Directions to Love
By Noel Cheruto
Turn left at nineteen. Your first. And your last, you think. Uproot your heart and plant it deep within his. He, with bulky thighs and action-hero arms, plays rugby for Team Kenya. Watch him on TV in his team jersey with its red-black-white flag. Watch his legs running across the screen, his short black shorts riding up under his perfect, rounded bottom, every muscle pulling the camera along. Watch the crowd in the stands, waving tiny Kenyan flags and chanting his name as he scores a touchdown. Feel your cheeks taut with joy as he stands behind microphones after the game. Feel your life ebb away as he walks away from the camera into the arms of a long-braided, narrow-waisted woman. See your phone buzz alight with messages. He has eight other women who claim to be his. Eight that you know.
Turn left at the zoo. Your heart is padded with cynicism, but you are willing to bargain away pieces of it for love. Stumble upon a lion lying out on the path, big, with broken claws and ragged mane. Why is he lying unclaimed; does nobody want a lion?
No one wants a sick lion, an untamed lion. But you do. You can heal him. You can shampoo his mane with joy and seal his wounds with love. So you take him home. He is sick and tattered, but he is a lion, his past glory better than your present hurt. Give him everything. Your first salary, your home, your all.
Drag him around to show him off to everybody. They look away, jealous that you, a wallflower, tamed a lion.
Know the cold, antiseptic smell of rehabilitation clinics. Know the sucking sound of a stomach getting pumped. Drag him still, from one promise to another, through excuses, through near-death experiences. One evening, over a table where he has fallen asleep, his face hugging a plate of fried plantain, a friend points out that a dead lion is not a lion.
Turn left at the cemetery where souls go to die. Sift through shovelfuls of men. Thick men, foolish men, beautiful men, tall men; have them on a roster. Some you like, most you don’t. Rate your joy by the number of texts beeping through. If everyone wants a piece of you, does that not mean that you are valuable?
One, with a ring around his finger, stands naked over you in bed and says: Please, my love, don’t fall in love with me. I cannot afford a complication right now. My family. . . Let us keep it light, okay? You want to poke his bulging beer belly until you pop it like a balloon. Poke him and say, I am a thousand stars dancing in the sky. I am a million waves rising out of the ocean. You, don’t fall in love with me! Instead, you lie back and cross your ankles, with your arms behind your head. Close your eyes and follow him around your bedroom by the sound of his movements. Hear him zipping his pants, his belt buckle falling apart and clattering on the floor. Feel him sitting on the bed to lace his shoes. Follow his footsteps along your narrow corridor to the door.
Hear your front door lock behind him. Breathe once. Breathe again. Fall into a light sleep. Get startled upright by the doorbell. Walk naked to the door to meet his one-sided smile. I forgot my belt. Find it under your bed, exactly where you knew he left it. Yank his salmon shirt out of your closet. Shove them in a brown paper bag, along with the hurt from your father, whose face you can’t remember. Push everything through the narrowly open door. Slam the door against his promises to call you later and slide your back along the door to the floor. Stay there until you remember who you are.
Turn left again. The fourth left is always a right. Right back to where you began. Right your wrongs. Undress your loneliness and put it on a plate in front of you. Poke at it until, hungry, you begin to eat. Devour your loneliness. Fill your stomach so there’s no room for any man that comes your way.
Get promoted at work. Move to an office with windows for walls. Look down at the cars on Harambee Avenue, and laugh at how toy-like they seem.
Gichuru from Human Resources comes to help you around your new office. His beard is peppered grey, his smooth skin darker than midnight. Appreciate his beauty as you would a garden: with no need to possess it. He comes every day after that at lunch, pokes his shiny head around the door to ask if you are okay. His eyes are eager, but your heart is locked. One lunchtime, he lets himself in and sits on your desk, with his checker-shirt chest twisted towards you. He doesn’t offer anything or ask for anything.
And then it is a Saturday morning, in bed. Gichuru’s phone is vibrating through the mattress. Hear him grunt awake, fumbling his fingers towards it. Feel the cold of his fingertips raking your scalp as he listens. When he hangs up, he says, sorry babe, I have to go to work.
Nod okay and burrow into the linen. A day spent with him is good. A day spent without him is equally good.
Arrive at love.
Azlan Smith is a queer writer, educator, arts facilitator, and researcher based at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign where they're doing a PhD in Writing Studies. Before graduate school they taught high school for nine years. Their research interests center on storytelling's participation in culture, genre fiction as modern mythology, and Public Humanities projects that use narrative for community building and activism. They love flash because it's like one moment of dance, and a novel because it's time enough to make new friends. Over the last eight years they've also developed Voices, a collaborative project that builds a stage for participants' stories, offering communities another way to see, share, and support themselves.