Death is but an eternal blink. There are no paradisal gardens or grim hellscapes, no dances with the devil or trumpeting angels. You simply blink and your mind's eye - the wellspring of your cognition - loses sight of your selfhood forever.
But what about God, you ask, dear reader? Where does that leave Allah and Christ and Yahweh and Buddha and Krishna and-and-and? To my thinking, God in all His infinite glory is a manifestation of the magicality of our imaginations. When I, beloved reader, say that I see the God in you, it means that I see your power and poise and, most crucially, the quintessence of your humanity. I see your divinity, dear reader. I see you and I believe in you.
Once, in a moment of youthful arrogance, I asked my aabo and hooyo, 'What is the source of your suffering? Doesn't it hurt you bone-deep to wear all the pain you've experienced at the hands of your people like a shroud? Couldn't you carry your sorrow lightly like a scented scarf?'
My aabo smiled sadly. 'Pain - in all its inventively malevolent variations - doesn't know how to disguise itself. If you have tasted pain, it doesn't simply stick to your tongue. It seeps into your flesh; becomes encoded in your DNA until the day you die. Only then, as your cells collapse, does it truly cease to matter.'
'That's one way of looking at it,' said hooyo. 'But Migil, if you don't mind, I'll take it over from here for a spell. Reader, are you there? Yes, I see you now. Okay, I'm going to tell you a story that savages these sad bloke theories. Is you ready? I know you are, so here we go.
'There was once a bundu Somali brother who grew up as a camel herder in the outer habada of Bosaaso, Somalia. This brother was a riggedy-raggedy ass motherfucker - sweet but simple in his black and white view of the world. He immigrated to London in his thirties and decided to become a taxi driver. Well, it was a job he could get. Bredrin was truly shocked by the city's splendour and guttural gloom. At night, he would schlep around Soho and drive around young femboys who would fondle each other and puke all over his cute little car. Man was pissed at the flagrant disrespect so he ditched the taxi driving business and became a Tesco delivery man. The hours were long, the pay was poor and he was tired and lonesome. Homie longed for some loving. He wanted to sekkle and plant seeds. So he did what a lot of diasporic brothers do and sent for a young bride from the bush. Reader, are you ready for this gear change? I hope you are because I'm about to switch this shit up on you.
‘The young bride, a pretty likkle ting with a tight chocha worth writing choons about, rocked up to London, got hitched to this hustler and prepared herself for a life of dull domesticity. Sis couldn't speak a word of English, and she found life in their South London council flat to be a claustrophobic contrast to the sea and warmth of Somalia.
'One day, her husband, the poncey delivery man, hired an Irish handyman to fix their house up and told his wife, our good sis, to make sure that the yard was finessed to perfection. Sista gyal reluctantly agreed. She didn't want to be left alone with a strange white man. Every day, after her husband left for work in the a.m., the handyman arrived, ready to get more than his fingers dirty. The handyman clocked the curvaceous thighs and booty of this beautiful black woman. Jungle fever hit the motherfucker mightily. He would sweat and turn the colour of a handmaid's cloak. I'm telling you, Offred didn't have shit on this Shitty Shitty Bang Bang. Our good sis scoped the handyman's hungry eyes and decided to skip the tedious games and instead serve him some finger-lickin’ good lovin’.
'Meanwhile Ms. Arnette, the elderly Bajan neighbour, grew puzzled by the howls that she heard coming from next door on the daily. She wondered if her neighbours had adopted a new cat or a strange breed of vixen. She wondered if the young wife of her kind neighbour was being raped by the bloodclaat whitey that came to their house every day, armed with paint cans and brushes. Ms. Arnette didn't call the police. Instead she picked up the steel baseball bat that she reserved exclusively for the non-existent robbers she feared would break into her clapped-out house and schlepped to her neighbours' yard. Ms. Arnette was not playing as she rang the buzzer. She was ready to klep the fuck out of this ponce for molesting this poor Muslim woman who had probably never seen dick in her life. Ms. Arnette was no fool. She knew about FGM. She had read all about it in The Sun. Those poor Somali girls. So oppressed. Well, she'd save one today in Jesus' name, Amen. She rang and rang and rang the buzzer until the door creaked open.
'Out popped a visibly dishevelled sista gyal wearing a satin robe and smelling of sex and sweat and more sex. She was breathless and irritated with Ms. Arnette for fucking up her groove.
'Darling, you alright in there?' said Ms. Arnette, sussing out the situation and scandalised by this turn of events. 'I heard noises. Howling sounds, like someone was puttin' a hurtin' on you.'
''Me ferry busy,' said sista gyal, 'Take care.' She slammed the door in poor Ms. Arnette's face. Poor Ms. Arnette who only wanted to save some silly Somali rube from rape. Incensed, Ms. Arnette hobbled back to her home, using her steel bat as a walking stick.
'What was wrong with people, thought Ms. Arnette, once she was back in her home. Why don't people want to be saved? The way Ms. Arnette saw it, she was a messenger of the Almighty and his son, Jesus Christ, and it was her duty to do the right thing at all times. Ms. Arnette was so fastidious when it came to this purpose that she didn't even like farting in any room in her empty home except the bathroom, which everyone knew was the devil's sanctuary. She decided that this stoopid Somali girl should be punished for her transgression. If she didn't teach her a lesson, who would? Ms. Arnette poured herself a cup of tea and sat down on her sofa and waited. It was a cat-and-mouse ting now.
‘Two weeks of this ceaseless dicknotization coupled with wall-penetrating squeals and howls were enough to make Ms. Arnette hurl. When she couldn't take no more, she confronted the man of the house, our clueless delivery man, and spilled the juice. Ms. Arnette told him that his missus was running game on him and he needed to stop being a mug. Our delivery man suspected foul play but not of this variety. He simply thought that the handyman he had hired was refusing to work. Vexed like a muthafucker, he confronted his wife, and for the first time in what felt like aeons, Ms. Arnette slept right that night.
'Our beloved sista gyal denied-denied-denied this attack on her character. 'You think I'm a shakshuuko?' she shouted at her exhausted husband. 'You think I've come all the way from my beloved Bosaaso to shack up with a useless delivery man and his cadaan handyman. Spin me a new story, pal, cause this one is as old as my granny's knickers.'
'You're right, my love,' said the delivery man. 'I'm so sorry for doubting your dopeness. Please don't leave me. I'm so lonely.'
'No-one is leaving no-one,' said sista gyal. 'I'm your wife and Allah Almighty has blessed this marriage, so we'll ride this shit together till the wheels fall off.'
'Fast forward to five months later and sista gyal was preggo-preggo. We're talking a pair of twins in the oven preggo and her husband was ecstatic. What he didn't know, however, was that sista gyal was knocked up with the Irish handyman's pickney. Contrary to what Ms. Arnette believed, sista gyal was sharper than a shank. She currently lived in Peckham but she wanted to upgrade to one of the fancier neighbourhoods like Mayfair or Chelsea. She hippity-hippity-hopped onto a bus and went to Westminster City Council's Housing Office and asked for a Somali interpreter. The housing officer granted her request and listened to her as she wept and wept and wept. They could see that she was heavily pregnant and felt incredible sympathy for her. She spoke of an abusive marriage laced with gas-lighting and much grimy mess. She spoke of an unwanted pregnancy that she could no longer abort. She spoke convincingly of an emotional and psychic pain that had been conjured from her expansive imagination. As per its statutory obligations, the council immediately put her into emergency accommodation and just before she gave birth, she settled her scammer ass into the swishiest little apartment in Mayfair. When she gave birth, she and her babies were given a first-rate social worker, who made sure that she was safe from that 'horrible, horrible' husband of hers.
'Meanwhile, her ‘horrible, horrible’ husband, our likkle delivery man, toiled and toiled in his half-decorated home, worried that his wife and his babies had been kidnapped, not realising that sista gyal had used her body as a bribe in order to buy her freedom.
'He saw her many years later, wearing the tightest jeans, nails done, hair did, getting into a cute powder-blue Mini Cooper in Sloane Square, where he was making a grocery delivery. She saw him, gave him a cryptic smile, slipped her Cavalli sunglasses on and got into her car, drove off and disappeared from his view forever.'
‘What is your point, hooyo?' I asked. 'That scammers always know how to game the system? That if you pop your coochie, you end up with the world in your palms?'
'No, my lovely,' said my mother, 'I'm simply saying that life is not one extended depressive jag. There is joy to be had amidst the pain. We make art and we tell stories. That is what our people have been doing for millennia. This is how we live. Are you going to get hurt along the way? Damn skippy. But it's what you do with that pain that fortifies your character.'
I couldn't tell my hooyo that sometimes storytelling wasn't enough to stem the bowel-to-core deep sadness; that loneliness often made my mind spin in the small hours, that the inability to move beyond one's anxieties felt like pushing against a standing stone, that the struggle to connect with others stung one's consciousness in ways that were startling and hallucinatory.
Oh, who am I kidding, beloved reader? Just spinning this yarn for you feels like a balm. I hope you feel comforted, knowing that we're constructing this tapestry together. So let's do this. Grab your tings, gorgeous one, and let's head over to my second job. What? You thought a brother could live on a part-time journalist's salary in London? Ha! That story is even funnier than my hooyo's souped-up, street folktales.
Neon Gumbo was a boutique located along Rye Lane in a snazzy new space called The Market, which was right next to my other gig in the Bussey Building. It was an upscale store specialising in customised clothing, jewellery and funkadelic flyness from West African artists, designers and tastemakers. If you wanted Ankara- and kente-imprinted hoodies and leather jackets, you would feel finer than Fela Kuti here. If you wanted the freshest organic cosmetics from Nigeria, Mali and Ghana, you could cop that from us. The joint was pure drip but the salary was sawa sawa tu: nothing to holler to your hooyo about, nothing that would allow my co-workers, two young queer art students called Ariel and Maimuna, to move out of their parents' houses. I was lucky enough to have my own place: a poxy but rent-controlled council flat down the road that I got a few years ago because I was a high priority patient in a psych ward at the time. Let me tell you, dear reader, that flat is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I don't take it for granted that I have my own apartment in London at a time when homelessness in this merciless city is growing at a horrific rate.
But enough grimmage for now. Let me introduce you to my crew. Ariel is an Israeli bredda with bright green eyes and matching hair and nails who's always kitted out in Calvin & Hobbes gear that he designed himself since Bill Waterson, the characters' creator, has resisted the capitalistic seductiveness of merchandising for nearly four straight decades. (Side note: if you're Bill Waterson and you're reading this, please don't sue poor Ariel. The kid can barely afford food, let alone a decent solicitor).
Next up is Maimuna, a hijabi queen from Cameroun with skin like liquid silk and the mouth of a young Millie Jackson (reader, if you don't know good ole Millie, YouTube is your bestie). Maimuna - or Muna as she liked to be called - dressed modestly, didn't drink, but smoked enough dutch to resurrect Bob Marley. Maybe they puff-puff-passed together in a past life.
This time last year, both Ariel and Muna, who were studying together at Camberwell College of Art, identified as nonbinary. This year they were using regular, schmegular pronouns but now called themselves neosexuals. When I asked them what this meant, Muna giggled sheepishly and said, 'It's just something different, innit?'
'Yah,' added Ariel, 'Nonbinariness is so 2010s. We've evolved and created our own sexuality.'
'Mazeltov,' I said.
I didn't have it in me to tell them that neosexuality was not a new concept, especially amongst gender studies scholars. Especially when the only thing these kids were trying to do was find other ways of being, alternative modes of existing in this frightening era where your best friend and most fearsome foe was your phone, which had the capacity to sedate you with cute memes or catapult you into psychosis. These kids couldn't catch a break.
'Migil, someone came to see you today,' said Muna. 'This sexy Congolese trans brother. Said his name was Claude and that you knew him from the Butterfly Jungle. Is that some kinda code for a kinky sex club? Because if so, you have to take me there. I wouldn't mind pegging a hot bloke or three.'
'I thought you were a lesbian,' I blurted, before quickly realising my mistake.
'Neosexual,' barked Muna, 'God, there is nothing more traumatic than being misgendered.'
'I'm really sorry, Muna,' I said, 'I didn't mean to misgender you.'
'To be fair to Migil, you do see yourself as a lesbian sometimes,' said Ariel, consoling Muna.
'I'm only a lesbian on the weekends when I'm at Pussy Palace and want to eat nothing but pum-pum,' said Muna. 'On week days, I'm a neosexual. We both agreed on this, Ari. We are neosexuals.'
'I know, sweetie,' said Ariel, giving her a hug. 'I know.'
'Forgive me for my binary thinking, Muna,' I said.
'It's alright,' said Muna, pulling away from Ariel. 'It must be nice to live in such a bubble of sexual privilege.'
'Muna, what are you bleating on about?' I said. 'You're the one who can get men, women and nonbinary folks to drop their pants and hop into bed with you. Darling, you have a super power.'
Muna perked up as she considered this notion. 'You're right, Migil. I'm really blessed. Last night, I was being double-penetrated by this cis het man and his wife and right before I nutted, I thought, how lucky am I to have such an insatiable appetite? I jizzed like a muthafucker just thinking about it and I still have the carpet burns from the session.'
'Let me see, you sexy minx,' said Ariel, unbuttoning Muna's jeans.
'I'm off to the stock room,' I said, leaving them to continue their coital escapades.
'Migil, don't you want your pal, Claude's number?' said Muna as she undressed. 'Ari, pass him that green post-it.'
Ariel ran to the counter, picked up the post-it and handed it to me before heading back to investigate Muna's sex bruises. I scanned the note briefly before going downstairs to the stock room.
Reader, come through and peep this semi-cute shit. Claude was my first inamorato. He was a sculpture of his own design, a statuesque god attuned to his own divine nature. I was twenty-one, he was forty and more flavoursome than a fat rascal served with cinnamon tea. Whenever he kissed me, he would leave traces of his cologne all over my collar bone, making me sweat until my mind melted. Just thinking about him sent me into a sex-funky spiral. I wanted to call him, lick his clit, make him scream-and-cream until we were both in a rhapsodic state. But something held a brother back.
I was broken and I didn't know how to restore my self-worth. Afraid that my anguish would ossify into a fear of others, I turned instead to the strange voices in my head for comfort, a Greek chorus that synthesised the same bromides on a schizoid loop: You will be fine. You will survive this moment. You will, you will, you will…
I didn't know if I could trust these voices or if I could trust my own instincts. This revelation made the terra incognita of my perceptions more treacherous. I worried that I would revert to my innate wildness: the feral, dangerous self that I had silenced with antipsychotics. This shadow self didn't have a sense of self-preservation or a single particle of dignity. This shadow self was my truest essence. Good god, how grimy. Let's bounce, beloved reader, before I unleash the dragon, Dru Hill-style (and trust me, that shit is messier than Joan Crawford and her wire clothes hangers in Mommy Dearest).
Many years ago, on the kind of humid-but-pissing-down-with-hail summer night that makes Londoners go loony, I was locked up in a loony bin, fanning myself with a copy of Prozac Nation. The edition I held in my hands was given to me by my adeer Anatoly, my father's husband. Adeer Anatoly used to be in the Russian military and before that he was a high school literature teacher. When he lived in Moscow, he was married to a sturdy Latvian sistren and they had a daughter my age. During his time in the army, he cooked all the meals that his comrades needed to survive the cold, including, but not limited to, liver and tripe baked in pots together with cereal, pelmeni (a dope dumpling-like treat) or jellied pork. His homies in the barracks fed well, and at night one or two of the twinky ones would creep into his bunk and bless him with a discreet blowjob. As soon as adeer Anatoly was discharged, he immigrated to London and never looked back.
Brotherman met my dad at Bootylicious, the gay hip-hop club, and before any member of my family knew wagwan, we were all dressed in kangas dancing to WizKid at their wedding in the Connaught Rooms in Holborn.
Don't get it twisted, reader. It's hard out here for two OGs with power-hungry personalities. From the beginning, my aabo and adeer were boxing on the daily in that very East African/ Eastern European way of fisticuffs followed by days-long sessions of hard fucking and tantric play. They shared a house with my mother and her wife, who would both be listening to these blokes' shenanigans with simmering rage and envy.
'How are they still fucking twelve hours later?' said a genuinely flummoxed hooyo, which eventually led to her screeching, 'Will you cunts shut the fuck up?' before finally coming to me as a defeated woman and saying, 'Migil, we need your entire supply of white lady pills. We have to be in a coma tonight whilst those two are knocking boots.’
Luckily for my hooyo, things calmed down with my aabo and adeer's heat-seeking ways, and both breddas became more discreet with their dick-downs. They all somehow found a way, through much trial and error, to build a happy home on a foundation of kinship and respect. We all loved one another and found tremendous comfort in each other's company.
Adeer Anatoly, ever the enterprising gourmand, opened a food truck on Rye Lane, where he served his customers Jamaican cuisine (side note: I've seen super-hardboiled, separatist Rastafarians queuing up for servings of his slow-cooked curry goat). The food truck was called The Conquering Lion, which was named after my adeer's favourite Marley riddim. On weekends, my whole family chipped in as servers and business was soon sweeter than the cherry on a fruit cocktail.
The Conquering Lion was where I found myself after work one day, telling adeer Anatoly that Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of Prozac Nation, the book he had given me when I was sectioned in the psychiatric ward all those years ago, had passed away.
'I'm so sorry,' he said, serving a Guyanese sista a steaming plate of plantain, jerk chicken and rice and peas. 'What happened to her? Please don't tell me she committed suicide. That would just break my heart.'
'No, she died of breast cancer.'
'Oh man, what a tragedy,' he sighed. 'It’s always a shame when someone like Wurtzel manages to not only survive something as soul-destroying as severe depression, but goes on to make a wonderful life for herself, only for her light to be snuffed out by cancer.'
There was a silence.
'Adeer, I'm really sad,' I said, wiping tears from my face.
'Oh, sweetheart,' he said, removing his blue plastic gloves and giving me a warm hug. 'What's wrong?'
‘I don't know how to fix myself. Every day, I make a mental note that I'll get better, that the pain will subside, but I'm still here in a state of loss and grief.'
'What are you grieving?' asked adeer Anatoly, handing me a tissue.
'I'm grieving the sense of optimism I used to have. I'm stuck, and for the first time in my life I don't know how to survive this void that makes me feel like my life has no value.'
'Oh, honey,' said adeer Anatoly, enveloping me in another hug. 'You are not alone. You have a whole village of loved ones. We are all here for you. Migil, this is what depression does to the mind. It makes you feel fragile and vulnerable and it really hurts. When I left Moscow, I was terrified. I had learned that the entire life I had built for myself was based on falsehoods, and this freaked me out. I left all my friends, my family, my inherited identity behind so that I could honour who I really was. Now I have a whole new family and community. You are one of the most wonderful human beings I know. I adore you, I admire you and I'm proud to call you my son.'
'Thank you, adeer,' I said.
Stars glinted in the winter night sky as Peckham’s hipsters, halal housewives and hobos wandered up the high street, speaking in Somali, Pidgin, Patois and Polish. Adeer Anatoly and I stared at the scene in silence, momentarily stunned by our tremendous good fortune.
Later that evening I thought about Claude and our time together in the mental hospital. Reader, I sometimes wonder whether I dreamt that experience, which was exquisitely tortuous in its surreal incoherence. I often wondered whether I had dreamt up Claude too, whether he was the perfect emblem of a mind mired in its own myth-making. I had apotheosised him, and I died a little death when I learnt that he too was a mortal being, with mortal needs and mortal softness. This is what we don't often talk about when we discuss men: their innate, child-like sensitivity and how this sensitivity can be nurtured as a strength or weaponised into a source of shame and volatile self-hate. To love a man, whether cis or trans, is like tending a garden and, like all gardens, the task must be approached with tenderness, a little care, some patience. I didn't know how to love my fellow man right. Wisdom is an acceptance of our accrued inadequacies. Wisdom ain't a deepening of character, it is the body's way of saying, 'Brother, I’m dying, so we might as well dance to the end of love.'
I opened my diary and retrieved the post-it with Claude's phone number written on it. I was afraid of what he would say. I was afraid of what he wouldn't say. I picked up my phone and called him.
'Claude?' I said, clutching the phone with trembling fingers.
'Migil,' he shouted, ecstatically. 'Beautiful Migil, I'm so glad you called.'
'How've you been, lovely?'
'Pregnant,' giggled Claude. 'I'm two months deep in this shizznit.'
I was slightly taken back.
'Mabruk,' I said, 'Who's the lucky man?'
'Woman, actually,' said Claude, 'Her name is Marta. She's a Portuguese trans sista. A proper fire starter. How've you been, beloved?'
'I'm doing great,' I lied. 'I'm a journalist these days.'
'I know. I've been following your career.' There was a pause. 'I read your piece on the man who assaulted you. Migil, I'm so sorry that happened.'
Two months ago, I had published a viral article about a male musician who had assaulted me. I didn't tell Claude that, soon after the piece was published, a group of hackers had doxxed me, putting my address and personal details on the internet. I didn't tell Claude that the Somali far right had shamed me endlessly on social media for being a man who had sex with other men, for being a man who had made moves on a married man. These members of the Twitterati sent me hate mail on the daily and made me hire a locksmith to secure my front door properly. I couldn't tell Claude these things. I couldn't confide in him the way I used to because he had moved on and I clearly hadn't. So I said, 'Oh, don't worry about me. I'm an extraordinary machine à la Fiona Apple.'
'God, do you remember how we rinsed that album when we were in the Butterfly Jungle?' chuckled Claude.
'I love how you still refer to the mental hospital as the Butterfly Jungle.'
'It was you who came up with that name on one of our sweaty nights together,' said Claude. 'You said that the first time you saw me you thought I was composed entirely from a kaleidoscope of butterflies, which I thought was a lush image. No one had ever seen me like that before.'
There was a comfortable pause.
'What are you going to call the baby?' I asked.
'Dunya if it's a girl, Migil if it's a boy.'
'Are you serious?' I said, incredibly moved.
'Of course,' said Claude. 'You were such an important part of my life. I love you, Migil. I think of you when the world is leached of colour, when I look up at the moon at night. You have always been the rock and the shore. I hope you're being kind to yourself.'
At this point, my fingers were shaking so hard that I had to hold the phone with both hands.
'Will I see you again?' asked Claude.
'Of course,' I said, even though I didn't think it was wise. He was building a new life for himself and I didn't want to disrupt it.
'We'll always have the Butterfly Jungle,' said Claude, a tinge of sadness in his voice because he knew the truth. We would never see each other again.
'May you prosper and prosper. May your baby be born healthy and happy. May you be loved with the kind of passion that you deserve. May you continue to find boundless joy in this world.'
'To the future, Migil,' said Claude, his voice breaking. 'Love you.'
'Love you more,' I said, before hanging up the phone.
I sat in my darkened living room, police sirens going off in the distance, wondering if another young black man had lost his life. I sat in my darkened living room as the world turned and burned. I sat in my darkened living room, wearing all the pain I had experienced at the hands of my people like a shroud. I sat in my darkened living room, unable to carry my sorrow lightly like a scented scarf.
I was my parents’ pickney after all.
The queer black body as sacred memory, the mind as cuneiform script, code too complex for modern algorithms.
The queer black body as dreamscape, each stretch mark a dragon's blood branch, coconut oil making every crevice taste like mother's milk.
The queer black body as sex and sweat and Somalinimo, tongue sweeter than a vial of rose oil, mouth warmer than Merca.
Sing me to a new self.
DIRIYE OSMAN is illustrated by DIEGO L. RODRIGUEZ