- RED VELVET
This is a universal parlance:
If you want to know you love somebody, masturbate before seeing them. If you do not feel that smouldering desire for this person afterwards, then what you feel is ephemeral lust or a pseudo kind of love. But if you still feel the desire for that person flaring up inside you, then yes, you love them. I like to think of this as pre-nut clarity. Here’s a story, but this time, about red velvet cake.
It is afternoon after lectures. The sun is seething, and I am sure that before the end of this fresh semester it will bake my brown skin. I am new to the University of Lagos. I am hungry. With a few new acquaintances, I am sauntering into Jaja shopping complex near King Jaja hostel. My heart twinges when I sight a group of boys near one of the shops. I walk faster. I do not want the boys to yell ‘boy-girl!’ I do not want them to laugh at me. My friend, A, had told me how cruel the hostel boys are to men who ‘behaved like women’.
We contemplate for a while on which shop to visit, and we finally agree on Calabar Kitchen. After eating the bland jollof rice and the poorly fried, shrunken sausages, I pay and walk out. I do not wait for them because I am feeling sleepy and I want to go to my hostel to nap.
On my way out, I notice a red velvet cake inside a show glass at one of the shops near Calabar Kitchen. There’s something about the brilliant red, the white of its cream. I have eaten red velvet cake only once. I liked it. I walk into the shop to ask how much the cake is selling for, and the smiling woman says, “It is two thousand naira.” In my mind, I say, “For this small thing!?”
I tell her, “Okay, I will come back tomorrow.” She nods with indifference, the countenance of someone who thinks I will most likely not come back.
Sprawled on my bed later, I don’t stop thinking about the cake. I want to get five, which is ten thousand naira. I will eat one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one at night, one the morning after, and the last one the next night. I don’t mind if the cake drains the cash in my account, even though my parents and older siblings had told me to spend wisely because I wouldn’t “see their faces for months.”
A WhatsApp notification from Law ‘25 group chat appears on my phone screen: a message from the course representative. He reminds us about the faculty dues. I haven’t paid mine and I don’t care. All I think of is red velvet cake.
My chi nudges me to save my money and pay for the faculty dues. My chi further prompts me that if I buy that cake, how will I pay my faculty dues and buy the past question papers I need to study for my coming exams? I ignore the voice. Bullshit, I reply in my mind.
I dream about eating red velvet cake, and, when I wake up, I don’t flinch as I used to when I eat in my dream.
I am pressing my clothes and thinking of the red velvet cake. My taste buds yearn for it even though I’m not hungry. My strategy is clear: before I walk into the lecture room, I will stop at the ATM opposite the faculty of arts, I will take out ten thousand naira, and, after the day’s lectures, I will get the red velvet cake.
I am a bit thirsty, and I walk into the kitchen to get water. The Nasco cornflakes and Peak milk catch my eye. I pause for a brief while, unsure of what to do next. Why am I suddenly craving cornflakes? I have not had cornflakes in three weeks.
I take out a bowl and make the cereal with lots of milk and water.
I am four spoons in when the desire for red velvet cake starts to deteriorate. Reality begins to dawn on me as I eat what I have. I have to pay my faculty dues. I have to buy the past question papers. I have something better than red velvet cake: my cornflakes. How could I have something this toothsome but still look outside for a thing that would deflate my pocket?
When I was six, the school bus often dropped me off at my mother’s boutique. There was no one to stay at home with me—my two eldest siblings were in boarding schools far away from home and my immediate older sister who attended a day school often returned very late in the evening. So, I stayed with my mother and her cashier till she closed shop.
Opposite my mother’s boutique were three grocery stores. Each vendor had children that were about my age. My mother’s cashier took me to play with them, despite my mother’s mild protests—she said they would ruffle me, give me ringworms. I played with them anyway.
One day while we were playing, the vendor at the end of the street called her two sons. They left and we continued playing without them. She soon summoned the rest of us, and we went to her. She was cutting up what looked like a strange kind of stockfish. She gave a piece to each of us and told us it was toad meat (back then, I didn’t know what a toad was). First, it tasted like stockfish. Then it tasted like kilishi. Then it was like a mix of sweet-and-sour meat.
On our way home, I told my mother, in a silly victorious voice, that, “Iya Toheeba* gave us toad meat to eat, and it was very sweet.”
My mother gripped the steering tightly and muttered, “Jesus!” A signifier of another mischief I had perpetrated. When we got home, the first thing she did was walk into the kitchen to fetch a bottle of vegetable oil and smear the oil on my face. “You are covered with the blood of Jesus. Nothing will happen to you. They will not possess you. They will not see you.” Her voice shook.
As a child, I loved eating mangoes. I stopped in my early teens, though, after I started noticing bloody eyes and sores over my lips and inside my throat whenever I ate mangoes. Even though I loved the delicious fruit, I had to avoid it for my safety. Somehow, during every mango season, my father would bring them home and I would eat them out of greed; and my throat and lips and eyes would suffer for it. One day, I fell extremely ill; but this time, it wasn’t from the fruit, but from its juice. Another time, it was mango-flavoured bubble gum. So, I made the decision to stop eating mangoes and mango products.
Recently, my father brought mangoes home and kept them in the fridge. The mangoes caught my eye. They were a bright yellow with speckles of red. My father had warned me to stay away, but I ignored his warning. Or at least, I tried; until I couldn’t. I took three out of the fridge and ate them all.
Nothing happened for the rest of the day; I seemed perfectly fine until the next morning when, unsurprisingly, I woke up with big blisters on my lips, a sore throat, pains around my neck, and a runny nose.
4. JI AGWURU AGWO
I read somewhere that the meal children disliked in their childhood would be the meal they would come to love when they are older. It did not make sense to me at the time. Now, it does.
As a child, I hated ji agwuru agwo—yam porridge. I hated how the cubes of yam turned yellow because of the palm oil, and how the ugba and ugu vegetables blended in the porridge. I hated everything about the food. I even had a name for it: Lucifer food. Whenever my mother dished up some in my food flask, I would return it untouched. I wouldn’t touch it in my teens either.
A month ago, my mother prepared it for the first time in a long while. And I’m not sure if a new taste bud undid itself, because it was as if a missing part of my life returned and fixed itself. I asked for a third helping, and my parents watched me with open mouths.
“I thought you don’t like this food?” My father asked.
“There’s just something about this food,” I said.
In the following weeks, I would make ji agwuru agwo for them.
People cringe when I say I take pap, garri, and tea without sugar; when I choose soda water over Fanta or Coke, when I drink Lipton without sugar or milk, and when I complain about the quantity of cholesterol or fatty acids in food. “Why is this a worry at 20?” They often ask me.
I tell them, “Growing up as the last child of ageing parents, I had to take what they took—the drinks they drank, the food they ate. I had to pay attention to what they said.”
My roommate’s girlfriend visited one afternoon with a sack containing eggs, pepper, onions, carrots, spring onions, and lettuce. She offered to cook for him, for us. Before then, we never cooked our noodles with those vegetables; we thought they didn’t matter. We never cared much for such colourful aesthetics.
Her noodles were colourful; they were flecked with greens, yellows, purples, and oranges—colours that stood out. They were also perfectly soupy—not too dry, not too wet.
We laughed as we ate. My roommate made a joke, and, amid laughter, I let out a fart. A loud, fetid fart. The laughter died. Everyone stopped eating and stared at me. Then they stood, took their plates, and went outside. I curled on the bed, and, for a long time, shivered with sweat.
My mother is not an early riser, but my father is. In my secondary school days, he woke up early to make different varieties of meals for me.
“Your mommy can cook o,” my classmates would say when they visited, gathering over my food like bees to flowers.
I couldn’t tell them that it was my father who made the meals. I smiled instead, never correcting them because we were taught in school that it was our mothers who should do the cooking. So I feared they would call my father a woman-wrapper, that they would see my mother as irresponsible.
31st of August 2019.
I refresh the page waiting for a miracle to happen. Nothing. I sit on my bed, trying not to cry, staring at my phone, refreshing the page.
I didn’t make the cut-off point for my dream course – law.
In the kitchen, I scoop some jollof rice from the batch my mother made earlier. I eat while standing, eyes closed, inhaling its fragrant smokiness.
The tears can wait. My stomach cannot.
About the author:
Chinonso Nzeh is Igbo, and his works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Agbowó, Black Boy Review, and elsewhere. He has forthcoming works in Evergreen Review and Ibadan Art. His writing explores grief, gender, queerness, love, romance, and history. He thinks of storytelling as a way to comprehend the world’s wonder. When he’s not writing, he’s reading or listening to old-school music. He hopes to dump his law degree and become a professor in writing.