Romance African American Sad

I stared into the cloudy brown broth in my bowl, my own disinterested face reflecting back at me. I half-heartedly attempted to disturb the liquid with my spoon and some of the half liquefied vegetables floated momentarily before returning to the bottom of the dish, like debris back down to the seabed. I sighed and took a long swig of my beer instead. It had been so many years and I still hadn’t gotten used to the food. I still longed for food served by a woman with leathery charcoal coloured skin, sitting on a plastic chair by the side of the road. Food prepared in questionable conditions that swam with red oil. Food that brought tears to my eyes and burned all the way down.

I should’ve known better, stopping at some shithole diner in the middle of nowhere. Usually, I didn’t stop for food on trips that took less than a day but having skipped breakfast I’d made an exception. Although why I’d decided to get hot soup on a sweltering day like today was a mystery not even I could solve.

I leaned back against the diner chair, its leather surface squeaking beneath me. I scanned the room, the bright colours and checkered tiles stinging my sun-scorched eyes. This place truly was a time capsule from the fifties, something I might have appreciated if not for the lousy food. It was 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and it was fittingly empty, save for a few bikers and one old couple shuffling around next to the jukebox. Whenever I found myself in a place like this, my mind couldn’t help but try to piece together the details of these people’s lives. Was the old couple stopped here on their way to visit their grandchildren? Was that burly gentleman with the hair like wild grass here for a celebratory drink on his way to a friend’s wedding?

It intrigued me because no one simply stopped at a place like this for a quick bite. These kinds of places were always planted squarely in the middle of nowhere, with the dusty highway stretching endlessly in all directions. People stopped here on their way to somewhere far away, somewhere exciting. Somewhere I wished I could go too.

I glanced down at the menu, debating the pros and cons of ordering something else. There had to be something better on the menu than the soup. I traced my worn copper hands over the words, half-registering the bell chiming over the door. I had narrowed down my choices to two entirely too complicated looking sandwiches.

Then suddenly, a voice pierced through my consciousness and any thoughts that had previously inhabited my mind whooshed away faster than feathers in the wind.

I was transported. Back somewhere that I hadn’t been in decades, but still remembered like it was yesterday. To red sand and trees whose leaves spread out like hand fans. To a sun which shone infinitely brighter than it did here. To hands intertwined as we walked under a pink evening sky. To promises whispered as we sat on the football field. To stealthy kisses under the ever glowing stars.

My head jerked up at the voice, and I turned back to look at the counter. I had to be imagining it right? What were the chances of seeing her for the first time in thirty-odd years, in a diner halfway across the world from where we’d met?

And yet, against all sound logic, there Grace was, smiling and chatting with the waitress at the counter.

I stared unabashedly, wondering if I was dreaming her up. There was no mistaking her thickly lashed doe eyes and slightly upturned eyebrows, as though she was always just a little confused. Time had carved lines that wove around her face like a river, telling a story I wish I knew. I was frozen, transfixed at the sight of her. A thousand thoughts flitted through my head, too fast for me to process any of them. Then she started walking towards the door, and that was enough to break me out of my reverie.

“Grace?” I called out, my voice ringing out entirely too loud in the almost empty diner.

She turned to me and I faltered. What if she didn’t recognize me? My skin was darker and leatherier than when she’d known me, from all of the time I’d spent working under the sun. I was broader and more filled out, and the afro she was used was cropped almost to the skin and was thinning at the crown of my head. Or worse, what if she didn’t recognize me at all? To be fair, my memory was like a sieve when it came to most of my former classmates. But not her. What if I wasn’t as important to her as she was to me?

But after a half-second, her honey-coloured eyes lit up with recognition. “Ibrahim?” she beamed, immediately walking over to me. Absentmindedly, I wondered what greeting was appropriate. A handshake was too impersonal for someone I’d been in love with for five years (arguably longer) but a hug was too intimate for someone I hadn’t seen in thirty years. I elected to do nothing, and she slid into the seat across from me in the booth.

“How long has it been?” she asked, leaning over the table, looking at me like I was the single most important person on the planet.

“Thirty-five years,” I answered, unable to stop myself from smiling. “You look great. What are you doing here?” There were so many other questions ricocheting off the sides of my skull, but I had to pace myself. There was still thirty years of conversation to be had.

“I should ask you the same thing,” she replied playfully, her smile making her eyes crinkle. “I’ve lived in the US since college. Remember my parents wanted me to go to Brown?”

I remembered all right. It had been just one of the many things we’d had going against us. Grace’s family wanted her to be the first of them to school abroad. There were better opportunities and better living conditions. She was extremely lucky because most families wouldn’t have educated a girl past primary school, talk less of higher education in America. I knew this now and I’d known it at eighteen. It hadn’t made it hurt any less.

“Of course. And then medical school, right?” I asked, although I knew that part had never been something she wanted. She’d wanted to be a musician. She’d tell me, when we’d snuck off from study hall and wandered through the empty hallways. She’d sing me fuji music or rock and roll or highlife songs. No matter what she sang, her voice was always deep and sweet like a river of honey.

She’d spin me tales of us travelling as a duo, with her as the lead singer and me playing the talking drum.

But I can’t play the talking drum, I’d argue, as we sat in the shade of a mango tree, wasting time like we had a lot to spare.

She’d look up at me, her dark eyes glinting with mischief and barely held in laughter. That doesn’t matter, she’d say, so matter-of-factly that I almost believed her.

How I’d wanted to believe her.

“Of course.” Was it my imagination or did the ever-present glow in her eyes dim a little? “And what about you? I’d have never thought you’d come to America.” Her voice didn’t follow the same musical rhythm it used to. Years in America had smoothened her tone to a molasses-like drawl.

“Me neither,” I said, because truthfully this hadn’t been part of the plan at all.

My parents hadn’t thought university was at all necessary. They weren’t even literate and they’d made a wonderful life for themselves in Lagos. And so, they’d ignored my constant protesting and sent me to work for my uncle in the trades.

All the money is in the trades, my father would say, raising his bushy eyebrows knowingly as though he’d made some kind of groundbreaking statement.

People go to university and lose all of their home training, my mother would chide, stone-faced at all of my teary pleas.

  I learned how to make shoes. Then I worked at my uncle’s corner store, day after day, stacking spices and sardines with my mind far away. Then I owned a few of my own corner stores, after working at it for years. And then, my uncle convinced me to come to the US with him for some magical business opportunity.

The streets are paved with gold, he’d cackled, his yellow frog eyes bulging out of his head. Isn’t this what you wanted?

He was right. This is what Grace and I had been fighting for for so long. But Grace was long gone. Was there even any point?

Immediately we’d gotten to America, my uncle had promptly skipped town. Rather than going home to face my family, I decided to try and get some of these magical American opportunities that everyone was always talking about. Except, big surprise, there weren’t exactly many opportunities for a middle-aged uneducated black man in America. I managed to get a job as a delivery truck driver to tide me over.

That was nine years ago.

I didn’t know how to put all of that into a short, polite answer, so instead I replied, “I’ve been here for nine years. I live in Georgia, but I spend most of my time on the road.”

We kept talking for a while, trading anecdotes and musing about what it had been like living so far away from home. She told me of how hard she’d had to work to be taken seriously as a black female doctor. I told her about how my white boss seemed to be trying his hardest to mispronounce my name at all times. My soup got colder and colder, and the stories got longer and longer. There was so much to catch up on, it felt like a dam had broken and we wouldn’t be able to stop until it was empty.

 But it felt wrong. No matter what we said, we never went past the very surface. There was a thirty-year wall between us, and it made it impossible to see each other. I was stuck in a weird position, where I still felt like I knew her better than anyone in the world, but I’d missed most of her life. I wanted to talk to her about anything and everything. About my resentment for my parents, my failed business attempt, the profound loneliness I’d felt for the first two years of living here when no one could understand what I was saying. But the lines on both our faces showed how little we truly knew about each other.

We didn’t talk about the hopes and dreams we’d shared. We didn’t talk about anything hard that had happened to us. We didn’t mention how the last day we’d seen each other we’d screamed at each other until our voices were raw.

I want you to stay, I’d said, earnestly and foolishly, my then slender fingers clamped down tightly on hers. I won’t be able to go on without you.

She’d dragged her hand out of my grasp with enough force to scratch me and draw blood. Are you mad? Why would you say something like that? Do you expect me to give up my dreams for you? She’d stared up at me defiantly, her eyes alight with a fire I’d never seen.

Those aren’t your dreams.

She’d walked away and never looked back.

We were from different tribes, different religions, different paths. I’d known going into it that my silly high school romance wasn’t going to last forever. But along the way, I’d begun to hope it would.

Talking to her still felt amazing though. Her gap-toothed smile, the way she laughed like bells chiming, the way she fidgeted as though her veins ran with some kind of invisible bolt of energy. She still felt like home to me.

She jolted suddenly, like she’d been shocked, in the middle of me telling an anecdote about a missed deadline. She smiled apologetically and looked at the red chrome clock that hung above the counter. “Oh, I completely lost track of the time. My husband is waiting for me in the car, I was just supposed to get directions and leave.”

I tried not to show any emotion. “Yeah, and I need to get back on the road.” Of course. She had to get back to her life. Even though this diner was stuck in the fifties, time still flowed along beyond the door.

We both stood up, looking uncertainly at each other for a second. Then I pulled her in for a hug that I hoped conveyed all of the feelings I couldn’t say. She hugged me back, her arms frailer than they used to be but just as warm.

She picked up her bag, gave me one last smile and walked out of the door as I came forcefully back down to earth. I waved the waitress over to give me the check, all the while thinking about all the questions that I’d carried with me like a bag filled with lead for the past thirty years. Questions that I would never know the answer to.

Did you chase your dreams?

Are you happy?

Do you have any regrets?

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you change anything?

Would you change our time together?

August 15, 2020 02:04

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