There are two truths about my world everyone must bear. The first: everyone here is born with two lives. The second: the only way to travel is to sleep.
It all begins on your fourth birthday, when the threads of proper reasoning are still being sewn into your mind. On the night you clock four, you sleep and wake up in a place that is identical to this life. The place everyone calls “the actuality.”
The first time I travelled, I woke up in a different house, in a different bed without my elder sister, Adaeze. Adaeze, unlike my parents who were fascinated with travelling and absences, had always been around me. In this new house, I couldn’t find her and I couldn’t find my toys in my bedroom. The room was wrong. It had books. Books everywhere. In the sitting room, I was alone in an empty house, looking at framed photos of people who didn’t look like my parents. In one of them, there I was smiling and hugging a boy who was clearly older. I was alone in a bad dream.
Before I open the door to my one-room apartment, I mumble “good morning” purely out of habit to my neighbour, Ikenna. Ikenna is safe in the delusion that he’s the smartest person in the world. Barely three months ago, he stopped returning my greetings. Now, he grunts or throws a nod in my general direction. His sense of entitlement is alternately amusing and absurd because he’s a teacher here and a waiter in a bar called “Leftie” when we travel.
I get into my room, take off my suit and lie shirtless on the carpet. I think of the “fixed ones.” The people who hold similar lives here and there. I know one of them. Emeka Nwafor. Short and irritable. In both lives, he’s a primary school principal—at the same school. I don’t know whether to applaud life’s mercy on him or to wince at the possibility that he just isn’t interesting enough for life to bother with.
Last year, in August, a man came to the bank and complained about his ATM card and how the “nonsense” had expired “just like that.” The only reason I attended to him, the only reason I kept a stinging retort firmly behind my teeth, was that this man with a hanging potbelly, dressed in baggy shorts and a loose shirt, was the CEO of a palm oil company in the other life. And while his lives were different in most ways, the link between them was the carelessness of his arrogance. Yet, he was normal enough.
Mama Titi, who I bought akara from on Saturday mornings, and who told me, “I no dey sell on Sunday because my oga no like am. Na our day be that,” didn’t even live in the same state. In the other life, she lives in Enugu. That is rare though. Still, there are others, even rarer. Somehow, when everybody else went to sleep and travelled to their other lives with a continuity that was unremarkable to them, the ones called Drifters, were blessed with the inability to hold on to a life for more than six months.
I am a drifter.
By my count, I’ve lived over a hundred other lives and I cannot begin to express how cliché life can become when given ample time to be repetitive. In a world where everyone is a pebble under rushing waters, my kind is the pebbles constantly tumbling downstream.
Nobody remembers us from a past other life and the only time I tried to remind anyone, a girlfriend of four months, she told me that although she knew drifters, she had never met one. “If you need money, just try and ask. Don’t be harassing people up and down.”
The message was clear. If I wanted a stable relationship or a form of it, I could only seek it here, in this life. Yet, no one wanted something concrete with someone who could offer no certainty in the other life. Imagine dating a boyfriend who you forget after some months.
My current other life won’t end in some months. It’ll end tonight. For some months, I’ve been the overworked receptionist at a public relations firm. I hated the job but trying to get a new one wasn’t worth the effort. For us, time was a stingy tyrant. Also, no employer, ever, consciously accepts a drifter in the other life. Unless it was a missionary college obsessed with kindness and humanitarian service.
I go into my kitchen—a space that would be hell for a claustrophobe—and make noodles because I lack the strength to throw effort into a proper meal. Then I sleep.
But before sleep hugs my mind, everything goes white for a nanosecond. It’s the signal for my kind. I am being dropped into a new life.
Traveling itself has no distinct feeling. In the science fiction movies, when people travel, sexy blue lights whoosh left and right in their minds. In real life, traveling is bland. Sleep. Darkness. Wake. It’s the dullest transition ever.
I open my eyes and see my ceiling painted in shades of pink and briefly consider the horror of waking up here as a woman. Then I remember Adaeze, my sister once following a slap to my cheek with the words, “Never you, in your lives, think pink is a feminine thing. That’s just stupid.” Still, whatever life I have adopted, I have terrible colour choices. This is confirmed when I roll over and realise that my bed sheet is the type of green reserved for dying bitter leaves.
I lie still and wait for my mind to catch up with my new memories then I bathe and leave for work. I am one of three barkeeps at Instincts, a nightclub with an interesting name but fairly generic people who most nights don’t offer a “thank you” for my time spent mixing their drinks. Instead, I get several frowns and three poorly worded insults from some men celebrating a government contract.
Then a lady sits on the bar stool and says, “Will you please mix a…” Then she stops long enough for it to become awkward so I look up at her in expectation.
“I know you,” she says.
“I don’t know you.”
She frowns. “Not here.”
For a moment, I see pure delight flash across her face.
“A different other life. You were a lawyer.”
It’s an unspecific claim. I’ve been a lawyer several times. Some people have been lawyers several times.
“A lawyer at Mbanefo and Collins Chambers,” she adds. This I remember, and it must show on my face because she says, “I knew it!”
I do not reply. Not because I don’t want to but because my voice has fled my throat. Mbanefo and Collins was several years ago.
“You’re a drifter,” I whisper.
“Ok. And so are you.” She smiles and I am about to say something, anything at all, when her phone’s screen lights up, distracting her. She looks at it, throws me a look of apology, and then asks, “Tomorrow’s Saturday, right?”
“Tantalizers. 12pm. The one close to the filling station in Surulere.”
She chuckles. “You’re funny.” Then she answers her call and walks away.
My world has tilted. I pour myself a drink.
I wake up to a blur of a morning and by 10:48 I am at Tantalizers. I order a bottle of Coke—Fanta is rude to my stomach—and I listen to President Maitama drone on about the long-term effectiveness of his policies. In the actuality, he isn’t our president, but he’s still noisy and boring as a senator.
I wait for what feels like three sets of eternity and then she walks in dressed in a grey polo and light blue jeans. For a while, everything else fades away and, I am only aware of her. I’ve felt like this before, once, in secondary school. But that was a pinch of feelings. This is a skyscraper growing on its own. Now, I can hear myself breathe and I count. One. Breathe. Two. Breathe. Three. Breathe. I hate this.
She seats herself across from me and I really see her. The curve of her eyebrows shows more care than elegance but a beauty lies there, trailing that curve. And it’s in the curve of her lips too. And in her nails, which are painted nude. And I fight the urge to trace her lips with my fingers. Her hair, tiny particular, black braids stay obediently behind her ears. I remember Adaeze telling me once what these braids are called but now, I can’t remember. I’ve heard you forget stuff when you begin to fall for someone.
Amnesia pinches everyone when they fall. And I am falling. I am aware of it in the same way a man drowning is aware of it. He knows death will come with a breath, but breathe, he must. And I am breathing.
Yet, her eyes do the most damage. I do not look at them directly. I can’t. I look to the left of them, keeping them just slightly out of reach but there, where I can see them. And I see a lot. I see kindness, governed by defiance. A bit of will, wildness and reservation. But, what really excites me is the certainty flourishing there. Then she blinks and it all disappears as she asks, “Have you finished?”
“Have you finished looking?”
I am embarrassment itself.
“I think so,” I say. She almost smiles. Instead, she says, “I am Alera.” We shake hands and her hand is cool, pleasantly so.
“I can’t believe I’ve met another drifter,” she says.
“You’ve never met one before?”
I shake my head, no.
I tap the table nervously. Then I ask the single question that has threatened to set my mind ablaze since I met her. “How long do you stay in your other lives?”
She frowns. “What do you mean, ‘how long’?”
“Like how long. Months. Like four or five?”
She seems genuinely confused. “As long as I want to.”
I say it too loudly, so other diners at the restaurant throw disapproving glances my way.
“Don’t tell me you believe that rubbish about Drifters sticking to a life for less than six months,” she says.
“That’s practically me. That’s my life.”
“Do you believe everything you’re told?”
“I believe everything I’ve lived.”
She bites her lips and looks away. “Thought you were different.”
“Different how?” I am annoyed. “You said you’ve never met a drifter before me. So, whom are you comparing me to?”
She nods at the people around. “Them.” She closes her eyes for a second and then opens them. “They let everything outside decide what goes on inside.” She taps the side of her head. “You really haven’t figured things out.”
I do not like the way she says it. The apparent ease with which her words reach across the table, mutilate my confidence, and then, satisfied, hang in the air between us.
“I grew up asking questions,” she explains. “What happens to those lives after we drift away? What happened to them before we came along? I am surprised you’ve never thought of this.”
I have thought of them and many more but I keep that truth to myself.
“I can show you the right way to drift,” she says.
The president’s speech is over and an Afro Pop song is playing- I fit die for you. I fit die for you but I no go die for you – but it’s her words and the challenge in them that I listen to. They are leading me somewhere I don’t want to go.
“Why what?” she asks, lifting her shoulders to the ceiling.
“Why do you want to show me how to really drift?”
And for the first time, the certainty she wears slips from her shoulders. “I don’t know.”
I nod, but feel distrust creeping in.
“I have to go.”
She does not stop me.
The morning I woke up after travelling for the first time, Adaeze was on my bed, waiting for me. I must have hugged her for more than five minutes. All she did was go with it, rubbing my back, telling me, “I’m here. I’m here. I’ll always be here.”
She was there, months later, when I was shocked by the arrival of a new life; telling me that it would be all right. She was always the certainty I never grew. She was there four years ago, when our parents, who were married in both lives, decided that enough was enough and died together. It was in our living room, after the funeral and away from the tears and our relatives and over a bottle of Heineken, that she said, “I have to tell you something,” and after a small self-depreciating smile, she added, “I am a drifter too.”
I do not see or hear from Alera for two weeks. Then one night I’m working at the bar. Up on the TV screen, it’s week 10 of the Premier League and I’m trying to engage in a spirited debate on the winning odds for the clashing teams with my fellow bartenders Mark and Tosin, who don’t even like football. Mark has told me that although he’s only a bartender here, in the waking world, he’s a “big shot.” Tosin doesn’t talk about his other life. Once, when I asked him if it was different from this, he told me, “It’s still a life. That’s all.”
The guys indulge me because it’s a slow night.
Even though my mind is fixed on the football, I know when she walks into the club. I just do. Tonight, she’s wearing a light blue polo shirt and black shorts. She doesn’t come over to the bar. Instead, she picks a chair and proceeds to artfully rebuff six men who come over to talk. When that’s over, she settles for sipping a bottle of Coke.
She sits in this manner all night.
When my shift is up, I walk up to her. Although I want to say something, the words won’t come. She saves me. “I live close. Let’s walk?”
I nod and we walk.
“I’ve lost people,” I say. It’s a weird thing to begin with but I do not stop. “It’s why I am like this I think. Um, I don’t mean it’s an excuse,” I explain. “But it’s a possible reason.”
“You wear it like something you’re proud of.” She winces. “I’m sorry. I meant, it shows. It’s all over you.”
I say nothing.
“I’ve lost people too,” she says. “And I’m sorry. I know what it feels like but, you don’t see me wrapping myself with it.”
I nod. That’s true enough. “Who did you lose?” She remains silent. “How do you do it?”
She kicks a stone. “See, I don’t know how to explain it to you. It’s just who I am. The world gives you loads of issues but that doesn’t mean I have to carry them. Or add on top.”
“Ok.” I understand what she’s saying. I really do. But understanding is a far cry from replicating it. She smiles and I see a dimple.
“I’m not trying to change you,” she says. It’s a reassurance. A little gift but one I reject.
“I know,” I reply. “But most times, all you have to see is a good reason to change some part of you. It doesn’t mean who you are changes. Just that part. And most of us are so blind we have to be slapped by reason to see it. And who says we are really changing?” I think hard for a second or two. “Maybe, we are just revealing some subdued part of ourselves. Or something…”
She laughs. “Subdued part. I like that.”
Then she stops at a gate and I realise that this brown, rusty thing marks her stop.
“Thanks for walking me.”
“It’s ok. You’re welcome.”
She hesitates. “Um, the next time you sleep there, right before you begin travelling, you know that moment when everything goes —?”
“Ok. Ok. Think about a life. Clear your head and think about one. Focus on it and hold on. I think it helps to visualise it as a screen which keeps growing.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“I’ll leave that for you to discover.”
She unlocks the gate and walks in. “Yeah. Hmmmm.”
Before she locks the gate, she tells me, “Life’s a wind but we don’t have to be the papers blown around.”
I nod, tell her “goodnight” and walk to the junction where I take a cab home.
For a month, I think about Alera’s words but do nothing. I go about my two lives with a numbness I can now discern. Alera visits the club often but she doesn’t speak to me and I don’t know if it’s pride, dignity or patience. I decide she’s waiting—waiting for me to stop waiting and start moving.
One night, she walks into the club, straight to the bar and slides a piece of paper to me. Mark and Tosin smile like I’ve won a lottery. Tosin even calls me “the minister for women affairs.” When I look at the paper, I realize she’s given me her phone numbers in both lives.
I pick a Saturday to do it. I wear shorts and my fan is on the highest speed. It feels more like a wind than cool pleasure. Then, I close my eyes and let myself go. Sleep comes quickly and just as everything goes red, I think of a life, one where I was the CEO of a milk-producing company, and I try to visualise that life as a screen and for a moment or so, it works.
I see a screen and images from that life flickering across it. It’s a montage of possibilities. But when I try to make the screen larger, it cracks. I focus but I can’t hold on. My mind slips. I let go. The screen explodes and the fragments rain on me.
I am the driver waking up from a nap in traffic. The man tapped awake by his neighbour to “come and eat soup.” The cleaner, who while nodding off, falls to the ground from his chair. I am the ball kicked around. I am the butcher waking up to the smell of meat and the shouts of an inpatient customer. I am the man waking up with his wife’s head on his chest. I am all of them, for several moments. I am the wood splintered by life’s axe and the pieces that I am fly across several other lives.
When I snap back from the other lives, and crash back into mine, I am on the floor, and my sweat is a pool around me. I am crying but the pain isn’t in my body, it has left thick grooves on my mind. I crawl to the bed, get my phone and call Alera. A system message tells me “The number you’re calling does not exist here.”
I disconnect and call the right number.
“Who’s this? Hi.”
“Oh, hi. How—?”
“I need your help.” Then I give her my address.
Adaeze once told me that even though she had issues with being punctual, that all ladies weren’t like her. She told me this on her wedding day—which, amusingly she was late to—and since then I’ve held the belief that a woman doesn’t come late to stuff simply because she’s a woman. Alera strains that belief and I only discover why later. It is past 7 in the evening, when she calls and tells me, “I am outside your gate.”
I’ve only ever had three ladies over and when they entered my living room, I could see each one evaluating it, judging it with her eyes. Alera does none of that. It’s as if everything except the sofa is invisible.
She seats cross-legged on it, and when I offer her a drink, she says, “Later.”
I sit beside her but I say nothing. She says nothing either. And this goes on for minutes until she says, “I’ll continue staring until you say something. Seriously, you called me and you sounded terrified.”
“How was your day?” I asked, trying to steer away from appearing utterly self-absorbed.
“Awesome. Now, what happened?”
I rub my forehead. I can feel an ache coming. “I did what you said. I—“.
“No. No, it wasn’t. Let me finish.”
She motions with her hands. “Go on.”
“I drifted from life to life. I can’t count how many. All night. I couldn’t hold on to any. Not even one.”
She frowns. “I’m sorry. That didn’t happen to me.”
“Wait. You mean, you got it right the first time you tried?”
“I don’t know about getting it right,” Alera says. “I just know I didn’t bounce through lives.”
She’s concerned. I can see it but I feel the curious urge to laugh at myself.
“Figures how?” she asks.
How to say this? “It’s not surprising that something so messed up would happen to me.” Alera gives no reply and I do not need her to. She just stares.
“Can I have some water?”
I nod and get a bottle of water from the fridge, then serve it to her on a tray with a glass. She ignores the glass and drinks directly from the bottle, emptying it.
“You can be irritating,” she says.
“This pessimism. And something else. I don’t know”.
“That’s ok.” I look away. “I don’t think I can do it. I know you think I can. But I can’t.”
She nods. My words do not surprise her. “I’ll show you.” She smiles.
The headache finally arrives. “Why?”
“Because you obviously can’t find your own way. And even though I hate being responsible for people, this seems like the only way.”
“I meant, why are you helping me? Why bother?”
“Oh.” Her smile drops a little but stays there. “I like you,” she says. And she says it like it shouldn’t be real. Like it’s a breath wrestling free from her mouth and I have to strain to hear it. I nod and search her eyes. There’s a cloud of uncertainty there.
Then she smiles and adds, “We’ll drift together.”
“Is that even possible?”
“I think anything is.”
“There’s pain,” I tell her. “I tried it. There’s so much pain.”
The certainty is back to her eyes when she says, “But you tried it alone. You’re not alone now.”
“There might be pain. Yes. But also possibilities,” she counters.
Then she leans forward and kisses me. Even though I didn’t see it coming, I go with it because I need this anchor. She tastes like water and when she traces my jaw with a single finger, the pieces of who I am glow.
“We will drift together,” she promises.
Michael E. Umoh is a graduate of Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Obsessed with rock music and most things written, his works have appeared on BrittlePaper, Afridiaspora, Afreada, Expound and in several anthologies.