Nyekazi examined the back cover of the book. Tomisin would like it. She put it in her bag, just atop the apples she’d bought minutes ago. Law school hadn’t helped her reading addiction. She devoured every book she could lay her hands on, read until the words swam before her eyes; until she forgot who she was, what she’d done. Until she forgot that Tomisin wasn’t next door anymore. She read until she forgot that his mother was no longer the woman she used to be since her only child had been jailed for voluntary manslaughter. She particularly felt that the lawyer had not worked hard enough, hadn’t believed Tomisin, but then again the lawyer did not know Tomisin. He didn’t know that Tomisin wanted to be an architect, wanted to design the most innovative buildings in the world. How could anyone let that much potential go to jail at eighteen? But again, she wasn’t different from the lawyer or the judge. She’d let him go there. She’d let him spend eight years in jail while she lived in the outside world and went to law school and got a car for graduating with honors. In truth though, she’d only been pretending to live. But today, Nyekazi thought, none of that mattered. Tomisin was coming home two years early for good behavior.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just promise me something. Promise me you’ll do better; you’ll find someone who deserves you, you’ll live. And don’t tell my parents anything. Do you hear me?”
Nyekazi just cried.
The Somides were having a party. It was loud and you could smell the party jollof rice from miles away. Nyekazi looked in the mirror. Did she look somber enough? Did her face say how much she’d missed her best friend? How sorry she was? And what about her dress? Was it too bright? She hadn’t worn black because it was well… not a funeral. It was a celebration. She would give Tomisin the book and leave. She didn’t even deserve to enjoy the party. Everything would be fine, she told herself repeatedly. Her sweating armpits begged to differ. After a glass of wine, she felt braver.
The taste of moscato was unbelievably calming. She’d discovered wine during the trial. She sneaked whole bottles into her room and drank until she could find sleep. Sleep was a rarity these days. On those nights when sleep eluded her, she’d imagine how sweet death would feel. How it would give her rest; a break from this hell it’s twin, life was. Then she’d remember that Tomisin had to sleep in a cell every night and she was lucky to be in her own bed.
She didn’t know what she’d expected but reality hit her in the gut. Tomisin had disappeared. He was still beautiful, if only more toughened. Wider shoulders, stronger arms. But she couldn’t see the boy who read books with her and talked about gambrel roofs. The words felt like sandpaper on her tongue as she said
“I brought you a book. I read it… a while ago and I thought you might like it”.
He was looking at her. His eyes felt like darts to the bull’s eye that was her soul.
“You brought me a book” Tomisin was saying. She couldn’t quite figure out if he was upset or surprised. Maybe both.
“I’m sorry… I.. didn’t know what else to bring. I.. I… don’t know what to say or do. I’m sorry”.
“Thanks. I need to get back to the party. I figure you don’t plan on staying long. My mother may not be too happy to see you”
“Yeah” Nyekazi, said, averting her eyes to hide the threatening tears. “Yeah, I’ll go now”
“My dear, Tomisin says you haven’t been to visit him. You should go. He misses you and he needs his friends” . Nyekazi could hear the unsaid words. “you know it’s your fault he’s behind bars”. She heard them all the time now anyway. “I’ll try” was all she said. That night, as she cut herself with the pieces of the wine glass she’d broken, she felt punished, as she should be. She was doing time, her own way.
“So how’s he?” her mother was asking. “Poor boy. He’s always been so protective of you. You owe him so much”
“I know, mother. I know”
She saw Tomisin at the bookstore. He told her her car was “pretty” and she smiled. Only Tomisin would say a car was “pretty”. He asked her to have lunch with him and when she said no, she would be busy. He said, “you have to, you owe me”. So she said yes.
She saw Tunde’s father today at the filling station. He was sitting in his car, looking out the window. He was looking but he didn’t see her looking at him, even when she was right in front of him. He didn’t see her. Perhaps, he could only see his son, his only child, from whom she’d stolen life. When she cut herself that night, she said “Tunde, this is for you. Forgive me”
She didn’t have any dress to wear to this lunch. Well, none that was long enough to hide eight years of cutting. She’d cut herself so many times and yet she wanted to cut more. Cut until she lost all this bad blood in her. This bad luck that stole people’s children away from them. This blood that made her a coward. This blood that brought this shame that was thicker than dark clouds before a thunderstorm. Tomisin picked her up at two. She’d worn a shirt and jeans.
“I loved the book, thank you”. His cheeks were filling out. He looked handsome.
“So, what’s next? School? What do you want to do?”
“Tell me about the last eight years. Tell me about every single night, every single book you read. Tell me why you never visited. I was rotting, not because I slept in a cell with rats, but because you didn’t even send one letter, not one book. Nothing. So, tell me”
Nyekazi had started to cry.
“Don’t say you’re sorry again, because I’m sick of hearing that. I need you to talk to me.”
How could he care about her? How could he still care if she even lived? What was this? With every caring word, her heart lost a piece to him and another to guilt. She flinched when he touched her wrist.
Nyekazi had been toying with the idea for months since she’d heard he might be out soon. Every night she’d cut her wrist, but not deep enough to kill her, because she was of course too cowardly for that. The night before their lunch, she’d tried again. And failed.
“What is this, Nyekazi? Are you trying to kill yourself?? Obviously, you are. Why? I’m here, I’m okay. I don’t hate you. I might have been hurt and angry that you abandoned me, but I still love you. I still care about you and I’d do the same thing a thousand times over to stop you from hurting. I don’t have any regrets. So, stop this!”
“I… can’t. I saw his parents. I see your mother. I can see you. How can I forget? How can I forgive myself? I let you suffer. I let you rot! I’m despicable. I deserve to suffer”
The tears were a constant now. And he just held her. He went home with her. He told her parents with her. Her mother was of course, surprised and hurt. He stayed, because he was Tomisin.
The thing about love was that it healed you even in places you didn’t know you were broken. It surprised you. It reminded you of your faults, maybe even daily, but it did not make you feel despicable. Love told you, your faults weren’t you. Love gave you a second chance. And sometimes, the love of another made you love yourself, because as Nyekazi would always say, if someone as pure as Tomisin saw and knew everything she was and had done and still loved her, who was she to not love herself?
People would never understand why she always said “ahh, my husband is one thing I know I never deserved”.