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If you go to West Alabama Street in Houston, there is a bar called Ice House. Find it. Ask for the pretty brown girl that worked there in the summer of 2014. She was always smiling. If she is there, they will tell you. If not, they will tell you where to find her. If she is there, ask her if she still remembers me. If not, buy a drink and leave. I guess by now she must have graduated from college and moved to another city. She might still be there. Still serving drinks. Still smiling. Still curious. Her slender arms holding jugs of beer and walking from customer to costumer. The very first day I set my eyes on her, something in me was awakened. I became alive with a deep feeling down my soul.
I was always playing billiard and winning, and smoking, and laughing. Always with a bottle of beer in my hand. Damn me, always jolly, John. Always Jolly. I was always watching her instead of the game; the way she waved she arms in the air when the Russian soccer team scored a goal against their opponents, the way she smiled, made me look out for her all the time. Every record of her beauty is stored in the damp registers of my mind. She became my reason to wake up every day even without her knowing. Just the thought of her brought a certain kind of joy to me. You understand what I am talking about John, right? Have you ever felt something like this?
“You ever played soccer before?” I asked her one day.
“Yes, in High School. I love soccer,” she replied.
I wanted to ask her another question, but she got called by the manager. A few minutes later, I saw her again. She kept walking around, with an opener stuck in her back pocket. I watched her open beers for men that laughed hysterically. I watched her laugh with the manager. The way she smiled at him nearly made me jealous. Even though I didn’t know who she was, yet I was beginning to feel jealous. A part of me wanted her all for myself.
“Everything ok?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
John, if you know a thing about hippies and Houston, then you would know about this bar, it is rad. Even dogs came here for a beer. All the travelers looking for celestial sanctuary or twisted Nirvana came here too. For some reason, the feeling around this bar was out of this world. The Russians beat the Spanish soccer team that day. I played billiard with my roommate who always accompanied me to see games. I paid for my drinks. I tipped her. I smiled and she smiled back. I left.
I and my roommate came back home drunk and mused over her beauty. I know that was crazy, but we couldn’t help it. Ignoring it was like seeing a rose flower for the first time, smelling it, and saying it isn’t nice. I just can’t imagine forgetting it. I told him that she made me feel alive. My roommate said I couldn’t even talk to her. He laughed at me.
He sat there playing a video game, talking about fast cars, cards, and a rich dad in Pennsylvania. His spectacle perched on his nose. He was a rich and spoilt American boy with a trust fund. Dear lord, he never bothered to even find a job. For me, I struggled from month to month to pay my part of the rent and stay afloat. But then, he was a kind man, a very good man. Once in a while, he paid for the beers, bought groceries, or planned a trip, without asking me for a dime. Other times, he told me stories about rich America kids in Ivy League colleges like The University of Pennsylvania.
Rich Americans don’t talk too much about being rich Americans, they just be it. They rock it, silently. Rich Americans go for investments like real estates, buying stocks, buying gold bars, collecting rare coins, collecting rare art works, and whatever cliché that can solidify their place for generations to come. We spent some weekends gambling in the most expensive casinos in St. Charles, Louisiana, just by the beach. He had a sport car, and I swear, he never went gentle on the pedals.
“Man, I bet you can’t talk to that girl, man,” he said.
“Dude, you think I am scared of her or what?” I asked.
“Go get her, she is beautiful. If you get that girl, I will give five hundred dollars. I am saying it for the second time.”
“Man, she is too beautiful to be placed on a bet. I will get her because I like her, and you will see,” I said.
Down the road, along my street, you could taste the greatest burritos on four wheels ever made by human hands. I swear, people traveled double-digit miles just to taste the hand work of these chef goddesses – two Mexican woman dishing heavenly meals on wheel. If I ever make it back to Houston, I will find that truck. It was another evening of a great burritos savory. The sun was high and falling down the horizon. The air was humid, and hot. I walked across the street, made a left and found myself at the bar again. There she was bartending. I sat on the stool and smiled at her. She smiled back at me. She could tell that I liked her by the way I looked at her. I asked for a beer. I watched her grab a Heineken and opened it for me. I looked around, people were playing billiard, drinking, laughing, and having a good time. I bent my head and began to scribble nothing on a paper.
I got bored, went over to the billiard board to play. I played with a tall guy that had a deep southern accent. He kept drinking, playing, and chalking his pool cue. He talked as if his life depended on it, he hardly slowed down. Soon, I learnt that he had moved from Arkansas to start his internship here in Houston. I swear, in a few minutes, I knew about him. I watched her pass while I listened. I potted the black ball and walked away to smoke. I stood by at the corner of the bar and lit a cigarette. I felt open. I felt new. For some reason, I felt sickened at the same time. There was something sickening about smoking, yet I couldn’t stop doing it.
“Light,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, and removed my lighter and lit her cigarette.
“Are you on break?” I asked her. My words were a little disjointed. My mouth wobbly, almost. Like I was afraid of her beauty or something. I felt like what I wanted was now before me and yet I had nothing to say to her. She took the first drag and waved her hair back with her long fingers.
“So, where are you from? You are always here, and I can tell you are not from here,” she said.
“Ghana,” I said.
“The play good soccer, too,” she said.
“Yes we do. It’s something we grow up doing. Our game is tomorrow, will you be here?” I asked.
“So, you like working here?” I asked.
“Yes, I do. It pays the bills and helps with college, too,” she said, her eyebrows lifted up rhythmically.
“Which college do you go to?” I asked.
“I always hang out there with my friends. There is a great bar there, Valhalla. I go there almost every Saturday. I think it will be great to meet you there,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” she said.
“The great thing about the place is that you will meet the coolest people in Houston. Travelers meet there, too. We talk about the beauty of the world, and all that existence stuff. There is something in you that is looking for the outside world. A beautiful curiosity. Trust me, we have all the good stories there,” I said, looking into her eyes as if I was sure of her curiosity. I was sure. I could smell curiosity from miles away.
“Cool, then I will come. I am not promising anything though,” she said.
“No problem, I will be expecting you. Take my phone number, and text me.”
I called my phone number out for her and she sent me a text message immediately. I saved her number.
“My name is Ken,” I said.
“Nice to meet you Chloë.”
She wasn’t the kind of girl who laughed all the time. She was the kind that knew exactly what she wanted. It was in her eyes, right there. The way she smiled wasn’t to attract or please any one, it was filled with self-sufficiency and a lot of confidence. She was the kind of girl that enjoyed her own company. Her character wasn’t veiled, she was plain. I could tell certain things about her just by watching her walk away. The strangeness of our conversations stayed with me even minutes after she left. Her words roamed in the soft parts of my heart. Dear John, I still feel her in my heart.
That day, I left the bar punching my fist into the air. I was happy. I felt like I had conquered myself. She was worth it. When I got home, I told my roommate about our conversation. I told him that she would join us in our meeting at Valhalla.
Valhalla was Funky, and surreal. The trees bent slightly across the veranda and towards us. Squirrels followed the branches to take a nut our fingers. Jake was there. Steve was there. Then my roommate, Andrew, came with his girls, Anna. Jake owned a fine art studio in Houston. Very smart guy. He was also an investor and had business online making money for him. Steve was from Pakistan and wore all the expensive designers he could lay his hands on. He looked like Elvis Presley, and wore the same hairstyle like Elvis Presley. He played the guitar and hosted us at his place sometimes. At Valhalla, we talked about everything: race, life, death, space, matter, mundane, solitude, dance, sex, wild parties, catholic, guns, and whatever. Sometimes, college girls often charmed by our conversations joined in. We were open to talk about whatever came to our head. Valhalla taught us that we belonged to something bigger without being part of it. College students flanked us. Big academic departments flanked us. The heaven flanked us. Mowed lawns flanked us. Beer, cigarette, and good time with the smartest minds in Houston. While we talked, I constantly looked out for Chloë, hoping that by some miracle she would appear. I was really expecting her.
My roommate and John talked about their day’s college. They laughed loudly and drank ale.
“Man, I wrestled when I was in college,” Andrew said.
“That’s a gay sport,” Jake said.
“I was thinking that too,” Andrew said, and looked at his girlfriend. We all laughed.
“Why is it that only Americans see extraterrestrial life?” Steve said while patting his hair. He pats that hair almost every three minutes.
“Men that’s true. Honestly, growing up in Ghana, we never talked about that shit or thought about it,” I said, and we laughed.
“In Paki too. That shit is like an American thing,” Steve said.
“If you really want to critically look at it, maybe they do visit Africa. Maybe they are called something else. I don’t know if I believe in it either, but I know that Americans are too deep into that shit,” Andrew said.
“You know that biggest research to find out if anyone is out there is on the way. Stephen Hawkins is leading the team,” Jake said.
“Man, I am tired of this world. I just want to go to Mars or somewhere, and stop bothering myself about Andrew,” his girlfriend said, smiling at him.
They were deeply in love. She kissed him, and we laughed.
“You will go to Mars without me?” Andrew asked.
“I would definitely take you there. But, don’t you get bored with being on earth sometimes?” she asked.
Andrew’s girlfriend was the only girl hanging out with us all the time. She had gotten used to our frequent existential debates and cross-examination of life kind-of-talk. She once camped with us in the middle of a desert in Arizona. She knew all the corners of Houston, even at night. Houston was better viewed at night, the lights shining gallantly into the sky, and the light rail buzzing through the heart of the city.
“How real is real, how true is true. How do you know that what you feel right now is real?” John asked. John was a slower talker. He always asked difficult questions about reality and the nature of reality. Most of these reflected in his works as an artist. Mostly paintings and carvings.
Chloë appeared from Valhalla bar with a glass of beer in her hand. She smiled and walked towards us. I stood up and hugged her.
“Friends, this is Chloë,” I said and looked at them, “Chloë, this is Stan. John. My roommate, Andrew and his girlfriend, Mercy,” I said.
She shook their hands and said “hi” to them. She joined us. We stole glances at each other from time to time.
“Chloë, what do you think about multiple dimensions?” Jake asked.
First, she was puzzled to hear that. It was the least question she expected anyone to ask her.
“Hmmm, you guys are way too deep into science,” she said.
“Man, she might not be interested in the kind of topic we are used to here,” I said, trying to defend her.
“Dimension to me is like an alternate reality…what we see might be a repetition, a sequence…” she said. She talked about all the beautiful things on dimension and even told us about her interest in astrophysics. She was a good fit for our world. Not just intellectually, she matched us beer to beer.
She was her own self, her own world, her own mind, her own decisions. I swear that that made me want her more. We all got drunk and talked trashed until the moon came out and we left. We all drove to my place. Chloë agreed to come with us. When we got home, we talked about heavens, and cherubim, and seraphim, and all the holy angels of heaven. We got high on weed, and shared a smoking pipe among us. We laughed and told personal stories about ourselves. Chloë and I sat together, by the window. We looked at each other more often. We could tell that there was more to us than just ordinary friendship.
When everyone left, she stayed back. We smoked a bit more and got higher than the statue of liberty. We began to kiss, gently. Soon, we fell on my bed and began to make love. When we finished, I watched her. She looked more beautiful than ever. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting things to come together this fast. But, I was in my kind of Nirvana, loving her. We lay on the bed, tired. We looked at each other with great admiration and respect. We smiled at nothing but our hands touching each other’s hair.
“I didn’t know it was going to end like this. I have never done this kind of thing before,” she said.
“I believe you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or not done. What matters is the why? Why did we do it? Because you love me. I love you, and I want you in my life,” I said.
“I am a complicated woman,” she said.
“I am complicated man, too,” I said.
“I love how minimal everything in your room is. Almost empty, just exactly what you need to live and survive. Even when you speak, your choice of words is minimal. You like space. The subject of space is big for you. Everything is spaced out, evenly, almost mathematically. Then the blue jar, what’s in it?” she asked. Her eyes caught the small blue jar by my window.
“Let’s see,” I said.
We walked naked to the blue jar. She touched it. She gently ran her fingers across the white lines across it. She lifted it up and examined it carefully. Each line. Each shade of age. She placed it back again.
“My grandfather sculpted this with his own hands. He did all the designs himself,” I said.
She ran her beautiful finger around it again, but this time, she was gentler. The art was profound and represented the existential values of my people. The jar stored sand. Sand passed across centuries to which each son of my father leaving home must carry with him. Sand to remind me of home. She dipped her hands in it and raised sand. Brown fine sand. She poured them back.
“This is earth, my grandfather gave me earth. To carry earth with me is to carry my home with me. Home is always with me,” I said.
She stood there, watching the sand. She admired it. I went to the fridge and brought two bottles of beer for the both of us. We drank and started having sex again. Home stood before us in the blue jar, watching.
After that day, we saw each other almost every day. She would often drop by my place before going home at night. Sometimes, she spent the night. She also became part of our Valhalla crew, and joined our weekend conversations. I swear that everything about her was lovely, and near perfect. I can still hear the sound of her voice deep down my heart. The way she says my name, like calypso beckoning on sailors.
Today, it was just the two of us at Valhalla. It was just the two of us staring at each other in disbelief. She was a special kind of girl, and wasn’t the type to compromise what she believed in. She told me that she would never go into long-distance relationship. I looked around. Everything was against me. The city I made home didn’t feel like home anymore. Home was with me, in a jar.
“I am leaving,” I said.
“I never saw you as the type of man that would stay,” she said.
Even though her heart was heavy, she saw it coming from the very first day we met. I wasn’t the type of man that would stay.
“I have always wanted to live by the sea. This is an opportunity for me to do that now,” I said.
“Yes, it is. But you know where I stand,” she said.
“Yes I do. Where you stand is beautiful and complicated too. But I believe that you understand everything there is to understand. I can’t be here forever. The urge to see something new is something I can’t stop having. I need to see all there is to see in this world. If I come back and find you, I will marry,” I said.
“No, you will not. But write to me nonetheless, traveler. Your kind never visits the same place twice unless there is earth,” she said.
“Then I will give you earth,” I said.
“The earth is a lot of price for you to pay,” she said.
“I will pay it, even if I don’t come back, let it be that I loved you this much and if there is ever another reality apart from this, we will share it together,” I said.
That night, we walked together to the park across the street and made love by the pond while watching goldfishes swim. There, time became a lacuna and made us live in bliss. As empty as we were, we kept staring into each other’s eyes. She went home because she didn’t want to be there to see me leave. She cried on her doorway. I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t. I needed the new job offer, and I needed to go.
The next morning, I was ready to go start a new life. I was ready to drive away from the city. I was ready to feel something new. I lifted the jar and looked at it again. Chloë gave me home. She gave me love. She gave me something greater than sand and art. I drove to her apartment and dropped the blue jar at her doorstep. I heard her sobbing inside and it killed me. I quickly ran out, got into the car and drove away and out of Houston. If you find her, tell her that I still care. Tell that I never wrote again because I wasn’t sure if it was for the best. I’ve never been sure of most things in my life. Tell her, that I still love her.
Thank you, John.
Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Off the Coast, Storytime, Munyori Literary Journal, Synchronized Chaos, PoeticDiversity Quarterly, Bombay Review Anthology, African Roar Anthology, and elsewhere. He spends most of his time daydreaming and collecting wish trinket from sea waves. He is also a wanderer.