Evening was here.
“Hi. Will you walk with me?”
I turned back to the soft voice calling from behind me. A total stranger with an innocent stare was fuming coyly, swinging her arms pleadingly. I looked a little farther behind her. There was no apparent sight of danger. There was just this shy, beautiful soul asking for company.
I was seated at the Susan Wenger garden at the Institute of African Studies, just adjacent her department, Human Nutrition. I was mildly taken aback by her question, shocked but I considered it bold. I looked at her pretty, tucked backpack; her overflowing, slush gown and the flabby natural hair. She was harmless.
“Sure.” I eventually managed to say. I closed the borrowed copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird novel I was reading, stood up and was happy to indulge this beautiful stranger.
And so we were walking and walking and walking. There was silence. More walk. Silence. More walk.
“Hope you don’t find it creepy that I asked for company.” She finally pierced the silence. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or an expressive extension of her soliloquist tendencies. For she didn’t wait for an answer as she continued to speak.
“I am never going to understand men. Never. It is odd, maybe funny, how they fall in love with you because they think you are forceful, intelligent, strong-willed, independent, in control and very much out in the world. Then the second they capture you, so to speak, they try to change you. They cut across as babies; as jealous pricks. Before they met us, we managed quite well without them. But the second they meet us, they start giving us advice, restricting our choices, limiting our vision and dreams, and curtailing our freedom. And when we say and scream, NO, we are labeled as feminist, disrespectful, proud. Can you imagine?” The weight of her question must have sunk quite late. “Oh sorry, you are one too.”
Oh sure, I am. I could have sworn she lifted those lines from a book I have read before. But I couldn’t remember the title. I wasn’t sure. But she had a point. I was just not sure if I was the right person to tell. I have never dated. Never felt what it means to be in love. I have been trapped in a religious web of my-romantic-relationship-must-eventually-lead-to-marriage kind of spiritual affirmations.
“He left me.” She was crying now.
I get it.
Maybe she wasn’t really attracted to me. Maybe she just needed a distraction, someone to talk to. She was perhaps hurting and needed what Toyin once called a rebound. But I didn’t mind. I would gladly be her emotional, hurt absolver; her diversional therapy. Behind her anger was a confidence that trumps my cultural sense of feminine value. Behind her story was a passion, a craving for something pure, true and, perhaps, eternal.
“You are so quiet. I can’t remember the last time a guy gave me so much attention, not interrupting me or making me feel stupid.” It was a compliment she meant. It was obvious. Her face said it all.
Soon, we were in her hall. She asked if I wanted to sign in the visitor’s register, go to her room. I nodded vigorously, quickly, and rushed to the porter’s office before she could change her mind.
We climbed the stairs in palpable silence. I wanted to talk, but I didn’t know what to say. We stopped at the third floor, my legs ached and my heart was beating faster. But I concealed my pain. I wanted to be strong for her. She led me to the right side of the third floor. We must have passed by three doors, maybe four. “This is my room.” She whispered with a smile. “This is where I stay.” I was going to say cool while she reached out to the bag for the room key, but her phone slipped through her bag, dropped on the floor and my immediate instinct was to reach out before it plopped into a shattered piece of shit. In a similar turn, she did same. Our eyes met while crouched down, as I made to hand over the phone, she nudged a little closer, carefully, cautiously, and planted her lips on mine. We rose, from the floor, lips glued, tongue reaching out deeper, and like an emerging chick, bustling through the cracks of her shelled egg to experience the first sight of life, we arose; changed, lightened, freed.
“I am sorry.” She spoke in a voice enflamed by shame and then withdrew rather quickly. But her face had lit literally. I didn’t see tears anymore. I saw fire in the balcony of her eyes. I saw the opposite of everything she had poured on our journey home. I was just there staring; stares that wore a thousand words from several love sonnets, stares mediated by a soulful symphony of heavenly voices. She was looking at me as though she was searching for something in my eyes. She waited. And then I reached out to trace the lines on her face, to register a soft touch on her milky cheek. And then she withdrew slightly, bowed her head, opened the door and went in. She shut the door behind me.
I rested my head on the door, with my hands raised. I heard her heavy breathing, and warm, what-have-I-done whispers filtering through the hole on the door knob.
I left sored.
I wanted to ask for her name. I wanted to ask for her number. I wanted to do so many things as darkness began to overwhelm me. I walked back to my place at Agbowo, processing what had just happened to me. Just a word and many silences, stares, nods and facial expression of empathy had earned me my first kiss. I didn’t know how I felt, what it meant. Perhaps I can’t put it into words.
But I had a ravaging splash of emotions: of excitement, of fear, of guilt; ripping me apart on the inside. I left my room in the thick darkness. I kept walking. And then I ran. I ran to the pastorium, knocked softly at my pastor’s gate. He was at the gate and opened after the first sound. It was as though he was waiting for me to come home to confess, but he was only about to lock the gate, and like a loving father, waiting for his penitent, prodigal son to return, he reached out his arms when he saw me in tears. Before he could ask what was wrong, I had poured the guilt-filled portion of my emotions into incomprehensible words. “Sir, I have sinned. My lips have been disvirgined.” Wrong word. But nothing else could better capture my religious sense of condemnation.
I was twenty-five.