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Zik’s Flat, a residential area in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Photo credit: Bura Bari Nwilo.

 

THE university campus in Nsukka was full of ixora, and it was beside one of the trimmed hedges in our Faculty of Arts, stoic, green tables with red blossoms, that Nnaemeka first spoke to me, igniting a friendship that will, as long as I breathe, remain an indelible part of my life. At first, I was not one of his close friends, did not know him, the guy that everybody wanted to know. We were not exactly in the same class: I was a History major, he was combining History and English, and so we attended only some classes together. That day was in our second year, the wet blustery evening in whose morning we had found, in the hockey pitch pavilion near the male hostels, the body of a boy dangling from a cable, above a note that read, THE CONTROVERSY HAS ENDED, wrapping the entire campus in a haunting gauze of questions. I was coming out of the faculty building. Nnaemeka was walking his hurried walk and stretched out his hand for a handshake. “Won’t you attend Oral Literature class?” he asked, smiling.

“We don’t,” I said, returning the smile. But he looked confused so I added, “History major.”

“Oh, History, I forgot,” he said, “see you around na.” And he marched on.

He marched, didn’t merely walk, and he spoke the way he marched, with a force and conviction that, added to his firebrand political views, and his beard, earned him the nickname Ojukwu, after the late Biafran leader whose first name, Emeka, he also shared. He was by far the most brilliant in our class, the most original and eloquent and widely read, yet it was rumoured that his results were not as wonderful, as some of the lecturers, feeling slighted by his unapologetic opinions, never graded him on merit. The first day I saw him in first year, a dark oval face in the center of a cluster of girls, skin so dark his eyes shone, I had thought that he, too, with those graceful eyes and tiny sparkling teeth, was a girl, until he leaned back on the seat and I saw the flatness of his chest. Girls flocked to him in a way they flocked to only a few and, occasionally, I found myself wondering whether they didn’t find his pretty face too similar to theirs. But he was well-built. A slim six-footer muscled in a way that, with that energetic gait, didn’t betray his masculinity. But it was his character that struck me most: full of life, he related with everyone on almost the same basis, would laugh and drift from one group, one clique, to sink into another, fitting in with a natural seamlessness. He didn’t select those he spoke with, in the way that people like him, people so refreshingly different, would be expected to. It could have been due to my sheer admiration of him, of that piquant but composed aura of his, that I was frequently jerked into remembering that evening beside the ixora. Or it could have been because it had rained that evening and the blue sky bore flecks of grey. Because the drenched statues looked whittled. Because I hadn’t smiled from deep down in a long time. Because I could see, as I walked, his shoeprints deep in the damp soil. Because the air smelled clear, and the water droplets trickling off the ixora petals and leaves glowed as clear, like tiny vials of miracles.

*

BY third year when we began to relate more freely among ourselves in class, and no longer had reservations talking to those who’d ignored us in first and second year, I found myself drifting towards him. Or him drifting towards me. I only talk about that period now with the insight of retrospect, because when it was happening we may not have known that it was. I was living in Odenigwe, a few paces from the school gates. Nnaemeka lived in a staff’s boys’ quarters in Ikejiani Avenue. Saturday mornings, he’d knock on my door in his Chelsea Drogba jersey, boots in hand, ask whether I wanted to play football, say that there was a departmental training in the hostel pitches. Sunday evenings, I’d knock on his, crosscheck notes even though he barely took notes in class, see if he had any new material or textbook. He always did. Materials that drew you further and further from your subject of search, deeper and deeper into subtle historical connections that, in the end, if you weren’t reading to know, if you were reading only for exams, you’d drop them. He hardly read books of immediate relevance to our courses; aside the pile of history books and literary criticism on his table, the rest rose in tall stacks on the rug: books on political science and economics, religion, philosophy, psychology and art, and even biographies, and then novels resting against the wall. The Passion of the Western Mind. The Mystical City of God. The Diary of a Young Girl. Dreams from My Father. The West and the Rest of Us. The Art of War. Before him, the only novels I’d read were the necessary ones we had to read in secondary school for exams: Things Fall Apart; 1984; The Last Duty; The Joys of Motherhood; Weep Not, Child; and then the stories in Lamb Tales from Shakespeare. He made me ask him for Arrow of God after quoting it during a lecture on Indirect Rule; and then The House of Hunger and Nervous Conditions when we did postcolonial consciousness; and finally Half of a Yellow Sun, which roused in me something I had not known was in me: the ability to resign yourself to words in a book and cry.

*

IT was around this time that his mother died, and the class paid him condolence during the burial. We went in a bus. He was from the outskirts of Nsukka, from a small town in the interior with verdant fields of wavy grass. He approached to welcome us, eyes smiling stones, head bald, the Ojukwu beard gone, leaving a shapely face, a maturing boy behind that immense presence we had become accustomed to. His family was wealthy: his father a retired colonel, his mother, until her death, a federal judge. His elder brother, an economist from Harvard, worked with the World Bank in Geneva, and his sister was a doctor, the owner of the famed Foundation Hospital with branches all over the East. He had surprised us, his classmates. With his humility, his lack of airs despite his background, he had surprised us and now we understood: his certainty, his lack of concern for his poor results, came from having at his disposal this embarrassment of solid choices. He was one of those who knew they’d never have to use their degree certificates, because degree certificates were for job seekers and they were people who jobs awaited. This drew a new kind of respect for him, yet he remained the same down-to-earth, easy-going, greeting-most-passers-by person. Until two months after when he shouted at a non-academic staff in the departmental general office for deliberately ignoring him, leaving his repeated questions unanswered while she ate and chatted with other staff, and the department told him to write twenty-one letters of apology to both her and the department, and we saw a part of him he’d done so well to suppress, disguise: his quick, fiery temper.

*

IT was an eccentricity that had begun manifesting too noticeably, too indiscriminately, getting him into more obvious trouble with lecturers, his voice raised in disagreements, almost padded with disregard. Nnaemeka was someone who didn’t pretend, who when he had no respect for people didn’t bother pretending that he did. Being who he was, never hesitating to say what he thought, a mutual dislike simmered between him and a few of them. A graduate assistant said that the CIS is the new name of the USSR and Nnaemeka said that the CIS is a loose association of former USSR states; and in the next class, because a textbook was open in front of him, the graduate assistant, heir to a system drowning in its thirst for deference, said he wasn’t paying attention and told him to leave the class. The next day he was told to apologize and he refused and left the class again. He left the class for the third time and stopped attending lectures for that course entirely. Only to say in another class that it was revisionism to fault Biafra’s secession, and the professor stood rooted to the spot, stunned in disbelief, a man who very few, and certainly no student, had ever opposed, said no to. “Walk out of this class,” the professor said quietly.

At this time, there thickened a closure about him, a closure that had always been there but only as an undergrowth, one that I suspect even his close friends feared. His contributions in class staggered: he’d talk during classes with lecturers he liked who let students talk freely, upending arguments in short bursts of oratory that left even the lecturers smiling and the rest of us applauding, but with the ones who easily picked offence at differing opinions, he simply sat and moped, said nothing even when there were extra marks for contributions. For the first time, I found myself admiring defiance.

*

WEEKS following the incident with the professor, something happened that altered our lives, birthed a defining intersection. A Thursday, it was shortly after the day’s last lecture. Most of us had left the classroom; I was on the ground floor when the string of screams flushed down the corridor, and all of us scampered back upstairs. There was commotion in the classroom, panic on faces, one or two people shouting, “Open the windows! Open the windows for fresh air!” In the frenzy, a window glass was broken, the shatter on the floor loud. “What’s happening?” someone was asking. The commotion had become a gathering of twenty or more. I edged my way through the little crowd to its center where, at the feet of the boy shouting, “Move back! Move back for fresh air!” Nnaemeka lay, stilled. “He fainted.” Someone was fanning him with a notebook, saying, “He needs mouth-to-mouth. A girl should give him mouth-to-mouth.” Someone nudged the girl who had spoken forward. She seemed unsure, frightened, as she dropped to her knees. The boy opened Nnaemeka’s mouth with his fingers, covered it with a white handkerchief. “Hurry na!”

But the girl remained there, as though her body had so stiffened she couldn’t move. The next thing happened even before I could think it: I lunged into the small space, onto the body, held his head. I felt our noses touch, my lips on his as I blew into him. For a moment I could hear nothing. Then, all around us, I heard silence. Stone silence. I blew once more, continued blowing until he coughed, began gasping for air. My head remained blank as I stood. I felt nothing for an instant, then I felt the hands around me, their tightness, the owner’s continuous muttering—“Chukwudi, God bless you, Chukwudi, God bless you”—until the blankness in me cleared and I stared at the girl. She stared back, eyes wan with guilt, before turning away. The briefest of moments yet an enormous epiphany: She had not done it, could not do it because it was him. Because it was Nnaemeka. Nnaemeka, the subject of countless female crushes. How had she let that, a fear of an aftermath, of how their story would be retold, come between her and saving a life? Although, now that I think of it, it must have been to her like grabbing a chance with him, like taking advantage of circumstances to grab that chance, and she, entangled as she was in her own complications, had been overwhelmed into retreat. In that haze, I had stared also at the boy helping him up on the floor, surprised how he, too, had looked helpless, had called for a girl as though only a girl could save him. What if there had been no girl present? I felt smaller with each hug from my relieved classmates, smaller and smaller, stunned how our nuanced hypocrisies could so easily defeat us.

It was with that smallness, and surprise, that I stared at the Staff Adviser the following day in his office when he said, “I hope you don’t feel too bad about having to do that to a fellow boy.” It wasn’t his words that made me want to stand and leave, to not answer and let him know that I’d chosen to not answer. It wasn’t the irrationality of his assumption. It was the way he had said it, flipping through the book, not looking at me, as if it was something so superfluous that not paying me attention while saying it somehow excused his insistence on asking it, pardoned that insistence as a duty I ought to understand. I said no, and then wished I had not, wished I had pretended not to have understood. If there was an hour at that point in my life that I realised I wouldn’t forget, it was later that morning: Nnaemeka telling me his father wanted to speak with me on the phone, his father saying, “This is my personal number, call me when you graduate,” I sitting alone in the classroom, letting everything wash over me. There on that seat, I allowed a new hope to unfurl in me: If my life had changed in this manner I had not expected, it, perhaps, could also change in the ways I now hoped for, ways that no longer seemed so distant, so unrealisable.

*

WE walked through final year wondering how breezily it had arrived, how briskly it was now trembling to an end. During exams I’d go to his lodge to ask him questions like most of us did, and then I’d doze off, and when I’d wake up when everybody else had left he’d say, “Ah, Chukwudi, it’s late o. Sleep here na.” And I would, waking in the morning to find his stray arm across my chest, or his leg across my lap, or his breath in my face. Occasionally, we talked late into the night, a mini-lecture of sorts, he telling me about Shaka, or Haile Selasie and the Rastafarians, or about the two Congos, or about the Mfecane, that nineteenth-century turmoil in Southern Africa, clarifying details, each battle, his voice tender, his casual slipping of his hand into mine when we laughed a tenderer blessing. Some nights, he said he was bored and we’d stroll towards the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge, the security men there immobile ants from afar, or in the opposite direction towards Saint Peter’s and Hill Top, our shadows tall ahead under the street lights, the atmosphere immersed in that mystery that made the gentlest of breezes cause lingering rustling of tree leaves, as if some animal were shaking the branches, in the way we did during childhood: climbing trees, shaking fruit-laden branches, the ripe ones dropping. The first day, I kept talking, and he only kept nodding, until I realised he didn’t want to talk, that this walk was for him a ritual to clear his head, to find silence. And so in the following nights, I simply walked beside him, making trivial observations that wouldn’t need replies, until he suggested that we read and sleep in my room instead, for a change of surroundings. My room was a mini-flat, a large space demarcated with veneer to cut out a kitchen and a small bedroom even though I mostly slept on the much bigger mattress in what had become my sitting-room. One drizzly evening, he knocked on my door, hands in his sweater pockets.

“My girl dey inside o,” I whispered as he came in. “And I dey work now.”

He nodded and lay face-down on the mattress until I finished and came out, and woke him, and gestured towards the room, “You wan enter?” He stared at me listlessly and I imagined he was going to ask, “Enter where?” but he said in a low voice, “CD?”

He came out roughly five minutes later and fell back on the mattress. He’d begun snoring by the time I saw her off, and when I came back I stared at him, hands sprawled, one down onto the rug, legs wide apart in obvious tiredness, and wondered if he knew he was practically lying there in just his black boxers, his trousers sagged down to his knees. For an unguarded moment, a slender second of resurgent craving, I wondered if he’d ever imagine that were he a girl, I would chase him endlessly.

*

AFTER exams we sat in a bar, drinking. He’d asked if we could hang out, just us two, and I’d said yes, flattered. We talked about school, our classmates and lecturers, what we’d miss most about Nsukka, and finally, we talked about ourselves. It was our first time of saying anything deep to each other outside academics, anything we did not say often, perhaps had never said to others. Held together by the gratitude he felt and the awe I felt, our friendship had been shrouded in a facile encasement where only the necessary and the casual were said, waiting for one of us to break it first. I told him about my family, my five younger siblings and parents in Aba; two boys working who had skipped university, two girls and the other boy still in secondary school and asking me for money every now and then, that despite the immediate crushing responsibility I’d chosen to go to school first. I told him my love life, inventing romances I’d longed for but never found, told him that every single one of my girlfriends had dumped me with a text message as though afraid to face me, killed my spirit and yet the fire in me, the scorching thirst in my spirit for a defining experience, remained unquenched. I wondered if he thought my stories of my girlfriends incomplete, edited, things not entirely linking up, if he might suspect I’d lied about them, omitted the reasons for which the last two left me, both saying to my face that they’d never felt safe with a sex addict and an igbo addict, even though they knew I was trying hard to quit smoking. But he listened keenly, not even raising his glass to his lips, in a manner that showed my stories reached depths he’d never been immersed in, uncharacterized by the shallowness of whatever he’d been in, a shallowness that, it appeared, he longed to slough off.

He asked about the girl he met in my room and I told him what Nonye and I were: emergency fuck partners who met too frequently but neither needed nor wanted more than that from each other. As I spoke, I wondered how she might describe me, whether she would grant me a description at all. Whether, if she decided to, she would mention the afternoon I turned up unannounced at her hostel room, propelled as I was by raw lust, and she’d stepped outside and closed the door behind her and said, in a voice hiding from being whispered, with a round face aghast with repulsion: “What are you doing here?”

“Do you love that obsessively?” he asked.

I smiled. He, perhaps, would never understand how it felt to crave another human being so much, the pain intense because they are near and yet you cannot have them in that way, so intense that thoughts of them recollected only into internal crucibles of assault. I wondered if he had ever needed someone before. “Have you even loved somebody before?”

His answer came out quietly: “Of course.” But in his voice was an affirmation resolute in its lowness, as if without his stressing its existence, that love, wherever and in whomever it anchored, would cease to live. I wanted to know the kind of human being that could affect him this deeply. “Tell me,” I said.

“I wish I could talk about it,” he said, eyes holding mine. “We just broke up.” He smiled, and I sensed that whoever it was had been the one to end it, that he, Nnaemeka, had been the one burdened with the shock. Sometimes the agony of being unloved grew not out of unrequited affection or the lingering desire to be with our beloved, not even out of tormenting memories, but from the simple bewilderment, the sheer shock that even we, special as we are, could be unloved.

We drank in silence. He had not revealed much, nothing about his family that I didn’t already know, but there was so much more I wanted to tell him. That my brothers’ distant indifference for my not postponing school and channeling the money into supporting our family as the firstborn hurt me. That my father treating me as invisible even though I was the one paying my secondary school siblings’ fees and buying his drugs kept me awake at nights. That my mother’s eyes were always expectant each time I visited Aba, that sometimes when she screamed at my father there’d be in them a bruised refusal to cry. That my father’s hostility began the morning I held his hand and swore that if he beat my mother again we would leave him, that I’d wondered whether desertion, loneliness, was too heavy a threat to use on a seventy-five year-old. I wanted to tell him that I was mortified I couldn’t love my family with a love less painful, a love more comfortable in and around itself, a love that could make me laugh. I wanted to tell him that I’d long stopped visiting Aba, focusing, during the holidays, on my barbing salon here which was doing well. That I’d lost contact with most of my childhood and secondary school friends; that everyone, consumed in their own struggles, had forgotten or ignored everyone else. That I feared it might repeat with the few friends I’d made here, feared it was the way the world was, might be even with him in whose company I felt this slowly thickening certainty, this consoling flutter of delicate peace.

*

NIGHTS later we were in his room. Around 10 p.m. He was walking about, from the wardrobe to the TV, to the table, to the mirror, glancing into it as if to confirm it was really himself there, his body language restlessness, face couched in an expression somewhere between a tepid smile and uneasiness. In his singlet, his beltless baggy shorts hung on his slender frame, he looked even more flustered.

“What’s happening?”

I knew it was either fright or pain: only those two things could rove in a human being like that, move you as they roved, with forceful tentativeness. He chuckled, hands in pocket, the hair on his legs spiky, every strand seemingly erect. “I don’t like how your face is.” I got up. “Guy, talk to me.” He smiled again. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “Just norogodu odu. Sit down.”

I did, and he paced a few more times before saying, “My man.” He chuckled again. “I think I’m in love.” He was staring at the rug, hands in pocket almost fidgeting, and I wondered whether his eyes glistened because there were tears in them. “I’ve never felt like this before. I’m a bit afraid. I don’t know whether to tell this person.”

He stood in front of the mirror, his back to me, until I said, “So who’s the lucky chap?” My heart was thumping, lurching fiercely. “Does it even matter?” he said. “Especially when I don’t think there’s a chance it will be returned. I’m asking you because you know the person more than I do. Should I go ahead and say my mind?”

“You still haven’t given me a name. It’s then that I can say whether I think you should let them know or not. Who is it?”

He continued pacing, glanced at me, a chuckle. He was hesitating. He was unsure what I would think. Finally he pulled the chair to where I sat on the bed, sat. His head was bent. Then he raised it. Then he looked right into my eyes, so penetratingly I feared for an instant that he had seen my mind. I struggled to pace my breathing, to calm myself, suddenly afraid I might betray what I felt. With his beard rough, he looked thirtysomething, a boy strolling into midlife unaware. He was looking at the bed sheet. “Man, you’ve been a very good friend and I really wish I wouldn’t need to embarrass you like this, but it’s your girl, Nonye. I really do and—I don’t know. You said there’s nothing serious between you two.”

For a moment I could not think, could not make meaning of things. Then I felt like I had been hit by a force so caustic in its rawness, pulling me apart inside, that I didn’t know how to react, if I could react. Nonye. I gazed at him, saw his words take shape, the ache spreading in me until it ossified. Nonye. Nonye whose surname I’d never asked, who’d met me on Facebook and fucked me that same day, who he’d seen only once. I tried to visualize how he had slipped on the condom, how he had leant in, if they had caressed each other, their eyes meeting, if he had moved quickly, or slowly, each thrust a matter of urgency, or of need, if she had surrendered her whole self to him in astonishment, in belief, in a way I knew she never did to me, if it had happened—if the love had happened—when he had finished and come out and was lying on that mattress. How had it happened?

“You are not embarrassing me,” I said. The confusion in me was violent.

“Should I tell her then?” he said, standing up. When I said nothing, he said, “Chukwudi, please,” staring expectantly, so poignantly I felt he was mocking me, that he had always been mocking me.

“I thought you’re gay,” I said.

He looked amused, eyebrows arched in puzzlement. “Gay? Why?” His amusement flitted into pondering, then blankness, and then realization. “Are you gay?” he asked, uncertainty in his voice.

I held his gaze and said no. Then I lowered my head and said I don’t know. Then I stood up and said does it matter.

I walked to the mirror, looked at myself. In nearly everything, we were different. He was handsome; I was not. His intellect was genius; I was, by comparison, merely good. He had a solid background, an assured present and future, and I would go searching for a job after school, go roaming cities and streets with a file and an uncertain present, and a future that could only be determined whenever it came. He was admired among peers, his presence craved, and I was the loner who had never known how to relate with people except when I needed something only they could provide. He was graduating at twenty, on the threshold of a promising life, and I was thirty, a clear ten years away, with nothing on him but experiences thorny and daunting, an unsheltered life brimming with brutality. We lived markedly different lives yet I felt entitled to his affection in ways I’d never been to any other person’s, wanted him to love me back as fiercely. Yet never because of what I’d done for him. It gnawed at me that my want had become entangled in the web of gratitude he supposedly owed me. I didn’t want him to feel he owed me anything, because, in fact, he didn’t. I turned and told him these things, careful not to look into his face. “From the first day I saw you, the first day you spoke to me, I’ve always been crazy about you. And I never stopped hoping you would feel the same way about me.”

For a long time, he said nothing. Then he said, “Believe me, I wouldn’t think twice if I were gay. But you’re like a brother to me, one of the truest friends I have in this school. I care about you, I care about your wellbeing but”—he shook his head slowly—“not like this. I wish there’s something I could do.” It was scalding, that my thoughts obsessively revolved around him when, in his life, I was only one out of several. “I hope I’m not being insensitive with my choice of words,” he said. The ache in my chest intensified, so deeply it veered now and then beyond feeling, so fiery I wondered if it was anger. Not at him but at myself. I wanted to ask him why his arm and leg were always across my body each time we slept on the same bed, if he honestly had not noticed the way I looked at him, lingered on his features with an inner hunger. “It is stupid of me to imagine you would ever look at me,” I said.

“Chukwudi, you will always command my respect without even trying.” There was exasperation in his voice. “I admire you as a person, there is much I can learn from you. You’re important to me, you are important to me. One thing I promise you is that I will not stop being your friend until my life is over.”

I wanted to say, “How did it happen?” but I could only sit on the chair. I could only slip on my sandals. My skin was being unwrapped, being slowly torn from my tissues, blades scraping my sore flesh. In those brief seconds, I knew that so much had changed, that much more could change. I opened the door and walked out. I walked quickly, trying to clear my head, and when I passed the flickering candlelight of the roast corn seller at Beach Junction, the last light in sight, I felt the tears in my eyes, wondered if, unknowingly, I was only trying to take advantage of that gratitude.

*

WE didn’t meet again until the evening after our convocation, a space of four months during which neither he nor I called each other, rapid months in which I tried to forget him, yet hoped he’d resume our friendship because I lacked the courage to, because I may not forgive myself if he didn’t. It was at our class’s graduation bash in a hotel. From the speakers, Styl Plus’ chorus was a breathy lure: Four years don waka, we still dey carry go, nobody waka, nobody go solo! I spotted him, his elegant stride in short-sleeved turquoise suit, meandering from group to group, table to table, shaking the guys, hugging the too-elated girls, so used as he was to being swooned around. I turned away, continued listening to three of my classmates who’d gathered near the entrance, teasing arrivers, until I heard him behind me.

“I checked your room this morning,” he said, and I turned, and he offered a handshake. I didn’t want to take his hand, to touch him, because I was afraid I might pull him to my body.

But I did.

“I checked your room this morning,” he said again. “It was locked.”

“I went somewhere,” I said, looking into his eyes, until he looked away and said, “You look great in suit.” My suit was light ash, or a dark shade of grey, white shirt inside. “Can we talk outside?” he said. I followed him and we sat beside the fountain, on the stone pew so smooth and cold it felt like metal, the lion behind us spewing noodles of water. The strategically-placed security lights looked like round white flames on tall white candles, illuminated the blue water in the swimming pool ahead, and from our position was a constellation set against the black sky.

“My mother used to say my birth was a miracle.” He bent and scooped a handful of the white gravel carpeting the area around the fountain. He spoke slowly. “She didn’t know how it happened. She was only seven months pregnant and, suddenly, we were kicking to come out, my brother and me. We were born in a motor park, and my brother died there from the cold. And I got asthma. My mother often said that my brother would have been the other me, everything I’m not.” He let the stones clatter down. “I shouldn’t have survived but I did. And it taught me how much I should value life and every good thing it brings. You may not believe it but since I became an adult, I never sat down to talk with my mother. It was always there in my mind, something I planned to do, but I went on assuming she was, you know, just there, that she would always be there waiting for me. It never crossed my mind that she could even die.” He paused. “My father usually said that no life is full without an aspect of impoverishment. They weren’t happy together and I and my siblings even wanted them to divorce just so they could each have peace. I was closer to my father but I didn’t side with him. It never occurred to me to choose. Everything he told me, I believed out of necessity then because I didn’t have too many choices, now I believe them either because they’re true or because I’m too afraid to find out if they are.” He waited, as if to give me time to think what to say, and when I did not say anything, he began talking about his elder brother, something about what he’d told him, until he said, “I’m going to the UK in two weeks for my masters.”

The DJ spun a bizarre mix of “Oliver Twist” and “We Found Love,” D’banj and Rihanna taking turns to sing their verses, and, as Lil Kesh’s “Shoki” began, shouts of approval rippled through the hall. I watched the people arriving, young men in mostly black suits, some hand in hand with ladies in flowing or short red and black and pink and blue, and one in white, as though she’d come for her wedding. Slowly, as he spoke, I felt the stab in me fully, a chunk of me shoveled off, eaten in deeply. It wasn’t loss; I wouldn’t simplify it as loss. It was—for lack of accurate description—hollowness, galloping emptiness. Because I didn’t know what to say, void as I was of the emotional reserve to do what he wanted me to do, to engage his words and think deeply, because I wished I could, I wanted simply to say that I understood, to put my hand around his neck and say it, knowing it could make him feel better. I wanted to feel his vulnerability, to let him know I would always be here for him. I wanted him to hug me, to lock me so tightly to his body I could inhale deeply his cologne, assimilate a part of him. I wanted him to come to tears so I could wipe them with my palm. Finally I decided not to attempt locking up those parts of me; if I would hurt then I would hurt. He may not imagine that due to him—and I’m ashamed to admit this—I’d lapsed back into igbo, smoking and crying in the afternoons and evenings, fucking and fucking at night, in my bed, in clubs, brothels, all the time imagining him beside me, under me, in those two places of familiar safety I’d only ever known. I knew then that whenever I thought of the hallowed ambience of Nsukka, the unvarnished cold and hovering calm, the dense hope and the swirling harmattan dust coating everything in dull brown, the sweepingly serene campus streets lined with trees, and buildings swaddled in haloes of flowers and shrubs, it would be him that I would first see, in the center of it all. Underneath his words, I heard the other thing he wanted to tell me, would still tell me, that he’d reminded his father about me, that I should call his father now. But I would not call his father. Not yet. His son owed me nothing. It had begun drizzling when I said, “I’m happy for you, man. I can’t describe how much.”

 

 

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About the Author:

Otosirieze Obi-Young was born in Aba and attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “A Tenderer Blessing,” his first published story, first appeared in Transition Magazine in 2015 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A finalist for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and the Gerald Kraak Award in 2016, his second published story, “Mulumba,” appears in The Threepenny Review. He currently edits the Art Naija Series: Enter Naija: The Book of Places (published in October 2016) and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (forthcoming in June 2017). He teaches English at a Nigerian university and is submissions editor at Brittle Paper.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

6 Responses to “A Tenderer Blessing | By Otosirieze Obi-Young | Fiction” Subscribe

  1. Catherine Onyemelukwe 2017/06/26 at 07:29 #

    This is a gripping story with some lovely descriptive passages. But why the suicide at the beginning? I wanted to know what had caused it; what was the controversy. Did you need it to get me reading?

  2. Gwen S. 2017/06/26 at 21:30 #

    Great story!

  3. Cyril 2017/06/27 at 06:39 #

    Man! Young, this is some story! Didn’t see that twist coming. Bravo, brother! May your pen never run dry.

  4. Hussani Abdulrahim 2017/06/27 at 17:10 #

    A great read. Subtle and engaging. Thumbs up Sir!

  5. Hannah 2017/06/28 at 08:35 #

    This is beautiful. And the way UNN keeps featuring in stories, I’d better visit one day soon! That bit about the guys sharing Nonye that one night did throw me off, though. Like…what? All in all, though, well-paced story, deep characters.

  6. Miracle 2017/08/28 at 10:02 #

    Beautiful story. The descriptions are vivid and beautiful. Thumbs up.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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