The Blossoming of a Peace Lily
I take his grey tank top that he wore to the gym earlier and absent-mindedly pleat it between my fingers, thinking about my mother and wondering what her reaction would be in a moment like this. Holding up the neat fold where the top and bottom have now melded, I press it to my nose, drawing him in through the sheet of fabric as my chest swells and my shoulders grow upward. I fill my lungs with his scent in a gulp and with a subsequent satisfactory gasp, thankful that they do not explode.
“You did not sweat much for a Monday game,” I say, but mainly to myself as he is engrossed in his phone and setting it down just as I finish my sentence. I throw the tank top to him from across the room. He, on his knees behind a suitcase and a laundry basket full of clothes, making smaller piles out of small piles, misses it. The tank top falls by the peace lily whose green characteristic leaves create a lush tropical elegance for our bedroom but is yet to burst with the beauty and vibrancy of any flowers – as if still awaiting a moment in the sun.
Next, I reach for a clean pair of white socks. The pair is tied together at the neck in a knot, the amalgamation implying that he has recently washed them. I untie it and read the initials boldly written in black letters on the cuff. AB, it says. Standing at six feet four inches, with a Trevante Rhodes physique and complexion, a head full of Travis Scott box braids, and a face that is unmistakably the love child of an Iman Shumpert, Naomi Campbell, and ASAP Rocky throuple, he does not need to concern himself with visibility. But he appears to be announcing himself whenever he wears them.
The socks are from his merch line, and this particular one only has initials, like a signature. AB is from his birth name Agyemang Boateng, dropping Jonathan, his christened title. I throw the pair of socks to him, and this time, he catches it, while making eye contact. However innocent, his stare reads as seductive. “Keep looking at me like that and you will be out of breath soon,” I say.
“You are just lying at this point. Because we both know who usually runs out of breath and it’s never me,” he replies.
I ignore him and pick up another tank top to whiff. I’m thinking of how many times I have perversely brought his clothes to my nose and let out a sexual exclamation. Or drawn sweat from his well-defined muscular abs and airless and unwashed armpits with my tongue. Quite frankly, daily. Agyemang claims no part in the perverse romance. Still, on many mornings and nights, he unfailingly leans on the doorway of our second bedroom, which I set up as a workspace for both of us, either from the gym or a game of basketball, naked, clothes in an outstretched hand, for me to inhale irrationally. The result of this cathartic exercise is oddly a head-spinning, migraine-relieving cocktail of oral, intercrural, mammary, and penetrative sexual interaction.
I try to use my hand to gesture at Agyemang to adjust the orange ceramic vase that contains the peace lily. It shifted because the tank top hit it a little. I point at him and then at the vase. He nods but goes back to folding three black hoodies into one.
Yesterday, randomly, while I smoked a joint in the sun and watched Agyemang work out his lat, I received an unexpected text from my mother. It read: Hey. He did it again, so I booked a hotel. I will come to you on Tuesday for a few days. My mother and I speak once a year on her birthday. Maybe twice we exchange texts. We share a familiar rigidity in our words as we recount what we have been up to and predictably promise to stay in touch as an endearing termination of the current conversation. Through these calls and texts, she is aware that I do not live alone.
I get up from the grey porcelain-tiled floor and walk over to the window adjacent to the bathroom door to attend to the peace lily myself. When I pick up the tank top from the bedside cabinet, Agyemang finally realises I have tears in my eyes. “Oh no, baby, don’t cry,” Agyemang says. He rises from his knees to his full height, outstretches to elongate his arm, and invites me for a hug. He kisses me softly on the forehead as I collapse into his firm chest, instinctively squeezing into his frame.
Before his admonishment to not cry, I probably wouldn’t have, but now that he has said it, I begin to sob, sucking his cologne into my lungs with each fresh set of tears. We remain like this for a while as my sudden sadness playlist serendipitously serenades us. I think somewhere he mentions that he will take the peace lily to his new room.
My mother’s arrival means we have to split the bedrooms. From tomorrow, I will share the ensuite with her, and Agyemang will keep our workspace. That is what is demanding our Monday sundown packing. We must no longer show that we share a bedroom. Or exhibit the love that has consumed us. That has led us to build a home together in the past year and seven months. We must showcase the living conditions of two single friends simply sharing a house to reduce costs.
I am all for living shamelessly and taking full control and responsibility over the narrative of my sexuality, but I still have not come out to my mother. As uncharacteristic as it is of me to be inaudacious, I have painstakingly practised an exacting relationship with my family, and I refuse to concern myself with straightening details, correcting facts, or declaring self to open wounds I have no plans of tendering. So I conveniently isolated my romance with Agyemang from everyone. My mother recognizes him as my photographer friend and roommate who drove me to meet her at Tema for my grandmother’s funeral. They are cordial, and she has his number for emergencies. Not that she has ever rung it.
We attempt and woefully fail at spending our first night apart. I last 30 minutes in my bedroom before I walk over to his. He sits in the dark, looking out his window and facing a distant warm streetlight, revising images from the basketball court. I snuggle him from the back, and he lets out a tiny chuckle. He fetches me from behind in bridal flair – all five feet, seven inches, and 51 kilogrammes of me onto his lap without getting up.
Once I settle upright and my arms are locked around him, he presents photos from the game to me in a slideshow: a child held in the air around his thin waist by a tall adult player to dunk a basketball, a Patasi team player landing on an Asokwa player’s foot, and a woman in funeral clothes searching through her purse, captured with a frantic expression as if she left something essential at home. I kiss him intermittently.
We speak about everything changing tomorrow. I thank him for his love, duty, and commitment to me. For loving me immediately and wholly. For holding me as I sleep every night. We take his bed next, but I am still sulking from my speech. He moves to spoon me. I fall asleep, and I suspect he jumps out of bed and goes back to editing the photos.
It is 3.40am on Tuesday. I look out the window, and the street is empty except for the African tulip tree outside our wall that has filled the main road walkway with flowers. Vehicles are speeding past but within long intervals of each other. Kumasi is not like Accra. The rush to beat traffic, only to wind up in a congested obstruction on the Legon-Aburi road as dawn clears for a sweltering morning, is non-existent here. Since I got here, this is the earliest I have seen the city, watching it play out from dawn to morning. But I have never been late anywhere because of traffic.
I never imagined myself living anywhere besides Accra until I blindly agreed to move to Kumasi, 40 minutes north of Accra by air but still in the south of Ghana. Agyemang was born here. One day, after he had irrationally taken the five-hour bus to Accra because I was heartbroken and he wanted to give me a hug, he quizzed rather staggeringly, “What is the worst that could happen if you went back to Kumasi with me tonight?” We were seated across from each other at Jamestown Coffeehouse in a warehouse in Osu. He calls coffeehouses “milo tea restaurants” and only accepts to visit one on insistence.
“You are so silly,” I replied.
“You can work from anywhere, right? Forget that I like you and look at it from the point of changing your environment,” he said.
“Perhaps a change in environment is what I need.”
“Come for a week, starting tonight, and clear your head. You will understand why Kumasi is the garden city of West Africa.”
So I went back to my Asylum Down apartment, grabbed a few things, and got on the evening bus with him. We stayed together in his studio apartment at Asokwa, close to the Kumasi City Mall with its giant overwhelming architecture and equally underwhelming offerings for the first week. I went back to Accra for work but returned in six days. Those days and nights in his arms and space were riveting. So I moved to Kumasi permanently after a month, and we got a house with a balcony at the crossroads of Ahodwo and Daban, where old money Kumasi convenes.
I move away from the window, leaving the deciduous tulip flowers and a waxing moon outside. I have no idea when my mother will arrive since we haven’t spoken since the text. I accidentally wake Agyemang as I move the large L-shaped couch to sweep underneath it. He tells me to calm down as he goes into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for us. It is evident that I am a bit nervous. Cleaning is completely out-of-character for me. So is cooking, laundry, and recently, driving. Agyemang makes a smoothie for himself: almond milk, protein powder, chia seeds, and banana. For me, he makes avocado toast to go with my yoghurt.
When he sets the plate down for me, I remind him to pick up groceries later. I tender my Visa card for the errand. At 25, Agyemang has resigned himself to strict social politics and only works with people who agree with him entirely. And while that is admirable, it can be a recipe for inconsistent income. Agyemang has never been rich. He was forced to leave home at 17 and survived only on a scholarship living expense coverage. So he does not need much besides his major living expenses to survive. Meanwhile, full disclosure: I cannot relate to the term “struggling artist.” So, I work extra for the both of us: my magazine, styling, filmmaking, a queer column in an Irish publication, and curating for an Accra art gallery. Sincerely, I make enough for three people.
My mother arrives in a marigold Hyundai Sante Fe rental before lunchtime. Agyemang helps with the bags. I take her into the remnant of our love nest carrying the gift she brought. When we are inside I read the card inside the wooden box: La Motte Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage Collection. This six-bottle wooden box collection consists of La Motte Cabernet Sauvignon with vintages from 2010 to 2016. She got it for my roommate and me. I murmur thanks and sit on the living room couch as Agyemang excuses himself out of the house so we can talk.
“He hit me again in the hotel room,” my mother says absentmindedly.
“Did you report it?” I ask.
“Is this the same peace lily you talked about last time?” She stares longingly at it through Agyemang’s wide-open bedroom door.
“Yes, it is. Are you ever going to report anything at all?”
“Why is it so green with no colourful flowers? It’s the white ones, right?”
“Yes, it is the white kind,” I say monotonously.
“I need it for our room,” she says chiefly, before walking away into his bedroom to bring it to ours, leaving the conversation hanging in the air.
In the evening, my mother and I drink wine on the open porch as Agyemang trains at the gym.
“This house is big. If I can find something similar, I can buy it and move here,” she says, staring at the transported peace lily through our bedroom louvres.
“You might not enjoy the subtlety of Kumasi. There’s only one coffeehouse here – Kent’s Cup. You hear Ike’s café and get excited, but it is more of a grill than a café,” I tell her discouragingly.
“That means I can open the next one – Stella’s Coffeehouse,” she says, spreading her arms to show an imaginary coffeehouse sign in the air. “What do you say to opening it on your birthday?”
“Agyemang wants us to visit the Red Clay Studios for my birthday.”
“An art place, I suppose. Where is that?”
“That is an hour north from here.”
“Eight by bus.”
“Is his girlfriend also going?”
“Why, where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does he have one?”
“I don’t know.”
I open the laptop sitting on my lap but my mother is not done.
“Where did you meet him? Agyemang.”
Agyemang and I met in Accra, at the Green Butterfly artisan market. He was exploring the city after filming his friend’s graduation at the University of Ghana. I stood beside him at the baguette stand. I could not tell then that he was only half heterosexual.
“Wait, you are Atta Anang!” he suddenly exclaimed after a quick glance. I nodded and instantly looked back at the woman making my sandwich shyly. “I read your magazine regularly, the digital version,” he continued. So I made the big mistake of turning to face him, his unusually hazy eyes piercing directly into my soul and digging up a cacophony of endorphins. “I submitted a photograph to your last edition and it didn’t get accepted,” he continued, touching my shoulder.
“It happens. Sometimes, even though it is an unthemed edition, we still might have an idea of the scope of art and literature we want to cover. Sorry,” I explained, thwarting his deliberate seduction by looking away. I made eye contact with the batiker measuring a woman with a tape that looked too small for the mighty ass on her. He waved at me because I buy batik pants from him. By this point, Agyemang had received his food and was just standing behind me, towering with a thunderous baritone and causing me to hide my hands in my pocket to avert the crimes in my pants. He asked for my Snapchat and a follow back on Instagram so I gave him my phone with access to both apps. He calculatedly rang himself to get my number.
My boyfriend came along. He had packed our fresh groceries from the farmers’ section into the car and returned to get me. I introduced them, we exchanged goodbye hugs and he promised to stay in touch from Kumasi. Later that night, he shared his feelings with me via Snapchat. He desired my skin and wished to dance in my storm. But he remained committed to letting me enjoy my current relationship. So we agreed to remain friends, and he even helped with the layout of the next issue of my magazine.
There was no doubt that Agyemang was the one for me. Not that Edwin was a bad boyfriend or that he was not built like Michael B. Jordan with ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ J. Cole hair. Yet, we instantly agreed that we couldn’t work through a long-distance relationship from the moment his move to London was finalised. Despite the mutual understanding, I went through an excruciating grieving period, where Agyemang became a confidant, a meme sharer, and an occasional bus rider to Accra. It was during those times that he invited me to Kumasi.
“I met him through work,” I summarise the lie to my mother.
“You two seem quite close,” she observes. “He is young but he seems like a genuine friend,” she declares after a long pause, still fixated on the peace lily through the louvres.
“You need to tell me what happened. Why did Enoch hit you this time?” I play her game and switch the topic. The last time he hit her was at a gas station on their vacation in Windhoek. He smacked her across the face with a can of Sprite in his hand. She didn’t say why or what happened. She returned to Accra and moved in with me at Asylum Down for two weeks. And then one day, when I returned from the Freedom Skate Park, she was all packed and waiting for me while he smoked outside in his car. I didn’t protest. She is an adult. At the time, I already wasn’t speaking to Enoch from the time I walked in on him slapping her at my grandmother’s funeral. I punched him in the throat, missing my target, his nose. I still don’t know what that one was about too.
“I caught him cheating, and we argued,” my mother explains this time.
“So he hit you because you caught him cheating and you are sitting here like nothing happened?” I inquire sharply.
“Men cheat. Every last one of you. I shouldn’t have made a big deal out of it,” she says.
“Did my father cheat too?”
“Yes, and that is why I left.”
“And I left because I thought I could find something better. But I regret it. And I don’t want to regret leaving Enoch one day.”
“If my dad cheated on you, why are you the one carrying regret?” I wonder aloud.
“At least we weren’t physical when we fought,” she confesses.
“So Enoch hitting you is a problem?”
“It’s good to talk about these things.”
“Not everything should be a conversation,” my mother replies.
“So you are just going to carry all of this hurt and regret and give permission to more people to hurt you without seeking help?” I ask frankly.
“What is for dinner?” my mother retorts.
“This conversation,” I answer.
She gets up and leaves the porch. Not another word whatsoever. She told me once that she chooses to forget things that bring her pain. But I needed to know and understand some things. For example, why did I grow up with my grandmother in Tema while both my parents lived happy, separate married lives in Accra, with two other sons in my father’s case? Even though I moved to Accra at 21 for my national service and continued to live there till my move to Kumasi, I was never incorporated into either of their new families.
My father worked as an architect. I never went to his house or met his family until he died two years ago, but he took care of me. I don’t remember my mother in my childhood and as an adult, I have only met her six times, including this day: two times at funerals, three times when she has stayed with me, and once when I accidentally bumped into her at the East Legon Vida e Café, but she left immediately. I don’t know what my mother or her husband do, but they have money.
The next three days go by quickly. It feels like I am in the backseat of a vehicle I am supposed to be driving. Agyemang and I take a walk under translucent clouds that soon form early evening rain. Kumasi experiences rain weekly, even during the dry season. My mother tries and hates the coffee and pastries at the only coffee shop in the city. Agyemang sneaks a poem into my hand at breakfast about the courage to release the idea of certainty. He texts me another poem about holding on to the vanishing traces of stillness while staring perfectly at the design of air. Both remind me that I swore never to date a rapper or poet. My mother asks him about his girlfriend, and he says he is focusing on making money for now. She applauds him.
Meanwhile, I am uncontrollably horny. And seeing him all sweaty after a game in the evening or a run in the morning makes me hate the bloody bastard, Enoch, some more.
The Saturday after my mother arrives, I feel a loneliness I only remember from Accra. Sleeping in the same bed but without Agyemang’s perfectly rounded pecs feels like sleeping on a cold hard floor, and I cannot take it any longer. Around 11pm, I feel strongly in the mood for a six-foot-4, 102-kilogramme man to burst me open. So I sneak into the other room. Agyemang is fast asleep when I arrive. I blow air into his ears softly, and he turns over to lay on his back, pulling me on top of him without opening his eyes. I start kissing him softly all over, licking his biceps and pec area. He responds by turning me flat on my back, him over me with an arched upper body, and sucking my nipples. Slowly at first and vulnerably building up the tempo. I draw a zigzag on his body with my fingers, searching for his pants. When I reach it, I put my hands in them, and he is still soft. I tug at it and playfully gas it up by rubbing my thumb on the tip, but it refuses to show any sign of life.
“What’s wrong?” I whisper, concerned at the amount of time it is taking him to become erect.
“I think I don’t feel right doing it with your mother in the next room,” he whispers back. I stop and push it back into his pants. I sit on the edge of the visitors’ bed that we have never used until now, mainly because I don’t know anyone in Kumasi, and he doesn’t invite his friends over. He says gossip travels fast here.
“It’s pretty fucked up that you promise me a lifetime of a good time only to starve me like this,” I say in a serious voice.
“This is because I respect your mother,” he says genuinely. “I mean, you know what I go through because my parents have disowned me because of my cousin and the porn search thing. I wish for you to hold on to whatever relationship you have with her for a long time,” he continues. I look away at the place where the peace lily would have sat. The cousin who outed him is preaching queer acceptance on Twitter now but hasn’t moved to apologise to him.
“I don’t even know the woman,” I say.
“One day you will be grateful for the annual five-minute phone call and two weeks of roommate shit you have going on,” he says, reaching to massage my neck.
“Fuck you,” I say.
We both burst into muffled laughter, mostly in our palms, about our intimate joke from a dialogue in a scene in Really Love when Isaiah and Stevie have a fight.
We hug silently as I climb aboard his legs that are folded pretzel-style in the lotus sex position.
“What if I came here and you turned out to be abusive or just trifling?” I ask.
“Maybe next time you shouldn’t ask a question you know the answer to two years later.”
“We don’t even fight. Do you think it is healthy?”
“You fight me. I just know how to beg,” he says into my face before he bites my lower lip. I chuckle into his mouth, and he switches to the upper lip. I think how lucky I am that my blind decision ended this way.
We kiss a little longer before I creep back to the other room where my mother sleeps.
“Baby, your mother is not here,” Agyemang yells from my mother’s bedroom early the following morning. My stomach is suddenly in knots wondering what this means. I walk slowly, automatically imagining all the scenarios that could play out from this revelation. I do not know my mother well enough to determine what her next move will be. Now I am not sure about last night.
“Wait, her bag is still here though,” Agyemang calls out to me, but I have moved to the kitchen to pour myself a glassful of his perfectly blended Fante Kenkey.
Last night, when I joined her in bed, she wasn’t asleep. She interrogated where I went, and I told her that I went to see Agyemang. She wanted to know why, so I told her that too. There was no pressure. I did not feel the occasional butterflies in my belly or the psychological warfare of wanting to poop when I needed to do something major. It was dark, and all I could see was pink silk sitting at the edge of the bed, which made delivering the news easier at the beginning.
The news in brief: Agyemang and I enjoyed each other’s company while I was in Accra so I moved here with him to start something romantic. We have built something strong in the last year and seven months. We are in love, and that is something that neither a holy book nor hateful legislation can fight. I am happy and I do not care for support or benevolent acceptance, just respect for the way my life is designed.
My mother listened to the tale, and when it was obvious that I had finished, she slowly put herself in the position I left her in earlier. She did not say a single word, even when I asked her twice if she had anything to say. So I bailed and spent the night in the arms of the man that I love. But I failed to explain what happened to Agyemang until now.
“She probably went out for some air. Don’t worry,” Agyemang says.
“I’m not worried,” I reply stoically. I walk to the living room, staring at the open bedroom door where I wish she stood. I open my laptop to continue watching the boygenius film on YouTube to spark some queer joy in me as I await my fate. I set my breakfast next to me on the couch and concentrate on Phoebe Bridgers singing ‘Emily I’m Sorry.’ I wait for the part where she sings about being 27 and not knowing who she is because I am 29 and feel like last night, I freed myself and equally set myself back 18 years with my heartfelt speech. I pour more groundnut than I need into my bowl and hum along to the apologetic chorus.
“You are drinking mashed ke in the morning when your coffee maker is intact. I can see you are a little worried,” Agyemang sears through my thoughts. I do not respond. I wonder about many things. If she were to return: will my mother return with the police? Will she bring a pastor and prayer warriors? Will she ever speak to me again? Incorporating my queerness into our relationship no longer makes sense to me. Agyemang’s phone rings from inside my bedroom. He rushes in there and shouts, “It is your mother.”
“Hello, Mummy Stella, good morning,” Agyemang says as I turn him around to face me. He listens to the voice on the other side briefly. “Only chicken,” he pauses. “Yes, please, it looks beautiful,” he says, scratching his head after another pause. “Thank you, Mummy,” he finishes.
Agyemang narrates that my mother is grocery shopping at Kejetia market. She is calling to confirm our choice of protein. And she refused to call me because she had come to know me to sleep in until late morning. I nod to the story and walk out of the room and back into the living room. I sit on the couch. “What was the ‘yes please’ in response to?” I ask nonchalantly as I prepare to hit play on the paused film.
“She wanted to know if I had seen the peace lily this morning,” he responds.
I cast my eyes to the bedroom window from where I sit and see an inflorescence bloom cluster sitting chiefly amongst the leaves. Several white flowers surround a host of thin yellow spadix. I did not notice it the first time I went inside. I walk happily back into the room. I count seven flowers for our first successful blooming. Agyemang says the shape of the flowers represents a white flag between my mother and me.
About an hour and a half later, my mother enters the driveway, and Agyemang runs to open the gate for her. He saw the Sante Fe pull up from the corner as he was on the balcony speaking to our neighbour who doesn’t like the fact that I do not speak Twi. My mother has as many bags in her car as she did when she moved in. Mostly groceries that will taste distinctively rancid in a few days as we are not much of a cooking home. She walks past me with a pleasant greeting, asking me to join her in the kitchen, so I follow her. Agyemang is back outside bringing more bags in.
“I thought you had left,” I say.
“Will that suit you?” she asks.
“Well, yesterday I came out and poured myself into you, and you did not say a word. How am I supposed to take that?”
“Did you see that your peace lily finally blossomed? I guess it likes my energy and daily affirmations.”
“Why do you always run away from important conversations? You cannot stop things from existing or happening just because you stayed quiet about it.”
Agyemang walks in and stares at me. His eyes are begging me to drop it. He looks like he is telling me how lucky I am that my mother is ignoring the subject. I look back at my mother, unwilling to concede.
“You say that you and Agyemang are husband and wife, and I have heard you. Why does everything have to be a conversation with you?” my mother queries. Agyemang freezes in his tracks. I can see him lose all the life in his face at once. Like a little boy listening to his angry mother recount his wrongdoing. Afraid, suddenly uncertain and waiting to see what next. “After all, you are not the first in your father’s family,” my mother adds.
“What do you mean?”
“Get the chicken from the freezer, ofainɛ.”
Menenaba writes grudgingly in Accra, bearing the weight of an unlived past and burdened by the boundaries of a wasted now. Yet, eagerly beckoning a future life that they shall refuse to embrace.