Mark watched Chike throughout that afternoon when he wasn’t looking. Clean-shaven head, a mouth turned down at the top corners, thoughtful eyes. He seemed too deliberate, this Chike, in an awkward way. When he leaned across the sofa to kiss his wife Adaobi, then take her hand, then slide his body closer until the sides of their hips touched, he oozed self-consciousness, like he had spent seconds mulling over such plain acts before deciding to do them.
* * *
Adaobi poked her head through the yellow bar of light from the corridor behind her into the darkness of Mark’s room. The front hem of her nightgown was held up higher than the back by her rounded tummy.
Mark looked up from his phone. It was 11:12pm on his first eight hours in Nigeria in a year. He had just finished a Masters in Manchester three weeks ago and was back to pick up a waiting lecturing appointment with the University of Ibadan’s English department.
Footsteps started to approach from the right end of the corridor, and presently Chike walked past Adaobi towards their bedroom at the left end of the corridor. He did not look left or right. He did not say a word.
“Your husband doesn’t talk much, does he?” Mark asked.
“He does not?” Adaobi tucked strands of braids back into her hairnet. “Why do you say that?”
Mark shrugged in the darkness. “I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think he’d be this quiet.” He and Adaobi were obviously not observing Chike through the same lens. He could swear Chike tensed this afternoon when Adaobi introduced them, two men who must have heard an earful about each other through her.
Mark missed the wedding; before today, he had only met his brother-in-law through the pictures Adaobi posted on Facebook.
“Not everybody talks choo-choo-choo like you, Mark,” Adaobi was chuckling. “Chike is a nice guy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. He’s your husband after all.”
They both laughed.
The next morning Chike did not look at Mark when they greeted, and despite that the moi-moi Adaobi made had lost all steam by the time Chike came out for breakfast in a white shirt and navy-blue trousers, the streams of sweat pouring down his hairline caused Mark to ask if he was all right.
“Yes,” he said. One word. Final. Mark shouldn’t ask again. He yanked a hanky from his pocket, swiped it all over his face and resumed eating.
Adaobi joined them at the table. Chike grinned at her. A grin so wide he couldn’t have been the same person sweating for no perceptible reason just now, shooting a clipped reply at Mark.
Mark dropped his fork gently. His heart beat a little faster. He had been in this game too long to not sense these things when he saw them.
My sister’s hubby acts shifty, he typed into his phone long after Chike and Adaobi left for work.
Donald, his friend since secondary school, was on the other side of the chat window. How?
Mark started to explain: the tenseness, the self-consciousness. It seemed there was something about him his brother-in-law was reacting badly to.
It’s either we’ve met before, he typed, or he knows someone I know, or he likes me… I hope it’s not what I’m thinking.
And what would that be?
That he’s gay…
Donald’s reply popped up immediately: Has your gaydar started hallucinating again?
What if I’m right?
Forget it, you got no proof…and he’s your sister’s husband. Abi, you want to fuck him?
* * *
When Mark told Adaobi the University had asked him to “manage” a room in the boys’ quarters of an English professor’s house, she spat: Nonsense, too poor. Did they think a first class was beans? (She actually said “beans”.) Couldn’t Mark bend their hand a little?
“Those old professors are taking you for a small boy! How many of them were like you at 24?”
Mark glanced at Chike, seated closest to the television, his back – broad and rigid – to his wife and brother-in-law. Unwilling to contribute to the discussion. Thirty minutes ago, when he and Adaobi came back from work, they had met Mark dressed in an unbuttoned shirt and clingy briefs. While Adaobi went on to inquire if Mark hadn’t been too bored being by himself all day, Chike’s gaze dropped to Mark’s briefs and jerked away. But not before Mark caught it. He had worn the briefs on purpose. If his sister had wound up with a homo, he had to find out – from Chike.
The first real conversation he had with Chike happened the next day, and it concerned snail eggs: how, as children, he and Adaobi used to roll the slimy yellow balls off snails they caught, cook them in empty Milo tins and eat.
“They tasted bland,” Mark said. Both men leaned their asses against the bonnet of Chike’s car. “We never let our parents catch us, but when our mum finally did, she beat shege out of us.”
Chike smiled slightly. “Ada did not tell me this…” And his voice faded off as though he changed his mind about adding something.
The next day Mark and Chike discussed marketing – Chike’s line of work: he was a market researcher. His job description messed around with the Sales Research Unit in his office, he said, but did not elaborate.
Mark always remembered to always wear sheer briefs and an unbuttoned shirt whenever he sought out Chike for a chat. Chike talked little, but Mark did not mind at all. He was after his brother-in-law’s mannerisms: how his eyes widened from thoughtful to alert when they talked, how he seemed relieved when Mark finally left him alone.
By the following week, Mark had begun to pat Chike’s thigh with feigned obliviousness when they talked. He watched Chike’s reaction closely when he told him he hated football and that he’d never slept with a woman and that condoms smelt like ass…
One Sunday afternoon, while Adaobi was taking a nap in the bedroom, Mark traced Chike to the parlour and plopped on the sofa beside him.
“You know you really are handsome,” he said, his tone low, rich, personal.
Chike glanced at Mark and glanced away immediately. A vein swelled from his temple to his clean scalp.
“Ah bros, I paid you a compliment oh.” Mark slapped his thigh gently. “Is it a crime?”
Chike glanced at him again. Mark held his gaze. He knew what he looked like now: scrutinizing, daring, inviting. It was a look he’d practised on countless Chikes before.
Chike got up. Mark grabbed his fingers – inches from a bulge at Chike’s groin. An erection? Or a wad of bunched-up fabric?
“I need to ask you something, Chike.”
“What?” He pulled his hand from Mark’s.
“I want the truth too.”
“Are you gay?”
* * *
Mark raised his eyebrows at the black leather belt in Adaobi’s hand.
She gestured with her fingers at the red belt round his waist. “Take that off. Lecturing is a serious profession, you can’t go to class wearing a belt in such garish colour.”
Mark rolled his eyes.
“Students will not respect you, they will think you are their mate.”
“Well, dishing out mass carryovers to half the class should rectify that problem.”
“Spoken like a true, wicked, Nigerian lecturer. Don’t go there and start sleeping with female students oh!”
Mark laughed, wishing Donald was here to hear the inadvertent joke.
Adaobi watched him put on the black belt. “It belongs to Chike. When you get to Ibadan, buy an extra one. Leave all this yopi-yopi things you wear.”
“I hope oga won’t flip when he learns you stole his belt for me?”
“He knows. He has more than enough belts sef.” She tugged her blouse over her tummy. “By the way, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you and Chike didn’t get on well. Is he still quiet to you?”
“Not everybody talks choo-choo-choo like me. I’m quoting you now.”
Mark turned towards the green taxi waiting in front of the house. He was leaving for the airport this afternoon. Lagos first, then Ibadan. His things were in the boot.
Chike came out of the house. The both of them hadn’t spoken to each other since he sent Mark to the ground with two quick punches.
Mark did not regret smashing his lips on Chike’s before the punches came. He was glad though that his sister had been out of earshot when they had the scuffle. Explaining away the fight would have been trickier than magic squares.
Donald thought Mark took things too far.
“I wanted to find out the truth,” Mark defended himself.
“To what end? Sleeping dogs, Mark, sleeping dogs! Were you looking to wreck your own sister’s marriage?”
Chike had not confirmed or denied anything. He had promised to kill Mark, though, if what happened two Sundays ago happened again.
Now, Mark hugged Adaobi and nodded at Chike, thanked him for the belt, promised to call when he reached Ibadan, asked his sister when she planned on finding out the sex of the baby.
He folded himself into the taxi. Whatever it was with Chike, all he wanted was Adaobi’s happiness. The opposite was not an option.
The driver started the car.
Mark peered in the side mirror to watch his sister and brother-in-law’s receding forms: Chike stood stiff beside Adaobi. A guard bidding danger farewell perhaps, Mark thought wryly. And just before they became brown smudges at the beginning of the fast-stretching distance, he saw Chike put his hand on Adaobi’s waist, then kiss her on the lips, then move his body closer, until the sides of their hips touched.
Written by Absalom