THE TRUTHS THAT DON’T SET YOU FREE

THE TRUTHS THAT DON’T SET YOU FREE

February 4, 2014

At the back seat of the Danfo where I am ensconced between my best friends, Moyo and Ekah, I sit still. I’d wanted the window seat so that I could take in every detail on the go, but Ekah insisted I be flanked. The sitting arrangement however does not prevent my eyes from sweeping through the streets of Lagos, taking in the gloomy atmosphere which is an attestation to the sorrow that hangs in the air around me.

The air of sorrow that is mine.

Impulsively, I reach for my handbag and start rummaging through for my pack of cigarette, but I feel Ekah’s hand on my thigh. When I look up to her face, I don’t need words to interpret the “No” in her eyes. I resignedly withdraw my hands and drop the bag beside me. What was I thinking though, wanting to smoke in the bus with over fourteen other passengers?

Irked by boredom and itching for something to do, I pick up my phone and punch in the password. The photo of me and Toju kissing fills out the screen of my Blackberry Z10. I will never forget the day I decided to make it my wallpaper. Toju, the woman that I lost my heart to, had kicked against it, worried that the phone may fall into wrong hands and they’d see that she and I were more than friends. Already, the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act had started to gain momentum after the House of Reps passed the bill in May of 2013. Obviously, I didn’t listen. She was the discreet one amongst us. I, on the other hand, always wanted to throw caution to the wind.

I had forgotten what I wanted to do with the phone. My gaze is rather hooked on hawkers chasing after motorists in traffic. Forgetfulness, forlornness and cluelessness have become descriptive words for me and my actions since January. I watch a young mother, with her baby securely strapped to her back, chase after the twenty naira note that a passenger in the yellow bus had thrown at her after taking four sachets of water. I watch a teenage boy selling gala rain curses on somebody in a white Mercedes Benz, who had failed to throw his money out for the gala taken. I watch a man jump down from a moving bus and almost miss his step. And there is the blind beggar getting dragged out of the way by a bus conductor when he didn’t budge from the vehicle’s horn.

I stare at all the chaos, again feeling them echo the riotous mix of emotions roiling inside me.

Several days ago, word had reached me that my older brother, Kunle, had been placed on death row and would head to the gallows today. Life no longer holds meaning. Happiness is gone. And laughter is a luxury. Kunle is in prison, but his incarceration is not what has taken my joy away. Yes, I am sorry he ended up here, but the man is troubled and his troubled life is what got him locked up.

I pick up my phone again, and this time, when I see the wallpaper, it heightens my grief and I can’t help but backpedal to the day my woes began.

*

September 17, 2013

That day didn’t feel like my birthday. I had spent most of it fighting with Toju, my girlfriend of twenty-six months. Actually, Toju had spent the most part of the day fighting with me, and it was my fault. She’d found out that I kissed my ex.

Before this truth was revealed, she’d been giving me a lap dance, a birthday present, in her new pair of lingerie, and while at it, she explored my lips with hers and cupped and fondled my 32C breasts, while I did nothing but fake a smile. The guilt of having met and kissed my ex was eating at me. I couldn’t get my head in the game. I rather chose to note irrelevant constants about Toju, like her minty breath, her soft succulent lips, her small rounded nose, and her hazel eyes. I remembered how Toju used to be a terrible kisser but got better with time (thanks to me). I noted that she had started to catch on to my distracted state of mind when she stopped her grinding to look at me, but then I attempted to stop any questions she may ask by grabbing her bum, my favorite part of her body.

Appeased by that, Toju began working at fully recapturing my attention by pushing me unto the bed and straddling me. But I was too messed up by my guilt to engage. She carried on anyway, determined to get me into it – that is, until her fingers found their way into my hoo-ha, and she went still.

“Okay, out with it,” she snapped. “What is it? I have been playing with you for the past thirty minutes and there’s not a drop of wetness. What’s wrong?”

“I kissed Oris,” I blurted out, then hastily added, “Actually no. She kissed me, and I let it happen.” Then I looked at Toju and waited for her reaction.

Gradually, she withdrew from me. She got off my body and went straight to the bathroom without a word. When she reemerged, she said in a dangerously quiet tone, “You went to the strip club yesterday. That’s where you told me you ran into your ex. And that’s where you kissed her? In the restroom of a strip club?”

I couldn’t determine what incensed her more, the fact that I kissed my ex or the seediness of the place where it happened. Whichever was the case, Toju went on to spend the whole day raging and sniping at me. I tried to apologize a few times, but she was too upset to pay my efforts any mind. I hated getting Toju worked up, not when she looked so frail and fragile. I remember the day I met her and asked if she had sickle cell anemia, and the sadness in her eyes when she gave me a non-response. That night, I tossed and turned in bed while she sniffed and whimpered beside me. I spent the night, begging for her forgiveness, promising everything to her, deleting and blocking Oris from every channel of communication.

But Toju woke up the next day and started to pack her bags. She said we needed a break. She needed time to decide whether she could trust me again. The look in her eyes as she walked out the door was nothing I had ever seen there before.

One mistake and she didn’t want me anymore. Her mind was made up and nothing I did could sway it. Not my binge drinking, not the attempted intercession from mutual friends, and not even the back-to-back futile visits to her house. She’d never really let me visit her much, perhaps once or twice. She’d always preferred we stay at mine.

*

January 8, 2014

The words fell effortlessly from the mouth of the announcer and filtered into my ears through the car radio.

President Goodluck Jonathan has signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say the empathy that I couldn’t find in the voice of the announcer was a pointer to the fact that he was a homophobe. The news did not come as much of a shock to me. I had known all along that the prevalent bigotry and parochialism in this country would make it impossible for Nigerians to leave the queer community alone. The news made me remember Toju, because she and I had argued about what side of history Goodluck Jonathan would fall. Toju had been naïve, believing that the president would shock us all by refusing to sign the bill into law. We’d even placed a bet on it. She would move in with me if the president signed it into law, and if he didn’t, I was going to indulge her anytime she wanted me to dress in a masculine way.

Remembering Toju made my heart ache. Five months had passed since she walked away from me. And the separation had taken its toll on me, primarily because she left my house that day in September and simply disappeared. I had not talked to her in all that time, and just by November, had stopped seeing her. Losing her and knowing it was my fault had affected me. I sometimes didn’t recognize who stared back at me whenever I looked into the mirror. Those hollow eyes had lost their charm, the mouth had lost its smile and the face no longer seemed to have purpose. I had jumped from one fling and hook-up date to another and acquired squeezes here and there. I had tried to go on without dwelling so much on my lost love for months, but with the announcement came the thought of Toju and a nagging ache to reach out to her again.

I picked out my phone, feeling that familiar ache when I saw the screensaver of the two of us kissing. Then I dialed her number, but as had been the case since December, it was unreachable.

I suddenly made up my mind. I was going to look for her and find her and make her love me again.

So I redirected my car from the route to work and drove to Toju’s place. As I drew near the estate gate, my heart started the thump-thump palpitation that formed a danceable rhythm to my ears. What would I say to her? How would she look at me? Could I ever make her love me again? These questions nagged at me as I brought my car to a halt in front of her house.

Brace up, Jane, I told myself. Five months have passed, so surely she will finally listen to you, right? I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? She’ll slam the door in your face? No, spit on you? No, empty a bucket of water on you? No, empty of jug of urine on you? Ah, that’s more like it.

I allowed myself a chuckle as I walked up to the porch and pressed the doorbell. I didn’t know who I expected to answer the door, but it certainly wasn’t the lanky man who looked to be in his sixties. He was not Toju’s father.

“Good evening, sir. I’m here to see Toritseju.”

“Who are you?” he said, peering at me through gold-rimmed glasses.

“Janie, we are friends.”

“Are you really?” His brows lifted with the question, as though he didn’t think much of my claim to being Toju’s friend.

For a moment, my heart sped up beat as I thought he was someone in Toju’s life who’d gotten to know that she was a lesbian. How did he know? What had he done to her? Was Toju is pain? In danger?

The morning’s news about the criminalisation of homosexuality began hammering away at my head as I struggled to keep my composure.

“Sir, I don’t know what you mean,” I started, “but I assure you that Toju and I are friends. We just haven’t seen each other in awhile and I was hoping to speak to her –”

“Toju is dead. She passed away last month. Her funeral was two weeks ago and all her friends were there.”

A tremor of numbness began in my belly and spread out into my limbs. My knees buckled and I staggered back, grabbing at the verandah’s railing for support.

Toju is dead?

Toju can’t be dead!

“No…” I gasped.

“No?” The man lifted those brows at me again, clearly irked. “Young lady, I could never lie about tragedy like that. You think I go about telling people my wife is dead just for the fun of it?”

My wife?!

His wife?!!!

“The nerve of you!” the man fumed. “Please, get the hell out of my property!”

And so, my first premonition of Toju slamming the door in my face happened after all; only she wasn’t the one who slammed it. Her HUSBAND did.

*

Present Day

In the days that followed that fateful day, I learned more about the woman I loved than I did in the twenty-six months we were together. And nothing prepared me for what I got to know.

How did I not know that the girl I dated for over two years was married to a man old enough to be her father?

Or that she had colon cancer and had always known that she didn’t have much time to live?

Why did she never tell me that she’d married a friend of her father who was residing in America, content to be his “Nigerian” wife to save her family from financial ruin?

She could have told me that all those times she spent in the hospital, making me think that they were visits to check a sickle cell crisis was actually her undergoing therapy for the malignance growing inside her.

She could have told me of what she was going through, the burden she was carrying, so that I could help her carry it.

Why? Why didn’t she tell me?

Even as I allowed grief take over me because of Toju’s exclusion of me from this part of her life, I couldn’t blame her. She had always had a strength in her that belied her fragile frame. And I could only imagine that she didn’t want my perception of her to be that of a sick girlfriend.

*

The bus has stopped, and I look up to see us in front of a deserted bus stop. We alight and get on a motorcycle. Ekah and I share one and Moyo has one to herself. We are brought to the front of a tall fence perhaps towering about eleven feet from the ground. It has a black gate that is just about same height. Beside the wall is a sign post that reads Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison. I see that soldiers are loitering near the gate, searching the bags and pockets of people going in.

I had half-expected to find prisoners ambling around in khaki uniforms with wardens barking out orders and smacking their backsides with heavy sticks; that is the picture of prison that I had painted in my mind. But then we pass through security and I see that the environment is subdued. I would later learn that prisons get quiet when the inmates learn that an execution warrant has been issued. Death after all has a way of humbling even a hardened criminal.

I am humbled too – humbled by the fact that a part of me is gone forever. And the day that the world learned that the lives of queer Nigerians – people like me – could no longer have free lives will forever be the day associated with my loss. It will always be a reminder of the darkest time of my life. To me, the day I found out about her death was the day she died. So every time I take a walk down that memory lane, my woman, my love, my Toju would die over and over again.

Now I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that life after January 2014 will never be the same.

Written by Jane

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  1. Mandy
    April 25, 13:33 Reply

    I understand the need to preserve the good memory of a passed loved one, to sanitize them and put them in this place where nothing they ever did was wrong — but Toju fucked up big time here. She omitted to tell you two very major things about her life in all the 2 years-plus you guys had been dating. The nerve to keep the fact that she was married and suffering from cancer from you, and be upset that you kissed your ex. Not cool, in my book.

    May her soul rest in peace. And may those of us who keep on living make the best of our lives in this very shitty world.

  2. Dunder
    April 26, 00:32 Reply

    Woah!!! Even after so many years, this is undoubtedly a lot to go through. I hope you are taking each day as it comes and trying to heal. There is a lot to be grateful for. Perhaps, Toju did not want you to mourn her or hurt so badly while she fought for her life.

    This law was supposed to be hell but somehow, Gayville has managed to start a barbecue. Forward ever and on with it.

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