Because of how compact it looks from the outside, I tend to forget that the Murtala Muhammed International Airport is a maze. You only need to take one wrong turn to end up in an unlabelled corridor with buzzing fluorescent lights phasing in and out, ominous rumbling from the depths of the building, and water dripping from the ceiling. I made my way through, sticking close to but careful not to touch the clammy walls.
I climbed up two flights of stairs to a dead end, backtracked listening for noise until I came upon a female Customs Officer whose presence was announced by a rustling sound that grew in intensity until she materialised from a hidden side door holding a flashlight. She swung the beam both ways before chugging down the corridor past me, her scowl making it clear she wasn’t there to answer questions. I followed her, trotting at a safe distance.
The sign had said ‘Port Health’ with a jagged arrow pointing down a dark hallway, but the paper was torn at the edges and the tape holding it brown with age and after I got lost and tried to return to that starting point, the sign was missing, and I could have sworn the lights were not flickering this much before.
She turned twice. First, at a sealed-off door with a glass front. The interior of that office looking like an abandoned radio station. Dust motes dancing in dim light, dark switchboards and microphones on a long desk. I hurried to catch up with her as she turned the second time, descending down a circular stairway into a marginally better lit space. She clicked off her torch and cut through a crowd huddled around the entrance to the Port Health office.
The airport health centre was the same cream colour as all government offices, with dark green or grey highlighting around the door frame. Inside were five nurses, two per table behind mounds of files and one at the entrance issuing instructions.
“First you line up to get the injection and take a number. When we call your number, you bring your passport with one thousand naira inside. We will use that to fill out your yellow card. If you are in a hurry to catch a flight, let us know before we start.”
I get on the queue and roll up my sleeve for the vaccine. When it gets to her turn, the grandma in front of me starts flapping her fingers and snivelling.
“Nurse, is it going to be painful? Eeesh, nurse, tell me the truth, I am afraid.”
To which the nurse says: “Get out of here and stop wasting everybody’s time. Next person!”
Then she turns to me and sticks me in my right arm before I can ready myself.
The pain is a flash and then it is gone. I take a number and stumble back out. My head is either real woozy or imaginary woozy. Antibodies are floating in my bloodstream. No one likes needles but some people can suppress their aversion long enough to take injections.
Grandma is taking hers now. “Ah ah, nurse, why didn’t you just say something before? It’s not that bad.” She continues talking to the waiting crowd like they’ve appointed her speaker of the scared people. “They should be nicer to those of us older people who are a little bit worried about taking injections. It is not as if we are children.”
We are holding cotton buds to our arms in a mass quenelle salute, like we brushed dirt off our shoulders and accidentally smudged it into our white tees.
Grandma is still talking. She is stuck in that loop where a person embarrasses themselves in public and they keep talking to try to dissipate the feeling. My body is floaty.
Once, I was on a bus and when the conductor turned to collect the fare and asked where I was going, I noticed he was missing the top joints of the four fingers on his right hand, hacked off in an accident or some other misfortune. I stammered, swallowed hard, attempted to recover, and sputtered out my destination. When I thought about it later, I wasn’t sure if I stammered because I was surprised by the incomplete fingers or because I was uncertain about where I was going. Yes, I was going to work but I was taking an unfamiliar route.
At that point, sitting on the bus, I contemplated striking up a conversation with the conductor so he would know it wasn’t because of the fingers. I could crack jokes and when he softened, I would say, “I’m totally cool with the fingers, bro, some of my best friends are lepers.” He would throw his head back and laugh long, holding his heaving belly with his stumps, then he would extend his hand to give me a fist bump.
It took an act of great will to muzzle myself that day.
Someone is getting up from the chair closest to the door so grandma can sit in it. I am light-headed, I should sit down. I am number four and nanobots are swimming in my system.
I am thinking all this when a man joins the group. He is escorted by two airport officials, both shorter than him. One of the officials pushes through the crowd to go into the Port Health office. The other one stays with the man on the outskirts of the vaccinated crowd. I glance up at his face. He is a head taller than everyone else. He has no facial hair and the close-cut hair on his head is grey. His eyes are tiny in his head and sharp. His cheekbones are like his eyes, rock-hard, carved in his face. Grandma is chattering in the background. I realize that I know him and because he is wearing a white tracksuit, I know exactly from where.
I am leaning against the wall. The boy standing beside me has been on with his blackberry the whole time. He nudges me. “That man looks familiar. Do you know who he is?”
I nod and start to hyperventilate.
He leans into my face and whispers, “Who?”
I say, “Carl Lewis,” and my vision goes blurry.
The boy straightens up and goes back to his phone. He punches buttons, hums to himself, stretches the phone out to me. It is a Google search on Carl Lewis with his image on the right side of the screen.
“You’re right,” he says.
My hands are shaking. A tear unbeckoned squeezes itself out of my eye.
Carl Lewis was the first man to run 100 metres under 10 seconds (fine print included). The question then was, if man continues to get better, how fast can humans go?
His long jump record is over 29 feet and third in the world. The story goes that when his father died in ’87, Carl Lewis buried his 100m gold medal from 1984 with him and told his mom, “Don’t worry, I’ll win another one,” which he did in ’88. He won his first gold at 23 and his last at the age of 35. He was picking up gold medals at international competitions for twelve years.
He was voted Sportsman of the Century by the International Olympic Committee.
He competed in the ’84, ’88, ’92 and ’96 Olympics at a time when running was something we took seriously. Everyone knew the fastest child on each street and the fastest overall on the estate. You knew the fastest student in your school and the fastest teacher. And every Olympics, you ignored all the other sports and waited for the short sprints and relays because Nigeria always made a showing. Not quite winning, but not losing either; our green suits flailing somewhere in the middle, still enough to make you feel proud.
When I was at the age when everything seemed possible, Carl Lewis was the best on earth at something that wasn’t debatable: How fast can you run and how far can you jump. It was, in my mind, as close to a superhero as you can get.
Blackberry boy is nudging me again. “You should talk to him. Ask him for a picture or something. If it was me, I would ask.”
There is a Japanese anime series called Afro Samurai–which was notable because the English voice of the main character is done by Samuel L. Jackson–and it revolves around the concept of headbands. In the Afro Samurai world, the best fighter in the world wears the Number One headband, and lives in luxury in a mansion at the top of a mountain. It is the ultimate goal to get that headband, its wearer possesses great powers and gets everything he wants.
But the only way to get the Number One headband is to defeat the current wearer in combat and according to the rules, he can only be challenged by the person with the Number Two headband.
The second most powerful man in the world wears the Number Two headband. There are no perks to being Number Two. He is constantly harassed by people who want the headband so they can fight for the Number One position. If he goes into a town, everyone knows he is there. They swarm his location trying to stop him, to pick fights, to poison him. Opportunists linger around him looking to steal the headband.
It is a hectic life, but it is how I imagined Carl Lewis lives.
Like there should be a website ‘Where is Carl Lewis dot com’ and people can log in to see where he is at any moment. Or an app, the Carl Lewis tracker that tells you: You are currently 9,380 kilometres from Carl Lewis.
Like he should not be here in this dungeon debating Nigerian immigration on whether or not he needs shots because Superman cannot catch a cold and Thor could never get tetanus.
Like he should just pick up his bag and jump out of this tiny airport in one bound. Because he could and because he is dressed for it.
But he doesn’t.
He is fifty-two. His handlers argue with the nurses a bit more. Carl Lewis checks his watch. Ten seconds pass. He mumbles something to the man beside him. Then with his lips pressed together, he picks up his luggage and struggles up the stairs with it.