OC bounced outside and I followed. He didn’t pretend, keep his eyes down like me, falter—no, nothing like that. His feet crossed through the green gate, while those shouldered with the responsibility of keeping us within the school premises—wearied men with rumpled shirts and bald spots—busied themselves with sports dailies and hot Bournvita. Where are we going? I asked, but either OC didn’t hear or he chose to ignore me. It happened like that sometimes: I’d speak and just the air would collect it. I kept quiet. I was grateful he was taking me along; that was enough.
I’d been sitting in class, exams over, rubbing Vaseline on my ankles, knees, elbows, smoothing it over my lips. It was May, June, thick in the heart of the rainy season. Our lives consisted of heavy sweaters and broken umbrellas, shutting louvres and jumping puddles. We married seats together to avoid lakes browned by soles. But that morning the harmattan wind came fierce, withered everything gray. We had come to school with our skin ashy, lips peeled, noses sore.
OC glowed beside me, skin shea-butter smooth. My senses hummed with efficiency: his smile curved and perfect; his smell the clean green of a medicated soap—Dettol, Delta; his voice broken as if inside his throat was a battle, speech and silence slugging it out, so that words came out lumped together then metered in dazzling freedom. When he made to grab my arm, I jerked it away because even then I knew to clobber down desire.
He tugged at my cheek, four fingers, put me at ease. I’d always needed a little convincing, and already he knew that. We were . . . what? Thirteen, fourteen? But OC was years past. What he’d done we listened to with ears eyes mouths wide open. With his five older brothers he partied, drank ogogoro, smoked igbo. How is it when someone is high? we asked, and he said: You know your own life inside your body, everything else outside. He explained that the vagina looked like a tear, the flesh inside pushing itself out. No be front e dey, he said. He grabbed his crotch. Na like under, na why you fit fuck from back. He bounced classes because what was the point, chyked no girl from school because what did they know? That’s what he said. He’d squeeze his face as if something smelled, look at them, say, This one toto no fit sweet. She no go sabi wash.
When he gave me a second chance, took my arm, joy rushed through me like a toilet flushed. The two of us squeezed through walls of desks, dodged balled papers and jets of spit, our uniforms brushing elbows and ears, and next thing we were outside.
Where these guys dey? he said. His eyes scanned left to right. The fog hung still, kept everywhere a secret, swallowed every sound. Ahead of us, a keke wallah stood apart from where others like him sat outside Iya Muri’s shop. Their kekes stood precariously on three wheels, lined up yellow and battered. He crossed the road over to meet us, and with lips chapped white, asked where we were headed.
Heaven, OC said.
Heaven, OC said.
The wallah turned and OC laughed, slapped my hand. I laughed, too. Did it matter that I didn’t know what was funny? The man saw us for who we were, allowed us our freedom.
OC threw his arm across my shoulder, led me forward. He was a little shorter, so I angled toward him. He threw his elbow around my neck. Something that small was all it took back then for me to be content. I wanted to say something, but inside my head was just air. Men selling puff-puff clinked the glass boxes at their feet with two-tined forks. I asked if he wanted some. Off his hand went from over my shoulder. He shook his head and said, Hmmhmm. I remained angled toward him, shortened myself, willing his hand back. He went ahead of me then, hummed a tune to himself. Like that, the moment was lost.
He stopped at the junction where three roads led away from us. At our feet was an ebo. Nothing fancy—the gods here were humble. It was a round red clay dish, inside it two dirtied eko, palm oil dribbled over them.
Choose, OC said.
I stood, debating, wanting not to be wrong. Three ways branched different, augured separate destinies. I did not know which one he wanted. Anxiety rose high in my chest like a balloon. OC was impatient, turned left. I breathed out and followed behind.
The road sloped down, making seeing, walking, everything easy. No need to pay attention. Cars zoomed past, and with no sidewalk we were confined to a narrow berm skirted by a deep wide gutter. It held evidence of the previous day’s rain and the people’s affinity for pure water sachets and Coke. OC slowed his pace, and maybe I let myself bump into him. He said nothing, his attention fixed on some boys from school who blocked the road. We saw that they barred a Fulani man in a weather-beaten babanriga, soft and billowy in the wind, from passing. His ashy knuckles gripped a wheelbarrow of pirated CDs. OC quickly joined ranks with the boys as they tore through the man’s wares, tossed CDs up and let them clatter down. I watched it all from behind. You get 2face Grass 2 Grace? they said. You get Faze Independent? You get Styl-Plus Expressions? The mallam pushed his wheelbarrow through them and I kicked it as he steered past me, said, Answer us, smelly aboki. Everyone laughed and, you know, everything turned easy. Walking, breathing, laughing, talking. I was a part of the group.
We’d been classmates for three years and OC only spoke to me directly for the first time that morning. After I’d let him dub from the chip—a long sheet folded into my maths set—that I took into the exam hall, he looked me in the eyes, the two of us outside, and said, You just transfer here?
Honestly, everywhere went hush. Only the buzzing inside my ears was what I could hear. I didn’t know how to explain so I just smiled, shook my head. How could I say I knew all about him: full name, fuzzy birthmark just below the left elbow, family history, pattern on favorite socks?
Since JS1? he said. His forehead curved toward his hairline, his dimple deep like a defect.
My voice was coming back. Yes, I said.
His surprise was genuine. I didn’t even think to hold it against him; that he was talking to me was enough. And after he tapped my back, said, Nice one, nice one, e make sense, and after a pause, added, Thank you, we were friends.
Whatever it was I felt, I didn’t have the words for it. It was visceral, tugged under my chest bone. The big boys, their white shirts immaculate, handkerchiefs hanging down from back pockets of pressed green pants, they arrived first day of school banded together. They strolled to the tuck shops and perched between vacant window frames sipping bottles of Coke, the prettiest girls’ heads on their shoulders. The camaraderie was easy, automatic. The others, dead guys, surrendered to an allegiance birthed of being left out, played four-a-side behind the classrooms with soft felele balls, chased after girls, dragged down their skirts, kicked hand mirrors under their desks. There existed among the boys a language I couldn’t speak, a template I was missing, a brotherhood I found myself unable to penetrate. I’d learned to iron flat the collars on my shirts like they all did, put creases on my pants. But the girls regarded me with the haughty tenderness of older sisters. I’d speak and you’d think from their faces that their pet dog had spoken.
Onile was where we ended up, the inside a jungle. Boys stood, their backs blocking the doorway. A smell, heavy with heat, as if with something buried, danced out and hugged us like an old friend. Through thickets of limbs all the boys disappeared. Onile was home to them—basics like gaining access were long mastered. I stood outside, alone, my victory history. You could hear the whoops of the winners, the grave voices of the defeated, the jests of the crowd. The blaming of gamepads, the raking, the lukewarm demands for a rematch. Inside that hot room, castes dissolved. No one cared whose shirt was whiter, whose girlfriend was finer, whose hair was wavier; all that mattered was whose team had scored more goals at the end of two four-minute halves. My dreams were made of sitting with my feet planted, shoulders hunched, eyes on the screen, hands gripping the pad, fingers furiously tapping its plastic buttons, moving the players in their jerseys, dribbling the ball, scoring the opponent. But in my waking hours I found the longing unmatched by will. I didn’t know how to start.
I didn’t see OC until he was in front of me, until he said, Why didn’t you enter?
What was there to say? I just looked.
Behind him, as if spat out by the room, slipping out easily between skins, was a random guy. He wore a dusty yellow polo, crazy jeans sagging below his ass. His forehead was slapped in, flat, and when he said, Hafa, I saw the wide gap like a canal between his two front teeth.
Hey, I said.
Tolu, this is Babalola, OC said. He turned to his friend. Babalola, na my classmate Tolu be this.
Fresh boy, Babalola said, looking me up and down. I sidled closer to OC.
They’ve finished picking set inside, OC said. They just started tournament so we can’t join.
Shey, you see how that boy cheat, beat me, Babalola said. And Arsenal wey I choose useless. Plus the pad no come good sef.
Guy, shut up. Dem deck you, neat. No dey give nonsense excuse, OC said.
I swear, you no see? Na the pad.
Back at the junction, OC said middle was the way, so middle Babalola and I followed. OC rubbed his little paunch, said, Hunger dey web me, and it was clear we were going to Endurance, christened for the journey it took to get there. Not that there weren’t places nearer to get food. Beans Burger Joint was beside Onile, and Downtown was tucked inside the warren that was opposite school. But everyone swore the food was best at Endurance, so Endurance everyone walked to. I saw no difference, but guess who beat his chest, testified to the greatness of their rice and beans? Maybe that was why I started the gist that at the bottom of the big boiling pot of soup the Endurance woman stayed stirring, where all the beef and ponmo and saki came from, was her big toe. It was one of those things you didn’t have to consider—you just said it. Everyone could see it missing: four toes and a bandaged nubbin capping a discolored foot. Whoever it was I told mentioned it to someone, who told it to someone else, and like that, the story spread, coming back to me, becoming truth.
We trekked, my throat sere and breath thin. Babalola and OC walked before me, the fog clouding the backs of their heads. Cars shined their full lights as they drove past. When I had lagged behind too far, OC waited until I caught up.
We arrived and nodded stiffly, said quiet greetings to the woman as we marched past her. The smell from the pot of stew glued to the roof of my mouth.
Welcome, welcome, she said, slapping her scarfed head.
Past beaded curtains, we entered the canteen. Inside was a white man—not Indian, not Lebanese, a white man—canceling a plate of fufu. His technique was mad, efficient: one elbow balanced on the bench, shoulders leaned forward, five fingers dug into the fufu, a morsel torn, rolled into a ball, dipped inside his ogbono, and lifted into his mouth. We watched his Adam’s apple bob.
We arranged ourselves around the other bench in the room. The fan whined slow and useless by the corner. Babalola sat opposite me and quickly grabbed a straw hand fan from the bench. OC, beside me, took the second fan and handed it to me. I was still saying thank you when I caught Babalola looking at me like maybe I had done something wrong.
Something fought inside a Ghana-must-go bag against the wall, a rat or a lizard. The salesgirl took our orders while we stared at the white man. Who had seen one eating okele before? We chuckled when he licked his fingers, brown and sticky with ogbono, and laughed when, while leaving, together with his fufu wrappers and pure water sachets, he dumped his bowl inside the bin. I went and picked it out, dropped it on the table for the salesgirl to fetch.
Sorry-o, houseboy, Babalola said.
I settled into my seat. I said, He didn’t know na. Maybe that is how they use to do in America.
You don’t use to watch American film? Where did you see that they carry plate and throw it away after the food has finished? If you want to do houseboy for oyinbo, do houseboy. Stop talking rubbish, Babalola said. He looked at OC. A laugh hacked out his throat.
Sorry, I said. I was ready to return the bowl into the bin, but it had already been fetched. And when Babalola laughed that laugh again, said, Houseboy, I searched the room looking for how to earn forgiveness. OC’s eyes met mine. I leaned forward to finger dust off my sandals.
Behave, OC told him. Maybe the man is from Germany, or even Holland, and that is how they use to do there.
Here’s what happened: I had always been a fast eater, and quickly lemmed my rice and beans after it was served. I chased buzzing flies with swats. OC chomped down hard on his beans burger, and beans from between the bread fell. He parted his legs to avoid his pants staining, and his left thigh pressed against mine. The heat from his body seeped through me. Even after the beans had stuck to the floor, forgotten, he left his thigh to rest against me. I didn’t have to think about it—it was easy for me to slip my palm, rub inside his thigh. The fabric of his pants between our skins felt like nothing. Nobody said anything. His flesh was soft, tender. I rubbed, rubbed, moved my hand toward his crotch, rubbed. He shut his thighs then, massaged the inside of the right against the back of my palm. Everywhere was peace. His breath was loud and long when I reached his crotch, its warmth welcoming. He breathed out and I felt him harden against me. I didn’t know where from I fetched the courage. There was fear, yes, but that didn’t come until later. My chest was a riot and I know I was holding my breath. What I felt then was that I had gotten all I wanted. Like this was it.
It was after his muscles tensed, after my hand became a part of me again, that the fear came. He took his beans burger from his mouth, set it on the table. He straightened his back, shifted in his seat. He repaired his pants. He took his palm, rested it on the back of mine. All the noise came rushing back. Every whisper, every breath. I heard the woman’s big cauldron of soup bubble, heard the slush of the dishwater. I heard Babalola chew, heard the useless whine of the fan. I heard OC’s weighty sigh. He took my hand and set it on my own thigh.
We walked back to school beside collecting traffic. The cars eased into potholes, careful like surgery. Puddles rippled to the shoulder. Beef was stuck between my incisors and I worried it with my tongue. The sun blurred through a floating fog. We bumped against the heavy bags of schoolchildren in grimed socks where they stood outside a video rental shop watching wrestling on the TVs. When a bus stopped, Babalola, who walked before me, asked the conductor, Holland? He looked back at OC and me and laughed.
Beside the video rental, a woman roasted boli. She touched two fingers to her tongue, turned one plantain by its head, its back yellow and black. She fanned orange flames with newspaper and smoke curled up, married the fog. Babalola stopped, faced the woman. He fingered one boli.
Guy, wetin? OC said.
Babalola didn’t know what was wrong. He frowned, tilted his head, asked, What?
Why you dey waste time? You get money? OC said.
What did I do? Babalola said.
No dey waste my time, OC said. Tolu, let’s go.
I stood there between them. I didn’t know what to say. I worked at the beef between my teeth and, finally, it slid out. Babalola’s chest rose, fell. Veins bobbed above his ear. The truth is I was just fine, happy, even, to see Babalola disgraced. He looked at me, chewed his teeth. I saw his hand go up, didn’t understand even after it crashed against my face. Everyone just stood—the people watching wrestling, the boli woman. Everyone was looking at me. Then the earth shook as OC dashed past me. But Babalola was gone. When OC returned, he said, And you too, you just stood there.
Again at the junction, and this time, up a dirt road hemmed by bushes, and then the school fence, where OC turned. We’re not going to school? I asked. OC said nothing. He climbed up a path that roped through weeds. They tugged at the dusty hems of his pants. His shirt gummed to his back, broad and strong. I was tired. The dust had balanced on my eyelashes, caked my lips, blocked my nose. Midden smoldered gently inside the bushes, plastic bottles and black nylons twisting and bubbling in muffled agony. To breathe was to tear through tangled paths. Posters of pastors and their revivals, of politicians rolling up sleeves, greeted us. Beside these magisterial faces were the words This land is not for sale beware of 419, scrawled in charcoal. I tapped OC and he shrugged me off. One last place, he said.
We stopped before this tall black gate, the word Adaranijo set at its top in big gold font. The word made a semicircle, the third a its apex. I wasn’t sure what the word meant. All I knew was that the first half, Adara, translated to we’re good or we’re precious or something like that.
We stepped through the gate and everywhere was clean. You could run your tongue along the cement floor and it’d come up cold, sweet. An orange tree grew by the corner, the air citrus with its smell. Not one leaf dry or green lay beneath it. An old woman sat on an apoti on a porch held up by a red column, her milky white hair cropped low. OC bowed, said, Mama, good evening. Little green red blue orange bulbs like Christmas lights tinkled above her, laced the eaves of the house. When she flipped the front half of the tray of beans balanced in her hands, the beans sailed up and fell back down in a harmonious shower like a congregation’s claps. Husks from the beans ringed her. I thought her his grandmother, greeted her with a flourished reverence, prostrated.
My sons, she said. She huffed into the tray and husks blew to a corner. With the back of her hand she swept them all to the floor. Enter, enter. E early, and Comfort and some of her sisters don comot. But Mary dey. And Rose, Mama said.
With soundless steps, my hands folded against my chest, I walked behind OC. I felt like a shaken bottle of Coke needing to pop. I didn’t know what it meant, him bringing me to his house. But for sure it meant something, boded high stakes. The doorway opened to a corridor with six doors on either side of it. At the end of the corridor, through another door that led to the backyard, we could see girls sitting, clapping, jumping, throwing their heads back and laughing. In thin spaghetti and tube tops, miniskirts and bum shorts, they slapped each other’s shoulders, plaited one another’s hair. Maybe one of them saw us, nudged another who nudged another, because quickly the settled shoulders stiffened, smiling faces aged. When one girl in yellow looked back and saw OC, recognition softened her features and she smiled. She stood, walked into the hallway. OC crossed the threshold and, when he looked back and saw my hesitation, he took my arm, pulled me after him.
From inside the first room we walked past, wild grunting debouched. We saw through the screen door someone’s yansh thrusting into a body beneath. I thought it was OC’s brother, but didn’t understand where from the girls came. Maybe they were throwing a party, I thought.
My customer, the girl said. Her smile was knowing. She raised one eyebrow and the corner of her upper lip, too. She was black like burnt wood, wore her hair braided close to her head, four chunky braids punctuated by her black-black scalp. I was scandalized by the translucent yellow tube top, her black nipples beneath it. I looked away.
We followed her to a room. The screen yawned open to collect OC first, then me, and slapped shut behind us. A fan rolled lonely over our heads. Colorful tops hung down from a cloth hanger nailed to the wall. I looked to OC, failing to understand. The air was pungent with the smell of hair cream. A mattress dressed in a checked blue and white sheet sat on the floor. Beside it stood a stool holding an open jar of Vaseline and silver wraps of condoms. I knew where we were, but I didn’t know why.
Na this my friend you go service, OC said.
Is he a bolo? He cannot talk? she said.
OC laughed. He looked at me, contemplating. My legs were cement. I wiggled my toes. No be bolo, he said. He just never fuck before.
I come to my defense. I’ve kissed before, I said. Me and my cousin. We were going to do it but my aunty came back.
Her laugh was heavy, heaved her shoulders. I thought I deserved it, had heard myself, realized my novice. Now I see it was needless, her way of retaining a power that was already hers. Her top went off, her skirt and panties. She stood naked before us. She was older by two, maybe three years. Her breasts were small; a needle-thin keloid, moist with sweat, underlined the left one. Off your cloth, she said.
I removed my sandals, peeled off my socks one by one. The floor was ice against my feet. OC stood there, watching. I waited for him to say, You know what, let’s be going, but nothing like that came. His eyes were empty, like get on with it. I unbuttoned my shirt, let it fall on the floor beside me. I removed my belt and laid it on top of my shirt. My pants fell and I kicked them off, dragged my boxers down to my knees. He stood there, looking. My penis lay floppy and shy. She cupped it, together with my balls, squeezed slightly. I shivered. Her palms were wet and warm.
It’s not standing, she said. Are you afraid?
I didn’t answer because nothing could come out. I was nothing but an empty sack—swing me this way and watch me sway. She led me to the mattress, her palm still wrapped around my penis. She sat at its edge, parted her legs open, said, Kneel down. I felt thirsty, swallowed my spit. She took a wrap of condom from the table, tore it open with her teeth. My penis stayed soft. Power went off then and the fan sighed into silence. The heat quickly wrapped around me like a second skin. A firefly landed on OC’s fly, went off and on and off and on again. But it was only the sun, a streak of it falling through the ceiling, the fan’s blades slicing it as they slowed.
This your friend is just looking at you, she told OC. He want you to help him?
She meant it as a joke, teasing. But OC walked to the mattress. He was beside me, thumbing my cheek. I thought, Okay, finally, limp with relief. My clothes were there, waiting. But instead he was kneeling beside me. He unbuckled his belt. My chest was climbing out of my nose. He dragged down his green pants. Inside my thighs hummed. Everywhere was a garden of black hair, smooth, silky. He dug his hand into the jar of Vaseline. He gave my penis a cold tug, then another. The back of my tongue tasted sweet. He slipped the condom on before I knew I had stiffened, guided me into her warmth. I thrust like I knew to do, my eyes lost in the garden.
Outside, the woman had evaporated—her apoti, the husks, everything gone. It could all have been my imagination. OC and the girl’s voice, from inside the room, carried to the porch where I stood. The fog had drifted away, the harmattan in the past. Everything was clear. There were the gray clouds like papier-mâché tangling the treetops. A red streak singed the horizon. All those boys in their white shirts—underneath it, inside, we were all the same. The door snapped shut, and soon OC was standing beside me. He took my hands, held them in his. All the lights that came on whenever he touched me came on. All the birds sang. The air was clean through my nose. “Let’s be going to school,” he said.
Adeniyi Ademoroti is a Nigerian writer who was born and lives in Lagos. His writing has appeared in Hobart, AGNI, and Per Contra. (updated 4/2020)