I closed my eyes. I dared not to open them. I wasn’t surprised how my presence would cause such a tidal wave. The atmosphere that my existence seemed to cause was in utter contrast to the smooth sailing of the boat. It made me long for loneliness, togetherness, space, or something! Something far away from this privilege. I longed for the lower cabinets of that massive ship and the solitary comfort of the storm instead of this peace that seemed to cause cyclones in my fragile heart. So, my eyes remained closed, and I tightened my hold on her hand as though I was holding Chinedu or Tobago. Thinking about them, I could almost feel the strength of the wind that rocked our ship. I could almost hear the joyful chants of camaraderie. I wanted to badly jam my hands and sing along to the words humming in my spirit. I felt the movement of her leg against mine, and slowly I loosened my grip and gently stroked her skin. I still had my eyes closed.
“Bwana ugavi haja yangu…” We all sang along and Absko’s deep masculine voice boomed out of his voice box like the alpha male of our clan. We were all from different tribes and we didn’t even know the song. But we sang along still, jamming our metallic hands together, putting aside our manliness and once again revisiting the innocence of our childhood. Our comfort was the lowest cabinet of the ship, where we came in contact with the very existence of the deep blue sea. The big guys up there? They had not the slightest ideas what we faced. When the storm threw us against each other, we laughed it off and sought comfort and warmth in the arms of fellow men. Days and days, we struggled and waited turns to use the one blanket provided for fifteen strong men. Even when Lucas fell ill and seemed to be dying, barfing blood and all the small-scaled food we were made to share. When our hearts failed to match the brawn of our looks, fearing that he had caught a virus and we were all destined to die from it. But what was said when we cried out? “The sea is a bed for dead animals!” We would lift up our eyes heavenwards believing there is a God in heaven and cry out, “we are not slaves!”
“Ajani, are you okay?” Dorothy quietly asked, nudging me on the shoulder bringing me to the reality of the 7th day in July, and the 1956th year. I chuckled at my wife’s attempt to correctly pronounce my name, partly irritated that an accent could change the meaning of a word. “I’m not a dog.” I quietly told her. Her sea-green eyes almost instantly turned dim and calm, as she tried to apologize. Lowly, I quickly said, “it was a joke sweet cheek.” I smiled, then she smiled and cuddled closer to me. She locked her arms with mine and brought her head to my shoulder. I felt the bump of her stomach and carefully rubbed it for few seconds. She laughed under her breath and brought my hand back to her bump when I took it away. She absolutely loves it when I called her ‘sweet cheek’. Her cheek bones were raised high enough to see them flush reddish-pink when she blushed or smiled. They accentuated her eyes and brought life to her smiles. They made her dimples seem deeper than they really were and I still believe they are part of why her thin lips are sweet and juicy. “Sweet cheek,” I whispered and kissed her on the head as she snuggled closer. Just as innocently as a black man on a ‘colored bus’, or a white man in a ‘whites only room’, I shot my head up only to find this man starring dangerously at me. The color of his eyes stood between blue and green but by God, they were cold. The corner of his mouth twitched and I could almost see the hot air flaring out of his nostrils. I was okay with it. I was okay with everything. I’ve been made to be okay with it.
I froze where I sat, not taking my eyes off his either. The gesture was to surrender, at all times; so, I was supposed to look away. But I didn’t. I wasn’t about to let the ego of a typical African man down. I felt his eyes roam the full length of my body. He looked from my face to my wife’s and then back to mine. His uninvited stare finally rested on my hand that was on my wife’s bump. Her fingers were slowly stroking mine and I could tell he was clearly outlining the difference in our skins. For the umpteenth time that day, I felt like the ‘white lady and her black husband’. I could see the disgust on his face, he wasn’t hiding it. So was the reaction of every other person. It almost felt impossible to turn my neck. Fear froze my spine as I looked from one end of the boat ride to the other. The woman on the corner of the boat was clutching her purse so tightly to her chest. Two men on the other end of the boat were whispering to themselves. I gently withdrew my hand from where it rested on our ‘baby’. If Dorothy tried to bring it back, I would refuse. But she didn’t even attempt it. This was the boat ride everyone was always talking about. The one Dorothy was excited about. This was it! I was all of a sudden angry. Angry at the fact that she made us go on this boat ride in the first place. Angry because I spent almost 14days working from the blacksmith’s shop to the factory, so I could surprise my beautiful wife with a boat ride she had always fancied. How much longer before our rights become established? What difference might it make? I battled with the questions in my head as every sail and turn the boat made felt like a dreary roller-coaster ride. When I brought my wandering eyes back, the man opposite from me was still starring. So, I closed my eyes, deciding to perambulate far from this atmosphere of grieve, I drowned myself slowly into oblivion.
I sat at the edge of the sofa. I couldn’t afford to sit comfortably. The water I had been offered was unevenly balanced on my lap. I didn’t drink it. I knew it couldn’t have been poisoned, but the thought of why I was being summoned made me swallow hard a couple of times. What surprised me was that they left me all by myself in the sitting room. I could hear the mumbles of their argument from the other room. They were pretty loud. I couldn’t make sense of what they were saying no matter how intently I tried to hear. So, I busied my eyes by surveying the room and designs in it. I started from the record player in the corner of the room and wondered what songs they played from it. Why exactly do they have a chequerboard vinyl floor in red and white? I didn’t think the color selection was good. The only other sofa in the room besides the one I sat on was a sofa bed and it wasn’t even big enough. I shrugged my shoulder and unconsciously took a sip from my glass of water. The bubblegum colored wall housed about five framed pictures. And the only one I recognized was Dorothy’s grandmother. And that was because she had told me about her. Just then, the door flung open and a tall and elderly man emerged from the room. I assumed that was her father. His whisker-looking beards looked like it was singing an Anglican hymn. Just before the door closed, I heard Dorothy’s mother shout, “just take out the goddamn baby.”
I bowed my head as the newly emerged man walked with some sort of menace towards me. I thought he was going to yank me up and throw me out. So, I hastily got up.
“You got my daughter pregnant?”
“I…I…I…” I could form no words.
“It’s a sacrilege before the Lord.” Dorothy’s mother said as she came out from the same door her husband just came from. A bunch of other people also trooped out. In my discomfort, I did a quick headcount. Although I wasn’t accurate, I could have sworn they were about eight of them. I surprised myself when I started to wonder if they all lived here.
“I…We…are willing to be married.” There, I said it. There was a little pause, before Dorothy’s mother spat out, “you poor stupid slave. The noise you and your people are making has suddenly given you rights uhm?”
I wanted to make two points clear. First, I wasn’t a slave. I was brought from Nigeria as a bright scholar and second, the civil rights movement wasn’t noise. I made to speak but again my eyes did a quick count and this time I thought I counted ten of them.
“Oh my!” Someone yelled from the family troop. “The baby is going to come out with such ugly skin color.” Some laughed, “he’s going to come out pretty gray I bet.” And they laughed some more. But not Dorothy’s mother whose eyes never left my face. They seemed to burn with flames of hatred.
“For the love of Christ, how long has this sickening relationship been on?” Her teeth were clenched together and her anger was vividly seen.
“What is your name?” Her father finally spoke.
“Ajani.” I simply answered.
“Ajani?” The way he repeated it sounded disgusting or maybe I know his accent made it sound like he was calling me a dog in my language.
I looked in the corner of the room, right where the recorder stood. There stood Dorothy, with her head bowed and her shoulders dropped. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was for falling in love at such a time and era. I wanted to hold her to my chest and tell her everything would be alright. I wanted to cry too and hear her tell me “we will pull through.” I wanted to…I…I…
“Ajani,” her father jerked me back from my imaginations. “Be at our church for 6am tomorrow. You shall be wedded to my daughter then.”
“What?!” Dorothy’s mother yelled.
Only then did I see Dorothy raise her head to look at me. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be happy, overwhelmed or sad.
“Now get out!” He said clenching both hands by his sides. But I stood still, processing the information I just heard.
He looked at me strangely, “I said get out or would you like some tea?” He was being sarcastic and I got a hint of that. So, I turned to leave but not without taking one last look at the sofa bed, wondering how they would all fit if they had only two sofas.
“Dear we are here.” Dorothy said as she shook me lightly. I was glad the ‘fun’ ride was over. I took my wife’s hand and locked them in mine. I held it like I would on a regular day at the park with all eyes on this inter-racial couple. We were about the third people to leave the boat when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and boy, you don’t know the delight I felt when I saw a fellow black man. He beckoned at me to come, hand in hand with my wife, I maneuvered through the little crowd proceeding out of the boat. Once I got to him, he smiled at me and asked my wife to stay on the side. Without my permission, he started to body search me. The smile on my face was instantly wiped. This was my brother, my fellow African blood. I looked at the man again, hoping it was some theatre display of blackface. I stood still, holding my hands up in surrender, especially when my wife tried to protest.
“Who is this woman to you?” He asked me.
Before I could reply, my wife furiously yelled, “his wife. I’m his wife, and we are expecting our second child. Are you blind?” A tear escaped her left eye as he let us go.
I wanted so badly to get angry, but for some reason, I couldn’t. Dorothy locked hands with me again, and we walked in silence. I knew she was stroking my hand, but I didn’t feel it. What I felt was my hand against our bump. And I could have sworn I felt a little motion. I looked at her, hoping she felt the motion too. But she wasn’t looking at me. She seemed too be busy with her thoughts. I felt the motion again, I looked at her. She still wasn’t looking.
So, we three kept going. Black. White. And all shades of Gray. It was the dawn of a new life when I left my fatherland for the abroad, it was the launch of a new existence after I stepped off the ship to a land of the unknown. Wasn’t it also the birth of…
And there it sat in my heart, striking every ounce of faith and fear, the last statement of the reverend’s words at our secret solemnization 2years ago, “welcome to a new beginning.”
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