by Johnpaul Simiyu
I wonder what they will do to me when they find out. It might be a boulder that meets my head in the middle of the air and concrete. It might be a knife from the darkness, when I’m not looking. It might be a flaming lace around my neck. Or worse. When they found Sisie Alpha last week, did they not defile her and leave her for dead? Bondy X, despite his prominence in the Kampala entertainment scene, was stoned when he and his lover were caught at Motel 6-20 last month. His lucky lover got away, but will I? It’s 2021. It’s hell. But I’m overreacting. I need to get a grip. If I were in Kampala, I would be worried, but am I not in Nairobi? If I were out in the open, I would fear for my skin, but am I not hidden behind a curtain? Who can see me except for my eyes when they turn inwards? Even then, curtains often part when the show is about to begin. What then?
I still recall the question Onesmus once asked after an episode of Batman Returns, or something like that, came to a cathartic end. We were a group of six, dusty, sweaty, playful children seated on the edge of the second floor of an incomplete building at Pipeline Estates, our legs hanging off from the rugged ledge.
“If you were to choose one superpower to keep forever, what would it be?”
My mind is forcing me back to that day, now that the headlines are blaring about Sisie’s death. If only I could go back to that day in the dusty evening right before we went home to beatings for tardiness, I would have gone for the power to read minds. That way I would know what people thought of me. Did they know? Did they suspect? Were they waiting for darkness to fall so they could land on me with blows and teach me the lesson they taught others barely three plane hours from me? Maybe I would have asked for the ability to throw lightning from my eyes. This way, I would have defended myself if ever they came for me. I think that the power to teleport would be most important, though. This way, I would move from here to the other side of the world where they said Onesmus went. But it is too late for these childish wishes. Time has been an unkind friend, and now I’m grown, and so is he.
He must be six feet tall now. He had those tendencies when we were younger. He was taller, leaner, faster, prettier. I may be biased here, but I am working off of a memory that’s lost in time. Pieces of him still float into view when I fall asleep. Sometimes I remember his hair combed into submission, sometimes his blue shirt. Everything is in bits, except for the pain. Even though years have fled past, the knife he left in the centre of my heart still sings. The grief still gnaws at me from the temporary darkness everyone calls day, where memories are of plagues and caked blood, the land where the light fades, strips itself naked and leaves us with its bones.
It’s been over thirteen years, but questions surrounding his abrupt exit still ring from one end of the spectrum to the next. Maybe he knew that I was about to tell him what had been in my heart all this time. Maybe he finally understood the ever-begging eyes and my awkwardness around him. Maybe he noticed that I was not just a friend as I thought myself. He had possessed me like a vise, maybe I had possessed him, too. I cannot be sure. But what I know is that he was perfect for me. He was the song in my head, but in the light of recent happenings, it seems that every refrain is now punctuated with the devil’s beat. It was a perverse affair of a torn and tattered heart bound for hellfire. The people around me might not have suspected, but Satan did. Maybe God did too, and looked down at me with revulsion.
Even young, I prayed for nights to be spent between us, like loose change. I hoped that maybe fear of the dark would have made us embrace, and I would have listened to the beating of his heart. Maybe then, I would have run my hands around the smoothness of his tight skin and held him like my nighttime doll. I would have searched the depth of his eyes for the magic that always had me entranced. Maybe in the light of the dying candle and the loose ends of the whispering wind, I would have told Onesmus that I loved him. But then, I feared that the wind would come in with such brute force and turn off the flickering candle. It would bang the windows against each other and tear the roof from above us to expose the clear noon sun. The witnesses would then parade around the bed and drag us naked from it, like Bondy X. was. Onesmus’ mother would come running to save her son but mine wouldn’t show. The grief I would have caused her would be too much. I would weep for him as they dragged me to my slaughter, but he would not look back at me. His mother would have had him tight in her grip, carrying him away with angel wings, like she took him away when we were nine, and I would sink to my fate. Those were the devil’s hours. I was the sacrifice. Love is feet without shoes walking on barbed wire. It took me years to learn this, but maybe Onesmus knew. Maybe that is why he left, and with him, a fire that was extinguished before its time.
Even now, sitting in the afterglow of a beating session, the waters all over the room only sharpen the pain. I feel like I’m drowning in the vanity of the juices, just like every other day, chasing after a high that never seems to meet me halfway. The darkness around me has never felt so thick or the walls so tight. He lives, but only until the warmth has left my body, until the tolling bells in the main cathedral stop barking. I thought, bless my foolish heart, that with time, I would outgrow the devilish obsession, but he is like smoke from bad wood. He consumes me still, from the distance that I cannot pinpoint. He possesses me like a grim reaper’s cloak whenever the symphonies of heaven and hell fight in my mind. In the silence of my sanity, I hear Onesmus. I see his fading face in a haze, his long, bony hands still forgotten in the early days, the yellow and green watch glittering with time that wouldn’t move, and when I reach out, he turns, Hulk on his t-shirt sneering with a grin that seems to ever grow, and leaves without a word, over and over again. In the dark recesses of my mind, I dwell on his light skin and the mole on the right above his left eye, the eye where I drowned every time, and I see his parents take him to the parked car under the tree with the withering leaves, and they leave town. The devil in me must have scared them off. Maybe they moved so they didn’t have to kill me. Maybe they moved so that their son would stop drinking from the fountain of poisoned water. If only mama knew the pain that I felt that day as I sat in my plastic chair, the bowl of spaghetti turning to worms. If only she knew that I was burning in a fire that was difficult to comprehend or even speak about.
“Eat up, sweetheart. I know you loved spending time with him, but they couldn’t leave him behind, okay? Plus, you still have other friends, don’t you?”
“I don’t much care for my other friends, mama. I long for Onesmus. He was not my friend. He was my life. Now that he’s gone, everything can fade. You too can.”
I should have told her this. But my tears spoke instead. She said that they had moved for work, but had they? Did they tell my mother that because admitting the truth would be adding an extra anchor to their necks? Was there a prophecy that doomed them that I did not know about?
Now, despite the distance that will never be bridged, despite the new fears now spreading through the community hidden behind black masks, I want to believe that only time has changed between Onesmus and I, and if I ran into him, I would continue from where I left. The longing within me still rings deep. From the smooth thoughts of the two of us running through the world in search for adventure, maybe acceptance, I want to think am now thinking of the his smooth hands chocking the lights out of me as I shudder in the aftermath of an explosive orgasm. I think of Onesmus, a devilish smile in his eyes as I quake in the glory of the moment, as my breath rushes out, as my brain is clouded in bliss and glory. I want to think of him as I struggle back to my feet, wasted and spent, loved and adored, a sinner. But Onesmus does not love boys. Onesmus does not love me. If he loved me, he would have stayed. He would have held my hand longer when we played. He would have known that every brush of his skin against mine was setting a million wild fires inside me, and the meeting of our eyes a million heartbeats in my chest. But in what world would this that happen? Where, from the comfort of my mind, will these seeds not lay to waste?
Thoughts of Bondy X, Sisie, and Onesmus leave me struggling to understand why I keep praying to a God with a hearing disorder. We call him the father of love, but how can he understand love when he killed his only son? How can he understand love when people like me are not allowed to be in His building because the love we have in our hearts is poison? He might say that He knows everything, but He did not know Onesmus. If He did, He would understand why I spend time talking to Him about our love, but no. To Him, it is not love. It is sin. My thoughts and my presence are a desecration to His altar. I am leaving a foot trail of sin and iniquities that would keep the Holy Spirit away on Sunday, but does it matter? What is the Spirit to Bondy X? What is the spirit for if the soul is lost in an angry sea? What is the Prince of Peace for if his peace does not unburden me? What vanity it was for Christ to die for a love that cannot be had? If indeed God was love, I wouldn’t have hidden in the shadows. I would have come out proudly and claimed Onesmus for me, but then, I had nowhere else to go, so I hid in the Lord. I took my darkness where they said light is, but even there, the sky isn’t black enough for my pain. It still filtered through like a lace umbrella in a storm.
When I turned nineteen three years ago, seven months after Onesmus had, I told my mother that I wanted to become a priest. She didn’t know why I made this choice, but she hoped that I would be happy and peaceful in it. She had seen the dimness that I had drowned into when Onesmus left. She had gotten tired of asking why I no longer spoke as much and went out as much. I couldn’t have told her that I was gay. And she does not know it yet. But someday, when night turns to day, she may be the one holding the knife. She may be the one upsetting the two-bedroomed house she built with her sweat and tears, tearing my mattress to pieces and burning my clothes to exorcise any demons within. Before then, I will remain behind this dark curtain, life on the other side.
Even then, my mother’s prayers for happiness and peace must have fallen on deaf years. From my vantage point at the altar, I found myself eyeing the young men when they came for the holy sacraments. For a while, I was afraid that the devil would expose me in front of the crowd of watchers and listeners. I tried chastising these thoughts away, but they only waited until the service was over to come after me. I would lose myself on the altars of their chiselled biceps, the glasses on the eyes, and the smiles that hide turmoil within them, and masturbate in the haze of incense smoke, but Onesmus seemed to stand on the other end of my debauchery. My initial worry in the service of God was that the Father knew what I prayed about. Had God showed him my thoughts? Did he know why I dedicated myself to Christ? Did he know that I could not get Onesmus and thus I wanted no one? I thought that maybe he too was like me. Maybe he too came to Christ because he could not go to someone else.
But now, many questions and too few answers later, I have no more regrets, and my fear has a cemetery in a dark corner in the city. My fears have turned into doubts as to whether God would offer a sheep in my stead like he did for Isaac and Abraham in the Bible. Maybe I am not worth saving, like Sisie and Bondy X. If Onesmus came back now, I would trade Christ for him without a single thought. I remember the Bible saying that to gain the world was to lose the soul, but I think God would understand. I am already lost. Maybe it is the smoke. Maybe it is the loud screams of the bible verses in my mind. But the love of Christ has failed me. It has failed to blunt the edges of the greater love I have, but it is better than nothing. The refuge in Christ had saved me the glances and the searing eyes, but not the pain of the burning truth. Maybe it had saved my body from the hellfire, but my soul is bound with ropes that I cannot see. The world seems to be lying in wait for me to kneel by the box and make my confession. Like underpaid sentries, its people are listening to the soft wisps of my prayer and the sound of my tears as I pour my heart out and weep for Onesmus. The world has traded its Bibles and Crucifixes for sticks, and is poised to exorcise the demon from the bed in my soul.
I wish things were different, but this is where I was born. I wish I had a choice on who to love, the choice to be whole and love someone else, but like a pesky gadfly, Onesmus shuttles from one side of my mind to the next with speeds that at times leave me dizzy. Nowhere in my sane mind do I see him and I walking hand in hand. I would only grab freedom from him and turn him into a fugitive who will spend his days running from angry eyes and shielding himself from hurtful words. My comforting words would be like an umbrella during a storm of stones. My presence would be like that of a vexatious mosquito hungering for a pint. Maybe I can take the hits, but can he?
I have run away from this for so long. Now there is no more road left. The world has shown that me and my type and I are a pestilence, a scourge that needs to be stamped out of existence. Maybe it is all for the best. Maybe it is a blessing that Onesmus does not love boys. That Onesmus does not love me. I do not know why life has to be this hard. I do not know why heartbeats have to be this abrasive. But this is love. This is war. There is no winner, only survivors. Love is slavery. Love is pain. Love is emptiness. Love is numbness. Love is feet without shoes walking on barbed wire. It took me years to learn this, but maybe Onesmus knew. Maybe that is why he left, and with him, a fire that was extinguished before its time.
I am several hundred kilometres safe from where Sisie’s blood was shed, but I feel like a leaf about to end its cycle on the tree, a butterfly flying to its death, a termite knowing it will not last the night. My heart has been pegged to a stick. A move on either side is pain. Staying in the same place is pain. If I know what is good for me, I will keep Onesmus in my past. But how can I when he is like an aroma that I cannot tell, the fumbled taste of chaos in my mouth? When he is like a bad song that refuses to leave the head, in the eyes of those we minister to, and in the smooth hands of the young men asking me to bless them? When he is in the demons in my evening and the angels in the morning? I fear, but it is not yet time for Nairobi. It is not yet time for me, the upcoming Bondy X.
So, like every other Friday night, the city will creep up into my eyeline as I search for solace. Maybe this time, the sounds of vehicles flooding past each other will drown the sounds of silence in my head. Maybe the sweet smoke from polluted exhaust pipes will take me back to the past that becomes hazy by the day. Even in my pursuits, I must be careful that the priest does not know what I do every Friday. He wouldn’t hesitate to give me up to the mob. My congregants must not meet me on the prowl. Crucifixes turn to daggers when no one is looking. But in any case, they jump me while in my endeavours, I will have to ask them whether love is a sin. If it is, why is it here with us? Why is it inflamed in our lives like a malignant tumour? Why are these cravings as deep as radioactive pits? I will let them know that I tried Susan, Elizabeth, and Maryjane, and broke their hearts. I will make them understand that when I went out with these ladies, my eyes drifted to William and Stephen who I have so far lost in the smokes of time.
I cannot let my Friday be spoiled by the sad ends of our brethren in Kampala. It will be happy hour from nine to midnight at the spot around the corner where men like me, but in masks and suits, are allowed to be free, until the sounds of sirens have us scampering down the holes like mice, until a familiar face has us hiding in the haze of smoke from a lone man’s cigarette. There is a thrill in being one with sin, with darkness. For a while, you can feel around the darkness and know that you have a brief window to be alive with those who understand. It is not Onesmus, I know, but it is the closest to freedom there is.
But even this version of freedom is tiring. One day the police will come, and I will not hide from them. I will stay and have them carry me past the red flashing lights indicating the nail parlour, the bar, and the tavern. If I am lucky enough, I will have them shoot me in the head and drag my body outside for all to see. To be alive is not to be living. It is just not to be dead. And I have been alive only because I’m breathing. Tonight, I will be king, and then tomorrow I will go back to my demons. They will be waiting for me right outside the club, right beyond where the rainbow lights end, and the street meets reality. Like the reality that Onesmus might never have known that I loved him. That Onesmus never loved boys.
Forgive me father, for I am about to sin.
Johnpaul Simiyu is a 27-year-old Kenyan author, poet, journalist, and digital communication strategist. He has had some of his works appear on Discretionary Love and Embracing Our Differences.
"The main motivation for 'Onesmus' was Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old Kenyan of LGBTQ orientation who in April 2022, was raped and murdered by six men out of spite. It is a stark reminder that persecution and intolerance is alive and rampant."