swiftly out of the dormitory.
“They won’t allow you to see her,” Ita called out, running behind her. Leah didn’t slow.
“I don’t care. I’m going to see her somehow.”
Leah and Ita moved quickly. The news had traveled fast. Outside in the field the patients had gathered in a sober assembly. A hush had taken over the group as they watched and talked. Leah pushed through the crowd, moving past the people milling in the main building towards the entrance. Two male attendants stood blocking the path.
“Excuse me,” Leah commanded.
“You can’t pass,” one of them said.
“I’m going to see my friend.”
His face softened. “Nobody can see her yet. She’s being taken care of.”
Leah’s eyes stung. “Is she okay?”
The man sighed. “She’s being attended to. Just go back now. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
Leah began to argue, but Ita gently placed a hand on her arm and drew her away. They walked back to the dormitory in silence. Once inside the room, Leah glanced at the door to Mamita’s room. A wave of emotion hit her stomach and she began to cry. Ita’s arms went around her immediately.
“It’s okay,” Ita said, sniffling. “It’s okay.”
They remained there for a long time before Ita drew away. “You have to get ready.”
Leah shook her head resolutely. “I’m not going.”
“No,” Ita said, forcefully. “Go. It doesn’t help anyone if you stay.”
Leah shook her head, unable to imagine going when someone she had seen a few hours ago lay beneath death and life. “I can’t go. I don’t feel like it.”
“You’ll only buy trouble if you don’t go,” Ita told her. “It’s all therapy. The sooner you finish, the sooner you can leave this place on your own two feet.”
Ita’s voice broke at the end and she pulled away, going to sit on the chair at Leah’s desk. “We all need to do whatever we have to do to leave here in one piece,” she said to Leah.
Leah stared at the wall. She knew Ita was right but she couldn’t stop imagining Mamita. Thinking about it hurt her heart.
“She would tell you to go,” Ita said.
Leah shut her eyes. Ita was already talking about her like she was dead. “No, she wouldn’t. She would tell me to skip it.”
Ita went quiet. “Maybe if she didn’t skip so much she would be okay now.”
Indignant, Leah’s eyes flipped open and they stared hard at each other. After a moment, she sighed, the anger going out of her. Again, she knew Ita was right. They couldn’t ignore why they were all there. All of them, like Mamita, were walking disasters waiting to happen.
Dr. Sulo’s house was a semi-detached duplex, heavily veiled by trees and trailing vines nestled at the back of a neat estate.
The Centre’s bus driver dropped them outside the gate and they let themselves in through the open side gate, filing in one after another. Leah trailed in last, looking around Dr Sulo’s house. It was small and well-kept, exactly like she thought it would be. She was very curious about the inside as well. Houses were extensions of people’s personalities; it would be like glimpsing into Dr. Sulo’s mind.
They walked up a short flight of steps that led to the front door and knocked on it. A few minutes later, Dr. Sulo pulled it open, letting out with her, the sound of thumping reggae music. Everyone froze and quieted at the sight of her. Shrouded in blinking disco lights, she looked ethereal. Her normal matronly clothes had been discarded in favour of a glittering silver dress, and the hair she usually wore packed up was let down, falling in waves to her shoulders.
She looked a million years younger than she did at the Centre, and less severe by aeons. The quiet group erupted into compliments about her transformation which she accepted, laughing at the outrageous ones as she stood aside to let them in.
Leah paused as she reached her. Still stunned, she eyed her appreciatively. “You should wear this to work.”
Dr. Sulo laughed hard. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, and peered out the door to her quiet entrance.
“You’re the last?” she asked Leah. Leah nodded.
Dr. Sulo frowned and glanced outside again. “We’re still missing some people. We’ll start when they arrive.” She shut the door and waved Leah away. “Go have fun,” she told her.
Leah turned and took in the room. It was doused in a million colourful lights that gave the room a dim, club feel enhanced by the music booming off a powerful sound system. All her chairs- shades of green and light brown, Leah thought, but couldn’t be sure in the dim light- was pushed against the wall to make more space and create a makeshift dance floor. A table stood squarely in the middle of a connecting dining area, stacked high with finger food, plastic plates and cups.
The music changed to a fast song as Leah joined a group hanging by a wall. Brima was the only one of her friends who shared the same psychiatrist . He grabbed her hand and dragged her onto the dance floor, moving expertly. Leah laughed as he swung her back and forth. By the time she pulled away, her heart was beating wildly and the lump in her chest that had been there since hearing about Mamita dislodged slightly.
She moved to the table to grab a glass, and poured some of the unalcoholic wine into a glass and drank deeply. She lowered her glass and watched everyone having a great time. It was different from their usual schedule and now she saw how smart it really was. Their defenses were down, they had loosened up and were acting more like they would on the outside.
Dr. Sulo walked across the room and opened the front door as Leah watched. J.J. walked in slowly. He looked over Dr Sulo with open admiration and said something to her that made her laugh and pat his arm. They moved into the room together. Leah saw Dr. Sulo whisper to him, before leaving him and walking towards the stairs.
J.J. looked around the room. One of the guys called his name and walked towards him, pumping his hand vigorously. As they talked, he looked over the man’s head and saw Leah. He stilled. He took her in, his gaze intensifying in a way that unsettled her stomach and made her turn away, looking down at all the food.
The music disappeared abruptly. “Everyone please gather together,” Dr Sulo called. Leah moved reluctantly into the parlour, where Dr Sulo stood, one of her hands laid delicately on the theatre system.
“I hope you guys are having fun,” she said with a smile. “That was the point of tonight. I know tensions can run high in that place. You’re constantly being made to examine yourselves and that can be stressful. Today is about taking a break and relaxing a bit. That said, I’m a therapist. I don’t know how to have fun without throwing in a lesson.”
People groaned. One of the men shouted,” No, Ma!” making everyone laugh, Dr. Sulo included.
“Don’t worry. It’s just a small one. I’m sure all of you have heard what happened to one of your colleagues, Mamita. It is a serious, sad and disheartening thing. We all try our best but sometimes these things slip through the cracks. The truth is we never know what other people are going through. And none of us really knows how much time we have here. Which is why it’s important that while we’re here we use our time wisely. Talk to each other. Take care of each other. Not care only for our own concerns but take some time to care about others and find out what’s going on with them. You never know the difference you’ll make. Guys,” she said, her voice rising with the last word. “Your exercise for tonight will be to be good to each other. It sounds deceptively simple until you actually start putting it into practice. I’m going to pair you guys up in two’s and for the entire night, that’s your job for each other.”
She finished and began pairing them up. “You and you,” she said. “You and you.”
She pointed at J.J. and Leah, pairing them up. Her eyes twinkled. “You two don’t kill each other,” she said.
Once she was done, most people didn’t seem too pleased. She’d deliberately chosen people who didn’t like each other or didn’t know each other well.
They all stood, unsure what to do. “Find your partners oh,” Dr. Sulo said, enjoying it. She turned the music back up and disappeared into the dining.
One by one the pairs found each other. Leah kept her ground, not moving. J.J. made his way over to her, stopping in front of her. He smelled nice, she noticed immediately.
She looked up at him, quietly.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she returned.
They fell quiet, just staring at each other. Leah looked away first, her eyes going to her feet. When she looked up again his eyes were still on her.
“How may I be of service to you?”Leah asked.
“You’re really going to be nice to me?” he asked, skeptically.
His gaze moved over her quickly. “You look nice. Better than nice.”
“So do you.”
J.J glanced at the other people who looked as clueless as they did. “I’m not sure what is supposed to happen now.”
Leah laughed. “Me neither.” She scanned the room. “Are you hungry?”
“Always,” he replied.
She led him to the food table, picked up a plastic plate and began piling one of everything onto it. “For the record, I forgive you for the whole Emeka thing. I was too harsh and I took my anger out on you. I promise I won’t punch you again.”
“I think I need that in writing.”
She smiled as she finished the job and held out the plate to him. He stared down at it with his lips turned down. “Such a small plate?”
She glanced down at it too then began filling another one for him.
“So we’re friends now?” he asked.
She thought about it. “Friends is going too far.”
“We’re not enemies anymore then?”
She smiled. “No.”
He finished the plate in his hands and collected the one from her and finished that one quickly as well while she watched.
“You can eat, man,” she commented.
“Mmm,” he noted. “I’m a grown ass man.”
“I can see that,” she replied.
“You’re very small,” he noted all of a sudden.
Leah frowned. “I like to think I’m the right size.”
He used a flattened palm to measure the top of her head against his body. “I think so too,” he said, his meaning unmistakable.
There was an ease to him tonight. He seemed different. Or maybe she had just never seen this side to him. She thought about how he had been the other night.
“What you said in the chapel…” she began.
J.J waved it off before she could continue.
“Let’s not talk about it.”
She screwed up her nose. “Aren’t you supposed to be being good to me?”
He nodded solemnly. “I plan to.”
“Well, first of all… we dance.”
He took her hand and led her to the makeshift dance floor. The song was a soulful jazz number. She thought they’d shuffle back and forth like most people, waiting for the song to change, but he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and drew her close. Her stomach flipped around and she was assuaged again by the smell of him. It wasn’t just the perfume, she realized now. It was him.
They swayed from side to side. She caught Brima watching him, and turned her head into J.J’s chest to ignore him. Neither of them spoke which she liked. It felt like they didn’t need to.
He began to hum along to the song and she felt the vibration deep in his chest. She pressed in a bit, enjoying the feel of it. The song faded into an end, and moved seamlessly into a fast number. He rubbed her bare arms, up and down, warming her in the chill, then stepped back a bit. Leah looked up at him, the lights flickering over his face, his calm gaze completely focused on her,
Looking up into his face now, she knew. She liked him.
She really, really did.