I sat on the stoop backing the white bungalow, facing the little vegetable garden my mother loved to nurture. She grew tomatoes, green leafy collard greens and okra. She would buy different foul smelling products from the old man that serviced the farmers for fertilizers. I sat in that familiar posture, back bent, my neck jaunting forward, my chin resting on the soft curve of my right hand, while my other arm lay between my two lower limbs. I was supposed to be under punishment. My offense:voyeurism.
My father was angry, my mother same. I think what annoyed them the most was my unrepentant attitude. My teacher had caught me peeping at the girls in the bathroom at our school. She had discreetly pulled me in her office, given me a thorough tongue lashing and sent me home on a day suspension. I was a normal twelve year old with normal curiosities and did not feel I was being justly treated. My father had told me to sit outside and think about my transgressions, though, I almost thought I caught the beginning of a small smile tug at the corners of his lips.
What they both didn’t know, though was on that stoop, staring into that garden, my mind was free to wander from the confines of our home, our little town and roam free to whatever the world had in store for me. I would run down the dirt road of Ayeje to the busy car park many kilometers south of our town. I would climb into the smallest vehicle, the one that was least crowded and pick a driver that was possibly in his twenties, so, he would not drive like my father. He would step on the accelerator and embrace the highway like a speed demon. I would stop at the next market and buy half a dozen oranges and half a dozen mangoes. I loved oranges and mangoes. I always thought of buying fruits in sixes. I counted in sixes, from as long as I could remember. My mother used to say, every other person she knew said their children counted in twos, I did mine in sixes. She thought that made me special. Mothers always believe their children are special. I would eat my mangoes with careless abandonment, wiping my soiled fingers on the leather seat of the vehicle; something I never would dare do in my parents’ cars. I would take off my shirt, litter the interior of the vehicle with the leftover seeds from the fruits and let our loud, odoriferous farts to the disdain of other passengers…..” Such were the contents of my day dreams. I longed to do crazy, stupid things that were not in line with conventions. Maybe, that was why I chose to peek at the girls in the bathroom, wanting to see for myself, if, what I had seen in my biology texts were really true.
I looked forward to when I would be able to explore the world on my own. No mother or father breathing down my neck, telling me to greet that person, do not slouch, stop grabbing your crouch, stop talking while eating, in short…live life on my own steam. My father called me into the house after an hour. He wanted to know why I did what I did. I told him the truth. I was curious. He did not seem angry anymore. He encouraged me to stay on the right path, whatever that was, and not to deviate to evil; which I interpreted as stop spying on naked girls.
As I grew older, I ventured beyond the boundaries of our town for college. I chose to major in History. I loved to read. Books were my escape in those days long before I went off to college. It grounded me and gave several scholarships that opened the door to the world I had longed to explore. I went on to South Africa on an internship program. I explored the Sun City and wandered from shop to shop, enjoying lattes and taking pictures I sent home via email. I went back home with a jaunt in my step…..and a hunger for more. An opening to study for a year in Malaysia came at the end of my first degree. A fellowship I won through an extensive essay I had written, a partial fulfillment to my degree program. My mother cried for many days, while my father’s chest was pumped up in pride. I could not wait to leave.
I spent the following year oscillating between Malaysia and home. Long after my fellowship ended, I stayed on in Malaysia. My reasons were not academia but a long haired, dark skinned woman who was several years older. My father was the only one I told. He patted me on the shoulder and encouraged me not to close my options. Long after that relationship bit the dust and I had completed my masters thesis, I decided to return home for a brief period. I had been offered a job in the state university as Lecturer I. It was a great opportunity to have me close to home my mother enthused. I stayed within close proximity for a year, teaching my classes, reading and drinking. I did not consider myself an alcoholic. I just saw the world through beautiful colored lenses after I drank. My father encouraged me to leave again. He believed my heart was else where and being grounded was making me miserable. So, when I received another fellowship to travel to North America for my doctorate program, I left.
My travels took me across the world. I criss crossed North America. I spent a summer in Mexico, taking long bus rides across the Cuida Suarez, smoking my blunts and writing long emails to my parents. My mother always asked me about the opposite sex, my father’s interest was more in tune to mine: the beauty of the world before me. I let my hair grow long and unruly…and yes, stopped drinking. My father was right. Being confined to the borders of home made me miserable. By the time my doctorate was done, my dreads were almost waist length. I stayed on to teach in a small mid town college in Nebraska after my dissertation. The population was barely 3,000. It was quiet. I could hear myself think. I rented a small house which attracted me due to a strong semblance to my parents home in Benin. In fact, when I sent my parents a picture of my home they both expressed shock at how my house looked almost like theirs. A strange coincidence.
During my summer vacations, I would visit small pockets of South American cities with a group of colleagues from the college. We all were single, no children and no financial burden that bound us. I sat in small cafes in Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuella and on a lark took part in an international cooking competition in El Salvador. I fell in love so many times, my friends stopped counting. I would meet a beautiful woman and quickly forget about the one before. Not much depth to my emotions, if I want to be honest. I would sign up for many seminars outside the city where I lived. It didn’t matter where. If I had the time, I would find the energy. I wanted to experience the world. Unhinged and unincumbered, I was happy. My mother stopped asking about women.
A couple of weeks short of my fortieth birthday I returned home for my father’s seventieth. I had gotten a clean shave to fit in with my parents conventions. I had stopped smoking a full year before and knew I looked the part of successful history professor, whatever that was. My mother expressed her concern for my lack of interest in the opposite sex. When I shrugged and made a non committal response, she busted into tears.
My father sat with me in his study after dinner. I apologized for making her cry. He bent over and patted me on my knee. Are you …gay? I was thunderstruck. No Dad. I started to laugh. After a few seconds, he joined. My mother slipped into the room and sat beside me. I told them the punishment I received from peeking at the girls in the bathroom many eons ago had blighted me. “Stupid boy”. My mother said wiping her eyes with the back of her hands. They expressed their concern at my reluctance to start a family. My inability to put down roots. I listened to both of them speak while I sipped my water. I was a good listener. My life was a simple one. I loved women. Different kinds of women. Short, tall, dark, light skinned. I was done wandering the world but still liked to sample women.The women knew I was not one for commitments.I never gave anyone false expectations and was always a gentleman. I had begun to tire though, of the game. And so in line with my nature, I told my parents the truth: I liked women…different types of women. I was more than a little of a Casanova, to put it lightly. My mother looked relieved, my father a little confused. After all these years, he was surprised I had not gotten the wanderlust out of my system. He said I may have slowed down from migrating from continent to continent, but I was still moving around….only I had swiped cities for women.
I spent the next month in long conversations with my father. We took long walks. He climbed inside my head and helped root out a lot of the nonsense that cluttered my thinking. Clutter, I was not even aware I had. He encouraged me to meditate and pray. I added the bible to my many reads. Funny thing though, after wandering the earth and trying to find my identity….I found myself right where I started from. I found myself, sitting on my stoop beside my father, chin in hand on the eve of my fortieth birthday.