By the time I turned sixteen my sister had courted fifty boys – no hyperbole intended – I on the other hand hadn’t yet tasted the opposite sex, not even in a school play. I wasn’t a nerd, not in the Nigerian sense at least; I didn’t wear glasses, wasn’t among the ten brightest people in my class (I would like to point out that this is not my fault, by this time in my life I had already switched schools, because some senior boys had threatened to kill me with a hanger in my former school, a cloth hanger, don’t ask me how they planned to do it, that’s what they said, my job was to listen, panic, and escape. In my new school everyone was a scholar, or at least that’s how it seemed, try as hard as I may, I would graduate from there without ever earning plaudits for academic excellence, whereas in my former school I topped my class three times in a row), wasn’t super-scared of girls. I played a lot of video games, and read a lot of novels too, but who didn’t play video games? And I didn’t have to read the novels in school, so how could anyone know I read?
But I just didn’t kick it with girls. I tried my best, spent hours on my bed each night plotting how I was going to tango in school the next day. I approached the girls, even succeeded in getting some numbers, spent recess money on telephone credit so I could talk to them for hours in the evening. And they listened and always said, “Thanks for calling” when I said good bye, but they just refused to date me. I popped the question and every girl found a way to sidle out of commitment. I tried to be fool proof; one time I told a girl, Daphne Kelechukwu, that she wouldn’t have to draw a single diagram again for the rest of her secondary school life if she agreed to date me (her diagrams where horrible, I on the other hand was one stroke away from the arts), she laughed it off in a way that made you realize you shouldn’t dare push on.
Reje on the other hand was ballistic with the brothers, she had begun bouncing calls from the age of thirteen, and I’d be there to see her fulfil all the clichés of rites of passage, most shocking of which would be the time I’d overhear her telling a cousin about the time one of our uncles tried to molest her. What made this so brain shimmering was the fact that I was fourteen at the time, and I knew the uncle quite well. My reaction in retrospect seems too dramatic, and – more awful than anything else – pretty naïve. (I am the kind of person who doesn’t look at childhood memories with fondness. For me only embarrassment and fatigue can be ciphered from that exuberant murk).
My elder sister used to return home from college in the car of the boyfriend-of-the-month every day; some of them went so far as to pick her up every morning too. I still don’t understand how she did it, string up boys like a bead handbag, because the only thing I saw her do to boys when they stopped her in my company was to bounce them, and she wasn’t at all polite about it. One time, one evening when a cool breeze was raising up dead leaves from the tarmac on our street, and spilling other half-dead ones from the trees decorating our sidewalk, me and Reje decided to take a walk. It was holiday time and we’d spent all day watching foreign TV indoors and we were feeling the side effect of this. We couldn’t get soda, but a Coke (for her) and a Fanta (for me) wasn’t above our means. Some unlucky dude with a 2face Idibia haircut decided to try his luck – I don’t blame him, I don’t blame any of them, if I was any random nigger I would try to block my sister; she was beautiful, her eyes that of my mum, slanted but not Chinese, the whites still glittering right through the membrane. She had an African nose, but hers wasn’t like mine, it knew what length and width to respect itself. She had the Coke bottle shape rappers sang about, I made sure to marvel at her breast at least once a month, a rate higher than this would have christened me a pervert, but her boobs were so alluring. She was tall also, at sixteen I still hadn’t reached her height, and her skin colour was lighter than mine. When she walked she leaned back her neck and it kind-of made her cheek bones rise, and her nose soar, and if they was a cool breeze like on that Saturday, loose strands of her hair would spring from their root and fizzle behind her. To any onlooker including me, the sight was blinding.
So I don’t blame that brother, I never have, but he got bounced that day, and I can’t blame my sister either. He was standing on the other side of the road, leaning on a wall that demarcated a bar from the street, so Reje must have seen him before he had time to process her. He crossed over, put one hand in his pocket, and brought out his phone (swagger move for losers) and began to fiddle with it while maintaining bull’s eye contact with the area above our heads, taking one step at a time like an Ijebu dancer. When we finally ran into each other he stretched out his hand towards my sister (another wrong move. Funny thing is you can’t catch me making any of these mistakes, yet girls wouldn’t come through) introducing himself. Her response, freezing as it was curt, “who cares?” kudos to that kid for still persisting, for taking that bone miller like it was only a pack of crackers, for soldiering on, if it was me…well let’s just leave that sentence there.
See the thing is, he smiled and said he would like to know her. She screamed that he was bothering us, grabbed my arm and stormed away. Believe me she has done worse, and I lay some portion of the blame here for my inability to find a mate.
My mother gave birth to both of us before my father died; she is a very light skinned woman but my dad depended on his teeth for colour, hence our chocolate skin. When I was sixteen I and my sister were already taller than our mother. She said we got the height from our father, I couldn’t be sure, I must have been four when that dark skinned brother passed away, and Nigerian photographers of the 1980s must have not been too big on the full-profile-picture thing, because most of his pictures ended at waist level, and for the few that bothered to show his feet, I have to admit I’m not that too good at ascertaining someone’s true height from a photograph, or identifying in real live someone who’s picture I have stared at for hours in a magazine, neither I’m I able to differentiate white faces in real live, I’m perfect at doing this on TV, but in real live there is a serious probability of me identifying a Japanese man as American.
She was principal of a girls only secondary school, a very strict one from what I can remember. She was also strict with us, she had to be, we had two live-in female relations and they did most of the chores. My mother always remarked to our aunties, when they came around, that she was damn proud of herself for avoiding favouritism. Get this straight, my mother never treated us differently from those two relations, I was even made to respectfully call them “aunty” but I only learnt how to wash my cloths when I entered boarding school.
We weren’t wealthy, in fact far from it. I had been born into a decline, the kind that would see teachers and principals slide out of the middle class by the time I turned sixteen. My mother was lucky not to pay rent; she praised my father as being man enough to drop a house for his family before slipping away into the clutches of death via a brain tumour. I love my mother a lot, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t use a lot of abusive words on her in my teen days – another reason I’m not so fond of old memories. She is so fair, almost complete yellow, with long hair that began to grey when she turned fifty-five. She had been very slim as a young woman, still maintaining her figure after giving birth to my sister; it was only after she’d delivered me, moved into the new house with my father and lost him that she began to put on weight. She used to leave the house for work by seven-thirty every morning and return at four in the evening. School usually closed at two o’clock; our meals where prepared by the two elder relations who had both been in secondary school while we were still in primary. Our mother supervised the preparation of breakfast before she left the house, and also supper when she returned home, but during the weekend she prepared our meals herself as a special treat.
There was a time when we had a driver who picked us from school, but we lost his services even before Reje finished secondary school. I didn’t have a best friend in my new school; I had had one in primary school and also in my first school. The wrenching experience of being torn away from them prevented me from trying again. But it didn’t stop me from having lots of ordinary friends, one of whom was Wofai, a person I have since lost contact with. He lived close to my street so we usually returned home together. We mainly had complex discussions during these walks, discussions whose fluidity was punctuated by the short taxi ride from one checkpoint on the street in front of our school to the one in front of my street. This pause was observed only for decency’s sake, in consideration of the ears of other cab users.
It was from him I heard that Ijeoma was free, we were walking up a road that led from the gate of our school to the main road where we could take a taxi. I had just finished arguing with another boy, Mella, about the length of a FIFA standard football pitch. I said it was longer than the length of the road we were trekking and everyone looked at me like an escaped retard, but I didn’t notice this then, that pitch looked so damn wide on TV, I was sure of what I was saying. Eventually they shut me up, I lost the argument and Mella branched away with the other boy to hit a game arcade. That was when Wofai said, “I know how I do my things; I told Ijeoma I love her yesterday.”
“Why are you so excited, did I do something wrong?” he asked, eyeing me.
I tried to compose myself, Ijeoma was a girl I liked a lot, I had been admiring her from a distance, a very short one; she sat one desk in front of me in class. A friend of mine had tried to date her – I shouldn’t say this, the boy was too confused to know what he wanted to do with her, he couldn’t even express his feelings about her to us. The first time I met her – through him of course – he introduced her as one of his concubines in a serious manner, next thing I knew he was professing his love for her like poetry during a boy’s only discussion a year later. Sadly this happened too late, by then a mutual friend of ours had moved into the P. and he was the guy I thought was dating her, until Wofai’s statement.
“Wait cattle aren’t kept in a barn,” I tried to interrupt.
“Details aren’t important except the ones I’m about to tell you,” he overruled. “What I am trying to say is that you all think alike, like a mass of something organic but unoriginal. Just because a girl walks with a certain guy all the time doesn’t mean they are dating.”
I tried to argue that I had seen them hold hands one time but he stamped away my petition and continued with his homily.
“So I called her cell, talked with her for some time, then I told her I love her. Straight to the point, you should trust me, I don’t waste time.”
Wofai was among the light skin gang, another yellow boy. He also lacked the profound occiput that was enlarged in me. He was taller, broader, his walk more swaged up, he even talked with an attitude, the kind that would make one-eye Sunday proud. I knew all these things about him, what I wasn’t sure about was his movement with the girls, sure he packed more heat than me but I had never seen him get all cosy and corked up with any particular girl, he usually did the general hanging out thing, he was like another boy in our class that way, a certain Emeka, only difference being he could brazenly make the statement he’d just made a while ago, while Emeka couldn’t, even while intoxicated. I didn’t like Wofai as much as I liked Michael and Mella, but Michael had been segregating the one girl I’d been harbouring a super crush for, while Mella had just finished making me look stupid, Wofai on the other hand had given me the best news of the month.
See I live in Calabar, the capital city of Cross River state in Nigeria. The predominant tribe in the area are the Efiks, although they occupy only like let’s say twenty percent land mass of the state geographically, we the other tribe that is the Ekoi’s always differ to them; they’re the bosses, no argument there. But also in Calabar, this floral city, the only one in Nigeria which has all its main roads bordered by beautiful carnations of different varieties, which has perfectly manicured lawns trimming every highway. Here it rains often and when the water stops pouring from the sky, the sidewalks and pavements are covered with iridescent films that make them almost glitter from up close, and actually do so from afar. In this city which was redefined to the taste of a certain African Duke, there was a heavy influx of the Igbo ethnic group in the 1970s. The reasons for this I do not know, but because they’re here Ijeoma is here, and I am in love.
Ijeoma was shorter than me, she once had hair but one day she turned up in school having trimmed everything to a crew cut, she later allowed the hair to rise some few inches and has maintained that level ever since. She was beautiful that’s why I was in love; young as we where I could already spot her rocking body. Best of all she lived on my street, some blocks away but the same street. She had a complete family; mother, father, and two younger siblings, both of whom were in our school. She was perfect and so I was afraid of showing her my true feelings; the last girl I knew who had this surface-perfect life had proven time and time again that she was a certified snob (Reje my sister) and I had learned every lesson from this. I didn’t want to take the risk of walking up to Ijeoma and making a complete fool of myself, but after the double information from Wofai, I was ready to try my luck.
I parted with my man when the taxi dropped me; it had always been this way, me first then him when returning home, and him before me when going to school. I stepped out of the taxi and the first thing that came to mind was a tug of war in my spirit, I couldn’t decide whether to go right away to her house with both my school uniform and school bag still on, or to get home first, eat, change, and then visit her. Each decision had its pitfall. But I put both of them on the line and the option of going straight to her house came up short, it had the one major blunder no guy is supposed to commit; going to her house still dressed in my school uniform would make me seem too forward, hooked, and desperate, and so I went home instead. Reje wasn’t at home when I arrived; she hadn’t been staying at home for long hours lately. Her other boyfriends had been mainly weekend and night crawlers, but the new guy she had begun rolling with seemed unable to get enough of her. My elder sister was always missing from the house, and the funny thing is that our mother wasn’t complaining. The old woman looked like she was ready to see her first daughter get married. She returned from work in the evening and didn’t even call me to ask about her whereabouts like they were communicating right through everything.
Reje’s other boyfriends were all around her age bracket, not venturing farther than five years ahead of her. They all came from wealthy homes and so could afford to pull up outside our gate with fancy cars though most of them were still in college. My mother didn’t like them, she said they were little boys looking for easy fun, she might as well have gone the whole way and said fuck instead; aged nine I had already become familiar with that word. But this new guy seemed to be matured and hence acceptable to my mother. I had seen him only once; returning from school one day he was parked outside the gate waiting for Reje. The engine was off and the window wound down, so I could see his head, neck and shoulders. But that still wasn’t enough because from what I saw I could swear that he was European, and that couldn’t be possible, my sister couldn’t be dating an European, and even if she was our mother wouldn’t condone it.
Don’t take this wrong, we weren’t racist or anything like that; it’s just that a woman in my mother’s shoes (a widow with only one daughter) was meant to expect more from her only daughter. She was meant to marry well, into a strong family that is, one strong enough to stand as regent for the first son until he came of age to inherit his father’s property, and able to support him in case he encountered any resistance from greedy uncles. If my sister was to marry a white man then we would completely pull away from our culture, all her children would be white, I would have a white in-law, and I myself would become white. I wasn’t scarred by this possibility; I was just shocked that my mother wasn’t.
I ate the food reserved for me by my two elder relatives at home; fried plantain and beans then left the house before they could think of asking questions. The street was empty, that was when I remembered we had a quiz in school the next day. I didn’t brood on this, it didn’t bother me until I realized that because I wasn’t concerned about studying for a quiz, being infatuated with a girl, didn’t mean that the girl herself, who by the way wasn’t aware of my feelings towards her or what I was about to do, would be uninterested in studying too.
After standing outside her house for five seconds I decided to leave, that’s the way I am; I just can’t take intense pressure and excitement for too long. One time when my mother bought a packet of cookies and dropped them right on her bed, I realized that it was a trap, an obstacle meant to test me, and I decided not to fall prey to it. Five hours later I had ripped open the packet and was gorging myself on the sweet delights; if my mother was testing me, it was good to know at once. As I took the first step back and turned around I ran head first into Ijeoma, who held a sweating bottle of Fanta.
“What are you doing here?” she asked startled.
“Hey have you ever had soda?” I replied with a toothed smile.
It worked; she paused, considered the question with a tilt of the face then supplied an answer. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I haven’t either,” here I chuckled for genuine effect, “but I sure know how to drink Fanta.”
She squeezed her face, “are you offering to share my Fanta?”
The expression on her face was undecipherable, I didn’t know if she was displeased or not. “No…but I wouldn’t decline if the suggestion came up.”
She smiled, I was saved. “Come up the porch, I’d go inside and grab a cup and an opener.”
I walked up the porch behind her, when she left me on the stairs and went inside I felt oddly abandoned and alone, like I had no Reje, mother, or Wofai. She didn’t spend much time in there so I didn’t get to think too much and slip into fright or depression. As we drank the soft drink we talked and I learnt her parents had gone for a funeral.
“I know you forged Mrs. Gideon’s signature,” she said, stunning me. The event which she referred to had taken place a week earlier. We were in the final class of secondary school, up next were our final exams and after that college. Before registering for the exam the school councillor wanted every final year student to appear in his office with a signed authorization from each of the subject teachers that that student was allowed to register his or her subject having passed the teacher’s prior scrutiny. I didn’t have notes, this was because I didn’t copy down my teachers’ dictation; I was lazy this way. So I couldn’t clear with any of them since having complete class notes was a prerequisite for clearance, I decided to forge their signatures and was successful until Mrs. Gideon caught me. Since then I had been involved in an unending miasma of denial and rejection; it had become school news making me something of a local hero, the case hadn’t been reported to my mother yet, and most of my school mates didn’t know whose side to support.
“You haven’t said anything,” Ijeoma went on.
“That’s because I really can’t figure out what to say next.”
“How about starting with the truth, I want to know if you did it or not.”
“Why?” I asked a little offended. “Why is it so important to you?”
She smiled and made a sexy motion which I had hitherto thought unknown to real live girls. “Because it has a major role to play in deciding whether I date you or not.”
“What?” this was more surprise than affront. “But I haven’t even asked you out yet.”
“I know you will. So just out with it, the truth. Relationships are built on truth you know.”
I didn’t know this but it wasn’t among my primary problems at the moment, I had to decide what to tell Ijeoma and quickly too. Any waste of time and no matter my response she’d believe it a lie. “Yeah I did it.”
“I knew it,” she said smiling, “I know you’re bold.” She leaned forward and kissed me and it was a sensation like nothing I had felt before (partly because I had never felt it before). I don’t know how to describe it, it was surprising, it was soft, it was tissuee; it was like eating cheese toast with warm milk (which is my favourite breakfast in the world). When our lips met I was confused, and at the same time it felt very natural; I expected her lips to be as soft as I found them, there were lips after all, but it still jarred me when I felt them; and when she snuck her tongue into my mouth and used it to twice tap the inside of my cheek, I felt my head shoot out like a full pressured gas pipe. Then it was over, we were sitting close together staring at the darkening street.
I spent some more time with her then I left for home. All through my walk the new piece of information kept smelting in my head, I now had a girlfriend, finally, after all these light years Reje could be proud of me. I kept hoping I’d see Wofai loafing around my street, so that I wouldn’t have to wait until after the weekend to let him know I was now a level ahead of him socially. I wanted to tell Mella too, and Michael – wanted to rob it in, I don’t know why. As I pushed open the gate I wondered whether I could stay awake until past eleven, the usual time Reje’s fiancé dropped her off so she could be the first person I’d tell. I couldn’t tell my two elder relations, they wouldn’t understand, in fact they might even report me to my mother and she wouldn’t like that at all.
My mother and Reje were sitting in front of the house, we were having power cuts as usual and since it was now full dusk the inside of the house was dark. And since we didn’t have mosquito nets like other residents I could imagine the swarm of insect practicing inside the house right now. I guessed what was happening; my mother and sister had sprayed the inside of the house with insecticide, and where waiting for the poisonous fumes to completely disseminate before going back into the house. What I couldn’t figure out was why my sister was home this early; had she quarrelled with her boyfriend? And why was my mother staring at me like that? With an expression that resisted reading?
I hadn’t gotten six feet close to them when she sprang up and made a harsh grasp for me. I gasped in shock, but her next action was even more surprising, she engulfed me in a snug, searing embrace. I let myself go limp for a moment, then when I was sure I had given the devil his due I began struggling and she let go of me.
“What’s happening mother?”
“Tell him Reje,” she managed to breathe out.
My sister looked unconcerned, she hadn’t gotten up from the porch where she sat, but now she turned to face me and gently raised her left hand, a cold, glimmering object encircled one of her fingers. I was speechless.
“You’d meet him tomorrow, he is coming around,” she said.
“You’re…you’re engaged?” I stuttered.
“It looks like it,” she replied.
Our mother left my side and went to her; she held her forearm and pulled her up. Then she marched over to me and seized my own arm. All three of us melted into an embrace, when we finally let go of each other it seemed like an eternity had passed, one in which we had gone through seven dimensions including the underworld, and had returned to our world a bit more satisfied, shedding all our sorrows and worries, abandoning for a moment at least. We stared at each other with peculiar faces; my mother’s teary, my sister’s effervescent, mine confused, and in an instant I realized that of this kind of moment, more were to come.