This piece of fiction, penned by acclaimed writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was originally published on The New Yorker. A friend of mine read it and passed me the link with a scoffing “The main character, that Okenwa person, as a kid – he was so gay.” So, I read it. But I quite disagreed with my friend. In my opinion, the choices Okenwa made as a child may or may not have been driven by an unrecognized homosexuality.
But hey, if you haven’t already read it, here it is. Read and let us know your thoughts.
Twice a month, like a dutiful son, I visited my parents in Enugu, in their small over-furnished flat that grew dark in the afternoon. Retirement had changed them, shrunk them. They were in their late eighties, both small and mahogany-skinned, with a tendency to stoop. They seemed to look more and more alike, as though all the years together had made their features blend and bleed into one another. They even smelled alike—a menthol scent, from the green vial of Vicks VapoRub they passed to each other, carefully rubbing a little in their nostrils and on aching joints. When I arrived, I would find them either sitting out on the veranda overlooking the road or sunk into the living-room sofa, watching Animal Planet. They had a new, simple sense of wonder. They marveled at the wiliness of wolves, laughed at the cleverness of apes, and asked each other, “Ifukwa? Did you see that?”
They had, too, a new, baffling patience for incredible stories. Once, my mother told me that a sick neighbor in Abba, our ancestral home town, had vomited a grasshopper—a living, writhing insect, which, she said, was proof that wicked relatives had poisoned him. “Somebody texted us a picture of the grasshopper,” my father said. They always supported each other’s stories. When my father told me that Chief Okeke’s young house help had mysteriously died, and the story around town was that the chief had killed the teen-ager and used her liver for moneymaking rituals, my mother added, “They say he used the heart, too.”
Fifteen years earlier, my parents would have scoffed at these stories. My mother, a professor of political science, would have said “Nonsense” in her crisp manner, and my father, a professor of education, would merely have snorted, the stories not worth the effort of speech. It puzzled me that they had shed those old selves, and become the kind of Nigerians who told anecdotes about diabetes cured by drinking holy water.
Still, I humored them and half listened to their stories. It was a kind of innocence, this new childhood of old age. They had grown slower with the passing years, and their faces lit up at the sight of me and even their prying questions—“When will you give us a grandchild? When will you bring a girl to introduce to us?”—no longer made me as tense as before. Each time I drove away, on Sunday afternoons after a big lunch of rice and stew, I wondered if it would be the last time I would see them both alive, if before my next visit I would receive a phone call from one of them telling me to come right away. The thought filled me with a nostalgic sadness that stayed with me until I got back to Port Harcourt. And yet I knew that if I had a family, if I could complain about rising school fees as the children of their friends did, then I would not visit them so regularly. I would have nothing for which to make amends.
During a visit in November, my parents talked about the increase in armed robberies all over the east. Thieves, too, had to prepare for Christmas. My mother told me how a vigilante mob in Onitsha had caught some thieves, beaten them, and torn off their clothes—how old tires had been thrown over their heads like necklaces, amid shouts for petrol and matches, before the police arrived, fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd, and took the robbers away. My mother paused, and I waited for a supernatural detail that would embellish the story. Perhaps, just as they arrived at the police station, the thieves had turned into vultures and flown away.
“Do you know,” she continued, “one of the armed robbers, in fact the ring leader, was Raphael? He was our houseboy years ago. I don’t think you’ll remember him.”
I stared at my mother. “Raphael?”
“It’s not surprising he ended like this,” my father said. “He didn’t start well.”
My mind had been submerged in the foggy lull of my parents’ storytelling, and I struggled now with the sharp awakening of memory.
My mother said again, “You probably won’t remember him. There were so many of those houseboys. You were young.”
But I remembered. Of course I remembered Raphael.
Nothing changed when Raphael came to live with us, not at first. He seemed like all the others, an ordinary-looking teen from a nearby village. The houseboy before him, Hyginus, had been sent home for insulting my mother. Before Hyginus was John, whom I remembered because he had not been sent away; he had broken a plate while washing it and, fearing my mother’s anger, had packed his things and fled before she came home from work. All the houseboys treated me with the contemptuous care of people who disliked my mother. Please come and eat your food, they would say—I don’t want trouble from Madam. My mother regularly shouted at them, for being slow, stupid, hard of hearing; even her bell-ringing, her thumb resting on the red knob, the shrillness searing through the house, sounded like shouting. How difficult could it be to remember to fry the eggs differently, my father’s plain and hers with onions, or to put the Russian dolls back on the same shelf after dusting, or to iron my school uniform properly?
I was my parents’ only child, born late in their lives. “When I got pregnant, I thought it was menopause,” my mother told me once. I must have been around eight years old, and did not know what “menopause” meant. She had a brusque manner, as did my father; they had about them the air of people who were quick to dismiss others. They had met at the University of Ibadan, married against their families’ wishes—his thought her too educated, while hers preferred a wealthier suitor—and spent their lives in an intense and intimate competition over who published more, who won at badminton, who had the last word in an argument. They often read aloud to each other in the evening, from journals or newspapers, standing rather than sitting in the parlor, sometimes pacing, as though about to spring at a new idea. They drank Mateus rosé—that dark, shapely bottle always seemed to be resting on a table near them—and left behind glasses faint with reddish dregs. Throughout my childhood, I worried about not being quick enough to respond when they spoke to me.
I worried, too, that I did not care for books. Reading did not do to me what it did to my parents, agitating them or turning them into vague beings lost to time, who did not quite notice when I came and went. I read books only enough to satisfy them, and to answer the kinds of unexpected questions that might come in the middle of a meal—What did I think of Pip? Had Ezeulu done the right thing? I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality. Going to the staff club with them was an ordeal: I found badminton boring, the shuttlecock seemed to me an unfinished thing, as though whoever had invented the game had stopped halfway.
What I loved was kung fu. I watched “Enter the Dragon” so often that I knew all the lines, and I longed to wake up and be Bruce Lee. I would kick and strike at the air, at imaginary enemies who had killed my imaginary family. I would pull my mattress onto the floor, stand on two thick books—usually hardcover copies of “Black Beauty” and “The Water-Babies”—and leap onto the mattress, screaming “Haaa!” like Bruce Lee. One day, in the middle of my practice, I looked up to see Raphael standing in the doorway, watching me. I expected a mild reprimand. He had made my bed that morning, and now the room was in disarray. Instead, he smiled, touched his chest, and brought his finger to his tongue, as though tasting his own blood. My favorite scene. I stared at Raphael with the pure thrill of unexpected pleasure. “I watched the film in the other house where I worked,” he said. “Look at this.”
He pivoted slightly, leaped up, and kicked, his leg straight and high, his body all taut grace. I was twelve years old and had, until then, never felt that I recognized myself in another person.
Raphael and I practiced in the back yard, leaping from the raised concrete soakaway and landing on the grass. Raphael told me to suck in my belly, to keep my legs straight and my fingers precise. He taught me to breathe. My previous attempts, in the enclosure of my room, had felt stillborn. Now, outside with Raphael, slicing the air with my arms, I could feel my practice become real, with soft grass below and high sky above, and the endless space mine to conquer. This was truly happening. I could become a black belt one day. Outside the kitchen door was a high open veranda, and I wanted to jump off its flight of six steps and try a flying kick. “No,” Raphael said. “That veranda is too high.”
On weekends, if my parents went to the staff club without me, Raphael and I watched Bruce Lee videotapes, Raphael saying, “Watch it! Watch it!” Through his eyes, I saw the films anew; some moves that I had thought merely competent became luminous when he said, “Watch it!” Raphael knew what really mattered; his wisdom lay easy on his skin. He rewound the sections in which Bruce Lee used a nunchaku, and watched unblinking, gasping at the clean aggression of the metal-and-wood weapon.
“I wish I had a nunchaku,” I said.
“It is very difficult to use,” Raphael said firmly, and I felt almost sorry to have wanted one.
Not long afterward, I came back from school one day and Raphael said, “See.” From the cupboard he took out a nunchaku—two pieces of wood, cut from an old cleaning mop and sanded down, held together by a spiral of metal springs. He must have been making it for at least a week, in his free time after his housework. He showed me how to use it. His moves seemed clumsy, nothing like Bruce Lee’s. I took the nunchaku and tried to swing it, but only ended up with a thump on my chest. Raphael laughed. “You think you can just start like that?” he said. “You have to practice for a long time.”
At school, I sat through classes thinking of the wood’s smoothness in the palm of my hand. It was after school, with Raphael, that my real life began. My parents did not notice how close Raphael and I had become. All they saw was that I now happened to play outside, and Raphael was, of course, part of the landscape of outside: weeding the garden, washing pots at the water tank. One afternoon, Raphael finished plucking a chicken and interrupted my solo practice on the lawn. “Fight!” he said. A duel began, his hands bare, mine swinging my new weapon. He pushed me hard. One end hit him on the arm, and he looked surprised and then impressed, as if he had not thought me capable. I swung again and again. He feinted and dodged and kicked. Time collapsed. In the end, we were both panting and laughing. I remember, even now, very clearly, the smallness of his shorts that afternoon, and how the muscles ran wiry like ropes down his legs.
On weekends, I ate lunch with my parents. I always ate quickly, dreaming of escape and hoping that they would not turn to me with one of their test questions. At one lunch, Raphael served white disks of boiled yam on a bed of greens, and then cubed pawpaw and pineapple.
“The vegetable was too tough,” my mother said. “Are we grass-eating goats?” She glanced at him. “What is wrong with your eyes?”
It took me a moment to realize that this was not her usual figurative lambasting—“What is that big object blocking your nose?” she would ask, if she noticed a smell in the kitchen that he had not. The whites of Raphael’s eyes were red. A painful, unnatural red. He mumbled that an insect had flown into them.
“It looks like Apollo,” my father said.
My mother pushed back her chair and examined Raphael’s face. “Ah-ah! Yes, it is. Go to your room and stay there.”
Raphael hesitated, as though wanting to finish clearing the plates.
“Go!” my father said. “Before you infect us all with this thing.”
Raphael, looking confused, edged away from the table. My mother called him back. “Have you had this before?”
“It’s an infection of your conjunctiva, the thing that covers your eyes,” she said. In the midst of her Igbo words, “conjunctiva” sounded sharp and dangerous. “We’re going to buy medicine for you. Use it three times a day and stay in your room. Don’t cook until it clears.” Turning to me, she said, “Okenwa, make sure you don’t go near him. Apollo is very infectious.” From her perfunctory tone, it was clear that she did not imagine I would have any reason to go near Raphael.
Later, my parents drove to the pharmacy in town and came back with a bottle of eye drops, which my father took to Raphael’s room in the boys’ quarters, at the back of the house, with the air of someone going reluctantly into battle. That evening, I went with my parents to Obollo Road to buy akara for dinner; when we returned, it felt strange not to have Raphael open the front door, not to find him closing the living-room curtains and turning on the lights. In the quiet kitchen, our house seemed emptied of life. As soon as my parents were immersed in themselves, I went out to the boys’ quarters and knocked on Raphael’s door. It was ajar. He was lying on his back, his narrow bed pushed against the wall, and turned when I came in, surprised, making as if to get up. I had never been in his room before. The exposed light bulb dangling from the ceiling cast sombre shadows.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. I came to see how you are.”
He shrugged and settled back down on the bed. “I don’t know how I got this. Don’t come close.”
But I went close.
“I had Apollo in Primary 3,” I said. “It will go quickly, don’t worry. Have you used the eye drops this evening?”
He shrugged and said nothing. The bottle of eye drops sat unopened on the table.
“You haven’t used them at all?” I asked.
He avoided looking at me. “I cannot do it.”
Raphael, who could disembowel a turkey and lift a full bag of rice, could not drip liquid medicine into his eyes. At first, I was astonished, then amused, and then moved. I looked around his room and was struck by how bare it was—the bed pushed against the wall, a spindly table, a gray metal box in the corner, which I assumed contained all that he owned.
“I will put the drops in for you,” I said. I took the bottle and twisted off the cap.
“Don’t come close,” he said again.
I was already close. I bent over him. He began a frantic blinking.
“Breathe like in kung fu,” I said.
I touched his face, gently pulled down his lower left eyelid, and dropped the liquid into his eye. The other lid I pulled more firmly, because he had shut his eyes tight.
“Ndo,” I said. “Sorry.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me, and on his face shone something wondrous. I had never felt myself the subject of admiration. It made me think of science class, of a new maize shoot growing greenly toward light. He touched my arm. I turned to go.
“I’ll come before I go to school,” I said.
In the morning, I slipped into his room, put in his eye drops, and slipped out and into my father’s car, to be dropped off at school.
By the third day, Raphael’s room felt familiar to me, welcoming, uncluttered by objects. As I put in the drops, I discovered things about him that I guarded closely: the early darkening of hair above his upper lip, the ringworm patch in the hollow between his jaw and his neck. I sat on the edge of his bed and we talked about “Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow.” We had discussed the film many times, and we said things that we had said before, but in the quiet of his room they felt like secrets. Our voices were low, almost hushed. His body’s warmth cast warmth over me.
He got up to demonstrate the snake style, and afterward, both of us laughing, he grasped my hand in his. Then he let go and moved slightly away from me.
“This Apollo has gone,” he said.
His eyes were clear. I wished he had not healed so quickly.
I dreamed of being with Raphael and Bruce Lee in an open field, practicing for a fight. When I woke up, my eyes refused to open. I pried my lids apart. My eyes burned and itched. Each time I blinked, they seemed to produce more pale ugly fluid that coated my lashes. It felt as if heated grains of sand were under my eyelids. I feared that something inside me was thawing that was not supposed to thaw.
My mother shouted at Raphael, “Why did you bring this thing to my house? Why?” It was as though by catching Apollo he had conspired to infect her son. Raphael did not respond. He never did when she shouted at him. She was standing at the top of the stairs, and Raphael was below her.
“How did he manage to give you Apollo from his room?” my father asked me.
“It wasn’t Raphael. I think I got it from somebody in my class,” I told my parents.
“Who?” I should have known my mother would ask. At that moment, my mind erased all my classmates’ names.
“Who?” she asked again.
“Chidi Obi,” I said finally, the first name that came to me. He sat in front of me and smelled like old clothes.
“Do you have a headache?” my mother asked.
My father brought me Panadol. My mother telephoned Dr. Igbokwe. My parents were brisk. They stood by my door, watching me drink a cup of Milo that my father had made. I drank quickly. I hoped that they would not drag an armchair into my room, as they did every time I was sick with malaria, when I would wake up with a bitter tongue to find one parent inches from me, silently reading a book, and I would will myself to get well quickly, to free them.
Dr. Igbokwe arrived and shined a torch in my eyes. His cologne was strong; I could smell it long after he’d gone, a heady scent close to alcohol that I imagined would worsen nausea. After he left, my parents created a patient’s altar by my bed—on a table covered with cloth, they put a bottle of orange Lucozade, a blue tin of glucose, and freshly peeled oranges on a plastic tray. They did not bring the armchair, but one of them was home throughout the week that I had Apollo. They took turns putting in my eye drops, my father more clumsily than my mother, leaving sticky liquid running down my face. They did not know how well I could put in the drops myself. Each time they raised the bottle above my face, I remembered the look in Raphael’s eyes that first evening in his room, and I felt haunted by happiness.
My parents closed the curtains and kept my room dark. I was sick of lying down. I wanted to see Raphael, but my mother had banned him from my room, as though he could somehow make my condition worse. I wished that he would come and see me. Surely he could pretend to be putting away a bedsheet, or bringing a bucket to the bathroom. Why didn’t he come? He had not even said sorry to me. I strained to hear his voice, but the kitchen was too far away and his voice, when he spoke to my mother, was too low.
Once, after going to the toilet, I tried to sneak downstairs to the kitchen, but my father loomed at the bottom of the stairs.
“Kedu?” He asked. “Are you all right?”
“I want water,” I said.
“I’ll bring it. Go and lie down.”
Finally, my parents went out together. I had been sleeping, and woke up to sense the emptiness of the house. I hurried downstairs and to the kitchen. It, too, was empty. I wondered if Raphael was in the boys’ quarters; he was not supposed to go to his room during the day, but maybe he had, now that my parents were away. I went out to the open veranda. I heard Raphael’s voice before I saw him, standing near the tank, digging his foot into the sand, talking to Josephine, Professor Nwosu’s house help. Professor Nwosu sometimes sent eggs from his poultry, and never let my parents pay for them. Had Josephine brought eggs? She was tall and plump; now she had the air of someone who had already said goodbye but was lingering. With her, Raphael was different—the slouch in his back, the agitated foot. He was shy. She was talking to him with a kind of playful power, as though she could see through him to things that amused her. My reason blurred.
“Raphael!” I called out.
He turned. “Oh. Okenwa. Are you allowed to come downstairs?”
He spoke as though I were a child, as though we had not sat together in his dim room.
“I’m hungry! Where is my food?” It was the first thing that came to me, but in trying to be imperious I sounded shrill.
Josephine’s face puckered, as though she were about to break into slow, long laughter. Raphael said something that I could not hear, but it had the sound of betrayal. My parents drove up just then, and suddenly Josephine and Raphael were roused. Josephine hurried out of the compound, and Raphael came toward me. His shirt was stained in the front, orangish, like palm oil from soup. Had my parents not come back, he would have stayed there mumbling by the tank; my presence had changed nothing.
“What do you want to eat?” he asked.
“You didn’t come to see me.”
“You know Madam said I should not go near you.”
Why was he making it all so common and ordinary? I, too, had been asked not to go to his room, and yet I had gone, I had put in his eye drops every day.
“After all, you gave me the Apollo,” I said.
“Sorry.” He said it dully, his mind elsewhere.
I could hear my mother’s voice. I was angry that they were back. My time with Raphael was shortened, and I felt the sensation of a widening crack.
“Do you want plantain or yam?” Raphael asked, not to placate me but as if nothing serious had happened. My eyes were burning again. He came up the steps. I moved away from him, too quickly, to the edge of the veranda, and my rubber slippers shifted under me. Unbalanced, I fell. I landed on my hands and knees, startled by the force of my own weight, and I felt the tears coming before I could stop them. Stiff with humiliation, I did not move.
My parents appeared.
“Okenwa!” my father shouted.
I stayed on the ground, a stone sunk in my knee. “Raphael pushed me.”
“What?” My parents said it at the same time, in English. “What?”
There was time. Before my father turned to Raphael, and before my mother lunged at him as if to slap him, and before she told him to go pack his things and leave immediately, there was time. I could have spoken. I could have cut into that silence. I could have said that it was an accident. I could have taken back my lie and left my parents merely to wonder. ♦