Few things have evoked my empathy like the evening I spent with a beautiful man named Kasiobi who has lost an ability that I take for granted every day. He is a friend of a friend and we had recently just become friends on Facebook. After I had done everything I had to do that day, I invited him over. He arrived later than I expected. At some point I concluded that he had decided not to come after all. But at a few minutes to five, I got a text from him saying he was at the bus stop, which is about a five minute walk away from my house. I hurried out in search of him. As I walked down the street, I received more text messages from him to help lead me to where he was.
‘Let me take a cab. I’m at the gate.’
‘You can just cross the road. I’m walking down. I’m wearing a black dress.’
‘Okay. Walking down. I’m wearing black and white. Black boots.’
Before I could find him, my phone’s battery died. I had no other means to reach him and I was afraid that he had lost his way. I walked back home, hoping I could borrow a neighbour’s battery. When I reached my house, I found him waiting in front. He was not dressed in black and white like his text suggested and he was smiling, a proud grin exposing fine dentition, like the winner of a contest. I shook his hand, smiling back at him, acknowledging defeat. His T-shirt was taut over his toned arms and I felt an urge to feel them. I led the way to my room quietly but inside my head, my mind was buzzing with thoughts.
As soon as we were settled, I found a pen and a notepad with which we began our conversations. The easy things came first. Marijuana. His tattoos. Books we were currently reading. The things we liked about the cities we lived in. I would write down my question on the notepad, pass it to him, and watch silently as he read the question and wrote down his response, before passing it back to me. Minutes into our conversation, he dropped the notepad on the table, and with the pen still in his hand, he began to speak,
‘Benin is calm compared to Lagos’, he said. ‘I can feel vibrations from the noise when I’m in Lagos’.
His voice sounded nothing like him. It sounded artificial, like something that didn’t quite fit. His words came out scattered, poorly pronounced like he had forgotten how to use them. I worried that I was stressing him.
We talked about meeting each other. He wrote down his first impression about me and what he thought now he had met and spent some time with me. I wrote back what I had heard about him and how it formed my thoughts about him. He paused for a while before scribbling down his reply, looking at the notepad.
‘I think I’m overrated. Maybe if I could hear, the hype wouldn’t be so loud.’
His words stung me but I continued asking him questions, determined to ask him all the questions that had been racing through my mind all afternoon. He replied every one of my questions easily. He told me he used to write about not being able to hear, the gifts and the curses that came with his disability. He said he did not remember how he lost his sense of hearing. He remembered waking up, feeling different. Feeling like he had lost something. He must have been six years old at the time so he could not have understood what had happened to him. His parents tried to help by making him talk more in the years that followed. They feared that he would lose his ability to talk along with his hearing and I understood their fear. But every time he spoke instead of writing, I felt my heart sink inside my chest and I wanted to stop him. I imagined how it must have been growing up in Nigeria where people treat abnormalities with fear. For a second, I allowed myself hope as I asked if something could be done to regain his sense of hearing.
He wrote back, ‘There was a period in my life when all I cared about was finding ways to get better, to get normal, to be able to say I am one of them, to be able to say there’s nothing wrong with me. Doctors. Specialists. Pastors. Prophets. Witches. Wishes. I got tired. Now I just want to skip school, write depressing stories, be unfaithful, be a better brother to my siblings. Just live. Abnormal is the new normal.’
I felt bad for feeling like he had not tried to help his disability. The conversation grew tense and uncomfortable for me. I hoped that he would not notice that my mood had changed as we continued talking but he did. He asked if I was bored and I assured him that I wasn’t. Then I lied – I said I was hungry and he offered to buy lunch.
As we walked down to the restaurant, he kept nodding to a tune. Did he remember something he listened to before he lost his hearing? I imagined not being able to listen to music ever again and the thought overwhelmed my heart with so much sadness that I could feel it at the back of my throat. It was hard for me to not feel sorry for him.
I asked what he would eat just before we stepped into the restaurant and when we got in, I made our order while he found somewhere to sit. I did not want anyone else to talk to him and feel sorry for him. I wanted to shield him from pity. I quickly ordered our meals and joined him at the table. We continued talking about random stuff as we ate. I was conscious of the eyes that stole glances at us as we as we quietly took turns typing sentences into his cell phone. I was afraid they could tell something was not right. I wondered how he got around without being able to hear and I asked him. He laughed before explaining to me how he gets around with public transport.
‘I don’t understand why everyone is so worried about me’, he typed, ‘I am a grown Lagos boy oh’.
I shared in his laughter but inside of me, I felt anger brewing. I have never stopped to think of how the disabled got through each day. Are there signs at bus parks to help direct them to their destinations? Does the government do anything to support them? Are there laws to protect them? Are they actually enforced? Have I really noticed that they are people with needs similar to mine? I blinked back the tears in my eyes and looked at him. He was nodding again to a tune I could not hear.
‘What song are you dancing to?’
He smiled as he handed his phone back to me,
‘Your beauty is music.’
It was dark when we left the restaurant and it was darker in my room. I apologized for the absence of electricity as I lit a candle.
‘We haven’t had electricity here for about a month’, I told him.
‘I am not a spoiled baby, I don’t need it. Besides you’re here with me’
His eyes met mine and I felt warm inside. I picked up the notepad from the table and wrote
‘Do people tell you all the time that you’re hot?’
The sound of his soft laughter filled my ears and after he left, I would remember it and smile.
‘Yes. Girls want to feel my muscles but after a while, I realize that all they want to do is protect me.’
His response filled me with guilt.
‘Well you’re hot’, I scribbled down.
We continued to exchange messages until it was time for him to leave. He wrote things to me that made me feel like I was the special person in the room. His words were like poetry, apt with lyrical rhythm. I asked if he enjoyed the day as much as I did and he handed the notepad back to me with ‘understatement’ written in large letters. I felt overjoyed and with a wide smile on my lips, I mouthed me too.
We said our goodbyes outside, in front of an empty kiosk. He used his hands in sign language to tell me that it was nice meeting me. I made a mental note to learn the language as I pulled him in for a hug. His arms felt stronger than I expected, they made me feel safe. When he pulled away, I felt something tugging urgently at my heart strings. I watched him walk away from me with his head up high, like nothing is wrong with the way things are in the world and I took something from that. He left me feeling things and I knew I could not keep them to myself.