They always met when the evening sun would part with the earth, mournfully, like a child travelling for the first time, to a boarding college. Their voices would rend the air around the gigantic Faculty of Arts complex, seep through the Music department that stood at their back, and echo through the stadium. It was their evening for books and authors, fleeting moments which Ikem now saw to be the most unreal. Moments when his friends never cared about each other, but about imaginary characters engraved in pages.
It became a ritual. Nnedi stamping her fat calves to the music quadrangle in front, and Ikem trudging behind with Ekene, all ready to be unbent in the evening’s argument. But that evening was different. The evening Ikem’s hesitancy grew, and his feet lagged, the evening he began to loathe those two, the evening he began to wander in his heart seeking justifications, seeking answers, hugging his bag in class because he feared that his heart had begun to leap so much. It was the evening Nnedi had stormed off the quadrangle, rumbling under her breath about how much of her day they had ruined because they wouldn’t say something sensible.
Ekene had started that evening, in his shrill, fake-soprano voice, asking, “What do we talk about today?” He sat on the cement slab of the quadrangle where students sat to study, and dropped his bag. Nnedi was on her phone, so Ikem answered, “Us,” willing that they pry into each other for once, that they would bare themselves, and leave books for a while.
“Us?” Nnedi asked, raising her face to regard Ikem. “What about us? Are we not here?” Ekene gave him an inquiring stare, and Ikem wished he would ask, but he didn’t. “Sort yourself out, bro. We are here for books,” was his reply instead, causing Ikem’s heart to dip, falling headlong into his stomach where in its place stood disappointment and, on his eyes tears were forming. He checked himself, resat and arranged his shirt just in time to hear Ekene. “Let’s talk about Ifeakandu’s God’s Children Are Little Broken Things.”
Nnedi now dropped her phone and sneered. “That homo book?” she said. “People can be shameless, though.” Homo sent a lurch in Ikem’s heart. It leapt again, his heart, and this time, to his mouth, so close he felt he would spit and find his heart covered in white, foamy saliva.
“You won’t dispute that it was marvellously done. I appreciate Arinze for being so brave,” Ekene said, staring into a page of his notebook, maybe looking for his favourite line in the short story.
Nnedi grunted, “hmmmm. What do you think, Ikem?”
Ikem knew she would want to know what he would say. It was always like that, Nnedi being uncertain about a thing, then asking him or Ekene, but never admitting that they knew more than she did. She would then shrug and wave it off when she knew nothing about it. He didn’t think of Nnedi’s supercilious manner now. He was thinking of Ekene – that defensive reply. He had always suspected Ekene, but what he knew about Ekene, about his flinging of his hands in a feminine way and that shrill voice, was not enough to indict anyone. Anyone could have those qualities and still not be one. That thing he had begun to despise because it brought to him several options he would never have thought of.
Nnedi’s nudge dragged him to reality, to the quadrangle, and he countered Nnedi’s question. “What do you think of the rivalry between Rachel and Kamsi?”
“I don’t see any rivalry there,” Ikem said, rather unguardedly, straightening up, “Lotanna discovered himself and chose what he would always become. It won’t change, anyways.” It won’t change. Was he telling this to himself? He feared, as the lurch came again with a sore gall.
“I can’t forgive him,” Nnedi said.
“Why?” Ekene and Ikem asked. They looked at each other and smiled, Ekene’s being sweeter, or so Ikem had imagined. Ikem’s suspicion grew heavier
“He broke Rachel. His mother’s death was deserving.”
“I can’t forgive you either.” Ekene quipped. Nnedi ignored him, and asked, “What else do we talk about? Enough of that homo story.”
“I’m tired,” Ikem said, looking ahead of them, towards the bushy pathway that separated the stadium from the tennis court. The lush green, tall elephant grass that had eaten up the pathway was warmth for him, but he couldn’t get there. Nnedi was gazing at him when he turned.
“You’ve been like this since morning. I hope you haven’t impregnated those Hilltop girls. Your mother will smother you,” she said, turning to Ekene who didn’t seem interested. Then she flared. And as she grumbled about their selfishness, Ikem restrained the urge to send a kick flying to her stomach. Not for calling them selfish, but for speaking of his mother. She had no right to dig deep into a wound that was so red with sore he felt his heart oozing the thickest of all pus. But his other heart softened. What if he told them now? All the while, Ekene laughed and Nnedi ranted.
Even if he told them, Nnedi would suck her teeth and call it ‘a pathetic narration’. But Ekene would understand. Ekene, he had always suspected. As he thought of Ekene now, his mind was filled with events of the last three days. But the events of the last three days wouldn’t be so heavy and sour to heart if the incidence of two months ago hadn’t occurred.
It was the month he had always said he found himself. It was the month he was able to explain why Grace, his first girlfriend, had left him, complaining to anyone who cared to listen about his inattentiveness. She went on, unashamedly, to tell Nnedi how limp he was in bed. They didn’t fight. It was the most mature separation, Ekene had said. Then, just two weeks after separating with Grace, he found Nedu, the lanky, dark, flat-face, Odenigwe guy, who had picked up his storybook at the faculty hall. He had read Ikem’s stories, even the ones he wrote implicatively, unaware of whom he was. Stories of men loving men, and his personal notes about his solid obsession with hunk-looking guys. Nedu read them all, and when he returned the book, he winked at Ikem, lingering in his handshake, and tickled his palm – that cliché.
Ikem had swallowed hard, not knowing what to say. He saw the fire then. The one he had failed to see even when Grace would try to sit on him, in a new style. He died once he put it in there. He saw it now, as they both exchanged phone numbers, with Ikem feeling something turgid in his trousers. Nedu had met him again – he was in the History and International Studies department – and almost cracked his lips in the broadest smile. Ikem first visited him, unsureness dotting his footsteps from Hilltop to Odenigwe. He had heard of many of them who hacked others to death after having enough of them. What if Nedu was like those? But Nedu wasn’t. In fact, he felt a warmth he had never felt before, as Nedu kept shouting personal questions from the kitchen where he made him a quick, plate of bare noodles, that had nothing except for a few slices of onion. Then Nedu visited him at Hilltop and slept over the next weekend. He returned. Nnedi raised her brows and questioned his absentmindedness during their evening sessions. He managed to compose his heart during their evening meetings, until three days before when he couldn’t hold himself.
Dumebi, his sister, had screamed immediately he pushed the green ‘answer’ icon placed the phone to his ear, three days earlier. It was a tearing scream, one that still rang in his head, and would continue. It was like his Aunty, Aunty Imelda’s scream on the night his father had died. She screamed and threw herself on the floor of the General Hospital, raising her palms skywards, to curse death. Dumebi took her time to recuperate, and when she did, her tone became firm, as always, although, he felt the quiver underlying the firm voice. Her message was equally quick. “Mama is in the hospital. It’s the leg again and this time, she fell to the ground and the doctor needs seventy thousand to engage a physiotherapist.” She had hung up while the words were still making any sense to him. It burned his lips, even as he retold the story to Nedu, resting on his muscle-less chest.
Nedu had groaned, like he was thinking about it, scratched his protruding forehead. The forehead shone with intense sweating, even though the fan was turned to the highest. Ikem began to think that that was the only thing he would do – groan. Then, Nedu asked: “Can you sleepover in town?”
Ikem hadn’t understood. He raised his head, ruffling the sheets, and gave Nedu a questioning stare. Then, Nedu explained. He didn’t need to explain so much. A few lines with his serious gesticulations told Ikem that Nedu had suggested he visited a man – an old man, one of those bad breath old men – to sleep with him and make some money.
Ikem’s face dropped. His mouth took the shape of disappointment and shock. Nedu sat there when he got out from the bed, sought out his trousers, dived into it, slung his bag and banged the door when he left. For three days it was like this: a long face whenever Nedu was in sight, snubbing of persistent Facebook messages and text messages, turning down calls, and even Nedu sending friends to appeal on his behalf. It was then that Ikem knew about a lot of others who were what he was. The departmental secretary, who didn’t look at his face while speaking to him, the organist from the Music department, who played an intoxicating tune on the day the Commissioner for Education visited their faculty. They came, and each was straightforward, not asking what Nedu had done, but saying, “You have to forgive him.”
Ikem felt it was too exaggerated, the plea, and resolved not to give in. But on the second day, he was on Nedu’s bed, not by persuasion, and the cliché resumed: wearing Nedu’s shirt to school, wearing his cologne which threw Nnedi’s head backwards and she asked, “Who is filling your pocket these days, Ikem?” Nedu became again his shield against the biting Nsukka cold on a rainy day.
The deep wound widened three days later, and that was three days before now. He had finally decided to beat his fears and call home. His mother would rage, would swear at him, calling him heartless, the way she had called their father on the day he was buried. The firm voice that had always boomed from his phone’s speaker, chuckling in between words, was gone. The frail voice, which he found more repulsive than the whispering of a mosquito, took its place. Her words came in a gasp. She was tired. Dumebi had tried for everyone. She didn’t mention him, and he hated himself then. His mother hadn’t considered him at all. Maybe because he chose to remain here, among books, or in Nedu’s kitchen, or staring at the taunting trees.
“Kedu ka-osi eme gi?” he had asked her, after she had spoken.
“Amaghi m oo,” the frail voice cried. “Onwu bikozienu oo.” She then sobbed on the phone. Dumebi’s voice came through. She told him how their mother had been confined in a shack-like space they called a ward, with the pungent smell of urine and bad water filling their nose every morning. She told him how urgent it was for him to see their mother then. It was bad. So bad. And she wondered why it took him so long a time to call. She hung up, like before, when, after clearing the lump blockading his words in his throat, he wanted to speak. Dumebi didn’t know, he thought, how hard his helplessness beat the gong on his head, and how every page of his Poetry textbook had the smear of his tears. How Nedu would then hold his shoulders because that was the only thing he could do, and say, “It will be fine.”
Then, the evening before that day, he had spoken to Nedu all whilst looking outside the window. He saw nature swinging on the trees. He wanted to hold him and question him. Nature.
Nedu had started, eyes widened, and mouth rounded, when Ikem said, “Can I still see the man?” It was a long silence, one in which Nedu must have regretted suggesting the ‘sleeping-over’. He hung his head low, and when he raised it, Ikem was crying. He reached out to hold him, but Ikem shook him off and demanded for the contact. Nedu sighed and whipped out the card, stared long at it, and gave it to Ikem. “What happened? Why are you doing this?” he asked, and Ikem wondered if he was out of words and had just that to say, so he didn’t answer.
Even though things happened between them, Ikem had stopped himself from feeling anything for Nedu. Anything at all.
It happened that way, his lostness which Nnedi had ascribed to his being self-centred and arrogant. Ekene had said nothing but only snorted. Maybe he wanted to laugh.
He felt a kind of coolness, yet strangeness with the water running down the hill and over his feet. What had he become? He looked around, at the numerous foodstuff shops that lined the street. Nobody was looking. The world is too busy for me, he thought and hastened his feet. Soon, he was descending the steep hill again, his backpack containing his cream and few clothes. He passed through St. Peters, and at Balewa Hall, he found men with their fat bellies in their cars, waiting for sleek or chubby girls for the weekend. He had never liked the sight of it, but now, he looked at them for the strength and courage he knew he would never have. He imagined what pushed the girls into that, and he couldn’t guess so he walked on, trudging carefully, as if the soil had arrows growing in it.
Bello Hall was opposite a shuttle stand, from where he would go off to town. But he didn’t stop. He didn’t know why, he just walked on, past the Education Faculty. He didn’t stop, and when he got to Nedu’s room, he threw himself into his arms and wished to remain there. Nedu gathered him crushingly, as if he had expected him to come, as if he too didn’t wish for Ikem to go, as if he could do anything other than that. Wishes. And cuddling.