You Are Still Here

by Ayotola Tehingbola

Tobilola, I know you in so many ways. I know what you are feeling when you start to skip a movie and what you are thinking when you raise your brows at a song. I know you need a cold bottle of Coke to ease off the tension and that sleep is your safety. I know when you need a hug or a meeting of fingertips or just a touching of shoulders. I know you eat your nails when in dire need of something smart to say. I know that you will never intentionally hurt anyone’s feelings. I know you need to talk about us when you ask for a walk to the bridge. I know that humor is your escape and design your passion. I know that you never know what you want to eat. I know you abhor plantain. I detest it too. I know you hate being woken up. I know you like it when our faces align and our noses touch. I know you like to catch my lips and release me for air. I have learned you and now, I know you in so many ways.

My favorite way of knowing you is still touching your face. I like your face. I like to stare at your face when you sleep. I like how your breath quickens, even in deep sleep, when I trace your brows with my fingers. Your forehead is my Berlin wall, high and strong. I follow a route down the bridge of your nose, but not without bumps. I go back to your eyes and feel the fringe of your lashes and the swell of your balls. Your earholes are my hoops and I like that it tickles you when I score. The flat ridges of your cheek house little dots. I don’t mind them, the pimples. Your jawline is my harp: no strings, but I like to stroke every chance I get. Your jawline is hard and fine and your laugh is loud, clear, and sure. Your mustache is the beginning of the adoration that is your lips and your beard; feeling your beard is my earthly respite.

So when Korede came to my room, with his usual long face, I did not think anything was wrong. Stella, my sister, opened the door, and I did not see your frame. That Korede was your best friend wasn’t an automatic ticket to a friendship between us and I just never bothered. So Korede alone at my door was a surprise. Korede’s eyes were rimmed with red and tears.

“Lolu, there was an accident.” Korede’s voice broke and my ears felt full of lead. He was sweltering. I sat still, unable to move.

“Where is he now?” My head was coding all the possible possibilities. You had to be at the Teaching Hospital. I might need money to buy drugs. You might need a blood transfusion. I needed to call your sister immediately.

“It happened in front of the class. Lolu, he is gone. The bike. He hit his head. Lolu. His head. His blood was everywhere. Lolu, he is gone.” Korede was on the floor, with his head falling to nest between his knees, crying. I didn’t hear his voice. I saw Stella run to me. I hit my head.

I woke up in the health center. My head ached where I fell. The nurse looked at me with kindness, or pity, and adjusted the drip attached to a vein on my left hand. A doctor came and asked questions, how I felt, if I was hungry and when I had my last period. I wonder why. He told me I had fainted. He told me he was sorry. He put his cold stethoscope beneath my left breast and shined a penlight in my eyes. I blinked furiously. He tried to get me to talk, but I was looking at you. You were smiling, with that glint in your eyes. The doctor wrote me a week exeat for home. I slept, and you held me.

Mama thought I did not know about your burial. She made me lie down and you tickled my toes. I talked about Star Wars that day. We laughed so hard at my Master Yoda impressions. Mama peeked into my room a thousand times with unease in her eyes. She wasn’t laughing because she did not understand our jokes. She is too old.

I was back on campus for your memorial walk though. The one your coursemates organized. The dress code was black but you like purple. So I wore purple. A lot of people know you. That is who you are. The life of the party. The guy that pays a stranger’s bus fare. The hugger. I remember when the Non-Academic Staff Union staged protests on the roads and vehicles were not allowed into campus. We had to walk to the gate and we stopped to buy ice cream. There were two little boys, sweaty and tired, wearing the uniform of the primary school for staff children. They had been walking from Staff Quarters. They did not have enough money between them to buy one ice cream and they were negotiating the price, much to the infuriation of the seller. You laughed and bought two for each of them; the most expensive too. That money was the last on you. That is who you are, so it wasn’t any wonder when the memorial walk in your honor boasted over 200 students from diverse departments, religions, and organizations wearing black and enduring melting candle wax on their hands because of you. I walked behind the throng with Stella holding my left hand and you holding the other. You were wearing that shirt, the one I bought you for Valentine’s. You were trying to bite my ear, and I was threatening to flick hot wax in your direction. People watched, but I didn’t care. You were here and that was all that mattered.

You followed me everywhere. You held and kissed my hands in public. You made me stop under streetlights and have a laugh. You tried to tickle me and I ran. Lectures were a bore. I just wanted to be with you. So I stayed indoors, and we cooked and ate on the kitchen floor. Stella keeps complaining about the food I am wasting, and she keeps asking why it is always on the kitchen floor. She doesn’t understand. You followed me to the bathroom and your eyes, your dark eyes kept roaming over my body. I asked you to touch me. But you didn’t. That is fine. I forgot for a minute that we agreed to wait till marriage.

Mama is here with the driver. She said we have somewhere important to go for a few days. Stella packed me a bag. I have lectures but she said it didn’t matter. It really doesn’t; I have not been attending anyway. Mama tried to sit beside me in the backseat but I exiled her to the front. How could she try to sit on your lap? I stayed mad through the drive and later fell asleep on your lap. You woke me up right after 2, and I stayed awake and stared at you and we talked about the rock bands that our hearts bled for. We took selfies. Mama is sobbing. I don’t know why.

I recognize this place. We just passed Onipanu. I pointed out places to you; Jibowu, the bridge because we like bridges, Covenant Christian Centre, Tejuosho market, and the train tracks. Traffic moved slowly and curtain sellers loomed around the car with their photo albums. You said that most of the pictures were not depictions of any curtains they actually had. Google is their friend too, right? I laughed, you laughed and Mama cried.

The driver turned into the psychiatric hospital. I know this place. Mama’s sister, Aunty Pate used to be a patient here. We used to visit her. Mama would tie bows into our hair and shine our shoes and tell us to behave. We would stand beside Aunty Pate’s hospital bed, hands clasped, lips pursed while Mama did all the talking. Most of the time, she looked on with glassy eyes, but never at us. She ate the tip of her braids, swatted at imaginary bees, or bit at her cuticles. We stopped coming after a while. Papa said he didn’t want anyone to know, especially his daughters, that madness ran in the family.

I know what this is. Mama thinks I am mad. Like her sister. Everyone thinks I am mad. That is why everyone has been staring. Since your accident five weeks ago. Everyone has been staring. They think something is wrong with me. They think I am mad. Mama believes it too or we wouldn’t be here. I know they think you are dead. You are still here. You are here with me. You know that I cannot last without you. So you stayed with me, for me, with just me. You never left. Your eyes are pooling with tears. I kissed your cheek.

Mama opened the door. You got out. You stretched your hand. I took it. We will go through this, together. I know you will stay with me. I squeezed your hand as Mama’s cobble shoes pounded the pavement. You didn’t squeeze back.

 

 

Ayotola Tehingbola is a Nigerian graduate student in Creative Writing at Boise State University, Idaho. Her cache of drafts is of traumatic or political fiction and photo essays. You can find rambling on ayotola.com.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “You Are Still Here

  1. Oluwatoyin

    Beautiful writing. I read it twice!

  2. Alero

    Second read! still has intriguing as the first.

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