BY IE AGCAOILI
1. His unfinished story, fragmented like drafts of earlier manuscripts, survive mainly through the details. A made-up room, its light blue walls, the singular window overlooking a frequently empty street, the white curtain that separates it from the adjacent room. A train, painted in green, left on top of a wooden chair. A young man riding the subway at 7 pm, an open book in his hand, looking out of the window and into an afternoon, once, when everything was home.
2. My mother calls out my name, her voice a soft, Sunday music from the kitchen. Geronimo, she repeats, and I remain in my room, holding the wooden train, responsible for its path, its destination. I continue playing. I want to hear her one more time.
3. "The narration of diaspora, of the exilic experience," the author begins, his soft voice pitched for storytelling, "is always one of reconciliation. With pasts and places that are never fully one's own, with an identity that is always in flux, flowing in and out of foreign and familiar grounds." The author pauses. His eyes, now looking at a memory, continue where he left off.
4. He suddenly remembers her. Her laughter, light and infectious on easy afternoons, the slight tilt of her head as the punch line kicks in. Her natural elegance, a certain softness that always surrounds her, a certain lightness of air. Her tenderness, as she folds her clothes, as if they are silk or satin, and puts them in the suitcase. Her stillness and poise, as her eyes scans the nearly emptied room, the vastness of blue walls. Her grace, as she slowly lifts a hand to say goodbye.
5. There were pictures of before, kept inside the wooden box on top of her cabinet, never to be looked at again. She once said that photographs do not capture moments; they just make the past appear more recent. It is us, she said, so choose what you remember.
6. I looked at photographs of an abandoned city, its remains mossed with nostalgia. I could have lived at that time, in that place and feel exactly the same way as we leave. A boy looking at everything familiar, for the last time.
7. I was certain the moment I saw her as she scans for a safe seat, hurried, but awkwardly and with much hesitation, her eyes unaccustomed to skins of other hues. There was no fear in her eyes, unlike mine. It was more of a slight irritation from a temporary inconvenience. She walked towards one of the chairs nearest the window, eagerly waited for the instructor to arrive.
8. Then she told me, after all those weeks, a smile on her face, that her father, already in Johannesburg, is expecting her by the end of the week. She handed me a white book, the title in gold, and informed me that the elegies are considered the poet's magnum opus. She recited lines about beauty and terror, that one is the beginning of the other. The verse encapsulated. I was silent. I shivered as she walked away.
9. Suddenly, I realized that it is gone. A place that existed in photographs, mentioned every once in a while in sullen conversations triggered by a distant relative's death, in infrequent emails of early friends, in the news. Now, it is fiction, a thing to be imagined.
10. Trains used to be toys, things for the imagination. I remember owning one once, I remember playing with it while Barry Manilow was crooning on the radio and not really liking the music that much, I remember fantasizing about far destinations, mountains, seas, the sense of conquest when returning, I remember my innocence with what distance really means. Now, trains are just metaphors, things of the imagination. Life in transit, one heads on from one destination to another, and, in between, watches everything go by.
11. The train halts, the doors open, the multitude bursts out. He comes out carrying the same book, the same old ticket inserted between the poems, but his hands feel as if they belong to a different man. He walks past cafeterias, some diners, a butcher shop, a closed bookstore, blocks that could've been half a world away. Then he stops, takes the keys out. He is home.