It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone. – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent
I met Stephen in Nigeria in 1986. He was a Fulbright professor lecturing in English and creative writing at the University of Ife, in Ile-Ife. I was visiting a journalist in Lagos, untethered to job or home, free to stay as long or as short as the relationship lasted. The expat community was small and tight-knit much like any expat community anywhere, but more so for the precarious, often threatening landscape outside of the gates that surrounded and secured each home. It was simply natural for us to meet and spend time together, the friendships developed a sanctuary from the dangers without.
Stephen quickly became a friend. He had no swagger about him like so many of the men I had met in my life, like some of the men I met in Paris and Nigeria, and that intrigued me. He was more discreet than quiet, his wit, sometimes dry, sometimes mordant, snuck in between the bluster and braggadocio of the others. His jokes had an intellectual twist that attracted me, a cleverness that showed him every inch the literary man, the writer. I think that his discreetness was nothing about shyness or self-effacement and more about knowing his strengths and being comfortable of his presence. He knew that he was respected and had no need or desire to wave his arms around, raise his voice, and show off. He stood back and observed while others jumped in and acted. And that was my fashion, as well.
Stephen was, for lack of a better word, a large man, bald and myopic, to boot, yet his very presence proved that attraction and desire had little to do with looks but rather brilliance, cleverness, graciousness and consideration. It crept up on you unexpectedly, lasted long after and more deeply than the fascination and chemistry aroused by mere good looks and swank, long after the outer perfections had worn off.
Friends is all that we were, soon to become sort-of-confidants as my relationship in Lagos soured, as the tug of someone in Paris pulled stronger than what I had come for and more than I had expected. He would come to Lagos and hang out with us; we would dance and dine and drink and discuss, days and nights, long into the nights. Together we feasted on bush meat (oh, the adventure!), struggled through a haggis that he had brought back from Scotland (oh! how we laughed), pondered the consumption of rattlesnake (no, we did not), and talked over his car accident and our brush with police and the murders that happened at a place we had recently been. We wandered through markets and he haggled and negotiated and bought us matching tunics hand-dyed, hand-printed, and hand-sewn.
I took the car out to Ife and spent a few days with him in his little house barely big enough to swing a cat in with the tiny kitchen where he cooked for me – I don’t remember what – and where his pride and joy, an African grey parrot, danced and chattered in the corner of the room much to our delight and amusement. What will happen to him when I finish my teaching contract here and go home? he wondered, sadness and regret worrying his voice, gnawing at his conscience. They live 80 or 90 years, I’m sure that he’ll outlive me, but I can’t take him back with me – customs and endangered species and all – and I’m sad to think that I may not be able to find him a good home.
And as our confidence deepened, we may have skirted and danced around my own relationships and his, but we laughed about the women others sought, that others bragged about, women who privately desired Steve, surreptitiously propositioned Steve, something that other men had never guessed, would never even have considered being much better looking than they considered Steve in all of his rotund, bald, professorial looks. And he read to me, read the words he had written, the first chapters of a novel, in his soft, expressive voice, his words eloquent, his story beautiful, funny, touching. And we zipped into town, straddling a tiny scooter dwarfed by his size, him driving, me sitting behind, precarious on the diminutive bike, pressed up against him, hugging him for all that I was worth. And we laughed and laughed some more.
And when the announcement came that his teaching assistant had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Stephen gleefully exclaim “my teaching assistant won the Nobel Prize but he has to do anything that I tell him to do!” and he watched with pride as Wole Soyinka took the stage in a lively, joyous ceremony in that little town, under a tent, surrounded by students, Steve watched with pride and respect.
And once it was all over, the adventure, once I had committed myself to the man in Paris and flew home to Florida to help take care of my dying father, Steve called me out of the blue. He explained to me how angry he was at the journalist for treating me the way he did (an anger that lasted decades up even until the last time we chatted) and how he tried to protect me from hurt. He admitted that he had fallen for me but knew my heart was taken by someone else and heavens he didn’t want to upset me or create any more confusion in my life. And he told me that he would always carry a torch for me even as he shared the news that he was engaged to be married.
I lost touch with him for many years, since that last phone call, although he was never long out of my thoughts; I would google his name once in a while and look for him, but to no avail. But finally, after 30 years we reconnected – thanks to social media – Is this really you? Yes, Steve from Nigeria….and he hadn’t changed, but how could he have? Tragically, our renewed friendship was shortlived, much too short. Steve passed away last week much, much too young. Sadly, I didn’t find the time to tell him that I remembered that phone call he made to me after we both returned to the States and I never took the chance to tell him how I felt about his words. There were so many words left unsaid. If we had only known.
He was a soft, thoughtful, funny, intelligent voice in a mad, often noisy world and I will miss him tremendously. I wish I had had one more conversation with him. But I do have something. Shortly after we connected again he sent me a few chapters to a book he had been working on. I have his words.
I don’t like when I become sentimental and maudlin, but losing a friend does that to me and just before Michael’s birthday when I am already pained with black & white images of nostalgia burning a hole in my head and in the middle of my chest. People pass in and out of our lives and it is incomprehensible even though it is understood. Light and love are muddied, blurred with darkness and grief. We tend to skip around the issue, avoiding it as if it were taboo but the words are on the tip of our tongues and sometimes just need to be uttered. Sometimes we meet someone who affects us irrevocably even when that person has faded out of our everyday. We look at their life and think of all they had yet to accomplish, the years and road ahead of them, the promise their life held, and we wonder if the tears we cry are for them or for ourselves. Are we distressed because this loved person is dead, their life cut short, or are the tears for ourselves, left behind, left alone to live our lives without them next to us, sharing our joys and our sadness, our adventures and hurdles?
The everyday distractions are many and constant – work, travel, friends – yet the human diversions as we grow older change, alter, and disperse – children move away, pets pass on, loved ones die and sometimes those everyday distractions just don’t fill up the darkness.