The man who can't be moved
He couldn't be dissuaded from the notion that the love of his life will return to him. No, not at all.
Tayo was on her way home from school when she decided rather suddenly to take the 6th avenue route home. John and Sarah had left her some minutes earlier, somewhere around the Chinese restaurant on 41st street, to go watch a movie. She wasn't particularly interested in seeing a movie that day, and John and Sarah were an item. They had all grown up together, all three of them living on the same street and attending the same schools since kindergarten. They were like siblings, albeit ones living in different houses, or more accurately like triplets who looked nothing alike, and somehow John had taken a fancy to Sarah. That was in the first year of Junior High. She should've known when Sarah started laughing several decibels higher and for longer at John's every utterance, even the ones that weren't funny. John, for his part, had morphed into a one man show with acts ranging from the acrobatic to the ridiculous. Then it was official; they were a couple, and that was that. She was happy for them, but hanging out with them had somehow become a chore; sometimes bearable, but just barely, and at other times a nightmare. It was the inside jokes between them that she was no longer privy to, the ones that lead to giggles with no apparent punchline. It was the knowing looks exchanged between them and the accidental bumps into each other that weren't quite accidental. All things that left her on the outside looking in. In the quiet moments when she was alone in her room, she sometimes wondered why he chose Sarah and not her. Sometimes.
The 6th avenue route wasn't the fastest or the most convenient way home. In fact, it was rather convoluted, requiring that she double back on the intersection of 9th and 12th, pass through a dodgy-looking stretch of side streets before she getting to the corner of 67th and 6th, and then take 61st street home. Time and convenience weren't important considerations in the matter. Neither was the fact that her favorite ice cream parlor was on the corner of 6th and 63rd, although it had a slight bearing on her detour. The Sweet Tooth was right across the street from Baylor bookshop and right next to that, in front of the dumpster, was Pierre’s camping spot. That wasn't his real name but she felt like he was a Pierre, what with his intense, brooding eyes and an air of je ne sais quoi about him. She wasn't sure of the exact definition of that phrase, but she had heard it in a movie once and liked it. It was her favorite French phrase due to the way it rolled off the tongue, and- whatever it meant- she was certain Pierre had it in spades.
The first time she had seen him had been from the window of Sweet Tooth, about a year ago, when she had gone together with John and Sarah to get the Oreo Mousse Royale. That was her favorite ice cream that summer. As was their tradition, they picked a new ice cream flavor every summer and ate as much of it as they could before the season was over. The basic outline of their summer involved first working up a sweat in whatever way they could, usually from running in the park or cycling to the mall on 7th and back. It was Sarah's assertion that ice cream tastes a 100 times better after an hour of running around. Tayo couldn't disagree with that. Afterwards, they would sit at the window of Sweet Tooth and make up stories about whomever caught their attention among the passers-by as they had their ice cream. There was the lady in the bright pink alter top, walking as though she was on a runway while on her way to see her boyfriend who was a photographer for GQ. There was a big, burly guy in a suit that could barely contain his bulk, throwing furtive glances around as he walked at a slow pace. He obviously worked for the Russian mafia and the briefcase he was carrying contained the payoff for a federal judge. The white dude with thick, gnarly dreadlocks wearing an oversized hoodie, black baggy jeans and brown Timberland boots was either a wanna-be rapper or a drug dealer recently beamed from the past through a wormhole, or he was both. It was fun. Well, it used to be fun when everyone chimed in to embellish the thread of the story until they had spawn an outlandish yarn of such impossible proportions. John and Sarah were present only in body that day. As she stared rather despondently at the view, her eyes had settled on Pierre. He sat on the pavement, next to a blue sleeping bag, with a cardboard placard in one hand that had something written on it which she couldn't make out and a picture in his right hand. He was still, unruffled by the traffic of pedestrians around him. He had a stubble that was still some way off from being a beard, and in his flannel shirt and distressed jeans, he looked the part of a college student taking a break on the sidewalk. A very handsome college student. She wondered what his story was.
"That's the new guy on our block." said the waitress as she cleared the newly vacant spot next to Tayo.
"We've had an increase in customers since he settled on that spot about a month ago."
"And why is he there?"
"I'm not really sure. Something about a girl. It's always about a girl anyways. Seems he's looking for her and that's his way of getting in touch."
"Oh, isn't that romantic?!"
The waitress laughed. It was really more of a derisive snort, but Tayo didn't notice and neither did she care. Instantly she was caught up in the story of Pierre, for that was when she first named him. He was an art major or maybe a dancer, and he definitely belonged to that class of passionate lovers who couldn't breathe without the love of their life on hand to animate their being. He had met her- said love of his life- on the first day of the semester and one look between the two was all it took for them to know. In that moment, outside the admissions building, they had known they would be together forever. As the people around them seem to move in slow motion, weighed down by the concerns of everyday living, Pierre and Becky (for that was her name) had acquired this knowledge in an instant and with a surety that was transcendental. Theirs was a love that was destined at the inception of the cosmos. He had looked around, cleared his throat and- after bridging the short distance between them- asked her out for coffee. That was the beginning, and it was glorious. It was like they'd known each other for years. A week together felt like a minute while any time they spent apart stretched to eternity with the clocks conspiring together to slow down to a dreadful crawl. Each day no longer consisted of the passage of hours, rather it was colored by the presence of the other. They stayed up all night talking, dancing, and just being. It was a whirlwind love, one to rival that of Angelina and Brad. The world was bliss.
However, her parents- wealthy beyond belief- stood in the way of their love. Surely their daughter could do better than a no-name, no-good dancer, and that was the final word on that. Love is all well and good but being a nobody is fatal. Defiant, they soldiered on together under this strain but every step took its toll. With each passing day their love frayed a little at a time. One day, on a cool Saturday morning, they had a fight, words were said that couldn't be retracted, and the final thread that bound them together snapped. With tears in her eyes, she had left and he was heartbroken. After some days, and with no word from her, he had decided to look for her and there he was. But why was he staying at that particular spot? Was Baylor their favorite bookstore? Had they spent countless hours browsing through the store? That was a possibility or could that be the place- on the corner of 63rd and 6th- that he had first laid eyes on her? That would prompt a revision of the entire story, but Tayo didn't mind. She was giddy with excitement. How truly romantic. She asked her companions, but John and Sarah couldn't be bothered. They were more interested in making googly eyes at each other as they sipped a strawberry sundae from the same cup.
From then on, she frequented the Sweet Tooth, not in any particular order but in a haphazard fashion that was at the dictates of her mood. She was there twice in a week, once in 2 weeks, once in a week. On a particular occasion, when she was feeling a bit blue and time weighed heavily on her hands, she was there every day of that week. Every time she was there, she sat at the same spot by the window and ordered the same ice cream she had when she first saw him, 2 scoops of Oreo Mousse Royale with a generous topping of sprinkles. After a while, everyone working in the shop knew her. She didn't even have to go to the counter to order anymore. She would enter the shop- the tiny bell above the door heralding her arrival with a twinkle- nod at whomever was behind the counter, and wait at her spot for her order to arrive. It wasn't until after she had gotten her ice cream that she'd look across the street to see if Pierre was still there. He was always there, placard in one hand and a photograph in the other. She often wondered if someday she'd look across the street and he'd be gone. If he was no longer there, it would mean he had given up on his quest to wait for his true love, defeated by the cruel arms of reality, and every time she found him still there, she felt a slight thrill that had nothing to do with the ice cream. Not that she didn't want him to find Becky- which was the other explanation if he wasn't there- but she'd rather he met her when she was around to witness it, preferably while she was having a spoonful of ice cream. It'll be on a sunny day, maybe even a cloudy one. It didn't really matter. The street, as usual, will be teeming with pedestrians in a riot of coming and going, absorbed by the notion of getting from A to wherever B is. Pierre will be at his usual spot, a constant within the flurry of people. Suddenly, a smile of increasing luminosity will brighten up his face as he stands up, arms outstretched towards Becky who is running to him. They’ll embrace and spin in circles as they are entwined by the strings of their happiness. There'll be a momentary disruption in the traffic on the sidewalk as people give the happy couple space and then everyone will continue onwards to B. No one will notice; no one except Tayo and the world will be a happier place. The end.
Once, she had gone across the street and not to Sweet Tooth. This was about 2 months after she had first seen him. She had waited that long because deep down she knew there was a possibility that getting close to him might shatter whatever illusions she held about him. Maybe he was just another homeless guy stuck on the street on account of nothing more than bad luck and a series of unfortunate events. She had to see for herself though. Anyone could look serene from a distance but what was he like up close? He had a full beard that was more dark brown than black and it accentuated his jaw line. His eyes were even more intense that she'd imagined. There was a tattoo of a wing peeking out from under his collar on the right side of his neck. Without any exaggeration, he exuded the calmness of a deep body of water, all serene and placid at the surface but which hints at all manners of danger lurking beneath. The placard had something written on it- if you see this girl can you tell her where I am- in bold red and blue lettering. There were hand drawn yellow daisies and orange hearts in abundance surrounding the red and blue text. There was also a huge cutout arrow beneath the message pointing towards the picture in his left hand. She was lovely, Becky that is. The photo had been taken on a bright, sunny day at the beach, and she was all smiles but it wasn't one of those demure smiles. Rather, it looked like she was photographed right before she was about to laugh, with the deep blue of the ocean merging with the cloudless sky behind her. She looked full of life and love, her face crinkled with joy and without the artifice of a pose. Tayo was moved by everything she saw that without thinking, she folded a $5 bill and dropped it in his lap. He had looked up at her with those eyes and in a voice that didn't waiver had said, "I'm not broke. I'm just a broken hearted man."
He had enunciated every degree of sadness present in that sentence clearly and afterwards assumed his original position, staring right ahead, no doubt lost in visions of Becky. Tayo had felt like crying, and for a moment she imagined tears welling up in her eyes, but the tears never came. Afterwards, that feeling had given way to an intense excitement she couldn't really describe. On her way home that day, she had added more flourish to the tale of Pierre and Becky, cranking up the villainy of Becky's parents, extending the section on how they met, adding some extra characters to serve as foil for her protagonists, and downgrading the fight to a tiff or rather a peccadillo that only had any effect due to the extenuating circumstance brought about by villains 1 & 2.
She also wondered if she'll ever have a boyfriend like him. Well, not exactly like him and definitely not like John. Someone about 6ft or taller, with smooth caramel chocolaty skin stretched over rippling muscles that'll contrast with her own acne riddled skin. Someone witty, with immense athletic abilities, and a grasp of the finer points of chess. If they ever had a fight, would she leave him like Becky and for how long? She got particular pleasure just thinking about having him wait for her at that corner, day after day, while she let him stew thinking about her. Of course she'll take him back, maybe in a month or two when she wakes up and realizes how much she misses him, and life will be jolly again.
At some point though, she stopped going to Sweet Tooth. She couldn't pinpoint when that exactly happened. She had noticed Pierre looked different from her spot by the window, and one day on her way home, she had passed by him. He really was different. His beard was stringy and long, way past the point of being considered hip, and together with his long, unkept hair, gave him a look of wildness about him. Whatever hint of danger he had about him was replaced by a general air of dishevelment. Even his eyes were less intense; in truth, there was a glazed look in them, as though time had frosted the view of his soul. The message on the placard was no longer visible also although the arrow still remained, pointing downwards as the placard rested by his knees. As for the photo of Becky, it had been bleached by the elements and all the joy on her face was a faint memory. All that remained was the outline of a person. Tayo was shocked, and that was putting it mildly. The weight of her disillusionment was one that was too heavy for her to carry therefore she left it right there and trudged back home. In the months that followed, she tried not to think about it. Sometimes she succeeded. Other times she just wondered why? Why did Becky not come back to him? Why did she stay away? And why did Pierre continue to stay there, unmoved, waiting in vain? Was his love that great? Or was he trapped by an idea he couldn't let go off, aware of his reality but persisting with this vision of love that stood shackled to a spot of questionable significance?
Several times she had flirted with the idea of going back to Sweet Tooth, just to see if Pierre was still at his usual spot, but she always found a reason not to go. After John and Sarah left her to go to the movies, she had intended on going home via her usual route but the thought of checking on Pierre had crossed her mind, and for whatever reason, she had decided to actually do it. If she'd thought about it for even a second she probably wouldn't have bothered. Surely he couldn't be there, not after all these months. He must have moved on, or given up, or something. Anything but sitting at that spot in front of the dumpster. Or could he still be there? In some deep, dark recess of her mind, she wanted him to be there, just for the sheer irrationality of it all, but to what end?
As she got closer to 6th and 63rd, she noticed a crowd outside Baylor. For an instant she wondered what the crowd could possibly be for but then she noticed a news van parked some meters away from the crowd. With quickening pace and a slight trepidation, she made her way to the crowd and wormed her way to the cordon at the front. A reporter was interviewing Pierre. He had been cleaned up a bit, with his hair and beard getting a trim. He looked less like a nameless, glassy eyed homeless person. As he talked with the reporter, no doubt making a plea for Becky to come back to him, Tayo couldn't help but wonder if this was it. He'll get famous, Becky will see him on the news and- struck by the extent of his devotion- she would come back to him and they would live happily ever after. This time, without any prompting, the tears came unbidden to Tayo's eyes.
That night, after dinner, Tayo sat at her usual spot in the living room, next to the stairs, as she fiddled with her phone. Her dad was in his recliner, reading the papers and drinking a bottle of Star. He had just returned from Nigeria a few days ago and he was still in that post-travel phase where everything about him is animated by memories of his trip. Her mom, having cleared the table, was watching TV. Her older brother was in college, and this was their family's post dinner ritual, every member ensconced in their own bubble. Suddenly, her mom gave a start. This was an indication that she was about to transcribe whatever was happening on TV. It was also part of the ritual.
"Tunde, will you listen to this?"
"Some guy, James Anderson it says, has been waiting at the same spot for his girlfriend- well, technically his ex- for over a year! Can you believe that?”
Her dad had looked up from his paper and, after taking a swig from his beer, said, "Must be a slow news day."
Shola Olubunmi once decided to unravel the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life. 10 minutes in, he decided to watch 90 days fiancé. The answer is 42 anyways.