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In your mind, you are a girl. Not the starry-eyed kid in a princess gown. A grown woman. A singer, swaying your hips and wriggling before a sea of upturned faces. Your audience is an arc of men: preened men in tuxedos; men in tank tops, tattoos interlocking above their arms; bearded men with receding hairlines; platinum-haired men who move through the crowd in doddery steps, their breaths tinny with beer. You are Mariah Carey. No, Beyoncé! Your hair is twisted into blond cords, sentinel to a plumed face. And as you twirl around in your smalls, teasing the maddening crowd, a sense of officiousness creeps after you – it feels as though you have clasped their essences in bejewelled fingers.
Outside your mind, you are a young man going on his first date with a girl. Most boys your age have gone on first dates years ago. But like the saying goes, Whatever time a person wakes up is their own morning. You are in your Range Rover, a modish hulk of steel. You would have taken the Venza, contoured like an eagle’s face, had Jamike not suggested that girls prefer stonking exteriors. Fat umber clouds have gilded the skies when you stall your car in a mesh of rasping vehicles at MCC. Your wristwatch says it’s past five. Boma will be waiting. People say that girls shouldn’t be kept waiting. You huff. As if you aren’t a girl yourself.
You kill the ignition and wind down the windows. Wafts of sulfuric fumes push into the car, subduing its air freshener. There are two tankers flanking you on either side. One groans impatiently while the other remains a frozen mound. Your phone trills. Its screen reads: Jamike.
You clear your throat, tap on the answer option and say, Hello, boy. The bass in your voice still scratches your throat. Words like “boy”, when brayed in that tone so efficiently clipped, are patchy in your mouth.
My man, how far? Jamike replies. You never reach? Boma is waiting for you-o!
Your face clenches. It feels weird to talk about girls with Jamike because you imagine him as your lover, a thought you conceived the first time you met him at the phone shop on a sun-drenched afternoon. You had been hedged around by salespersons and would not have seen him if he hadn’t sought directions from one of them, a po-faced man.
Excuse me, where is the Samsung stand? he asked. The salesman turned around, together with a clutch of others, and each of them began to promise him a nice Samsung phone if he followed them. That was when you took a look at him, the crudely handsome form; a respite from that feral cluster. His gaze met yours and held. He seemed, at that instant, oblivious of the packet of phone placed on his palm, the ones jabbing his midriff, the Oga, this Gionee is good for you, and the, Guy, buy Tecno. It’s the same as Samsung.
When he raised a packet of phone and said, Bro, what do you think? Should I buy this Tecno instead? You bellowed, Yes! A quiet grew in the air. Yes, you repeated, because you didn’t want him to divert his eyes towards a procession of girls walking past, trailed by a loose crackle of laughter, because you couldn’t endure it if he walked away, because you had begun to imagine the both of you leaving the shop together, trading phone numbers, meeting for a few bevies at night.
Boma is waiting for you, bro, Jamike repeats, tinkering the edges of your mind, and you slide out of your reverie. Where you dey?
Um, I dey around MCC. Boy, I’m stuck in traffic.
You should have left earlier, baba. This is lazy.
You do not respond.
Baba, call her, abeg. Don’t treat that girl the way you treated Judith.
When he hangs up, you sigh heavily. A moment slips away before you dial Boma’s number. As usual, her first remark is bare in its delivery, shucked of the stretches and curves of tact: Guluye, you dey fall my hand-o. Is this how you want us to begin? I’ve been waiting here at Lakeside Hotel’s restaurant since three p.m. What kind of man tells a girl to meet him somewhere and then goes mute? Who does that? This was the first thing you noticed about her, a crass loquaciousness; a blindness to self-constraint. Your mother would describe her as a person who doesn’t bite her tongue before speaking. You had met her in Jamike’s house, a warm, chatty presence keen on being perceived as warm and chatty, and thought she tried too hard. When she leaned over and said, Jamike, I like this your friend, as if you weren’t present, you looked outside the window – an act of wily remonstrance – feigning interest in the thin threads of rain that cascaded into the compound.
Hello, Boma, I just got off the phone with Jamike. Why did you call him instead of me?
Because I wanted to know if I still have a chance with you. At least, now I have your attention.
You try to speak again, but words dry up in your mouth. Hmm, you breathe.
Are you coming?
Yeah, you mutter. Traffic is a killer here in MCC.
Okay. I’ll be waiting for you.
You hang up, feeling dense. I’ll be waiting for you was what she kept saying all those months ago when she started phoning you. You find her advances both puzzling and flattering. So used are you to Jamike receiving all the attention from girls, that composed aura of his in-situ as they ogle him – the cute guy who scythes through the city bestriding a power bike, who has an earthy tilt to his stance, who, when he produces his lopsided grin, sends your bodily fluids frothing. You always wonder if Boma, in the way she looks into his face, set like a stone, and calls him “bestie”, doesn’t ever fight the urge to kiss him, and as he sat next to you on the day you agreed to go out with her, nodding his assent, urging you to call her back, you doubted that he hadn’t felt the verve in the air on the afternoon you first met, that time didn’t slow down for him the way it slowed for you. That phone call pulled the plug on your life’s plane, left you washed-up on the shores of dissimulation.
The road unclogs. You restart the ignition, cantering past police officers in fraying khaki, a warren of tenement buildings, the crazed overspill of kiosks at MCC junction, then speeding as the cosmopolitan atmosphere flicks out of view and the roads are straddled by feral scrubs and sparse, half-timbered houses and the exuberance of the benighted wilds. The Lakeside Hotel stands by the Calabar River, its driveway a thickly paved surface that hums beneath your tires and absorbs your footfalls when you alight.
Boys often talk about their experiences on their first dates – the dwindling of footsteps as they approach the girls, the sense of distention in their stomachs, the incessant floundering – but you feel nothing as you strut into the restaurant, above a wide sweep of marbled floor. Boma waves at you from a distance, a fragile smile on her face. You walk over to her table, interspersed amongst ordered rows of tables that stretch into the extremities of the hall. Tiered chandeliers, which suspend from the roof, shade the air tawny. At all corners women spilt between young and middle-aged sit opposite men who seem in their elements, the air metallic with the trilling of guarded laughter and glassy sounds of clinking silverware.
Finally, Boma says when you plunk down before her.
I’m so sorry for keeping you waiting.
She waves a dismissive hand in the air, her smile askew. You are here now. That’s all that matters.
Shall we order? You ask, signaling a waiter.
The waiter walks over and bends with practised courtesy. Good evening, sir. What will you have?
You leaf through the menu. Um … a bottle of Muirwood Chardonnay, please… You look at Boma. You?
Water, she whisper-says to the waiter. Sparkling water.
When the waiter slinks away, she sighs. You want to know the truth?
I didn’t even know there were different types of water until I looked at the menu.
You chuckle. You are funny.
She is chuckling, as well. This place, she says, looking around. It’s so…
More like, ambient, she drawls.
So, I take it you’ve never been here before.
Who will bring me to this kind of place? she asks, and the both of you laugh. Laughter enlivens her face. Men might find the tendrils of hair straggling over her forehead and the red lip gloss that matches her jumpsuit attractive, but you can’t shrug away the thought that she should have made a better effort with her appearance. When she squints and tucks straying strands of hair behind her ear, you sigh. Times without number, you have pictured yourself on a first date with a man, and this girl has nothing on you.
The man that comes to mind is Jamike, in a bespoke suit. The venue is a rooftop restaurant that offers a panorama of valleys and plains. You can feel the motion of the wind on your face, your long gown billowing as you walk in; and the light, sensual bites you give your lips, the way you flip your hair, the offhanded grace of your walk will give Boma a good run for her money.
The waiter returns with your orders, wrinkling your imaginations. He quietly sets her water before her. She mutters a curt Thank you to him. As he uncorks and pours your wine, she says, So, aside being the son of wealthy oil-well owners, who are you?
Oil well? you ask with a short laugh. The waiter melts away.
She nods, chortling.
Both my parents are oil-company executives, but none owns an oil well. Who even told you that?
I made it up, she says, smiling her red-rimmed smile. But in my defense, you have told me almost nothing about yourself. I had to make assumptions. Plus, you obviously come from money.
She is right. The whole time you spoke on phone, you had deliberately left out any indications that your family lives in the lap of luxury. Jamike does that all the time: sidestep every hint of his bourgeois background when conversing with girls. If they probe further, he lets slip weightless crumbs of information. Ergo, to be a man means to be short on details.
So, how old are you?
You roll your eyes before saying: I’ll be twenty five in September.
And you don’t have siblings?
So why are you still single? You should have married long before now, and started producing children to continue your parents’ lineage.
You throw your head backwards and laugh out loud. She laughs along.
We are not a rational culture, she adds when the laughter ebbs.
Well my parents are very progressive people. They don’t think that way. Although, lately, my mother has started… You halt, remembering your mother’s recent assertion, in a moment of candor, that she hasn’t seen you with a girl before.
Has started what?
Oh, I actually mind.
You tighten your lips.
Okay, she says resignedly, sipping from her water. It’s your cue to steer the conversation but you remain tightlipped, drinking your wine. The next couple of minutes feel wobbly, as if the world is sliding off an edge, the air bloodless. You whip out your phone and check your Instagram. She is also peering into her phone. When she finally breaks the silence, her voice is diminished, as if she speaks from a dream.
I’ll like to step outside, if you don’t mind.
I don’t. You signal the waiter, count out a wad of cash and place it on the table.
Big boy, she teases, standing up.
Your buttocks are clenched as you link your arm to hers, a hangover from your teenage days. Once in your SS1, you had been late to Prefects Announcements, swaying your hips as you shuffled into the assembly hall.
The games prefect’s – Senior Gerald’s – hectoring voice bellowed, Hey, stop there!
You halted, overwrought.
Why are you late? Senior Gerald thundered, eyes roving; and as you choked on an attempt to speak, he added, Are you even male or female?
The hall erupted in waves of manic laughter.
Then he chuckled, said, Fall into your line, and continued with his announcements.
You walked into the crowd, downcast and self-effacing, your butt cheeks clenched. It wasn’t the first time a senior made a joke about your gender, but this felt different. Probably because it was Senior Gerald, the copper-haired, biracial boy who all the other girls, the ones wearing their true bodies and plaid skirts and networks of glossy braids, stole stealth peeks at when he wasn’t looking and cast their eyes downwards if he looked in their directions. There was taut silence whenever he stepped up the podium to make sports announcements, and a loosening in the air when he concluded. It was he who dressed the wheals inflicted on your arm by his cane months later, during Carol Night, and promised never to flog you again. He held you close in the orchard at the beginning of the next term, and told you that you were his first love. Those words awoke your skin, thinned the purr of the shifting branches overhead whose leaves broke the falling of sunlight. It was he who cuddled you on those wet nights in June, in the calm of his cubicle, and the both of you listened to the rain sing outside, to the flood slopping over the hostel’s ledges, pushing at the entrance doors. Noon was white on the day he graduated. He pulled you close to him in his cubicle, against the tender clumps of muscles on his stomach, and your bodies trembled as the hours bled from the day. A little towards evening, he left the school premises in his father’s Jeep, after patting your cheek and smiling. In his wake, you put a palm on your cheek where his hand had been. Till this day, you still feel the ghost of his touch, burning gently into your face.
Senior Gerald, wherever may he be now?
The air smells of a burning outside the restaurant. Boma unlinks your arms, glaring upwards at the splashy dusk: streaks of gold and brown and another colour that appears like a running red have interleaved with the silver sky aloft.
When I was a kid, she says dreamily, I used to go very far from the barracks, climb trees just to watch the sun set, and then get into trouble with my mother afterwards.
Oh, my family lives in the army barracks. My father is a soldier.
Wow! You never mentioned.
She smiles. You never asked.
Yeah. You nod. My bad. You know I’m not big on words. Always ruining first dates for me.
She chuckles before saying, You aren’t doing that badly.
A sudden shriek of Goal! hits you from behind. You swirl around. Champions League! you declare. You aren’t sure it’s a Champions League match, but you count on the chance that she isn’t a football lover.
You face her, pressing your hands together. Please, can I just see this match? I don’t want to miss it.
She shakes her head. Boys and sports.
I’ll only be a moment.
Okay. I’ll be waiting here.
You turn and walk towards the noise. You have never understood men’s fascination with football. You find it highfalutin for a person to be so drawn to the interplay of booted feet, the pea-green grass that unfurls over the screen with the uniformity of carpet, the white noise of commentators and spectators; over the years, you have learned to mimic this masculine fascination, wearing it like a finishing touch to an exotic costume. Just like Boma said, Boys and sports.
The football viewers are at the bar, behind patterns of connected threads; a superfluity of men bunched up in sweltering heat. The moment you walk in, a middle-aged man of enormous girth grabs your arm. Boy! Boy! Look at the nonsense Bale is playing… He turns to another man, a grizzled hunk spouting jets of cigarette smoke and growls: All that money Madrid spent in buying him? Wasted!
You drift away from him just as the crowd breaks into a chant of: Ronaldo! Ronaldo! On the television screen, Cristiano Ronaldo is gearing up for a penalty kick. When he shoots and misses, a tall, sinewy, young man beside you drapes an arm over your shoulders, laughing, Guy, see this my man’s face. He is talking about one of the young men who had rushed towards the screen to get a better view of the penalty kick and now retreats with a frown.
You laugh although you don’t know what is funny.
His arm lingers around your shoulders, smelling of harsh cologne. I told them Madrid will lose this march. Valencia is in form this season. Did you watch their match against Espanyol?
Sure, you say. He reminds you so much of Urch, the boy who ran the football viewing centre in your street during your university days. The first time you went to see La Liga, Urch had sized you up and said, When you were approaching, I thought you were a girl-o. His comment left your body withered as he issued you a ticket. He obviously didn’t know the measures you had taken to be admitted into masculinity, how you grappled with its proprieties, the teething problems you encountered in the process of polishing its bluff exteriors until it emitted conviction. You hated him, but began to frequent his viewing center. Sometimes, in the middle of a match, he stood behind you in the press of bodies, rubbing his erection on your back.
The young man lets go of your shoulders as soon as the final whistle blows. A posse of gangling youths collect around him, berserk with excitement, clapping and chanting, I talk am! I talk am!
You sweep out of the bar in a current of dispersers, some arguing, others laughing or just walking.
It’s blowing a gale when you join Boma beside shelves of Ixora. Dark clouds are superimposed on the afterglows of twilight, betokening a stormy night.
Hey, I’m so sorry for taking off like that, you say to her, peeling off your jacket and covering her naked arms.
It’s okay, she mutters, shivery.
Um… Let’s get you home?
The drive to her house is silent, and long. You wind down your tinted windows when you ease into the barracks, a large enclosure fragmented into cubed compounds that bear quiet, bijou flats, to get a clearer view of the place. You have never visited a barracks before.
That’s my house over there. She points at a house isolated amidst sprawling gmelina trees.
Before she alights, she inhales deeply and says, Guluye, thanks for tonight.
I hope I didn’t bore you stiff? You are not sure where you picked up this line. An actor, most likely Antonio Banderas or Ramsey Noah, had said it after a first date in a film, and it stuck with you.
No, she mutters. You were good, shy and quiet for the most part, but that’s just what makes you adorable.
You smile. I’ll see you soon.
Call me when you get home.
You sit still in the car, drinking in the sight of her departing, dragging in the sweetly fetid tang of gmelina fruits. When she disappears behind a large wooden door, you revise and head to your house in G.R.A., where your family lives amongst a charmed circle of expatriates. Your parents aren’t yet back from Abuja. Otherwise, your mother would have called by now. You resign yourself to spending the night alone in your big house, atop your big bed mounted at the centre of your big room, cold and steely.
The air in your compound smells of citrus fruits and freshly mowed grass. You hand the car keys to Young, your parents’ driver, and instruct him to wash the car very early in the morning. You will have a busy day tomorrow. Then you climb upstairs to your room. Your phone trills the moment you push open the door, Jamike’s name blinking on the screen.
Hello, boy, you say.
My gee, how far?
Good, baba. How’s your side?
I pin. You still dey with your woman?
No, I just dropped her home a few minutes ago.
Alright. Just checking up on you.
When he hangs up, his voice reechoes at the back of your ears. You pull off your shoes and step into the room, everywhere holding vestiges of him: he always leaves behind a reminder of himself whenever he visits, the sharp-cut of his features imprinted on the bed sheets, the whiff of his perfume that fastens to the objects, a wristwatch or a pair of damp socks. This morning, he had left an oval basketball on the floor of your walk-in closet. You kick it towards the door, shed your clothes and walk into the bathroom for a quick, warm bath. Then you are back to the room, clad in a toweling robe, looking out the window. A soft rain is falling, sluicing down on the blobs of streetlights that run down the lane. Power goes off and the solar lights come on. When you switch off the lights and sit at the edge of your bed, a memory comes to you:
In the second term of your SS1, on one of the nights when the early rains stomped out the dusty haze of harmattan, Senior Gerald had snuck into your bed while you slept. He never came to your bed. It was safer to meet in the cloister of his cubicle. His touch awoke you.
I’m sorry, did I wake you? he asked.
You muttered something nonsensical.
I just wanted to hear the sound of your breathing, he said, slipping into your blanket; and in his arms – his warm breath on your neck offering you coherence – you thought to tell him that you had waited the whole day just to hear him exhale, to smell his body spray on your skin, to breathe him. After all these years, you still long to see him again, to tell him all the things you had wanted to say that night, words that never took shape.
Your throat constricts, throttled by the pressure of an endless aching need, of feeling alone in a world that teems with people. Over the years, you have tried to contact Senior Gerald. You searched for him on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, asked old school mates of his whereabouts – efforts that went down the pan. You seek him in other men; men you meet online and fuck; passersby who look at you with a leer; men like Jamike who wear your friendship like an adornment but never appear in need of you; men who don’t seem as self-assured (or feel as intoxicating) as Senior Gerald – faceless men.
You lie supine on the mattress, spent, grave as a slowly sinking ship. You can hear the hum of liquids crawling above the window panes, and your heartbeats giving the hum some kind of rhythm. Your eyes are burning on the inside – tears pooling in them – when your phone starts to trill above the bedside drawer.
You haul yourself out of bed. The screen reads: Boma. You take a deep breath to clear your voice, so that she won’t sense your despondency, the touchstone of repressed femininity, when you say, Hello, dear. I was just about calling you now.