Autumn has brought dead leaves and new beginnings. She watches quietly as students scatter and chatter on their first day of classes. They walk from one building to another, maps in hand, wearing plaid shirts and sneakers. She shakes off the instinct to think of them as children. Some will find themselves here. Others will drown. Some will begin one way and end another.
The nights are growing shorter and apple picking is around the corner. Years ago, she and her flatmates would load up the car and drive for miles until they arrived an an orchard; the air fragrant and fresh. Rows and rows and rows of apples from Cortland to Gala to McIntosh. They always took more than they needed and baked apple crisps and pies. Nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla would linger on their coats for days.
It is so distant a memory that looking back feels like walking into a tunnel. It is time for lunch and although she considers sitting in the grass, the impracticalities are numerous. The breeze will sweep dust and pollen into her sandwich, her top will ride up, and she will see someone who knows her. She has stayed long enough at this university for that to be a given. She wants to be quiet. Talking to others has been exhausting lately.
Her sandwich is a grilled ham and brie panini. How English of her, she thinks. She can hear her mother’s voice in her head, half-teasing
‘Nne, i wu so onye ocha.’ You have become a white person.
She has indeed become white. White enough to eat sandwiches and not rice and stew for lunch like a proper Nigerian. White enough to sleep in and have brunch on Sunday, sans church. White enough to let Dave move in with her.
Just then, a text from him comes in. He is asking if she wants to join him and new work friends for drinks at 7. She does not. It will be another round of “where are you from” and “tell us about yourself” and “you don’t speak with an accent”. They mean well, she knows. But she is tired. Something somewhere deep inside her is aching, longing for rest.
Dave’s entry into her life took her by surprise. Surprised still is she because he hasn’t left. Despite her foul mouth and grudge keeping. Despite her scowls and silent treatment when she does not get her way. Despite her low blows when they argue. He is still here. He loves her. He fascinates her, mostly. As much as a little bird perched and chirping on a window pane would.
He works in investment banking, like his father and his father before him. Last Christmas, as usual, the conversation veered into major markets and predictions for the new year. His four brothers had their women at the table too. Jeff, Sam, Paul, and Ryan had effectively brought home four iterations of their mother. Her sweetness quickly soured when she felt challenged, even on the smallest things. Like whether sugar had a place in cornbread. Anna, whose family owned and operated a ranch in Texas, said that it did. That her family’s recipe included sugar and on and on.
‘Thank you, Anna. Pass the wine, would you?’
Edith was old money. One of those to whom it did not occur that wealth did not give them a monopoly on truth.
Dave is older by two years. But so unassuming. She met him on the train on her way from Lewiston to an African store in Harrisburg. She was reading Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come when their eyes locked. Somto looked away at first and looked up again when she felt his eyes on her.
‘Hi,’ he mouthed when she looked up.
‘Hi,’ she mouthed back and looked away, shooing him with her eyes.
But his gaze lingered. She looked up. He moved swiftly. The train was barely half full; pockets of people scattered around. She flashed the smile she reserved for tellers and waiters. Endearing and plastic. Plastic and endearing.
‘Is it true?’ he asked, pointing at the book.
‘For some people?’ she replied.
‘What separates “some” from the rest of us?’
‘What separates East from West?’
‘Do you always answer questions with questions?’
‘Is that a problem?’
She was smiling now, as was he.
‘Sumta. What does it mean?’
‘Somto. Join me,’ she said.
‘No way! How did I know that?’
What a lovely man. That is the same thing she thought when he told her that he loved her a year later. And again when he asked her to move in with him.
No, she told him. But he could move in with her, she said. She will rearrange her life for no one. Even him. Even though he has a soft place in her heart. She will make room for him, but she will not pack her life neatly into boxes and plant herself elsewhere.
She had always known that she would break his heart. She knew it that day on the train. He was too good. Too unblemished. Too divine.
The answer again is no. Tonight, she will be going over the results of her qualitative analysis with Raul, her TA.
It is a lie. She will be at the cinema eating overpriced pretzels and watching Love Jones. She is holding onto any chance to live in her head a little longer. She sees Deb when the film ends.
‘Sumta! You’re here!’
‘After all this time, Deb? Just call me Santa already,’ Somto says.
‘Oh, don’t mind me. I’ve missed you.’
She means it. Heart of gold. Deb was the baker in the flat. Pies, strudels, cakes, and souffles. All the girls blamed Deb for their weight gain.
They embrace. She has been smoking again.
‘I thought you were on the patch.’
‘I was. I got fed up.’
‘What will I do with you?’ Somto says, pulling her cheeks.
‘He’s great. Out with work friends tonight.’
‘You’re all alone. Good thing I found you then.’
Deb locks arms with Somto and walks her to her car. They are quiet save for their heels clicking and clacking on the pavement. They walk past a cafe, Lionel’s butcher shop, a convenience store, and a movie rental place. They walk past old buildings and failing streetlights in an even, unhurried pace.
Lionel is not in today. His shop is the only one in the area that carries fresh cuts of oxtail and goat meat. He went back home to Jamaica last year, 17 years after leaving it for England. His father had died. Lionel had told her many times that he wanted to show her his home one day.
‘My lady, I know you will like it.’
He knew about Dave. They met once when he helped her with her bags while Dave came around with the car. She saw Lionel size him up when they shook hands. Behind his polite smile and gracious bow was a man studying his competition. He knew that they would never be but that did not keep him from trying.
Deb is one of Somto’s oldest friends. Silence has meaning to them. They converse in it, hopping from topic to topic, tapping where it still doesn’t make sense, slow dancing where it hurts. Deb squeezes Somto’s arm tighter just before she says that something is not fine.
A pause. The clicking stops.
‘He died. My father died.’
The smoking makes sense.
‘Oh, Deb. I’m sorry.’
It was the cancer that ended him. It came back for the second time and was spreading fast. Deb’s father did not want treatment. He wanted to spend his last days surrounded by love.
‘They say that knowing before it happens helps. It is supposed to help you make room for grief. It is supposed to help you button up your life jacket as you prepare to dive into sorrow. What they don’t tell you is how the fear of the pain that arrives with the loss first overshadows then weakens you. They don’t say that you will begin to mourn what is still breathing. But you do.’
The air is colder and stiller now. They continue to walk.
‘I wish I saw you more often. You are good for me.’
Somto wraps her in her arms. She wants the embrace to absorb Deb’s pain.
‘Sumta, you will break me,’ Deb chuckles.
Tears well up in their eyes.
‘Are you angry?’
‘At myself. For before.’
“Before” is when Deb and her father did not speak. He and her mother divorced when she was five. Then he married a woman who gave her hell. She tried to tell her father. He couldn’t see it. He did not see who she was until the euphoria of new beginnings ended. New things get old. Did he not know? Deb was gone by then. She was living with her mother who taught at an academy for boys. It would be years before he would swallow his shame and find them. She declared that she was fatherless when he showed up at their door and began his speech. She said rebuffed him for another 7 years.
Somto’s drive home is silent, punctuated by tears. She hesitates before she goes in. Dave is not home. She begins to peel off her clothes as she climbs the stairs. Coat first, then shoes, bag on the floor, blouse on the staircase. A hot shower and sleep is what she needs.
Just as she climbs into bed, she hears the door. He is home. How can affection and indifference coexist so peacefully? Doesn’t he notice? The distance is gaping. What is wrong with her? Should she just end things? She will tell him soon.
He joins her, circling his arms around her waist. He plants a kiss on her forehead.
Tomorrow is “soon.” She realizes this after Dave makes breakfast the next morning. French toast, sausages, and eggs. He is pouring the orange juice when she knows it for sure that she does not want this arrangement anymore. He is good. He is everything. But he is not hers. Not anymore. Maybe he never was. She sees it now. Had he been a placeholder and she a spectator in this thing? Lately, they had barely communicated beyond the mechanics of their day.
‘What pizza should we order?’
‘Please grab milk from the store.’
Television, goings and comings, and romps in the sheets filled up what was left. Was it that she no longer wanted this thing they had created or that she wanted more? She was tired of love that did not satisfy. She was tired of nibbling. That’s what it was. She wanted to feast. Anything else would suffocate her. Can you imagine? Feeling both suffocated and hungry because of the same thing.
She looks at him. Looking at him feels like she is losing taste in her mouth.
‘I want us to end things.’ .
First he is silent. Then he scoffs.
At last, air reaches her lungs.