Chinelo Okparanta. Photo credit: Bucknell University.

“I was 16 years old, nearly 17, when a boy first expressed interest in me. Or, maybe it was that I was 16, nearly 17, when I first took notice of a boy’s interest in me.” This is how Chinelo Okparanta’s recollection of her first teenage crush begins. In a piece for Freeman’s magazine, republished in Literary Hub, she details growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she meets the boy, a fellow Jehovah’s Witness who “looked like a mixture of Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt.”

The relationship fades away after she recoils from his kiss and embrace and he goes on to have a new life. It is a brief peek into a world of romance enmeshed in family and religion.


Anyway, Paul called me and asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I didn’t know. He asked me about marriage. Did I see myself having children? I told him, of course! Surely one day in the future.

He asked me what names I would name my child.

“Nigel, if it’s a boy!” my brother offered, jokingly, from where he sat in the living room.

“Yes,” Paul said. “Nigel! I like the sound of that!” If I had a boy, would I name it Nigel?

Maybe, I replied. I knew that I wouldn’t. It sounded too stuffy and entitled and British, and in what world would I ever find myself giving birth to a stuffy, entitled British child?

He pulled me to him and wrapped an arm around me, placed a kiss on my cheek, and then another one very barely on my lips. I stiffened. Maybe because my brother was there in the room with us, or maybe because my mother was in the kitchen, just one room over. Maybe, even, I was too mindful of the teachings of the elders at the Kingdom Hall, who often warned the young people against behaviors like this. Or maybe it was simply that I was not ready to go on the journey that Paul’s questions were implying that he would have liked us to go. Whatever the case, I was somehow frightened by his attention, and I recoiled from his embrace.

That was the end of things. After that, I stopped hearing from Paul. For a couple of months, he’d been calling me, at least every other evening, no less than twice a week. After this incident, his phone calls ceased. Whether I had been wanting to make babies with him or not, I had grown accustomed to his friendship and genuinely enjoyed our phone conversations. The complexity of desire. What did we even talk about? Overbearing parents, for sure, but otherwise, I can no longer remember. When two full weeks had gone by, I decided to call him. His mother picked up the phone.


Read the full piece on Literary Hub.