MY TAHITIAN MIRAGE
Written by Xavier Clayton
“I am going to tell everyone that you are a FAG!”, he shouts, pointing his finger in my face. There’s no denying it. I am gay. I’ve known it since I was 12. But now, I’m terrified. It was just a kiss on his cheek… and yes, I did try touching his pants. I thought we were both excited. He was and I was. Now he is screaming that I raped him?
I’d been wanting to be with Kwame for years. We would jokingly compare our manhoods in the school’s gym shower. Now, I regret it all.
“I am sorry”, I say, “Please don’t tell anyone”. But I can see he is still angry.
“I can pay you!”, I say.
“How much?”, he says.
I leave him there and run past my parent’s and sister’s bedrooms into my room. I rush to my closet and open the envelope with almost 20,000 Nigerian dollars inside. I take 1,000 of it and run back to him at the front door.
I hand it to him.
“Ok?… It’s okay now?”, I plead.
He takes the money and opens the door.
“No. It’s not okay… I’m still going to tell”, he says and walks out, as I lean back on the wall and sink to the floor.
It’s another blistering hot day in Lagos. It was 35°C yesterday and should hit that or more today. My mother and sister went to the market and my father is working all day. So I had the house to myself when I asked Kwame to come over. How could I have been so stupid?
I think of my parents. Kwame knows everyone I know. If he lies and tells his friends I “raped” him, they could come to my house and beat me. What if my family is home when they come? His was no idle threat. He’s the type of guy that loves gossip. He will surely play the victim to whomever he tells. What if my sister hears about it? What will she think?
People like me in my country risk so many things… just to be gay. 14 years in jail is the thing most frightening to me. My family will not come visit me for this. They will want nothing to do with me. They will think it is my punishment and my father will probably be the one to call the police. Ever since I can remember, he has not hidden his hostility towards gays and how we will burn in Hell.
I have seen many people’s faces on the front page of The Lagos Chronicle. The words “CONVICTED HOMOSEXUALS” in big white, blazing letters as the headline. And even more, the names of their families written underneath their photographs. It’s horrifying and I could be next.
My body starts to shake and I start crying as I think of people who have had their houses burned down. Boys who’ve been stripped naked and whipped publicly in the street. People who’ve gotten laughed at, ridiculed, insulted, pushed, and spat upon. Men who’ve gotten hanged. Honor killings. And so many people who have been charged with Debauchery. It’s a system famished for victims.
My throat goes dry and I can barely swallow as I run to my room. Next to my bed are my travel magazines of London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris. My favorite one has so many photographs and descriptions of The French Tropical Islands; La Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Tahiti.
I have dreamt so many times of leaving Nigeria. I feel more and more that I am left with two choices – either stay and hope Kwame doesn’t tell another person about what happened this morning or use the little money I have saved to escape.
I decide to escape. If I stayed, I would never again know a moment’s peace.
I have heard of men who smuggle Nigerians to Europe. But, there’s a heavy black market price to pay. So, I say goodbye to my empty family house, my room, and my collection of travel magazines. The only thing I write to my family is “Goodbye, Mother. Goodbye, Father. Goodbye, Chinara. I love you, Obi”.
I leave home with a bag full of clothes, my identity papers, and a few things to comb my hair and wash. I take my hidden money and hide it again in my socks. The small cleaning jobs I have been doing for our neighbors as well as my job cooking in a popular snack bar will have to be left behind too. I know where one of the well-known smugglers lives. So, I go to his gated villa. He has three security guards outside and I have to pay each of them to let me in to speak to him. They suspect that I must have money.
Inside, I explain that I need to leave to Europe urgently. I lie and tell him I have a sick sister in Paris. He tells me he can take me in one week. I tell him no – I have to leave today. We negotiate a much higher price for me to leave tomorrow. It takes almost all of the money I have left.
I tried sleeping outside in a field near his home. But I couldn’t. I kept thinking that Kwame had told the police and that they were looking for me. If I was sleeping and they found me, then I would have paid all that money for nothing… and still be in jail.
So, by 7 o’clock the next morning, I started my long journey – and my first time ever out of Nigeria – exhausted. But there is no going back now. Not for me.
I meet the driver and the other two passengers that will be travelling with me. The driver is unsmiling. The middle-aged man is quite reserved and the young woman is dressed in colorfully printed scarves tied up on her head like a crown. She is very talkative, but I think it’s also to hide her nerves. We don’t know where we’re going. All we know is that it is out of Nigeria, directly through Niger, and up to the Libyan border.
It rained all through Niger. We drove all day and all night. We only stopped to drink, quickly eat, and get gas. The driver knew the way. He was hurrying us to get back in the car if we needed to use the bathroom. It seems that the Niger police are on high alert for smugglers.
When we get to the Libyan border, it is blistering hot. There is a jeep waiting for us at the edge of a desert. We all have to load ourselves onto it on this 3-day trek through the sand. The young woman has the most trouble straddling herself to one of the bars welded onto the back of it. We are all told to cover our faces with headscarves. We do and then the jeep takes off into the scorching dunes of endless sand.
When the truck drives up a hill or down a valley, we are thrown from side to side. The middle-aged man has thrown up twice and the young woman looks ill. It is a wild ride and I feel dizzy. I hold onto the metal bar between my legs for dear life. I can’t even drink the water I brought with me or else I will get thrown off… and I don’t think the driver would stop to let me get back on. He just keeps going.
The Libyan desert is filled with sand, cactus, litter, and dead bodies. It seems many, many others before me have tried to cross it – but have failed. They died right here. Someone’s brother. Someone’s son. Someone’s wife. So, I just hold on… and pray.
The first night, we sleep under the stars. The driver has blankets for us. The desert nights are freezing. His blankets are not thick…but better than nothing. I hear the young woman sobbing. We are all covered in dust and sand.
As I try to sleep, I first think of my family and what they must be thinking. I cry as I realize how much I miss them. Then I try to dream of France and Paris. London… Amsterdam… anywhere but here and how I got here. I had read about The Tropical Islands of France. The amazing French jewels all over the world, including Tahiti, La Réunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. If I can get my papers in France, then I will be able to visit these places too. Maybe study there or study in Paris. It would all be such a dream.
The second day, in a word, was terrible. We ran over glass and had a flat tire. And then the engine overheated and we had to stop until it cooled. These both depleted our water supply, as we drank while we waited.
But the final straw was the sudden sandstorm. It was unbelievable. It was biblical in size as we saw it crashing through the desert right towards us. Clouds of sand and dust were raging at our small vehicle. When it blew over us, it flipped the jeep upside down and hurled it to the side like a toy.
After it ended, I woke and saw that the driver, the young woman, and the middle-aged man were all dead. The jeep and the desert were both eerily quiet.
My throat was dry as a bone. I was parched and I felt that the Sun is slowly coming back to its full blistering blaze. So, I dig myself out. I wriggled sand off of my body and had to use my arms to lift my legs and the rest of my body up. I even lost a shoe while doing so.
The cabin of the jeep is filled with sand. I don’t see any of the last bottles of water. They must have been tossed out when the jeep was flipping over. The driver is motionless and blood is streaming from his head. I only see the young woman’s feet. The rest of her is buried. The man has his eyes open, but I can tell he is unconscious. I never asked why either of them came on this trip. And they never asked me why I did.
Now… I don’t know what to do.
I look into the distance and there is a thunderstorm. Lightning is striking over the dry desert there. I see one of the woman’s scarves and wrap my shoeless foot with it and start walking in the direction of the storm.
Grey thunderclouds come my way and it rains for a few minutes. As it does, I cup my hands to collect as much water as I can to drink. But, too soon, the thunder stops and the sky clears. The sun is baking the scorched Earth once again.
I slept that night in the open. I had not seen another jeep all day. I felt so alone and helpless. It was freezing cold and I had no blanket this time. I had no food and no water.
The next day started out hot and stayed that way. I have blisters on both feet. It hurts to step. The pain is agonizing. I feel the heat of the sand through my shoe and the scarf wrapping. It’s a struggle just to walk. But I know I have to keep going.
I see a huge, lop-sided cactus in the distance and tell myself if I can make it there then I will stop for a rest. With every painful step, I am drenched in my own sweat. My heart is pounding and my breathing is heavy. Yet, I get closer to the cactus. It’s arduous, but I finally make it. And when I do, I fall face down to the ground.
On the ground, I wonder if Europe is far away from here. Maybe if I just keep going I will make it. I will find water and I will be okay.
I think of how I will finally see London and Paris. Maybe Amsterdam is just over the next dune? All I have to do is to make it over the next sand dune and I will be there.
I lift my head up and see palm trees. There is a green patch of grass not far in front of me. How could I have missed seeing that a few minutes ago? There must be water there. So, I get up and run to it. It’s beautiful!! There are lush coconut trees and papaya plants. I drink the juice of oranges and pineapples. I taste the nectar of hibiscus flowers. The fragrant smell of jasmine fills the air.
I run around this little paradise. God must have sent it to me, I think. I explore this tiny piece of Heaven and see that it has rivers, a lake, and a waterfall. The waters are all crystal blue – just like in the travel magazine. It looks like Tahiti or Martinique. I hear the waterfall and run to find it.
It is loud and thunderous. The waters are rushing over a cliff and down into a turquoise-colored pool. I go there to refresh. I feel its coolness flowing over my body. It is sensuous and reinvigorating. I close my eyes, letting it revive me as the water tumbles over my head and shoulders.
When I open my eyes I look down into the pool. Several naked black and brown men are swimming there. They are happily playing in the aqua blue water like 20 beautiful Mermen. They smile at me and invite me to come and join them.
I come out from under the waterfall and stand on the ledge of a boulder. The brown and black Mermen look up to me. I look down and dive into the cool water. I feel it cover my body. It is refreshing and crystal blue.
The Mermen follow me under the water. They play around me. Swimming expertly. I am their center of attention. I feel happy with them. There is no fear. There is no pain. There is no anxiety. Just pure joy. Pure intense joy as they welcome me into their group.
I see The Mermen come closer. They smile at me for a moment… but then their smiles strangely turn sinister. There is distain on their faces. Like the distain I often saw in Lagos. I am still underwater as The Mermen swim up to me and hold my arms down. They start pushing my shoulders down and I plunge deeper and deeper into the pond.
It is getting harder to breathe, but more of The Mermen swarm around me pulling on my legs so that I can not swim to the surface. I start coughing. I start choking. I try my best to fight back, but there are too many of them and I am drowning as they pull me to the bottom of the pond.
I feel water filling my lungs and I cough hard. I desperately gasp for air. I’m running out of oxygen and I think I am going to die. I gag so hard that I vomit. It wakes me up.
I look around and the green, Tropical patch of coconut and palm trees is gone. Where is the waterfall? Where are The Mermen? Where did the hibiscus flowers go? I am confused and weak. Exhausted under the hot blazing sun. Vomit is in the sand beside my face. The only reminder of this dream I just had.
The final reminder of my dream is when I look over and see the huge, lop-sided cactus next to me. I have barely moved an inch since laying down here a few minutes ago.
As I close my eyes one final time, I think to myself that I will never see Tahiti.