I was 12 when things began to fall apart. My father’s rage tangled in his hair like a super-coil and in seconds, his bitterness fell off his lips and rolled into ours. His voice changed, his milieu, vile as though he regretted in every possible way being there in our lives. And deep down within him, in his forlorn brittle mind, I knew I had already lost him.
But once upon a time, in those good old days, he used to be so beautiful, this man, in his clean spurge of laughs, in his titillating streaks. He used to be a dreamer. I still remember what he looked like before: how boldly scenic was the recoil of the chin, the contour of his lips bending in stellate grandeur to our new house in Umuahia.
I remember all his burned photo albums, and this picture he took after the war which, locked in a glass frame, breathed an old memory to life. There were twelve white people in the picture and most of them, young men who, in their fraying shorts and sallow wool shirts, smiled with earned grace. My father used to say they were good American men that helped during the war. And some, in their charisma, gave him the best French wine he had ever seen.
They took him to the best resort in Ibadan; they made his life spin even as the country burned down. He used to laugh about that time but used to be sad too, that quietly, that same memory, in its yore years, was now slipping away. Yet when our neighbors would come by and see the picture hanging on the wall like a low hat, they’d be, in their very sudden surprise, smitten.
“Your fada no be small man oo,” some said.
“He don blow ooo. Na oga pata pata be that!”
What it felt like to have a picture with white people then was a wild thing. A higher echelon of respect! It felt like a new sprung time that, although it weighed beyond their knees, still smelled of wealth. My father – trust that man – carried the whole thing on his head, always bored me out with smiles when he talked. And with my mother alongside him, he kept us all alive; he made us dream. Until the day he looked at me and only saw nothing but a spoiled damaged son who was being possessed by the devil, and then everything fell apart.
l was only 12 when it did happen. He ceded to this deep-pitted darkness. He slipped. On that day, he threw me on the glass table in our sitting room and had my back break it to pieces. My shirt was slit into pores and the glass rumbled everywhere, getting a firm hold of blood beneath. I could feel the glass thrust into my skin with the harshest pain, and combined with fear. When I fell, our TV set with the old VCD cassettes fell on me too. Some got dismantled. There were lots of discs on each rack, and were more of American song albums my uncles would buy from Kuala-Lumpur.
While trying to roll away from my father, I looked out through the front door and my eyes caught the stale old trees and pebbles blending with the light, the sound of cars reverberating through ill-painted walls, and the color of steel against the sun. Steep gabled roofs, leaves, silver lines, and low-hanging poles, then everything else sauntering in detailed semblance. The rain drizzled but was concealed by a blend of lives and small things. And at that moment, all I ever dreamed of doing was to run away from my parents, to join the outside world, and to beg my neighbors to adopt me.
You know this thing about most childhoods, where when your father wrongs you in any way or makes you feel bitter about him, maybe by how he talked to your mother in front of you or how he just talked, you begin to imagine how you would break a bottle on his head, bang the gate to his face and then run away forever. When you finally leave at that tiny age, God by miracle takes you to a better city where you’d spend rough yet whooping years; you’d suffer small maybe by being a rich man’s houseboy. Then later you make it in life. And after you make that money, you’d come back to your father’s house and tell him you do not regret any of it; you do not regret making him suffer your disappearance. He will then tell you sorry, that at that time, he was a bad man, that he was a terrible human being with no love in his heart. After you give him a second chance, things would become normal again. I pictured that moment every day from there on, when my father would alas be on his knees and beg.
He flung me on a glass table and called me an eejit, didn’t care to pity me, didn’t think twice. I wanted the pain to go away so badly and someone somehow would hold me up and tell me something worthwhile, because at that time, my 12-year-old self, same as the glass, was breaking into pieces. I was on my own. When I fell, it felt like a hurricane, like the world spun around me and I didn’t know the worst sound to utter, just to show how broken I was. Tears froze.
Should I have had to keep my lips this way or that way, so whatever pain I expressed would let him pity me? Should I have lain back there on the glass, not knowing whether shedding a tear was the right thing to do? I did not know.
“Be a man!” my mind told me. “Just be a man!”
My mother stood by the kitchenette. Her cerise blouse, a bit gentle against her chest merged with sun rays that seeped into the sequins of her skirt. She had a pair of rubber shoes on. Her hair, deep in grey. She could tell this time that he had done the worst thing a father could do, that he had crossed the line, yet from a distance, it felt good; it felt really pleasing. I didn’t understand her gazing glassy eyes – how pitiably they stared, yet they tried to damage me in every slow blink. At that moment, unbeknownst to her, she vanished.
My father picked me up again, and a little too hard this time, and told me to repeat after him:
“You cannot be possessed by the devil”
“Say it!” He said.
And I said: “I cannot be possessed by the devil!”
“Say it again!” He said. And I said it again. And again. Three more times. Then he tried to let me go, uncertain whether either he or I was wrong.
Could it have been the right thing to do to my own son? – That was the question that lay bare on his look.
What have I done? – There another question lay again, but this time in a mantle of regrets. Alas, he let go of me and retired to the rocking chair that leaned against the mahogany desk. He was tired, you could tell, his hands, sore, and his eyes inflamed. He was so very tired. My mother afterward, brought him a cup of lemon tea and patted his chest.
“Ozugo I nu,” she said. Then he silently stood, looked at me and walked away.
I was 13 when he said if I continued this way, he’d send me to the devil himself.
“Because the world would only be purer without an ‘eejit’ like you!” He said.
In a year like 2002, being “me” was like being stuck in a loophole of mouths that dimmed your strength. You don’t get to see yourself again. You don’t get to breathe. That was what it felt like. In a year like 2002, 13 years of age was an intro to manhood. You had to go for catechism, had to learn how to do business, how to mingle with the big boys and speak good Pidgin, how to carry cement blocks. There were woods too, so you had to wield an axe, and then you cut.
You wield that axe in a grip like you’re in control of your world even if you’re hungry to let go. You take it down, break that wood into pieces. Conquer it; prove to it that you are metal. Strong! A beacon, like alas you have destroyed all your weaknesses. And you become that man.
That was what it felt like. Your voice had to be bass. Hairs were important too; it was a sign that you could prove something, that now, whether 13 or older, you were already a man. But if you looked at me! My body. My bones. Or even my style of gait. Did I fit into any of those? Did I aspire to fit into them even if it meant wielding an axe, cutting and destroying all my weaknesses? No! You could tell I wouldn’t be that sort of man. I wouldn’t. ‘I was weak.’
But did I want to be free; did I want to be the kind of ‘me’ that made my life spin? Well, yes. Yes to that! Yes to my body, my soul. I wanted ‘all of me’ to feel good, to feel alive again. I loved coloured pencils and long hair. Bold spangly clothes. Women’s make-up and its undeniable power – those lessons learned from foundations and concealers. Even at 13, the age of manhood, I still loved them! And I wanted my father to love the fact that I loved them. But would it have happened, my father loving me that way? Repugnant!
I remember that Christmas when my father traveled to Gabon and I told him this:
“Daddy, please buy me eye pencils!” I think I was 11 then. Till today, I still believe it’s the most shameful thing I’ve ever had to say. I don’t know how I thought of that, how I said that. Was I consumed by the desire to live? I didn’t know but I said it anyways. And he replied:
“What is that supposed to mean Mr. Man? Just take a look at yourself, Obinze. Look at your brother! Don’t you see him? Don’t you want to be like him?” My father said.
The revolting truth was my father was a pastor. And he owned this big booming church in Umuahia, lying across the hearts of hundreds, welcoming reverence and disrepute, poverty and wealth. My father was other things: a husband, a friend, an enemy. You’d only have to exist with each platter of him. And having a son like me, a frail son that didn’t appeal to the good tastes of manhood was only a dent to his image. So he had to do something, everything in his power to change me. But I didn’t blame him. I didn’t know how to. I would do that to my own son if I were in his shoes. I would go to all lengths to break that boy just for him to change. But if my father cared to be in my own shoes, he’d know my world was really falling apart. And he was making it more painful.
That’s what happens in a world where one is powerless. You cede. Do you know why my father threw me on our glass table that year? It was because I wore my mother’s wig and with lipsticks on, gele tied to my hair, I walked to the corridor and danced to Michael Jackson’s Billy Jeans like I didn’t care.
I was 14 when Uncle Ossai suggested I go to boarding school. It was the best school in Umuahia. King Solomon’s School of Art. A privatized property and now owned by Mr. Ossai and Sons Ltd. The thing about secondary school was this: I had to deal with the boys. Boys that weren’t like me – you know. So there’s always going to be this particular boy. An animal from the senior class who’d forsake all his lessons, come over to yours and throw urine-damped papers at you. He’d sap you of all your nights and poison you until you leave. And for me, in my school, his name was Balogun. And there’s always going to be the girl. Your best friend, the only friend. And just as she has called herself – a star televised in a view, you’d giggle at her jokes and responsively, she’d giggle at yours. For me, her name was Franny.
I was 14 when I saw the first boy to be sexually assaulted. During night prep at school, Balogun, the Big-G of boy’s hostel sauntered into the hall, stood on the podium, and began to bellow:
“Francis na homo! Come see ooo. Francis na homo! You be gay?” He made him the spotlight. But I laughed. I didn’t know why, but I did laugh. Maybe because it wasn’t me this time and Francis in all ramifications, was more female-inclined than I was and in a very stupid sense, suited the profile. I didn’t really know why I laughed because it could have been me. Then trust the entire boys there! They booed at him and tried to mimic his ‘off-putting’ gait. You know – like a girl. The Balogun everybody hailed came over to his table, pulled out his penis, and dangled it whilst trying to shove it into his mouth. “Suck it!” He laughed.
The day my father threw me on the glass and didn’t do anything to help me, I knew he would never win again. So Balogun doing that horrible thing to Francis, trying to feel egoistic about everything useless going on in his head, that didn’t make him win. No! So Francis said:
“Go to hell, Balogun!”
“So small thing like dis, you don dey vex nah. Baby girl like you. Oya sorry cutie. I love you nwa!” Sarcastically, he said. Then, I just left.
PS: Francis wasn’t gay. I am not gay. I didn’t have any of those proclivities and there’s nothing wrong with it at all, but he wasn’t a homosexual. He told me. We just happened to be effeminate. A boy-girl. We just happened to be like that. But we weren’t gay.
The thing was this really, nobody cared to ask how it felt to be us, you know. They just saw us, those boys, as the weakness they didn’t want to be around with. Were we bleeding? Were we truly comfortable the way we were? Were we at peace? Well, nobody asked. 2003 was a pensive year for me – full of wild things and regrets. There was this tree branch stuck to a pole right outside our Government Hall, or the pole rather seemed stuck to the branch. Or perhaps they were stuck to each other. But if you looked deeply into the whole story, you’d see they were just like us – stuck, consumed by this cemetery of loss. Because here I was, in my father’s light-green duplex, and in the best secondary school in Umuahia, yet never did I find peace in any. I was bullied by my father, my mother, my brother, my school. Everybody. I was humiliated by most of them, telling me to change, to be a ‘responsible child of God,’ because I was obliterating the world order.
”Stop confusing men with your waist, abeg. You’re a man!” They’d say, just because I walked ‘somehow’. Balogun assaulted that boy in public and nobody said anything, not even the school prefects. I couldn’t toss a needle. There was this boy that I wanted to befriend too. His name was Yagazie. That boy was smart to the very core. Jesus! Really. He was the Albert Einstein of the entire school; he played football. I bet Spanish League would sign him because that leg-thing he used to do, like Maradonna, I’ve never seen it in my life. But I was funny in contrast. He wasn’t. I could sing a little well-off and do this Shakira-thing, you know. The ‘twerking’. And I so badly wanted to be friends with this boy. Then when I told him about it on the school field during our Inter-house Sports, he suddenly pushed me down in front of the girls and told me to stay ‘the hell’ away from him.
Did he think I wanted to touch him? Like why do you all have to bully someone in public? Can’t you just simply do it inside so that I can easily swallow it and be fine? Why in front of the girls? But that was how I met Franny in the end. And from there, after she helped me get up, we began to talk. I told her everything. I snuck up to her during classes because I was hiding from Balogun and I was ashamed that Yagazie would see me.
“Hope you’re okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine. Thank you”
“Some of these boys are too ugly for the kind of attitude they give. I pity the women they will marry sha!” She said.
“I know right. I can’t wait to leave this rubbish school. I just want to be rich one day, Franny. Rich that when someone says this shoe is ten thousand dollars, I’ll just be like, ‘oh, that’s fair’!” I said.
“Your own is even small sef. I just want to be too rich that I’ll brush my teeth in Canada, have breakfast in Japan, go shopping in Liverpool, and continue my flight to Singapore. I don’t like that America sef. The gun thing is too much. And then I’ll fall in love with this fine Korean man in Paris. I want to be stinking rich, boy!” She said. “God! I just need one hundred zillion trillion million dollars now-now. God I dey beg!”
And we just laughed our sorrows out. We laughed them all out and ate potato chips.
“And to hell with this country sef. To hell with it!”
But that same year, later on, our school was split into two. The girls had to switch to a new location in Aba and had their own brand new name – Queen Elizabeth School of Arts, whilst all the boys remained in Umuahia. Uncle Ossai was trying to expand his business in the education sector especially now that privatizing our school earned him a name in the East. And he needed the Catholic Diocese to be involved, hence the split. Franny would be gone, we both divided by space. And I, left with just the boys.
I was 16 when, after the holidays, the most horrible thing happened. I never believed my body would shelve it in and let go. Like how?! After Christmas with my parents in Ibadan, we returned to Umuahia at New Year. The good thing about spending the holidays in Ibadan, besides the smothering evangelism my brother and I had to do, was that I got to see Meniru again. She was this Serena Williams of kindness, the only one that I could lean on, you know. My tom-boy. If you listen to fables, you’d hear them say tom-boys are the best friends to have. They are not really fans of chit-chats but they know when to talk and listen to you. They knew how to glue fragments of your skins. And with Meniru in my life, that saying was real.
I was 16 when she told me she was a lesbian and liked this girl she first saw during Ramadan.
“But I’m somehow afraid for her too,” Meniru said. And I asked:
“They’re Muslims, her family. And she’s trying to cure herself from you know, the ‘spirit of lesbianism’. But I like her so much. And somehow, she likes me too. I’m even teaching her how to speak Igbo.” She said. “Her name’s Awwal.”
But after Meniru’s uncle found out about their thing, they decided to send her to a rehabilitation center at Yaba. And I never saw her again. I still recall how my mother shrieked and smeared that morning whilst we were having breakfast and prayed to God to save the world from Armageddon. My sixteenth year with Meniru was our farewell year in Ibadan. And with an exchange of kisses and letters, we still tried to hold each other’s hands. But I still never saw her again. And I told Franny about her, how much I was afraid that mayn’t have survived, how much I prayed for Awwal wherever she may have been. When I remember my 16-year-old self, I remember sadness; I remember emptiness, my father’s rage, the scars freckled on my skin, the glass, school. I remember.
You know, that year was the same year I lost my virginity. Not in a good way, you could tell but I was 16 when that worst thing happened to me. I thought it would have been Meniru or something else, but no! It was me this time. After the holidays I got back home to Umuahia. And our school was to kick off officially the next week. The vibes, the outbursts of youth, friends, best friends, gossip, and the rest of them, everything combined, took us into a foreign dispensation. And I loved it. The blocks were now newly painted, toilet seats changed, and horrid gutters were powerfully redone. And new lawn mowers had already been bought to ease with the grass. Beside the canteen later at night was where Balogun and some other touts saw me and pulled me to, tossed me aside as a welcome-to-a-new-dispensation revelry. And in my mind, all I mumbled was this:
“These idiots again! Where is Francis, O Lord! Why didn’t they take him! Like why?”
The night came at its core. Nobody ambled past the area. We were all alone. Balogun spun me around and pulled off my shorts. They all began to spice his morale like finally, they had seen a woman.
“What are you doing?!” I looked at him. He didn’t say a word. Nobody did, just a strong flare of laughs waltzing the void. His self-aggrandizement seeped up as he pushed me to the grass. He grunted and told me to shut up. When he bounced on my back then, I could feel his ruthlessness against me, could feel his world. I grabbed him by the ear, squeezed it, and told him to quit whatever he was trying to do.
“Balogun!” I screamed. “Balogun!”
Nothing! He was becoming raspy with his body, uptight and intense. He was giving in. He unzipped himself, pulled out his penis, and thrust it into me. My head imploded and I didn’t know what to call what was happening. He kept plunging in, digging and digging, clinching my mouth meanly as the sprinkles of his sweats rebelled. Then I let him continue because I was tired. I was weak. He slapped me, spat on me, and with his hands tearing against my nipple, he called me horrible names to sweeten him more. He tried pulling me over, tried getting comfortable but I restrained. When he was done with his round, another boy stepped in and dug in. Then the next. Four of them, ravaging my body, folding my mind. They didn’t even think to take it slowly, didn’t notice I could feel my skin tear within. This wasn’t porn, you know; this wasn’t their wild sexual fantasies. This was real life. It was me lying right there replacing the vagina they could have torn. It was me this time, begging them to just kill me and pretend it was only a likely fall. I clinched unto the sand as my body fractioned in pain, as I felt them all release into me, until a house master shone his torchlight toward our path, and they stood and all ran away. I began to cry. When the housemaster ran over to me, he picked me up in a flash and noticed I was bleeding between my legs. My body was deadened and my mind as broken as it was, winged back swiftly to the day my father threw me on that glass. Blood trickled out to the ground. My skin, sore.
Then our house master asked:
“Who did this to you, Obinze?! Did they…?! Tell me.” He couldn’t even say the word “rape” not that it was going to change anything.
Well, you may begin to wonder: was my entire life really that sad as I may have written? Didn’t I have good times, congruous days, you know, the laughter and the classics. Did being effeminate model brilliantly my will to live? Well yes, just like being the best graduating student at YabaTech just years ago, to which Uncle Ossai handed me his credit card to buy whatever ‘the hell’ I wanted: a new iPhone X max for my Instagram, a tripod-stand and a camera because I was planning on starting YouTube, make-up kits and spruce designer clothes from brands like Zara to slay on Instagram.
“Waste it, nwa!” Uncle Ossai laughed. “Don’t have mercy on that ATM oo.”
I could have never been more loved, you know.
Then I said: “Thank you so much, sir!” And I showed no mercy to that ATM.
The first time I ended up trying TikTok, I was on a trip to Japan with Franny for a social media influence workshop. Tokyo was a blockbuster hit; the streets were very well dashing in neon signs and the landscapes and rails you wouldn’t see in Nigeria, just blew my mind. The people were all weird at first because we were black but in the end, terrifically enjoyable. And Japan, being a little more progressive with American Hollywood influence, I could wear crop-tops and ‘alté’ jeans as a boy and fucking slay on those bullet trains.
There were many other good memories too, electric ones. And yes, I may have had all those sweet moments, may have outgrown my father’s rage, or perhaps reconciled my body with my mind. But deep inside, I was still bleeding, still being afraid of people, of boys. Still being a bit unable to wear my own skin the way I sought best. And I was still frightful of falling in love with a girl because I was ashamed. I wasn’t completely ‘the full-time functioning man’ you know, or ‘the kind of man with six-packs.’ Then she would look at me with those weird looks, as the typical Nigerian girl she is, and feel like she was romancing her own sister. Well, I wouldn’t blame her. I wasn’t the Tom Cruise she dreamed of or her very own Henry Carville. I was still hurting nonetheless because at sixteen I was raped at school and a part of me fell apart. And as a boy, you don’t get to talk about those things. You don’t get to speak your pain. You don’t get to say ‘a man raped me’ because it wouldn’t make sense. It was only a girl thing to be raped, you know. You’re a boy, so instinctively, you do the raping.
But over these transatlantic years, and those I’ve spent back home, I’ve learned one thing and which is this; finding peace with the past, with the present, with the future, with my body, my mind, and soul, and with all the lives I have loathed, is a choice I’ll always make. Even though I am yet to find that peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Onukwube Ifeanyichukwu Chidera is a 20-years-old Dental Student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is a big fan of Indian and American literature, but his works dwell more on short stories and poetry. If he’s not writing stories, he’s on Netflix or just studying medical textbooks and eating pancakes. Sometime in the future, he hopes to publish a novel.