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By Wanjiku wa Ngugi

Saturday, February 22, 2014.

Joe walked towards me half of his upper body slightly angled forward as if his legs were slower. Even from the distance between us, his eyes seemed to bulge out, perhaps because they were bloodshot, like they had been dipped in red paint. His nostrils moving from big, then small in quick succession. His fingers folded over in balls making his knuckles shine from their darkness. His large muscles burst out of his t-shirt which was tucked into brown swede corduroys. I took my eyes off him. The silence ceased. “This is the Grand Central Station, Fuck y´all this is New York City, yes this is big smoke, where your dreams dissipate in to thin air, Poof” shouted an old man, arms, covered in bright blue and yellow clothing. I turned back to Joe. Total silence. He was almost here. I wanted to run, away, but I stood firmly planted right by the train ticket booth. His face folded. Smiling. No, crying. Confusion. He was here. I reached out, he collapsed in my arms. Too heavy. I staggered. I was the first to hit the floor.  I heard a scream. Not from him or I. So I didn´t care. I held on to Joe´s clean shaven head on my lap, ignoring the burning on my buttocks. I held him. Like I had always. My hands dripping with Joe´s tears.

“Is there a problem?”

I looked up. An older woman with spectacles balancing on her nose and pushing a bag of groceries asked. I shook my head. She walked on. There were other stares. A spectacle. We were a spectacle. I glared back. It was not enough.

“Move away, move away,” I screamed. “Nothing to see here, go away.” The last words with not so much conviction. I had done this before. Held him in my arms, many times. But this was the first time in public. In a way, I had helped compose it. I am creative. I write. Especially poetry. Mostly haikus. Desire. Violence. Peace. But mostly I write about love. On paper I am loved. I can sing on paper. Harmonized melodies find me easily. When the ink dries up, I am left with just me. I am lonely.

Life was not always like this when I was growing up in Kenya, before I joined New York University on a scholarship to study Creative Writing and Sociology. Friends made it easier, especially my apartment mate and best girlfriend Sara from Gambia also a student at NYU. Our differences made our friendship work. She a tall and light complexioned, hair permed and cut into a pixie, woman who never let her mouth rest. I dark, medium height with a short afro who preferred to listen. But the feeling of bleakness, it stayed with me.

Even as I held Joe at the Grand Central Station, I had a deep knowing, as I contemplated the weekend, that it would be the loneliest weekend yet of my life. He will be here. I will hold him. Comfort him. Caress him. Make love to him. But my heart would be left clutching at nothing on Monday. Before then, I would grill salmon. I am good at finding the fresh catch. It goes well with baked potatoes. One day I have to find out if I really like salmon. But Joe does, this I know for sure. What else do I know for sure? That I have always loved him.

The first time I saw him, I was getting ready to go home from college. He was standing by the corner of the Africana Studies department office talking to the revered Prof. Delroy, who alternated semesters between NYU and UCLA lecturing on Human Rights Studies. I knew Professor well. Tall, thin, and dreadlocked, he was born to Jamaican parents in Brooklyn during the Civil rights movement. He was a radical, jean wearing, t-shirts imprinted with the faces of Mandela, Kwame Toure, Biko, Kimaathi, man. He was popular with students, the female kind in particular. I first met Prof. Delroy in a job interview for the position of a part-time clerk. No particular skill was needed for the job, but I had come prepared with my haikus and read one or two. He had been impressed. I got the job. And this is how I met his African American wife, Dr. Jane Delroy who served at the New York Medical Hospital. Not on the first day of work, but three weeks into my job. Prof. Delroy invited me to his house along with other African students at NYU which marked the beginning of how Jane Delroy became my mentor as she was to the other African students. She had an instinct about her that we responded to by bearing our hurts and pains. And she like sponge, absorbed, cleansed and gave the problems back to us, complete with possibilities. At least that’s how I felt when I left her house that night. The weight of living in New York felt so much lighter. It’s not so much what she said as how she said it, the energy with which her words sprang and held onto my almost broken spirit. “Hang in there,” she had uttered when I first told her about being black in America. “It gets better.” I believed her.  “Her smile…,” I was explaining to the others on the subway back to our dorms, “and the softness around her eyes, her dainty hands” someone interjected. “Stop, stop, the Prof will strangle you himself” Another said. We laughed. But the truth was we envied their union. The perfect example of how we wanted our lives to pan out.  Not in the tattered pieces within which we each lived in this foreign land. 

And so I worked in Prof. Delroy´s office with much enthusiasm. Sorting out files for 20 hours a week. All I got was 200 dollars and paper cuts at the end of each week. But it was enough. At the end of the month, I would send half of the total earnings to my dear mother in Kenya. The rest I saved. I was frugal too. But it was when I discovered dumpster diving from my American hippie friends mostly done after late hours when the super markets had finished throwing out their perfectly good foods, that I became rich. Well not in the conventional way, but I could finally afford that extra pair of jeans from the thrift stores. I bought extra books from Books-a-Mile, and a few blotched tapes of Nina Simone. I still had a tape player you see. Beyonce and her kin didn’t stand a chance next to my Nina, or Miriam Makeba or Oliver Mtutukdzi.

Now here I was, staring at the dark tall man speaking to Prof. Delroy. He was staring back at me. I blinked first, and walked away. My heart felt like I had just completed a hundred meter sprint. I wanted to turn back, but I didn’t. I would later come to know his name was Joe from the Central African Republic. And I would meet him again.

Jilly´s Pub was located across from West 4th Street, two hundred meters from Broadway´s Tavern in the West Village. Our second home that devoured what little we managed to save. It is the place where Africans in New York hang out. The artists with broken dreams—the ones who were politically in the know. The ones who spewed stories about Obama´s killing drones, and fought over Robert Mugabe, defended Gaddafi, called Museveni names and probably had  a copy of Frantz Fanon´s Wretched of the Earth in their pockets. The ones that American bit and then spat out for not conforming. There were drugs too, passed around to numb the feelings and sex was not for pleasure nor love, it was just a pastime. Love was elusive in New York after all. Sex was in plenty. It made sense really. There was a hunger as well, not only because everyone who came to Jilly´s was dead broke, but a hunger for belonging. Misplacement. New York did that to someone. It welcomed you with open arms, but deprived you of love. The framework seemed to work, but one was left clutching for its heart.

This is what we were all in search of, on the day I met Joe for the second time. But not in person. He was performing. Silence. Soon I was staring into Joe´s big round eyes as he gyrated this way and that way with a brown African shirt swishing around him. And there was his music. It resonated with our yearning to be. I was sold. Amidst Sara´s screams, and judging from the women about to hurl themselves on stage, I wasn´t the only one. Later Sara had dragged him to our table. He was staring at me. Again. I wasn´t used to this attention. Not from men at least. Mostly I had heard “you are beautiful for a dark girl.” During a break, I had rushed to empty my overflowing bladder. Sighing with relief along the corridor back to the concert area, I had felt rather than saw someone pull me from behind. Soon I was wrestling with Joe´s tongue next to the vending machine. He had pulled back suddenly. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen”. And then as if it were nothing, he had walked on to the men´s bathroom. I stood still. Time stood still. I couldn´t move. Silence.

From an early age I had always learned how to get my world silent when I needed it to be. Didn’t matter what or where. Mostly I had learned this when I needed to block out my mother´s screams. My father was an angry man. He had a habit of coming home once a month really upset at the world. But it was the chemicals in Lake Naivasha. A man can only spray flowers for so long before the spray fills up his lungs and eventually his spirit. It didn’t last forever, the violence. My father died of a heart attack. The doctors said it was the heart valve that broke, but I was sure it was the disastrous combination of sadness, failure, mixed with chemicals. In the instances where he had hit her, I would switch off to my world of poetry and haikus. That poster of Sonia Sanchez with her majestic afro that hang in my room gave me peace. It was what I focused on. I would look at it with such intensity, that I swear Sonia communed with me. Her outstretched hand reached out to me every time there was a fight and consoled me. After I would write and write and write. Until my mother bound by duty called out for dinner. I ached for her, bruises and all but I also wanted her to see that I was okay. That we could be okay without him. Those times I would quickly sift through meals, talk about my poems, and laugh at my brother Tendi´s jokes. But I never looked at him. My father. There was no need. But he already knew he was not a part of my world. He didn’t try either. He just went back to the farm, and my mother back to her secretarial job and life was good again. After he died, before anyone cried, there was an intense relief hanging in the air.  I felt a mix of emotions at his funeral. But still I would not cry. Not for him. Early on when I had first learned the screams from my mother were because of him, I had cried my eyes dry. I had no more tears left. I tried to pinch myself, inflict harm, but there were no tears. And so it was. I just sat there, first at the church. Silence. And then at the funeral. Silence. I did keep glancing at my mother. She dressed in black seemed as if she were in a trance. She cried. Probably for the man she had once loved. I had graduated from high school three years later. My haikus had done it for me. That’s how I got into New York University. My grades were good too, but I convinced my mother that it was the poetry. It would take me places I had said. 

Suddenly, the noise from Jilly´s flooded back. Joe was back on stage. So I took a deep breathe, calmed my hands and walked back to the table. I would dream up that encounter for months on end. I never told a living soul. Not even Sara. It cured many things that kiss. First my insomnia. My writing soared. My laughter bounced off walls. I was happy to be around myself. But a moment can only take you so far. I skimmed through every newspaper. I googled his name over and over. I knew all his songs by heart. I harmonized as he sang and imagined walks in Marrakech, filled with good food, walks and good talk. I got ahead of myself. 

I waited half a year before he was back from California to New York. But the day finally came around. Prof. Delroy was saying something about their flight from California. So I grabbed Sara and we dashed back to Lizzy´s the very night and grabbed the table closest to the stage. In two minutes he would be standing in front of us. He couldn’t miss me, I was like a drop of sun on a dark cold day in Helsinki dressed in a bright orange shirt and skinny jeans with some heels that could double as weapons.  A few hours before, I had assembled all my makeup. Tried all of Sara´s shoes. Several dresses later, I was ready for Joe.

The air that night was favorable. And so were his soft lips uttering promises without words. Could this be love? Later when he finally left for his hotel, and me to my dorm room, I clutched his phone number in my hand. I did not trust my handbag or my pockets. I smothered it in my hand as I walked from Broadway to the Village happily ignoring any cat calls. And dreaming up my next day. I would finally submit that manuscript to Hill & Hill publishers. I would write the synopsis that night. And I did. It was effortless, words were flowing through me like the river Jordan. Joe sent me a text message. And their frequency increased when he returned to California. My writing increased. The Haikus were too many, so I started printing them out and hanging them on walls around my apartment. Sara complained. But I couldn´t stop. Unless I was texting Joe.  He didn’t ask too much about me, but I learned more about him. About his father who had supported his dream of becoming a musician. About his mother, who´s career in singing had been brought to a halt by an overzealous government. Bokassa, president at the time didn’t just wear glitter from neck to knee with every medal he had given himself, he kept his victims in a freezer.  “They dumped my mother´s body on the streets.” I learned about his brother. How bullets sprayed on his body by the NYPD had stopped Joe from calling New York home. You see New York is full of contradictions I pointed out. It is a place of struggle—personal and otherwise. Love would cure this. He would say in text messages. I agreed. Love would cure me. It took me a while to realize that we rarely talked. Or I probably knew this already, but ignored it. Besides when he was in New York, and after six months of waiting, he had eyes for no one, but me.  I could get used to this. We chatted about everything between heaven and earth. He spent a lot of time with Prof. Delroy. So it was convenient. Even when the rejection from Hill & Hill publishers arrived, it didn’t sting as much. Try and try, Joe encouraged me. That’s what he had done with his music. Before topping the charts in the Central African Republic, and elsewhere, his music had just lay dormant in his room for years. But all this was before he messed it up. Or rather that was the beginning of how I came to be holding him on the floor of the Grand Central Station.

He was in a relationship. And it was not me, and she mistreated him, he wanted out. But he couldn’t. So what am I? You are different he answered. You are my best friend. And so I made the salmon to heal his heart, with a hope that he would come around to healing mine. I sent him back to her. Fight. Sara said. I couldn´t. That’s how my manuscript about children of the highlands, you know those who were recruited to fight in Liberia ended up in the shredder. The haiku´s on the walls came down. The ink in the pens dried up. I needed to grow up I told Sara.  I stopped going to Jilly´s pub. Besides, now I knew that everyone´s dream there would stagnate and die in what Bob Marley called the concrete jungle. After graduation, I would get a job, find some random man and live in the suburbs of New Jersey.  But Joe. He wouldn’t go. I couldn’t let him go. So I got him for six months and she had him for six months in California. When he was away, my heart panted for my six months. When he held me, all the distractions, nightmares of the lost six months dissipated, as if I was in a trance. I cried as much as I laughed. But I only cried when he wasn´t looking. I consoled him when he anguished for her. He cried for her at night, in his dreams. She didn’t need him as much as I did. But he needed her in order to be with me. But I stood firmly by his side. I believed. Belief is all I needed to breathe life into the dream. Soon he would see. He would notice, that I was the consistent one.

This is how I first felt as I waited for him at the Grand Central Station. This time, I would fight for my place. I would put an ultimatum in place. Over the past six months I had become stronger. But then again this was the cycle. When I saw him, the strength was replaced by the longing to be in his arms, in peace. Now here he was, laying in a heap on top of me, in Grand Central station. I finally had him. I could tell. He had given in to me. A new dawn had been realized. Now we could all breathe. I felt the mojo. My head formed a haiku. I was back. I gently pulled him up and dragged him to a bench. His shoulders continued heaving. I feel faint he said. His clutched fists opened and something fell to the ground. An orange bottle started rolling away. Pills. Pills? How many did you take? He was gasping. Help! I called out. I remember vaguely the events of that afternoon. Heavy gasps. Foaming. Screaming. Black boots. Stretcher. Tubes. Breathing machine. I remember hands pounding on his chest. The rush to put him in an ambulance. How I got shoved to the side when I attempted to get in the ambulance. I ran the streets of New York. The damn cabs. I continued running. Finally a yellow stopped. It was a Nigerian cab driver. He said something about my forehead resembling a Kenyan. I was in no mood. I am going to lose him is all I said. He may have said other things, my memory fails me. I am finally sitting at the hospital reception.

“Are you his family?”  I shook my head “No.” “Who is?” I hadn´t the slightest idea. “We have a number from his phone. We called the last person he was speaking to.” That’s how I found out. Before his heart stopped beating, or perhaps at the same time, I finally met the love of his life. The one who had caused him such great pain. The one who had come in between my dream for love. He was six foot tall. Dark. It’s the pain on his face, that I remember most. The way he literally tried to shake it off. The agony in his cry. I watched him as he took his ring off his finger and tossed in the bin. He sat next to me. “I loved him but I couldn´t…,” Prof. Delroy tried to speak, as he slumped to the floor next to me. My instinct was to hold him, but my hands felt weak. So we just sat there two broken souls on the cold floor of the New York Medical Hospital.

Wanjiku wa Ngugi is the director of the Helsinki African Film Festival, (HAFF) Finland. Her first novel, The Fall of Saints, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster, Feb 25, 2014.

"Broken!": A Short Story by Wanjiku wa Ngugi

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