My dearest Ayobámi,
I begin with how long I’ve loved you, to what extent, and with what intensity.
Throughout the weeks we attended rehearsals as members of a choir, there were initial encounters. But none was as decisive as when, sitting alone at the back of the theatre on the last day of the music festival, you said to me, ‘I am also a writer.’
What I remember is nothing of what led us to speak about our private obsessions. What I remember is that I felt relieved of a secret – not because no one but you now knew I hoped to become a writer, but because no one until then had made me feel as precisely recognised.
From then on life was grander. With you I knew to state my ambitions without inhibition; just as when, weeks after our chat at the theatre, I brought you a floppy disk containing the manuscript of a novel. This was 2007. Fourteen years have passed in swathes of companionship, larger than we first imagined. And I shudder in amusement to think of how I was then, gangly and shy in front of you, our future unknown to me except as the whisper of a plea: stay with me.
Two years ago, I made a copy of your photograph and wrote the following around its edges: ‘I am interested in seeing my eyes only when they look at you.’ It’s a quote from the eccentric autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1977), and I like that it says as much about my need to look at you as it does about how often I do that.
What I long for, throughout the unbroken length of our days, is the pleasure of looking at your face. Maybe that sounds mawkish, but I’ll withdraw no sentiment from these declarations.
‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?’ writes Teju Cole in Human Archipelago (2019). How within your beauty shall my desire hold a plea? I paraphrase it, speaking of desire in place of rage, in order to ask: what do I see in my favourite photograph of you?
‘What makes a poem a poem, finally,’ notes Mark Doty in Still Life with Oysters and Lemons: On Objects and Intimacy (2001), ‘is that it is unparaphrasable. There is no way to say exactly this; it exists only in its own body of language, only in these words. I may try to explain it or represent it in other terms, but then some element of its life will always be missing.’ The abiding idea, to tinker with the words of yet another writer, is that what I see in your face is unparaphrasable. I do not say this in order to shirk the responsibility of being precise in my descriptions of your face. But to say that I hope never to paraphrase in describing you.
Two weeks ago, T. was commissioned by your sister to take photographs of you. He moved our sofas and set up a studio, asking you to sit – or stand, or dance – against an emerald green backdrop. Later, you asked me which one of the portraits is my favourite. I chose one that showed the length of your sitting frame, in which you wore a green gown. But now, as I write, I know I made the wrong choice. And why? In this other photograph, I could tell you about that lustre in your eyes, or the small smile that makes the corners of your lips as alluring as a placid bay. But I’ll rather describe to you the flutter in my eyes as I scan every inch of the photograph. I look at you and then tremble with longing.
My darling, see if you have any use for the following fiction, which I wrote two years ago, when I was in New York and you were in Lagos.
Vera is waiting for him. She is distracted at the moment he sees her by a trolley stacked with boxes so high the woman pushing it stops every inch to catch her breath. No one seems to accompany this woman and her luggage or to offer help. Eli considers this unseemly, somehow incommensurate with his first sweeping view of New York. He has arrived with a large box and a backpack. He stands waiting for Vera to see that he has seen her. The distance is no more than ten paces. She had sent him pictures for months, but now he observes that her hair is shorter than he’d ever seen. Because of this transformation, once she turns her eyes away from the woman, she reveals something he never noticed, how large her eyes are.
After she sees him her smile builds in gradual radiance. He stands where he is, unsure of who is to move first. It is the first time he isn’t disoriented in sixteen hours. If she can perceive this sudden sense of balance, she will cover the distance between them.
They embrace with hunger. The walls have fallen. The world has steadied its orbit in their honour.
They speak to each other – you’re here, I can’t believe it, oh darling, I missed you so much – but real longing is measured by their fingers, when with the tip of her index finger Vera writes seven declarative letters on the back of his palm. He responds by feeling her knuckles, as if kneading them, holding each down to see if it would make a cracking sound. This has never failed to tickle her. When she murmurs words of garbled satisfaction, he feels he has known happiness of no greater kind.
Ile-Ife: I’m trying to remember if, as we sat on the farthest edge of the raised concrete that faces the Conference Centre, I shook off the thought that maybe I was in love with you. If my mind played such a trick, it must have been fleeting. For a long time after it was difficult to look at you in the eye.
New York: Have our parting embraces become longer? I remember being startled when I came to your hotel, when we met at the lobby, and you complimented my beard. And why was I startled? I might have wanted to keep things as they’d always been; we were good friends, and our intimacy restricted to the cerebral. But then, we had lingered when we hugged.
Port Harcourt: Of everything I remember most the sway in your walk. I can see it anytime I want: when you walk towards me, along the aisle. I know you are in the crowd, and from time to time, as I mop my eye or raise my head, I think of what a good friend you are, here in the most painful day of my life. So, you walk towards me, and it is at first a little jarring – we have been in so many places together, but you do not seem to fit here. Isn’t there a way to have kept you from seeing how heartbroken I am? As with other romantic emotions I have felt towards you, it is so fleeting it is almost unrecognisable, a pinprick of affection.
Lagos – Paris: You are not here; I am transiting through Charles de Gaulle Airport. I miss you. I think of the moment when, in an office in Lagos, you stand behind me, your hand on my neck. Physical affection between us has always been spare and cautious. But that evening felt different, even when we were in a car on the way to the airport and we swapped headphones. I miss you. It is not so because you are not here with me. It is so because I cannot manage to stretch that last moment longer. You place a hand on my neck, and for a moment I look at your eye and see a hint of desire…
On the first Valentine’s Day after we became lovers, you wrote me an email. Each paragraph was in reference to a place and moment we’d shared together – Ile-Ife, London, New York, Port Harcourt, Afikpo, Lagos – with the prevailing sentiment of how astonished you were by our (then) unclassifiable friendship. I had sent back the foregoing, and more.
What do these letters mean to me? Or, what do these letters mean outside of a literary device? Or, am I to assume that by reading these letters, you will feel my love as unerring and unequivocal?
I held these questions in mind as I reread From A to X (2008), a novel by John Berger structured as letters between two lovers. Let me rephrase that. It is a collection of sent and unsent letters from A’ida to Xavier, as well as the notes Xavier made on the back of the pages of A’ida’s letters. They are unmarried, and Xavier is serving two life sentences for his alleged role as a founding member of a terrorist network. They differ in fundamental ways from us, particularly since A’ida could not obtain permission to visit Xavier, as they were not married at the time of his imprisonment. Thus, the analogy I wish to draw between them and us is only in relation to the nature of language when it is passed from one lover to another.
No, that is inaccurate. I wish to draw an analogy between them and us in order to outbalance the plaintive tone of their ill-fated romance with the unvarnished marvel of ours. Maybe this will be our gift to the world.
In one letter A’ida writes: ‘…I wanted to put my hand on a letter and draw its outline to send you. Sometime after – whenever it was – I came across a book which explained how to draw hands and I opened it, turning page after page. And I decided to buy it. It was like the story of our lives. All stories are also the stories of hands – picking up, balancing, pointing, joining, kneading, threading, caressing, abandoned in sleep, cutting, eating, wiping, playing music, scratching, grasping, peeling, clenching, pulling a trigger, folding.’
Days before I first read that passage in New York, I was given a card by a woman while I sat in a train coach. She walked around the coach, requesting the kindness of strangers, handing out cards. One side read: Hello! I am a deaf person. I am selling this…Deaf Education System Card…to make my living and to support my family. Would you kindly buy one? Pay any price you wish. Thank you! (Over).
Over, on the other side, alphabetised fingers and palms – pointed, bent, rounded, firm, held, triangulated, askew. Most importantly, some of the fingers, held together, resembled the gesture anyone makes when lifting a thing, or attempting to lift a person.
Do you understand what I am trying to say? Now that there is no distance between us, my dearest darling, let our fingers tell our bodies stories we cannot reduce in writing.
In the first month, when the reverb of our vows had yet to still into a steady hum, I often woke with a rush of astonishment. It was becoming habitual to mutter ‘my wife’ when I thought of you – the welcome finality of those words. The language of my desire, as well as its appeal, had been transformed. And now, several months later, it is as if, with you, marriage is a marvellous sequence of clarifying moments.
Do you recall how we danced at our wedding? We had forgotten to finalise on a song, after weeks of worrying the question. We settled without fuss on Patrick Watson’s ‘Sit Down Beside Me.’ I remember the clumsiness of our moves when, midway through, the tempo quickened and dragged for nearly the remainder of the song. I wondered how the guests appraised the song and our response to it. I shunned the thought as soon as I could. Then we found our rhythm, or better to say we made our beat – the croon in my voice as I leaned closer, your tender sway.
Yours, as ever,