Like a Sunflower in the Rain
I can tell it’s going to rain again and I’m pissed off in advance, even though the air is gentle and smells like wet grass, like blossoming cashew trees, like February. The first rain always brings with it a melancholic nostalgia that reminds you of a bad breakup. We are sitting on the concrete bench opposite Block A, saying nothing. A small comb is stuck in her short hair and she smells of homemade antiseptic cream. She’s wearing short faded jeans, revealing a fresh cut just above her knee.
You’re cutting yourself again, I say.
Not your business, she retorts, glaring at the darkness behind me.
You need help.
Not your business.
I know. Didn’t feel like picking up.
I saw you and Vuga tonight.
Don’t call him that.
You have cigarettes?
You want to smoke here? Are you out of your mind?
Do you have or not?
Leo walks by, slows down when he gets to us, squints a bit, smiles mischievously when he recognizes my form in the darkness, and continues walking to the hostel.
She takes off her glasses, cleans the lenses with the base of her shirt, and puts it back on. Then she sniffs and says, What about pills?
I reach inside my pocket and pull out a quarter card of Molly and hand it to her. She gets up and starts to walk away, then stops and says, Your new girl, she’s pretty.
I know, I say, even though Dammy and I aren’t exactly doing anything yet.
I watch her go, her lanky figure becoming a silhouette against the floodlight beaming from the roof of Block A, until she disappears through the bend on her way back to Adam & Eve.
There were supposed to be four of us in the room. But Habib comes from relative wealth, so he rented himself an apartment off-campus, close to the school gate. Tonye and I met here on the first day of resumption. Leo has been a close friend from my undergraduate days.
Leo and Tonye don’t like each other much. In spite of their subtle mutual resentment, I’m cool with them. Tonye digs me enough to tell me stuff about himself that I really don’t want to hear about. But we’re good.
After our group meetings in the evening, we would hop over the low fence behind the last block of the Snake Island hostels, and then walk some twenty-five metres along a narrow path that leads to the base of a cashew tree where we would smoke and talk about girls, football, and politics. We are usually joined by a group of other boys from Blue Roof Hostel who come with spirit, but I’m not so good at holding my liquor so I almost never drink.
Tonight, it’s just the three of us spread languorously beneath the tree, smoking. Tonye tells us about his baby mama—for like the two hundredth time—and about his plans for her and their son. The boy is a tender image of Tonye, with smoky eyes and a fat nose. He’s talking about his baby mama in a way that personifies her. He tells us her name—Helen—and how they first met. For the first time, I start to actually think of her as a person.
I don’t say much. I just smoke my gem and pass it, and breathe. After the short silence punctuating his love story with the mother of his son, he turns to me and asks, Guy, your Bini girl, una still dey yarn so?
She dey alright, I say.
But really, I have no idea.
WE USED TO BE tighter during the break. Almost everyone but us went home for Christmas. The Cameroonians and the northerners stayed back too; a tiny, insignificant cluster of us. We would play songs and smoke in my room, ashing the base of our cigars against the steel frame of my reading chair. She liked French classics like Jacques Brel, Gloria Lasso, Charles Trenet, and Édith Piaf—whose La Vie en Rose song is her all-time favourite. She liked that I was a fan of Bill Withers but didn’t dig him much.
Just shows that you know good songs, she said.
Girls from wealthy homes, I’d learned, don’t act rich. It just sipped out of their every gesture. They have an inherent gentleness, as though they feel remorseful for being born into privilege. Eseosa was nothing like this. She was unapologetically upper-class and didn’t hide her disdain for having to live in a country like this. She complained about everything—the school, the weather, the food, the hygiene, the boys, the Cameroonians.
“The lousy, lousy Cameroonians.”
She compared everything here with London and Paris; even the quality of cigarettes.
I SAW THE CUTS on her body on the first day we fucked. It was the day after Christmas. Things had got warm between us the previous night after we’d returned from Flakes, so we kissed. Or, I kissed her and she let me. In front of her room. Her lips, predictably soft, moved in a slightly slower rhythm than mine but I didn’t mind. It lasted a few seconds and half a lifetime. She looked at me quizzically. Then I turned and walked away without saying a word, making an effort to wipe the smirk off my face.
That night we texted but made no mention of it.
I opened my laptop and watched South Park till I dozed off. It was barely dawn the next morning when she called to say, hi, just to know where I was. I told her I was in my hostel and she asked if she could come over, and I said, sure. I thought we’d just stay in the garden and chat as usual but when she reached Snake Island she called again to know which block I stayed in. I thought she was bluffing, so I told her E2 and dared her to come in. A minute later my door pushed open and there she stood, wearing a short, casual, loose-fitting orange blouse and a bum short. I’d been alone since the break so the room was tidy; nothing to be embarrassed about. She just walked in and flopped on the bed opposite mine.
For the next couple of hours, we conveniently broke all hostel regulations in our handbook. It was she who busted into my hostel room, pulled out my drawer, saw a pack of Chesterfield and a lighter and took one out and lit it; who lifted the base of her blouse in front of me to tug at the little extra flesh threatening her flat belly. It was then I saw the rose tattooed below her navel and asked about it. Then she, without the slightest inhibition, probably still convalescing from the steam of the previous night’s kiss, pulled off her blouse.
Her obsession with French was duly highlighted by a sentence beneath the arc at the base of her left breast. She refused to tell me what it meant. On her left shoulder blade was “Barthélemy” which now had a line drawn across it.
Ex-boyfriend? I asked.
Teenage stupidity, she said, laughing. Funny how I still don’t regret it, she added.
Then she pulled her shorts down to reveal another tattoo drawn brightly on her right thigh. A sunflower inside what looks like slants of rain, with the words: Comme un tournesol sous la pluie inscribed underneath.
Like a Sunflower in the Rain, she translated.
There were several cuts too—some healed, others healing—on her arms and her thighs. But I didn’t ask about them until much later. At this point, our hormones were raging and it didn’t take long for us to do what had now become inevitable. I grabbed her lips with mine and, with a measured urgency, we romped.
When Tonye resumed in January he made me swear I didn’t do anything in the room and I gave him the straightest face I could manage and said, I swear, I no run shit for room.
He seemed disappointed.
She does random, spontaneous stuff like banging on my door at 10 in the night. It’s new year’s eve and the pre-new year encomiums are already spilling over. I open the door and ask if she’s crazy.
What the hell Eseosa?
She moves past me into the room and sits on the table on one bum. Her hair is all over her face and, for a split moment just beneath the light, I can see how beautiful she is. She doesn’t say a word, just takes an Oris out of her purse, pulls out the drawer, and starts to search for the lighter. I close the door, open my wardrobe to get the lighter, and then toss it to her. She lights her cigar, takes a drag, and lets the dizzying effect wash over her like a cascade of electric current. Then she looks at me and says, So what are you doing tonight?
Nothing, I shrug. Just wait, I guess.
Well then, she says, let’s be epic.
We spend the vestiges of the dying year smoking and talking. She’s usually self-absorbed, almost not willing to talk about her personal business. But this night, she starts to spill about her family in intimate details. Her mother is a neurosurgeon and her late father was a diplomat. She spent most of her childhood moving but settled in France and has become forever obsessed with highborn Parisian men. That she didn’t go home because she isn’t feeling home anymore; that she doesn’t like the presence of people, and that she’s having the time of her life now that she’s all alone on her floor; that she cannot wait to get done with Law School, and as soon as she’s done, she’s tossing away her wig and travelling around the world.
An hour to the New Year, she says she needs to go get her teddy bear from her room; that she’s coming back to mine, so I have to go with her. Outside is cold and I really don’t want to go out but I have to walk her through the empty campus to Adam & Eve to get her things. In her room, she says she’s hungry and insists on making cereal. I’m burning inside but I stay with her till she’s done. Afterwards, we head back to Snake Island.
It’s a quarter-hour to the New Year and she says we should sit outside and watch the stars till it hits 12. We sit silently on the concrete bench in the garden opposite Block A for a moment while I pretend to care about the whole star-gazing bullshit. A couple of minutes later she leans over and kisses my chin. Her lips are cold and brittle. I turn to her and kiss her back, then she starts to reach into my sweatpants.
I reach for her hand and say quietly, Not here, Ese.
She looks me dead in the eyes and says, Who’s watching? Then she bends over and takes me in her mouth. At first, she’s doing real good, her head moving up and down with such stunning dexterity. Then her hair starts to get in the way. She tries to adjust it but it falls back down. I chuckle and then she slams her clenched fist on my lap so hard I gasp. I pull her up by her shoulders and yell, What the hell Eseosa!
You better not laugh at me when I’m trying to make you happy! She says, almost screaming, and stomps away. Shocked, speechless, I pull up my pants and start to limp after her. Midway to the room, fireworks crack in the distance, announcing the New Year. In the room, she has already put the light off and curled up in bed. I try to talk to her but she doesn’t talk back. I cuddle her from behind and kiss the back of her neck and whisper happy New Year to her but she totally steels out on me. She doesn’t say a word until I fall asleep. I wake up at dawn and she’s gone, her scent everywhere.
We don’t see until six days later when school starts to fill up again. She’s with her handsome boyfriend, looking new and different. They stroll past me and Tonye at Ojukwu Market and we pretend not to see each other. I don’t even turn back to look although my heart starts to jump the moment I see her.
No be that your girl be that? Tonye asks.
She no be my girl, but yes, na Ese be that.
Oh, since when she cut her hair?
It then hits me. I turn back to look at her but by then they have disappeared into the fade of the bubbling night.
On Friday nights we gather in front of the floodlight at the gate, like insects drawn to bright yellow lights. On Friday nights we get our cuts for the next week from Osas, the security guy who doubles as the school’s chief drug plug. Arizona, Skunk, Loud, whatever strain of weed you want, he’s got. His Friday shifts end at 8 p.m. so he just pulls off his uniform and steps out in his black shirt with a knapsack slung over his shoulder. Business time, he says, with an ugly scowl on his face.
Tonight, Tonye is doing the runs with Osas. Leo is with Emediong. Back in the room, he talks amazing loads of shit about her but I can tell he’s doing that for show. He likes her really. I’m talking to Oroma, a Port Harcourt girl with a slim neck and a moon-face that makes her look like a soup spoon. Tonye signals at me to bring cash.
I walk over to him and dip my hand in my pocket and pull out a bunch of crumpled notes. It is then I notice the piece of paper stuck to one of the notes. I pick out the paper from the cash and give the money to Tonye, then wait for him to walk back to Osas before I open the paper. It’s a note passed to me from Eseosa earlier today in class that I forgot to open. It’s barely coherent.
I see you don’t talk ta me again but I will see you tomorrow again at the corner when I take care of myself for good but nevermind u dnt deserve 2 live with urself.
I crumple the paper into a ball and hurl it as far away as I can. She’s plain psycho, I tell myself. I’ll just ignore her. I turn to go back to Oroma but she’s already talking to another guy who’s about one hundred feet tall and looks like he sleeps at the gym, so I just recoil to myself. Hard as I try, I can’t shrug away the sour feeling of reading the note, so I call Eseosa. It rings off. I call again and a guy picks up. It’s Vuga, whose real name is Ralph but he’s cut up like a comic god. Ese calls him Zeus. I call him Vuga because, fuck him.
She’s at the Medical Centre, Vuga says, sounding grim as hell. His voice is remarkably soft, no wonder she clings to him like an undersized tee shirt.
Is she alright? I ask.
Well, dunno. Maybe.
The line dies. I look around. The night is cold and Tonye is laughing at some joke; Leo is still with Emediong, everyone looks yellow under the reflection of the light and I’m all alone. I signal to Tonye that I’ll be back shortly and then head for the Medical Centre.
SHE’S SITTING ON THE bed, saying something funny in French to two Cameroonian girls seated opposite of her and they are laughing like they’re just trying to make her feel good. I don’t go to her when I get into the wardroom. I just walk up to Vuga who’s standing in a corner of the room and we bump fists as though we are friends.
What happened? I ask in a whisper.
Dunno, really. Vuga says. They found her semiconscious on the floor in her room. His big arms are clasped around each other and he’s staring at her in a supervisory way.
Oh . . . She’s sure looking better now.
She doesn’t as much acknowledge me a bit. She just talks really fast, switching between English and French. I can’t hear most of what she’s saying but I know they’re mostly nonsense. Standing there within the range of Vuga’s charms, I start to reflect on her profound strangeness: all the inconsistencies in her behaviour, the times she hit me for silly reasons, her periodical irrationalities, the spontaneity of her madness. I used to think her crazy, but for most of my life, I’d seen crazy, met crazy, fucked with crazy, and this is not crazy.
She’s insane, I say suddenly. To myself, but loud enough for Vuga to hear.
What? He says, looking at me. More of, sizing me up, as if daring me to say it again.
I stiffen up and repeat, with the gravest voice I can muster, loud enough for just him to hear:
His eyes linger on me for a moment, as if trying to take it in, then he looks at her again, then just chuckles and leans against the wall with his arm. I walk over to her for the first time and ask how she’s doing, but she doesn’t even look at me, just continues twittering. I smile and nod to the girls with her, and they smile back. Then I walk out of the room.
WE HAD OUR FIRST term dinner on a cold Friday evening and everyone turned up in their sleekest tuxes. Eseosa wasn’t there. Law School dinners are compulsory rituals with dire consequences in default of attendance. I knew it wasn’t beyond her to decide to damn the implications and just skip, but then Vuga was there being conspicuously social, hugging this girl and pecking that one with a deliberate flamboyance. So I knew something had happened. The Body of Benchers hardly left the hall when I bolted to Adam & Eve, still in my three-piece suit. Didn’t even bother calling first. I knocked at her door but there was no response so I pushed the door gently and it gave way.
She was at the farthest corner of her bed, knees pulled up to her shoulders and held together by her skinny arms. She didn’t look up. I locked the door and got on the bed and sat beside her, then she looked up at me and her eyes were tinted red and swollen, beautiful in the light of her guileful innocence. Without saying a word, she collapsed on my outstretched legs and sobbed. I let her cry.
That’s what he said.
No, you’re not.
Yes, I am.
We were in each others’ arms, saying nothing, and even when her roommates returned from dining and knocked on the door, we didn’t move. She just pressed harder against my body like I was a door to her redemption and she was trying to get inside. I basked in the warmth of her familiar presence.
I’m leaving, she said.
I dunno. Anywhere.
I sighed. She turned over and laid fully on my body for a while, then said, Come with me.
For real. Let’s leave this place.
I gently dropped her off of me, rose over her, and said sternly, We’re going nowhere. We’ll finish sooner than you know it and you’ll be happy again.
She shoved me aside and turned her back to me. I’ll leave without you then, she said.
Don’t do anything insane, I told her at the door before I exited the room. Outside, the night was lethargic. Everyone moved sluggishly, as if overfed from the Jollof rice and chicken served at dinner.
Leaving. I wished that I too could afford to just leave.
Leo finally decides to accept his feelings and covet Emediong once and for all. He even puts up an attitude when we troll her now. Tonye is going out with a girl from Babcock. His baby mama has decided to move on with another man in Port Harcourt. Although too defiant to admit it, he’s broken. He’d spent half an hour on the phone begging, cursing, begging again, and then simply asking, Why? Baby-mama tells him that she’s got to move on. That love is lost and she isn’t ready to put a hold on her life just because of his baby.
Chin up guy, I would tell him. Girls choke everywhere.
I know, he would say, but Helen dey different.
These days, he lingers too much in the bathroom, as if trying to scrub away the hurt stuck to his skin. It never occurred to me that she meant that much to him until now, and suddenly it seemed that she left with all of his boyish cheerfulness. He smokes less weed and does Molly now.
Ese, she did leave, but not in the way I thought she meant. Less than a week after asking that I leave with her, she overdosed on Olanzapine and was found sprawled at the entrance of her door, knocked out cold. She was rushed to UNTH where I heard they were able to keep her alive. Vegetative, but alive. I heard that her mother came for her. I heard she’s been flown out of here.
Sometimes I go through her pictures on my phone, all taken during the Christmas break. Nudes mostly, some taken without her knowledge and others where she’s posing—on my bed, on the table, against the wall, her skinny body the colour of polished mahogany. Other times, I dream of us together again, in my bed, bodies intertwined, smoke from our cigarettes hovering above us. Whatever the hell we were, I still can’t place, but we shared a weird mutual satisfaction from just being together in each other’s spaces; where she’s either sniffing my armpit or threatening to stab my feet with a fork. In the space of one night, she would wear about four of my polo shirts, tossing them on Leo’s bed when she felt like changing. She took a couple of them with her and never returned them. The ones she left still smell like her.
Every day in class, I look at where she used to sit but someone else sits there now. There was a passing mention of her by the DDG the next morning but that was all.
Vuga moves around now with a skinnier girl clinging to him. I still burn grass with the guys. The school is still moving on and everyone seems genuinely happy. But I’m drowning in the hole left behind by a girl who decided to leave.
About the Author
Victor Daniel is a Nigerian lawyer. He has been published in Brittle Paper, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Zikoko, Lolwe, and Selves: An Anthology of Afro Nonfiction.