‘An Analysis of a Fragile Affair’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
In the very beginning, the stage was empty. Only lights flickered and curtains swirled.
Then a boy appeared, closely followed by a man, and it happened that they were having an affair or something close to that.
It was a fragile one, this affair, so delicate that the boy and the man guarded it with cupped hands, so tender that a whisper could crack it open. The boy and the man knew all that, and they were determined to save it by any means. But nothing could salvage a relationship built on quicksand, specially created for doom. Not silence. Not held breaths. Not cupped hands. Not denial. Not pretence.
Not even prayers.
Below is an analysis of how it shattered in the hands of its custodians.
The boy used to live in a self-invented world. Librosphere, he named it. In Librosphere, people hugged him without frowning, without giving a fuck about his freckles and keloids. He befriended guys with American and Jamaican swag. They all thought he was the maddest thing after orgasm. As for boyfriends, he swapped them like SIM cards.
Nobody cared for his
a) figure-eight body
b) shakara gait
c) wobo-wobo wrist
d) ajebutter voice
Needless to say, everyone accepted him despite his
e) pussy eyes
f) shiny-shiny eyeballs
g) pepper skin
No one asked embarrassing questions, like:
a) so you don’t see well-well in the sun?
b) does your skin break because you consume plenty-plenty salt and pepper?
c) how many fingers am I raising?
d) do you release pink sperm or what?
e) can somebody catch albinism like HIV, abi how?
The boy didn’t even feel like an albino in Librosphere. There, he was black skinned like everyone else. His TV didn’t display mutilated albinos in Tanzanian forests, hiding from their hunters or albino babies abandoned by their mothers in hospitals, their veins red and bloated from crying. He didn’t have to sit very close to the TV to see the images clearly. Nor did he have to wear those yeye specs that saw nothing.
In Librosphere, Daddie gave him three gboza, called him his correct pikin, offered him shots: Ogogoro, Calypso, Operation-Burn-Me-Alive.
Mummie didn’t beg him to:
a) smile small-small
b) twerk small-small
c) waka like correct man
d) clear his throat well-well before talking, so that, perhaps, he’d sound like a man
But in the legit world, away from Librosphere, nights came hard and fast like agberos; cycads threw tall shadows against the walls; harmattans brought a whole baggage of wahala; rains fell with fierce winds and fruits yellowed sharp-sharp and dropped like jara. Daddie warned Mummie to better go and find the boy’s papa for him before he closed and opened his eyes. And the guys in the yard yabbed him—an albino boygirl who sashayed like a Sisi Eko, who made iyanga like a tolotolo.
When the man first DMed the boy, he was still trapped in Librosphere. He fell for his good morning, spelt in full, not gm or gudmorn. He didn’t ask for the man’s photos or sweat over the age difference. There was no shaking at all in Librosphere. Nothing like ‘Can I think about it and get back to you?’
They started dating sharp-sharp. The boy was bursting the man’s brains with fake stories from Librosphere. The man believed them like a mugu. Two months later, they met. It was the boy who carried himself all the way from Asaba to visit the man in Lagos. He was a complete sugar-daddy—rock face, balloon belly and a thick breath that reminded the boy of pigs snorting. Not that the boy minded though. Nothing was impossible in Librosphere, so he was able to recreate the man. He rubbed pomade on the rock face and clipped off fat from his belly. The man was young again: eyes sharp like a thief’s torchlight, muscles hot like fire, abs tight and shaped like corrugated roofing.
The man hated sissies because, one look at them, you could tell they were gay. You couldn’t be a sissy and not be gay. You couldn’t be gay and be safe. In Ikorodu, for instance, area boys lit up a guy’s balls for shaking his ikebe like an ashawo-miss-road. Another, because he bent his hands like a crab while talking, was cornered and caught feeding on another man’s prick. They had to wire the police 60K each, or did they want to drink piss in Kirikiri for 14 years? Did they want the police to break the news of their gayism to their families?
Because the man hated sissies, the boy shrouded his real self until they met. The man wanted to reverse his car when he spotted the boy. He’d looked better, at least manageable, on the phone screen.
Now, the man could see him clean and clear. Apart from his effeminacy, his albinism was severe. He couldn’t read signposts even with his specs on. He groped for things in the full gaze of fluorescents. And later, when they fucked, the man discovered the keloids on his back which he called skin cancers, caused by overexposure to the sun.
It irritated the man, the wetin-concern-me tone with which the boy said skin cancers. His voice remained normal, uninflected. He shrugged as if he was describing a squashed housefly. The urge to leave him struck the man again. But he shrugged it off. Finding a softie like the boy was like finding peace in a Lagos go-slow.
Three years after that night, and here they are, analysing dead feelings as if, by so doing, they could bring stones to life. The boy’s voice sounds robotic on the phone, and the man supposes it’s because they are now separated by seas and sands. After the call ends, the man’s tears finally betray him. He is sitting on the rug in his study, trembling, chewing on a biro lid. The rain is thick like akamu against the windowpanes. His eyes are red and swollen like he’d emptied 10 bottles of ogogoro and slept in a smoky room. The boy has slipped out of his reach.
The boy, far away from home, stands by the window. He is not crying. His head is just dancing round like a whirlwind. A strong sense of deja vu engulfs him. There had been a day like this, his mind tells him, when it was snowing, and he was standing by the window trying not to cry.
He’d crept outside that day, past his father’s herbarium, and stroked his speckled leaves. The leaves were shaped like hearts drawn jaga-jaga by children. There were white and red stains all over them. The boy used to picture his life like that: badly drawn, stained. But not anymore. Long before he left home, he sprayed herbicide on the plants, and they yellowed and wilted away. He planted cordylines in their place. The cordylines represented him coming to terms with the guy he should be, liberated from fears and insecurities.
The boy and the man lived cities apart, but at first, they believed in miracles. Their love was a miracle; it thrived, bloomed and bubbled regardless of space and time. All day, they were on the phone, chatting like they had nothing else to do, first talking about peri-peri, like:
i.) the man owned a confectionery at Surulere and was eyeing politics;
ii.) the boy did a course his father forced on him, and now, finding a job was a serious wahala.
‘What course was that sef?’ asked the man.
‘My God! That’s a respected profession na! What’s wrong with you?’
‘Me I have zero passion for it o.’
‘So what do you now have passion for?’
‘Literary Studies, sir. That’s been my dream from day one.’
‘So you want to become a teacher?’
‘I want to write.’
‘But you’re doing so already na. I skimmed through your articles on Facebook and I was like, my God, this is magic!’
‘I write stories sir. Not articles.’
‘Whatever. Just understand your father wants the best for you. Leave Literature for the girls, biko. Is it not your mates that are doing Engineering, Medicine, and even the Law you’re talking about?’
“It’s only these femmes that care for stuff like that. Abi, you are effeminate?’
‘No, not really.’
‘You better tell me now o.’
‘Me am not effeminate o.’
Then, getting more personal:
i.) ‘The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho forever,’ the boy said.
ii.) ‘Joseph Schwartzman’s Thinking Sartre and Existentialism is the best thing I’ve ever read,’ said the man.
i.) ‘Red,’ said the boy.
ii.) ‘Who cares about colours sef?’ the man asked. ‘That’s a girl’s wahala. Or are you effeminate?’
i.) ‘The clanging of belt buckles turns me on. Don’t laugh sir.’
ii.) ‘Give me a hairy body and I’m your slave forever,’ the man said.
Here was where the man caught fire: sex. The boy was his jollof rice, his shayo, his left kidney, only during sex chats. He made the boy wank to his prick dangling on the phone screen. The boy couldn’t pretend, couldn’t do ojoro, because the man always demanded to see his cum-face and the cum itself. And the morning after, he sent the boy cash for ‘making me happy last night.’
Forget distance jare, they felt close, like skin and hair. Only a buffet and a bouquet stood between them. If the man coughed, the boy felt his spit on his nose. If the boy stretched his arm, he touched the man’s bear-bear.
And they entered each other’s mind like kilode; for example:
a) Sometimes, it was only when Man decided to call Boy that Boy picked up his phone to ring Man. Each phone beeped off: Number Busy.
b) ‘You’re watching BBC now, sir.ʼ
‘My God! How did you know?’
c) Every Saturday night, they both dreamt about undressing each other on Elegushi. The dreams always lasted 10 minutes. Always started by 12 midnight.
But now, they know better: their numbers were busy because someone else was trying to reach one of them, not them trying to call each other at the same time. The man watched BBC, but never when the boy said he was. And the boy had never dreamt about a beach in his life.
Why these lies then?
Because they were some of the magical things the boy believed could happen. The man didn’t want to fall his hand, so he humoured him. Plus, he thought the idea of distance and proximity not defined by physical space was divine.
Nevertheless, there were times they wished they were really close: when the network lagged and left their WhatsApp messages hanging, when their chats dragged. The man was always the first to give up.
I’m bored, he’d type.
Okay sir. Goodnight then.
Not without some candy. Be a good boy and do the needful.
The boy closed his eyes to video his prick. His hand ran up and down the shaft with mad intensity; this was how the man liked it. It made the boy feel exposed, but then, hadn’t he lied that he used to circle jerk with all the boyfriends he swapped like SIM cards?
‘You’re not moaning,’ the man said. ‘Abi, you’re not feeling me?’
If he moaned, Mummie next door would hear him. And not moaning meant not feeling the man which meant he was giving it lowkey to some other dude. So he went outside and moaned behind his father’s herbarium. The man cried like a baby as he shot milk like a running tap. Then the plop-plop sound came: the man had gone offline.
The boy would wait for his return, at least for a goodnight, but he always, always waited forever.
On the boy’s first visit to Lagos, they lodged in a hotel at Maryland. The room smelled like heaven. The radio read news fire-fire, as if it was fighting with itself. The boy wrote stories with the radio on. He sat on the chair facing the window, his back to the man so that the man wouldn’t notice that his face was pressed to his phone and his brows were raised. Earlier that day, in the lobby, the man had nudged him and said everyone was eyeing him.
‘Leave them jare,’ the boy had said. ‘It’s normal for albinos to get attention.’
‘That’s not the reason.’
’Can’t you do without pressing the phone to your face? It’s kind of…embarrassing.’
Later in their room, the boy wanted to tell him how hurt he was, but he chose to write instead. He showed the man the story he’d written. The man squinted at the screen and told him, ‘I can’t survive a paragraph. It’s not your fault sha. Fiction isn’t just my thing.’
The boy felt bruised, but he only curled up in bed and smiled. The man realised what he’d done and wanted to say sorry, but it felt awkward initiating a conversation out of the void. They barely said anything spontaneous, or casual or funny to each other. There was nothing to say. Once, when the boy yabbed the man’s prick for looking like thumbs, the man had asked if fucking him now made them age-mates. The boy said sorry and started to bite his fingernails. The man said no wahala, he’d forgiven him, but the boy had to cool his temper by giving him mad sucking.
They fucked to number-nonsense, then munched suya, then cruised the city, then watched movies. The boy started writing movie reviews because he thought the man would survive, at least, a paragraph. But he only ran through them and said the boy’s writing was too turgid.
Now, it hits the boy that this—the man’s indifference to literature—was a red flag he’d ignored. The boy flattens his phone against his ear and says, ‘It hurt that you couldn’t survive a paragraph of my fiction.’
‘Even the movie reviews I wrote for you.’
‘To say the truth,’ the man says, ‘I don’t do movies either. I started watching them to see if we could find a connection, you know?’
’We had nothing to talk about, so…’
’And I wrote the reviews thinking, since you loved movies, you’d prefer them to my fiction.’
“No. You shouldn’t be sorry or anything. I’m just telling you the truth.’
The boy wrote more reviews on his second visit to Lagos. This time, the man took him home. He’d introduced him to his wife as a fresh graduate looking for a job. She was a sweetheart, with hot hips showing through jeans and a V-face and all that magazine perfect-woman stuff. But the boy pitied her. She wasn’t shrewd enough to really know her husband. She didn’t know he sneaked into his room every night for quick, quiet sex. She didn’t know how vulnerable he was because in front of her, he played the alpha male cards like a BetNaija champion.
When the man’s mother died, he only sighed and said, ‘Rest in peace Mama.’
His wife and sisters were wailing on the veranda, slapping their bodies on the cement. He stepped outside and started shouting at them: ‘Sebi she was old? What’s all this nonsense?’
One of the mourners said it wasn’t his fault; men, after all, didn’t cry. But later that night, when he sneaked into the boy’s room, he stuck his head between his knees and cried like he was cumming. He told the boy how he’d neglected his mother because she chose to scrub figurines and pour libations instead of giving her life to Christ. ‘Now she’ll go to hell,’ he lamented. ‘Mama was a good woman at heart. Really good. But now she’ll go to hell because of her stubbornness.’
The boy sang him oyinbo lullabies with hamburgers and floes in them. As the man slept in his arms, the boy wondered what would happen if the door opened and his wife walked in.
‘Nobody in my family will ever find out,’ the man told him the next day when he joked about being outed. ‘I’ll die with this secret. They can’t accept us here, sebi you know? It’s not about trying to be whoever you are proudly, telling others to fuck off. It’s about your life. Once you lose it, you’re gone, and guess what? Nothing will change. Rather, the hate will heighten. Se you understand?’
The boy listened like God was reading out his sins. He couldn’t imagine Daddie finding out who he was. He’d strangle him and barter his prick for a cup of garri. Mummie would cry out her senses. The news would spread like spilled water. Area boys with Mike Tyson muscles would come chanting to his house, carrying tyres and petrol and lighters. And before he’d start the Lord’s Prayer, his skin would be hissing in the fire.
The boy would die with the secret too. At least, he’d die old and bedridden if he remained like that, curled up in this cocoon, hunkered like a fugitive. But he’d lead a sad, lonely life. He’d never love the woman Daddie would find him. He’d pity the children they’d make. Like the man, he’d find lovey-lovey on Facebook, and while his wife snored rooms away, he’d be humping his boy while listening for footsteps, for the turning of a doorknob, for buzzes against the windowpanes.
It’s funny how scared the man made the boy. For days, the boy saw Daddie in his dreams calling the police on him and offering his balls for Mama Put’s plate of jollof rice.
It’s even funnier now that he’s analysing it with the man—both of them continents apart. Thinking about it all makes him cackle hard. The man doesn’t hear the laughter. He continues to whine.
‘Believe me, we were good together,’ he says for the fifth time.
But they both know that’s a naked lie. It took the boy a while to realise that though. The veil was lifted only when the man threatened to dump him as he was becoming ‘too bold’. That was when a lot of things that were bleak started to come under the light.
For years, the boy had been checking out a gay group on Facebook. He didn’t join because he feared the notif would pop up his News Feed, or one of these Yahoo-Yahoos would hack his account and open his yansh. After the man said he was becoming too bold, after his calls were left unreturned, after he elbowed himself against traveling to Lagos, he eventually joined. He wanted to learn how to be gay. He wanted to know if there were rules you followed, otherwise you weren’t gay enough. He wanted to ask questions like, Was he meant to:
a) hide forever
b) act the straight man’s script forever
c) wither away in a toxic relationship and be grateful because
i) someone was at least loving him, despite his albinism
ii) even for normal guys who could see clearly and didn’t hide from the sun, finding guys ready to love before fucking was difficult?
There were Nigerians like the boy in the group, Nigerians who scream ‘Up NEPA!’, who say ‘How far na?’ and consider ‘How are you?’ too posh and naive. They gave him hope, these Nigerians, showed him he could still be gay and razz. They had bold rainbows on their DPs. Their bios carried stuff like happy queerson, rainbowink, sissy-sassy, LGBTQueen. They beefed homophobes on their timelines.
When a boy was lured from Grindr to a hotel room, raped and slaughtered, they posted the boy’s pictures with Soul Brother captions. When policemen started picking up gays, they invaded cyberspace and made smart arguments: we’re fighting homophobia and not just injustice, because injustice is a stiff euphemism, because injustice is too broad to articulate our plight, because injustice encompasses a lot of other things we don’t personally identify with, because calling homophobia injustice is like calling a spade a farm implement instead of simply saying, ‘Yes, that’s what it is—a spade!’
They gave the boy the muscles to upload a rainbow flag on Twitter—Twitter because he had only 12 followers, 11 of them from the Facebook group. The twelfth was a liberal storyteller. Her bio described her as a feminist who wanted to bequeath her own name, not surname, to her daughters. She liked and retweeted the boy’s rainbow. One of his followers commented: Raise the flag higher, bitch!
The boy felt lit up like a million-watt bulb. He could do anything in this state. Like throwing his windows open and screaming to the world that he was gay-gay-gay, and the world could go and hug a transformer if it wouldn’t accept that and move on. Overwhelmed with energy, he bolted outside and sprayed herbicide on the speckled leaves. He planted cordylines that same night.
The following night, he came out to Mummie.
‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘I know you behave like a girl, but you are a man deep down there. What are you now telling me?’
‘You don’t understand—’
‘I don’t want to understand. You haven’t seen a girl you really like.’
‘Go and sleep. Tomorrow we’ll talk. I don’t want to carry bad news to bed abeg.’
In the morning, she sat on his bed and gripped his shoulder. ‘So you’re telling me you have not done anything with a girl all your life?’
‘Not even in school?’
‘At university I mean—’
‘There should be something we can do. Your father, he must not hear about this. I believe something can be done.’ Then she started to cry. ‘They will laugh at me, all my enemies. It is me whose son behaves like a woman. It is me who has an albino son. It is also me whose son is a homosexual? God, what have I done? Don’t I worship you—’
‘I’ll ask you to leave my room now!’
But he didn’t. He knew he wouldn’t. He was sobbing too. He’d thought he was set for this, that he could at least handle Mummie. He’d scored nine over 10 in the Coming Out Test. But now, his hands were shaking, and sweat burnt his armpits, and mucus lay in his throat like it was its right and he couldn’t bear to look at his own mother.
Between the man and the boy there were physical and psychological distances, but the most ignored yet most glaring was the ideological distance. The man was a Christian. He believed in hell and heaven, in sin and repentance. The boy, at first, was agnostic. His questions were what the man termed blasphemous. The questions included, but were not limited to:
a) Since Old Testament laws have mostly died off, why do Bible scholars still treat homosexuality like modern leprosy, prosecuting gays in the name of God?
b) Where is the perfection in God’s creation, with all these congenital deformities? Or are they defined as perfection in God’s language?
c) What example is God showing if he burns sinners in hell while forcing man to forgive his fellow man?
‘Some things cannot be explained by logic, but by spiritual enquiries,’ the man said. ‘Come with us to church this Sunday. Who knows, you might find your answers.’
But instead of answers, more questions popped into the boy’s head. How could beggars sleep outside the church while the pastor flashed a full set of golden teeth? How did a three-storey building accommodate six different churches, each invested in tithes and loudspeakers that rose above the voices of others? How did these sound in God’s ears?
He didn’t ask the man any of these, though. When he returned to Asaba a week later, he decided there was no God. He told the man so on the phone.
‘”Decided?”’ The man chuckled. ‘Does it look like something you can just decide on your own? “I’ve decided to believe there’s no God?” Are you even listening to yourself?’
To avoid arguments and concentrate on more important things—like sex—they reached a compromise. They would try to sidestep each other’s ‘ideological lines’ by not talking about God or anything related. On WhatsApp, when the man invoked God to burn blasphemers the way he showed the Sodomites pepper, the boy shrugged and swiped past. The man uploaded a meme on Facebook showing two men holding hands with a god-figure coughing fire on them. The boy didn’t care about the comments under. He expected them. Peppering gays was still people’s headache after all. What appalled him were the man’s replies. To one which read, Beta 2 hv an imbecile than a gay child, the man replied, Lol, you get the drill! A WhizMan commented, Dey learn it 4rm al diz boys hostel. The man replied, Lol, that’s why my sons won’t go to boarding schools.
The boy began to share satirical atheist memes on WhatsApp. Then, after blocking most of his WhatsApp contacts, he uploaded a photo of two black boys kissing. The man messaged, You’re becoming too bold and reckless. Seems you don’t want us anymore.
The boy sent a surprise emoji—eyes wide open, ears fanned out.
SMH. Suit yourself.
The man went offline. The boy called him several times, but he declined his calls. He also ignored his messages. On WhatsApp, he started to talk about people who threw love away because they got it on a platter of gold. Don’t just call and call, he updated, come over let’s talk. That’s if you really want forgiveness, lol.
After joining the group, the boy published stories that spoke sincerely to him, that spoke sincerely about him. He rocked a Sam Smith and listened to his own voice without squeezing his face. He uploaded his twerk videos to YouTube. And when his story, ‘iRay’, won him a scholarship to do an MFA in the United States, he admitted he was gay in an interview. Daddie was furious, but then, his son was going to almighty America, gay or whatever. The boy updated his writer’s bio, adding ‘albino gay Nigerian writer obsessed with the black queer narrative’ after reading the bios of the other scholarship winners, namely:
a) Dajuan: non-binary writer from Jamaica with vitiligo
b) Memory: first – sickle cell warrior; second – music therapist; third – Zimbabwean
c) Mia: bipolar Austrian woman who prints out rejection letters, burns them and stores the ashes in a box under her bed
d) Caihong: Chinese trans writer with gynaecomastia and ‘choco-mania’
e) Vidya: autistic, Indian, paints multi-perspective basilicas no one seems interested in
The boy rings the man months after arriving in Columbia. The man pretends to be boiling anyhow. ‘My God! You were leaving, and you passed through Lagos but couldn’t even stop to say how far.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘There wasn’t time.’
‘Well, I’m happy for you. May you find the type of life you seek over there.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘But we were good together. You know that? We were damn good together. But you grew out-of-hand. Sebi we agreed to be discreet? But see na, you started your evolution, and I had to withdraw because who was I to stop a rolling stone? As for me, I’m not ready for that kind of life. Abi, you think there are no homophobes in America? You think you’re safe there?’
‘Yes sir. That’s what I think. I’m safe here.’
‘You know what—’
‘Sir, I’m calling to reveal my truths, to set myself free. I don’t feel free with my lies still intact. I don’t want to fantasise a life I should be living freely anymore. I know I sound crazy, but if you oblige—’
The boy traces the filigree designs on the window louvres. ‘I’ll start with lying about having friends who loved me. About the boys and SIM cards…’
The man spills out his truths too, about the keloids, the albinism, the effeminacy, the shortsightedness, the fear of being outed. The call lasts two hours. Afterwards, the boy watches the spread of land—white and strong-strong like a frozen lake. The trees are dressed in woolly speckles. Occasionally, wind wiggles through them, shaking off snowflakes. A group of female skaters slide up and down the hills. One of them purposely falls into the foam. Another crashes beside her. They’re facing each other now, like they are going to chop off each other’s nose. But before the boy can say God, they’re kissing.
Because he has never seen two people of the same sex play strong play in public, he feels disgust at first. Then shame, as if he pissed in a Molue. He presses his hands against his face. He remains so for a long time. When he looks out again, they are still there, kissing, two girls in herringbone hoodies and baggy pants and earmuffs. The other girls are now throwing snowballs at them.
The boy imagines a boy kissing him in the snow, his arms tight around him, his tongue doing jiggy-jiggy in his mouth, their breaths razz-razz, their hearts gbim-gbim like the engines at Apapa Wharf. He imagines friends clapping while they grooved to Awilo Logomba or Fela or something sweet and slow, like Ed Sheeran.
One of the skaters is beckoning to him when he looks out again. His mind screams no-no-no. But his hands are pulling on his cardigan and boots. His fingers are turning the doorknob. His feet are carrying him across the portico, past the LOUISA HOSTELS sign. He doesn’t feel mushy-mushy around the girls. He giggles when one of them jokes about building a Taj Mahal entirely with snow. The girl who’d invited him pulls out gloves from her hip pockets and hands them over.
‘Gon’ keep ya warmer,’ she says.
He mutters thanks.
‘Freedom,’ he says and catches a snowflake on his tongue.
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