Sweet Cocoa Butter Skin

I don't write fiction (at least not since Class 6 when my mum sent me to boarding school and I was so miserable I wrote an entire novel), but I'm trying my hand at this thing.



“Love only needs a moment. A breath. A touch. A sound. A sight or a smell and the soul knows in an instant that it needs to be roaming with that other spirit. However long or short that may be.”


       - Judy Sikuza


By the time he arrived at her door, she had been waiting for the monsoon rains for days. Waiting for him even longer. He stood there smiling at her, ignoring the neighbor’s children who had stopped their bicycles to watch the exchange. The older one choosing just then to begin whacking the lime tree that sat between their two compounds, eyes staring pointedly towards them. Even they seemed to know that this man at her door meant something. 

Her hand gripped the metal handle on the inside of the door as she tried to hide the elation that told her, “I knew he would come.” Knew he would come how when she had stopped waiting many cloud covers ago? She grabbed the handle harder trying to contain the ripple moving up the back of her legs and into the sleeves of her sweater as he moved in closer, hugging her salubriously.

“Hello Nyanjala.”

His arms encased her slim frame, lips fluttering generously against her cheek, like hibiscus flowers falling to the ground. She attempted to kiss him back, but found that her lips would not permit her so she settled for those air kisses meant for skin but lost in formalities. Nyanjala’s face peering over Jamal's shoulder, she watched quizzically as the dark clouds sitting above parted briefly. The same ones that had been hiding the sun and refusing to let the rains over the city.

Watching from her bedroom window day after day, Nyanjala couldn’t stand the pregnant expectancy in their cumulus cover. She hated waiting and this much she had told him. That waiting made her so anxious she felt she couldn’t move—suspended between states like the push off an a bicycle. 

Jamal had told her, “You should be a poet.”

She stepped aside, allowing his warmth to gather in her entryway as she reached around him to lock the heavy wooden door. There, holding hands over her parquet floors, they stood looking into each others joys and sorrows. He was the only one who never made her nervous when he looked at her in this way, his face a softness of adoration. She parsed it for the muted whispers he kept there, admiring his soft jaw and the wide lips that carried that grin he took into every room. In his eyes, perfectly set in whites against his dark skin, she caught that boyish twinkle that never ceased to glow, waiting to be beckoned to play. He reminded her of a child at times, in a state of perpetual excitement. She envied that in him, and the joyousness that seemed to flow eagerly out of him, caressing the hard edges of the people he met. 

The smile sprouting on Nyanjala’s lips hesitated briefly before traveling wider to rest on her cheeks. She chuckled bemusedly, squeezing his hands. 

“Are you laughing at me?” Jamal asked. 

“What would make you think so?”  

It was she who embraced him this time and held him there. Her head soft against his shoulder, her laugh filled the crook of his neck as he sang, “Sweet Cocoa Butter Skin” into her ear. When they had laid in bed that first morning, the light catching them both with nothing to hide, Jamal had marveled at the smooth skin that hugged her breasts and curved her belly, unwinding itself in the limbs she wrapped around him. He had written the song then and though he varied its tune, the lyrics always remained the same. 

“Sweet cocoa butter skin,
how did you get to be so soft?
Can I hold you closer?
Sweet cocoa butter skin.”

Nyanjala's face betrayed the melancholy that had been nestling into her limbs as she and Jamal tripped over each other’s laughter into her living room. She was no longer thinking about the monsoon rains or how she liked that they excused all behavior, their cold, fat drops splattering dirt-trodden streets and rooftops, drenching everyone and everything alike. She liked that they gave her a reason for the heaviness that settled over her sometimes and when people asked where she had been she could say, “It’s the rain, it makes it impossible to get around.” Rather than, “Waiting in my bed.” 

“Waiting for what?" They would ask and she wouldn’t know what to say. 

Nyanjala did not know what she sat in bed waiting for most of the time. Sometimes it was for the moon to rise, other times for a flashing light in the sky or a spark of some sort that would compel her to move. Lately, she had been waiting for the rains that broke the heat over the city, calming its dusty streets long enough for her to catch her breath. 

But Jamal could make her forget about the waiting. He had a way of distracting her mind in that way, which worried her. She would be in the middle of a serious thing—of the kinds of serious things adults do—and he would appear at her side, voice dripping in their shared existence, laugh bigger than most. She would spend the next three or four hours, sometimes five, transported to that secret life they shared, abandoning whatever task life had asked of her that day. This, the countless hours she spent in that room they were building, worried her too. The room was getting too comfortable, almost move-in ready, as they furnished its corners with little anecdotes and painted its walls in past lives. 

Given to emotion in all other things, Nyanjala was at her practical best when it came to romance and its cousin, love. She had long abandoned the notion that love was an emotional whim, a thing you couldn’t stop once it had been set in motion. Examining the causalities all around her, she had drawn the empirical conclusion that most love stories—whether in song, book, or real life—were not about finding love, but losing it. Practicality in these affairs seemed the only way to guard against the utter frenzy of that thing called love. But Jamal threatened the practical nature she’d developed, undoing years of practice with his words and hands. He was easy. Too easy to not want around her. Too easy to not make concessions for. Too easy to stop herself from thinking of the endless possibilities. And she liked it—and the way the clouds had parted in the Western sky when he had hugged her just now. 

Sitting on her burnt orange couch, his voice was filling her living room now, wandering into its nooks and crannies and creeping up her stairway. Nyanjala heard her own voice rising to meet his. He was in one of his impassioned states. The election was mere weeks away and our politicians were again engaged in the kinds of antics that required more disbelief than any of us could muster. They, seasoned in the practice of parting their lips and saying two things at the same time while we impatiently waited for the change promised to us every five years. 

“Nothing will change until we let go of this false morality and demand accountability instead,” he was saying.  

We can’t continue to hold onto this history without recognizing our present. That we are presence. What we need is more bodies on the streets,” she was saying.

“There is an economy and a market for dissent,” he retorted, “but what has it accomplished?”

They sat in this way, exchanging small and big fires they could never extinguish, their words building the pillars needed for their citadel as the sun traced an arc through her living room window. She sipped water as her mouth grew dry from the heat of their aspirations. He licked the beer off his lips whenever their ideas got too excited and when they found they could bear no more of their dreams for love of country, they returned to that secret room to furnish it in the hereafter.

Since that night she had met him at one of the many "contemporary art" galleries beginning to dot the City Center, Jamal had began replacing the warm breaths she kept as lovers in her bed. A friend of a friend had invited her to the exhibit, and though she had hated the art, she had admired the obscene view of the mountains that the gallery offered its goers. Tip-toeing from window to art, she had seen him staring pensively at one of the larger pieces that occupied nearly an entire wall. A halting smile on her face, she had approached him, feigning excitement over the painting though more interested in the way his shoulders grasped his shirt and the way his wrist had held her breath. 

“I think I heard someone say that it’s supposed to call into question the postcolonial discourse around food culture. What do you think?” She said, taking a sip from the glass in her right hand. 

It was then Jamal had began to unravel her with his honesty, calling the art by its appropriate names: ‘shit’, ‘terrible’, ‘self-important.’ She had laughed.

“So what brings you here if the art is so terrible?”

“It’s my friend’s work. You have to support artistic expression. Even if it’s not my cup of tea.” 

As they spoke he had stared openly into Nyanjala’s face, arresting her with the frankness of the depths he was attempting to reach. Nyanjala had looked back unflinchingly, determined to unearth what sat beneath the surface of this man's assuredness. What made him think that he could look so openly and attentively into people’s eyes, mouths and lips as if unafraid of the things they might reveal? 

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Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons