A Kind of Happiness
‘Mr. Man, you are very smart.’ The officer leans across the table, wraps his hands around my neck, tightens his grip.
I can’t breathe. I open my mouth, still can’t breathe. I try to pull his hands off. He smiles at me with a row of tiny yellow teeth he should keep hidden. He loosens his grip, examines my neck.
‘There are no marks. Very good.’
I massage my neck and breathe in and out, slowly. Deep breathing is supposed to help me calm down, see straight. At least that is what I was told at the clinic. Six to ten deep, slow breaths per minute for ten minutes.
The officer strolls to the other end of this narrow room, peers through the rectangular perforations in the wall. I breathe through my mouth, wait for him to come back to me. This place has no windows, just twenty-four matchbox-sized perforations in each wall. Still, a draught sweeps through them into the room. I shiver. They took my clothes when I was brought here, left me in my brown boxer shorts.
‘You’ve been here for’—he glances at his wrist watch—’over six hours. Your wise man plan is to say zero?’
I rub my hands together. Deep breathing is not helping. The room is tilting a bit, the four corners melting, yolk-yellow walls runny. I blink a few times and everything is set straight, standing still in its place. Rapid blinking helps.
‘You are cold. And I can get you a sweater.’ He walks towards me, arms swinging. Sweat maps are forming around the underarms of his white shirt. ‘Or just your trousers.’
I lift my bare feet off the cement floor, place them on my chair, lean forward, chin on knees, chest against thighs, arms wrapped around legs. My back is still cold.
He comes over to my side, places a hand on my shoulder. ‘Just cooperate with me and answer some questions.’
I watch the floor, the wooden table is immovable. Its legs have been cemented into the floor.
‘Okay, no trousers for you. Now, tell me, are you one of those men that bang dead bodies? Is that what you did with her body? I’ve seen her pictures, you wanted her again, abi? Those boobs—’
His words crawl into my ears like soldier ants.
‘Please stop.’ The first words I’ve spoken since I got here.
‘You have her body in a hotel somewhere? You go there every night to bang her-‘
The ants are marching into my brain, slowly.
I pound the table with both fists. ‘Stop. Stop it, stop this. You don’t know anything! Stop!’
He pats my shoulder. ‘You loved her, abi? Tell me, let’s talk about that. Tell me how you felt about her. ‘
Before you left for your home town on Thursday, you hugged me, told me in a voice that shook, ‘They are going to like, no, really love you. I’m so sure about that. They, they will love you because you are so perfect for me. Yeah, really.’
On Saturday morning, you sent me several texts. Terse specifications about the kind of wine to bring, a reminder that I had no right to wear a cap into your parents’ home until I’d married you, an apology for the security checks I would go through before being admitted into your family’s compound, a list of all the colours your father thought men shouldn’t wear.
I called you, asked you to calm down. I was already two hours into the drive down to your home town, dressed in midnight blue starched trousers and buba, no cap.
Your mother opened the door before I knocked, as if she’d been listening for my footsteps on the porch. I prostrated before her, let my chin sink into the shaggy brown rug that covered the floor. I knew it would please her that I was so respectful, not the type who would stick out his hand to greet elders. I stayed on the floor until she asked me to get up. She was small, slim like you, but when she hugged me her arms were strong. She held my hand as we went into the sitting room.
There, I prostrated before your father, the retired general who didn’t smile until you came in to sit on the arm of his chair. He held your hand, stared at me like I was trying to steal from him. You wore a white dress that stopped at your knee. Its spaghetti straps kept slipping down your arm. Each time you pulled them back up, you smiled at me as though the mishaps with your straps were a secret we shared. I wanted to sink my tongue into the dimple on your chin. My little finger fits so perfectly into your dimple that I sometimes think it is something I made the first time I touched you, an imprint to mark you as mine.
I didn’t need any of my rehearsed talking points; your mother guided the conversation away from every threat of awkward silences. She’d always wanted one of her children to study law, become a judge like her. She asked about my career plans, if I’d like to sit on the bench someday. I talked about recent developments in the company my parents left behind. My uncles, who had been overseeing it since my parents died when I was nine, wanted me to step out of the legal department and take over everything.
Your father’s gaze softened when I spoke about my parents.
He held out his hand as I was leaving, ‘I think I could like you.’ His handshake was too firm, like he wanted me to know he could crush my bones if he wanted to.
You followed me to my car. ‘Now there are just the blood tests, now I’m never leaving your side. Never. Never.’ You were smiling the wide smile that always swallowed me whole. Your teeth square and white, your lips glossed red. I wanted to kiss you but your parents were standing on the porch. Your father had his hands in his trouser pockets, but the bulge in the right pocket was larger than what I imagined his hands could make. You’d told me once that he always carried a gun.
‘I love you.’ You said as I slid into the driver’s seat.
Your smile slipped a little when I reached for the ignition without saying a word.
‘Are you seeing Dr. Kuti on Monday?’
I shook my head. ‘You are the only doctor I need.’
‘Charles, please now, you should take it serious. I beg.’
‘I’ve never been this happy. No, don’t frown, I’m not insanely happy. I’m just moderately happy. Normal, the right kind.’ I turned on the ignition, the engine hummed to life. ‘I’m fine.’
You leaned into the car, your hair fell forward, it smelled like coconut oil. You stamped a kiss on my forehead, leaving a stain shaped like your lips.
‘…there is only one way this makes sense. You were obviously still fucking her after she got married and then—’
I hold my head in my hands. ‘She is not like that.’
The officer is back on his side of the table, seated in his wooden chair. ‘I see you’ve decided to talk again.’ He gets up, walks to a wall, flips a switch. A naked light bulb comes on directly above the table. Beside the bulb there is a metal hook.
‘You mean was, she was not like that.’ He goes back to his chair. ‘What did they teach you people in Ife? Mixing up your tenses like that.’
The hook up there is the type that usually holds up ceiling fans.
He drums his fingertips on the table. ‘Speaking of Ife, you met her at the university there, abi?’
That hook looks strong enough. Besides, I can’t weigh more than a ceiling fan. Dr. Kuti encouraged me to jog every day because it could help me to see straight, calm down. Jogging made me lose weight. I’m glad I listened to him.
‘I see you are dumb again.’ The officer says.
I rub my palms against my forearms. ‘Can I have my trousers?’
‘You said I can have my trousers if I cooperate, give me my trousers, I’ll answer your questions.’
He stands up, comes to my side of the table, tips my chin up with his forefinger, holds my gaze. His eyes are bloodshot, his lashes long, curving upward as though he curled them just before this interrogation began. I know he is waiting for me to blink.
I won’t blink.
He opens his eyes wider and wider to intensify his stare.
I don’t blink.
His eyes start to water.
‘Okay then.’ He pushes my chin up till I can’t see his face. ‘Mr. Wise Guy, when I come back with the trousers, you will talk. Or else I will show you pepper.’
I know he cannot show me pepper.
Yes, the retired general owns half of Lagos Island. If I don’t say what the general wants, this officer could lose his job. But then, the officer wrote down my surname himself when I was brought in, he knows my uncles could buy the other half of Lagos Island. Even though I have chosen not to call any of them, it is a matter of time before they learn I am here. If there is as much as a rash on my skin then, the officer could lose his job.
He knows he cannot show me pepper.
After we got the blood test results, it took me a year to get rid of you. According to the tests, we both carried the sickle cell gene and our children could get the disease. The haematologist, a friend of yours from med school, told us in hushed tones that it would be criminal for us to get married. You deleted her number, dragged me to other labs in Lagos, and insisted on taking the tests repeatedly until I wondered if you too needed a weekly appointment with a psychiatrist. Maybe even Dr. Kuti.
We must have gone to all the labs on the Island before the night came when you realised that the results would never change. We were standing in front of the bathroom mirror, brushing our teeth. You were wearing a purple night shirt. Your hair was covered with a matching silk scarf. You were midway through brushing when you realised that no new test would make our genotypes one-hundred percent safe for the children we could have. You spat in the sink, sat on the toilet and cupped your chin in one hand. Your right hand hung limp, gripping your toothbrush, moving slightly like a branch being swayed by a light breeze, dragging the bristles of your brush across the marble tiles. I did not need to ask what you were thinking about, I never did. I always knew exactly what was going through your mind. You were thinking in that moment that we were so screwed.
You said, ‘Charles, I don’t want kids. Not really.’
I didn’t believe you because thirteen days after you’d moved in with me, you went to the room that had been my mother’s, dragged my cot out into the hallway and said, ‘This is so beautiful. Can we use it when we have kids?’ I didn’t believe you because you had already decided that our first son and first daughter would be named after my parents.
After the blood test results came, I tried to let you go, it was the right thing to do. But I had no defence against the kind of happiness that attacked every time you smiled at me. I couldn’t ask you to go.
Then you dropped out of the surgical residency program, claimed you could do the world more good working with an NGO. You gave away your textbooks, as if you were never going to practice again. You uncluttered your life, you were freeing up the hours to spend the rest of your time nursing a sick child. You didn’t tell your family about the test results, or that you’d dropped out. You made me promise not to ever tell anyone about the results. I had no problem with that. I’d always felt we couldn’t be explained to other people. I held your head to my chest, I promised, I kept that promise. Three months passed, you didn’t have the dream NGO job yet. You were skinny, you stopped smiling, you were all I had. I couldn’t tell you to leave.
You planned a weekend getaway to Ife. We left Lagos shortly after noon on Friday. We spent Saturday making love. All day in the room you’d booked at the conference centre and after dark in the car park behind Health Sciences for old times’ sake. You held on to me in the dark long after we were done. Your warm breath tickled my chest. Your slick skin melded with the black upholstery in the back seat. Neither of us wanted to leave, we were back in the place before the test results. The car was the womb that held us, a black space before separation, a capsule that did not need the world outside. Years before, in another car, in that same parking spot, I had learnt to listen to your body, to interpret the signs it gave me. Your stifled sigh, a hardening nipple, that lopsided smile on your face each time you came. I knew what each one meant. I knew you.
We made it back to the conference centre just before the gift shop closed for the day. I bought you a new bottle of coconut oil.
On Sunday, you wanted us to attend Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Light. We’d met there at a fresher’s welcome for Catholic students. Neither of us had been to church since we left the university. But that Sunday, after you covered your hair with a pink scarf, we went to church. As always, the incense made me nauseous. I left the church hall immediately after the entrance procession, took a walk down the road, past the mosque next door, past the rusty gates of the cemetery. I followed the road to its dead end, and then I stopped. I stood there for a long time, staring at the thicket before me, wondering if anyone had ever made their way through it to the other side.
The Mass was over by the time I got back to the church, you were standing on the steps, scanning the dispersing crowd for my face. You bought a white rosary from the church store. As we drove out of town, you put it on, around your neck like a necklace. The way your hands caressed the beads was a sign and I knew what to do.
I applied to study management in Manchester. My uncles gave me the year off once I got in. I didn’t tell you any of this. I left on the Saturday your best friend got married in Abuja. You wanted us to fix our wedding date once you got back. After you left for the airport on Wednesday, I changed the locks on all the doors that led into my house. I put the half-empty bottle of coconut oil in one of your leather boxes and left your things in the gate house. I told the gate man to let you into the compound as often as you wanted.
You didn’t reply to the email I sent from Manchester. When I came home for Christmas, your bags were gone. You’d left the bottle of coconut oil beside the front door.
The officer lowers himself into his chair as I pull on my trousers. Denim, long enough to go around my neck once, maybe twice. He has changed his shirt, the white one is gone. It has been replaced by an orange shirt with sweat maps in exactly the same place as the white shirt.
‘So, why didn’t you marry her?’
I zip up. ‘I just wasn’t ready for marriage. She said I was wasting her time. She left me.’
‘When was the last time you saw her?’
I sit down. ‘Just before I left for my Masters in the UK.’
‘You are saying,’ he jabs a finger in my direction, ‘you never saw her after that?’
‘No, I did not. She got married then left Lagos, moved to Ife with her husband.’
When you called with a number that I didn’t recognise, something cracked inside me. You didn’t say hello, or say your name. Four years and nineteen days had passed since I left your things in the gate house, yet you were so sure I would recognise your voice.
‘I may never have children.’ You said in a voice that shook. ‘We’ve been trying to for so long. So long. I found out last week. Last week, that I have endometriosis.’
We talked for thirty-six minutes and four seconds.
I called every day after that but when I came to Ife you refused to see me. You said you weren’t ready yet, that I shouldn’t have come, you refused to give me your home address. But I had always known your house. I had visited before in the years that had passed. I had always been close to you when you least expected. Even at your wedding, disguised. I was close by when I made that call. I was glad to see from where I stood across the street, that you stepped out of your house, away from your husband to take my call.
That was a sign I could not ignore.
We talked on the phone for another month. Then one day you told me you were passing through Lagos to Abuja. You wanted to see me. I waited for you in a restaurant close to the airport because you had a flight to catch. I watched the door for twenty-three minutes before you walked in with a face I almost didn’t recognise. Like a woman in mourning, you’d stripped your head of every strand of hair. Your black scalp was naked.
Your red lips and chin dimple were the only familiar things in your face.
I played with your left hand, pulled off your wedding band, held it in my hand.
You sighed, ‘I still haven’t told him.’
I clenched my fist around the ring.
‘It may be better if I leave him. I need to be sure. To be sure of what to do next before I tell him about the endometriosis. Do you think he will want me to stay? Even if the treatments fail?’
‘I think you should be happy.’ I said.
I knew you didn’t want to stay with him because you had called me after you got the news about the endometriosis. You said it yourself; you said I was the only person you could talk to. I was the only person.
‘He really wants children.’
‘And I really want you.’
‘You are such a great guy Charles, a good friend.’ You reached across the table, held my hand. ‘How are you doing? Hope you are still taking your drugs and seeing Dr. Kuti.’
I knew I was more than your friend, you were just being careful with your words. I was more than your friend because you let me hold your ring. I was more than your friend because you reached across the table, you held my hand, you said I was great.
When you got up to leave for the airport, I should have begged you to go home with me. But I didn’t want to rush you, you had promised to make up your mind about us before flying back into Lagos the next day, I could wait. So I put your ring in my pocket and followed you to your car. I kissed you on the cheek. Your lips brushed my jaw, soft and moist where your saliva slipped through.
‘… and where were you when you heard about the crash?’
Why does this officer keep changing his shirt? He has changed it again. How could he have changed it without leaving this room? There are chickens on this new shirt. There are images of multicoloured chickens against the orange background. Their beaks are open as though they are about to crow. This shirt has sweat stains around the underarms too.
‘Mr. Charles Balogun. I say where were you when you heard about the plane crash?’
‘On third mainland. It was on the radio. I was stuck in traffic.’ I remember screaming at the radio, convinced for a while that it would answer my questions.
‘Did you know she was one of the casualties?’
He shifts in his chair. ‘What?’
‘I knew she might have been one of the people on board.’
‘How did you know that?’
‘She, she told me she was passing through Lagos. To Abuja.’
‘You said you never saw her again.’
I hold his gaze. ‘Yes, I never did but we stayed in touch. Email and texts. Phone calls.’
‘You called her brother over fifty times after the plane crashed.’
How is he doing this? He has changed his shirt again.
The chickens on this new shirt have their wings open like birds in mid-flight.
But he hasn’t left the room.
Has he really changed his shirt?
Of course he has.
Somehow he has.
‘Mr. Balogun. I said, why did you call her brother so many times that night?’
‘There was no way to be sure it was her flight that went down. I kept calling her number, it didn’t go through.’
‘Fifty times.’ He scratches his chin. ‘You called him over fifty times.’
I remember the panic, my thumb cramped from pressing redial. ‘I just wanted to be sure she was fine.’
‘When he stopped picking up your calls, you called from another line.’
‘I have five lines. I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to know if he had heard anything.’ I remember looking in a mirror, reaching up to touch the lipstick stain on my jaw. I remember happiness, insane happiness because of that stain. The stain was a sign of something. I did not bathe for weeks, did not wash my face until I returned from the funeral. By then I knew what the sign meant, I knew what to do.
‘Okay, can you explain your behaviour at her funeral?’
‘Yes I can. Let me tell you, that man who calls himself her husband, he should have brought her to Lagos. Yes to Lagos, Vaults and Gardens. I would have paid. Or he could have taken her to one of her father’s houses. But a plot in the university cemetery? That university cemetery? Oh God, that place is so unkempt, everything was so ugly, so terrible, so, so abandoned. They leave the gates wide open. I am telling you, I am telling you that man did not deserve her.’
When I got back from your funeral, I knew what to do. I threw my drugs in the dust bin and amended my will. I asked to be buried near the foot of a coconut tree on the piece of property my parents left for me in my mother’s village. It is a perfect place, surrounded by fields of grass. There are a few buildings on the lane, owned by people who don’t live there, huge houses visited during festivals at the end of the year. My parents started building their own mansion there over twenty-five years ago. They put up a high fence to shield the construction site and died before the foundation was complete.
There is a stream somewhere in the vicinity, I haven’t discovered it yet. But while I dug your grave on the night before I came for you, I heard the sound of water slapping its way downstream. I had picked out a casket in your favourite colour, midnight blue. I spent sixty-three minutes positioning it in the ground, I lay in it when I was done and shut my eyes to get some sleep before sunrise. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept. I opened my eyes after about an hour and watched the sun rise through the withered leaves of the coconut tree that stood at the head of the grave.
In Ife, it took me longer than I had planned to get you out of the ground. The only way to go was to lift the back seat and put you under it. I was sure the security men at the university gate would want to inspect the boot of the car. It was almost eleven when I replaced the back seat, I didn’t press it down so you wouldn’t get squashed. I emptied a bottle of Euphoria on the upholstery, drove to Road One gate just before they shut it for the night. The security man took the plastic tally from me and waved me through. He didn’t ask to look in the car or in the boot. That too was a signal from you, your blessing from beyond.
I was not found out because you wanted to be with me.
You were one of the few people who had been recovered almost intact. The only missing part was your left hand, the hand where your wedding band would have been. Before I placed you in the midnight blue casket, I took off the rosary that had been placed around your neck because I knew you would not have wanted it. I knew you like no one else did because you were mine.
You are mine.
‘…so where did you put her body?’
‘I’ve told you, I didn’t do anything wrong.’ I am sure you agree with this, it is only what you think that matters. I am sure you agree. I am sure.
‘Okay, let’s go over this. You made a scene at her burial, her body disappeared within a week and you are saying you know nothing?’
I nod, there are no words left in me. There is little left in me, only the knowledge of what I must do.
He has changed his shirt again. The chickens on this shirt are multicoloured, they have their wings spread out like birds in mid-flight, but they have no beaks. They have no beaks because they have no heads.
‘You know who her father is right?’ He glances at his watch, stands up. ‘You want to die in here?’
‘But you will release my body.’
The chickens on his shirt are moving their wings, slowly at first, then quickly. The sound of the beating wings fills the room.
I have to raise my voice to hear myself above the noise of flapping wings. ‘If I die here, you will release my body.’
‘Yes? Why are you smiling?’
He leaves with a threat to be back tomorrow and I laugh.
The room is quiet, free of chicken wings.
I can hear my laughter clearly. I can hear in it the kind of happiness I have only when I think of you.
I pull off my trousers and I laugh. I am grateful for your signs, even today, the hook, the denim, the table that is just the perfect height.
I climb the table and I laugh.
Ayobami Adebayo’s poems and short stories have appeared in Farafina Magazine, East Jasmine Review, African Writing Online, Kalahari Review and Off the Coast. She serves as fiction editor for Saraba Magazine. In 2012 Adebayo was a writer in residence at Writers Omi International (Ledig House), New York. Her first novel, Stay With Me, was short-listed for the Kwani? Manuscript prize and will be published by Kwani? in 2015. Adebayo holds an M.A. in English Literature from Obafemi Awolowo University, and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is a 2015 Hedgebrook writer in residence.