My roommate Judy invites him to one of our random “just cause it’s Friday” parties. That’s how we first meet. He’s an architecture student in his final year. 6 feet tall, skin the color of ochre meets oak, medium build with an intoxicating air of assuredness about him. When he enters the apartment, his hello booms across the tiny living room. 50 to 60 heads turn to get a look. Some squeal “Dave!”, others simply turn back to whoever they were talking to and continue nursing their drink.
In the kitchen, Judy flings her pale skinny arms around his neck.
“Where’ve you been, man?” she asks, one arm squeezing his shoulder. She’s 5’8” to his 6’. At 5’4” I am no contender in this height game.
In the middle of laughing at something Judy says, his eyes wander, eventually landing on mine. My heartbeat quickens and butterflies rage.
Later, he leans across the island in the kitchen. “You’re gorgeous,” he whispers, his face framed by the white light from the dangling bulb overhead. Deep down inside I cringe because, obviously, he is taken in by my girl drag. Yet, here is a cute boy, no, a man, taking an interest in me. I am a few months shy of 18, a freshman, newly on my own with mom on one of her annual trips back to Nigeria. The things I don’t yet know about dating can fill the cavernous hall of my uni’s library a million times over. But what I am clear about is the disorienting experience I have in this body I inhabit.
The night of our first date, under a star-drenched sky I push my lips onto his as we melt onto each other on a park bench. He kisses me back, pulling me onto his soft-hard body. His lips wander from my lips to my neck. I tingle all over. I try not to think about girl drags.
Three months into our relationship, we’ve christened every room of his apartment with our intertwined naked bodies oozing sweat and cum. In his bedroom, we’ve carried on from bed to floor to table multiple times. In his kitchen, I’ve memorized every crack and dent on his dining table.
When we fuck, I’m a spirit, indefinable, fluid, androgynous.
One night, driving back from a concert, I want to tell him that I love him. I want to tell him about the gender wars punching holes in my brain. I want to talk about the dysmorphia that stares back when I look in the mirror. Words bounce around in my skull, barely contained, like a lion in a too-small cage. But I can’t say them. Instead, I roll down the window, stick out my head and shout-read the words etched onto signs we speed past on the interstate.
“Neeeeeext exit, rest stop!”
Dave glances nervously at me and asks several times how drunk I am. Eventually he asks me to stop. I comply, lapsing into a pregnant silence. Inside my head, the lion roars.
We tell Judy we’re dating, sitting on the couch while she perches on the loveseat and nods. Her smile is wide and genuine. She gives me secret winks and thumbs of approval. When he gets up to use the bathroom, I don’t want to be apart so I attach myself to his legs. He walk-limps, dragging me across the carpet like a rag doll.
Judy’s chin hits the floor, her eyebrows raised in what I read as alarm.
I don’t understand what’s happening to me, how someone can enthral me so.
Several months into our affair, in the midst of frenzied sex one night, the “I love you” erupts out of my mouth before I can ponder if he’ll say it back. He doesn’t. I hide the hurt in the bushel of my orgasm. A few beads of tears seep out of the corners of my eyes. Luckily, it’s dark and I am a quiet crier.
He stops looking at me with eyes half-lidded with lust. Always eager to get off the phone. Finding reasons to let go of my hand. Then comes the day he breaks up with me.
“There’s a whole life waiting for you out there. There are guys your age who will offer you a lot more than I can,” he says. I am bereft. For distraction, I look out the window of his bedroom and catch the eye of a little black girl, his neighbor’s kid, playing hopscotch in the yard. Her pigtails are swaying beside her face as she stares at me. Her mouth is open wide in mid-laugh. The glass pane between us is stained green with mold. I feel dirty like the window. I feel as low as the dirt the girl’s feet pound on as she hops from one square to two.
I’d sensed the breakup was coming but still I am unprepared for it, not ready to let him go. First boyfriend. First person to whom the words “I love you” have a wallop of emotion behind it. Before then, “love you” was just something I said, rote-like, to my parents on the phone. Before then, “love” was a conundrum of a word that I couldn’t separate from tears and blood. Growing up, the word “love” was simply window dressing for a home that bulged with terror and rage. As a teenager, “love” was a gift I struggled unsuccessfully to give my reflection in the mirror.
The two red lines on the stick spell trouble. Back home, they would say “she don carry belly”. I look at myself in the mirror. Braids past my shoulders. Oval shaped eyes. Lips, pink and full like my father’s. Wide nose, the same nose as my mother, as her mother. I look at me through their eyes and shudder with shame. I don’t look below my face. I don’t look at my belly.
Outside, the sky has darkened from salmon pink to a deep indigo. The other students in this apartment complex are piling into cars en route to places where they will drown in alcohol. On the dance floor, drunkenness will contort their bodies into frantic shapes. I want to drown in alcohol but not for the sake of merriment. I want to drown in this bathroom with its white ceramic tiles splashed across the walls in haphazard fashion. The white light that illuminates too much. The deep tub that’s calling me to lie in it and imitate the dead because if my parents were to find out that at 17 I’m pregnant, dead is exactly what I will be. If my mother doesn’t kill me quickly with her anger and fists, my father will kill me slowly with his disappointment.
I’m walking out of Organic Chem a few days later when the pain stops me. I double over as a dagger rips at my insides.
“Are you alright?” a short portly white girl with blond bangs that dip down to her eyelids pauses and bends over me. Above us rain clouds dot the morning sky. Hoards of starlings swarm in and out of amorphous shapes. I feel on the verge of disintegrating into a million fractal pieces. Students mill around us, greeting us with quizzical stares.
“No, I’m not.” I’m not alright. Another round of stabbing forces me to drop my bag and clasp my belly.
“Do you need help? Shall I walk you to the clinic?” She places a hand on my shoulder and reaches out the other for me to grab onto.
“I’m pregnant,” I say as I take her hand and she slowly pulls me up. She grabs my bag and slings it over her shoulder. “This area of my belly is on fire,” I pointed to my lower belly.
“How far along are you?” she asks with the authority of one who knows a thing or two about this stuff. “I’m a nursing student,” she adds.
I nod. We walk slowly with her hand around my arm. I concentrate on placing one foot ahead of the other, on the coarseness of the gravel underneath my sandals, on the cool air, on anything but my throbbing womb.
“How far along are you?” she asks again after giving me a moment to adjust to walking.
“I’m not sure,” I mumble. “A month and a half probably.”
“You’re probably feeling your cervix beginning to expand,” she responds, navigating me around the quad where water spouts out of the mouth of a fish made of granite. We amble through excited groups of students chatting and laughing loudly as if everything is right with the world.
We trudge on the freshly mowed grass of the lawn that separates the classrooms from the one-story building that houses the clinic. Its red brick facade glistens with condensation.
I don’t want to go in. I’m a pregnant 17-year-old black immigrant adrift in this country. I can picture the judgment and pity that await me.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do with it?” the white girl asks.
Yeah, I’ve thought and thought. There is no escaping abortion as the final act of resolution. And because I’ve been raised by a Catholic mother, because I grew up in a Nigeria seized by Pentecostal fervor, because I already have a backlog of unprocessed childhood memories – a jagged mix of abuse and violence – I am enshrouded in self-revulsion at this latest turn in my life.
“I’ll drop you off here while I go park,” he says.
“Please don’t let me walk through that crowd by myself,” I plead, looking at them, their red, white, and blue placards decrying what takes place in the building behind them.
Some hold up pictures of fetuses. “Abortion is murder,” they shriek to the high heavens. Others crowd the open field across the street. Some shield themselves from the fiery sun under a Magnolia tree pregnant with flowers. Dave sighs. He drives to the parking deck a block away and squeezes his maroon Dodge Lancer into a spot between a minivan and beamer.
I don’t expect him to hold my hand or offer his shoulder for me to lean on as we exit the structure and cross the street to the clinic. I don’t ask either. By then, our communication has devolved into logistical coordination.
What time is the appointment?
Where is it?
How much does it cost?
I can pay for it.
As the protesters see us approach, their chants take on a different focus. Fear dries my mouth and turns my body cold. Dave’s face settles into a grim expression.
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS!”
“THAT’S A HUMAN BEING INSIDE OF YOU!”
“GIVE THAT CHILD A CHANCE AT LIFE!”
I study the concrete as we walk on the path between barricades. On each side, the people careen, push placards in our faces, and try to hand us pamphlets I don’t dare look at.
Dave hurries ahead of me, eager to recede behind the glass doors of the building.
As I approach the doors, I barely recognize my own reflection. Hard to imagine this thin 5’4” body growing a fetus.
In the waiting room, after we’ve signed in and been directed to take a seat, Dave is a restless ball of energy beside me. Given how crowded the room is, we don’t know how long the wait will be. I stare into my lap, losing myself in the purple and blue spherical patterns on my skirt.
Minutes or hours later, a nurse shakes my shoulders gently asking if my name is “Ade”. I nod then look to my right where Dave is slumped in a doze. As I follow the nurse, I steal another glance over my shoulder wondering if he is truly asleep or just clasping his eyes shut to avoid eye contact.
Months after the abortion, when I am finally able to drag myself out of bed, I attack my closet with a black garbage bag in my hand. Every dress, blouse and skirt becomes a crumpled mess at the bottom of the bag. I drive to the nearest goodwill and dump the bag on the donation table with a “good riddance” uttered under my breath. I leave with a different bag filled with a new wardrobe paid with a cheque that I know was going to bounce. The on-campus cafeteria job is just enough to cover rent and keep my belly full. There’s no way I can get a job off-campus with “not eligible for employment” stamped across my social security card.
Dave is long gone. In a fit of self-pity fueled anger, I leave a message on his answering machine. The frothing at the mouth, spittle flying everywhere, kind.
“You used me. You just wanted some pretty young thing to fuck. You’re a sick perverted asshole, a predator.” I slam the phone down feeling emptier than when I picked it up. Around me when I made the call are my friends, my cheerleaders egging me on to “let it all out.” Among them is Judy who stands me up and leads me to the full length mirror in my room.
“Look at you,” she proclaims, gesturing at my reflection. I’m in my signature post-abortion uniform: black oversized t-shirt, black jeans, and a pair of raggedy black sneakers.
“You’re a stunner, drop-dead gorgeous,” she says, making me do a 360 in front of the mirror.
Fuck gorgeous. I want to tell her the old Ade is dead. She’s finally yielding to someone else who’s been hiding all their life. Instead, I force a smile and bob my head. The hidden person isn’t ready to make their presence known in front of others.
When I get to old mother, I drop my backpack on the grass next to her fat trunk. I take in a big whiff of her dew-wettened leaves. I look up at the towering tree, way older than this 100-year-old campus. Her gnarled boughs radiating like spokes are themselves mini trees. I sink onto the moist grass, letting my eyes travel across the meadow. A group of students are doing callisthenics in the middle. On one end, a pair of soccer players kick a ball around.
I’ve barely been to class all semester, which means I’ve missed exams, which means I’m on a steady course to flunking out. But I don’t care. Not yet anyway.
I like to spend my days here, shielded by this ancient sycamore I named. Under the safety of her branches, I can be who I am in solitude.
Here, the hidden person talks. They spread their legs wide and lean their back against her coarse bark. They ask to be recognized with a new name. And because they want to look forward to days better than what Ade has lived through, they choose Tejumola.