He was singing, which sounded like he was supplicating—a cathedral serenading sinners to salvation. I struggled to resist the strings pulling me from his throat. I failed. His voice, it was like the radio on Sunday mornings. What he was doing was devastating to the ears; because of the walls, because of the water—acoustics performing acrobatics in the boys’ bathroom of the newly refurbished YMCA sports centre.
He was singing Callum Scott’s Biblical, and that’s exactly what he was. Naked and sinfully wet. Skin like soil asking to be tilled, to be touched. Like ehu roasted and ready to season soup. Muscles like things carved by a carpenter—I wanted him to tell me lies just to see how far his nose would stretch. He could have been anyone, he could have tumbled from heaven that instant and I wouldn’t have cared; I would have signed up had he lined up an army to fight against his maker, I would have followed him to the depths of Hades.
I was gawking, the way greed gawks at gold, and he caught me before I could mind myself.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, “that song.” I wanted to say more but didn’t know how. He paid me no mind, persisted like the world was ending and he was hellbent on breaking back into heaven, one note at a time. I felt like something under a microscope, I wanted leaves to hide myself. He wasn’t smiling but he wasn’t frowning either. Every motion he made was art. He looked like a bronze statue, like something accustomed to people gazing endlessly at it. He looked like he’d be offended if I looked away. I didn’t want to look away. He kept singing, kept bathing like I was no more than glass affirming his glory.
He turned his back to me. I’d never been more grateful or distraught. My head told me to leave but my feet begged to stay. So I stayed. I wouldn’t say I joined him in the shower but that I felt drawn, as drought is drawn to drink. Dripping wet from shorts to shoes, his voice washing over me; for the first time in years, I felt clean. I didn’t touch him although my fingers were screaming to. He looked too holy, too sacred, and I feared I’d burn in hell if I tried. There were octaves he reached that sounded like thunder crashing and I froze, breath hushed, expecting to be crushed. Imagine my surprise when nothing happened.
He stopped abruptly, turned off the water, gave me one terse goodbye glance, winked and said with a smirk, “This was fun,” before strutting off, butt-cheeks bouncing like a couple of brand-new Spaldings behind him.
He left and the room became like a burial ground. The light no longer lit enough; the cold, so cold my bones shook inside me. I sighed and scolded myself, “You know you shouldn’t be doing this, yeah? What if you’d been caught?” Then after a beat, “Doing what though?” The gay guilt gathering around my chest like mourners over a grave disappeared like ghouls at the mention of the name of Jesus.
My Cinderella fella left me with frightful fantasies in lieu of sparkly slippers. I had no idea who he was, I had never seen him before, and I didn’t know who, or how, to ask about him. For days, which felt like years, I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. Thoughts of him corrupted my mind like a virus, as sickening as the breakless beep of broken machinery. I’d started to lose hope when out of the blue, there he was—emitting too much radiation and asking if I wanted to shoot this ball with him or just stand around looking petrified.
Throwing hoops together was hardship and watching him, punishment. The glint of his spine against the sun. The twist of his torso against the net. The musk of his sweat as he dribbled the ball—how it passed between his palms. The way he eviscerated me while guarding his position—as if he could see into my soul. The way he blocked, the way he aimed, the way he shot—O brother, to say his presence did to my peace what the plague did to Egypt would be putting it mildly. I don’t want to put it mildly.
How do I say this? Breathing the same air as him was like being shoved down a bottomless stairwell, and I fell so hard that even my guy Spider, who didn’t know I was gay, noticed, and asked, “What’s up with you and new boy?”
I replied, “Meaning?”
He said, “Intense.”
I said, “Yeah, well, the game gets like that.”
He nodded, “I’ve got my eyes on you.”
And I shrugged, “Whatever, man.”
Our first date was entirely by accident. We bumped into each other on the lunch line at Casa de Masa—whose masa and Arabian tea combo packs a punch mean as vengeance.
He flashed a smile capable of turning a mountain into a muppet and said, “You’re here and I’m here. Makes no sense if we don’t do this together. Mi masa et su masa.” He nodded at his loaded tray and yakked at his wordplay game. He led me to a table and I followed. In my position, could you have done differently? Would you have wanted to?
We strung awkward stares into speech, relishing every second. I don’t know when exactly we jumped the fence from familiarization to flirtation, only that we did. He made impressions of the governor which were so naff they had me in stitches so tight I fell off my chair and wet my eyes. There was also the matter of the way our eyes kept locking into each other, clumsily but steadily. Rising to leave, he tossed his phone at me and said, “Fix yourself in there.”
Two nights later, nearly nine, he texted, “You up?”
“I’m up,” I replied. Then, “What’s keeping you up?” which was dumb because nobody is asleep by now not even my grandma.
“I’m at the court. Wanna think together?”
“By now… Isn’t it closed?” I sent and smacked my head with the heels of my palms.
“Only to punks…”
I threw on sweats and hardly laced my sneaks and ten minutes later, was blinking breathlessly at him from the other side of the chain link fence then heaving over, giggling like a kid stuffed full of sugar.
It was January in Jos and our breaths came out of us as fog. He lit a blunt and asked, “You smoke?”
I leaned in and he slid the joint between my lips. I pulled a long one. He slid it out. Pulled a drag himself. Slid it back. To and fro we rocked until we were higher than clouds. All the while he wouldn’t take his eyes off me, and I think it could have killed me if he had.
The world felt like a page with only two people in it, crinkling at the edges, folding gently inward and I thought maybe right now, we’re a love letter writing itself into the heart of the cosmos. Everything was so soft I thought we’d dissolve to nothing but our blood; red ink, red proof that we were here right now—so small yet so willing to be seen. The stars, a sorority of silver sisters shivering from so long ago, were evidence that some things refuse to be forgotten or erased.
Spread-eagled on the lawn beside the court we stared into the sky. “Noor,” he said pointing upwards then at himself, “Arabic for light.” And I knew that the meaning of stars, of light, had forever been changed for me.
We gabbed about the same things any two boys with blades for tongues and time to bleed gab about. Crazy childhood memories. Sure ways to make bank. Who’s fucking whom in the neighbourhood. Who’s about to learn some big lessons. The recent NBA ranking stats. Who’s kinging and who’s clowning on the court. The latest Yeezy sneakers, and diss tracks. Why Cole is King, and Takashi is trash. The future of rap, and favourite TikTok trends. Last books read and how impossible it is to finish anything these days. There was a ruffle when Call Me By Your Name popped up, and we both agreed that Guadagnino was an OG for the film but what Aciman spat into those pages was fire. Nothing more was said, and I think we began to breathe better, now certain what this dance we were doing was called.
There was a moment that felt like language had grown obsolete—like we’d travelled billions of years ahead of time, evolving ourselves beyond speech—when he turned and peered into my eyes, when he could have kissed me, but he didn’t. He looked away and I thought, Good. God is greedy like that. He knew how to keep me coming back. And I did. For the same reason pews spill with petitions; the same prayers spewing from the same lips, Sunday after Sunday.
A week grew into two, then a month. I barely felt time passing except in the anticipation of nightfall which stretched each day beyond its elastic limit. When he said, “We should make this our something official,” I nodded with the reverence of a priest hearing confession. We shook hands on it, still pretending to act cool, but held on until our fingers ivied around each other and our bodies swallowed what space stood between us, until our foreheads pressed so deeply into each other I thought they’d leave prints.
He swore – “Fuck it!” – then crooned BrockHampton’s Something About Him like it was a secret for my ears only and all I wanted was to drift asleep on that sound. I started tearing up for no reason but his head was back on the grass so he couldn’t see. “Sing with me,” he said.
I shook my head, “Nah, I’m no good.”
He nodded, “You’re all gold.”
I slid my harmony gently beneath his melody.
The hour grew grim, and it was time to go. We got moving, half-walking, half-dancing. He picked up Pharrell’s Happy and I joined him. The night swelled with enough natural noises to start a choir so we made music, clapping along until we had to part at the intersection where the road became two separate ways to our homes. Our hug though awkward and terse, was warm and tight. Walking backwards, we watched each other retreat until it got too distant, too dark to see anything.
The next night he brought me spicy chicken he’d grilled himself (à la YouTube tutorial) with a bottle of the sweetest red. Fed me with his hands and made me lick the salt off his fingers. I was shy but raised no objections and we agreed it was a great date, but that might have been the booze talking. I think it got better every night after that. He conducted numerous culinary experiments for my taste buds and my verdict was always the same – “Très magnifique!” – although I don’t know if it actually was, your palate changes when you’re in love for the first time.
Had you asked me what happiness means to me three months ago I couldn’t have told east from west. Ask me again today and I’ll tell you happiness is what happens every time you think of the first boy to pronounce your name like prayer—the way your chest becomes the equivalent of the midnight sky on December thirty-first.
February became March became April and when we weren’t together, I thought of him the way a prisoner thinks of freedom. As in, always. As in, this much sweetness must be why the irreverent swear it’s a sin.
I was getting ready to go when he texted, “At court. Come.” I dashed to him as if I wasn’t already on my way, as if I wouldn’t have gone even if he’d called me a bastard.
In my mind, Montero kept hammering: That’s what I fucking want!
With his back against a concrete bench, he watched as I approached. Bottle of something whose label I couldn’t read in his grip. Muscle shirt trembling from the breeze. Snapback teasing, Wanna Play? While I thought, Don’t test me, boy! Reclining beside him, I tensed as static surged between us.
I started, “So… That Eazy video, Ye for real lost his shit.”
“Fools do that.”
He took a large swig and passed the bottle. I took a larger swig and passed it back. We went like so until the last drop. Inside me I thanked the liqueur for the quiet it brought to my nerves, which were zinging with knowledge.
“‘Bout to get wet,” I said.
“Mm-hmmm,” he replied.
“We should go.”
He didn’t reply and I didn’t move.
We stood skin grazing skin, watching the drizzle become a storm, saying nothing. A transformer exploded scattering sparks into the air. Everywhere went dark. He yelled, “NEPA!” and growled thunder from his throat. I cringed, then convulsed in titters. We weren’t laughing at the same thing, but we were laughing at the same time. If God had a memory board thumb tacked with His favourite moments from earth, I had no doubt this would be at the top of the collection—two boys drowning in each others’ eyes and howling, libidinous heat charging between them.
He came up in front of me, mouth running out of mirth, slowly stroking the hairs on my forearms—bow teasing cello. There was a musicality to the moment, a melody produced by the ebbing of intertwined laughter, by two bodies speaking to each other in that strange and savage language only bodies speak. I’d never felt closer to another, not even during the time served inside my mother.
It was empty, it was pouring. The opportunity was too tempting to pass. Was it the darkness or the danger? I don’t know what made me bold because I am never bold, but I let my hands take the lead for once and not my brain. Let them take me where they wanted while he watched, while he waited, his eyes sharp and taunting I dare you.
I wanted to know how his thin, red-like-wine lips felt so I licked them with my thumb. They felt like the inside of an infant’s fist. I wanted to know how they tasted so I consumed them. They tasted like citrus, cedar, berries and red peppers crushed in ethanol. They tasted like decadence, like wilderness and I wanted to be nowhere else.
I didn’t stop. I let my hands run wild. Let them read every inch of his torso like it was Braille, like I was born blind and touch was the sole solution to sight. I buried my nose in his neck where he smelled like a forest; a fusion of soil and trees—sandalwood, saffron, moss, ginger and Jazmin, and breathed the way Lazarus, reawakening, must have breathed. I let my fingers pull down his zip, catching the hitch of his breath in my mouth as I held on to the great hope growing inside his briefs.
I never understood the claims by newly born-again Pentecostals of being struck by the Spirit and saved, just like that. Had you asked me, I would have said it was nonsense, that desperate people said desperate things. I confess I was wrong. Learning for the first time what it was like to be pierced so fiercely by a type of awe unrivalled by anything on earth that you had no choice but to fall to your knees, hands over head, mouth open with only two words, “My lord!”
I’m trying to say I held on to that ever-growing hope in my hands and brought its tumescent heat to my trembling mouth and didn’t let go until I’d drained every last ray of light lurking within. I’m trying to say I’d never felt holier or hungrier all my life. That as he quivered between my teeth I felt the earth shake, rocks split, graves open, and might have even cried, “It is finished!” because I too fell to earth in the same instant without any assistance—save that he caught me with his powerful hands.
I don’t want you to think it was all for hunger for his body—even if it was definitely also that. What I felt for this man 3.5inches taller than me, 5.85kg bigger than me, eight months older than me, light-years brighter than me, and egregiously superior to me in every direction, was not only desire but admiration, adulation, religious adoration.
If you know the good book well, you must know the part where Ruth tells Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” And if you know it, then you have an inkling of what it was which afflicted me.
We collapsed on the cold concrete tingling from the fading fever of desire, clinging onto each other, like fountains to flow. He didn’t so much sing as breathe Hallelujah from his mouth. And when he said, “And remember when I moved in you,” he grinned, teeth white as lightning, sprang to his feet, grabbed a discarded nail and scratched into the back of the bench, “Noor n Seth felt d holy dove move in dem here 4 d 1st time,” with the date signed underneath. I shook my head. He was right.
I asked, “What manner of man turns another into thirst?”
He answered, “What manner of man turns another into storm?”
And I knew it would take nothing short of an act of God to move me from this present place.
About the author:
Ali Akawu, in theory, does not exist. However, as a social construct, he is a law student at a university in Nigeria where he dons whites and blacks twice a week and spends the other days atoning for the atrocity.
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash
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