As I lazed about, freshly woken from a late afternoon nap, my arm tipped the Styrofoam take-out bowl on the stool beside my bed. Emptied of dumplings I had since eaten, it did a quick front-flip and landed on my laptop, as if to punish me for all the times my mother had warned me not to leave my laptop lying about on the floor. Instead of running for a wet rag to clean the mess, I watched the brown of the soy sauce seep into the keyboard. Some of it trickled down, staining the rug and the edges of my white bed sheets. Then came the soprano-pitched sob that surprised me, spilling out with the soy sauce.
I sobbed heavily and endlessly, painfully emptying my insides of a much-needed catharsis that I did not know had been gathering steam for weeks. I wrapped my naked body with the soy-stained bed sheets and stayed there for hours smelling like Chinese food. All the evening’s shadows on my cream walls soon thickened into a pitch black that I let swallow me. I did not move again until late at night when I fumbled for the light switch, dizzy like a drunk from the headache I had brought upon myself with all that crying.
I checked my phone for the time and added seven hours to it. It would be 7am in Nigeria. Dad would already be up, whistling as he prettied his tie for work. Mum would soon head to the kitchen to fry some plantains for breakfast. The mai-guards would have struck the gong seven times to tell the time and then they would be done with their night watch.
I told myself that it was too early; that I should wait another hour when Mum and Dad would be debating the contents of the morning paper, when the sun would be overhead and the driver would be done washing the Jeep. I would call then, I thought to myself, procrastinating again.
Americans make it seem so easy, this mustering of courage, this telling of one’s truth.
“Come out, come out”, they say to you.
“Be vulnerable”, they say.
“Live your truth”.
But they will not be there when the truth shatters my family. They will not be there when my father’s heart breaks over me. They will not be there when aunties and uncles sigh bitterly at the disappointment they feel I have become. Will they be there when aunty Temi no longer wants me to baby-sit her child for fear that I will corrupt her, or when my cousin Lade who used to braid my hair suddenly starts acting self-conscious in my presence? Will they be there when Simbi my childhood friend turns herself into a stranger because of all the gossip she has heard about me that she cannot share? No they will not be there.
The evangelists of vulnerability will not be there to resurrect my mother’s broken dreams either. She has been looking forward to my wedding for years now. My wedding is supposed to be a way for her to enact redemption out of all those years when we could barely eat three square meals, all those times that she had to sell her jewelry and her wrappers to pay my school fees. Even when I was only a child she would daydream out loud about how she would gain back all she had sacrificed for the two of us one day in the future. In that future, I would be the bride in a lavish talk-of-the-town wedding and she would be dressed in the most expensive attires as the Mother Of The Day. It would be as much of her day as mine. How she would dance, she would often say, animated at the thought. How she would throw away any façade of humility. How she would have my big day covered by the most prominent media agencies. These were the dreams I heard her speak so often that they had become mine without question.
Once I crossed the threshold of twenty years old, the dreams started to leak out of her with a greater sense of urgency. She would tell me about a wedding she went to and how she was ecstatic at the thought of planning mine soon. She had planned it down to the George materials and lace wrappers she would wear. All that was remaining was for me to present a man and this was never a question of if it would happen, but when. When you understand this, you understand how lying becomes a form of tenderness and keeping secrets becomes the only way one knows to love. Do you now see how showing only a part of yourself while cutting off other bits and pieces may be an act of love, however flawed?
I tried to tell my lover this; that she needed to understand that it was not just about me. It was equally about killing a part of my parents, the part of them that had long dreamt of giving me off in marriage to a man, that had long dreamt of me dressed in beads and lace, and dancing over to identify my husband. It was also the part of them that had dreamt of carrying my babies. Not that I cannot adopt one. But of course, the dream of seeing me grow a baby inside of me, one that comes out with eyes like my father’s and lips like my mother’s would be dead.
I started to question the familial love that was my anchor all my life. I started to question a love I was sure could die for me if it came to it. Could this same sacrificial love be fickle? Was there a point to which I would push this sturdy love and find that it would give way, like a spring stretched beyond its elastic limit? How much could I trust love before I find out that it has been keeping score? How much could I transgress until I realize that I have crossed a previously unknown point of no return? Could this same love that could die for me disown me? Could this love possibly be conditional? And if I knew this love so well, if I trusted it so well, then why did I hide the parts of myself that might disrupt the family? Why was I so afraid to show all of myself; not just the ones that I left home as, but the ones I had become? These are the questions I found myself trying to answer after I fell in love with Elena.
I did not plan for this, to be in love with a woman. She had told me of the need to proceed with caution right from the beginning, after the first time we made love. She told me that there was no need to hurry to label it anything. She had made her own choices – leaving Egypt permanently to settle in the States, losing family, losing friends – and she would not want impose such a difficult choice on me. I was attracted to men too after all, she would remind me. Maybe I could still find a good Nigerian boy, one who went to church, who worked for an oil and gas company, who was 4-8 years older than me. Maybe I could still find a gentleman that my extended family would approve of. I did not say anything in response to that. Instead, I said for us to take it one day at a time. This was the first time I had explored a sexual connection with a woman; I did not yet know what it would become.
Months later, I lay naked and supine on her bed, teasing her as I liked to do when work was making her too uptight. There was nothing profound about that moment and yet it became so clear to me that what I had with Elena was not something one found often. She knew it too. And were we to put the fear and cynicism aside, the truth is we had known it all along. Elena was the first person I had ever loved like that. She was middle aged and a person of repute and I on the other hand was only a young professional still building my career, but when we were together all those titles and hierarchies fell away. There was a way that she looked into my eyes that made me pour out myself without filtering anything out. There was a way that when we sat together, my heart was home. It was not a giddy emotional high I felt for her but rather a feeling that finally someone could take all of me and I could take all of her and that I could do that dance for a whole lifetime and never get tired.
Elena told me again as we cuddled that night that she loved me very much but she understood how things like what we had were too risky. She understood how love was not enough. She understood if I only wanted it to be a short-term thing, if I wanted to run away before it got too serious. I too was afraid of coming out. I too was afraid of bringing a woman to my parents. But I told her that I would stay. It was true that I could wait and find a more acceptable partner how would I forgive myself for running from love?
I knew that were I to run, that place in me where our love lived would become a void too big for any other partner to fill. It would be a shadow hovering every other person who I tried to love. So one day as we threw our bodies into fits from laughing at a joke that was probably funny to just the two of us, I told Elena that I would tell my parents. I would come out, like Americans say. That way she would no longer have to pack away to live in a hotel during the weeks that my parents came to visit. That way I would no longer wonder if it was even possible for me to shed the mask that I had worn for so long.
Elena told me to think it through. She said, like the middle aged woman that she is, that I should take my time and I should give it time. I said, like the twenty-something that I am, that I had given it enough time. I told her that it was the hardest thing I would ever do. She said that she understood, that this would change everything, and was I ready? I said yes and kissed her before she drove off to catch her flight. I picked a day of that week at random and then I circled it with a red ink mark on the calendar. I said with certitude that on the 21st of October I would pick up the phone and tell my parents the truth about who I was and who I loved.
Yet the day had come and all I could do was cry. I opened up my Rebtel application for long-distance calls and scrolled down until I found “Mum”. She picked before I heard the phone ring.
“Bola!”, she shouted into the earphone, happy to hear from me.
“Mummy ekaaro”, I said in return.
“How are you my daughter?”
“Fine mummy. Is daddy there?”, I asked
“Yes, you are on speaker”, she said, laughing.
I heard my father laugh and I started to ache again.
“Bola, my sweet Bola, my one and only Bola, how are you my Bola?”, my father asked, in the singsong way he often greeted me when he was having a very good day. I remembered that singsong voice cheering me on at childhood football games. I remembered that same voice trying to lighten my pensive mood as I left Nigeria for the United States for the very first time. The sobbed betrayed me again and my voice started to break.
“Bola, I cannot hear you again. Are you still there?” my mother asked.
I tried to muffle my tears saying, “Yes ma, the connection is just bad”
“Bola, Bola”, my father said, trying to make out what I was saying across the line.
I pretended that the signal was poor by ruffling some papers near the microphone of my phone.
“Ah this line is very bad”, I heard my mother say and my father agree.
I gently cut the line and switched off my phone. I wrapped the soy-stained bed sheets around my body again.
I texted Elena – “not today, sorry”.
Ebele Mogo is a scientist, writer and entrepreneur. She is the president of the Engage Africa Foundation and blogs at www.streetsideconvos.com and and is on Instagram and Twitter as @ebyral