This is How I Remember It
I was eighteen and stupid, and I never anticipated we would become friends after that encounter in Conflict Resolution class. You remember? It was Mrs. Clara’s class and she was reading out her rules for the semester when you walked in. You were thin, busty and perfect. And the way you walked? Like you were slow-dancing. Swaying from side to side. Throwing out one thin leg after the other. Your nose in the air. Lips in a pout. We all watched you. Mrs. Clara too. I was smiling when you got to where I sat.
Until you said, “Shift!”
I moved a bit and you sat and crossed one leg over the other. You did not look at me. Did not even pretend to look at me. I wanted to touch your shoulder, to tell you that we had met before, but you turned to me with this scrunched up nose, these rude eyes, Jesus, they were like slits on your face. “You are staring,” you said, “and that is fucking rude.”
- Ukamaka Olisakwe, is a screenwriter, novelist, and nonfiction writer in Nigeria. She writes TV scripts (most recently for the series “The Calabash”), essays, short stories, and the novel, Eyes of a Goddess. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times. In 2014 she was selected by the Africa39 Project as one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40.
I died a million deaths. I tried to breathe. Tried to read. But, dear Lord, your words came smashing my ego with machetes. I crawled into myself, moved farther away from you. I reached out, grabbed time, reversed it. Undid this. You crossed and uncrossed your leg. Unfazed. Your calmness was the coldest I’d ever felt. I had ever seen, the coldest I had ever felt. You didn’t see me. Didn’t even notice my hurt.
You called yourself Bisi, when Mrs. Clara asked your name. You asked questions when no one else had any. Your hand rose into the air every time, seeking clarification. You had an opinion on every topic. Your eyes blazed with interest as you talked about the trivial conflict situations: if a woman caught her husband in bed with the housemaid, which conflict resolution strategy would Mrs. Clara recommend; if a girl stabs her uncle who raped her, which resolution style would the family adopt? Questions that had no place in Mrs. Clara’s book. Questions Mrs. Clara knew that even Mrs. Clara didn’t have the answers to. You scored the highest in her first assessment. You impressed her, made her putty in your hands. Thunderbolted through her classes. Blurred out every other student. It was just you and Mrs. Clara. You ask, she smiles. You opine, she smiles. Others snore. I scowl. At a point I wondered if she was in love with you. By the fourth week, I hissed each time you raised your hand to ask a question and yawned each time Mrs. Clara sought your opinion.
We never had the briefest of conversations, never pretended that we were even course-mates, until that afternoon when you poked my shoulder and said, “You are sleeping,” loud enough for everyone to hear. I began to stutter. Mrs. Clara’s face contorted in disgust. I began to deny it, but Mrs. Clara was already frowning. I stood before her, hopelessly struggled to mouth the words that clung to my throat. A sense of failure enveloped me, one that swooped on me not because I did not know how to articulate my defense, but because I did not know how to articulate it while you stared. Because with you, words took leave and scaled, reducing me to a stuttering buffoon.
That evening, I lay in my bed. I thought of Papa. I thought of you. Then I said my prayers. For you to break your neck. For Amadioha to shave your hair with a blunt razor. Ka kitikpa lachapu gi anya, anuofia! But my meditation was broken by hard knocks that came from my door. I got it. Then stopped, stunned. Oh! You stood before me, an impish smile on your face, a tub of ice-cream in your hands.
“Oge,” you called me, “I apologize for everything.”
You sounded sincere.
Nobody has ever barged into my life, playing proprietary, like they’d been there all their life. I trusted you to be there. To see me. I listened to you talk. And I didn’t want you to stop. You never stuttered. You know that I think my words first, before rolling them off my tongue. But you, you spoke like your tongue grew words, and you were in a hurry to set them free. I reassessed myself – my dressing, my hair, my make-up. I was the timid girl who didn’t belong there. Who didn’t belong to you. You were the only girl I’d seen in a long time who didn’t spend forever before a mirror. Who didn’t cake her face or coat her eyes, layering herself, until she became a masquerade. Who wasn’t obsessed with her beauty. And that absence of narcissism, is beauty in its purest form.
During classes you started using lines like, “My friend, Oge, once said this…”, “My friend Oge once said that…”, quoting smart things I never said, amplifying simple things I once said, presenting me like I was someone more intelligent. Mrs. Clara began to look at me more kindly.
You wanted to know what my first sex was like. I said I had never had sex. You stared at me, your mouth wide open, waiting for something I did not know I was supposed to say. You were utterly, innocently shocked, that a girl my age hadn’t had sex. And then you were laughing. I began to laugh too. I laughed because you were clutching your stomach, your tears streaming down your face, your chest heaving from the strain. I laughed because it was the prettiest sight I had even seen.
Bisi, there is a vacuum here. What we had transcends friendship. It has a name.
And I trembled that day you told me your whole story: you dropped out of a girls’ boarding school because the girls in your school were notorious for many things but famous for touching themselves in closed spaces. You always caught them slipping their fingers under their panties. Once you walked into your senior prefect’s room, found her splayed on her bed, her legs spread apart like a book, and the labour prefect’s face buried at the place the legs met. You said it almost made you puke. That you ran but they caught you, held you down, touched your breasts. That they slipped their fingers under your panties. You fought them, but they were stronger. You yelled. No one burst through the door to help. The world was coming to an end. You would be stuck there forever with those two. You scratched. Kicked. But they were stronger. You struggled, then weakened, then began to cry. Your legs grew smarter. They fled. Carrying your numbed mind along, rushing you to Principal’s Office, all the while you thought you would fall on your face. At the Principal’s Office, you walked past the snoring security guard, and pulled the door open. And wished you hadn’t. There. Head Girl stood before the Principal, reeling out names of the girls who jumped the school fence the previous day, the girls who were said to have partied with the boys from neighboring school. You were still unable to speak as Principal hurriedly summoned all the girls to assembly. You stood before the girls, before the ones who tortured you, wishing for the ground to open up and swallow you. You could see their smirks when you were asked to kneel. You could hear their laughter when Principal whipped your hands. You survived long enough before your mother pulled you out of that school.
Bisi, your story ruined my coming out. You glared at the floor long after you were done talking. But you became Bisi again. ‘That is in the past now,’ you said, smiled. You pulled off your blouse, because the room had grown hot. You sat before me, in all your glory of breasts and braids and pretty face, fanning yourself with the News Magazine, laughing at something you were saying. You sat there. Without shame. Without inhibition. Without an inkling of the riot that went on in my mind. I wanted more, but each time I dared to, your words came back slashing that yearning with a machete.
You were desperate to rid me of my virginity. So you wanted me to meet your writer-friends. I was a little apprehensive, but you were smiling in that sincere way. I said “Okay,” and the next thing you did, I didn’t even expect it. You grabbed my face plopped a kiss on my cheek. I stared, stunned. You began to laugh. I held your eyes, sought for that confirmation that said you understood my affection for you. That you understood the emotions that racked my ribs and caused the liquid warmness to seep into my underwear each time we were together. But you were laughing in that careless way. And saying, “You look ridiculous. It’s just a kiss!”
You put on the CD, and began to dance kukere. My eyes burned with tears. You kept dancing, rolling your waist, shaking your buttocks, your breasts jumping about in rhythm. You made funny faces, twisting like you were pole-dancing, twerking and breaking my heart into tiny, miserable pieces.
That evening, we went to the staff club to meet your friends. You said they were the only students allowed into the club, because Nenye, the leader, was sleeping with the VC.
We got to the old club. Frowned at the large swimming pool. Shook our heads at the chipped tiles. Smiled at bright lights. Scrunched up our noses; the air was heavy with alcohol and music and urine. At one end, a group of lecturers lounged on sofas, sipped from cups of beer, chatted discreetly like they were talking top secrets. Your friends talked gibberish, laughed like Motor Park touts and clinked bottles of beer. It was hard to imagine they were writers. They welcomed you with hugs and taps and pecks and kisses. They observed me like old meat in a butcher’s stall. They stared when you introduced me as your best friend, and then they returned to assessing me. The boys undressed me with their eyes, but feigned disinterest when I glared back. The girls looked at my shoes and my dress and my hair, and they struggled to hold their mocking-laugh, though it spilled from the sides of the big mouths. I clenched your hand tightly as you introduced them: the sulky one was Nenye; the skinny one was Tope; the fat one with the dreadful hair was Nkem; the one in the god-awful blouse was Mary. You also introduced the boys: the one acting like he was the biggest boy on campus, what with the way he arced his leg on the table, was Kene; the one with the stupid smile and big nose and rabbit ears was Femi; the overdressed one was David; and the one with the mug-me look was Kevin. You sat and pulled up a chair for me. I stared at the faces first, then I sat on one buttock. You ordered a special called ‘homework’ and two bottles of Smirnoff Ice. I asked for a bottle of Maltina. Then you were talking with them and the conversation took away the previous tense silences. Once, you tried to include me in the conversation, but they all went mute, like NEPA had cut off power. The waitress returned with the orders. Homework turned out to be two chicken heads with their respective feet shoved down each throat and strung with chicken intestine.
“Try it,” you said. “It is fantastic!”
Your girlfriends kept observing me. But Femi, the one with the big nose and rabbit ears, smiled and said, “Order for one. You will enjoy it.” He would have looked handsome if you placed a hand over his nose and pulled back his ears.
I ordered homework.
Group discussion skirted from the looming ASUU strike to the stories of Buccaneers warring with Black Axe, and then to the female student who did juju with her vagina, slept with her abusive lecturer and he who woke up the following morning screaming himself hoarse and tearing off his clothes.
Nenye said, “He has been admitted to a psychiatric ward.”
Mary said, “Suits him best!”
Kene said, “That’s nonsense talk! Perhaps she wanted marriage and he refused!”
Mary said, “Then, zip up if you can’t own up.”
Nkem said, “That’s one penis down. Next on the line please!”
Kene began to speak but Nenye gave him the talk-to-the-palm.
You, you never spoke. Something dark climbed into your eyes. I wanted to ask what bothered you, but Femi was saying these things to me: asking about my course of study and where my hostel was. I took one look at his ears and glared at him.
Nenye lit a cigarette. The girls lit theirs too. They smoked and puffed like firewood. I wanted to throw up. The speaker which hung from the wall began to croon Flavour’s Ada Ada. The tranquil song melded with the loud chatter from the group.
“I love this song!” Femi said, moving in closer, unfazed. “You wanna dance?”
I got up and went to the smelly restroom. When I returned, Flavour’s Shake Ukwu was blaring from the speaker. You swung your bottle of Smirnoff Ice over your head, twisting your body in tune with the music.
Nenye said, “You guys are wasting this fine music,” got up and began to dance. Kene joined her. You stopped swinging your bottle and dropped it with a thud on the table. You sat back, your gaze on the dancing couple for a minute, before you pulled out your own cigarette pack and began to fumble with your lighter. Your movement was cold. Your face was set in a grim mask. You finally lit a cigarette and puffed smoke in my face.
“You are surprised, babe?” But you were looking at the dancing couple.
Something was not sitting well with me. It was in the way you watched Kene. The way your eyes shot arrows at Nenye. The way my pee filled up my bladder. You jerked off your seat and began to dance, a slow rhythmic sway of your hips, from side to side, like tree branches during harmattan. Kene pulled away from Nenye and drew you from behind, moving with your slow rhythm, his body perfectly melding with yours. Flavour’s Ashewo switched on and your dance steps changed. You began a slow dance, your right leg raised and your crotch slapping against Kevin’s thigh. Later when the music ended, you became brighter and chattier. I wanted to just get up and leave, but my legs stuck to the floor.
Femi pulled out a paper and began to read a poem, something about love and obsession. When he ended, Kene said, “I hate it. It didn’t give me the fucking whoosh!”
Nenye read her own story. Kene scoffed and said, “Depressing.”
David read a story about students who died during a Boko Haram attack, and Kene said it was agenda writing.
You read a story about a girl becoming aware of her sexuality. It was almost about me. My eyes burned with tears. I held your eyes. And I realized this was love, this thing that always made words screw themselves over and leave me stammering before you. I wanted to say that the story was beautiful. But Kene beat me to it.
“It reads like a personal opinion masquerading as fiction,” he said.
I was offended. You weren’t. You smiled in that sincere way that was beginning to piss me off. And then you jotted down notes, making the fucker feel like he was the best thing to have happened to the group. I wanted to shake you until your teeth rattled. Then I wondered if you were in love with Kene.
Later, Kene read his own story. You could tell it was carefully written, studiously edited and languorously rewritten. But you didn’t take him on. Didn’t even see how he thought he sounded like God. Instead you sat there, the stupid smile tearing through your face and peeling your lips back.
“This story is so antiseptic,” I said. “I could as well soak my head in a bucket of bleach!”
Nenye’s jaw dropped.
Femi began to cough.
I could feel Nenye’s disdain. I could see Kevin’s hate. And the cold war began. We fought with our eyes, gathered guns and arrows and machetes and shot and slashed and attacked with our stares. All the while the air was swollen with anger and silence and hate. Others stood by and watched as the war rage. I would not budge for them, would not be intimidated by their sassiness and rudeness.
Femi began to laugh. “I love this babe!”
I turned to you. But you were watching Kene. He took his time folding his paper into tiny squares, his eyes glued to his task, his shoulder struggling to stay high. Then you looked at me. Then you smiled. I gave you the eye and you got up and said we had to leave. They did not attempt to call you back.
We walked out of the club, our hands clasped together. Outside, in a dark parking lot, you pulled me in a hug. The breeze was cool against my face. I gulped in air, to keep from crying, but my eyes burned still. For the first time, it felt so right, this affection, this thing that obliterated reasoning, leaving me in that space where hope fluttered, weakly at first, and then determinedly as I inhaled your scent of flowers and soap and cigarette and alcohol. It blossomed as I kissed your cheek and you didn’t cringe. It winged boldly, uncontrolled, as I kissed your neck. The trembling started in my stomach and then I was shaking. And then I was crying. And then you begged me not to cry. This was love. But it beckoned for a new name, so you would understand – because you were supposed to understand – that I wasn’t like every other girl. That I was meant for you. But you held my face, wiped my tears, called me, “My best-friend-sister.”
How do you weigh friendship? At what point should the other party begin to perceive that it has become something much more?
You lay on my bed, dressed just in your underwear, your head propped on the pillow, and you were saying something about the walls breathing fire, all the while your breasts hung atop your bra cups like large oranges on bottle corks. Liquid warmth swirled in my stomach. I was paralysed by it. I could not breathe well. I could barely hear you well as you talked about visiting home; about your town, Abeokuta, and its rocks and dusts and little rusted-roofed houses. But I was staring at your breasts, at the bulge that was your nipple, wondering when you would ever get it.
“You will love Abeokuta,” you said.
“I love you,” I said.
You sat up. You held my hands. You said, “Oh babe, I love you too. I want this to remain even after we marry our husbands and have our own children.”
It was then the anger clouded my vision. It raged, pulling down all my restraints and silences and hopelessness. You were supposed to be intelligent but how could you be so stupid, so blind? How could you not see something as simple as this?
“I love you like a boy does a girl.”
You dropped my hands.
“You are mad,” you said.
“Maybe… I …Papa always said there is something not right with me.”
You did not say I sounded stupid. Instead you cracked, your face crumpling and squeezing and morphing. You grew into someone else. Someone scary. You pulled the duvet to your chest. My initial bravado began to seep out of my pores.
“You are homosexual,” you said.
“I am different-sexual,” I whispered.
“What the fuck is…When did this begin?”
Your voice, it was cold, cold, cold. I stared at my palms and the words would not come.
This is how I remember it, Bisi. This is how you left me: you pulled on your dress. You slipped on your shoes. You grabbed your bag. You picked up your phone. You walked out of the door, without a second look back. Leaving only the memories. Of things that used to be; of things that never would be. You never came back. Your number is unreachable. And weeks later, ASUU embarked on an indefinite strike action.
Bisi, it has been five months and fourteen days since you left. School will re-open next week and I know I will begin to know what hell feels like. I will see your big eyes again. I will walk alone now. I will hurt every day. But it will get to that point when pain will begin to take hold. And then, I would begin to hold my head high.
I will slip this letter under your book when classes begin. I hope you read it. So you would know just how I remember us.
This story was originally published by Bloomsbury UK. It is republished with permission.