The Bird that Fluttered Free

Ani Kayode Somtochukwu

Perhaps a good place to start would be the day he first kissed you in his lodge, shielded by locked doors and drapes so heavy you imagined they would only submit to a dry cleaner who knew his art. Or perhaps this should start like all love stories, with a once upon a time or something like that. Once upon a time, a man met someone whose voice sounded like a prayer, whose laughter sounded like dreams and gushing springs. Once upon a time, a man met a man who made him feel fire and pride, and shame. Once upon a time, a man met the love of his life.

It was a first, this meet on a crowded Enugu bus. It was on a yellow danfo, the rickety kind where passengers cramped their feet under bus seats. He sat next to you, his shoulder grazing yours. His face was the dark colour of cocoa and had a crispiness that intrigued. And his beard – God, his beard – you liked the richness of it. You thought of saying, “Hey,” or something else. But you knew, even while nursing the thought, that you wouldn’t say anything. Your voice was not something you used regularly on buses or any other public place. Each time you spoke in public, you imagined people, strangers, mimicking you, and saying, “Christian, this your girly voice sef. It’s like God ran out of male voices.” Your father had actually said that to you. So you said nothing till the bus lurched to a stop at Etim Junction, and you hurried away from the perfectly bearded face.

You saw him again minutes later in Proda, in the white-walled laboratory filled with light. It was fate, or something like that. It was the first day of SIWES training. You had wanted to train somewhere far away, like Lagos or Zaria, somewhere you could be someone new for six months. But only Proda had called back. After the first rotations, you sat down to fill your logbook. The other IT students were mingling, introducing themselves, bragging about their schools, and exchanging advice on how to fill the logbooks. You saw him approach you. You felt him before you heard him behind you, looking over your shoulder into your logbook.

“Hey,” he said. And you thought of what it would feel like to run your hand through his beard.

“Good afternoon,” you said, humming your voice as deeply as you could.

He said you looked familiar, like a face he’d seen around FANS. “Do you go to ESUT?”

When you said yes, he smiled. “I knew I’d seen you around. I’m Obiora.”

You hesitated for a millisecond before you told him yours. You always felt vulnerable offering people your name. He held out his hand, and you took it. “Christian,” you said. And at that moment when your hands met, you knew. It was not a normal handshake; he just held your hand in his. It was the tenderness with which he held you that made you so sure. You thought of that moment often. You thought of the way he held your hand, and how that simple gesture had meant so much. You thought of his beard on the bus ride back home that day, you thought again – hopefully, this time – of love.

*

What you had with Obiora felt like a song. And singing was your thing. You had a tenor that soared, a voice that had wings. A lot of people laughed at the way you talked and the way you walked but no one laughed when you sang.

“Your voice is naked fire,” your mother once told you.  But it wasn’t just that your voice was pure gold, no. Singing was a paradise that opened its arms to you when it seemed there was nothing else. First, it was Celine Dion. You would play her on the stereo and turn the volume up to drown the sound of your crying. On the days you came back from school ready to burst like a damaged dam, or the nights your father would tease and taunt you till your mother said,  “Daddy, leave this boy alone na. What is this? Did he make himself?” you would sit on the floor, next to the stereo, and weep till you had no more tears to shed. And with a cracked voice, you would try to imitate the softness of her pitch. When you sang, you felt free. You felt lifted from this world to a place from where you could see the smallness of the earth.

You felt the same thing with Obiora. He did not talk much in the labs, but it was fine, because he made up for it on WhatsApp, where he told you things you liked to imagine he told no one else. Like his obsession with Medicine and Surgery, having written JAMB four times before settling for Applied Microbiology. That, sometimes, he felt like a failure for settling for Applied Microbiology. Things like that. Many times you began to tell him something about your mother but tears would not let you type the words, so you ended up typing, Life is like that.

You marvelled at his profile picture for hours. You dreamt of his crooked smile and the perfect symmetry of his face, of the way his beard looked like something God had painted Himself. And you wondered what it would feel like against your face.

He became yours on the day you told him about your mother. It was a Sunday afternoon, and you were in his lodge at Umueze. You told him it was like the ground had disappeared from under you and you hadn’t stopped falling into a hole since then. You told him about the months before the end when you mourned her while she was still alive; about the fear that crippled you as you watched the life draining so slowly, so painfully, out of her. And you told him of how her voice saying, “Chris, sing for me,” still haunted you. Like always, the memories clogged your throat and made you swoon. You closed your eyes and lay back on the bed, warding off tears. He held your hand.

“I can’t imagine losing my mum,” he said, and you turned to look at him with swimming eyes. You had never talked about your mother to anyone before, and now you felt like all those words had been suffocating you. You were your mother’s crown, the child that had come on time just before her ovaries began to slowly sap her of life. She was the only shield you had against your father. She cradled your head in her bosom when his words shattered you. On the nights when the guilt came, when the anger of God hovered above you, it had your mother’s face. Perhaps you loved her more than you did God. At this point the tears escaped and waddled down the side of your face and you remained silent to gather yourself.

Obiora was quiet, so quiet you turned to look at him, to be sure he was not asleep. He pulled you close till your head was resting on his shoulder, and he let you fall asleep there.

*

The day you first kissed, he was tipsy. It was his birthday.

“I’m getting closer to death,” he said jovially as he sipped from the bottle. He offered you some of his drink but you didn’t drink beer; it was bitter.

“You don’t know how to drink it, that’s why.” He smiled. “Just swallow.”

He held the bottle to your mouth and you swallowed a few gulps, then felt it rising in your throat. He laughed as you ran to the bathroom to retch. He laughed so hard you laughed too. Afterwards, you rinsed your mouth over and over with water before going back into the room.

“Guy, you should have seen your face,” he said. He was staring at you with that lopsided grin of his that made your heart skip. When his eyes met yours, they held. There was something wholly intimate about getting lost in his eyes. When your lips met, it felt like a standing ovation. The tingle of his beard, the caress of his tongue, the warmth of his breath against your cheeks, the worship of it all. It was as though all your life you had been waiting for this kiss. He held the back of your neck and pressed you closer, closer, closer still. He slipped his hand under your shirt. You loved the warmth of his palm against your stomach, against your chest. You loved the warmth of his body and the feel of his lips on you pushed you from this world. Later, you would tell him this: that the feel of his lips on your neck, your stomach, the small of your back, everywhere, pushed you from this world, from this time, into a space where only the two of you existed and the air was a river of honey, and your blood was a broth of sulfur and brimstones. Once upon a time, a man met a man that gave him fire with the power of his touch.

Afterwards, you lay face up catching your breaths.

“Damn,” you said, and when he laughed, the yellow light coming from the locked window took on an ethereal grace.

*

Soon IT was over. You were in your final year. Agbani, as usual, eased slowly into life, as though the students themselves were reluctant to step into the land of dust and stones and yellowing grass growing on both sides of the hot asphalt. You likened it to water flowing from a tap, first in drops, then in trickles, and finally in a steady flow. Again you asked your father to let you live on campus; again he said no, and again you promised yourself you would go far, far away – as far away as possible – when you graduated from school.

It was different that semester. It became harder to pretend to be someone you were not. You noticed the judgment in the eyes of your classmates, the way they stared at you as though the words were on the tip of their tongues, as though they would burst into laughter at any moment and point at you. In the beginning they did not hold back. They called you names each time you walked by: woman wrapper, homo, mummy.

You shook your head, allowing yourself a small smile as though you didn’t really care, but sometimes you cried, then chided yourself for letting them get to you, then practised walking and talking like a man.

With time, the name calling stopped. And though you did not want it back, loving Obiora made you feel free, like a bird in flight, with wings spread out above open fields of lush grass. Then someone took your number from the WhatsApp group to ask you, “Guy, are you a gay?”

Someone had asked you that same question before, in 100 level: Are you a gay?

As always, you answered with the obvious: “You don’t put an indefinite article in front of an adjective unless the adjective comes before a noun.”

“You are mad,” the person replied. “You need serious beating to chase the evil spirit out of you.”

“Who is this?” you asked. There was no picture on the profile, and the beige silhouette scared you.

“It doesn’t matter,” the person said.

But it did matter.

In your first year, they had made good on their threat. In the building surrounded by grass, between Access Bank and the library, they had pushed you to the ground and kicked you. You recognized only one of them, an Anatomy student everyone called Pogba. You lay there for several minutes after they were gone, holding your head, tasting the blood in your mouth. You had not begged them to stop – you were too shocked to beg – and you had not cried. You just took it silently. Your father would have been proud of you. But later that night, you buried your face between your knees and wept. Because it hurt. You wept because when you told your father that you had fallen off an okada, he chided you for being reckless. You wept because you missed your mother terribly. She would have known you did not fall from an okada. You wept because you knew you were alone, because you were a tiny bird locked in a massive cage, and each time you tried to fly, even within your cage, you found your wings were broken.

You did not tell Obiora about the threat. There were things you could not tell him because you feared he would not understand. You did not want creases in this thing that you had with him.  On the days you visited his lodge after school, you came out feeling something you could not articulate even to yourself. Perhaps it was strength, or pride. You weren’t sure what to call that electric feeling. Maybe it was fear. Everything was mixed. And in loves like this, fear was a given. Fear was one thing you and Obiora never talked about though you saw it in his eyes. You saw it in the awkward way he answered your greeting in the midst of his friends, with an abruptness that irked you, a forced indifference that ate at your insides. You saw it in the way he walked apart from you, as though if your shoulders touched, the skies would cave in. It was almost as if he was ashamed of you. Still, you asked yourself, “Does it matter?” Did his smile not steal your heart in the confines of his lodge at Umueze? Did his hands not take you to another world?

But the more you asked, the more the darkness settled in you. You did not tell him about this too – this darkness that kept spreading through your skin. One afternoon in his lodge he told you he loved you. And fear pressed itself so strongly into you that you struggled to breathe.

*

Then one afternoon in early December, he told you your shirts were too colourful. The same Obiora who traced the floral patterns on your shirts as he held you in his arms. Perhaps it was the weight of the fear or the scrutiny of the stares that cracked him. It was on a Friday, and the thin, kind woman in the HOD’s office had just pasted the 300 Level results. It was something of a ritual not to release the results of the 300 Level first semester exams till the first semester of final year, when they would be pasted next to the IT results. It was strange pasting everything at the same time. Every board in the department was cleared and the grades stood there in neat rows. You started at Genetics, the course you feared most, and moved down through Population Ecology and the rest till you came to IT, in which you knew you would score an A.

You looked around at your classmates. Some of them already knew your reg number and monitored your results. You could hear people murmuring your name. You half-ran-half-walked downstairs to Microbiology to find Obiora and tell him. He was sitting in his class, typing on his laptop.

“Obiora, you will not guess what I just found out!” Even as you spoke, you chided yourself for being too loud. He looked up at you, then looked around, but said nothing. “Our results just came out. Guess what I got. Just guess.” This time your voice was low, almost a whisper.

“Chris, you have to stop doing this,” he said. “You can’t behave like this. People are beginning to suspect. Stop coming to my department. And why do you keep wearing these shirts? Don’t you have any shirt that is not orange or pink? Act coded. Guys are laughing at you.”

For the few seconds he talked, you willed him to stop. His words left dents in your heart. You kept your eyes on his mouth, and when he was done, you looked up into his eyes. And you knew. You knew more than anything that you could not swallow his shame. You opened your mouth to say something but the words refused to see the light.

“Seriously?” you finally asked. You picked up your bag, slung it over your shoulder and left. You went to the faculty library and stared blankly at your plant pathology textbook till the librarian told you to leave, she wanted to lock up. So you walked down to the school library instead. There you thought of his words, of their sharpness, and of the way something in your heart had come apart in shreds. You knew that, if you went home, you would cry yourself to sleep, and you did not want to cry for him. So you sat there reading and thinking of brightly-coloured shirts, and then reading some more. Soon the librarian there asked you to leave. “Do you want to read everything in one day?” She had children to get back to, she said.

Outside, you checked the time: a few minutes past six. You would have to go down to the school gate to get a bus going into town. Your phone kept buzzing with WhatsApp messages. You switched it to silent. You took the dust path past Nomeks, past the cluster of women who sold okpa and bread and biscuits and drinks and called you nwoke ka nwanyi mma. Many times you stopped in your tracks to collect yourself, to rest your hands on your knees and try to still the ringing in your ears. At the school gate a driver told you, “Hundred naira to Garriki,” and you did not haggle. You had no strength for words. At home, when you handed your father the white sheet of paper where you had written your results down, he said, “Wow! More grease to your elbow. Jisi ike. Your mother would be proud were she here.”

You forced a “Thank you” from your throat and went inside to rest your feet. Most of the WhatsApp messages were from your department’s group chat.

  • If you had an F in Animal Physiology, inbox me.
  • Is it true Medical Entomology is 1 credit load?
  • Thank God!! At least people can register Genetics and Animal Physiology if they failed both. Me I passed all. Thank God. God is my strength.

But the other messages were from him.

  • Hey. Chris are you angry? Bro pick my call.

You hurt me, you began to type and then erased it and typed instead: Fuck you.

Your phone rang. Once, twice, and then again and again till you put it on airplane mode. His voice stayed with you though. You heard it over and over in your head. Act coded. You thought of the word coded. You first ran into that word on 2go. After your mother died, you needed someone to love you, you needed something to be. Somehow you ended up in a room where men met men, where you could stare at naked bodies taken from flattering angles. Bodies you knew would feel warm against your skin. It was before 2014, before the Naija Gayz room was deleted because it had become illegal.

 

In Naija Gayz, people only hooked up.

Enugu coded add up.

Awka coded btm add up.

Lag top indicate let me add. Coded only.

You did not know what coded meant, but it sounded like something you were not. The first person you actually hooked up with was too brash and elusive. He told you his name was Joe; you knew this was not true. He blocked you on 2go after the first few days, and when you called to ask why, he told you he was gay because he liked men, real men, not women with dicks. Coded was a word you dreaded; it broke your wings, pruned your feathers each time you tried to fly. But there was something self-preserving about the word, something cowardly but safe. You sat up and removed your shirt, brought out all of them that were pink and orange or a bright purple, and set them ablaze in the big tin drum behind the compound where stubborn grass forced their way through the cracks in the pavement. You stood there watching the black smoke rise into the darkened sky.

Your father came out. “What are you doing?”

“Burning my clothes,” you said.

“Why?”

“Because they are mine and I want to burn them.”

“Ahn-ahn. This boy sef. You should have given them out. I’m sure Chinasa would have liked some of them.”

Chinasa was your cousin that lived at Menuiru.

“They are men’s clothes,” you said.

He sniggered. “Men don’t wear pink. At least not that bright shade of pink.”

You hissed, a long drawn-out angry sound, and turned to go inside.

Bia, have you lost your mind? Am I the one you’re…?”

He made to grab your shoulder, and you surprised yourself by swatting his hand away. For the second time that day, you rolled those words around your tongue and spat them out. “Fuck you,” you said, for the boy who yearned for his approval, for the boy that had had to endure his derision till his eyes were filled with tears. “Fuck you,” you said again, this time under your breath. He stood there silent, so silent that you harboured the happy notion that you had hurt him back.

The first thing you wanted to do was call Obiora and tell him. And it was this, the very thought that you no longer had someone to call, that pushed you over the edge. You sat on your bed, buried your face in your palms and wept. Once upon a time, a man met the love of his life. But happily ever after were only clouds he could see but never hold.

*

He texted and called and, finally, blocked your path on your way to class. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Chris, please. I didn’t mean to say it like that. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

One Sunday, he held your hand in public and said, “Chris, talk to me. Let’s work through this. I love you.” It was after a youth program you had invited him to before everything fell apart. Initially, he’d said he couldn’t come. You sang “Boundless Love” to a congregation of bowed heads and raised hands. Some cried and ran from their seats to kneel at the altar. You cried too; somehow, the song had taken on another meaning: When all of you is all of me.

You were thinking of happiness, how you kept chasing it and how it kept eluding you.

It was after the service that you saw Obiora.

“Hey,” he said, and you thanked God that you wore black to church that day.

“Hey,” you replied.

“You were wonderful. You know, this is the first time I’ve heard you sing.”

“Thanks.”

“Chris,” he said, “won’t you forgive me?” He sounded like a child, unsure of what wrong he had done. He glanced around before he said, “I love you.”

You knew you would forgive him. You had gone back to 2go, to Men’s Lounge, and felt bile rising in the back of your throat as you read the conversations there. You had added 042nigger, one of the guys in the room, but when he asked you what your role was even before saying Hi, you blocked him.

Is it all about sex for you guys? you wrote.

“I told my dad ‘fuck you,'” you said. Obiora’s eyes widened, and that smile that made your heart skip lit up his face. He would later tell you that relief had washed so strongly over him because the idea of actually losing you had scared him.  Maybe he, too, had spent silent minutes in a room with a man that dressed up hurriedly as soon as he was spent from the sex. Or perhaps he just knew the right thing to say.

You looked at his smile, his beard – that carpet of perfection – and thought, surely it couldn’t be that hard to bring yourself to forgive him; he was yours. He did not chase away the dread or the loneliness, but he made it easier to live with.

You followed him back to his lodge at Umueze and talked about your father, and about this thing you both had. He said he didn’t know you would take his words to heart so much, to the extent of shutting him out. You thought of explaining your anger, but you knew he wouldn’t understand. When he kissed you, you thought of frangipanis and ixoras and flowers blooming in trees. You thought of birds perching on high-tension wires for a moment – just for a moment – before fluttering into the sky. He pulled your shirt off, pushed you on your back, drew a trail down your stomach with his tongue, and took you in his mouth. It was hard to stay quiet as he moved above you, his sweat dripping on you, everywhere smelling so strongly of him. Afterwards, he pulled you on top him and held you tightly.

“I love you,” he said. “I swear.”

You smiled before saying, “I know.” You fell asleep in his arms. Early the next morning, you woke up before daylight and left for school.

*

Your phone had been on silent all through; you had forgotten to switch the sound back on after service. You had eleven missed calls. It was your father. You tried to call him back but you had run out of airtime. So you went to class. When you came back late in the evening, he was pacing in the living room.

“Thank God,” he said when he saw you. You thought of an excuse for your disappearance but there was none, and you weren’t bothered. It was the first time he was talking to you after the clothes-burning incident. “Where have you been?”

You stood silently staring at him, at the veins on his forehead. When he made to come closer, you stepped back.

“I was so worried,” he said. “I thought you left. I thought you just left.”

And you realized, perhaps for the first time, that you were all he had.

“My phone was not with me,” you said. He nodded. Just nodded. And you thought how much his eyes reminded you of your mother’s tenderness.

 

 

This piece was originally published in Bakwa 08.

Download Bakwa 08 – Pain 

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