Featured Image: Dark Window (detail) © Lionel Miele-Herndon 2017
On my last day as a writer, I awoke to a silence that seemed more imagined than felt. It was like the muted hum after a long drizzle—a hollow, echoing quiet characterized by absence and lacking. My pillow was sweat-soaked, the bed felt corpse-stiff, my brain muddy as dogshit. I lay a long while waiting for the silence to abate but it didn’t. I thought, For once the City thinks it prudent to quieten down. My relief was as false as it was short-lived. The distant, droning sounds didn’t return right away, but the false-optimism I attained in those moments after waking soon filled me with an anguish far louder. I stress the silence, because, well, I’m Luo. Silence is very important to us. That, and shadows. Spend twenty years dehumanized by civil war and you grow to love those things, silence and shadows.
Rousing from the bed, I waddled towards the split drapes through which a sunrise the color of mucus seeped in. I sat by the windowpane, smoking, watching. Only the hunched figure of Fidel, the crippled beggar, graced Market Street. His metallic cup trembled in the chilly air, giving the scene an addled, romantic bleakness—that is, if you find melancholy romantic.
I’ve always treated everything as a metaphor for something grander, something graver, but I couldn’t figure out what Fidel breasting the cold stood for. Luckily for me, knuckles rapped against my door and snatched me away from my straying thoughts.
“Coming,” I said. My voice sounded strange. I couldn’t remember who I’d last spoken to. Probably Fidel. Probably a week ago.
Gabby—Gabriel, the Hotel Manager, was at the door. He and I went way, waaaay back. I helped him cheat in the Business Law finals back at Makerere University. My intention was to milk his gratitude as long as I could. But the expression on Gabby’s face confirmed my worst fear—he was here to throw me out.
“Gabby-Gab,” I hugged him. “Whassap?”
He didn’t flinch, nor lose the scowl.
“Look, bwana,” I said. “I know why you’re here, and urnhh, I’ll be out like ASAP.”
That was a lie.
Gabby said, “Tell me this—at what point did the definition of I’ll be out very soon—mind the very—change to mean six weeks?”
“I don’t mean to be peckish, Gabs, or a stickler for detail, but technically, the definition of soon is relative.”
He said, “I want, no, I need you gone by check-out time. I’m not fucking around. I’m serious, Duncan.” He turned, receded into the hallway.
“Y’know, ‘tough love’ isn’t always the best resolve,” I shouted.
“I’m not your mummy, Duncan. Grow up already,” he said.
I slammed the door, went back to sleep.
Ten o’clock, sure enough, Gabby had me thrown out the back entrance of The Tourist Hotel.
I was too jarred to spew any invective. Besides, such hysteria needed an audience and at that time of day, Kampalans are too busy with their own malaise to attend to shouted profanities. I buttoned my shirt and picked my rucksack off the sidewalk, along with my broken ThinkPad.
In my rucksack sat six unfinished—unfinishable—novels, two leprous novellas, a stack of two hundred thirteen rejection slips, and a worn copy of Birds With Gills, the only thing I’d ever published. I gathered my stuff. I shoved my way through the bubble of walking strangers on Market Street.
The air was staticky and the pavements vibrated with a phantom sense of anticipation. For a few seconds I entertained the fantasy of an earthquake burying the electronic shops mobbing the pygmy arcades. Woozy-eared and dizzy, I staggered along till I braced myself against a transformer, next to a wiry, froth-mouthed street-preacher. I waited a second to catch my breath before I lit a Dunhill. I tried to talk to the street-preacher, but the questions I asked him made him look too much of an amateur. I asked about existence, about Free Will, about Predestination. He was so confounded by the absurdity of my questions that he bundled up his rickety stand, called me a hairless clit, and walked away.
Two Dunhills later, I still hadn’t figured out my next move. After an hour, the clouds dimmed, along with the City’s ochre glow, and a rumble split the skies as though God wrangled against the mother of all tubercular coughs. Hail and rain fell soon after.
Perfect. Fucking perfect, I thought, and ran to seek shelter in the mosque behind Dastur Street. My ragged beard and disheveled appearance got me crouching space next to the beggars crowding the Mosque entrance. Like Fidel, they held out their hands to whoever passed the narrow alleyway. I didn’t, but passersby dropped coins in my lap anyway. Soon, I raised enough coins to buy airtime, a warm O.J., and to charge my phone. Waiting for the rain to sod off, I attempted sleep, but traffic on Entebbe Road and caterwauling on Queensway brought on the uncle of all migraines. You know, the molester-kind that fiddles its dirty paws all over your brain and tells you it’s okay to suffer in silence.
I left the Mosque, sat outside the Hindu temple, and lit another Dunhill while I scrolled down my phone looking for the next unsuspecting host I could leech off. I dialed one by one. An exercise that should’ve lasted at least half a pack of Dunhills didn’t go past three cigs. Most of the ‘hosts’ hung up as soon as I introduced myself.
Only Hadiya, the love of my past life, gave pause.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Nice to hear from you too,” I said. “FYI, I don’t always want something, Hadiya.”
“What do you want?”
“Seriously, I don’t want—”
“What do you want, Duncan?”
“Jesus, okay… I want, no, I need to see you.”
“And I need a firm ass and boobs that don’t sag. Hmmmn, seems like none of us are going to get what we—”
“Don’t hang up. Please, ‘Diya. Don’t.”
“Don’t call me that. I wasn’t going to hang up. I’m going to throw the phone away. Everything you touch turns to poison, Duncan.”
“I haven’t touched your phone.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Please. ‘Di—Hadiya, can we for one moment not dwell on my shortcomings. Can we be civil?”
Over her silence, I heard the faint cackle of her breathing. I knew I had her. With Hadiya, silence was acquiescence.
I promised I’d leave as soon as I’d spoken to her.
She didn’t say anything, she just hang-up.
I flagged down a matatu and arrived at Bugolobi Flats, on the other side of town, twenty minutes later. I climbed the stairs slowly, trying to come up with a savvy excuse for showing up at her apartment. Problem is thinking on my feet has never been one of my virtues. I found Hadiya leaning against the balcony, nervy and tense. I disregarded her prickly expression and approached her. In hindsight, I should’ve turned, walked away.
“Hello, Stranger,” I said, “Long time no… whatever it is we used to do.”
She spread her arms for a hug, then acquainted my groin with her knee, like she’d promised to do if she ever saw my fatuous face again.
Wincing for air, I said, “I—missed—you—too.”
My bare-chested son emerged from the door to find me bent over in pain. My expression must’ve looked like a dogs ass. He hid behind his mother’s knees and pointed at me mumbling.
Hadiya turned, shooed him back into the apartment. “Go inside, sweetie, Mama’a come.”
The boy reluctantly waddled back into the apartment.
“He’s grown big, eh?” I struggled upwards.
“It’s called life. People grow up and die. I hoped you’d done the latter. At least that way you’d prove useful to me.”
“Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve nothing for you to inherit.”
“I meant your dying would be useful as an anecdote.”
I had nothing to say to that. My gut felt prolapsed. I stayed half-bent, looking up at her. She looked delicate. My intrusion into her life, their life, had broken her out of her containment. She looked the same old Hadiya who promised to love me forever if I never changed. That Hadiya who took me in time and time and time again, not hoping that I’d evolve, but that I’d be different. How I missed that Hadiya. This one, stronger in adversity, world-weary, sure-footed, was too much to bear.
“Okay, okay,” I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender. “You win, I’m the Antichrist. The infernal serpent, the Arch-enemy, the—”
“I’ve freed myself of your invisible cages, Duncan. Pity is the last thing you’ll get from me.” She pulled out her purse. “How much?”
I made a move to—I don’t know—touch her, really touch her. But she backed away.
“Don’t,” she said.
“Everything you touch turns to poison.”
“Come on, I didn’t deserve that.”
She shook her head, “You use people up at such a rapid rate it scares me how your cancerous soul hasn’t killed you yet.” She sighed. “I used to want so much from you. I didn’t believe in you, but now I do. I believe in your power to destroy, to manipulate and seduce, to own. You’re like a demon—”
“But you haunted me only because I created you…” she trailed off for a moment. “Just tell me how much and leave us alone.”
“Hadiya, come on. It’s—”
“Please don’t make me beg.”
I regarded her a long moment. Sighed. Picked up my bag, pulled out one of my unfinishable novels, handed it to her.
“Go on, I wrote this for you,” I said. Everything I wrote, I wrote for her.
She didn’t take it.
“‘Diya, I’m changed.”
“That’s the problem,” she said. “You’re always changing, evolving into the same monster. It’s exhausting.”
By natural order, biology, whatever—none of us stays the same person long—the body recreates itself every six or so weeks. I wanted to tell her eternal beauty is reinventing yourself endlessly.
I said, “I need to come back, Hadiya. I’m lost out there. It’s like I’m in the Matrix, nothing is real, everything is a blur, I feel like a victim of overlapping realities. I need you and… uhm, and the boy to anchor me.”
“Luke,” she said.
“He’s called Luke.” She rolled her eyes. “How can you not know that?”
“Luke? I knew that, Jesus, I know my own son’s name,” I said. “Listen, I know I’m asking too much, but this time it’ll be different. I quit drinking, and, er, whoring. See this—” I rifled through my pockets, searching for my release papers from Rehab, from Butabika—forged of course.
“No.” She held my shoulder patronizingly. “I’m glad I got to see you on this straight and narrow path. However briefly you’re on it, it’s good to remember you differently. But you’re bad juju, Duncan. You’re a magnet for bad things, I can’t bring that into my life. I’m just getting on my feet. I love you, and I pray you love me enough to know you can’t do you to me again.”
“I understand,” I said. “I can explain how—”
Hadiya wouldn’t let me explain. She slammed the door in my face and drew her curtains.
I knocked, I banged, I pleaded, but she didn’t open the door. Not even when I told her it wasn’t right for Luke to grow up never knowing about me.
In truth, I was the last person I wanted to talk about. It was such dulling work, the subject of me—too much ego, too much recompense, too much failing. I wished the boy was older. That way, his voice could be something of an arbiter.
An hour later, I dragged my bag across the floor and perched myself by the third floor stairway. I didn’t move despite the rude stares from the neighbors, despite the screaming kids, despite the haunted silence that filled the corridor when they retreated into their apartments for the seven o’clock news.
In that warm, shadowy stairway, I fell apart. A whimpering, slobbering-drunk kind of cry even Jesus would avert his eyes from.
It occurred to me that even if you’ve absolutely nothing to lose, you can still lose everything. I was a diminished man on his knees, realizing for the first time he never had a leg to stand on. I read somewhere that Kerouac said it wasn’t him who screwed up, but his dreams. My dreams had conquered me with memories of selves that didn’t resemble me. And like a fool I’d yielded myself completely to the dream of being a writer. But the sad truth was I was a fraud. An impostor.
I couldn’t remember who I’d wanted to be when I was young, but who I was in that darkened stairway wasn’t anything I’d ever aspired to, even if someone could have convinced me that suffering was honorable.
Oh, Father. I laughed at myself. How right you were—I’ll never amount to anything.
The raggy bastard still haunted my dreams. I sat there crying at my thoughts of him. My life came undone at his death. I shouldn’t have skipped the part where they put his body in the ground. They had to escort me out of All Saints because I wouldn’t stop fussing over the clock above Father’s casket. It had stopped ticking. It looked like it hadn’t ticked in years. All the Priest could do was shrug when I told him to fix it.
I owed it to Father to witness the finality of his death. If I’d witnessed his death, I never would’ve written Birds With Gills, the fiction I made up about his failing, his hubris. I understood the inevitability of his death. I’d been expecting it all my life. But in the end of the novel, the son becomes a golem. I know, I know, very Kafkaesque, but without the literary merit. Still, my publisher thought my existential ramblings made for good reading. Publicaton of that literary belch addled my mind with grandiose delusions of fame, glory, and of course motherfuckloads of money.
But success didn’t come. It didn’t help that I was only nineteen.
Alcoholism was the only thing literary about me. The one occupational hazard of the writing game, shared by Carver, Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, etc. After a slew of failures a writer should just pack it in, move in back with his parents, or kill himself. I had no parents to take me in. Nor friends. Neither did I have the constitution for suicide, nor a back-up plan. I’d dropped out of University. I’d only lasted this long because being unemployable ensured I’d have to keep on writing till something gave.
Like David Foster Wallace, I was once a firm believer in writing being an art in which the horizon of self-improvement is infinite. That never happened, though. My horizons were ever contracting. I was only nineteen, but I felt like I’d lived three hundred years of misery.
Hadiya, then the only constant in my life, checked me into Butabika for rehab, paid the doctors. She was tired of the prison visits, the sleepless nights, my threats of killing her with my own hands. Rehab was, well, rehab. It sucked. That time, though, was my most productive. I shat out novels faster and less arduously than Balzac ever could.
My physical and mental health deteriorated until I didn’t know who the hell stared back from the mirror. I was a mumbling wreck most of the time. Haggard, lean as a fart, droopy-eyed. Every day was a new chapter of reverse déjà vu. I was a stranger in a place where everything was familiar.
Hadiya remained the only constant in my life. The only thing I loved more was writing.
When she gave birth to Luke, she asked me to give it up. At that point, we were both certain I’d never get anything else published. Not after the cock-up Birds With Gills was.
I said yes. Hazy from the horizons broadening at the prospect of doing a better job at fathering Luke than my father did me, I promised Hadiya I’d give up writing. I agreed to change, to unbecome. I didn’t realize that I was agreeing to undo the knots by which I held myself together, to become less than the sum of my parts. But I feared I’d never be the writer, or that if I ever became him, I wouldn’t know what to do next.
I got a boring clerk job, stashed my ThinkPad far, far away. Problem was—is—I have an addictive personality. I always get attached to things that give me a rush, things that aren’t, in essence, good for me. I’m flaky, vulnerable that way. If I’m not drinking, I’m whoring. If I’m not whoring, I’m smoking. If I’m not smoking, I’m lying. All these compulsively.
A nine-to-five thus rendered me catatonic. I crept back toward the writing. But I couldn’t tame the blank page. The harder I tried to do it right, to just write, the harder it became. I’d always written drunk, or in some way intoxicated, incapacitated, numbed. Writing sober felt like taking a whetstone to my guts. Every blink of the cursor felt like a sharpening knife grinding against my ribcage. I could feel my muse bray deep within me, as though a medieval dragon locked in some infernal labyrinth.
I needed alcohol to guile her, my muse, but I couldn’t drink. Not after what I’d promised Hadiya. Not after she’d sworn to leave me if she ever caught whiff of alcohol on my breath. So, no, I couldn’t write, either. But I definitely unbecame.
Hadiya and I tried to be close, like we were in the beginning, but I freaked her out with my obsessive pessimism. I’d caught a bad case of Schopenhauer. I drove her away, deeper and deeper into telenovelas and work. She took longer hours at the bank, longer hours with her girlfriends. Longer hours at her mum’s, where our son was, because the environment of our flat wasn’t conducive to raising kids.
I took to fucking around. I fucked everything that walked. I got to work late, took long lunch-hours at nondescript hotels and lodges. I slept with workmates, friends of workmates, friends, Hadiya’s friends too. I siphoned money from the job to pay for whores, to pay for my several fuck-puppets’ non-existent bills.
I got fired eventually for “gross negligence.” Thank God the Ugandan penal system is what slags call whiskey-limp, flaccid, otherwise they might’ve thrown me in jail for all the monies I nicked. I couldn’t face up to Hadiya. I pretended to go to work every morning, till she showed up one Friday to surprise me. You can figure out how that went.
With my diversions gone, I found it harder not to slip into drinking. I tried writing, but still, the mother of all writing-blocks sat on my shoulders and wouldn’t cease her furry breathing along my neckline.
Hadiya kicked me out and moved the baby back into the house. She said, “You need to find the Duncan I fell in love with. Find him, if it’s not already too late.”
That had been eighteen months ago. I’d been calling in favors ever since. In effect I’d succeeded at alienating everyone I knew. She’d sent me out on my Hero’s Journey and I’d vanquished nothing. I’d turned up at her lair bested, too, emptied even of cynicism. This isn’t like The Alchemist where the story goes full circle on itself. This is an ouroboros. I’m forever eating my own tail, forever evolving into the same sick, diseased monster.
Brooding in the stairway, I stumbled upon an epiphany. Like the golem-boy I wrote about in Birds With Gills, I was afraid of myself. Afraid of who I was, who I was supposed to be. I was afraid of finding myself, finding too much, or too little, or nothing. I was afraid I didn’t exist, because I couldn’t account for my lack of an identity, outside of being a writer.
I couldn’t—still can’t—tell what’s worse. Actual redemption or the need of redemption? The answers lay in picking up pen and paper and setting my rationalizations in order. I had nothing left to convince myself of. Nor anything to prove to anyone, if Hadiya, the only person I considered my audience, had suddenly gone blind, mute, dumb to me.
I sat in that stairway for three days. I can’t remember if Hadiya ever came out to see me. She wasn’t there when the residents had me kicked out. I had nowhere to go. And I’m not saying I did what I did next ‘cause I was desperate, but it’s what had to be done. I took out my ThinkPad, my books, everything, and burned it right in front of Hadiya’s flat.
I needed to let go. Really let go. Find triumph in loss. I’ve never been a graceful loser. But I couldn’t let myself get hang-up on what I was giving up by that one gesture of absolute absurdity.
I did it. I let go, and Hadiya did too. She let go of the dream-version of me she thought she deserved. I let go of the person I thought I needed to become to be lovable, happy.
It wasn’t right away. Everything was a lost metaphor for a while, and we didn’t have the language to define it. It just kinda happened.
My stuff burned fiercely, like a funeral pyre, and it got Hadiya’s attention. She came out of the flat and just stared at me. She didn’t weep, she didn’t say anything, she just stared. Then went back inside once the police came for me.
I spent two nights in the CPS before she came. When she came, she had what I think was the only copy of Birds With Gills other than the one in my rucksack.
She said, “I need you to be this man.”
“I no longer have it in me.”
“I don’t want you to give up on yourself. I want you to give up on your self. I can live with you trying something new, but not with trying to be this same person you’re never going to be.”
“Live with?” There was so often distance between her feelings and her words. I had to be sure of what she really meant.
“Try and keep up, Duncan. I’m willing to give this another try.”
“Only if I give up writing?”
“No—only if you give up being a writer.”
I handed her back the book. “I already did. I left everything. I was on that fire and everything I am now sits here. The only question is, is everything you are sitting here too?”
She scoffed. “Who is the real anything? I am here now. That is as real as everything I am.”
If you were expecting us to kiss right then, you haven’t been paying attention. Even I didn’t expect a kiss, nothing fairytale like that. Least of all that she’d respond to me she way she did. With compassion.
I never knew something like emotional telepathy existed till Hadiya lowered herself to not only pity my misfortune, but to open to whatever I felt—joy, happiness, anxiety, despair. She couldn’t judge me if she felt the same way. Is there anything more a writer could ask for than empathy?
I wake up every morning to the same sensate silence. More imagined than felt. But I don’t wake to doom or uncertainty. I’m still in never-ending recovery. The mother of all writing blocks still sits on my shoulders, but it’s getting lighter. By writing this, I’m performing my greatest miracle. I’m reinventing myself. I’m not a writer. I’m just a man telling another man’s story. The story of triumph, of loss, of the unholy alchemy between the two.
Derek Lubangakene is a fiction writer, screenwriter and poet, based in Kampala, Uganda. He is a contributing editor for Deyu African Magazine and a features editor for Vogue N Swag magazine. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Missing Slate, The Kalahari Review, Lawino Magazine, and the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology, among others.
is a first-year student of Design and Technology at Parsons School of Design.