A History of Love In the Void
by Jude Chike
Of fire and the fear
You’ll be gone in a year
~ Aeden Alvarez / Miguela Soriano, “Natural Disaster”
It was three weeks to the first-semester examinations scheduled for March 2020, and I was ranting on WhatsApp following the rise in COVID-19 cases and news of the university closing by order of the state government. I was losing my mind and needed a break. Then I got what I needed. That semester’s examinations were not set until October, yet that was not enough time for me to prepare and pass with the best grades. You don’t always get to negotiate with doom, and I learned that the hard way. Sometimes, impending disasters will not be reversed regardless of all measures against them.
That was the year of so many endings. The year that ripped apart the steel walls of my life before I slipped into a new space. It was an unforeseen flight to a promised land, and I would forget the ground for a long time.
Before the lockdown, I had missed some classes and a friend once referred to me as Dean of Faculty. It was a joke, but I dropped my chin, ashamed, as I then had not acknowledged that I was trying my best to hang on. “There’s no time,” my friends said. “Just move into the house so you can be close to school.” And that was what I did after reality had turned upside down, a month before the examinations that would have come and gone seven months earlier. I moved into the house where death would eye me, scoff, and say, “Hey, I was kidding. You are not ready.”
This is the house where I regard plantain trees by the window to be some of my closest friends. They stand there, waving when the wind passes, green and ochre, withering and regenerating all day, shadowy monsters at night. This is the house where stray cats play in the trees and, sometimes, in the open yard, snarling and howling, scaring the superstitious neighbours.
I cannot talk about my existential crisis and leave out the house down the street from St. John the Baptist Parish, the closest I have lived to a Catholic establishment. Like a voluntary alarm set, the church’s bell rings memories of evangelism into my mind when my solitude doesn’t refer me to that past. Therefore, I cannot talk about that year of endings and leave out when I felt closest to God, the hardest I held on to hope. I cannot talk about that time and not tell you about him. A young man with whom I once shared so much love.
That February afternoon in 2018, I remember thinking that I’d met him before. It was easy to say, “I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere,” after his cousin said something about knowing my cousin. It’s easy to think a stranger is not so unfamiliar if they attend the same church as you. Soon enough, if you fall just the right amount in love with them, they become your friend and your parents get to know them. There was no way to measure what I had no idea of, the passion, but there is a book full of poems to prove what I felt. It was not unfamiliar, but this time it was beautiful chaos. It was blue and bright, ecstasy and melancholy. I was comforted and hurt by all of it.
One evening, I touched his scars when he came by my room at the hostel. He wore a singlet and jean shorts. His abs were almost as visible as his biceps, and his caramel skin turned orange in the thinning light.
“Why are you touching it?” he had asked, frowning, as my fingers ran over a scar on his left shoulder. I was thinking: What am I doing? Is this too much? Should I stop? I wonder what he had felt at that moment. Would I have known if he had stayed and hadn’t left for a walk? I still don’t know if it’s easier to tell when someone is hiding something than to tell when they are showing it to you.
We had our first conversation one night during prep. It was at the small park on the faculty grounds, a hallway down from the First-Year lecture hall, the park they call Love Garden. He sat there reading a textbook, one leg resting on the other as he rubbed his right ankle, and then he looked up as I greeted him, the light from the corridor flashing in his eyes. I joined him at the seat, and we talked for an hour until the lights went out. The remarkable thing I felt other than his baritone and the rumbling laughter it broke into now and then was the distance between his voice and the things that reminded me of the test I had to prepare for. I didn’t want to end the conversation even though I had a textbook to return to and another school day to prepare for.
I had just begun to wear the glasses I got for my myopia when we met, and there would never have been a better time to see withered grass and blooming flowers swaying in the coolness of night-time.
He had no idea I had a crush on him, and my chest sank as I resolved to make sure he never found out. At the time, I only thought it would be as hard as the one frightening course that semester, and it was. But I didn’t reckon such a beginning would necessarily lead to an ending.
If you have ever wandered in your mind to the years before your birth, you probably have imagined the events that led to your existence but as an alternate history: your father and your mother never meeting, or your mother’s parents never meeting – your grandfather travelling to the Ivory Coast and not returning until the mid-70s, so he didn’t reunite with your grandmother who married an English expatriate, in the early 70s.
I wander far enough to find creative writing prompts before I return to the present. It’s no use dwelling on a timeline that could have been, or a timeline created somewhere I may never discover, but this has been my subtle indulgence of the void as if to clear a path for escape by drilling that hard ground for buried treasures, a heirloom of power. Indulging the void seems more practical than cutting words I want to scream at my parents: You should not have had me – I wanted none of this!
Although she has never used the word depression, my mother knows what it means. The one time I spoke with her on the phone for thirty-something minutes, I asked her: if you had been able to choose whether to be born or not, what would have been your choice?
The conversation went as badly as I expected. It has been two years since my parents became aware of my disillusionment and their misunderstanding lingers. I even came close to revealing the void to my father, but he said my estrangement from God was the cause of my crisis, and when I returned to my room, I almost felt relief. I had said something even though I expected that response.
Now questions linger in the gulf between us. Is this what I was born to be? Am I an extension of you? Do I have no say in my being? Did I come out of you to fill your void? Have you investigated your emptiness? Have you confronted your demons?
As a seven-year-old, I was confident and optimistic. Nobody said there would be times when I would lose the will to live. No one told me the truth about growth: it is necessary for every human but can feel like an inevitable walk back to the emptiness we all came from. The unbeing before we existed. The void.
In that year of endings, I gradually turned indifferent to my existence. I thought about the men in my family and wondered if they had ever reached for the door to that void and breathed the airless unbeing. Ever wondered why we must walk into the void when we could jump into it? The last time I tried that freefall, I blinked in and out of consciousness until I vomited. Death watched me from everywhere that night, aware that I didn’t swallow enough pills to reach the void. I had taken barely enough to leave Death’s claws marked on my bedsheet, those green-black irremovable blotches of despair.
We lie a lot to ourselves about our need for others. We effortlessly learn to equate that need to a pervading error, a reality that should not lean on the significance of all things without a backbone of shame. I still dealt with my affliction alone after I lost that friendship, God, and the path of my religious indoctrination. Such dissociation makes you wonder if you left a part of yourself in time or placed it elsewhere – somewhere you can barely see and never reach.
I tried too hard to read him, and became obsessed – sometimes, even delighted to see his eyes blaze red when he was upset, his chin hardening, lips crisped. He was sensitive and kind and decent, I thought he was otherworldly. I loved how he showed up for me, and how he scolded me for not sharing my problems. I once considered the inevitable end of our friendship and tried to avoid him. One evening after classes, he walked up to me and held my hand right there at the crowded hostel entrance, saying he missed me. I nodded, not looking at him, trying not to smile.
Who could have told me that I was playing with fire? Something that would imprint images on my recurrent dreams until I would no longer feel what I needed to escape but still yearn for it. What would’ve changed if we had thought more of each other than we had thought of God, righteousness, and eternal life?
A year has passed since the last time we talked. Maybe he has sailed on the Pacific Ocean, hiked on mountains, seen auroras in Norway, or walked over Niagara Falls. But has he experienced anything more breathtaking than that sunset three years ago, during my first mission for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church? I haven’t.
It was a Wednesday in Harry’s Town, Degema, in August 2019. After reminding the townspeople of that evening’s service, we took a hint from the sky to quickly see something we couldn’t miss. We walked to the river, whose thinner body was the one I had known since my childhood. The Sombreiro. One of the longest rivers in southern Nigeria. And there was the sun, big and round and orange, its rays like golden tendrils piercing the clouds as it sank into the horizon, right through the centre of a mangrove bush. This is the same water that snatched the air from the lungs of two persons I loved. It’s strange how a waterbody is the same everywhere it runs through but unfamiliar where you don’t feel sad as you gaze into it, feeling its steady rush, breathing its mysterious air, realising that it is no one’s enemy.
As we listened to some townsmen describe their work, it felt like a date with two friends of mine – the most significant waterbody of my life meets the most notable man in my life. I stared into his eyes as we faked catching the sun in our hands. The hymn we would sing later that week – “what a wonder of it all…” – would have me smiling, and not just because I had never felt so close to God. That half-hour by the river had felt briefly eternal, and I shared it with a man I was in love with. It didn’t matter if he knew it or not. I knew it, and so did God, as I thought then. There was nothing the elder and lead evangelist said about men loving men later that week that I hadn’t heard before. There was no quote from the Bible I hadn’t seen before. None of it mattered now that the sun had reached out across time and space to feel us, to be felt by us.
We began to build our love language a few weeks after that night at the park. It was our way of using silence and our bodies to reaffirm our friendship. I interpreted his hands on my shoulders or my elbows or my legs or my back – depending on where we were and whether I was sitting or lying down – as his response to my silent questions: Do you know I feel something for you? Do you know what I mean? Have you ever felt like this for someone else, a boy?
His touches seemed to mean that yes was the answer to those questions, but the most we could have would never go beyond that language. It was an affectionate rejection. At least, it felt like that, and I thought it was enough. I knew what I wanted to find when I reached for his shoulders or caressed his knees. I wasn’t sure if he knew what my hands were saying as the language felt like it all came from him. I could only try to respond while acknowledging what it implied. It’s strange how physical contact can take the place of verbal expression and still seem inadequate to a love interest. We touched each other when surrounded by walls and empty hallways or when the rest of the world was dim and quiet enough for his face and voice to take centre stage in reality.
I liked it even better when he asked me to touch him. Like one time he complained about skin irritation. I liked seeing him shirtless, looking at that body I once described in a poem as sculpted by God from gold. I liked how his hands rested on my arms, and sometimes, on my waist. I liked the tight locking of our fingers and his gentle pinch.
I liked that our love language felt the same in unfamiliar places. Like the camp where I befriended more trees than people. In spaces that required the use of our eyes more than the heat from our chests. In consecrated buildings so dipped in Christ’s blood that I could see everyone drenched in it. Grounds too holy to feel my heart and all its beating for him.
I once shared a paragraph about what endings meant to me and how I would spend my last few hours with my best friend. I don’t think I’ll outlive her or anyone I feel so much for, but I would want their names engraved somewhere on the moon should, of all things, that great rock remain if our planet shatters into pieces. I’m not sure how much I care about existing, but it’s not enough for me to be regarded as a being fit for eternity, or one to write a memoir to honour my would-be dead friends, wearing a shirt with the words of the one who replied, “I would if you would too,” when he saw a screenshot from my YouTube Music app. The song was Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever.”
I only say this because should none of these people be alive when I need them, would this existence still make sense? Nonetheless, in my imagination of Doomsday, I try to survive. Like Katniss Everdeen, I wield a bow and arrows — I embody fire. There is a thrill in survival that I can’t ignore, and I don’t mean as a cinephile. As pointless as the void makes it seem, isn’t this the one thing I want: survival until a peaceful end?
I think certain things we can’t control are the best things in life. The moon is always with us; we see all its phases and can predict its invisibility. The lack of that simplicity and translucence is what I find most disturbing about human relationships. Yet we make it work regardless of all intricacies, just as death treads on the same path as joy – just as your loved one leaves home or dies and still seems close.
So, when I realized that my last dial of his number would be the first in over a year, I thought about how it ended, even after I informed him of my narrow escape from the void. We planned a date for the gloom to be unfurled before us. Didn’t he call to know if we could sit in the house down the street from the church and interrogate that emptiness until its dissipation?
There is that conviction we found in our hustle as young adults. They say we were right to be estranged, that we can still hear the voices that carried our names lightly and recall the faces we once touched and placed inside our chests. Did we even feel much of each other’s warmth? Not enough. Not as much as I had wanted.
They said our comfort zones were intangible. We lost each other in the hustle as young adults, and now I think it is an extension of the void. The hustle. It is a loop in existence, a merry-go-round of purpose and its tricky sense of fulfilment placed across maps of lifetimes. But life itself is a cosmic hustle.
I always thought I would experience Doomsday. A spectacular apocalypse where the world is dragged across months of unending disasters, time and reality wearing out their fabric. I mean, turning seven and learning that I existed in the “end times.” How terrifying it was!
As a kid reading the story of Noah and the Great Flood and the unbelievers, I only contemplated God’s wrath and the human inability to reunite with Heaven. I had no idea about the countless endings before my birth. I didn’t realise then what it meant for an apocalypse to be so impending and catastrophic that the mere prospect of its occurrence made people laugh.
Now I understand that the world is no stranger to unending disasters.
I am now in my early twenties and no stranger to disasters. Endings are proof of beginnings, and we cannot change that. Does he remember that sunset and the river? Wouldn’t he walk past me in a moving crowd? Wouldn’t I be as unfamiliar as a dream he cannot recall, a dream he has never had? What do I know now?
I don’t know how to – I’m not sure that I will – give much of myself to a country where it is a crime to be his lover. Now I know how to regard that desire: It was an engagement of secrets in sunlit spaces. This is it. I tried. He tried. We ended, and they made sure of it.
In the grand scheme of things, we will always be ending – even when there would be no trace of us. The world is always ending. Infinity is like that. I recommend, dear reader, that you untangle yourself from the sands of time. There are stronger waves to crash into; there are higher winds to ride on – oceans that even the void cannot hold. Non-existence is not complicated; we are too attached to living.
When we acknowledge our significance by the extent to which we have tried to comprehend our portions of infinity, we glimpse how we matter, most truly, despite the void looming as our separate deaths.
This is how I face the void now. It is the end and the beginning of life. There is life in the void. This is how I dare to dream even when nightmares thrust my mind deeper into my secret trauma – even when the monsters linger as triggering sights, sounds and news in conscious spaces. I don’t know if it’s the same for him, but some of us have learned to defy the void’s gravity with our imagination. Our imagination keeps us afloat; in death, it will preserve us. We are not allowed into their Heaven, so we have created new worlds. If no dot can be removed from their scriptures, then our creations cannot die. We have birthed lives that will speak for us in our absence.
I hope it is the same for him. I hope he finds his way around the void when it appears uninvited and ruthless. I hope he is on a less constricting path lined with sunlight and rainbows. I lost a part of me when the pandemic snatched the ground from right under my feet. Now, in this transient vacuum that has nearly buried me alive, I have learned that I do not need to find what I lost.
There are infinite possibilities, I belong in every time. My life’s weight can smash my spine, but as Eloghosa Osunde has shown me, the pliancy of being will enable me to choose what I can carry. We walk this world with heavy heads and still dream. Therefore, nothing is impossible.