She had the kind of beauty only available to women past the age of forty. Her flesh was experienced, discerning, wise by reason of use.
The plane was in the air, the sun just beside it—a crimson ball sinking into the horizon. When I brought out Camus' Essays she tapped the book twice with a forefinger and declared: "He loved cities."
Her voice was everything a weapon could ever hope to be. I fell in love like a horse.
I could see she wanted something more: the brief yellow glint in her eyes, the way her shoulders moved when she asked me if I was a writer, the zigzag movement of her fingers across the seat before she drank her wine.
Oh, the thrill of being chased.
"What are you coming to do in Belgrade?" The question passed between us like an invitation.
"I am simply passing by," I replied.
"A shame," she said and sank into sleep.
I looked out the window. The sun had disappeared and regret was flowing through my veins.
Later, when the plane landed, she squeezed something into my palm. It was a paper containing her email address. When I looked up she was already gone, her hips swaying down the stairs, hair bobbing behind her.
Months passed. Messages passed. When I arrived in Belgrade it was summer.
"You're even more beautiful in this sunlight," she declared.
On his death bed Goethe asked that the blinds be opened to allow light into the room. "More light!" he was said to have screamed. But whether light or darkness, a man's death is inevitable. Why not die in the light of love then?
Once, walking down Lexington Avenue in the snow, I caught an image of myself in a glass. My hair, bathed in snow flakes, had become a marvelous spread of white. I paused to acknowledge this older version of me, looking back at this young, foolish youth.
May nothing bring us under until we are old.
But whether 40 or 50, what does it matter? Darling for you there's only love.
I am standing here now, without you, beneath the locus of the world, that crack in the sky. When I return the things I am reminded of abound: fat, heavy, endless skies; sunlights; the sweet smell of bushweed and lemongrass...
How does one fall in love here?
Lukacs, in considering the great Romance poets, said they became exactly like the landscape they wrote in. Tell me, my love, what shall we do with all these landscapes within us?
Let the elders now swear if they weren’t once young and foolish.
It was at a time when our bodies were finally becoming aware of the earth, of our hearts. We had always known of love’s existence: that nebulous, elemental force; that storm; but we had never been caught within its tentacles. So that when love finally raged like a wave we drowned hard, both of us, swallowed in its seas. So that everywhere I went I saw your face in everything—on the road from Egbe to Ikotun, I thought I saw your face disappear into the market behind a meatseller’s stall. So that when I walked to Council and knocked on your door it was Mrs. T’s face that appeared instead of yours. So that the first time my heart tasted the exhilaration of a chase, of notoriety, of rebellion, it was when she said “Young man! will you disappear before I count up to three.”
Let the elders now swear if they weren’t once young and foolish.
Love blossoms in revolt against a common enemy: yet in the end we didn’t have to face our enemy, we faced ourselves. How could we have survived?
It was always there in the wind, on the long walk home towards your house from school, hand in hand, discussing foolish things that plague young love. The first kiss, small and round, inexperienced yet delicious, forever situated before the rest.
Let the elders now swear if they weren’t once young and foolish.
One day on the long walk home, your father's car passing beside us. He stopped and ordered us both to get in. I forget what rank he had then in the army—a Major? a Colonel?
"I'm sending my daughter to England," he said easily, as if the world would ever remain the same after his pronouncement. "Cherish the last days you have with her."
We got off the car together, heads sunken, hearts unaware of the true weight of what lay ahead.
Years have passed. Everything has changed. I do not even remember your face. Now, another woman, another life, another love. Even after all that has been taken away, at brief moments, between sleep and wakefulness, the sweet anxiety of everything returns—memories as light as feather, yet as heavy as tombstones. What nothing can take away—what I still possess—is this simple thrill of being a Man in love.
Let the elders now swear if they weren't once young and foolish...
"What I proffer," she said, "is the dream that Zoca and Benedicto shared: to be present as Orpheus made the sun rise by playing his guitar."
Yet what I longed for was simply, before the sunrise, the colors of the carnival on her face.
Recently it came to my attention that the most powerful men on Earth are compiling all of the world's books into an hyper-compressed storage system to be sent into space. Their thinking is this: if our world collapses, aliens might learn of our civilization by accessing this library.
When I heard it I laughed and laughed. How ridiculous! A library on human civilization without your photograph in it. How can anyone understand what it means to be a man if they have never seen your smile?
At the Met, standing in a room full of Rothkos, you turn to me.
"Tell me, who is your favorite abstract painter?"
"Oh," I reply, "Do you see how Rothko's colors leap off the canvas? It permeates everything—you can feel the mist in this room, soft like heaven. Yet that is the problem: his colors are so good they create a fog, a blinding. Which is ironic because Rothko seems to always want to show you. In contrast, Still does not want to show you, he wants you to see. His colors are scraping off each other, revealing what is otherwise impossible to apprehend. Still is not heaven, but he is truth."
"I asked you for a simple answer, not a lecture in art criticism," you say, touching my chest lightly with your index finger.
Later at night, I feel the heat of your finger burning in my chest. Put me in my place love, so long as it is beside you.
Around 1am, a night like any other. I walked off the R train into a furious wind on Broadway, the beginnings of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat in my ears. I shivered at the burden in the throats of everyone on the track. Mingus recorded it 60 years ago on this same street, in honor of Lester Young. Two months earlier that year, "Les the Pres" had been laid to rest. His sad life was finally over. I imagined his tenor and clarinet lying beside him in his coffin, never again to float their soft throaty sound. Poor Les, but this life. Mingus was on the bass now, in honor, his large presence filling the night as I walked. The almost silent chimes of Dannie on the drums. All the lights from the cars. Cold water in my shoes. And that incredible tenor solo, was it Ervin or Handy?
The rain was starting to pour, the street emptying. Horace on the piano. I passed by a restaurant filled with candlelights. A woman outside on a red chair, her head in her hands, her mass of blonde hair fluttering in the wind. The way her body rocked slowly, I could have sworn she was weeping. I sat beside her in the rain and said nothing. Mingus from 60 years ago, still in my ears. Why did they have to lose Les to make such a song? And you, where are you now? I do not need to lose you to know I love you.
"I wed the sea!" declared Camus. He had just awoken on a ship sailing towards the South Seas, its course set for Vancouver. The seagulls had disappeared, all he had left was the ship's engine and a promise of an horizon.
All I have, everyday when I awake, is the distance between winter and summer, the East Coast and the North Pole, this distance between you and I. Still, you may yet hold this promise as true: I will once again feel your heat by my side. And when that day arrives, I will softly tell my love.
Penelope rejected 108 suitors during her twenty-year wait for Odysseus to return. When he does return, resplendent in the light of the goddess Athena, his brightness is too bright and she can no longer recognize him. And how does Odysseus prove himself, his identity to this woman that has waited on him for twenty years?
He describes their bed, fashioned by his own hands; how one of its legs is a living Olive tree.
I want, more than anything, to be your Olive tree. Fidelity and perseverance, they yet speak to the man.
There is a somewhat apocryphal story told of Michelangelo. It is said that the painter cherished his copy of Dante's Divine Comedy more than anything else he owned. The story also, is that while reading it, he made several sketches inspired by Dante's poetry in the margins.
Later, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to begin work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo packed his valuables in a trunk that was to be delivered to Rome by sea while he traveled by land. But—and here's where story turns like a wayward rudder—the ship goes down in a storm, and with it Michelangelo's beloved illustrated Divine Comedy. It is said, that this loss affected the painter so much that his frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are actually an elaboration of his illustrations in the margins of the sunken book.
What I've lost—nothing to be compared with Michelangelo's copy of Divine Comedy in the eye of history, yet more valuable than the Sistine Chapel to me—was your passport falling out of my wallet on the stairs of a plane to Istanbul. It rode away in the wind, into the Turkish night. Ships sink, drowning with them lives, dreams, histories, irrecoverable treasures; but my heart is an indelible roll of film, your photograph will always continue.
It was a soft Lagos night—the kind of night that swallowed other nights. Her eyes, large, ovate, wonderful, called out to me. The night was shedding its skin on us. We considered each other's bodies—mountains to be overcome. Later, on a bed that had put me through more than my frail body could handle, I ran my fingers through her hair and confessed: I am homeless, a vagabond, nothing but a vagrant in the world.
She wasn't one for long talk. Her love was a verb, an action word. When she turned I knew my days of wandering were over.
—I have a place in Edinburgh.
When I say do not leave me, I am speaking about the mathematical implications of removing you from my equation. Would it matter to you if I were able to prove that all else are variables and you are the only constant? If, when I think of you, I could enumerate the brackets within my impulses, add up the angles in my heart's geometry, would they not sum up to infinity? There are many unknowns darling, but I promise you: there is no variance, no deviation, only an endless range of possibilities. I am a circle and you are my disappearing radius...
All lovers are victims of faith.
Another time, another life: a long road to Calabar from Uyo in pursuit of your face. The mad driver, already drunk in the early hours of the morning, sped into the swamp just after the bridge into Cross River. But I sat there, unflinching. Why was I not moved? All I thought of was music of evening ponds, of locking horns with you again. And when the car tumbled I did nothing but recite your name. Not even death can separate. There is no fear in love, perfect love casteth out fear.
I know your body as one who has crossed many deserts, riding through harmattan nights on thirsty camels: your trees, your rolling hills—landmarks my fingers have traced. Here, your fountain I've drank from. Here, the shade and warmth you make. Here, your boulders and mountains firm. Here, your tears, my early morning fog. I am still with you darling, sole rider in your hurricane. My withering bulwark is the thin of your lips where my dreams lie unattended...
I know your body as one who has crossed many deserts: guided only by wind and sand, typhoons and familiar scents—searching behind the nape of your neck for an oasis. I am lost and my heavens have disappeared. My skies are ebbing and my constellations have become black. Yet I am still with you darling, sole rider in your desert night. This smile on the thin of your lips, you are my evening star...
On my last day in Mozart's city a woman told me a story about mirrors. In earlier times, during the winter, the alps surrounding the city cast long shadows on the streets, so that the city appeared to be in perpetual darkness. The persistent darkness made the city's inhabitants depressed and eventually many began to take their own lives. They would climb to the top of the city's tall, beautiful buildings or mountains and jump down. Someone suggested to the city government what was an unlikely solution: large, circular mirrors installed on the streets. The government agreed to try it out. The mirrors were installed to reflect the sunlight, and to let the people see their own reflection. This, the woman said, was what saved the city.
It is true, darling—a mirror can determine the course of a life. Don't you know? When I think of you, what I hope for is to become the image I see in this mirror your love holds up to me.
Sartre divided his memoir into two parts: Reading and Writing, as if only these two are definitive of a man's life.
The words a man read and the words he wrote.
This distinction, although affirmative, precludes a lot. Words are slippery, vagrants—to define a life merely by them is foolhardy. Yet, something of this thinking holds true: I suppose that whatever is not written down might one day cease to exist. Writing therefore is another route to immortality.
But I lay no claim to the grandness of what writing makes possible. In fact it suffices for me—if the world disappeared and all else became dust—to be remembered simply as the man that wrote letters to you, my lover.
No letter to a lover can ever make sense. These letters subsist wholly in the realm of what is felt but ungraspable. Some try by leaving lipstick marks on the page; others dip the paper in their perfume hoping that their lover, when he opens the envelope, is in turn enveloped by their scent. All of these attempts to collapse distance, to elucidate emotion. Yet, the true weight of every lover letter is elusive. This doesn't mean that Love is not matter—Love has weight and occupies space. Love is in fact a vector quantity, its direction is never deniable. What I am getting at, darling, is that when words fail and I am lost, your love is for me, the only compass that remains.
"What is your idea of home?" you asked me once. It was a cold New York night, rain pouring on West 23rd street, both of us standing there without umbrellas. I remember thinking, how, for the first time in my life I wasn't running away.
When an existential question is asked in the cold, the solution, usually, is to quote Sartre. But I looked in your eyes and I knew that wasn't what you wanted to hear...
I am returning with you to Orpheus and Eurydice. They are, of course, the greatest possible lovers ever. Yet, their story, like those of others, ends in a tragedy: both of them hand in hand, floating in the underworld, crashing back into the arms of Hades.
Perhaps we prefer tragedies because there is a kind of healing only sadness can provide. The sad story, then, as a balm. But you and I are not a sad story—we're simply lovers holding hands, walking into this advancing light.
She said, "when you come, I must show you the island. There are no people, only birds, palm trees and dunes."
When. The inevitability of it. The firm belief that one day time's cyclical dance will bring us back together. The faith that didn't move mountains but was itself a mountain...
You know it's true, the things I grapple with: the intense fear of writing a sentence that will not live forever, that my books may not contain the world, enlarge the world. That all the cities of the world are not enough: Malaga, Halifax, Lagos, Vienna, New York, Milan. That one day you, my greatest psalm, will slip through my arms, away from my embrace. Yet will I remain...
Darling, I come bearing gifts, across all the waters of the world—my love is a trans-oceanic chant.
It is raining and I long for you—all is fair in love and warmth.
The English word “Lover” is ultimately useless. It is too vague, inaffective, carries no weight, a sore wound on the tongue. In choosing such a word, the Yorùbás—understanding that it was a matter of life and death—approached the topic with more trepidity. They understood that there was no Love without contest. That there would be wars—against yourself, against other people, against the one you claimed to love. That you would have to defeat distance, time, age, restlessness. That there was no love without light and darkness, hope and despair, faith and fear, chains and freedom. That only an image emerging peerless after these fires deserved such an appellation.
And what word would do such an image justice? Certainly, nothing as useless as "Lover."
Consider instead the Yorùbá word for "Lover"—Olólùfẹ́: "the possessor of one’s supreme love". I want you to know that you are, after my battle is done, the only flame that endures.
I carried all my books with me. First went in Okigbo’s Labyrinths, because he was the genesis. Next, beside it, I placed, with all the care in the world, Owuor’s Dust—the woman wrote a timeless Kenya, empathy oozing from every word. And of course, Berger’sHere is Where We Meet—that torchbearer of a man without whom there is no light.
Book after book.
Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun. I searched in vain for all my Lispector books and found just two. Then, Taban Lo Liyong. Arthur Nortje. T’chicaya U Tamsi. Poems of Black Africa. Where did I leave Tade’s The Sahara Testament?
Book after book.
Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion. Nazim Hikmet. Soyinka’s Idanre and Other Poems. Soyinka’s Samarkand and Other Markets I have Known. Mia Couto and Kafka. Love in the Time of Cholera. Cole, Gide, Mabanckou. Addresses in a Highland Chapel. Roy, Ekwensi, Bessie Head. Salter. Salter again. Ondatjee, Emecheta. Aribisala and Thoreau. Glissant whose boat was open.
Book after book.
I arrived at the airport holding Muller’s The Passport. The flight attendant, after she had eyed my bag, said that it weighed more than I’d paid for. But all I could think about was you at the other end of the ocean, weighing more than I deserve.
A small day on the Spanish countryside, a bus ride at the edge of the cliffs. You hated the turns, the towns—Coín, Ojén, Monda—cheap and littered with dog shit, sunlight filtering behind the mountains. The mornings were hot, the days gliding always ahead of us.
Surely I remember—
The hurrying radio and its flamenco, the walk between the broken houses before the townsquare, the locked gate of the perverse old man before the hills, the fights, the dance we never had, the fans twirling through the night, the lovebites, the cats atop the closed bar, the shape of your lips when you say El Gato Negro: love is when you call me a name that only you know.
Dennis Brutus had a lamp of love. One night he came to a crossroad. Confused, he lifted his lamp and saw, on his lover’s face, the path that he should take. Come with me darling, lovemaking is mapmaking.
I can recount devotion from the footsteps of dancers.
Arápáregángan. Arẹ́sẹ̀jábàtà. Adáraníjó.
Look how many words it takes to translate their inimitable steps—these worthy dancers. However, what does not need translation is what it means when, suddenly, in the middle of the night, you awake with fingers groping to check if I am still beside you.