Before I found out the meaning of the word ‘effeminate’, I was already aware of how much of a girl I was. Then, I would have given a finger to become a dancer in a pop video, painting my lips and wearing wigs that cascaded to my waist. It was there, in my voice, in the hours I spent preening at myself in front of the mirror, the lip gloss I wore under the guise of Harmattan. In school, I was called girl-boy because my classmates said my hips swayed when I walked, because I was told that I could fling my arms and gesture more dramatically than the girls in my class. Later, I became Canary or Nightingale because no matter how hard I tried, my voice never had that masculinity of the other boys; instead it maintained the delicate wavering of a song. Sometimes, I would force out the baritone, to hear how the male voice sounded coming from my vocal chords, but I knew, even as I produced the sounds, that they weren’t mine, that this was not what I wanted to be – a version that conforms to the society, that has to be because being is the only way of acceptance.
I knew I liked boys when I got an erection the day a young uncle took a bath with me and his penis grazed my back when he scrubbed my leg. I was seven and aware. But I had no name for it. I didn’t know that there was a tag, an identity for my kind of person. I did not know there were others like me, people who looked at naked uncles and felt a stirring in the deep of their bodies.
I was nine when the neighbor’s son kissed me. It was a simple thing and ought to be treated as such – just a touch of lips because we wanted to play and there was no one to imitate mother – but there was no simplicity in the response I felt in my penis, straining against the fabric of my yellow cotton panties with an elastic band. There were more kisses as often as we played and then the suggestion: “Let’s act like I’m sleeping on you.” The neighbours moved the year the Belleview plane crashed, even though I prayed they would not leave. The only memory I have of him is his slurred speech.
There were others after him: Mayowa, the one behind the fence when darkness had fallen; Chibuike, the pastor’s son who interpreted every Sunday and shouted like his father; Austin, the one with the penis that leaked with just one touch; and John with the body odor and a faded Arsenal jersey. I was eager to discover, hungrily taking in but not sure of when to give out. I found out, after each sweaty kiss, each slippery fumble, each touch of penis and bottom that being gay was not like being in a swimming pool that gave one the freedom of entrance and exit, or a shirt that one could pull off or on easily. Being gay was as personal as your own skin.
I met Ibrahim when I gained admission into the university. It was the year I opened the door of my life and really told myself to live, to stop conforming, to open my box and go free. At first, the university was nothing I had expected it to be. The lecture theatre had broken seats and dangerously twisted metal. The windows had too much dust and the boards were unclean. I had expected something different, a glaring awareness that I had indeed said goodbye to secondary school, to the years of childish behavior. But I realized quickly that there was an awareness in the university, but becoming aware truly lied in my hands. I could be childish or mature or a cross of the two. Maturity in the university was a commonly required commodity that was not commonly utilized.
On the day I met I Ibrahim, I was shouting at a taxi driver. The driver, illiterate and full of the I-too-know attitude of unlearned people, was shouting back. Ibrahim intervened and then offered me a ride in his car. He was privileged, being a two-hundred level student who owned a car and lived alone. He was different from me, whose parents carefully asked questions and calculated my pocket money and rationed my foodstuffs. That you are in the university does not give room for wastage, they often said. Remember the son of whom you are.
Ibrahim met my parents when we had a Christmas break. We had gone past the awkward stage of sexuality questions and what we really wanted. I wanted Ibrahim, and he wanted me. It did not matter how or why. Wanting someone, loving them meant you were comfortable with them, trusted them. And it was exactly how I felt with Ibrahim, like I could stand on a table with broken legs and never fall. He and my father bonded because my father was pleased that I had made friends with a fellow Muslim and an older person who could act as a guardian and make sure I never misbehaved. My mother called him respectful, laughed at his jokes and asked about his family. Would he like some Fura or did he prefer beske? I sat demurely across from them in the living room, and watched them as though they were actors in a story I loved. This was happiness, never mind that some of it was built on pretense.
After their meeting, approval became something my parents gave freely. Yes, you can move in with him. Of course you can spend Sallah at their place. Give Alhaja this hijab for me. Tell her barka se sallah. It was too normal to attract questions.
The first time Ibrahim slapped me was on a Tuesday. I remember even now, how dusty that day was. Earlier that day, I had gone for a lecture that was canceled because the lecturer could not find fuel and since it would be a waste of money, I spent the afternoon with my friends, talking about forgiveness and how annoying it was that MTN had to make their subscribers register one SIM card a hundred times. When I got home, night had descended like a wrapper and shrouded everything.
“Babe, what’s up?” I said when I got in.
Ibrahim was reading a book. He liked to read in the evenings. An empty cup sat on the table like royalty.
“What were you doing in school that kept you so long?” he asked without looking up.
I put down my bag, reached for the cup, filled it with water and drank before I answered. “Just the normal now. You know our school,” I said. I flopped down on the mattress.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
I turned to look at him. He dropped the book and now faced me. The air around us began to move slowly.
“What happened?” I asked, sitting up.
“I called someone in your department and she told me you guys had no lecture today. So what were you doing in school till this time?”
I exhaled and smiled. “I like it when you are jealous. It makes me feel special.”
I stood up to begin with dinner but he stood in my way. I stopped, taken aback. He had never acted that way before.
“Where. Are. You. Coming. From?” he asked with a deliberate slowness, seeming to put a distinctive stress on each word.
I frowned. “Where else –?”
The rest of my sentence was disrupted by the slap. I felt his palm land heavily on my cheek. I was dumbfounded. I gaped at him in shock. In all the months of our relationship, months of sex and gentle whispers, months when the dusty wind settled on clean pots and plates, he had never struck me.
I found my voice slowly. Even as I spoke, it felt like someone was borrowing my body, speaking with my voice, using my brain.
“Ibrahim,” I said and nothing else. The power to make coherent speech had eluded me, fled like a bird flees from the stones of a child’s catapult.
“You are no longer who you used to be,” he gritted out. Then he turned and stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
After he left, I touched my cheek again to be sure that what happened was real, that I had not imagined it or played it out in my head. The normalcy of the room surprised me, how the curtains fluttered insouciantly, how loudly someone from the next room laughed, how regally the cup sat on the table. Perhaps he was angry about something, I told myself, but even then the stupidity of my reason glared back at me. But I repeated it to myself, fed myself a truth that I needed to believe.
Ibrahim did not come home that night. He returned the next morning, when the noise of Morning Prayer call pushed against the windows.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I stared at him. I did not know what to say or do.
He reached for my hands and held them in his.
“I’m sorry I acted that way. I’m really sorry. I don’t know what came over me, I swear.”
It became a mime, his voice saying sorry, his hands squeezing mine gently, then his lips on mine. It moved into a kiss and then there was the urgency of need binding us together, of unsaid apologies. It was there, in his thrusts, his moans in my ear, our muffled voices blending together. When he slipped out and unrolled the soiled condom, we showered and then went for the morning prayers.
The next time he hit me was a week after that day. A classmate had called; a male classmate whom Ibrahim said had the tendencies of being gay the first day they met, a classmate who could make even a stone statue laugh. Ibrahim and I had been cuddling when the phone rang and I disengaged from him so I could pick the call.
It was a simple question: “Did the lecturer for BCH 212 say he would come by two or not?” which got a direct “No”. And then the call moved on to how annoying the lecturers were and how tiring our school was and how it seemed like four hundred level and convocation was a lifetime away and why we needed to have a new course rep. A minute passed, and then two, then five, and we were still on the phone, laughing and exchanging annoying instances of mistreatment of students by lecturers. Ibrahim stood up, filled a glass, gulped it, parted the curtains, flipped through a textbook and closed it again, then finally snatched the phone from my ears and ended the call.
“What is the meaning of this one na, Ibrahim?” I asked. Outside the window, a pepper seller trudged by. Her wrapper was green colored, the light green of a beer bottle.
“Oh,” he said in the way that one does to draw attention to a ridiculous thing. “So it has now gotten to the point where your lover can call you at home, ehn?”
I laughed. “Lover indeed. Since when did you and I become married that I should have a lover?”
The phone began to ring again. I stood up and reached for it on the bed.
“Pick that call and I’ll show you what I can do,” he growled.
I laughed. He joked with things like that often, usually the things he could do ending up as kisses and probably sex. “You have taken something, I know. Hello jaré,” I said and placed the phone to my ear.
The force of the slap pushed the phone from my hand to the floor and dismembered it. I was stunned into silence.
“So I’ve taken weed, abi?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he pounced on me. His slaps descended on my face, the dryness of his palm sweeping across my mouth.
“Ibrahim!” I choked out
But he silenced me. A punch on my back, my face. He was speaking and hitting me at the same time. “You are nothing but a fucking slut, fucking guys when I am not around!” Punch! “You think I don’t know? You think I don’t?” Punch, punch!
I struggled but I could not be rid of him. I reached for his shirt and held the collar, slackened it. I wished I were as masculine as he, wished that I was not effeminate so I could match his punches with mine and draw blood. He stopped finally, breathing heavily. I knew I had to leave then, pack up every remainder of my dignity and never look back. But leaving was not an issue. I could move in with a friend till I was settled, but the real issue was how to leave, how to construct reasons for my leaving.
I was sore when I woke up the next morning. I had a cut on my lower lip and a throbbing headache. When I went into the bathroom to take my bath, Ibrahim was praying, the ends of his jellabiya grazed the floor. It seemed ironical – was ironical – that he could pray with such sanguine serenity after what happened. But then, it was more ironical that we, in the months of our relationship, could pray and then fuck thereafter.
Everyone wanted to know why I had a swollen lip.
“You will not believe,” I told them as we sat under a tree, “thieves came to our hostel yesterday o. In fact, my roommate had to go to the clinic to get bandage. He was badly beaten!”
“Thieves, in this area?” Amaka asked, surprised.
“I’m very sure it will be those new one hundred level students or those jobless guys in this town,” Deolu said.
Everyone laughed. I could not tell Deolu that it was his call that gave me a swollen lip and the soreness in my body.
“But you sef, you dull o! When you go dey do like woman,” Iyke said. He was the oldest in our department and had hairy chest and smooth arms. He always spoke Pidgin English. “Thief come your villa, you no fit attack them. Your matter tire me o. If na to talk who get nyash pass Beyoncé, na you go dey scream.”
I smiled, embarrassed. But there was no way I could stand up to Ibrahim. I could never match him. In secondary school, I carefully avoided fights with the guys and paired with the girls. It was easier to say “I don’t beat girls” or engage in a battle of slaps and clapping hands with them if the worst came to be.
When I returned home, Ibrahim was on the phone. I walked past him and laid on the bed.
“Your mum wants to speak with you,” he said and handed the phone to me.
I took it without looking at him. “Hello?”
“Ahmed, so you have started walking with bad boys, abi?” my mother screeched entirely in Yoruba. She did not reply my hello.
“Ma? Who told –” I began but was cut short.
“Shut up! Ibrahim is lying, abi? You have crossed to two hundred level and can now do what you want, abi beeko? Ika kan o wo e n’di mo!“
I was angry. Since when did my mother start to value the opinion of others and not mine?
“But you should listen to me and hear my own side now, Mummy,” I complained.
“What is there to hear?”
I breathed heavily and glared at Ibrahim.
“Be careful, Ahmed. Be very careful. It is your gourd that will point where it will be tied to. Give the phone to Ibrahim.”
I knew then that I was fighting a lost battle, that I was trapped in an airless room. I wondered how long I could stay before I passed out.
I don’t blame people who go back to people who keep hurting them or stay in a hopeless place and never leave. You shouldn’t judge them too. We all have our reasons for going back to our vomit. For me, I stayed with Ibrahim because he had the same tag as I did: he was gay. I had no one to talk to about him, no friends who were gay and understood what it felt like to be restricted to only one option, nobody who wanted to hear you say you are gay without wanting to throw a tyre round your neck and burn you, or parade you naked with taunts of how you are a disgrace to manhood and how it was utterly senseless that one would leave soft and fleshy pussy for shit-hole. But now that I think about it, I think I stayed because nobody believed that abuse could happen in a gay relationship. My friend Amanda – whose sister had recently divorced her husband, who liked to hit her – had once said in her Ghanaian-accented English that it was only in straight relationships that such things are heard of. “I mean,” she’d said while brushing her hair out of face, “why would a guy even date a guy in first place? He deserves to have some sense beaten into him.”
I took her in words in silence, just as I took Ibrahim’s abuse in silence. The slap at the bus stop, the yank at the ear for talking to a guy at ShopRite, the seizing of the phone and damage to my sim card, the violent sex that left me sore and bleeding, the tears in the bathroom. I never told anyone and I never fought back. Once, he burnt my shirt because he said a guy bought it for me. Once, he flogged me with a belt because I refused to have sex with him. How could I be tired? Just how? I had gone to fuck another guy, right? I wanted to leave him, right? And afterwards, he would buy me medicine, cook me dinner or lunch, do the laundry and say Astagafurullahi. Then he would pray. He never missed any of the prayer hours.
I left him when I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. It was the third year of our relationship. I simply picked my school books and left. I left my phone and new Sim card in his place, left everything he bought me, which was almost everything I owned. I prayed that if God would kill me, then it should not be that way.
My mother was aghast. Why could I leave my best friend of all these years for no reason, she wanted to know. My father too. Ibrahim sent countless messages, got my new number from my mother and wouldn’t stop texting, asking what he did wrong and why I left. My mother would not hear of it. However I silenced her one night when I said to her, “If someone not from this household can make you lose trust in your child, then I wonder why you call me your child in first place.”
My father knew they were knocking on a closed door that night. “Leave him alone, Ummuani,” he said to her. “Can’t you hear?”
I took control of my own life when I realized the person I trusted it with was kicking it around like a ball. But it took me three years. Three years of being raped by a guy like me, three years of taunts and jeers, three years of silent tears, three years of chasing empty air, three years of everlasting scars. It took me that long. These things happen, but no one ever wants to talk about it because no one wants to listen, because if they even listen, it would be to mock and deride and condemn afterwards. Not everybody truly cares if your limp is from fashion or because you have a thorn underfoot.
There was a long silence after his monologue ended. He’d expected it. What he had not expected though was the lightness he felt in his soul after he unburdened himself to her. He watched her reach into her handbag to bring out a tissue.
“Here,” she said, handing the tissue to him.
“Oh.” He’d not been aware of the tears gliding down his own cheeks. But he was aware of the cool evening breeze on his arms. “Thank you.” He accepted the tissue.
“You know, my fiancé too was like that,” she said, licking her lips and studying her nails.
“Yes. But no one cared. My people were more interested in marrying me off.”
He glanced at her hands to see if there was a ring. He was not sure he saw one earlier. She caught his glance.
“Oh I left,” she said.
“You left?” He turned to look at her.
“Yes, I did. On the morning of my wedding. I had already dressed, standing in my wedding dress before the mirror, and looking at my future while married to him. I did not like what I saw. So I left. It was a major scandal though. I thought the world would end.”
She chuckled, a brave chuckle, the chuckle of people who have moved on from something and did not need sympathy anymore. “Don’t be. I realized I owned my own life. My parents severed all ties with me though. Yesterday, I ran into my mother at the mall and she simply walked past me and continued shopping.” Her voice began to quiver. “It hurt me though, because I thought she would understand. She is my mother after all.” She sniffed and reached for more tissue from her bag. She dabbed at her nose elegantly.
He moved closer and pulled her into his arms, into an embrace that understood. “My parents don’t know I’m gay yet and are expecting grandchildren. I wonder what will happen when they find out.”
“You can leave too, you know,” she said and then burst out laughing.
He stared at her first and then joined in the laughter. Their voices rose with their mirth.
“But it would never be the same,” she said, still laughing.
“No, it wouldn’t,” he agreed.
He did not know who began to cry first, but he was aware of passersby staring at them – the effeminate man with brightly coloured clothes and ankle-length boots, and the beautiful woman with sable-lined coat and elegant chignon, sitting on the park bench and crying together.
Written by La-Coozee