That love died and resurrected from an inevitable forgetfulness. That he was a man given to the violence of good things gone bad was the sin; the sin that needed the rightful penance. He had found himself sinking into the quicksand of an affection considered improper; one that could be spat out in the denigratory description of societal improbability. For how could an adolescent boy of fifteen, think of a young girl in the way he did? Derin should know better.
He had sat in the living room of the house in the staff quarters of the state university. It was three hours to sunset. He could have heard the ticking movement of the seconds hand of the clock were it not for the lurid squealing of two young girls running after each other. Both were half years away from ten. His sister and her friend who saw him as the brother they could use as a human doll, that they could climb and sit on his lap, and make sure he was distracted for the moment that the electric power was off and as a consequence couldn’t watch TV, and they were bored, and their parents, both professors, were away at work. But he sat and watched them run around, and Seyi, his sister’s friend, held him and wrapped her arms around his legs, and she climbed to sit on his lap. He found that there was a feeling, a stirring in his body that he fought hard to suppress. To know that the girl in her beautiful, charming innocence made him rise didn’t shock him, but pleased him in an acceptance of the body’s indiscriminate prurience.
Derin wasn’t what he thought he was. He couldn’t do any of the things he had heard some people did to young girls; he only responded to a creeping affection that bloomed from his curiosity of Seyi, right from the day her parents brought her to stay at their house whenever she came back from school. Her beauty had struck him, and the tartan skirt that had ended at mid-thigh of shapely legs, the fascinating ebullience that characterized her responses, and her voice that had a special mellifluence to it. All these had made her, in his mind, a picture of perfect feminity. Life in the staff quarters had some sort of permanence, for the people who lived in it and worked at the state university did so for the major part of their adult lives, and it was from there they retired to whatever life they dreamed. And so, these made for lasting friendships for their children since they more or less grew up and left for university together and maybe married each other. So Derin thought of this girl as a girl he could marry, weighing on the difference of their years and thinking of the sacrifice of waiting till he was thirty something. It was an imprudent thought, for one never thought of love as something to fit into a private scheme.
There are times when our lives converge in accordance with a common destiny. Such times are rare, as most times our lives intersect and then diverge in ways so unimaginably peculiar and in ways we can hardly help. And Derin’s life and that of the young girl fell unremarkably into the most times of diverging lives, where one party has to travel far, to some far country or to another part of the country, to exist in a livelihood or another life contrived by artificial necessities. And so it was for the young girl and her family who had to leave the state university for the United States where her father found employment as a tenured professor at the University of Chicago. Derin stayed at the state university where he studied for a degree in Biology. There were times when he thought of her and how she climbed him when she played with his sister, but he could only imagine her as that beautiful young girl with a charming innocence and an animated spirit, but he thought of her only as one would think wistfully about something one had treasured but was now lost. He had loves, loves that started in a fantastic efflorescence and ended bitterly. Take for instance the girl, Feranmi, an English studies sophomore who had tried to charm him with her curvaceous form and practiced allure. They had ended in a sweltering session in his room one heady night. From then on, everything between them was nothing more than a love that was jammed in a state of burning and flaming outs. These loves ended bitterly since an occupied heart will throw out other prospecting occupations. It went well for him in his studies and he made grades that made other students rub their heads in stunned awe. However, he felt he couldn’t convince himself that he wasn’t hoping he could make a scholarship to study in the United Sates, for which naturally, he would think of the University of Chicago.
Most of his many friends observed the pattern of his love life and the attendant illogical expectations. How could you send her away because she doesn’t like people going through her phone? Shouldn’t you know that you have to pay more attention to her? Well … the man was like a traveler lost in the desert, he thinks he knows where he is going, but he is only just wandering aimlessly in the vastness. That he probably might love her in his mind unrequitedly didn’t bother him. Derin just wasn’t the type to be bothered about reality; reality was much too subjective. The years rolled into each other with Derin making replicas of his dysfunctional love circles. At the end of his academic sojourn in the state university, he saw himself with a distinction on convocation day, and he shook the vice chancellor, and got prizes and claps from a thousand graduating students, his mother and sister smiling beside him, as he, dressed in the academic gown and mortarboard, struck a pose for his father who held the camera. Life couldn’t be better with better prospects in a country where youths jostled for nonexistent jobs. To have a distinction from school, to get a scholarship long wished for, especially to go to the United States, to have the hope of meeting one’s love after so many years even if the love hardly knew one loved her was the height of elation.
And then he was on the plane bound for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To start again, to reflect upon whether the state of fortune was a dream. To think again with a fast-beating heart about what the consciousness was about to experience in another world: the world of long, intersected, paved streets, and of some edifices reaching far up, seeking space against blue skies, and a great lake that floated little white boats in the distance––as he had seen in pictures. Maybe not the city, nor the country, but the girl, to know how well she has become as a young woman speaking with the foreignness of her protracted stay, and of a new hope surging in the discovery of an integrated possibility. The plane had touched down and his heart had touched down with it.
America. Wisconsin. Chicago. He had arrived as a student, a graduate student that had built his hopes with the sod of his earlier experiences, seeking a point where he could join his career aspirations with the fantastic love life he had sacrificed so much for. But one must see that life is a rebel phenomenon, a constant with things that just wouldn’t be. He took a flight to Chicago, to the university campus where there must be some registered names of employees. Debunmi Oyenusi. Physics Department. Associate Professor or Full Professor. But he was tenured, and to be tenured is to be a registered employee. Yes, he was once there; the girl’s father and the family, but they had moved again, moved to California. He thought he had reached the point to give up on the search and move on with his life. He couldn’t even imagine how she looked like anyway. And the days rolled, rolling away a hundred and thirty days. Good researcher. Good at grasping the underlying dynamics of environmental protection. He had been singled to follow his professor to the University of California in Berkeley to present a paper at a science conference.
The conference was as it should be; the proper American academic snobbishness dispensed as parameters for world practice. He had hardly been distracted, in actual fact, he had been bored, but a face had struck him with such violence, his heart almost stopped. The fine features of big dark eyes and sensual mouth had become well-suited to a young adult body. She was still the one. Seyi. She sat not far from him, clad in a dark suit and pants, her dark brooding eyes looking distracted. ‘Do you remember Fikemi back in Nigeria?’ she had tried remembering. One tends to forget so many things once one leaves Nigeria. Such amnesia, even if it seemed selective, was understandable. But if she remembered, it was because she chose to and to think of it, the familiar looking stranger knew her name and even mentioned some things he knew of her father. He must know family.
He made arrangements to visit her during the summer, to see if anything could be expressed during his stay. Did she want him? He couldn’t tell, for there wasn’t any sign to tell from that sophisticated Americanness that she felt jumpy about him the way he did for her. She just responded to him the way one would to an old family friend: ‘Dad, Professor Ogunola’s son. He is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. Environmental Protection.’ The old man, his hair all gray, had squinted at him through the glasses.
‘Young man. It’s been a long time. How are your parents?’
‘They are fine.’
It had all been that. Nothing attached to taking a young man to your parents in America, especially if they had known him before. He was beginning to get anxious in the way she postured indifference, much like she couldn’t be bothered about feeling anything for him. He started to think that there could be a way around initial attraction, like telling her how he had carried the memories of her childhood to his adulthood, and America, in the hope that he could be with her, and relive experiences.
She almost thought it was ridiculous, since he was a friend and nothing more. Nothing more? He felt her words sink into him, tearing him up like a tumbling bullet. But he could not get her out of his head because he had lost himself in trying to find her. And now? He was simply lost, finding her and losing hope. The hope of finding himself. He had visions of the young woman in a flowing wedding gown and his tuxedoed self. He had to marry her, he had to or…
Had he been talking to himself? She didn’t respond to messages and she didn’t pick calls. One windy, autumn morning, he had left Milwaukee for California. Ryan, his friend and roommate had been worried. Derin had stopped talking to him and had suddenly become, as a psychotic, talking to himself and generally expressing fits of temper. He hadn’t talked about anything, anything that might be bothering him. Ryan had kept from probing him; he had tried to keep a safe distance so as not to further vex him. Had it worked? Ryan wouldn’t know, as Derin had left for god-knows-where that morning, forgetting the seminar, forgetting he had some research work he had to attend to.
The sounds coming from the apartment, what was it? Voices? Low at first and then loud the next. Could it be her boyfriend having a row with her? Neighbors have to keep away until it became violent, then they had the right to call the police. Soon, crashing sounds; the sound of china being flung against a hard surface, someone talking angrily, shouting in a voice that wasn’t American, and then a voice that was American trying to placate, trying to douse apoplectic rage with reason. Suddenly, there was quiet, but the silence was suspect with a lot of ills. The thing is, one could shoot up the streets and generally tear up the projects in spectacular mayhem, but America never takes chances with petty violence, not when a husband is at it with his wife or a boyfriend who thinks himself a husband. Then a sound made the air still. The sound of a gun, a handgun it had been. It had sounded once, but that once should have been, maybe unintended, or done with the realization of the gravity of the violence wreaked, for there seemed to be the sound of a hurried activity, like a confused getaway. But one doesn’t get way that easy in America, not when one has no idea about the carefully planned––giving attention to details––crime.
The police had gotten him. On his face was the expression of calm, a fatalistic calm. God bless America; she didn’t die. The bullet had broken her collarbone but had left her no worse, for the paramedics were there, and all the drama of an emergency left him scandalized; flashing lights and all. The university would only accept glory for an invention or a student’s legendary performance, but not shooting. The parents back home had heard of it all. Their denial was in faith; that a son who smiled a lot and respected his elders would point a weapon and fire it at a human was beyond acceptance. But the newspapers had been glib: NIGERIAN STUDENT SHOOTS GIRLFRIEND IN AN AMOROUS MISCHANCE. The holding cell was a small room with flaky white paint, bunk beds bolted into the floor, and hateful eyes and tattooed bodies that were clad in branded blue uniforms. They were blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos. The men’s strong fingers prehensile on the white iron bars with stained, peeling white paint. And darkness fell.
Olalekan Moyosore Lalude, PhD, is a Nigerian lawyer, essayist and short story writer. He has been published under the name Mark Lekan Lalude in the African Writer, Kalahari Review, WTBP Anthology and Face2Face Africa.