I desperately rummage through the shelves, quickly placing aside the beautifully decorated candles, hopeful to find this particular one, but almost fearful that I might miss it. My throat occasionally swells into a ball and flattens at the sudden reminder that I’m in public. I want to shrink into nothingness. To go about life unnoticed, to take away my ability to feel and just be. Like the forgotten Mjine home strawberry candle, covered in dust at the back of the shelf. Its sight brings tears to my eyes; I’m undone.
Tonight, my boyfriend and I will attend Jeff’s wake in Kilimani. Jeff. He loved life and he lived it, authentically. I remember the first awkward kiss we shared at the gallery. He’d tagged me along for this photojournalism project he was doing at the National Museums. My stomach tightened every time he held my hand. My heart almost tore its cages apart when he brushed his finger on my eyebrows. “You need to get them done,” he said.
“What’s this gloss?” he asked.
“Gloss?” I asked quite amused.
“Your lips. Or is it a lip balm?” He seemed pretty invested.
I laughed softly. I knew what he meant. I’d gotten this compliment a lot of times. My lips are the most noticeable feature of me. My mother says she had to slap my lips at least every two minutes to remind me to stop biting them. This habit was tweaked into licking my lips every now and then, hence my lips always staying moist, or glossy, as Jeff said.
In response, I licked my lips.
“Do that again!” Jeff quipped and I did. He edged closer as if to give it another look and he kissed me. Briefly. The brevity of that kiss. Its edge. How our lips touched, brushed and slid into each other. A fulfilment my soul yearns for to this very moment. I wipe my tears away as I approach the counter. I still need to pick up tonight’s attire in Westlands.
“Children love colour. You are the first dad I’ve encountered that’s so great with birthday decor shopping”. This girl with extra-large Marley braids was smiling, looking up at me, probably expecting a response. But I hadn’t heard her.
“Did you say something?”
“All these glitters, multi-coloured balloons; your child must be very happy. This birthday will be unforgettable”. She said.
“Oh! There’s no birthday” I responded.
“What? Do you run a gift shop then?” She persisted.
I sighed. Tears are hiding in my eye sockets, waiting for the slightest provocation to get running. Talking about Jeff’s controversial murder which has been extremely sensualized in the media and justified by most people will make me cry. So I quietly place the five-one thousand notes on the counter and wait for my receipt. As if in a queue, my mind drifts to the deathless memories of Jeff, buried at the anchors of my heart, the man I first kissed.
Jeff was a social butterfly. He wore his heart on his sleeves and he loved fiercely. He met, Bruce, his DJ boyfriend at an event, and he was hired as a photographer. According to Jeff, they clicked off when their eyes locked on the dance floor, and exchanged each other’s IG handles when he brought him his meal for the night. We all watched it unfold on Instagram stories. The roses, the expensive gifts, cute little notes, surprises and endless kisses every now and then. However, people mostly noticed his coloured nails, more than his swollen cheeks, covered in tonnes of foundation. Particularly, I remember when he turned his birthday into a costume party barely ten hours before the party. We didn’t catch up at his party, he seemed uneasy like he wanted the night to end sooner, and it did, just like his life.
Jeff’s photojournalistic career had taken a wild run around the globe for how he captured and told stories. Stories about forbidden love in his native country, and how, he and Bruce used music and photography to live freely, and authentically and offer snippets on social media. His Instagram was a little haven. Beautiful pictures laced with Sam Smith’s voice in songs that set souls on fire. They were picture-perfect. Everything I wished Jack and I would be, until the morning I learnt of his demise.
I learnt about his passing via the radio on my way to meet a client that Tuesday morning. The reporter said that his “friend”, the DJ rushed him to the hospital only to be pronounced dead on arrival. Given Jeff’s international audience for his photojournalistic prowess, the ongoing investigations have been revealing bombshells at every twist of the tale. Invested parties that called for speedy investigations were a bit reluctant to share the updates because it was quite heartbreaking. Who would have thought that behind the light flashes, studio lights and striking poses, Jeff was actually being abused by Bruce? How could one make out that behind those flashy smiles, lay a troubled soul, chained to an abusive partner that would end their love story like it was a scene from a movie?
My heart crashed and fear enveloped me. What are the odds that both Jeff and I were in abusive relationships and we still held on? It was an oddly strange familiar feeling, one that grips me on most days Jack and I fight. Clinging onto things that should be, when clearly, they are dragging us to the deepest pits of hell. The feeling that we are most afraid to show and share because then we would have to explain why things are happening the way they are, shouldn’t we be perfect? Because we took the road less travelled?
His grieving partner was still recovering. According to the investigations, the self-inflicted injuries were his escape plan. He claimed to have gotten them when a group of homophobic men descended on them with blows when they left the club. He had lied about an attack to cover up the fight that ensued between them when Jeff threatened to move out. He beat him to death. The love of his life killed him, and the words of my father have since seeped through the corners of my mind, sounding more like a siren now.
Love doesn’t insist on wrongdoing. I have grown to question a lot of things in life and for most, I’m resigned to the thought that the things that lack explanation, are the most endearing and demanding at the same time. When I came out to my parents. My father, the calmest, most thoughtful man sank in his chair. He looked at me, then my mother then back to me. He was reading the bible and he held it as if searching for answers from it. My mother didn’t seem surprised. It seemed as though she had known about my sexuality for a while and had remained silent, hoping that it is not true.
“Son, the bible says a lot of things about love. God is love. But I’m telling you, love doesn’t insist on the wrong”. He took deep breaths and rose up to leave. He tapped my mother and pointed to their bedroom door. Despite the fact that he rose up from that seat that night, it still feels as though he’s drowning. He only asks about work, or if I brought mama something from a trip. I miss when we’d talk about ‘usual things’.
“Dan, switch on the fridge for me when you go to sleep. Goodnight son”. Love bears all things.
“Hey babe, did you pick up our suits?” It’s Jack, my super-protective boyfriend.
“No. I think we should ask them to deliver”. I responded.
“We wouldn’t have to incur those extra costs if you could manage your time properly. What’s so hard about that?”
“Well. I was meaning to, but I’m not in the best shape today Jack”.
“Were you secretly hooking up with him? I don’t understand why you’ve been so sad and sappy since his death?”
I was silent. This was pretty much our lives. Jack always found faults with me. Often, he’d accuse me of infidelity. Flirting with guys we met at the bar.
“Tell me something Dan, are you in love with a dead man?” His reflection was in the mirror, he was standing behind me. It’s at this position that most of our fights begin, so I pull away, and he resists the urge to pull me back and drag this fight.
Our first fight was the night before his wedding. He tagged me by the matching neckpieces we had bought on our trip to Accra and hit my head on the bathroom sink of our hideous apartment in Ngong. I was taken aback by the fuming rage on his face.
He threw punches on my back, my head hanging in the sink as my nose bled. I wanted so badly to fight back, but every blow that hit my back weakened me. It must have gone on for three minutes or so before he dragged me into the shower. He undressed me, wiping the blood off my face and nose, and tears began rolling freely down his eyes.
He was sorry. We showered together. Him mostly crying, begging for forgiveness and I felt helpless and sorry for him. He looked defeated, and sorry. So I kissed him. We made love. He left at midnight. I stayed back, licking my wounds, nursing my swollen head. He’d come back to me after his exotic wedding. Love would bring him back, and it did. Immediately after his honeymoon. Love is patient.
When the blogs leaked information about his marriage to a big man’s daughter earlier that week, I was troubled. We had talked about this. He had promised that he will at the least, not marry a woman to cover up our relationship. But the night after our first fight, he had promised he’d get a divorce the soonest as possible.
“It is all for my father. He’s running for office next year and you know society’s take on the kind of love we share. It’s all to impress him I promise. When he gets elected, then we can make plans to advocate for same-sex marriages in the nation”. I believed him. I lived by those words and every dawning day, I woke up hoping it’d be the day we actualize the dream to be happily married. Until he beat me up again.
His wife, Deja, shared beautiful maternity pictures on Instagram, barely five months after their wedding. Jack had sworn to me he’d never been intimate with her. He promised never to bear children with her, in respect of our relationship. I stormed into his office, demanding explanations and he did it again. He stood up, as if to calm me down, only to drag me to his office window, threatening to push me off if I don’t calm the fuck down. I begged for my life, he let me live I wanted him to kiss me. I waited for tears in his eyes. He was angry, at me and his wife Deja.
He came home to me that night, past midnight with my favourite bottle of wine and pizza.
“I’m sorry love. Deja, I think she’s cheating on me” he said.
“Are you trying to say you aren’t responsible for her pregnancy?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if his response would relieve me, or hurt me even more.
“She complained to the parents, I had to rise to the occasion. But I’m certain I didn’t impregnate her Dan. You must believe me”.
“I believe you darling. I do. We could use this to our advantage”.
“How do you mean?”
“File for the divorce on grounds of infidelity”. I said, grinning.
“That’s too soon”
“You promised to make it sooner, love”.
“Well, let’s wait”. He said with finality.
Deja came to the office a few days before she delivered. She’s a beautiful, chocolate-brown lady with full lips. She was all smiles when she approached my desk.
“I didn’t see you at the wedding Dan. What P. A misses their boss’s wedding?” she asked almost too concerned.
“I had food poisoning the previous night, I couldn’t make it”, I lied. She gave me a knowing look. Like she knew I was lying, but then she proceeded.
“Well could you drop by the house this evening? There are a few office things at the house that needs to be sorted out”.
“Sure. I’ll let Jack know”.
“You don’t have to. Just come”. I knew there was much more than books and papers that needed sorting, I couldn’t wait.
It was no coincidence that Deja dropped by the office when she knew pretty well that her husband was out of the country. I resolved to talk to Deja about the man I love. See if I could talk her into leaving him, so we could be happy again. I took an Uber to their home barely three hours later.
“Does he hit you too, Dan?” Deja asked.
“Hey, Deja. Who hits me too? What do you mean?”
“Cut the pretence. My husband. Does he hit you too?”I was taken aback. I didn’t know I’d be walking into this. Well, I anticipated a catfight, but definitely not the facts Deja was throwing at my face. How did she know?
“Why would my boss hit me, Deja? Why would”… I paused, and my throat swelled, before I continued, “your husband hit me?”
“I know about the apartment, your relationship. The matching pieces y’all have. Maybe I should ask if you know about his latest fling?”
“Fling?” I stamped my feet and changed my standing posture.
“Deja. Are you trying to make me jealous? Is this it? Haven’t you done enough already?”
“I could care less about your feelings Dan. I want to sue him and I need you to testify”.
“Are you insane?”
“I should be asking you that?” she answered with a straight face. I looked at her, then down at her bulging belly.
“I will take my leave now Deja, bye”.
“You know better than to tell him about this,” she warned as I made for the door.
I was boiling with rage when Jack came to the apartment that night and blubbered everything to him. We fought. I bit his hands, knocked him with a wine bottle and dug my fingers deep into his skin. He left in a rage and supposedly went home to his wife. It did not come as a surprise when I learnt of Deja’s unfortunate fall on the stairs and the birth of their lifeless child, they must have gotten into a fight. Jack has never talked about it. Even though sometimes, it feels as though he’s beating himself up for the stillbirth. I see it in how he stares longer at children nowadays, and his eyes become watery.
Our relationship has since gone from sweet to bitter and now sour. He’s shown some level of endearment. Spending most nights at my place more than his wife’s. Things simmered down when I resigned as P. A and he helped me set up my catering business. On most nights, we sip wine, silently. We are no longer lovey-dovey the way we used to be. He subtly hints that Deja is still threatening to sue him. I know how violent he can get, but whether I’m ready for that public scrutiny is the reason he still has the keys to my apartment. I hate the negative banters on social media, often questioning why queer couples did something totally normal in heterosexual relationships. So I stay, so we aren’t the subject of people’s empty talk.
“Dan, Uber is here, let’s go”, he shouts from the living room.
“Dan, you need to hurry up!”, Jack screams again.
I lit the candle from earlier. It smells so much like Jeff. I didn’t know that candles can hold memories because this scent reminds me of how the sides of his lips warped into a smile, how he softly rubbed candle wicks before lighting them. How his light shone. Everyone is dressed up in sadness, they look weary and tired. We share hugs, and hold each other dearly, weighing on the fragility of our hearts, body and mind. Usually, he’d have taken bomb pictures for this event, but now, the multi-coloured three-tier cake only brings tears to my eyes all over again. I quietly decorate his portrait with balloons and place the decorations by his casket. He still looks beautiful, like the life he lived.
Looking at Jeff lying lifeless in his deep black suit, I realize I want to live my truth and own it. I want to smell candles, and take love, as much as I give. Love rejoices in the truth. I’ve ordered an Uber to take me back to the apartment. Jeff’s death is my cue to leave. One look at Jack, he’s immersed in a conversation with the guy I guess Deja was talking about. Jeff would be proud of me.
My Uber is here. I am ready to live my truth and find a love that doesn’t hurt me.
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