Two nights ago, I was at a housewarming party of a colleague from work, holding a glass of wine, and admiring one of the paintings on the wall. The artwork seemed to have been made around the Renaissance period. Michelle, a temp from Kansas, in a turquoise dress, came over and stood by my side, and said, ‘Isn’t the social evolution of humans a strange oxymoron?’
I turned to see that she had her gaze to the artwork, her brunette hair neatly hanging just below her earlobes. This was the first time I’m seeing her face up-close. She had a mole just above her lip. ‘How so?’
‘It seems every time humanity as a whole progresses in certain aspects, we go into regression as a result in other even more vital aspects.’
‘Take for example, the industrial revolution, although it put an end to the feudal system, and paved way for workers freedom to choose, it also ushered in the worst calamity to have ever befallen humans in our collective consciousness and sense of empathy. It made us lose sight of the real values of life.’
I wanted to ask her to be a little specific about what the real values of life were, but I decided against it. It was a subjective statement and subjectivity is as valid as objectivity in my books. Objectivity itself can only be understood within the provisions of subjectivity, which allows us to define what’s objective as the empirical, the factual according to data. So I asked what the worst calamity was.
‘The capitalist system.’ She then took a sip from her drink.
Right there, I was teleported back to my undergraduate years. It reminded me of Professor Antwon, my sociology professor, a hipster to the core. In his class, every vice can be traced back to the effects of capitalism. Michelle and I spoke more as the night deepened, and before I knew it, our talk on art, social inequalities had taken a softer turn, and we were, by the aid of several glasses, now giggling, and getting comfier.
The loneliness in the apartment when I got home at 1am crushed me, and for the first time in years, I became homesick. Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was the bout of depression hanging over me for months, I didn’t know, but right there laying down on my sofa, and the ceiling slowly turning, my mind drifted homewards. I had left Nigeria, and with it unknowingly, my religiosity. When I was leaving Nigeria people said America was the land of Shaitan and that it can lead people astray, I had told them it couldn’t get to me. And I wasn’t being arrogant or self-righteous. I was a practising Muslim then. I prayed regularly, I didn’t even shake hands with women, and I followed the manhaj with precision. But being alone in New Haven for four years, and studying with people with no religion at all, but who had a deep sense of love for everyone, and who cared about human welfare more than I’d ever seen among believers made me see things in different ways. So, I began to integrate. To be like them, to attend their events, to dress and act in the ways they did, and my integration climaxed when I married Anastasia, a white girl from a Jewish background. And although we’re divorced now, the memory of our first date still lingers and brings a beautiful nostalgic rush to the mind.
Anastasia and I met at a Jewish History class. We had argued quite strongly on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, both of us on the side of the oppressed, while a Hassidic Jewish guy argued as a Zionist would. After class that spring evening, I asked her if she would go on a date with me. That weekend, we went to a restaurant outside the campus, where a band was playing. Outside, the rain came down in light drizzles, and the dim lights of the restaurant along with the jazz made everything cosier, including our blood. Anastasia stood after she had finished her drink, looking dashingly beautiful in her chiffon maxi-dress, and held out her hand, I looked at it and my mouth dissolved into a smile. We danced. Slowly. She put her arms around my shoulders. I held her hips and we had our first kiss.
Our romance would go on all the way to graduation. One Sunday, we drove to her parents’ house in Ditmars Park, Brooklyn, to formally announce our engagement, and the only thing I remember of that gloomy visit was her father, though liberal from Anastasia’s account of him, branding me with the tag goyim, and throwing me out of his house. That episode in our love story turned to be for the best because after that turn away, our passion intensified, and Anastasia cut off relations with her parents. Her defiance strengthened my resolve as well, and a week later, I would put my foot down, and tell my mother over the phone that I was marrying my “òyìnbó” girlfriend. A great mother, she accepted, albeit reluctantly, and gave her blessings.
I woke up to a severe headache. The time on the cable decoder said 5:30 am. That sight took me back to last night’s homesickness because it reminded me of the exact time my mother would wake me and my little sister up for the dawn prayers. I couldn’t remember exactly the last time I had put my head down in prayers, but I had a rough idea of it being during my third year at school. This year made my living in America a decade old.
For the purpose of nostalgia, I decided to pray. I washed my hands, face and feet with water in the bathroom, and wore a kaftan. I did the prayer well, save for a few times I stumbled during the recitations. I seemed to have forgotten some of the lines. By the time I took a shower and got dressed, it was quarter to seven. I rushed out of the apartment straight in to the elevator where I saw Mark in pyjamas, his cheek red and sore. Mark was a friend from work who lived on the floor. I asked if everything was fine, and he said not to worry, that his wife, Catherine, had a manic episode last night and threw things at him. She’s calm now so he’s taking the day off to look after her.
Sometimes I wondered how and why Mark did it. How he could stay with her despite her illness. Anastasia was nothing compared to Catherine yet we fell apart. She had developed a sense of insecurity that was just out of this world. No matter how much I said I loved her, she was scared I would leave her. If I spent so little as thirty minutes out than normal before getting home, she’d be scared I had left her. Her therapists said it had something to do with the death of her sister who she was so attached to as a child and who died of leukaemia. She was five years older. One week she was fine and the next she was lying cold, still on her deathbed. It would have been helpful if Anastasia’s parents were in our world, the therapist had theorized. But her parents were crystal clear on the dichotomy.
With anti-anxiety medicines and therapy, Anastasia slowly regained herself and was able to master her insecurities, somewhat. But the remnants were still detrimental to our marriage. She still feared that I would ultimately leave her so all discussions towards having a child were terminated. We argued and argued, until one evening of sparse snowflakes, she kicked me out and said she was taking her parents’ side and that we should take a break for a while. Divorce usually began with taking times apart, and that was what happened in our case.
Break time, at the office, I was in the lounge, dialling my mother’s phone number, when I lifted my gaze to see Michelle, bending by the table to put a wrap of hummus into the microwave. She looked nice in the slim skirt. I put my phone in my pocket as she turned to me. I rekindled our discussion from the night before.
‘I enjoyed our discussions last night.’ I said as she did a quick typing on her phone.
‘Oh, yeah me too.’
This morning, on my way to work, I walked past a hardware store and remembered that I needed to buy some bulbs and a new reading lamp. But I told myself I would rather get it from an online store as it would be cheaper and that way I don’t lose time shopping through aisles. Then Michelle’s takes revisited me. We’re now in the digital age and manufacturing and service industries are now going out of style. Those who wish to stay in the market must rebrand and go digital, create a website and have an App. This is a social and economic evolution which, as I have noticed from my friends in Nigeria, is progressive and helpful to young people that are tech savvy to creating startups. However, just as it is good and progressive to create an App where people can buy their food and clothes, get their health questions answered, make friends, and attend seminars all virtually, it is equally regressive on our social interactions and psyche that the necessary day-to-day physical interactions with one another become lost. There will be no more thrills of a bargain, nor more coincidental meeting of new people and strange conversations. We choose who we want to meet and when. We live in our own bubble. our sense of individualism and egoism becomes overhyped, diminishing collective consciousness. The perfect recipe for the perpetuation of capitalism.
‘If you do not have a lot in your hands tonight, how about we continue tonight? I know a good place on the corner of Lexington and Nostrand. ‘
She pouted and walked closer to me. ‘Are you trying to ask me on a date?
‘Would it be that bad if I did?
‘I would say I don’t eat out.’
‘Okay, what if I say we can stay in and I would cook? ‘
The clinking of the microwave interrupted before she could give an answer. Her hummus was now done. She took them out and asked if I’d like some. I declined and thanked her. She drew back a strand of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear, and then to exit the lounge. At the door, she turned back. ‘Tell me you cook good fufu.’
The mistake I made was cooking for myself and not her. I erred by putting the same amount of cayenne pepper I use for myself in the vegetable. It was too spicy for her taste. So after a few morsels, she was done. We sat on the rug in the living room. Two glass cups sitting beside a bottle of cognac she brought. Our discussion took a different turn when she noticed my mother’s photograph on the wall.
‘She’s beautiful!’ She said. ‘You must miss her!’
‘I do, I really do. ‘
While coming home, I had branched at the Deli Store around the corner to buy a calling card to call my mother. Ahmad, the Pakistani cashier, had told me they didn’t carry calling cards anymore as people didn’t buy them again. There wasn’t any need anymore, he had said. Don’t you have internet on your phone? My internet was not connecting well so it was hard to make a call to Nigeria. I took a glance at her photo, following Anastasia’s remark, and the beauty in her slanting tribal marks over her brown smiling face sent me further into bouts of emotions. In that split second, I decided I would go home that summer. There was no Anastasia to consider. I was free.
‘When was the last time you saw her?’
As if she could read my mind. There was something special about Michelle. She seemed able to see right through me.
‘Not since ten years ago when I came to America.’
‘That’s a long time. Why didn’t you go back and see her?’
‘My, ‘ I stammered. ‘My ex’.
‘Tell me more about your mom. ‘
‘She’s kind, gentle and very sweet. She can’t read or write. But she likes to listen to the news. She raised my sister and me as a single mother. Our father died very young. She sold fish at the roadside to raise us, but now she has a cold room where she sells wholesale frozen fish and meat… ‘
‘Strong woman, eh. I had an anthropology professor from Nigeria. I always wanted to visit. Talking about your mother and seeing her photo reminds me of her. I would love to visit Nigeria someday. ‘
You can with me this summer. Just get pregnant for me, and I will introduce you to my mother as the good òyìnbó wife that is carrying her grandchild.
Of course, I said this to myself.
‘Say I visit, How welcoming would she be, your mother? ‘
‘She would treat you like a queen.’
‘That’s some corny line for black women, right there. ‘ She reached for a cup and winked. Then she resumed. ‘But I love the way you said it. It’s from Coming to America, right? ‘
‘Yes, and you’re my Lisa. ‘ I laughed.
She took the cup away from her lip and looked at me, tipsy. ‘I like your accent. God, it gets to me!’
It was not the first time. Anastasia said the same thing on our first date. But right there, I was too intoxicated by her to respond, so I kept gazing at her, blushing, and smiling. Then like a spark, something ignited in my heart and my body became tepid. Her eyes were now wide. Just like in the movies, we locked eyes, tilted towards each other, and the night began with our cleaving lips.
When Michelle woke up, I was sitting at the foot of the bed, crying. The tears just wouldn’t stop gushing out. She wrapped her arms around me and comforted me without asking what was wrong at first. Then after a few minutes, she asked if it was because she said she wasn’t on birth control pills, or if I was feeling sad that I had sex with someone who wasn’t Anastasia. I mumbled a ‘no’ for both, and cried more, now resting my head on her bosom.
‘This is really strange. What’s wrong? ‘ She caressed my hair and kissed my forehead.
I sniffled, took in a few sobs, and turned my gaze at her.
‘My, my… my mother died last night. ‘
Tohib Adejumo is a Nigerian writer, filmmaker, and the author of Love In Ramadan. He spent his childhood and adolescent years under the care of his grandmother. He graduated from Government College, Ibadan in 2009. He is currently pursuing a baccalaureate degree focusing on Socio-Cultural Psychology and Sociology of Migration at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He resides in Long Island, New York. You can visit him at www.tohibadejumo.com