I’M A MAN in love with a man.
WHENEVER I PUT a call through to my mother or pay her a visit at our family house in Umuahia, she makes it her duty to remind me that I’m not getting any younger. “When will you get married and give me grandchildren?” she’d ask.
Usually, I’d smile and give her the answer I have always given her: “In due time.”
Most times, my answer shuts her up; but sometimes, it provokes her into speaking. “Tah! Is it when I’m dead and lying in my grave that you will do the needful?”
“Mama, you are not dying anytime soon.”
“How do you know? Are you God?”
“Mama, you will live long. I know.”
“Like you knew before we lost your father, gbo?”
This time, her words would shut me up. And her too. My father’s demise is a scar that bleeds whenever we prick it. We’d sit facing each other in silence, the cloud of grief hanging low over us.
BEFORE I MET Okezie—the man whose name now rests on my tongue like a prayer; the man whose skin I caress during and after lovemaking—my past lover said there was no way he could “do without a woman.”
“We need to stop this thing we are doing, end this,” he’d told me.
I, blinded by the memories of us I held close to my heart, said, “Don’t you love me anymore?”
“You don’t get it, do you? We can’t be together. Not in this way and not in this country.”
“Then let us leave,” I implored. “Let’s go far away from here.”
He shook his head, a mix of pity and irritation in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this any longer.” Then he left and didn’t return.
His departure shoved me into a mental cesspool: I quit my job at the advertising agency, stayed indoors, ignored calls, ate little and drank too much, cried a lot and slept like death.
It was Okezie’s entrance into my life that helped pull me out of that dark, dank place.
We met at a poetry reading through a mutual friend. This friend, Bose, had invited me to the reading, saying I should come read some of my “fantastic poems and stop hiding.” I obliged because I was tired of hiding from heartbreak and wanted a change of scenery, wanted to swap the enclosed darkness of my room that threatened to clog my throat for something airy and colorful.
“You need to get over that your bobo,” Bose said. “I had always known he was no good.”
Bose is a lesbian, divorced, and a mother to three children, two girls and a boy. Her kids live with their father in Johannesburg. She and her kids, Bose told me, speak on the phone twice a day, in the morning and at night. She told me she misses them, wants them by her side, but she knows her ex-husband would never allow that. Once, he told her the kids couldn’t come to Nigeria to see her lest she corrupt them. Bose laughed when she told me this.
“Me, corrupt my kids? That man hasn’t changed one bit.”
Bose’s parents disowned her after her infidelity came to light.
“You know what I found out was the deal-breaker? Who I chose to cheat on my husband with,” Bose said. “It wouldn’t have mattered so much to my parents and in-laws if I had been caught in bed with another man. Everyone’s thought was how in God’s name did she dare to soil her matrimonial bed with a woman like herself, a woman?”
Bose’s parents said, to them she had ceased to exist, and when she tried reaching out to her siblings, they too turned their back on her. “I told myself, fuck it, I’ll live my life. Everyone should live theirs.”
Then Bose said to me: “Never go into anything you would hate to live in. Especially marriage.”
At the reading, Bose introduced me to Adekunle, Gabriella and Okezie. Adekunle, a prominent author of three poetry collections, came with his wife and his oldest child, a ten-year-old girl. Gabriella, a tall, slender lady in her early twenties, spotting a stylish crew cut, told me she wrote both poetry and fiction, had completed a novel, and was in search of an agent. When Bose made the introduction between Okezie and me, there was a smirk—and something else I couldn’t place—a glittering in his eyes. It seemed by merely staring at me he could fish out the thoughts swimming in my mind.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” he replied.
“Okezie is no poet,” Bose said to me. “He used to be one before the corporate world came and whisked him away.”
“What can I say?” said Okezie. “At least I don’t starve like the whole lot of you.”
We all fell into a fit of laughter.
“You should use your gift, man,” Adekunle said. “I mean, why have it and not to use it?”
“Oh, please, you writers are just hopeless idealists,” Okezie said.
I asked, “Don’t you ever feel…empty?”
Okezie turned to stare at me. “Empty?”
“You know, as in not writing, not doing what you love?”
Bose scoffed. “Okezie is no lover of writing.”
“Well…” Okezie started, and then broke off. Then he cleared his throat and said, “You’ve got to be alive to write, haven’t you?”
“I agree,” Gabriella said. “Though I love what I do, I know how important staying alive is. And as we all know, a good writer does not a hungry writer make.”
“Absolutely!” Okezie nodded. “Absolutely.”
All through the reading, I felt Okezie’s eyes on me, boring holes through the back of my head. Once, I turned and caught him staring at me. He didn’t look away. Instead, he winked. I looked away. On the stage, a bespectacled middle-aged woman was rendering a spoken word performance. The woman’s voice was firm and clear. Her arms moved in sync with her words, about womanhood, violence, blood. Her performance was beautiful and flawless.
Bose was seated beside me. She nudged me with her shoulder. “How do you like everything so far?”
“I love it,” I said.
“Prepare yourself then,” she said. “You’re going on stage after the next performer.”
“Shush.” She panned an apologetic smile to those seated around us. “You’re doing it, whether you like it or not.”
“But I can’t. I’m not prepared. I didn’t even come with a poem.”
“Got that covered,” Bose said, smiling. She dug out her phone from her handbag, swiped across its screen for a minute, and held it out to me. “Look. Your poems. Three of them. I took the liberty of stealing them from your laptop.” She began to laugh, a low-toned laugh.
“This isn’t funny, Bose.”
She thrust her phone into my hand. “Go outside and rehearse. I’ll buy you some time.”
With Bose, there was no winning her in a debate. I made sure to give her the evil eye as I stood and made for the exit.
Outside, the air had in it a windy ambience of the kind that heralds the coming of rain. Leaves on trees swayed in obeisance. Nylons, biscuit wrappers and other lightweight rubbishes danced a frenetic dance. From where I stood, I saw roadside vendors hurriedly packing their wares. Cars, motorcycles, and tricycles sped to and fro, as if also in a hurry to escape the impending downpour. I held Bose’s phone up to my face. 6:35pm.
“Is there a problem?”
I turned. It was Okezie.
“It’s nothing really,” I said. “Just this stupid thing Bose set me up for.”
“She wants me to read some of my poems and I’m not even prepared.”
Okezie chuckled. “Bose is a boss lady, always bossing people around.”
We stood in silence.
“So, what do you want to do?”
I said I didn’t know. Then I said, “I have to try and prepare for my reading. But it looks like it’s about to rain.”
“You can sit in my car.”
He led the way, and I followed.
In the car, Okezie rolled a blunt, asking if I cared for a smoke. I said I didn’t smoke. He then asked if I minded him smoking, I said I didn’t.
“You’ve given me much to think about today,” he said as he blew smoke through his lips.
“Yeah. I do feel empty.”
I bit my lips and pressed my face against the window. It was raining. Streaks of lightning flashed across the sky. I turned away from the window and faced Okezie. He was staring at me, the blunt hanging between his index and middle finger.
“I try to write, once in a while. But it’s as if I have been away from it for too long. I think I’ve lost my groove,” he said. “Trying to write nowadays just brings me sadness, so I put it aside. But soon I’m itching to try again—and again I fail. Isn’t that a fucked-up thing?”
“It is.” I laughed. Okezie laughed too.
“But I understand how you feel,” I said. “Sometimes writing is a jealous bitch. You have to keep begging and knocking at her door, hoping she’ll let you in.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“Writing is also a mother. She doesn’t stay mad at her child for too long.”
Okezie chuckled. He put the blunt between his lips and sucked, then puffed. “You know, you have a way with words. I admire that about you.”
When we got out the car, the rain had stopped. Streetlights stationed at strategic points had come on; their too-bright light peering down on us. Small puddles of water lay about, a cleanness had swept through the air.
The reading had ended. People trickled out from the hall, chatting and laughing. We saw Adekunle and his family. Bose was not with them.
“Ah, there you are,” Adekunle said to me. “You nearly gave Bose a heart attack. Where have you been?”
BEFORE HIS DEATH, my father used to work as an accountant in a cement factory in a neighbouring state. He came home every Friday, stayed until Sunday afternoon and then returned to work. He never came home empty-handed; he always brought goodies with him: loaves of bread, shortbread biscuits, packs of fruit juice, hefty bunches of plantains and bananas. One time, he brought home a remote-controlled police toy car for me and, in childish excitement, I’d asked if I could use the car to chase bad guys and arrest them. He’d laughed and said yes, of course, I could chase and arrest as many bad guys as I wanted to. That day, my mother had danced and laughed whilst caressing the pearly necklace around her neck that my father had bought for her.
One rainy Friday, my father didn’t return. Instead, an emissary—a man and a woman who identified themselves as his bosses—came into our home wearing long faces. They said my father had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. They said my father’s corpse had been taken to the mortuary. They said the police promised they would find the driver. And then I didn’t hear anything else they said. I only saw their lips moving. I got up from where I was seated and went into my parents’ bedroom.
There, I wept.
THREE MONTHS HAVE passed since we started dating and I moved in with Okezie. “While you are still hunting for a job, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if you came to live with me, you know,” he’d said with a wink.
I’d laughed. “So that we can be fucking like rabbits, ba?”
“You’re spoilt o,” he said in mock alarm. “Child of the world like you, did you hear me say anything about us fucking?”
Yes, we fuck, but it’s not only Okezie’s body when he’s in the throes of passion I have come to know. I know he adores Aṣa and Linkin Park. I know he thinks Denzel Washington a better actor than Leonardo DiCaprio. I know to leave him be when his face is set in a moody frown. Okezie told me about his family: How his father had died while he was still a baby suckling his mother’s breasts; how his father’s relatives had accused his mother of killing her husband and kicked her and baby Okezie out of the house; how his mother had run back to her aged parents and, God bless them, they hadn’t scrunched up their faces at her.
Her father had held her in his arms and said, “Nno. Welcome home. You are hurt, but here you’ll heal.” And heal she did. She set up a restaurant that flourished, went back to school for her master’s degree, and built a house of her own in the village.
Four years later—during which period Okezie’s grandfather passed—Okezie’s grandmother started to pester her daughter, saying, “Okezie needs a father figure in his life. He needs both a soft and a hard hand to raise him properly,” and Okezie’s mother retorted, “I’m both a hard and a soft hand to my son.”
“She was done with marriage,” Okezie said. “She had flings, most I knew of, but those men knew there was nothing long term in it for them.”
“And your father’s people? Do you still keep in touch?” I’d asked.
He’d scoffed. “Hell no. Those people are history. We have moved on from them.”
One Sunday afternoon, Okezie tells me to get dressed. He is taking me out, he says.
“It’s a surprise.”
We go in his car. Because it is a weekend, the roads aren’t congested. We speed through routes that on other days we would have spent an hour or so ploughing through. Soon we are speeding down Third Mainland Bridge, heading toward Ikoyi. All the while, Okezie deflects my questions about our destination with smiles, saying, “Be patient. You’ll know soon.”
I shook my head and stared out the window, taking in the large expanse of water on the side of the bridge—the link between the raucous and haphazard arrangement that is Lagos mainland and the opulent and stately atmosphere of Lagos Island. The sun blazed a mild heat, the kind that doesn’t scorch but caresses.
Soon we were in an estate in Ikoyi facing a giant, black gate. Okezie blasted the car horn and the pedestrian side of the gate opened, revealing a light-skinned man in a neat, black security T-Shirt tucked into black trousers and matching black boots. Okezie hit the horn again and the man nodded, smiling, then retreated. The gate opened and Okezie drove into the compound.
“Osas, how you dey?” Okezie greeted the security man.
“I dey fine, sir. Welcome sir.”
“Let’s go inside,” Okezie said to me. I followed him. The wide pathway leading to the house was strewn with gravel that crunched under my shoes and made me wonder what purpose it served. A coconut tree stood at a far end of the compound, beside a black GEEPEE tank, and the wall that ran round the compound had shards of broken bottles jutting out from it to keep out thieves.
We were in a sitting room; the air that swept through felt cool and refreshing.
“Feel at home,” Okezie said. “Let me go and fetch her.”
“Yes, her. And quit fretting.” He smiled.
I nodded, watching him stride away through a corridor. I sat down but the settee swallowed my buttocks and, for a moment, I was afraid a big hole might appear underneath and I would come crashing down. I chuckled at the thought.
There were portraits on the walls; most of them of Okezie and a grey-haired woman; one in particular caught my eye. In it, Okezie and the woman were facing each other, smiling, staring deep into each other’s eyes like there was a secret buried there. Then it hit me, a pleasant blow: Okezie brought me to meet his mother.
“Here comes the queen!” Okezie announced, coming towards me, holding his mother’s hand in his.
I smiled as I got up. “Good afternoon, Ma,” I said, injecting as much respect as I could into my voice.
“Oh, come here!” She pulled me into a tight embrace. “How are you? Okezie has told me so much about you,” she said, letting go. “I’m glad Okezie finally brought you to see me. I have pleaded so much for him to do so.”
“Mum, he’s here na.” Okezie laughed. “Please don’t attack me any longer.”
We talked, Okezie’s mother and I, about me, my family, my passions, while Okezie served drinks and chips and jokes and jibes, or clarifications. Okezie’s mother told me how much of a handful he was as a child: jumping and running about when told to sit still, and sleeping when told to read. How he didn’t stop bedwetting until he turned 12. How once, when he was 15, he had mistakenly tapped the butt of one of his female teachers and earned himself a caning.
“Mum, stop, you’re embarrassing me,” Okezie said.
His mother laughed. Her laughter the big-sounding, infectious kind. I joined in. She asked what I thought about the forthcoming general elections, and if I would vote.
“I don’t care about it and I’m not voting,” I told her.
She gave me a bewildered look. “Why is that?”
“What difference would my vote make? The winner has already been handpicked behind closed doors. Standing in a queue to press my thumb on a sheet of paper is futile.”
She let out a sigh. “You and my son—I wonder where your generation got this very warped mindset. How do you think you can make any real change if you don’t show up to vote out the bad government? How do you think folding your arms in surrender is better than putting up a fight?”
“Well, look at what all that fighting has left us with: consecutive eras of bad leadership,” Okezie said.
“Young people nowadays.” His mother hissed. “You all have much to learn—the mere thought of it scares me.”
“Then stop thinking about it, Mum.”
Afterwards, deep into a conversation about Rochas Okorocha’s Jacob Zuma statue, Okezie’s mother halts and says to me: “What are your plans for my son?”
“Eh?” Her words stunned me like a whack to the face.
“Oh, come on. I know you and my son are dating. What else did you think made him bring you home to me?”
I made to speak but couldn’t conjure any coherent words; I ended up stammering until, finally, I shut up.
“I understand you’re surprised,” Okezie’s mother said, smiling. “I know my son is gay, that you are too. I only want to make sure he’s choosing the right person to be with. You understand?”
I managed a nod.
“But I like you already,” she said.
Dusk beckons it is time to return home. The three of us exchanged hugs. Okezie and I promised his mother we would visit more. She said her door was always open, and that we should call her too; her son, she said, rarely remembered to.
In the car, Okezie tried to make small talk but I was a wall of silence. He asked if anything was wrong and I muttered, “Nothing. Just tired.”
“What do you think about my mother?”
“She’s cool.” Then more silence.
He let me be.
I was awed by it all: the camaraderie between mother and son, the sheer force that is Okezie’s mother. Her words reverberating in my head, the haunting directness of them: What are your plans for my son? Firm words from a mother who knows her son, has accepted who he is and wants only the best for him. Words my mother would never ask another man about me, words I’d kill for her to say. The sheer ordinariness of the words rocks my heart.
At home in bed, I rested my head on Okezie’s shoulder.
“Thank you for today,” I said.
He laughed. “I did it because I love you. I want to show you off to the ones I love.”
I moved closer to him. He put his arm around me, kissing my forehead. I could feel from within my whole-body trembling, crumbling; tears filled my eyes.
MY MOTHER TELLS me about her nightmares.
Some nights she sees my father. He’s floating through the air toward her, a smile planted on his face. She smiles back at him. They talk: about me, about themselves, about a relative who passed, about another who got married. About God. About death.
She asked whether he knew what day, time, and year she was to die. He said he didn’t know, said he isn’t privy to such information. She told him she missed him. He missed her, too, and hoped she would join him soon.
His words pulled the smile off her face like a curtain, revealing her shock and angst. Why would he say that? Who would care for their son if she died?
Other times it was me she saw. She described walking on a lonely stretch of road. We were silent. We just keep walking on a road that had no end. I veered off the road, heading onto another path. She wanted to call out to me but her voice was a prisoner. She watched me walk until I disappeared, then she continued on her way. Later, we crossed paths, stared at each other before resuming our journey together.
“I have told Father Eze, our parish priest, about these dreams,” she said. “But he just tells me to keep praying.”
The phone is hot against my ear. “I don’t know what to say, Mama.”
“Please, my son. Hurry up and get married and give me grandchildren. Who knows, maybe this is death pacing about my door. Biko nna, I’m begging.”
I sighed. “I have heard you, Mama.”
“You always say you hear me, but you don’t do anything.” There was an aggressive edge to her voice.
“I have heard you, Mama,” I repeated. A thought danced into my mind. For a brief moment, I pondered how dangerous a prospect it was. I cleared my throat. “Mama, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Gini, what is it, my son?”
“I met someone—”
“Ah, you met a girl? What is her—”
“Let’s talk later, Mama.”
I cut the call.
A hot sensation started in the pit of my tummy and spread, upwards, reaching my nostrils. I raced into the bathroom to throw up. Warm tears stung my eyes. The house suddenly felt too small for me and my troubles. I grabbed my keys and dashed out to Bose’s house.
One look at me and Bose can tell I’m a bag of mess. She held my hand and pulled me in, rushing into the kitchen to fetch me a glass of water. I took it with shaky hands, gulped it. Water trickled down the sides of my mouth and fell to the floor.
“Sorry,” I told her.
“No problem, no problem.”
I return the glass to her.
“Lay down on the sofa,” she said. “You look like you need some rest.”
I kicked off my shoes and lay down while Bose went to fetch a mop. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, let out a long sigh. I felt my nerves relax.
Bose was dragging the ragged end of the long stick across the wet floor when she said, “Tell me, what happened?”
I told her everything: Okezie, his mother, our love, my mother, my fears.
“Have you spoken to Okezie about any of this?”
“No, not yet.”
“Okay,” she said. “Just rest.”
I fell into a long, fitful sleep filled with screams and tears and laughs. When I woke, there was a pounding in my head. The curtains were drawn, the bulbs shone a low-toned yellow glow, and a music video was on the TV. I sat up. The aroma of egusi soup thickened the air. My stomach groaned. I looked around for my phone but I couldn’t find it. I wasn’t sure if I’d brought it with me.
I got to my feet and made my way to the kitchen. Bose was sprinkling chopped uguinto a pot.
“Is it evening already?” I asked.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t think I brought my phone. Okezie must be worried already.”
“Never mind,” Bose said, as she stirred. “He called me. I told him you’re here.”
“Thank you, Bose.”
After we ate, I assisted Bose in doing the dishes, and then we moved to the sitting room to watch a movie.
“You should speak to Okezie about your mother,” Bose said. “You both need each other now more than ever.”
“I don’t know. Getting married to a woman has never crossed my mind. I can’t live a life of falsehood—I’ll hate myself if I do that.”
Bose paused the movie. “Look at me.” Her face was set in seriousness. “Don’t make the same mistake I made. I love my kids, but God knows if I knew better I wouldn’t have gotten married to a man and had them. I can’t imagine how tough it must be on them, coupled with all the garbage their father tells them about me. I wish I had stayed firm in my truth.” She took my hand in hers. “Do what will give you joy in the long run. Please.”
I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting my mother, of disappointing her. All my life, especially after my father’s death, I’d only thought of doing things that would bring a smile to her face. Make her proud of me. I imagined the disappointment that would crease her face if I came out to her, imagined her agonized wails.
I didn’t know I was crying until Bose pulled me close, cradling my head to her bosom. “You have to be strong,” she whispered.
“WHAT HAPPENED?” OKEZIE asked.
It was morning. I was back at home. I moved past him, collapsed onto the sofa. Okezie sat down beside me.
“Bose told me you were with her yesterday, and weren’t in the mood to talk. What happened?”
I opened up to him—about him, his mother, our love, my mother, my fears.
Okezie sat still as a stone when I was done, his face revealing nothing. After a moment, he got up and went to stand by the window, staring out at the street. He stayed like that for a while, his back turned to me.
Fear was creeping up on me. I could sense an impending end to us: the heartwarming smiles and laughter; the deep, soothing kisses; the tender caresses. The faces of past lovers and their rejections played like a movie in my mind’s eye. I recalled the anger and shame I’d felt in those moments, how each of those moments conspired to dig out my essence and confidence, leaving me hollow and mangled. My head ached with the realization that I was no different from any of them; that, like them, I was not brave.
Ozekie still had his back to me.
I got to my feet. “I’ll pack my bags.”
He turned to face me. “Don’t go.”
I started to walk away.
“Please! Don’t go.”
He came up from behind, stood in front of me, taking my hands in his.
“I love you. It’s you I want to be with.”
I raised my head to look into his eyes; they were brimming with tears. I closed my eyes. In my head, I could hear my mother’s voice, reprimanding me, telling me how I let her down. I imagined my father staring at me with a reproachful frown. I saw years and years of piling sadness.
“Look at me,” Okezie said. I opened my eyes, turned my gaze to him. “I love you. I really do. Believe me.”
I didn’t say anything, words too heavy a burden to utter.
Okezie pulled me into an embrace. I buried my face in his chest, inhaling his musky scent. And I realized in that moment: this is it. In his arms, I am everything I’ve ever wanted to be: Seen. Safe. Loved.
About the Author:
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and is a staff writer for Open Country Mag. He has a short story on Lolwe.
Feature image by Steve Johnson from Pexels