Return to Me

Roy Udeh-Ubaka

She returns to me in a dream, in the large beige house with the little porch and the screen that never quite fit into the doorjamb. Tonight, she takes the form of a slightly younger self, a little narrow around her waistline. Her lips are curled into a smile, and she’s knitting something I assume to be a sweater while humming a soft tune under her breath. It is a Saturday, I’m sure, because it is the only time she does this – sit in her chair and knit. On the windowsill, my fresh cup of mint tea cools, fogging up the glass. Outside, the sun is setting as two birds chase each other from perch to perch on the guava tree.

Grace looks up from the ball of yarn on her thighs and casts a full smile at me. I return her smile and move from the window to the sofa beside her. 

“It’s a beautiful sunset today,” Grace says, spooling a thread through a needle. 

“It is,” I say, clutching the armrests of the sofa to balance my weight.

The setting sun casts an orange glow on the glass centrepiece, bouncing off golden rays. On the centre table, a copy of Arise Magazine lies beside a pair of brown framed reading glasses and a set of keys on a golden saucer. I look up at the framed photo on the wall, at the image of a younger self in a black tux sitting beside a younger Grace in a pale pink wedding dress. 

“What are you knitting today?” I ask. Two silver bracelets jingle on her left wrist with each movement of her hands. She’s dressed in the green blouse and black shorts I remember seeing her in countless times. Her hair is tucked behind her ears in a neat bun.

“A sweater,” Grace says, “it’s for Kayito. He has outgrown the one he wears to school. That boy of ours is growing too fast.” She smiles as she says this, some pride in her voice.

For this moment, I want to return with her to those earlier days when Kayito was still young and boyish, when he still possessed the ability to outgrow clothes. 

So I say: “He is, isn’t he?” imitating the pride in her voice.

She nods and continues humming. 

There is something oddly familiar about the tune she’s humming, something present yet severely distant, but I cannot place it now. The calendar beneath the wall clock flaps against the wall with the swirling of the ceiling fan, generating a beat to her tune. 

Grace puts the yarn and needles down and turns in my direction. “Mike,” she says and then stops. She looks at me like she wants to say more but somehow cannot reach the words in her mind. Her gaze moves over my shoulder towards the dining hall, at the piano by the window. “Play something. Anything nice.”

I turn and stare at the piano, a glaze of the golden sun on its pines. 

“I haven’t played in a long while.”

“Something, Mike. Anything at all.”

I am suddenly too aware of my inability to move, to partake fully in this realm, so I say: “Maybe next time,” and take a sip of my tea. It tastes bitter and does nothing for my mood. I recline on the seat, suddenly aware of the discomfort in my composition, the way I had been sitting but not reclined on the sofa, as though careful to absorb each moment before its expiry.

More and more time passes in silence, and I begin to regulate the beating of my heart as she continues to poke at the wool. During her initial returns, I had felt the thudding of my heart in my tongue, each beat clamouring to outpace the next. Now, several returns after, my heart has managed to calculate its motions, allowing me vacancy along its peripheries. 

“Mike,” Grace calls again, looking up from her hands and into my eyes. There is a hint of recollection in her eyes, a gathering of sorts. For a moment, her lips seem to quiver. She drops the sweater and the ball of yarn on the stool beside her, turning around as though taking in the room for the first time. “Mike,” she calls again, “this…this place…it isn’t real, is it?” 

Ujunwa taps me on the arm. “You’re talking in your sleep again,” she says.

“Mmm?” 

“You’re talking in your sleep.”

“Sorry,” I say and turn on my side. 

*

The first time my wife returned to me, it was on the first night I spent at St. Mark’s hospital. Like most days, the day had started ordinarily. The sun had risen, assured of its descent and the presence of the early crescent. Ujunwa and I had spent ourselves the night before, and the new day seemed promising. One second, I had been at work, going through a briefing that was placed on my desk, and the next I was waking up to strange faces fussing over me in motion. 

I shut my eyes and opened them and I knew it had been more than a few hours. The room was damp and smelled of antiseptics. The walls were white and blinding. The television was on but mute. Someone in a white dress walked past me but did not stop when our eyes met. 

Again, I shut my eyes and opened them and she was there. We were in my study. I was reading a newspaper on the couch, the sun setting behind me. The house was quiet, save for the hum of the box fridge beneath my work desk. The second hand of the wall clock ticked away time. And there she was, standing in a blue plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves and grey washed jeans, her hair wrapped up in a headband, her reading glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. 

“Kamara has taken ill, Mike?” She swept a finger through her hair. She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes, her legs crossed at the ankle, her weight balanced on a palm on the desk.

Nothing about her presence in my study was strange, nothing about the tone of her voice or the sound of her barefoot on the marbled floor was unfamiliar, but my skin immediately broke into goosebumps. I felt pinned to the sofa, unable to move a limb or to part my lips. 

“There is so much about this I do not have the time for. Could you go get her from school? The school nurse says it’s diarrhoea. She just ate a slice of bread, how could she have diarrhoea?” 

Without waiting for a response, she went on about the meals the school served the kids at lunchtime, and how the principal does nothing to ensure proper meals are given to the students, yet expect us to pay their tuition fees and healthcare.

I was thankful for her ability to speak this way without pause, because no words formed in my head. Her presence in my study had somehow altered the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the room, dissipating everything into minuscule forms. 

It was a warm evening, the sun was setting fast, and the air conditioning was high, yet sweat gathered under my arms and feet. I sat up straight on the couch, peering into Grace’s eyes. 

“Are you listening, Mike?” she squinted. “It’s such an exhausting situation,” she said. “Will you go get her?”

I nodded. 

“Great.” She covered the space between us and kissed my cheek. “It’s always good to know I can count on you for this,” she said, and then exited the room. 

*

I met Ujunwa on a Saturday evening at Roban Stores, three years after my wife’s death. It was a rather slow weekend, the previous days gradually pacing into what felt like thirty-six hours in a day. 

She stood by the cosmetics aisle, skimming through the contents of a Bismid face cream, her neck tilted a little to the left, the curls on her hair cascading down her shoulders. She wore perfectly fitted blue jeans, a black tank top, and a white kimono, over black strap sandals. Her sharp figure commanded attention without being imposing. She looked several years younger than me, yet something about her seemed mature in a way that completely consumed me. Perhaps it was in the way she held her jaw, tight; perhaps it was in the way she positioned her body, upright with a hint of slouch. Or maybe it was in the small wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She had leaned forward to peer at a bar of soap beside me when I spotted the lines, small, barely there, but unmistakable within close proximity. 

“Sorry,” she said when I stepped back. 

Her voice was hoarse, almost manly, but something about it made me want her, in a way I had not wanted anyone in a long time. 

“It’s fine,” I said, smiling down at her. “Mike,” I announced, stretching out my hand once she stood up again. 

She stared down at my outstretched hand as though unsure what it was doing pointing in her direction. “Nice to meet you, Mike,” she said, taking my hand in hers.

An awkward smile widened my lips.

Hers remained firm, as though she was not willing to upset the balance of her face. 

She had not offered her name, I noticed, but shrugged it off. I felt her forming an opinion about me, even as we stood there, by the aisle of Olay and Neutrogena and Dettol. An aspect of me in her mind she was beginning to possess. 

She picked her basket from the floor and I examined its contents: Three packs of Olay soap, a box of cream cracker biscuits, a jar of the Bismid cream she’d been skimming through, and a set of toothbrushes that looked similar to mine.

“The bread here is very soft.” I pointed towards the bakery ahead.

She smiled, as if this modest comment was something of much greater significance. 

“You should try it,” I insisted. 

She nodded and we walked towards the bakery.

Soon after, we began to see each other often, to enjoy each other’s company, to consciously adjust our evenings to accommodate one another. During these evenings, I learnt she loved to eat white rice with a plate of pepper soup instead of stew; that she spoke Igbo when she was upset; that she preferred the rainy seasons to the harmattan seasons; that ChapSticks crinkle her lips; and that she had intentionally leaned in beside me the first time at Roban Stores because she’d wanted to get my attention. I also learnt she was once married to a pilot, who she had seen twice a year, and from this marriage, she’d had a son, Thomas, nineteen now, who was studying Biochemistry in Nsukka. She had divorced her husband after she met and fell for another man at the hospital where she works as an anaesthesiologist. The relationship had ended her already estranged marriage, but hadn’t lasted long enough to individually be relevant. 

She had been open with these details, sharing, without hesitation, information about her life that I hadn’t been willing to share about mine. She knew I was married, that my wife had died, that I had two children, and that I was fifteen years older than her. But I didn’t tell her the details surrounding my wife’s death, nor the fact that my children had moved away from me after the funeral because I had been irritable, snapping at them at every chance I got, forcing them to move back to London after Grace’s death. I had comforted Ujunwa instead with peripheral truths, enough to satisfy her without demanding for more.

Now, she lies on the bed beside me, the softest morning light on her face. She will remain asleep until her alarm rings, or I reach out and kiss her hair. The light from the drawn curtain spills into the room, casting out shadows. 

The previous night she’d tapped my arm to recall me from the dream I had disappeared into, my words interjecting between realms.

“Mike,” she’d said, pulling me from a question hanging in the balance. “You’re talking in your sleep again.”

All night, I lay awake through the dark and blue lights waiting for daylight, envious of her ability to snore so peacefully. I closed my eyes, willing the dream to return, but I remained wide awake, unable to vacate my body.

The alarm rings and Ujunwa stirs. I continue to stare, wanting her to catch me looking. The impact is as I’d expected: her lips curve upwards at the edges and she clasps her eyes in disguised shame.

“Morning,” I say.

“Morning,” she says, leaning in to kiss me. Her eyes are dark and graceful, her smile generous.

She shuffles out the bed and walks into the bathroom. I turn on my side to watch her leave, light a cigarette and stretch my legs out. Staring from atop the console is a picture of us taken at the tennis court several months ago. White t-shirts and shorts, her hair in a bun, my lips in an impatient pout. Thomas had taken the photo after meticulously going on one knee to, as he put it, capture the view. On the rack, my shoes are neatly aligned in a row, the jacket I wore the previous day rests on the ottoman, and though I cannot see them, I know my suits are laundered and hanging in the closet, my socks in the second drawer. I am surprised at how much of me now resides here in Ujunwa’s house.

I crush the cigarette in an ashtray and move from the bed to the bathroom. Inside, the shower is on, the curtain is drawn, and there is a smell of something sharp like apricot. At first, my mind fantasizes pushing open the shower curtain and stepping in behind her, the taste of her lips on mine, her tongue on mine, sprinkles from the shower washing through our bodies as I take her.

I move closer to the tub, with desire both raw and ravenous. The tune is soft, stopping me in my stride. It’s clear, yet I listen, waiting for a different tune, a misplaced nasal breath that would assure me I’m somehow wrong, that the humming from the bathroom is not the same one in my dream.

“Grace?” I push open the shower curtain, and Ujunwa screams and drops her soap to the floor. 

*

The following weeks went by in excruciating silence. Mornings came and nights followed and we slept beside one another. Of course there were the conversations, strained to the minimal, about mundane things: How was your day? Are you ready to eat now? Are you coming home tonight? Questions answered in monotones with a dismissive yes or no. She had said nothing when she walked out of the bathroom, simply got dressed and left for work. At night, she returned and silence wrapped around us. Days went by this way. I spoke, she listened and said nothing. She declined all my attempts at apologising, curled away from me at night.

Soon, she began to respond to my touch at night, to kiss me back, dig her nails into my back, wrap her legs around my waist. For several nights, this remained our only means of communication, exchanging information through each other’s body.

Today, she sits at the opposite end of the bed with her back to me, staring in the direction of the draped curtains. It’s at times like this I am more aware of the silence between us. I watch the small of her back with the scar on the left, the way her dark hair falls to her neck. 

She gets up from the bed, walks into the bathroom and returns after a while. She returns to her initial position, still staring at the draped curtains.

“I’m pregnant,” she finally says.

I put down the newspaper I was reading and rub my eyes behind my glasses. The room seems to tilt; I press down on the bed as though a forceful wind has come to upend everything around me. I sit up straight, naked to my waist. There is a silent moment which seems to capture my breath. Within it, I linger, strain and wait for her to do or say something. 

She moves a lock of her hair behind her ear but still does not turn to face me. My silence is all the answer she needs, and I can sense her body turn slightly towards me.

“At least, say something.”

I open my mouth, as if to speak, but for a while it simply hangs open. I wipe my eyes with my fingers and remove my glasses, withdrawing things from focus.

“Uju,” I attempt when she wipes her eyes with the back of her hands, “you cannot be pregnant. We cannot be pregnant.”

Now, she turns to me, all the anger and steam in her eyes aimed at me. “I could be. I sure as hell could be. It’s my body, you know, Mike? Mine! And I know exactly how it feels.”

The quilt around my waist falls to the bed as I stand up and move to stand beside her. I put a hand on her shoulder, knowing exactly what it is like to touch her in this way. She turns her face away from me, and I see that though her face is turned away from me, she has relaxed a little, adjusting her body to accommodate my hand. 

“Talk to me, Uju,” I say, rubbing my hand into her shoulder in the manner I know relaxes her. “Are you sure it’s not—?” I pause, knowing she knows what I’m thinking. 

The question hangs in between us, occupying a presence with a capacity to silence sound. Eventually, she shrugs my hand off her shoulder and stands up, slowly, but makes no further movements. She looks sealed off from things, holding herself as if she still needs to be perfectly stealthy, as if the slightest sound or gesture will betray the rage I feel forming inside her.

“I’m forty-five,” she says, so matter-of-factly that the words, for a moment, mean nothing to me. Her voice had not risen, not coated along them even a tinge of anger. She remains calm now, in a way that frightens me.

She moves to stand by the window, pulling the curtains apart, dragging in the morning sunlight. With her back to me, she asks, “Don’t you love me? Why don’t you love me? Why don’t you tell me anything about you, Mike?”

Several weeks earlier, lying with her head on my chest, the smell of coconut oil on her hair, Ujunwa had uttered the words, slowly at first, then again as though assuring herself of its viability, its trustworthiness, her hands caressing the hair on my chest. I waited a full minute, counting in my head for when it’d be the right time to begin to snore.

I put on my glasses, drawing things back into focus. “I think we should all calm down for a moment,” I say, “we are both spiraling.”

She exhales grudgingly. “You can’t even answer me, can you?” She turns to me, and I see that her eyes are red and her lips cracked. “I think you should leave, Mike,” she says, wiping tears off her face with the back of her hands.

*

On the drive back to my house, I turn the road off Bisalla and into Rangers Avenue, avoiding all inclinations to stop at one of the fast food spots along the road. I am determined to occupy myself with something. I consider the contents of the fridge back home, wondering what to cook. Cooking has always calmed me. In the first few years of our marriage, when both our careers were in their budding phase, Grace and I would spend the weekend standing in the kitchen for hours cooking all sorts of food for the coming week. She always preferred my tomato stew, and I preferred her Egusi soup. We would often switch things up, treating ourselves to fettuccine with shrimps and pesto for dinner or eggplant pasta, seasoned with freshly ground black pepper, sprinkled with Parmesan. The argument with Ujunwa after she asked me to leave has left me parched and hungry, and I would give anything for one of those treats now. 

“I think you should leave,” Ujunwa had said, tears slipping down her face. 

“Uju,” I moved closer to her. “I think we should talk about this.”

“Oh, now, you want to talk?” She was speaking Igbo now, her voice vicious, anger etched in each word. “Where do I even begin? I’ve been with you for over a year, Mike, and I don’t even know a thing about you. You won’t tell me anything about your frequent visits to the hospital, and every time I ask, you tell me it’s routine check-ups, yet with each passing day, I watch you fade away from me. Look, you’re all bones.” She pressed her fingers to my wrist. 

I looked away.

“Look at me, Mike.” She moved to stand facing me. “Let’s talk. Let’s talk about all the nights I lie beside you, listening to you mention her name night after night, watching you smile and giggle and all that newlywed nonsense. And now, you want to talk?”

I was unprepared for the eagerness with which her words struck. My jaw crumpled to the floor, my senses fighting to register each strike. She knew, all this while, she had known and she had been quiet about it all. 

“I thought you wanted to talk.” She was speaking Igbo, substituting English words to convey the right amount to hurt. “Gwam, explain yourself to me, Mike, tell me how you’ve been lying in my bed each night and yet dreaming about your wife.” She slammed her hand on the console and brought its contents crashing to the floor around us. 

We were both standing naked, had both made love the night before, not a single item of clothing between us, and yet now we seemed completely sealed off from one another. I stared down at her leg where a piece of glass from the framed picture of us at the tennis court had punctured her skin, coating the tiled floor in red. 

“We have been together for over a year, Mike, and I still have never spoken to any of your children. You have completely kept me shielded from anything important to you. We can’t even sleep in your bed, because it is too sacred to be defiled by my body. I haven’t even seen your bedroom. Does this not say something about our relationship? Is this even a relationship?”

Why does rage always sound more painful in Igbo?

She opened her mouth to say more, then stopped. My head was pounding and my voice had disappeared, and from the sad look in her eyes I knew that I looked pathetic, that it was out of disappointment she refused to berate me further. Eventually, she said, “I think you should leave, Michael.” Her tone was low – excruciatingly low – but I felt the volume of everything she had wanted to say but didn’t. 

My stomach grumbles as I turn the intersection towards Presidential Road heading towards Okpara Square. A blue Toyota Corolla speeds across the intersection, missing my headlights by only a few meters.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Are you blind? Is this how you young people drive? You should not be allowed to own a car,” I bark through gritted teeth, taking my frustrations out on a stranger in a way I cannot with myself. I think about my son and daughter, now thirty and twenty-six. Is this how they drive their cars? This gives me something to think about, some new thoughts to disappear into. I have mentioned nothing to Kayito or Kamara about Ujunwa, plan to say nothing. I see no point in upsetting them any further, especially now Kamara has started her own family and moved halfway across the world to be away from me. 

The June cloud breaks as I pull into the driveway at my house, rain splattering against the windshield. The power is out when I push open the door and walk past the sitting room with the askew frame, where Grace had sat in my dream knitting a sweater, passed the door to my study where she’d first arrived in my dream, and into the guest room where she had died. 

The power comes back on as I approach the door to the guest room. The air is damp inside. I sweep cobwebs off my face as I reach for the light switch. Everything has remained the same: the bed with Grace’s imprint, a wrapper on the backrest of the couch, her walking sticks hanging by the window rails, the frayed slippers by the bed, displaced by some riotous movement. Everything is just as I remember, yet I’m unprepared for how much memory this room still holds nearly five years after.

For months after Grace’s death, there was the anxiety that one day would not follow the next, combined with the certainty that it would. It was like holding my breath and yet somehow still breathing. I felt as if I were caught in a heavy fog, unable to navigate my way forward, or even to perceive much of what was going on around me. I was aware of sunlight giving into darkness, of meals swallowed without tasting, and of my head nodding in agreement to arrangements my children made without consulting me.

Each morning I woke, I replayed the events of that day, trying to figure out the exact moment I’d lost her. Through each scene, I gathered residues, pieces of my memory I hadn’t allowed myself to forget. She had come, of that I was sure. To my room.

At the time, Grace had been confined to the bed in the guest room where she’d slept while her needs were being attended to by the caretaker, Uchechi. She had made the decision to be moved to the guest room after she lost the ability to use her legs, saying she didn’t want Uchechi disturbing my privacy. I hadn’t believed her reason was honest, but I’d accepted it because at the time, I didn’t possess the ability to deny her anything. Dementia had lain siege on her body and mind, and she sometimes reminded me to pick up the children from school, or asked who I was and where her mother had gone to, all the while trembling in her hands and knees.

Kayito and Kamara had moved back home to be close to their mother. Kayito opted to work on his proceedings from home and have his colleague at the office handle his court cases in Lagos. He travelled now and again to Ebonyi, Anambra or Owerri, accepting cases that afforded him close proximity to Enugu. Kamara had graduated the year before and was in the process of completing her housemanship in the state teaching hospital. 

On that late September morning, Grace had walked into my room, collected her hairbrush from the vanity, smiled at me, and then left. All within a breath. I could picture it: I had on my blue checkered pyjamas, stray drool by the side of my mouth where I often wet the pillow, and though the lights were turned off, the television casted its light on the room. I couldn’t have made this up.

It didn’t register until only a moment after she left, and when it did, I jumped off the bed and hastened after her. When I pushed open the door to the guest room, I knew. Perhaps it was the absence of her laboured breathing, or the way her head was turned to the left in that way that hurts her neck, or the density of the air, like something large had vacated the room. 

For a moment, I stood at the door, taking in the scene: the ceiling fan whirling slowly, a crackling sound accompanying its oscillation. On the bed beside Grace was the book I was reading to her the night before, Beneath Our Stars. On the foldable mattress beside the bed, Uchechi snored. “Grace,” I called, but there was only Uchechi’s breathing. I looked around the room. It seemed to me like my wife was still with us – in her pair of dusty reading glasses on the bedside table, her walking stick hanging on the curtain rail, the wheel chair with her imprint still on it.

I moved to the bed and lay beside her, taking her hand in mine. I’m not sure how long I lay there rubbing her hand. Through Kamara’s scream when she walked into the room and Kayito’s prayers when he came running after her, through Uchechi’s amens and Kamara’s calls to the doctor, we remained that way, Grace and I, our hands entwined, determined to keep a part of her warm.

Now, each time I return to those days, the memory loses some of its certainty. I try but cannot remember the exact moment she was prised out of my hand or what had followed or the clothes she had been wearing. I cannot separate the smell of her skin from the smells of disinfectant and air fresheners. I inhale and realize that the smell is the only thing that has vacated the room.

Rain splatters against the windows, rattling the blinds. I adjust the frayed slippers, turn on the fan, and sit on the bed beside the novel. I flip through the pages, stopping at the dog-eared page. I put it aside and light a cigarette, abandoning all my desire for food and reclining on the bed, hands spreadeagled. I take a long drag of the cigarette and puff the smoke up towards the fan. The fan moves slowly and I try to focus on a single blade, watching it spin and spin. I turn away from the fan, convinced it’s making me nauseous. I inhale another drag from the cigarette and let it ash to the rug. 

*

“I thought you quit?” Grace sits on the bed beside me, her weight denting the mattress in a familiar imprint.

I follow her gaze to my hand, to the cigarette ashing to the rug. I sit up from the bed and pull another drag from it. “I did,” I say, expelling the smoke on her face. 

She doesn’t look away, simply sits, staring. She adjusts the wrapper around her waist and turns fully to face me. Her hands tremble as they rise to my face, settling beneath my jaw. Even in my dream, she is still the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

 I shut my eyes and lean into her touch.

“Talk to me, Mike,” she says.

I open my eyes and move away from her, taking another drag of the cigarette. Her hands fall back to her sides. She gets up from the bed and takes in the room, as though seeing for the first time, the room that had last housed her living body. She exhales and begins to move things around, picking up the wrapper on the couch, 

I recline on the bed and watch my wife. She continues arranging the room, wiping dust off her reading glasses, arranging the walking stick in a corner of the wardrobe, her movements careful and precise, as though a great deal depends on this task. At least she seems more aware of her presence, like she has rearranged her memory to arrive at an existence closer to mine. Since the dream when she asked how long it’s been since she died, the subsequent dreams have followed a sequence, as though time in my dreamscape has become linear, predictable, each scene promising the next. 

I light another cigarette as she returns to her previous position beside me on the bed. Because I am reclined and she’s sitting, my eyes rest on her back, on the sweat that glistens on her neck, the way it soaks the collar of her blouse. 

“Do you remember our honeymoon?” 

“Yes,” she says, “why?”

And suddenly I’m not sure why I asked. I reach for the memory, rummage my mind for it, but it has slipped from my grasp. I inhale another drag, exhale and begin to speak. I tell her about the fight with Ujunwa, about the mistake in the bathroom, the silence afterwards, about Ujunwa’s claims to be pregnant, and why I think it’s just a stunt to pull me closer. 

“I’m too old for such frivolities,” I say, ending my rant.

She remains quiet through it all. Neither offering opinions nor interrupting me to repeat a sentence or to be more audible. She busies her hands rubbing her ring finger. We had never worn wedding bands. She found them mundane and overly expressive of something that should be felt within. 

She lies next to me and I see a smile curved around her lips. “You whine like a baby, you know? You always have. Have I ever mentioned this?”

Because I’m unsure how to respond to this, I chuckle and she chuckles, and soon after we are laughing, staring up at the ceiling fan with the squeaking sound. I puff another smoke in the air and watch its ascent to the ceiling. Outside, through the window, the day has taken on an orange glow, the diminishing of daylight, the rain tapered down to a drizzle.

“I’m just tired,” I say and turn on my side facing her. We remain this way, facing each other, offering no words. None are required at this moment. The world around us is silent, permeated by our own breathing. Within it, she takes my hand and begins to rub it, just as I’d done hers all those years ago, lying on this same bed. 

“Are you sure, Michael?” she asks, and I nod. We remain this way, a part of us locked together, a decision and an acceptance. I shut my eyes and open them, and she’s still here, smiling, watching me.

The temperature rises, and the need to pull her into my arms does too, but I’m unwilling to alter the balance of this position. The curtains crackle as the flames from the rug consume them, dark clouds rising to the ceiling. In my peripheral vision, I see a fog rising above us, I watch it consume the wheelchair by the foot of the bed, the cushion and the wrapper neatly folded atop it. I watch it lick the sheets behind Grace, creep up beside her and leech into her hair. 

There is a small moment in which she breaks our hold, her hand moving to my chest. She places it there for a second, and this is a promise – a for better for worse, an in sickness and in health, and a life everlasting. She returns her hand to mine and presses down hard. There are tears in her eyes, and I want to reach out and wipe them away, but I am lying on my right hand and cannot break our hold. 

My lungs buck, and I cough and chide myself for this single act of rebellion. I lean forward and press my lips against hers, listen for the beating of my heart and find it mild, slowing with each passing time. The world is ending around me, and everything is just as it should be. 

Roy Udeh-Ubaka is a 2018 alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writers Workshop. His works have appeared in Bakwa, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. In 2019, he was named by Electric Literature as ‘One of the Most Promising New Voices of Nigerian Fiction,’ in a feature introduced by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. He’s a two-time Awele Creative Trust finalist and lives and writes in Enugu, Nigeria.

 

*Image by Kunj Parekh on Unsplash