He Leaves Silence at the Door
Tomide lies face down on the terrazzo floor of his university hostel, feeling the sense of apprehension, which was previously a knot in his stomach, slowly solidifying as his phone vibrates across the floor. It is the fourth time his mother has called today, and the second Sunday in a row he has let it ring unanswered.
It is the end of April, and it is a good Sunday, a proper Sunday. It is that delicious window before the rainy season truly begins, where storm-laden clouds ease across the sky, harbingering cancelled classes, warm bodies tangled under rain-pelted roofs, and agege bread stuffed with akara – hot and dripping with oil. He can hear the faint shouts, calls for passes, and the occasional whistle from down the street where some freshers are playing football.
It is a proper Sunday: existing in that little sliver of possibility before the heat and sweat choked them and the rains descended. Tomide wants to savour this feeling, wants to grab the phone and end this interruption. He thinks that he should answer the phone and endure his mother’s admonitions and anointings and inquiries about his life and his soul, to let her tell him off because she is alone and has nothing else to do and no one else to call. He hesitates for a moment, then he remembers Abraham, and stays his hand.
The ringing stops, and Tomide holds his breath for the fifth ring. When it doesn’t come, he sighs loudly and stretches out on the floor, letting the mass in his stomach dissolve. It was getting easier to put his mother out of his mind, to banish her to the realm of the theoretical, and to let her Sunday evening intrusions end when the phone stopped ringing. He thinks it will get easier – that maybe the next Sunday it will be three rings, then two the next, and then one, till the day she no longer calls to ask him if he went to church and then forces him to pray, till the day she understands Sundays are his own. Well… his and Abraham’s now.
Abraham is on the bed beside him. The old wooden hand-me-down frame creaks as Abraham uncurls himself, angling his body towards Tomide lying on his stomach on the floor. Tomide doesn’t have to look, he knows the pose well: elbow pressing into the paper-thin mattress, his cheek resting on his palm, his chest gently rising as he fans himself or twirls a stray loc between his fingers. Tomide does not need to look to remind himself that Abraham is beautiful. Abraham makes an odd sound, like a groan or a jab stifled before it has a chance to be spoken. Tomide braces himself. He had hoped that Abraham would stay silent, that he would be allowed to bask in this little triumph, that this would be enough for Abraham, at least for today.
He knows better.
“Just four times today?” Abraham begins.
“A few more weeks and she won’t even call at all,” Tomide says, hoping this will soothe him.
“I don’t see why you can’t just tell her you don’t want to go to church,” Abraham says, gearing up.
“It’s not that easy, Ham.” Tomide sighs.
“It legit is, babes.”
“Stop calling me babes.”
“Stop calling me Ham.”
Tomide pauses, not wanting to digress. “You don’t know my mother,” he says after a few moments.
“No, but I know the type,” Abraham retorts.
“Trust me. You don’t know what she’s like.”
“Everyone thinks their parent is some giant big bad. It’s annoying.”
Tomide exhales. He feels the sense of possibility vanishing with every hammered word from Abraham. He is frustrated, and disappointed, and more than a little bit annoyed. It is always this way with Abraham: he pokes and he prods and he asks and he thinks thoughts that have no business being thought.
A series of heartbeats too faint to hear, occur.
He attempts a counter-measure.
“Life isn’t black and white. Things are never as easy as you like to make them seem,” he says in a poor attempt to convey the nuance in his relationship with his mother.
His heartbeats quicken, slightly, in apprehension.
Abraham ponders this and Tomide begins to feel uneasy.
Things get very… complicated when Abraham ponders things.
“Things like what?” Abraham’s voice is different, softer, an octave above a whisper.
He feels it on the other side of the room, a small dark thing he hasn’t felt in weeks. Not since the last time they…
He pushes the thought away.
“You know… things,” Tomide says, trying to sound casual.
“Things like us?”
Us. The word rattles around in his head – unfamiliar, unwelcome, seeking purchase.
Tomide persists, “I meant things like parenting, friendship, living.”
“Loving?” Abraham counters.
“Oh god,” Tomide says, exasperated.
“Just tell her you’re gay,” Abraham says.
The softness is gone from Abraham’s voice now, and Tomide laments. He does not want to fight today. From the window he can hear sounds of disquiet. The freshers have started a brawl: a blind referee, a yellow card that should have been red, shouts, the bad kind, someone is being pushed off the field. He shuts his eyes, hearing this all play out, and mourns the beginning of the end of his perfect Sunday.
More shouts from the window. A scream. Vulgarity in three different languages. The game continues.
The Sunday continues to diminish, and he tries to be patient with Abraham.
Tomide closes his eyes and thinks of Abraham before he awoke and stepped into this Sunday of possibility, when he was still a thing that would be and not a thing that was: lips parted, arms askew, face pressed into the yellowing pillow.
He reminds himself that he did not think in terms of things that would and things that were before Abraham, that he hardly thought, or felt, or hoped to feel. And now he thinks in possibilities and does not answer when his mother calls and does not squirm too much at the word “babes”. He calms.
He does not want to fight today, and The Danger has stirred, and he does not want to feel Abraham that way, not today, not during this Sunday where they could be so much more.
“But I’m not gay,” he says.
“I’m rolling my eyes at you,” Abraham responds.
“I contain multitudes.” He hopes Abraham notices that he is quoting Whitman.
“Don’t be such a fag,” Abraham says, “and don’t tell me we aren’t allowed to say that word anymore. I’ll say whatever the hell I want.”
Tomide chuckles into the floor.
“Yes ma’am,” he says.
The bed creaks as Abraham moves closer to the edge.
Tomide can hear him breathing above him, wonders if he is watching him, and almost groans.
“But like… Do you wish you were?” Abraham starts, almost tentatively.
“Were what?” Tomide asks.
“Gay,” Abraham responds, dropping the word like a stone from a cliff.
Tomide is silent, and Abraham presses.“You do. Don’t deny it. Things would be easier if you were.”
“What things?” Tomide asks.
“Things like this. You know…us.”
“Please shut up,” Tomide begs.
“Don’t tell me what to fucking do!” A pause. “Especially when you don’t mean it.”
“Maybe I should tell her I’ve become a Catholic,” Tomide says.
Tomide likes it when Abraham laughs this way – uninhibited and free, the sound rolling out of him in peals, bouncing off the walls, making his small dark room seem expansive and brighter. He feels wittier, charming, and deserving of Abraham’s attention whenever he is able to shock a laugh out of him. He feels like he can do more, be more, even only for a moment.
The laughter trails off and Abraham pants from the sudden exertion.
The room feels warm. The good kind of warm, not the other kind that comes after an argument or before… that other thing.
Tomide feels The Danger uncurling and expanding as his thoughts wander, remembering.
He focuses on the warmth of Abraham’s presence, of his laugh, of his gaze. He feels good, and safe. He holds on to this feeling and ignores The Danger, or at least tries to.
He stretches, further, out onto the cool, hard floor.
There was always an easing of things in the heartbeats before Abraham collected himself. The current that underlined their banter and conditional camaraderie would retreat, and they would talk of silly things and important things and things he would never dare ask of anyone who didn’t see him as fully as Abraham did.
Tomide waits, hoping things will settle, that they will talk of music and poetry and cinema and the price of salt and the meaning of words. He does not want The Danger to claim what is left of this Sunday that feels more Sunday than any other before it.
“If you tell her you’re Catholic, it would be awesome. She’d lose it,” Abraham says, breathlessly.
“Imagine her trying to pray the Holy Mary away,” Tomide adds.
This is good.
The Danger is crouching in a corner.
“Maybe I’ll convert with you,” Abraham says.
“You already spend enough time on your knees,” Tomide says, trying to be bold and funny and a little titillating.
Yes, laughter, but…different.
The Danger stirs.
Abraham’s arm falls down the side of the bed and licks the length of Tomide’s exposed back. Tomide feels his spine rise to the touch and he suppresses a deep groan along with the urge to grind himself against the ground. Abraham laughs at the reaction his very obvious ploy elicits.
The Danger takes a step closer and the hairs on Tomide’s neck stand on end.
The warmth and the laugh seem to take on a different quality, no longer the warmth of kind eyes and guileless smiles, but of dark caves, and warm holes, and restless fingers pogoing with ill intent.
Tomide tries not to notice, and thinks of other things.
He thinks about Abraham’s laugh, that secret laugh that only comes out in the dark, and how it is often followed with his hand against Abraham’s mouth, or their lips pressing against each other. Sometimes, when the laugh morphs into giggling, a push of Abraham’s shoulders follows, then a tangling of fingers till the giggling becomes gagging and then soft moaning.
The Danger looms forward.
“It wouldn’t be a bad decision,” Abraham says, “and you would finally have a source for all that guilt you carry around.”
“I don’t know where you get it from, or why you let it weigh you down so much.”
“I don’t know, Ham. Things are different for me,” Tomide says, the tiredness creeping into his voice.
“But why? I don’t get it.”
Abraham runs a finger down Tomide’s back. This time, his hand feels heavy, like it wants to pierce through his skin and flick his spine and rummage through his insides till he finds the version of Tomide he is constantly accusing him of hiding. He wants to tell Abraham that if there were a version of himself capable of not hating the things he was and might be and would be, he would have found it himself.
“I know you hate going to church, and that makes you feel guilty because even though you don’t believe in God, a tiny part of you wants to,” Abraham says, fingers drawing half circles on parched skin.
“That’s not what it is,” Tomide says, half to himself.
“I took Introduction to Psychology last semester, so shut up,” Abraham scoffs.
He moves his fingers, rests them on the small of Tomide’s back, absently tugging at the elastic of his boxers.
“You feel guilty that you don’t answer your mother’s calls,” Abraham says, his voice caressing the air between them as his fingers caress Tomide’s waistband.
“But she’ll make you feel guilty if you do.” Abraham’s hands glide up Tomide’s spine, up his shoulder. “I know you feel guilty lying on the floor because you know I want you to hold me, and because you want to hold me too,” Abraham continues. “ I know you feel guilty for having that boner you’re trying to hide. You feel guilty anytime I do this,” he whispers as he slips two fingers into Tomide’s boxers, probing from behind for the hardness straining against the floor, to give them both the one thing that will bridge the chasm they can both feel forming between them.
“Don’t do that,” Tomide says, grabbing his wrist.
Laughter. The other type. Deeper.
“You’re a mess, babes,” Abraham says, retreating.
“I said don’t fucking call me that!” Tomide yells as he sits up and faces Abraham.
They stare at each other, and Abraham sees something in Tomide’s eyes he never thought he’d see.
The warmth retreats as Abraham pulls away.
The Danger sits on its haunches at his feet, watching, waiting for him to go and offer the only comfort he can.
Tomide rises and sits on the edge of the bed. Abraham’s head is soon on his lap, and he begins to cry. There is no sound. He is crying in that silent way that boys who think they are men do, before they discover all the ways life will make you weep, and how very little you will care who hears.
The sobs bounce off the walls, and the room feels dingier, smaller, and a little bit less than it is.
Dusk comes, bathing the room in watery pastels as the heat of the sun leaks into the evening, drawing the warmth from the soles of Tomide’s feet.
It is night now, and the power has gone out, and the generators are starting to rattle to life – the sounds of their diesel-drunk engines a welcome cacophony, blanketing Abraham’s sobs. Tomide feels Abraham’s shoulders move.
The power returns, and the room fills with the whirring of the ceiling fan. One by one, the generators sputter and die, and with them the sobs dissolve. They breathe a little easier.
Silence reclaims the night.
“I wish you were gay,” Abraham whispers.
“At least then I could love you even if you didn’t love me back.”
“Why can’t you love me now?” Tomide asks.
Abraham scoffs. “What would you do with all that love? You can’t even touch me with the lights on!”
Abraham’s breaths start to come in shallow bursts, and Tomide feels their heartbeats move out of sync.
“They’ve ruined you,” Abraham continues, “your mother and her fucking pastors and this fucking country. They’ve told you that only God can give you any type of love worth anything.”
“I hate that you believe them,” he whispers.
“But why can’t you love me now?” Tomide asks again. He does not understand why you can’t love a thing that is broken, then he realises that this is the first time since he met Abraham that he thinks of himself as broken.
Laughter. Abraham’s. This time there is mockery in it, and something heavier than sadness.
“Is it because you think I can’t love you back?” Tomide wonders, almost to himself.
“No,” Abraham says, tenderly, as if speaking to a child. “Not cause you can’t, because you won’t let yourself.”
Tomide says nothing.
He lets the darkness and the silence and the heaviness that comes with both these things envelop them.
He does not know how long they sit in silence before they both stretch themselves on the bed – Abraham’s wet cheeks nuzzling into the crook of his arm. He knows he has said too much, so he nuzzles, searching for a way back, the only way they have ever been able to find their way back to each other. Tomide can feel himself getting hard, he knows all he has to do is find Ham’s lips with his own, and the rest will fall away, and their hearts will move back into sync, and everything will be well.
He does nothing.
There is a moment between heartbeats, then Abraham turns away.
Tomide slowly becomes flaccid, and The Danger returns to the corner.
Tomide brings his hand to Abraham’s cheek and gently tries to brush what remains of the tears away with his thumb.
He wants to tell Abraham that he was wrong. It was not guilt or lingering doubt or internalised homophobia or a phantom religious fear of existing outside of the sphere of god’s love that kept Tomide from loving him the way he wanted to be loved. Or maybe it was, he couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was all of it and yet none of it and some of it. He thinks back to the days when his mother only went to church on Sundays and his father was still alive, and the house always smelled like flowers and no one had started to hit him and he had not started to dream of nothing but sand. It hurts. He does not like to think about these things, and yet he is at the stage in his life where the quick and easy answers of adolescence no longer satisfy the stomach in his brain, neither did the anonymous and urgent fumblings of post-pubescence satisfy the one in his heart. He does not know where to find the answers that Abraham wants him to find – the inner truth he believes will free him from pain and confusion and hurt and stagnation. He knows they aren’t in the past, but today – the last proper Sunday – has been filled with sobs and fumes and fighting and laughter that sought to harm, so they aren’t in the present. He hopes they are in the future.
His mind and his body and his heart are expanding, and growing, and searching, and aching – all converging to the point where his thumb brushes away the tears he has caused. He is glad that the bulbs in his room have died and the fan is on and the fumes from the generators are dissipating.
There is no way to articulate to Abraham that he can’t be the person he wants him to be – not today, not yet. For him, his fears, and confusion, and desires, and aversion to labels and to the concreteness of every day do not exist in detachment to a true and secret self. They are a part of him, and whatever revelations or love or happiness or breakthrough he could or would claim would not be in defiance of this, but in some sort of harmonised concurrence.
He does not think that he will “find his true self” in the way Abraham wants him to. He imagines that all the broken pieces of himself that Abraham’s presence in his life had begun mending would slowly ease into place, till one day there would be certainty instead of anxiety.
He wants Abraham to understand this, to understand him, and to be there as he puts the pieces of himself into place. When he reaches for the words, all he finds is silence.
“Tomorrow,” Tomide says to the dark.
He thinks of tomorrow, and tomorrows: of all the things he will try to say to Abraham, of all the ways they will try and find their way back to each other, and how they both deserve so much more than muffled moans in the dark.
Yes, maybe the answers will be in their tomorrow.
He feels Abraham’s breath steady and moves his hand to his head, massaging the soft spot where spine meets skull.
He should wake him, and tell him he loves him, but he knows Abraham will not believe him – not now, not yet. Abraham could not accept what they had as love. To him, love was true and perfect and pure and stood in defiance of every ugly and unfair thing in the world. He challenges him to rise into love, to claim himself, in every sense of the word, in spite of what had come before, what was, or what still lingered.
Abraham was brave.
In the remnants of the last day of possibility, Tomide makes a vow to be brave as well.
He is tired of disappointing people.
The next day, he wakes up to the sound of Mondays at the hostel: boys are calling to each other as they race, probably late, to their early morning classes; a porter is lecturing a group just returned from a night of drinking; the tap outside his window loudly fills up bucket after bucket as the residents line up towards the bathroom stalls.
The sky teases a promise of sunshine within its folds, and a slight humidity attempts to press itself against Tomide’s skin. He knows he should get up. There are classes to take, definitions to cram, promises to keep: a life, his life.
He feels the absence first – of warmth, of pressure, of entanglement. He turns to an empty bed, and the coldness swallows the last pieces of yesterday’s possibilities.
Abraham has left. He probably left before the building began to stir, before anyone saw him creeping out of Tomide’s room, just like he has always told him to.
Tomide thinks he can still make out his imprint on the mattress, and his arm aches from holding Abraham all night.
He hopes the ache will remain for a long time.
By the corner, The Danger sleeps with its tail curled and eyes closed. Beside it, is silence, and he knows he will not see Abraham again, at least not as they were, never again. The room feels colder than it should.
The phone rings. His mother is calling.
This time, he answers.
Olly Nze is a Nigerian poet, writer, and editor. He enjoys tending to his cacti and finding new ways to say old things. He writes decent poetry and acceptable prose to keep himself sane. He has been published in Roxane Gay’s The Audacity and Serotonin Poetry, among others.