‘You are so busy making a living, you forget to live your life’.
War is a terrible thing. A plague that touches all lives it comes in contact with. It ravished all in its path. My life was a simple one. I had my brother, my parents, my friends from school. Then, the gunshots started late one night and darkness fell like a blanket…covering every ray of light in my life. In my mind, the night came and stayed.
My father was a custodian in a non-profit. His income was meager. My mother supplemented his income by sewing. They pulled their resources together and made it work. I never heard her complain. My brother, Maha and I went to school on a scholarship fund from the non-profit. My father’s income bracket made us beneficiaries. My father always told my brother and I…he washed each tile…each toilet…with valor..knowing his labor was giving us an education. Education. My father said it would give my brother and I opportunities. The first time he used the word…’opportunities’. I scampered off to get my dictionary. I remember the swell of his chest and the brightness of his smile, when I read the meaning of the word:opportunity.
My mother always used to say I was born an old woman. I was fully potty trained a month before my first birthday. I found words and spoke with the gush of a waterfall.
When the gunshots started my words became muddled in my head and my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth.
School. It was the only place I didn’t hear the uneven snap of crackers. That’s, what gunshots sounded like in my head…exploding crackers. My favorite teacher was Mr Farouk. He was a tall, gentle man. He spoke in a low, hoarse voice…like he was recovering from a head cold. Then, one day I heard the crackers go off during recess….I heard screams and saw people running in different directions.
Mr. Farouk lay in a pool of blood. His left shoe was missing, his head….lay at a twisted angle. Blood creeped from under his body..in different directions…down the stairway, past my feet. His assailant didn’t care we were children, he didn’t respect the sanctity of life…he was a product of the times. I stopped going to school.
I stopped eating my favorite sauce. It was thick and red from the beet vegetable that grew in our back yard. I couldn’t eat it any more.
I, who had been potty trained before I could walk became incontinent.
At night, I would hurdle in the corner of my room. My chin deep in my chest, my arms around my head….a puddle of urine circling my body. My parents were referred to a therapist in the eastern province by a facilitator in the non-profit.
His diagnosis… fear. Fear had stolen my voice and robbed me of my dignity.
It took a couple of months, but, we eventually were able to secure documents to enable us travel as a family. My father’s place of employment paid the fare and provided us stipends for our upkeep. The United States of America would give us opportunities. Opportunity. I heard that word over and over again. My father held me close to his bony chest…’you will thrive again my little flower’. His voice cracked with unshod tears.
The trip was long and drawn out. The long drive through dusty roads…the numerous check points. Each soldier with a gun, each word spoken in a high octave sent my stomach knotting in anxiety. My bladder gave out so many times….each time I was grateful for the old rags my mother had swaddled me in. The flight was a blur.
Maha was bopping up and down on his seat. “We are here!”I remember holding tight to my father’s bony fingers….being led down a long corridor. I remember sleeping on a cot…being fed a warm bland meal, drinking a sweet juice from a box..from a straw. The days blended into themselves. I lost track of time and settled into a muddled existence, where I slept, ate and used the bathroom.
Then, one day a tall man came into the room. He was lanky, his hair was thick and black, with sparse dusting of grey. He wore a black suit, like the ones Mr. Farouk used to wear. He spoke to me in hushed whispers…touching my temple, massaging my hands. I kept my eyes fixed on my Father’s kind brown ones…and listened to his voice while he sang my favorite lullaby. The next day, we were taken to a half way house. I remember being coaxed off the cot I lay on. My feet recoiled on touching the cold floor….I caught a glimpse of my face from its reflection in the mirror. My eyes were glazed, my lips cracked….my hair in clumps around my head. My underwear was dry.
I woke up startled, my eyes caught the remnant of a roadkill splattered on the road….as the train whizzed past the highway. I felt a kink in my neck, reminding me of the awkward position I had fallen asleep in. I straightened my torso and picked up my blanket- it had fallen on the floor while I slept.
I was almost there. I had taken the train after work to meet up with my brother, Kolade. My twin and I used to share a loft in the city, till he found a new job and moved to a quiet suburb a couple of hours away by car…or at least the job is the excuse he used to move away.
We are identical in features but our varying taste in clothes made it easy to tell the difference. I favoured tailored shirts, pants, and sports jackets….my twin was more than likely found in his baggy jeans, colorful t shirts and timberland boots. And then those dreads! In our senior year in high school much to the chagrin of my conservative Nigerian born parents, he decided to grow dreadlocks. My parents eventually gave in. I was certain he would out grow the look. I was wrong. We were in our late twenties and the dreads had surpassed his waist in length.
In college, we shared the same apartment. We had the same friends, hung out in the same social circuits…and up until two years ago, we basically were two peas in a pod…co existing with each other in absolute synchrony. Our relationship has never been with tension. When we were younger, if Kolade favored a toy, I always gave it up. If I wanted something he got to first, he always gave it to me. We never fought as children and even when we became teenagers and started showing interest in the opposite sex, we never favored the same type of girls and so there were never issues on jealousy.
My brother always liked quiet, deep thinkers. Which was laughable considering his appearance. He was into jazz, poetry and subtle sexuality. He spent hours on the weekend in jazz holes, playing his bass guitar and sharing lyrics with mutual friends. For as long as I knew him, he never overlapped when dating a girl. A strictly one woman man, that was my brother.
I, on the other hand was the opposite. I juggled my dates with the dexterity of a sybarite. My ability to remember names and conversations in details made me appear as deep and intuitive to the opposite sex. Women loved men who payed attention to details and listened to them. They lapped it up and found me irresistible.
One night a couple of years ago, I bought home a girl after several dates, Mabel. In the morning, while I rushed off to work…Kolade made her breakfast. My brother knows my attention span when it came to the ladies never went beyond a couple of months….at most. As I rushed off to work, I felt an alarm go off in my head. ‘Why is Kola making this chick breakfast?’
As usual, I started ignoring her texts…calls and emails. I had moved on. Then ,the calls stopped. I didn’t think much of it. After all, she wasn’t the first and definitely would not be the last. So, imagine my surprise when I got home early one Saturday evening and I met her watching a movie with my twin. Her hair was russeled, she was wearing his favorite metallica t shirt. They were both all snuggly on our black leather couch.I wasn’t angry. Far from it. I did worry though about the awkwardness dating her would have on our relationship. My love for my brother defined who I was. It was absolute. He followed me into my room.
I knew he was nervous. He had a durag on his head…covering his dreads, customarily his indoor look…my eyes were fastened on his Adam’s apple….it bobbed up.and down as he swallowed saliva. I raised my eyes to his…my gaze unflinching. “I like her Kole”. He got out, his voice soft. I shrugged. This will get awkward bro. I responded. He knew I didn’t care and my concern was for him.He assured me it wouldn’t. I smiled and shrugged again.
To say it got awkward was an understatement. She always stopped speaking whenever I came into the room. She lingered too much when Kole left the room. Her eyes followed me around the apartment, despite not speaking. The tension was building, my brother seemed oblivious to it.
On our birthday later that year, she bought him a beautiful case for his guitar and awkwardly handed me a wrapped square box. I was taken aback. ‘Why?’. For the first time in months, I felt a smarting of shame at my behaviour. It’s your birthday, too. It was the outstanding on a collection of books I had been hunting for. I thanked her and left for dinner with my friends.
It was easy to move on after breaking up with a girl. I never felt an attack on conciense before…until now. Even though guilt wrapped itself around me like a blanket, I tried to shrug it off. None of my conquests have ever stayed back to date my twin before. It was a weird feeling. I had no interest in her and had deliberately forgotten every detail I had initially had in the fore of my mind….details that had endeared me to her. ‘Selective amnesia’ was a gift I switched on when it benefited me. A couple of weeks later, my twin announced he had found a job a couple of hours away. In my heart, I knew the awkwardness that settled on me had caught on to him. She helped him pack while I was away on a business trip. I returned to find him gone. My brother was gone. We still spoke every day…always late at night. From time to time, she would insist to speak with me. Her voice always a bit too high…a tad breathless. I always felt the beginnings of irritation when our conversation was over. For the umpteenth time, I would wonder and hope my twin had no intentions of marrying her.
He had invited me to visit so many times, I always found an excuse not to. When he mentioned Mabel was away visiting her parents, I immediately bought my train ticket. He was my twin….my ‘pea in a pod’. This weekend,I was going to do everything in my power…with subtlety of course, to ensure she was not going to be a permanent fixture of our future.
It was a cold winter morning and I decided to take a Uber ride. I had the app on my phone but never bothered with it. It was a black sedan.The ride was swift and smooth. I wished I had taken one earlier.
My driver was a slender woman with blonde hair that looked straight out of a bottle. Her bangs were uneven, her eyes were bright and friendly. Her name was Cindy.
She had a basket of candies in the crook between the back and the front seats. She asked me if I wanted a chocolate bar. I shook my head and smiled. She used to drive for a trucking company. She said her job entailed driving for an average of eleven hours daily. It was an industry where women comprised 8% of the work force when she started eight years ago.
“I remember driving to small towns in Illinois and seeing people get out of their cars and homes….all wanting to see if I could park my semi. I used to be like..really?!” Her laughter was contagious and girly.
She wore a black tank on black jeans. A blue- black tatoo of a fire breathing dragon curled from her right shoulder to her elbow. It was beautiful.
‘Driving for uber gives me flexibility. I have a two years old son and don’t have to pay for child care. Plus, I get to spend more time with my son. I work from 3 to 11 am every day.’ I express shock at her start time. She tells me she doesn’t sleep much….might as well make money instead of tussing and turning. She tells me about her teenage years….her bad choices. She says she is trying to do better…since she knows better.
I feel my eyes grow heavy listening to the soft lull of her sing- song voice…and quickly roused myself.
I looked out the window. It was snowing. The white crusted crystals fell quickly and melted almost immediately they hit the window. My eyes strayed again to the dragon on her shoulder. It’s fiery eyes red embers. I looked away.