After we split side to side, she said, ‘you know making love is an act of freedom. You have to do it with all your heart, or it will never feel right.’
She turned her naked body to me and the moon-lit window. I opened the window for a breath of fresh air. It was more than an hour since we shut out the world. I felt I needed to breathe. She held onto my arm and rested her head on my chest. Her closed eyes were looking inward. Her eyeballs were fixed at the center, occasionally moving right to left the way a priest would leaf through the pages of the Bible. I admired her eyes because they were big and unhideable. They were made to see beyond light and darkness.
‘You feel good.’ She whispered.
I faintly scratched her back, ending every stroke with a slight sharpness. We looked exhausted and tangled on my small bed. When I made love to her, I was all about the beginning. The initial state of uncertainty was my serpent, the verge of submission which left our bodies in the smokeless fire. A woman once told me that if I were Jesus, I would love the ascension more than rejoining God himself.
Aida was the opposite. She loved the aftermath of sex. She cherished the full exhaustion of the fire, the death of the serpent, the ebb of submission. She cared for the stillness a fall from a great height ensures, the quietness that followed our sigh. She basked in it for as long as she could.
She let me go gently without moving much. I sat on the windowpane and lit a cigarette. I could see my body shape held by her. Her golden ribbon held her afro a little tightly. Her peeping baby hairs confessed that the seeds of her beauty were still within her. I loved her naked body. My smoky breath curled at my throat when I traced her smooth contour from neck to feet, the rising and falling thighs in between. The darkness of her nipples gave her dangly breasts a persona – a fierce, untouchable persona.
I stretched and kissed one of them. She moved closer and pressed my head. I curled the tip of my tongue as slow as a rabbit would explain to a lion why it did not deserve to die. Her index fingertip drew the circles of my tongue on my temple. I was still in the middle of smoking, reaching the limits of my elasticity. I kissed her hand, then rushed to ash the burnt edge of a cheap cigarette, which barely survived from falling onto her feet.
‘Please play the record in my bag.’
I looked at the cover, ‘A Kind of Blue’ by a trumpeter named Miles Davis. It was only recently released.
‘Thank you. Do not come to bed unless you brush your teeth.’ Her eyes were still closed.
I wondered if she cared about my naked body. Her indifference to seeing made me feel safe with her. I felt like an empty and well-painted canvas at once. A cloudy, clear sky. Seen and unseen. It made her angelic, because, after all, I knew she was seeing me. She was always seeing me.
‘Would you like to shower with me?’
‘I will come.’ She scaled her ass an angle higher. I kissed one of them.
When the pebbles of water drummed down my back, I felt giddy. I wanted her to come and look at me. I wanted her to see the shower sinking into my afro. I wanted to see her perfect set of teeth shine in a blur. I wanted to watch her chubby cheeks making little waterfalls. I wanted her to tell me not to be selfish and snatch the soap off my hands. Most of all, I wanted to peer into her eyes behind the falling water.
She came late. She stood the way she came to earth. I pulled the curtain wider. She set her right foot first. Her toes were carefully crafted. They descended like a symphony that goes an octave lower every fifteen seconds. She liked to paint them wine red. I was extra-sensitive to them.
‘You did not brush.’ I nodded. She pushed me out of the shower.
I stood there to be forgiven and welcomed back in, but she closed her eyes without a second to spare. Those thoughts were still in her eyes. She followed the faint music as if the warm water drops were Miles’ musical notes bouncing off her angled face.
She was so beautiful.
Aida left me when winter was smelling from God’s kitchen. It was precisely palpable in the air; cold, spiky wind aggressively blew from the bay. It was early December, and we were almost through the term. After hearing about the failed Ethiopian coup d’état, I was struggling to see the point of studying Comparative Literature. My first winter was arriving well equipped to forsaken me in a foreign land.
She said I was not as much of the problem as she was to herself. I was waiting for a better day to ask her what exactly she meant by that. There were quite a few riddles of ideas she would say to me whenever we spent the night together.
‘We have been seeing each other for about a month now. Does that mean we are caring about each other better? Is it so? Are we slowly climbing the sycamore tree?’ I recognized the word sycamore from a jazz song she sang along with in a careless fashion.
‘Birds … birds singing on a sycamore tree…
Dream … dream … dream a little dream of me …’
I ask myself again and again why she behaved as my greatest lover even though it was a public secret we had no chance at love. We were good together, but inherently lacked the very essential chemistry that wades two souls. I partly blame her because I think I had it the first time I saw her, the first time I held her, the first time I kissed her. Perhaps it was best if we left everything promised and unrealized to that first night. We kept giving it shots, and it brought us to another fateful night which was to end us.
If you don’t like it when you see it, it will trouble you when you eat it.
I remember putting my shirt on by the window as I prepared for the night with Aida. Her favorite jazz trumpeter was performing at one of the local bars. We had been together long enough for her to tag me along on her nightly excursions. I was more looking forward to seeing her in her element than the performance. All I knew about jazz in those days was that she loved it and played it every time. Other than her, the professor of African-American Literature encouraged us to think of the stories we studied as revolutionary as jazz was for music.
Once finely dressed in a clean suit, I decided to have a cigarette. The night was clear except for indistinguishable, small things buzzing around. The sun had begun to give up on the city quite early, which was very unusual for me. I grew up beneath a reliable sun, so consistent that my people measured the time according to its performance. I did not complain. My father told me a strange land would be full of strange things.
I saw movement in one of the rooms of the dormitory across. The idea of winter had forced many of the windows to be closed, but this one was still ajar and its curtain wide open. A yellow light illuminated two naked bodies. The young girl was facing the ceiling with her blonde tress shaking behind her. The head of a black man came into view with intervals. She had tiny breasts but they were swinging powerfully. Her chin appeared stiff and gasping for as much as possible. The way she held onto the windowpane made it seem as if her soul was to squeeze out through the crack of the window, which was beginning to condense a grand amount of energy being transpired. I stood there in silence.
After about seven minutes, the lady abruptly swung to her side. Her small, bare bottom filled the frame very briefly. She disappeared and came back with a glass of water. She sat exactly where she was but this time with an air of a different person. She smiled and sipped on her glass playfully. She conversed with long pauses. She disappeared again with a quarter of water still in the glass. Then, suddenly, the light went off. I could no longer see anything or anyone in the room. I opened my window to listen on. The night was extremely quiet. I felt uneasy to have witnessed the switch from light to dark. I did not like what I saw.
I left the room in a rush once I realized I was going to be late. Aida wanted to treat me to dinner before the show. We were meeting at the gate. I walked quickly, even though my hesitation was picking up my pace. There she was, beautiful as ever, with her twisted bandana indenting her afro.
‘Man, I am so hungry. You better not have eaten.’ She smiled and gave me a soft kiss on the cheek. She slid her way behind my arm pulling me close to her. Her perfume smelt of an early morning at my village’s cathedral. There were curious flowers that grew around it.
‘I haven’t. I don’t even think I am hungry.’
‘Baby, you do not have a choice. You are going to eat as much. This is the ‘promised night’ as Baldwin would say.’ She winked at me and held me even tighter. I remember feeling a little less cold.
Aida took me to a place called The Crankers. It was a busy bar. A group of black men huddled outside smoking cigars and cigarettes, with beer bottles swinging in their hands. They were all dressed in fine suits. We walked in through a tall, narrow door. I could feel everyone looked at us for a few seconds, then lifted the gaze with the conclusion that I was not a local, and Aida was pretty. There was cigarette smog throughout the bar. The seated men and women smoked. The man setting up the stage smoked. Overstuffed ash trays were lying everywhere. My month old smoking felt very naive.
Aida got Polish vodka with lemonade and bought me a glass of Irish whiskey. She squeezed us through the crowd until we found a small space. The man performing was so popular that people did not care about sitting on the floor with their fancy clothes. I wondered why someone famous would perform in such a cramped, breathless bar. I guess there are stages of fame. At times fame is all over the place but not yet exploded. Sometimes it explodes but the people who care for it are mannered enough to work with it.
‘Aida, I don’t think James would say “the promised night.”’
‘Oh, you don’t think so?’
‘No. Someone who wrote Giovanni’s Room would not term things that way.’
‘But Giovanni’s Room is one book. Baldwin is a writer of many books.’
‘Yes, but there are still things he maintains.’
‘Are you saying I do not understand him very well?’
‘That is a stretch, Aida.’
‘Why do you like that novel so much anyway?’ She looked at me as if I was a schoolboy with a promising future.
‘I don’t even know if I like it; it is more of a sense of answer I see in it. It captures a vague truth for me. It fits in my life in some way.’
‘Are you secretly making love to men in your room?’ she chuckled. She liked to chuckle at her own wit.
‘Definitely not. That would be blasphemous and very wrong.’ She suddenly turned to me as if my response was a sharp object she stepped on.
‘Are you serious?’ I did not respond because she seemed upset.
‘Do you also think smoking is very wrong?’
‘I used to, but now I see why it is popular. It can be a good friend in solitude.’
‘You are funny. You do not even see your contradictions. I think you should ask James if making love to men is wrong, very wrong. This is New York, his home, he will come around at some point when he gets tired of Paris.’
‘I could, but Giovanni says there is no home once you leave home. I think that makes sense. He may not come back.’
‘Then you should find a beautiful man to fall in love with, and see for yourself if you can be this rational and righteous when you find true love.’
She ignored me and saddled herself like many of the audience when Miles Davis was announced to come on stage. She clapped, a few whistled and many made a high pitched ‘Yeeaaaa.’ Miles did not indulge the ovation but had an air about him that guaranteed respect to his audience. He stood straight with his trumpet hooked onto his right fingers. He gazed at his trumpet with caring eyes as if he exited his body for a minute, and sank into its hollow tube. He blew it with intervals of silence. All of Aida was listening.
Despite the strangeness of the melody, something about the moment was evoking a sentiment in me. Something about the way Aida left me alone after those biting words, something about Miles and his bulging cheeks to make such clean sounds, something about silence taking over the chaotic bar, something about the clouds of smoke, something about the tragedy that took over my country, something made me think of jazz differently.
The show ended around midnight. We had three more drinks then. I was feeling more relaxed. Aida behaved unusually romantic, hugging and kissing me every fifteen minutes. She told me she got her name because her father was very proud of Ethiopia for being a symbol of black people. I said Aida was not the most common name back home. She said that was also part of her father’s intention. He selected a name that would be Ethiopian but not every Ethiopian’s. I asked if I could meet her father, but she said he was in an old peoples’ home. He had dementia at sixty-five. There was no point in meeting him because he had forgotten almost everything at that point.
‘It usually takes him about an hour to piece my face together and know I am his daughter,’ she estimated with an unconvinced tone.
‘What about your name?’
‘He just keeps asking why it is so strange.’
The memory of her father wanted her to escape the suffocated bar. The noise was getting more unruly than it was before the show. We headed out more squeezed than we came in. She seemed unsettled, so I suggested that if she would like to listen to more jazz at my place. She agreed, and we took a little detour to fetch a record from her apartment. I learned that she lived with two other women.
I never saw Aida as broken as she was that night on our way back to New York University. She leaned on the taxi window, holding my right hand in her palms and moving her thumbs like a slow pendulum. The street lamps painted her face golden, but she seemed to match the brief darkness in between. She kept stroking me the way Mama used to find the center of my skull and rub it until I forgot my fever. The assertive Aida seemed asleep. It was a night to cry tears as big as a trumpeter’s cheeks. Her tears fell and disappeared into an invisible circle on her black denim. When we were a block away, she wiped her face with her bandana. Once the taxi stopped, she walked away slowly while I paid rather generously.
My room’s yellow light broke the darkness for us. Aida went to the bathroom while I put the record on. Listening to Miles again made me think of my own father. I wondered if it may happen before I get back home. Would Papa also forget me someday? Was the fact that I am away thinning his memory every day? I hoped they were safe. I checked on the romance room. The light was on, but the curtain was closed. That must be how it would feel to be forgotten by someone who raised, taught, fed and guided you – like a powerful light behind an opaque curtain. So bright and beautiful for itself, but unable to prevail over the darkness that stands in front of it.
The night was now ready to be eaten. When one side of the record was almost ending, Aida emerged from the bathroom completely refreshed. Her bandana was back to its place, and her face beamed the warmth of the yellow lamp. Her eyes were searching for me. I was prepared to tell her about my family, about the coup d’etat, but it felt out of context. She took her shoes off and set them by the side of the door. Her toenails were exquisitely painted in black. She hopped onto the bed and scooted to my back to kiss my neck. She held my waist between her arms and told me to flip the record. I flipped the record.
When I turned around, She was half naked. Her cleavage was behind her extended arms, calling me to bed. I went over, held and kissed her religiously. Our escalating passion moved us around the bed. The starless sky was in view when she took off my sweater. She threw it away. It landed beside her shoes. We carried on. Her fingers pressed and traced me like a virtuoso caressing her cello. I let her list on my arm so we would be face to face. I peered into her wondering if the night made sense to her. I asked her how many more emotions and realities were we to juggle in one night? She lifted my chin and kissed me with a tenderness that hoped to reassure me we were now in a safe place. At that very moment, I wanted to tell her I loved her, but our intoxicated, sexual hunger took us elsewhere.
She sat on top of me and kissed my neck. She reached for my tie and untied it with the immediacy of the Number 3 bus ticketer taking money in the air. The only difference was that the ticketer I knew as a boy did not make a mistake. No money or ticket fell to the ground. The ticket always went to the right hand. Aida made a mistake. Her speed was in the wrong direction so my tie felt as if it was coming off but then tied into a knot. She took her time to detangle it. I remained quiet wishing I had told her it was my father’s tie, my only tie.
Maybe I should have said something while the tie was still in her hand. Maybe I should have survived the night by reminding myself that I never told her it was my father’s pride that was around my neck. It was not just a piece of fabric made in the West.
‘Ties are so unnecessary. Why do you even wear one? It is colonial.”
She said these words with accusatory eyes which made her clumsiness my fault. The undesired intermission could have been avoided if I had not had a tie. If my father had not given me his blessing, or never bought a tie to impress Mama on their wedding day, nothing would have interrupted her passion to make love to me at the speed of light.
She then flung the tie away the way she threw my sweater. I saw the long, skinny-tie squiggling through the air. It crushed against the door and fell on top of her shoes.
‘No!’ I must have barked, because Aida was at the edge of the bed when I came back to my senses. She looked more confused than scared.
‘What is happening?’
I did not have the capacity to begin to explain the multitude of thoughts that were heating my brain. I had an image of an unfortunate dove that was helplessly falling to earth after touching a peeled electric wire.
‘Moges … Moges … Moges?’
She shook me to give her an answer. The trumpet was sizzling from the record player. I could feel my temperature rising. She was getting livid for my sudden switch of personality.
‘Moges … Moges! You can not just be quiet. I am here, you can not deny that. What the hell just happened? Fuckin’ say something!’
I told her to leave. The world was swirling in my eyeballs. Ethiopia. New York. Tie. Papa. Ethiopia. Revolution. Mama. Coup d’état. Bus Number 3. New York. Freedom. Execution. Cigarettes. Church. Mama. Papa. There was no Aida.
‘You are a fucking joke!’
She dressed even quicker. Then she shut the door behind her without turning. Miles kept going at his trumpet. I hated the noise, but something inside of me wanted that trumpet to carry on. I went over to the door and picked up the tie the way Papa used to lift me so I could get a good view at church ceremonies. I dragged the chair to the center of the window. I cast my eyes above New York. The sky was nothing. It had nothing.
I wrapped my father’s tie around my neck and tied it professionally. It rested on my torso with graceful symmetry. The night was in my stomach. I sobbed in silence. Tears gushed down my nose, crossed my twitching lips, bumped over my chin and sank onto my father’s tie. I felt as if I was watering something dead and dried inside of me.
I carried the record in my satchel for the next month. Aida was nowhere to be seen. I promised myself not to go to The Crankers again.
– Birhanu T. Gessese
Featured Image: Original illustration
*Disclaimer: This is a piece of fiction in which creative licence is used, the views expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and are not necessarily shared by RAZZ.