Love is a thing you experienced in strange places and in tabooed bodies. Today it took the form of a naked girl lying on your chest, the way a baby nestles in its mother’s hands. The embers of your torrid night slowly wane with the silent heaving of your breath. It is victory for you. The kind that leaves you befuddled because of its unlikely outcome. And so you puzzle whether all these years, you might have been wrong after all about the possibilities of where love lay in your heart and body. It is what people say: that feelings are from the heart, and you cannot feel what the heart does not yearn.
Sleep went on a trip for the night, and thought parked in, with all its daunting baggage. How could you have managed this? Twice in a single night, with the wrong body as your lover.
Sonia rattles gently on you, her mass of human hair tinkling uncomfortably against your face like a swarm of ants. You push the tendrils of hair away from your face. Not as gently as you had wanted. She grips harder, steadying her head on your chest, a leg crossed over your legs like a barricade. This is an intrusion too. The discomfort runs through you like electric shock, but there’s an unsettling satisfaction with the sight and thought of being treated like this by a woman; and to be a man—a virile, satisfying man—whom a lady could lay on through the night. You wonder if you could repeat this with other ladies. If you could be so good again that others could end up in your arms, even if you felt nothing and just felt stiffened at the thought of sex and went about it knowing that it was not what you truly wanted.
It must be Sonia. Or maybe the spirit of your dead unburied mother mutating your genes to make you fit into the mould of “normalcy”. You smile in your head. Your mom, in her lifetime, was capable of making the imaginable happen. This must be her last trick before she went to wherever dead people go.
You think of the string of coincidences that led Sonia to your bed. Of how Menkeh had called you to help with mentoring a girl who was running to be student president of her university. How the thought of a girl becoming president was enough motivation for you. When you met that day, you met an excited a group of sophomores, whom Menkeh repeatedly informed that you were his friend, the most intelligent person he knew.
Menkeh lived on exaggerations.
As a manager to an up-and-coming Afropop singer, he had developed an industrial ability for propaganda and hype, swinging between the pompous and the endearing. The aspirant was Mbone; a willowy, unconfident girl with model-like features strained under the untethered pressure of Menkeh’s ambitions for her. It was considered as help to the starry-eyed campaign team of sophomores she had assembled to see her through the journey. But you couldn’t resist the thought that he was trying maniacally to turn her into a version of his dream. Later, he would try to woo her and she would dismiss him with a thumbs-down emoji on WhatsApp.
Sonia was part of Mbone’s team, and, like Menkeh, she seemed to be no stranger to making herself seen. The difference was, she was less effervescent, more curious, and better looking. The meeting quickly turned into a discussion panel with Sonia asking questions, you giving tips and answers, and Menkeh telling Mbone to listen and absorb. You must have made an impression on Sonia since she asked for your number, and called at once to make sure you had hers. You had saved her name as Sharon. That was what you heard.
Your mom died on November the 1st. It was a rainy Tuesday. Whenever a member of her family died, it rained like a plague. You ate foam from your mattress that morning to numb yourself. It is never truly painful if you can manage to describe the feeling. For all you know, the world had paused and left you in molten magma. That day, Sonia called you. Her voice encircled you like a necklace made from balm. Then she called you again and again and again like you were to take her at prescribed intervals, in doses, to soothe your hurt. You knew this was no ordinary friendship. At least to her. But you were glad to be cared for. You too needed some comforting.
Your mom’s illness had left you in the ache of sleeplessness, stress, and uncertainty for four months as she moved from hospital to home to hospital and stayed there, without raising a finger, without muttering a word, without opening her eyes. The words were irrelevant but the eyes had once been so expressive and all you wanted was to see her open those eyes again for a second.
The evening before she passed, your elder sister fed her through a loopy tube that passed through her nostrils. She had choked out little lumps of crimson coagulated blood, which you later learned was her liver, smashed into tiny tissues by diabetes. That night, you spoke to Sonia about your mom’s condition. It was on the phone, but her voice seemed so close that she materialised in front of you. She told you how strong you were, because you managed to keep your poise and fool everyone into believing your life was not a cluttered mess. She told you about her mother. How she had passed while Sonia was thirteen, just a year after her father had passed. She spoke of her in ways you did not want to speak of your mother, like a memory. A memory she kept really close, to the last detail, the last scenes. She spoke of the last time she saw her mother, so emaciated and skinny that she yelped at the sight of the bleeding body. She explained the gossip about her mother dying from AIDS. She spoke in ways that showed she was still doused in denial.
That evening, you cried. That evening, Emmanuel came to your house. He said you looked like feather. He had come to tell you he would be travelling to Yaoundé to establish his passport. That night, you kissed. His lips tasted like ash, his tongue like cotton. But it did not matter. All you needed was the warmth of his familiar touch. You told him about your premonition: the dream you had had about owls. A thousand black owls hovered over your house in the daylight until the sun turned red and bled out. Two years ago, when your dad died, a trapped owl circled your kitchen for hours. That’s how you knew they were not bringers of good news.
That night, you told Emmanuel all the things you wished. How you wanted to believe that a god existed who could place a gentle hand on your mother’s lips and restore her speech. How you so yearned to hear the sound of her voice that you had frantically gone through all your voicemails hoping to find one she must have left months back; how you found none, but you hoped you could find a voice note on WhatsApp. Your younger brother had taught her the magic of sending voice notes to you, but you had formatted your phone, lost everything, and now clung to the hope that your brother still kept them. But he was in boarding school, and you were sure he had managed to sneak into school with his phone. As you quavered and your voice cracked into a thousand shards of pain, Emmanuel squeezed you into his chest. He decided to stay the night. You held him so tight that your bodies bled and merged into one, like the first time he embraced you.
That was in 2017, when FC Barcelona won an El-Classico. Emmanuel was an ardent fan and gambler. He had borrowed ten thousand francs from you. He said he wanted to add to his rents. You knew it was a lie. But you felt flattered that he feared your rebuke enough to lie. That evening, he invited you out to a rowdy beer parlour. Frenzied and boisterous football fans hovered over tables strewn with beer bottles. The air, an oven of smoke from cigarettes. You sat there, watching him lost in the game; his voice sounded like a hurricane. Everything about his passion for football charmed you. The excitement, the anger, the explosive outbursts and howling laughter. He handed you his phone for safekeeping. From time to time, he looked over, smiled and rubbed his hands over your thigh, underneath the table. You felt seen.
That night, he won ninety thousand francs from the bet. As you strolled to his house, you caught the childlike sparkle in his eyes while he spoke about football and Messi; his face glistened with sweat, and his body heaved like an Olympian. He thanked you for the money you loaned him, handed you thirty thousand, and told you about how he invested the money in gambling.
‘What if you lost? How would you have paid your rents?’ you asked, attempting a frown, but he slugged his hand over your neck and pulled you so close you soaked in his sweat.
‘I can’t lose when it is your money,’ he said. You paused the words in your brain and let them linger.
That was the first night you kissed. That was the first time he led you into his room and onto his bed. That night, you closed the world behind you and dwelled in your bodies.
Two days after your mother died, Emmanuel left for Yaoundé to establish his passport, and Sonia visited. She travelled all the way to Kumba because she wanted to cook something nice for you. In your mind, you knew there was more to the offer. It came with the doughy uneasiness of assumptions and unspoken connections. You watched her in the kitchen, focused and frenetic as she sweated in the heat. You looked at your watch, wondering when she would finish and go. You knew she could not travel back after six. It would be insensitive of you to let her embark on a journey on the high-risk road at night. But it would even be much more disastrous for her to spend the night. And to expect the impossible. But it was not her you were really worried about. It was you. The untenable thought of lying with her on the same bed and feeling nothing. Or feeling incapable of doing nothing. The manliness she saw in you was a façade; for what that was worth, you could easily be explained as belonging to the same gender with same attraction for men.
It is 9 p.m., and Sonia settles besides you on the living room couch. She leans so close your mind becomes a tempest, buffeting with conflicts, pressures, and doubts. As she speaks, you scan her: her caramel skin, smooth and supple, rubs against your lap. Her eyes are fixed on you like an artwork in a museum. The longing is palpable, the uneasiness unshakeable. You try to relax and allow your mind to wander as she draws closer and leans her head on your shoulder, just the way you used to lean yours on Emmanuel’s. If it were him, he would plant a kiss on your lips; he would slide his hand across your cheeks; he would hold you so close his ticklish beard will rub against your face and drive you mad with feelings.
But you know you are no Emmanuel, and Sonia is not you. You think about the possibility of letting her sleep in your bed alone. You will sleep on your couch. It will look like you are just being cautious and respectful, treating her the way women have wanted to be treated when it came to sex—with an uneasy restrain of lust by the man. There is no lust in you. You are not that type of man. But she takes you by the hand and leads you to your room. She kisses you, and your stomach constricts like plastic tossed in fire. You ask for permission to go to the toilet. You need space. To breathe, to sort out ways to get stiff. All that is needed is some stiffening. Her kisses are flighty. They do not work. You unlock your phone and scramble through your gallery until you stumble on pictures of Emmanuel. The selfies you took while you lay with him on his bed. You allow your mind to take in the sight of your naked bodies wrapped like molten rocks on each other. That is all you need to feel your body stiffen like a choir boy tossed into a porn shop.
Last night you felt something else. The feeling of opposites coming together to make magic, to suspend time, to dwell in each other, to leave you confounded.
Sonia lies on your chest and runs her hand over your stomach and down to your thighs. You feel a tingle. You kiss her on her forehead, you rub your hand over her supple cheeks, and you pull her so close you think you might have feelings.
Your phone buzzes. A message from Emmanuel.
“Hey, babes. I arrived late but safe. Will talk to you later. Take care. Xoxo.”
You smile, a fulfilled smile, and think of the magic your body performs. Of all the ways you experience love in strange places and tabooed bodies.
Kwoh B. Elonge is a Cameroonian writer, activist and researcher. His work has been featured in Revue des Citoyens des Lettres, Bakwa Magazine, Face2Face Africa, This is Africa; and in anthologies such as Ashes and Memories, Erotic Africa: The Sex Anthology, etc. In his down time, he googles Christopher Hitchens and Beyonce.