CHAPTER 8: INVITATION
He lies awake and stares
At nothing but himself
He creates another and looks through their eyes
He curses his weakness and all that it seems
His faith misplaced, drowning in disbelieve
Still, He lies awake and stares
Fishing for light or her soft lips
One is good, one is better or so he thinks
Then, he lies awake and smirks
At nothing and everything
Thinking of shadows, death and skins.
JJ watched Leah walk off, his hands absentmindedly rubbing his shoulder. It was not the first time he was by a girl. It certainly was not the first time he one or two had warned him. But it was the first time it hurt.
As her strides carried her round the bend, JJ began his sluggish walk. He had once read about times when strings of bad luck followed. He had the bad luck of being born, but that was awhile back. His bad luck had allowed The General to slip away, had pitched him in the Emeka-Leah-Ter triangle and now Ter had threatened him, Leah had threatened him, and he was certain Emeka would have his fair share of threatening to dish out. The sound of thunder rolled off the building walls. The lights went off, and JJ took the advantage to lean against the wall. He placed his head in his hands. He really did not need drama, especially one where he could not define his part, or worse, his feelings. As the lights came back, he knew where to go.
Despite sprinting under the rain, JJ was drenched by the time he made it to Dr. Sulo’s office. His boots squelched angrily as he walked. The lights flicked off again and JJ cussed. He bent down and fidgeted with his lace. By the time he rose to his full height, his soaked boots and socks were in his hands. He walked bare feet to Dr. Sulo’s office and knocked. There was a sharp intake of breath and some hurriedness within. JJ had a sense he was interrupting something – not that he cared much for it.
“Yes?” came the Dr’s voice.
“It’s JJ. I want to see you.”
“Obviously.” The Dr responded. JJ cocked his head. He never figured her for the sarcastic time. Was this a bad time? “What do you want JJ?”
“Well, for starters…to dry off?”
There was a moment of silence during which JJ began to reconsider his actions. Why had he thought the doctor would drop everything thing she was doing just to have a talk with him? It was presumptuous. Every gang leader should know not to operate based on assumptions. He could kick himself for this mistake. Just as he made to turn around the door cracked open.
“God must love you JJ. That’s why He sent the rain,” said a dishevelled looking Dr. Sulo. She looked different from what JJ had grown accustomed. Her hair ruffle was off causing her hair to sprawl all over her face. It looked unkempt. She wore a light brown shirt over a dark brown suit skirt. The top buttons were undone and JJ averted his eyes. She picked up a bottle of Kagor and a picture frame from a glass stool JJ had never seen, sauntered to her desk, staggering a little, and stashed them inside her drawers. She seemed to consider her appearance then. After buttoning her shirt, she picked a hairpin and packed her hair perfectly. When she turned to JJ with her characteristic smile, JJ was looking straight at Dr. Sulo.
“Estranged family?” JJ asked.
He saw a glint of sadness sit in her eyes. A hard gaze quickly replaced it.
“Perceptive this evening, ain’t we?” She opened a slim Oakwood wardrobe, which housed her suit and tossed JJ a face towel. “You will dry off without taking off a single piece of clothing. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly.” JJ dabbed his arms, his eyes trained on her. The room light was dim, no music playing from the background, no window curtains drawn. Even the aquarium light was off, the fish asleep, giving the room its final sombre look. “You never answered my question Dr.”
“You never understood my answer JJ. What is my job if every Q&A session was straightforward?”
“So you consciously make vague your approach?” JJ asked, pausing in his tracks.
Dr. Sulo chuckled and took a sit, crossing her legs. She indicated the opposite seat, and JJ sat down.
“What do you want JJ?”
“Have you tried…sitting on the toilet seat?”
“OK. Forgive me. It’s just weird you barging in here and telling me you feel strange. It’s a ridiculously inconvenient time for me so could you be more articulate please.”
JJ was ruffled. He stared Dr. Sulo straight in the eyes, neither blinking away. She looked prim but he could tell when a set of twigs were barely holding it together. There were dark rings under her eyes. She obviously had not had time for makeup. JJ suddenly lost the appetite to talk. He rose up abruptly.
“I’m sorry to bother you Dr,” he said, bowing his head slightly, “but I would be leaving you now.”
“Sit down JJ.”
“I cannot sit here and discuss my issues with you when you clearly have unresolved ones yourself.”
“Please go clear the mess with…”
“Sit down now.” Dr. Sulo had risen from her chair, her voice booming round the room, aided in cadence by the thunder that roared immediately after. Her fists balled up and her chest heaved. “For years I have sat in this chair and listened to kids rant on and on about how life is unbearable and how their problems are unsolvable. For years I have poured myself into these kids. You know why JJ?” She paused and JJ shook his head in the dim light. “Because with each child that learns something revolutionary from me, with each mended relationship, every raised hope, every conquered fear, my wound is soothed. My own personal demons are abated. My…mess as you put it…though not cleared up, becomes bearable. Will you take that away from me JJ? Will you deny me my balm?”
JJ saw her eyes glaze and knew it was not the alcohol. He tried a step forward but she raised her arm.
“I’m not a hugger JJ. I’m a talker. So now, talk to me. But about you. That’s when I can shine.”
JJ nodded again. His voice jammed, his palms clammed. Through his sessions with the Dr. he had come to respect her, think of her as a voice of intelligent reason. She indeed had helped him. He just never knew he had helped her too. JJ realised he never really had considered her as a person. An actual person.
“I’m sorry doctor.”
Dr. Sulo groaned. “Enough with the apologies. I will grant you one privilege tonight. Drop the doctor.”
“Wow. That was rather quick. So again, what do you want JJ.”
JJ sucked in air. Then said, “I used to be an arms dealer. I sold guns and ammunitions. More like a broker. The middleman. Had connects in Yemen. Unfortunately, I dealt with some real goons here. Bastards. They used my guns in the wrong region. Killed innocents. I sought to kill the main man. But he has escaped doct…Sulo. He is gone. I keep having these stupid nightmares. Nightmares of death. Of my parents. Of people I don’t know. I should be locked up. I promised not to interfere with any bodies lives. I promised to cleanse myself. I can’t fulfil either now.”
“Either?” Sulo said quietly.
“Emeka, my roomie, likes a girl named Leah. She was sort of involved with another guy named Ter. Emeka met me for help in getting Leah. I said OK. Fate, or at least I thought it was, made Leah and Ter split. Ter threatened me at some point to stay clear of Leah. I got an informal date for Emeka with Leah. Minutes ago though, she threatened me also. I don’t want to go to my room just yet. Emeka might do same and get punched.”
“Why would you punch him?”
“I don’t like being threatened.”
“Is it the threats that bother you. Or the feeling of letting people down.”
JJ considered Sulo. “You want to talk about my feelings?”
“Your feelings are incongruent with your mannerisms.”
“Care to explain Sulo?” JJ sneered.
Sulo did not rise to the bait. “Moments ago you wanted to help me. You were willing to reach out and hold me. Do you know what might have happened JJ?”
He knew but he kept quiet.
“It would have gotten heated fast between us two.”
“You are twice my age Sulo.”
“You are desirable to even the blind JJ. You are smart and have a roguish thing about you. As a result you are not conscious of the vibes you give out. You are not conscious of the extent of your actions. Rather, you are always shocked at the results you get.”
JJ sat still, images flooding his mind. He thought of Leah. How could he communicate that he was between the rock and the sea? Emeka had been desperate and he had stepped in to help. Was not that what the Jesus Believers clamoured on and on about? Help in the time of need?
“I am not bad Sulo.”
“But you are perceived bad.”
“I do a lot of good to make up. Just like you.”
Sulo opened and closed her mouth, like one of her fishes. The sorrowful look returned to her eyes and this time, it remained. “JJ,” she seemed to struggle with herself, “it doesn’t work that way.”
“It works for you.”
“That’s not why I do what I do.” She finished. “You have to be conscious of your actions. And to think of people’s feelings when doing them.”
“Back to feelings again Sulo?”
“That’s what we relate to people with. Feelings. Words, actions, inactions, all bow to how you make a person feel. In this latest debacle you find yourself in, Leah is the constant. How do you think you’ve Leah feel?”
“Be more acute.”
“Sad. Like she came here for blueprints out of her confusion and I just helped deepen it. She hates me. Probably can’t look Emeka in the face. Regulations prevent her from seeing Ter. I have made her feel sad.”
“What was your intention though JJ?” Sulo asked, leaning in.
“I…I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think of how I would make her feel. I…I…”
“You are not used to considering other people’s feelings JJ. You are your own compass and unfortunately, you lord that over others. Therefore, you assume they should understand your motivations. With their brains. Without any consideration to how they would feel.” When JJ did not speak, she continued. “So the guns you sold? That was meant to kill people. Innocent is relative to us. A boy whose parents are murdered is innocent to us until we learn that his parents are terrorist recruiters and the boy is already on the fast lane. But you didn’t think of that. Of the feelings of the killed.”
A phone rang close by and Sulo tilted her head towards the sound. “I should get that.” She said.
JJ bowed his head. He wove his fingers around each other, lacing them. His mind reeled as he thought of himself in this new light. It was definite then, he was selfish. He thought of Big Pa and Sweet Ma. JJ shut his eyes tight, deciding the tears would remain inside.
“I’m afraid our time is up JJ. I got called to attend to a matter elsewhere. Transport is outside this moment.”
JJ had not heard her come back. “What do I do?” he asked.
“Think. That’s a starting point. Then come to my house Friday evening. I’m hosting a couple of students. Mine only though. You are not allowed to bring a friend.”
JJ’s head sprang up, a smile forming on his face. “This is legit?”
“The camp thinks it’s therapeutic.” She winked.
“Come and find out JJ. To help your thinking, remember, people will forget what you say to them. True. But, they will never forget how you make them feel. Goodnight Jide Jackson.”
“That’s why you have to turn to your bible for guidance. He said to us that His word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”
JJ fixed his eyes on Leah. He had tried getting a seat beside her but she had fought against it. He had never been in this part of the camp before. It was away from the other buildings. The shape was confusing. Arguably the smallest building on camp, it was the queerly built. JJ had recognized it upon sight. The building was petite and compact, housing only three rooms. It had no windows – air swept in from the big door. Or door space. There was no door, not even a doorframe. The Faith Building was built with mud. Plastered handprints could be seen on the walls – both outside and inside. Stories had it that the building had been a project of some grateful campers at one time. The roof was a dome, which tapered at the top with a short thin rod at the apex. It could pass for a mosque or a church. JJ figured that was the idea.
Leah had seen him immediately he walked in. Her gaze had met his searching eyes so instantly that he had a nagging feeling she knew he was coming. He hoped that she had hoped he was coming. Immediately she saw him though, and had sent daggers his way, she beckoned on a lady to sit beside her. All JJ could do now was stare at her unashamedly until this preacher dude was done with his droning.
“Exactly.” The preacher said. “What of you Jide. Would you like to try?”
He quizzed himself on why he was desperate to speak with Leah. Was it to exonerate himself? Or to lift his own guilt? He had managed to dodge Emeka after his impromptu meeting with Dr. Sulo. Once out of his wet clothes he had felt immensely relieved. That lasted for about ten seconds though. Leah twisted her head and looked at him. Such large eyes, he thought. He realised he liked the way she looked at him, with amusement. Almost like, she knew his train of thoughts. Leah darted her eyes to the left repeatedly. JJ frowned and broke his gaze, his senses becoming aware.
“I’m thinking.” He lied. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Leah stifle a chuckle. He raised his head, confusion etched on his face. “It’s a tough one sir. Give me a few minutes and I might rack something up.”
“OK. Let’s have you Patrick, after which Jide you are up.” The preacher said.
JJ caught Leah shaking her head slightly. He winked and looked away quickly.
“For me,” Patrick was saying, “I think the Holy Spirit is willing to lead us when we are confused and unable to find our path. That we are here,” he swept his hand round the room, “in confused crazy states, does not negate his existence. Just like because bad things happen in the world does not mean God is dead or does not exist.”
“I could take you up on that Pat.”
All eyes turned on the speaker. JJ looked at Leah, who regarded him with incredulity.
“You could take me on what JJ?” Patrick asked.
“On God been dead.”
“Well I best define what I mean by dead. I don’t mean non-existent. I don’t mean alive and now murdered or something. I mean,” JJ paused, for effects, “God doesn’t interfere with lives anymore. God is dead. To me, at least.”
“Are you speaking from a Christian point of view Jide or is this an atheistic reasoning?” The preacher asked, mopping the quickly forming sweat beads from his brows.
The gathering had gone quiet. Arguments were encouraged in the Faith Building. Christian way versus Muslim Way. Trinity or not. But nobody had ventured into this territory. To suggest the unthinkable.
“You see,” JJ began “I have lived a rough life. Well, I suppose a lot of you here have. That’s why you are here right? But I have had a crazy rollercoaster ride. Not once can I point at an incident where something inexplicable happened for my good. Not once. Every choice I have made has led me down the wrong tracks.” He turned briefly to Leah. “Even when I genuinely try to help one, another gets hurt. And just so you know, I’ve gone down routes like killing innocents – babies, children, fathers, mothers. And I’ve done all this not because of some inherent bad in me, but because I was left, by this God, with no other choice.
Several times I called out to my parents in times of despair. They were good people. How does a freaking useless truck that the stupid government should kept off the road, lose control of its brakes on one side of the road, and cross over the road divide to the opposite side, crushing the third, not first or second, but third car on a line. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s the sort of occurrence where you’d say something divine was at work. Or at least supernatural. Good people died. Good people who could have shown me love. Good people who could have corrected some of my misgivings. Good people who were my parents. I called out to them severally. But they didn’t answer. They didn’t feel for me anymore. There were no emotions to spare me. You know why? You know? It’s because they were and remain, and will always be dead.”
He ended abruptly. JJ slowly stood up, deciding he had done enough therapy for one day. He looked round, mild disgust fleshed with anger on his face. “So is this God. I’ve been hearing of Him since since. I’ve been hearing of how He is mighty to save. I call bullshit. I’ve called on this God. But like my parents he has never answered. He doesn’t feel for me. He has no emotions to spare me. You know why? Because like my parents, God is dead.”
With that, Jide Jackson walked out of the gathering, Bessy on his mind.