Coming Home to Myself by Bryan Okwesili
Entering the world of Bryan Okwesili’s flash piece, “Coming Home to Myself,” the reader witnesses the narrator as he struggles to coax a sock onto a stiff foot. Thus we are immediately drawn into the inner thoughts of a mortician, lost in reverie as he attends to the routine tasks of his profession. The reader follows the narrator’s stream of consciousness as his thoughts flow from musings about the body he is dressing to his own memories and finally his conflicted feelings about his identity as a gay man who has experienced rejection and dismissal at the hands of his family and friends. The portrait that emerges is a poignant and wistful mixture of hope and regret, as well as righteous anger toward those who believed “that a man can learn to love himself, even if it means unloving a part of himself first.” The reader roots for this narrator to feel whole, but Okwesili resists an easy or tidy conclusion. The choice to set the piece in the morgue reflects the subtext that to “unlove oneself” is akin to death, and the reader is left with the complicated loneliness of a man yearning for the love and acceptance and ease that should be his birthright. In his author’s note, Okwesili writes: “I am keen on telling lots of queer stories, exploring the lives of queer persons, especially on the continent of Africa. I believe ‘our’ stories matter, too.” Indeed, in the telling of complicated stories—queer, African, and otherwise—the writer throws the curtain open to life, even in the shadows of the morgue. —CRAFT
I am humming along to Lucky Dube’s voice over the radio on the windowpane. The cavernous room swallows his tenor, leaving his words bare, airy, like scattered feathers in the sun. I do not know what it means to feel irie, but with the rhythm of the song pulsing in quick kicks, I am nodding along too, savouring what irie could mean in my mind.
I struggle to put a sock over the foot of the man lying on the metal gurney before me. His toes are large and straight, the edge of his nails trimmed to a fine curve. The slenderness of his feet reminds me of a childhood story, one about stomping kangaroos and the monkey. My lips stretch into a grin. When the socks go over his feet, I trace the hairs on his calves and thighs up to his abdomen, where they gather in wooly darkness. I try not to look at his penis, twice. I fail. His head tilts to the side as if he is reacting to the sensation. I turn his head up again, to face the ceiling. I rub more shea butter over his face to retain its glow, smoothening the area round his nose. The butter sinks into his skin and his cheekbones glisten, pointed like the heads of garden hoes. With his brows raised into a curved arch, he looks like he is posing for Vogue.
I think of what his life could have been before he stilled into lifelessness. A smiling traffic warden, waving cars to different directions under the irate Calabar sun? A vibrant gigolo fascinated by the sketchy humor of anime? An introspective, middle-class yoga teacher hopeful about poetry and silence as panacea for world violence? It is easier to imagine him being a lover than to imagine who he loved. I imagine him on a hot night, sitting in a tub filled with cold water, his lover between his thighs, reminding him of how they met at the university, both of them laughing at the then-awkwardness of his trousers drawn above his waistline. If his lover were male, did he tell his friends over beer that he was gay, a dimming smile in his eyes, or did he forget to lock the door and a friend walked in on him groping a penis? I imagine being his lover, telling him I loved him, then repeating myself. I imagine his plump lips pulling to the sides into a smirk, telling me to say it thrice and more, that such is the beauty of love as a cliché, to be able to love over and over again.
Many others like him rest here too—young, old, male, female—laid out in rows, their stories trapped in their bodies, lost to imagination. When I invent their lives, I know I am only wishing I were part of them in a way that would have prevented their deaths. I look at their bodies, and I think of sequels; the possibility of what could have been, of what could be.
How does one unlive a life? If I raise a finger to the sky, standing on my toes, as in ballet, and begin to twirl, first gently, then faster, can I rewind time? Well, at least to that night I turned my back on my father and walked out into the night, never to return; at least, to that hour he looked at me and said I must choose between love and family; at least, to that awful moment Mama begged him to reconsider, that she believed I could grow into a man who had learned how to unlove other men. Each day, I wonder if she meant what she said—that a man can learn to love himself, even if it means unloving a part of himself first.
I stuff balls of cotton into the man’s nostrils, and I am satisfied that the change doesn’t alter the calm on his face. When people ask how it feels to work with the dead, their faces grimaced into a what-the-fuck, I say cool. Other times—when I am filled with too much beer and my fingers begin to feel numb—I say it reminds me of coming home to myself, of the silence in my room at night when I ask God, through my tears, why I can’t be loved. I say, at least, when working with the dead, I know I am surrounded by people who can’t love me back.
They never understand.
I hang a number over his toe and move on to the next corpse, a child with a bashed skull.
Over the radio, a woman sings about a life for rent. The room doesn’t touch her voice. This time, I do not hum along.
BRYAN OBINNA JOSEPH OKWESILI is a queer Nigerian poet and storyteller. His works explore the interiority and tensions of queerness in a heteronormative culture in which he imagines a world of inclusivity. He is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Tupelo Quarterly Open Fiction Prize. His works appear or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, SLICE, Isele Magazine, Foglifter, Tupelo Quarterly, Brittle Paper, The Rising Phoenix Review, Ghost City Review, The Shallow Tales Review, and elsewhere. He is currently a student of law at the University of Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.
Featured image by Gary Bendig courtesy of Unsplash