Tiny Universes

A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Worn paperback tucked between charcoal-painted fingernails. There are pop-up flags on nearly every page, most of them indicating distaste. She finds the writing superfluous; the patronizing educated-African-uncle tone makes the back of her ears tickle. She has argued the case, artfully in her opinion, that his writing is mediocre at best – but these debates rarely get anywhere, largely because she has the unfortunate handicap of being surrounded by friends whose loyalty to their African masculinity makes them immune to any well-meaning criticism. She appreciates the sentiment all the same, though, and dutifully adds the book to her list of must-reads for the budding Pan-Africanist.

Her distressed white sweater is tucked into light blue jeans, edged out by hard, black boots with ominous-looking heels. Small fluffy afro braves an angry-sounding wind. She waits at the bus rank, carefully avoiding the dirt-blackened walls of the terminals. She follows the swarming of the drivers, the conductors, the hawkers, the little ones milling about after school; lunch boxes too big for their scrawny arms. Hyper-alert to the cacophony, her nose wrinkles at the ammonia-like smell wafting around in the gale and teeth clench at the filth crowding the gutters. She fixes her face quickly before anyone can call her out.  She has no time for arguments with strangers today; her patience is already wearing thin.

She looks up at the greying sky and sighs. Pulling her phone out of her back pocket, she checks the time. 15:34. Heavy eye-roll. “You’re Late,” she types, emphasizing the “L” to get her point across. She folds her arms, nearly forgetting herself and leaning against a wall. Tap. Tap. Tap-Tap-Tap. Black boot against chewing gum-strewn ground, rhythm matching the yelling of the conductors. Her eyes rake the crowd, searching for the familiar silhouette: the broad, rounded shoulders, the slender frame. The confident, lilting gait. The stern jaw framed by urgent brown-black eyes; eyes set in skin like coffee.

She pulls out her phone again, a nervous habit. 15:49. She’s exasperated now. She begins to type, then changes her mind and dials.
“Hello?” Chestnut, honey, testosterone.
“Where are you?” she asks, her usual husky tenor high with frustration.
“Hi.” He’s smiling. She thaws a little.
“You’re late” she sulks, biting back the “as usual” that threatens to follow.
“I know. Traffic is pretty bad, worse than I expected.”
“Well, how far are you?”
“8 minutes or so. Where are you?”
“I’m waiting at the bus rank.”
His tone sharpens, “Alone?!”
“Yes”, she replies, twirling a coil of hair around and around her index finger. Another nervous habit.
“I see.” A pause. “Don’t you want to wait somewhere more… comfortable?”
She smiles at the ill-disguised euphemism. “But you still haven’t told me what we’re doing. How I must know where to wait?”
He chuckles at the sound of her peculiar slang. ‘You-ologisms’ he calls them. He catches himself using them from time to time, and it half amuses and half frightens him how far she’s infiltrated his brain.
“Your complete lack of patience never ceases to amaze me. Wait by your dad’s parking spot.”
“Feeling buff, huh?” She laughs as she starts the trek, relieved to be leaving the lurid stares behind.
“See you in 5”, he says, and hangs up. She shakes her head and pockets her phone, quickening her pace.

[to be continued]

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