He came to St John’s Boys’ High at a time when I wasn’t sure what I was. In the mornings, when everybody taunted Ben, calling him a homo, sissy, fag, I watched and said nothing, afraid that Ben would get tired of being teased alone and suddenly blurt out that I did stuff with him too; and in the evenings, I visited Vera, a girl from Our Lady’s Girls’ High whom I liked a lot because she was always willing, always giving.
He came one sunny morning looking like a thing from hell, thin and droopy-eyed, his scalp a radiating mirror, an old, ugly schoolbag slung lazily on his shoulder. He stood beside Miss Lara in front of the class, and introduced himself. His name was Amara, which was another ridiculous thing about him because all the Amaras I knew were girls. Miss Lara gave him a seat by the window, and whenever I looked at him, he was either always staring outside or sketching something in his sketchpad. He hardly ever talked, always mumbling a one-word reply whenever talked to, and soon I began to think of him as a bag of monosyllables.
Whenever we played basketball, he stood under the dogonyaro tree outside the court, watching us. One day I asked, “Do you want to play?” and he shook his head, mumbled something nonsensical, and started walking away.
And so, apart from being called Solar System because of his clean haircut, he was also called Robot, Dummy, Alien. I didn’t know why, but I found myself riveted by him. Maybe it was because he had an air of mystery around him, of enigma. I would sit across from him in class and stare and stare at him, until he looked up from his book or away from the window, and his eyes would settle on mine, a lazy settling, like a pat on the head; and it would linger, his eyes, until, always, I was forced to look away, embarrassed.
Miss Lara was teaching History of the Blues. Music studio classroom was not like a conventional classroom with students seated in personal desks all facing the blackboard in front. Here, there was something cosy about the desks arranged in two rows of semicircles facing each other. Miss Lara always drew the curtains close, blocking off the sun, which made the fluorescent tubes glow softly. She never came to class with a cane, and yet her class was always quiet. We all perched on the edge of our seats, listening to her, a small, bespectacled woman who made every word count. Today, she talked briefly about how the blues grew out from the music of the black slaves in America. Then she sat down at the piano by the window and said, “Okay, Amara has something for us.”
There was a hush in the classroom as everybody watched Amara. He stood up slowly, as slouchy as ever, long-limbed and swimming in his oversized uniforms. I watched him absently; it had become a reflex action: I would watch him, see the things I was sure nobody else saw—like the way he ran his middle finger over his eyebrow every few minutes, how he bit his lips, an eyebrow arched, whenever he studied something closely, and the tiny black ‘god-mark’ just above his upper lip, I noticed that too—and I would not even realise that I noticed all these things.
He stood in front of the class. “Good afternoon, class,” he said, ran his finger over his eyebrow. “I’ll be singing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing.’ Transposed to a slightly lower key, of course.” He chuckled. He looked calm, unruffled. Maybe in his eyes we all did not exist. Miss Lara was playing the intro. He closed his eyes. He was singing, Share my life/Take me for what I am… I sat perched at the edge of my seat, my eyes wide. Ben sang Umbrella once, but Beyoncé was nothing compared to Whitney Houston; and that was in our junior class, when most of us still had unbroken voices. But here was Amara, long-limbed, slouchy, droopy-eyed Amara, singing Whitney Houston with graceful ease. When he was done singing, the class remained quiet, as if his singing had suddenly made everybody dumb. Then someone clapped, and another person joined in; and soon, the entire class was whistling and clapping.
After the class, I did the most cliché thing in a love story: I intentionally bumped into him, and then squatted to help him pick up his books. “Sorry about that,” I said, handing him the books.
“No problem,” he said; he did not look at me.
“That song you did in there,” I said. “It’s one of my Whitney Houston favourites. That and ‘I Look to You.’”
“Wow, you like Whitney?” he looked genuinely surprised, and pleased. “And yes, I love ‘I Look to You’ too.”
We were walking back to our classroom. “You seem surprised that I love Whitney.”
“Oh no, no.” He chuckled. I glanced at him; when he chuckled, his eyes crinkled at the sides. “It’s just that you don’t strike me as someone who would like Whitney.”
“What kind of person did I strike you as, then?”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “I thought you would love Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne.”
“God! You think so lowly of me!” I said, feigning hurt and failing grossly at it. We were both laughing. And it struck me then that I had never heard him laugh before.
We became friends quickly. He said he had always liked me, but that he thought I was just a big, dumb jock full of attitude. Then he said maybe I really was a big dumb jock, didn’t I run around chasing a single ball together with twenty-something other guys? Which made me laugh because he said it with a straight face. He was funny. And handsome. Sometimes I would look at him for so long, memorising the lines and contours of his face, the imagined edges of his slim body, the sprinkle of hair on his arms. And his eyes. It was his eyes, shy and deep and sad, that made me decide that I was in love.
“You have the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen,” I said to him one evening after games. I was seated on a bench, my right leg stretched in front of me. He knelt down in front of me, twisting my leg, massaging it. I was asking where he had learnt this kind of first aid as he didn’t play any sports, and he lifted his eyes briefly as he said, “I was in the Boys’ Brigade,” a small smile entering his eyes. He did not remove his eyes immediately, and we just stayed there, staring like it was a staring contest. Then he looked away, his lips crinkling with laughter or something close to laughter.
“I’ll drop you home,” I said to him later, as we walked out of the school gate. It was evening; the sun had sunk into the far horizon, colouring the sky a soft yellow.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I’ll just take an okada.”
“Please,” I said. “You’ve never let me.”
He glanced at me, then looked away. I watched him. In baggy jeans and an oversized Chelsea jersey, he looked scrawny. Ben always wore snug jeans and fitting clothing that showed off his nice body. It was in fact the view of his behind, of Ben’s behind, that made me ask to drop him off one Friday evening after games. My friends had all joined Idris, and so nobody was watching. I knew what I wanted even then, and as I drove him towards my house and he asked, with a fake frown, “Where are you taking me to?” I knew he wanted it too.
But Amara. He wasn’t my kind, wearing oversized clothes and ugly shoes. And he was so damn complicated. Sometimes he behaved like he was interested, staring at me with dreamy eyes and making me feel all fluttery inside. Then the next moment he would behave as if I didn’t even exist, ignoring me or, like he was doing now, shutting me out.
I tried again: “Please, let me.” I scratched my head, waved my hands helplessly. My voice went up a notch higher, in frustration. “See, I want to spend every minute with you. Let me drop you off every Friday. Seeing you climbing a motorcycle when you could very well be in my car with me makes me feel like I’m losing very precious minutes of my damn short life.”
He stared at me now. He had this amused look on his face, like maybe I had said the most ridiculous things. “You sound like you’re toasting me,” he said.
I looked away, at my boots digging into the sand. I decided to dare it. “Maybe I am,” I said, looking him in the face. “In fact I am. You don’t know how handsome you are.” I paused, looked him up and down, smiled playfully. “And you could be sexy if you didn’t choose to wear these bogus stuffs.”
He smacked my head with his schoolbag, laughing and muttering, “Asshole.”
We walked to my car together.
I dropped him off every Friday evening because Friday games was the only time we were allowed to bring cars to the school. We were in a sort of relationship where all we did was kiss in the car and then he would be off, choosing to walk the remaining distance to his house after making sure I had driven away. We didn’t talk much after school because he didn’t have a phone. Sometimes I called him with his mother’s number and, just before she handed him the phone, I would hear her say, “Your friend, Marcus.”
Like now. “Hey Marcus,” he said; he didn’t sound very happy that I was calling. “What’s up?”
“I’m good, man,” I said. “What’s wrong? You don’t sound very bright.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said. “Just some stuff at home.”
“Something you want to talk about?”
He sighed. “Maybe later. Not over the phone.”
“You want to meet over?” I asked. “I can come and pick you up.”
“Are you sure? It’s sort of late.”
I chuckled. “Sure? A few free minutes with you and you’re asking if I’m sure?”
He chuckled; but it didn’t sound real, like he forced it out of his chest. A snort.
“Okay, meet me where I normally drop you off.”
“Thanks, man. I really have to get out of this house.”
When, five minutes later, I drove into his street, he was standing in front of the mosque where I normally dropped him off. He was wearing a black jacket and his signature baggy jeans, his hands in his pockets. In the car, he kissed me hard and deep. “I needed that,” he said.
I sat there, too stunned to speak. “O…kay,” I muttered. “Where do we go?”
“Anywhere,” he said. “Or we could just stay here and talk.”
“Or we could go to my house,” I said, my tone twisting with suggestion. “My mum travelled to Berlin for a conference. I’m very much alone.”
He was quiet for a while, just stared straight ahead. Then he said, “You see I have problems now, and all you think about is sex.” So coolly, I almost missed it that he was angry.
“I was kidding,” I said. Then added, “Sort of.” I bumped his shoulder. “Come on cheer up.”
I drove us to Mallam Musa’s Suya Place where we sat at a table for two under a thatched roof. He didn’t eat much, didn’t really drink his Malt. More than once, I started to ask him what the problem was, but stopped. We left Suya Place a few minutes later, and I said, “Let’s walk a little.”
Sabo Street looked like a waterside street, like someplace on a beach, cool and serene, the air smelling sweetly of gently moneyed people wearing jeans and walking in pairs. We walked closely; we were not holding hands, but our arms brushed. When we got to Sabo Bridge, the new bridge built over Sabon Ruwa, the muddy lake that gave the otherwise dusty street a Lagos-beachside feel was black and whooshing. We leaned against the metal railings, and there we held hands, standing so close together, nobody would notice our hands touching. I pressed his hand and he pressed back. A boy and a girl walked past, holding hands and making mock kissy faces at each other. The girl giggled.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Amara said suddenly. I nodded, expecting him to say more. But he didn’t. So, I asked, “What is it?”
He was quiet for a while. “I don’t know,” he said. He moved away from me; walked towards a crippled beggar who was seated on a mat a few steps away. He leaned down and threw some naira notes into the man’s bowl. Then he squatted and chatted with the man in slow, halting Hausa. I couldn’t hear him from where I stood, leaning carelessly against the railing, as if the night-blackened water below was a bed of feathers. The man said something that made Amara laugh; he laughed hard, his head thrown back, the sound rough and gentle at once, like the sound of Sabon Ruwa on a windy day. He looked at me. “You should hear this, Marcus,” he said, laughing some more. A man in jellabia walked past, holding his toddler daughter, a bemused grin on his face as he watched Amara. And it was of this, the tall fair handsome man with the bemused grin and a toddling daughter, and of Amara’s laughter floating in the night like background music, that I would think of so many years later, taking a long walk on this bridge with my little nephew.
Harmattan came like a thief. The way Jesus was supposed to come. Like a thief in the night, stealing stealthily on us. One morning I woke up and the horizon was covered in grey mist. I stood in front of the window in my boxers, staring. I picked up my phone to call Amara’s mother, to ask Amara if he had seen this too, the mist covering the world like an old, grey blanket. But it was too early to call someone’s mother. I wished he had his own phone.
Everybody in class sat around him as he sang Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way You Lie.’ Ken-Ken rapped along just like Eminem. The other guys were giving the beats with their mouths and their feet tapping the floor and their palms beating the desks. I stood by the door, watching. Ben was there too, giving backup. Since Amara started talking with everybody, nobody noticed Ben anymore. It was like Amara came into all our lives and wrapped us all into himself, making us all forget our sentiments. Everybody was cheering and clapping and saying, “Let’s do it again, dudes!” That is my boyfriend, I wanted to shout. The urge to scream those words was so strong, I was scared. I left the classroom and stood outside.
When I told him about the urge, he laughed and said, “It’s like you don’t want to remain the centre of gravity of St John and Our Lady, eh?”
I laughed. We were standing in front of the mosque on his street. It was a Friday evening. “I want you to sing at my birthday,” I said.
“No,” he said.
“Why?” I reeled from the vehemence of his rejection.
He paused, his lips pursed, as though he were contemplating whether or not to tell me. I wanted to kiss him. “I don’t go out,” he said. “I don’t have outing clothes.”
The next day I drove to the mosque and called him. His mother picked the call. “He’s not well,” she said. “Come to the house.”
“I don’t know the house,” I said, not sure what else to say.
His mother sounded shocked. “You don’t know the house?!” she said, her voice almost shrill. She paused. “Okay, I’ll send someone to pick you. Where are you now?”
The house was unpainted, the surroundings tainted by heaps of rubbish. Inside the house, the blue paint was peeling, the sofas old and sagging and ripped in places. I half-sat, suddenly wary of the environment, maybe a nail would rip my trouser or a smudge would rub off on me. When Amara emerged from the bedroom, however, the room brightened. I stood up and held him, forgetting myself. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You’re not looking well.”
“Oh, just a little sick,” he said. “I’ll be fine with a little rest.”
I looked him over. His eyes looked sunken, his cheeks sallower than I remembered them. He was wearing a singlet and boxer shorts, and his arms looked thin. The sprinkle of hair on his arms and chest looked shiny. We sat down. “You didn’t tell me,” I said.
“You didn’t tell me you were coming,” he said.
“You don’t sound happy to see me.”
“I didn’t say you could come to my house.”
I stared at him. “Why?” I asked. “Because you live in a…ghetto? And so what?” I was getting angry; I knew the sweat would dot my nose now. He said I had a ravishing handsomeness when I was angry. I tried to calm down. “See, your mum couldn’t even believe I didn’t know your house. Haba, Amara!”
He waved vaguely, sank into the sofa. He closed his eyes. “I’m just tired,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” I said. I began to toy with the polythene bag I had come in with. “I went to the boutique before coming here. I want us to wear the same clothes for my birthday.”
His eyes shot open, flashing red. Sometimes he scared me with his extreme mood swings, the way laughter could so easily turn into anger with him. “I didn’t approve of that!” he said. “You didn’t even ask me.”
“I can return it,” I said, cowed. “I..I just thought…”
He leaned further into his seat, stretched his hand to touch my arm. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you meant well. It’s just this headache.” He frowned, holding his head.
I sat on the arm of his chair, my hand over his shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” I said. “Have you been to the hospital?”
“Yes,” he said. He looked up at me, smiled. “I’ll be fine, Marcus. You’ll see.”
I remember this day clearly, it plays in my head in present tense.
He walks into my compound wearing the jeans I bought him, but with a different shirt. The shirt is tight on his body, an ash V-neck neatly tucked into his black jeans. He has a low cut on and a radiant smile. His eyes are still sort of droopy from being sick, but he is fine. I hug him outside; a buddy-buddy hug, brief, hands patting each other’s back. I catch a whiff of cologne on him. “You used to smell of camphor,” I tease him, and he slaps my back playfully, muttering the usual, “Asshole.”
The girls flock around him, wanting to know where he went to school. Did he really attend St John’s? Why didn’t they know him?
He sings some songs, accompanied on the keyboard by Ken-Ken. Then he says, “This is for someone special, a friend, a lover,” and he leaves them to imagine some fancy girl from maybe Our Lady’s. Miss Lara comes onstage to accompany him on the keyboard. He starts, “Give me a second I, / I need to get my story straight…” and I realise he is singing Fun’s ‘We are Young.’ I stand there watching him, surrounded by quiet girls, crying girls, stunned boys. “Tonight, we are young/So let’s set the world on fire…” he sings again and again, and his eyes fixes on mine, sad and deep and teary. I try to smile, but no, my heart is beating too fast.
Afterwards, the room is quiet. Then there is screaming, there is clapping, there is crying.
When it’s over and it’s just the both of us watching over my balcony, he says, “I told my mum I’m sleeping over,” and before I register my pleased surprise, he grabs me and kisses me. We kiss, our tongues searching and exploring, our hands fumbling. I pull off for air. “Dude, you’re high,” I laugh. He laughs, holding me and throwing his head back. Then he is on me, kissing and touching.
Tonight, I memorise every part of him. His soft hairiness. The scar on his back where his father flogged him with a belt in primary school. I touch it tenderly, and he arches his back in pleasure and, maybe, remembered pain.
I memorise the sounds also. Mine deep and low. His varying from low, to high, to mid-gasps.
And the sensations. The warmth when I was inside him, unimpeded by the latex between us, after all it was more about the things imagined between the both of us, the things felt in the heart and in the spirit. And the lightheaded-ness afterwards, both of us panting and giggling and clinging.
“Time flies fastest when you’re happy,” was what Ken-Ken said, squatting in front of me one Friday evening as I sat on a bench, my legs stretched forward. “He used to do the massaging for you.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Amara,” he said. “He took everybody by surprise. Did you know about the sickness?”
I stared at the dogonyaro tree near the handball court. “He didn’t tell me,” I said, slowly. I wanted to add that the signs had been there all along, that it was my fault for not asking the right questions, after all I knew he was reticent. But I didn’t. Instead, I said, “I miss that dude.”
“You loved him,” Ken-Ken said. “It was so obvious.”
I stared down at Ken-Ken, shocked. “What?!”
He laughed. “Don’t worry dude, as long as it’s you and Amara, we don’t mind.”
“You’re not serious,” I said. “Stop talking nonsense.”
He looked at me like I was talking nonsense. He shrugged. “Anyway,” he said. “I’ll like to find a girl I’ll love that way. It was so…strong.”
I stared at him, then stared away. There were tears standing in my eyes. I blinked them away. In the letter his mother gave to me, he had written: You brought laughter and happiness to the final part of my life. I can only hope that you find love more consuming, happiness more enlivening. I love you so much. And I had felt, as I felt now, watching the sunset and feeling the dull aching in my right leg, that he had come into my life and straightened the ruffled edges, only to ruffle them again. But I wasn’t angry, just sad and lonely and still in love.
Written by Rapum Kambili