It was past ten when Obum finally called back. By then, the club was packed, and Ralu had stopped telling anyone who asked that he was waiting for someone, and so had allowed a couple to settle in the private booth with him. They had immediately begun making out, the girl in her Christmas hat—Ralu wondered briefly if she was eighteen yet, she had the cautious excitement of a teenager venturing into the night for the first time—glancing at him shyly, almost apologetically, before falling totally into the kiss. He’d let his eyes settle on them for a second, and then away, at the dance floor that was dim, sparkly with lights, and packed with bodies bumping and grinding to Olamide. The DJ had been on fire all night long, giving them jam after jam, and if he were here, Obum would have been on the dance floor, too, lost in the music, lost in the undulation of bodies. Ralu loved to watch him, his joy and his freedom so ordinary, it pulled most people in, women grinding against his groin, turning around to hug him through bouts of laughter between songs, the occasional guy grabbing his waist and twisting, brief waist-jabs made loudly playful so that the surrounding air crackled not with aggression but good humor. His loud singing in the car as they drove back home, or the calm of his face as he slept exhausted in the passenger seat. Recently, though, things had been different: he seemed perennially distracted, his eyes buried in his phone more than usual whenever he was at the house, and little things annoyed him or made him cry. Ralu had tried to make him talk, each attempt met with a wall of stoicism, which had made Ralu all the more worried because Obum liked to talk, his Instagram bio said, in this house, we are vulnerable and radically honest, and so he had decided that perhaps what Obum needed was a distraction, this, a wild Friday night at the Element. But two hours after he was supposed to show up, having said he’d take a keke after hanging out with his friends, he was only just returning his calls.
Ralu watched the phone buzz on the table, unsure how long to let it ring before stepping outside. He had grown weary from waiting, from the annoyance and uncertainty of unanswered calls, and had merely stayed back out of a need to drink. Now that his phone was ringing, Obum’s name flickering on his screen, all that anger and uncertainty had vaporized, so that his heart seemed to sigh with relief. It was loud in the club, Teni going omoge loke loke. He poured himself another shot of Hennessey, which he’d opened after the first hour of waiting. The phone stopped ringing. He could feel the couple’s presence, now that they were no longer kissing, now that they were whispering earnestly to each other. He glanced at the girl again, her fingers toiling with the ends of her braids; she looked older now, she was probably eighteen or nineteen, he thought, still too young to be in the clubs, in his estimation. The guy with her was young, too, but definitely older than her. Probably Obum’s age-mate, twenty, or older. Ralu had thought him too old to be wearing his jeans below his ass, so that his blue boxer shorts showed as he walked to the booth, but maybe it was the drink talking, he’d had a long day at work and he was tired. He caught their eyes on him. “Feel free,” he said, loud and smiling, nodding at the bottle, still half-full, on the table between them, and the guy smiled and said, “Manchi!” His phone buzzed again, stopped, and then flickered with a text notification. He picked it up. I’m so sorry, it said, I’m high af and seated alone outside a store on M.M. Way. Please come get me.
If the evening had gone well, it most likely would have ended at Inusa’s store, as it usually did, Ibrahim chatting with him while he made their Indomie and fried eggs, Obum practicing his Hausa by interjecting every other minute, which pleased and amused Inusa. But the evening had not gone well. Rushing out of Ibrahim’s house, the cold outside had attacked his exposed arms, and yet he did not return for his jacket, shocked and confused and shattered as he’d felt. He reached into his pocket for his phone, opened Instagram. The cold nibbled at his fingers. Top on his feed was Ralu, who in several pictures was wearing a red Christmas hat ringed with blinking stars, his colleagues, all in almost-uniform suits and ties, smiling around a Christmas cake. Ralu, too, was smiling in all the pictures, but Obum knew he hated posing for pictures; standing shirtless by the window at home, the sun perfect against his body, his demeanor wonderfully lost and forlorn, Obum would pretend to be riveted by something in his phone as he sneakily took pictures. What are you doing, Ralu would say, catching on, his lips twisted in amusement, his pose immediately awkward. Stay as you were, Obum would say, laughing, knowing it was a lost cause already. They would go through the pictures together, Ralu saying, Send me this one, and, Have you thought of taking up photography seriously? You’re really good, like, photos-in-a-museum good.
Obum wondered what was taking him so long. He eased his hand under the blanket, warming it, and then returned to his phone. He found himself on Ibrahim’s page. His fingers seemed to move of their own will, scrolling through high-resolution pictures until they got to the grainy ones in which Ibrahim was not yet so inked, not yet buff. He was lanky in these pictures, all arms and legs, a gangly boy. In one of the pictures, he was holding a chair above his head, facing a classmate who was also holding a chair above his own head. Obum remembered that day, the sun, the roughness of their play. They’d just written their final exam in their final term as juniors and were heady with joy (if they knew then what they knew now, of responsibility and immense loss, would they have looked forward to adulthood?). He remembered Mr. Jackson walking into the classroom and barking at everyone to kneel down, they were making so much noise. He remembered that he got his first note from Ibrahim that day, slid expertly into the New General Mathematics textbook he’d borrowed, or pretended to borrow, earlier that day. Every time I look at you, the note said, I feel confused but I don’t hate it, it’s a sweet kind of confusion (I can’t explain it). I like it when you make eye contact with me. I feel proud when you answer questions in class, like you are my brother or something. You are so beautiful, if you were a girl, I’d make you my girlfriend, but we are boys, so can we just be friends?
How had they gone from notes like that to confusion, to small and huge acts of cruelty? Obum sifted through his texts, rereading Ibrahim’s recent messages. The earliest, sent a week before, said, simply, Hey ;), the second, a few days later, Baby, how are you? Sorry, I was going through shit with my elder brother, that’s why I disappeared like that. The third, sent before daylight this morning, was a nude pic, lean body covered in tattoos from V-line to chest: wings above the chest, a snake here, a cherub aiming an arrow at a heart there, a prayer in Arabic—and from dust shall We raise you again, the prayer said—Ibrahim had translated, lying beside Obum years ago after their first hookup. He’d taken the picture lying on his bed of gray sheets, arm extended in front of him, pointing down at the spread of his body, at the lofty obscenity of his hard dick. Under the picture: Why aren’t you answering your messages?
You come here full of promises & good times, ghost me and then return like nothing happened, Obum had typed hours after that. I am a human being, Ibrahim. I feel things. He deleted it. Tenderness made him weak, susceptible, he told himself, lying on his friends’ couch, listening to their playful singing, their guitar-strumming—“That progression, very tricky,” someone said, chuckling to himself after missing a note—and he was done being susceptible. Leaving last month, Ibrahim had finally hurt him into coldness, making him walk around with anger and sadness, making him do small cruel acts that left in their wake feelings of emptiness. I just want to fuck bro, he typed instead, send your keke driver.
He looked up from his phone now, sensing a car approach. Ralu’s Honda stopped in front of the store, headlights blinking. The road remained a-twinkle, washed in all those lights. How the evening had turned, Obum thought, blinking to prevent tears, he did not want Ralu to see him crying. Billie Eilish shivered into his ears, Tore my shirt to stop you bleeding, she sang, and the world felt bloated with the sadness.
“Yes,” Obum said. “I’m sorry I stood you up.”
Ralu said nothing. Obum was that way, even in his apologies, always naming things as they were. It was a directness, a fullness of communication rare for someone his age, and Ralu had always found it endearing; now, it annoyed him, even if slightly, that sentence, I stood you up, signifying a complete awareness of the offense, an awareness that had not deterred him from doing it anyway.
“Were you with Ibrahim?” he asked.
“Yes,” Obum said.
Ralu nodded, engaged the gear, easing the car onto the main road which was wide and smooth this part of town. He loved to drive here. Unlike in Sabon Gari where the road made his car bounce, forcing him to drive slowly, here he could accelerate, fling the car into all that wideness, wind rushing in, or, as it did now, beating against his rolled-up windows. He wanted to ask more, wanted to know why Obum had chosen this particular day, when they had a date, to go see that boy, but something in Obum’s demeanor, something both stricken and ready to strike, made him pause. The last time they fought over Ibrahim, barely a month ago, Obum had accused him of trying to control him. You do not own me, he had said, and Ralu, shocked and betrayed, had retorted, That is an unfair thing to say to me, I let you see whomever you choose, I’m just worried about you. You ‘let me’, Obum said, Let! And then he stormed out of the house. For two days, they did not speak to each other. Two days in which Ralu moved around feeling confused; he had done nothing wrong, he knew, and yet he felt he had to apologize. He’d never felt that way with Obum, confused, not in the two years since they began doing this, not in all the years since they’d known each other. On the third day, before Ralu could send the apology he’d crafted in his head, Obum messaged. I was being unfair, he said, I’m sorry.
Ralu kept one eye on the road, another on Obum who was now fully relaxed into his seat, eyes closed. He wasn’t sleeping, Ralu could tell, because his eyelids were twitching. Perhaps he was asleep and dreaming something wild. At New Road, cars and kekes jammed for as far as the eyes could see, the air was perceptibly different, tainted as it was by all that honking and all that smoke. The windows were rolled up, and yet the harmattan cold seeped into the car; he turned up the heat, then rested his eyes fully on Ralu. The car’s dimly-gold light poured across his face, peaceful even with the occasional twitching of his eyelids, jaws clenched, lower lip, pouted as though in sadness and anger, so pink it was almost red, skin a lustrous black. Ralu had since ceased to be startled by the resemblance, but right now it jolted him afresh, how keenly Obum had grown to look like his brother, Makuo, even down to the spread of his shoulders. He was wearing the polka-dotted shirt Ralu had bought him last Christmas, had left the first three buttons undone, and Ralu could see the coy sprinkle of hair across his chest; it would have traveled down his body, that sparse hair becoming wild as it spread downwards, were Obum not obsessed with smoothness. Ralu thought of the tubes of Veet lying in his bathroom cabinet; he, too, had begun using them when he noticed that Obum loved to play with his balls when they were smooth. Lying on the bed reading a novel, he would absentmindedly reach for Ralu’s balls, holding them in his rough but warm palm, rubbing without intention, eyes never leaving his book. How he loved this boy, he thought, sometimes it terrified him. Driving to MM Way, he had felt jealousy and anger so animal, he’d gripped his steering wheels and clenched his teeth. He knew who lived on MM Way, knew that Obum had gone to see him, his flame from secondary school. Flashes of Obum naked with—that boy had assailed his mind, making him shake his head vigorously to push them away. And yet, seated beside him in the car now, all he felt was worry, his anger blunted until it was an imperceptible spark in his chest, his jealousy forgotten. He reached his hand behind Obum’s chair, letting his fingers graze his ear. The traffic moved and then stopped at the next intersection; he turned off the light in the car, so that people would not see, and then let his fingers travel to the back of Obum’s head, caressing his neck, toying with his coarse hair, returning to his ear, the softness of his earlobe. Exactly like Makuo’s, Ralu thought, and then cautioned himself for the endless comparisons, Makuo was gone and Obum was here, and yet he could not stop thinking of Makuo, tonight especially but also for the past month since Obum had slipped into this constant darkness, occasionally showing up at the house high and wanting nothing but to be fucked and then to curl up under the sheets and be held.
The warden standing in the middle of the intersection waved Ralu’s side of the road forth. Suddenly, vehicles blinked on, the entire road going ballistic with the sound of stirring engines, of honking. Ralu made to withdraw his hand and place it on the steering wheel, but Obum grabbed and held it there, eyes still closed, rubbed his right cheek against it. He looked totally satisfied, and so Ralu left his arm there, maneuvering the car with just one hand. Soon, they were hurtling toward Airport Road. A song had begun playing on 95.1 Cool FM, where, earlier, a talk show had been happening. Obum stretched his hand with the same carefreeness that he reached for Ralu’s balls and turned up the volume. I’ll keep any pact in mind, Nonso Amadi sang, I’m good at acting fine. Obum opened his eyes, turned towards Ralu, smiled, and then shut them again.
Ralu squeezed the back of his neck, and then massaged it.
The first time he met Obum and Makuo, Ralu had been waiting for a beatdown from Gerald, his class bully. They were standing in an alley, Ralu’s nose full of the stench of the gutters. Fight, fight, the other kids chanted. He hated fights, hated pain—his parents hardly ever spanked him, whenever he misbehaved his mother would glare at him and say, “If I bring cane now, you’ll start weeping”—but he could not be the boy who begged or ran away, he was not ready yet for a silly nickname. And so, arms trembling with fear and foolish bravery, he stood there as Gerald flexed and taunted and threatened to make him eat sand. That was when Obum showed up, holding his big brother’s hand. Ralu had seen them before, they lived on his street, and although Makuo was in the same year as he was, albeit in a different class, they had never spoken to each other. It was Obum who spoke up first, pointing and saying, “I know him, he’s our street boy,” and maybe if he had not done that, Makuo would not have marched up to Gerald and, towering over him, said, “Na my guy be that, leave am,” which made the other kids groan.
The next day, Makuo was waiting for Ralu outside his classroom. Together, they walked to Obum’s class to pick him up. Sometimes, they found him playing in the playground, swinging and sliding with his friends, but mostly he sat by himself outside his classroom, painting in his coloring book or reading a storybook.
Makuo used to say, “You see my brother, Obum? He will go places,” before regaling Ralu with all of Obum’s recent exploits at school: a statewide spelling competition that he had won first place at, a televised debate competition that he’d participated in, the youngest participant at the age of eight, his report card that was littered with first and second positions only. He brought Obum to almost all their football trainings. When Ralu thought back to those times, their teenage years, one of the recurring images was of eight-nine-ten-year-old Obum seated on the sideline, calm in his faded jeans shorts, in the relentless sun that left his forehead shiny with sweat. He handed the guys their pure water sachets and their glucose, and, when the ball came tearing toward him, braced himself to catch or run after it. Occasionally, someone would tap his head as they ran on his side of the pitch, a playful tapping, or sit with him when they needed to take a break, chatting.
In the beginning, after their mother closed her shop to become an evangelist, and Ralu began watching Obum almost full-time, the other boys had resisted. First, they teased Makuo, “You and your brother be like MTN—Everywhere you go,” they said, or cautioned him, “You no go get girlfriend fa,” and then they outrightly resisted, “Guy, na everywhere you go you dey bring am?” Finally, they got used to his quiet presence that was ever so often broken by a funny quip, even came to expect it, so that, when he missed a training or two, they wondered, “Where our small man dey?”
But it was not everywhere Makuo went that he brought Obum to, just as he did not bring the other boys everywhere he and Ralu went. Sometimes, it was just the two of them, Ralu and Makuo, particularly when they went to the uncompleted building that would become, fifteen years later now, the resplendent St. Rita’s Multipurpose Hall. It was four-story; they would climb to the last floor and stand by the window, gazing into the farm behind the church’s fence, at the stream that ran across it, black and thin in dry season, clear and gushing when it rained. Makuo liked to make up elaborate stories about the men who were bent over, tilling the earth or pulling vegetables out of it: in daylight, he would say, these were ordinary men, tilling the earth, selling spinach and tomatoes to people, but at night, their true natures revealed itself, their spirit natures, eyes glowing green or deep white; they walked among the crops, watching over the city, making sure everyone got a good sleep, but if you walked into the farm after midnight and saw one of them as they truly were, that would be the end of you—not death, exactly, but a permanent absence from the presence and memories of the ones who loved you: it would be almost as though you never existed. He would pause, letting the birds and frogs and the singing from the parish fill in the silence. “Once, there was a boy.”
Ralu loved stories, and nobody told them as well as Makuo. “You know,” he would say to Makuo, “You fit become writer like Chinua Achebe, my mother get all him book.” The light, fading across the farm, signaling the closing of day, crickets chirping, birds twittering.
“I know am,” Makuo would say. “But, him be billionaire?”
“I no know, I don’t think so.”
“See, I want to be a billionaire. Like Dangote or Bill Gates.”
“Why?” Even then, at thirteen, fourteen, Ralu could not understand outlandish desires. He wanted to be successful and rich, hopefully as a banker or lawyer, he wasn’t sure yet, but not so successful that security had to follow him everywhere he went. He wanted a simple life, hopefully with a simple girl and simple, happy children.
“So I fit buy duplex for me and my brother, then live very far from our parents,” Makuo would say.
Ralu knew what Makuo’s parents did to him, had seen the welts on his legs and back, red and black and placed as though with intention, like patterns in a work of art. “You must take me with you,” he’d say. Lying on his bed later that night, he would imagine Makuo and Obum traveling far away from him, and the thought would fill him with sadness.
“You know why I don’t have any siblings?” he said to Makuo one evening. “Because my mother almost die when she dey born me. My father told me so that I’d stop asking her when she’d give birth to another child.”
Makuo looked sad listening to him. “I am your brother,” he said, and then, sliding an arm around Ralu’s shoulder, said, “Me and Obum.” Their sides pressed together, Makuo warm and smelling of sweat and soap, of him, Ralu knew that he wanted to be more than a brother, that he wanted Makuo to hold his face and look in his eyes, the way men and women did on television, but that was a weird feeling to have for a friend, a terrible thing to feel for a brother.
They were closer to home now: the road had become bumpy, the streets darker, electric poles looming in the darkness, no streetlights around. He tilted his head and gazed at Ralu who, both hands maneuvering the steering wheel to turn into a corner, glanced at him and said, “You’re awake.” His face remained unchanged after all these years, light-skin, pink lips, eyes dull, a smoky dullness, like someone who was always high: that was the feature that Obum loved the most, those eyes, they spoke of depth and gentleness. He wanted so much to lay his head on Ralu’s stomach, to press his lips to his budding beer belly and blow on it, making him giggle.
By the time they arrived, the bell was ringing at St. Rita’s for Christmas Eve, and the road leading into his street had been blocked off. The security men, in their orange and lemon vests, looked like squares of light in the darkness. Ralu would have honked and shouted at them in jest as he often did, and one of them, a parishioner volunteering, would have hailed him, “Ralu the man!” and lifted the barricade—but there were soldiers around tonight, seated in their vans, looking hungry and ready, and so he waited quietly until one of the volunteers walked up to him.
“Una go soon start to pay for the inconvenience,” Ralu said, driving through. The man, Echezona, said nothing as, unsmiling, he waved at his colleague to lift the barricade.
Echezona was not really a man, he was a boy, could not have been more than twenty-one, but already he wore the grimness of a person who had seen it all, his shirt, oversized, tucked into trousers that swayed as he moved, a carelessness to his bearing, as though he were declaring to himself, and to everyone around, that this world was not his home. He had not always been this way: pious, dour, and stripped of the playfulness of youth. His was a story of divine transformation, as people loved to put it: The women liked to talk about it in front of shops, or in their living rooms, or on balconies overlooking the street, the remarkable story of the Street Boy who went to the Blessed Sacrament every day, promising to change his life if God healed his mother’s breast cancer. They told the story whenever he walked by, rosary in one hand, a gigantic bible in the other.
They said, “Oh, see am, perfect example of how God can send a difficult situation just to save your soul.”
They used him as a whip for their strong-headed children: “Do you want God to make me suffer like Echezona’s mother before you change?”
They turned him into a love epic, reminding one another that no matter how errant a son was, no matter how impenetrable the walls of his heart, deep down was a well of love for his mother, that at the slightest glimpse of her suffering, a person would emerge out of his sturdy surface, breathing and hurting and palpitating with goodness.
To Obum, however, he was merely another young person lost to the streets, to the lack, violent and unrelenting, that clung like algae to the discolored walls and the bumpy roads and the tainted air. It did not matter to him that it was not a knife stab at a street fight or an abortion gone wrong, didn’t matter that it was only a consuming spirituality that left no room for joy: a loss was a loss.
Driving into the compound, Obum tried to banish the thoughts of Echezona from his mind, because to dwell on them would be to break open the doors in his own life that he was trying to shut, doors behind which loomed unhappy thoughts and painful memories. As they stepped out of the car, the compound kids rushed at them, tiny hands hugging Ralu’s legs, his waist, his hands, sparkling voices chanting, Brother, oyoyo, Brother, oyoyo. Ralu lifted them up one after the other, the littler ones—the older kids stood on the fringes, waiting for the end of the spectacle, when he would walk them to Papa Ebuka’s shop—throwing them into the dark night and catching them midair. Their screams, terror curdled into delight, made Obum happy, so that he almost forgot everything that had happened at Ibrahim’s. Watching the pleasure in Ralu’s bearded face as he hoisted them into the air, he thought perhaps that was the secret to a good life, to ignore the terrors and dwell only on the delights, accepting pain and joy as mere facts of being.
Obum walked ahead of Ralu, who would spend a few more minutes with the kids, buying them biscuits and Capri Sun at Papa Ebuka’s shop. As he trudged upstairs, he said “good evening” and “Happy Christmas Eve” to the women making their hair under the golden beam of Papa Ebuka’s outside lights, and to those who weren’t so lucky, who, in dark corners, had to hold kerosene and bush lamps over heads that would look, by morning, either like intricate artworks or like gaudy portraits, depending on the chosen hairstyle or the chosen hairdresser. Every other Christmas night, a woman’s hair would catch fire, and the compound would reverberate with the commotion, screams and rushing and, eventually, laughter. He wondered, with an inward chuckle, if it had happened already tonight. He said his hellos quickly, so that the women would not engage him in banter and, in so doing, tell that he was high. He should be above caring, and if he were sober, he wouldn’t have cared—but right now, he cared about everything in the world, sad things and happy things, everything vibrated at the tip of his fingers.
Ralu lived at the end of a long corridor. His was the biggest flat in the entire compound, and was the only house with its own bathroom and kitchen inside. Standing by the door on which a sticker said MY YEAR OF ENDURING JOY, Obum struggled a little sliding his key into the keyhole, but eventually he was able to steady himself.
It was dark inside. He took off his sneakers but left his socks on, yet he felt the coldness of the tiles on his feet. The floor used to be covered in a brown rug, soft to the feet but itchy if you lay on it too long, as Obum liked to do. Ralu had removed it after taking over the flat, replacing it with cream tiles that reflected the ceiling lights, beautiful but too cold in this weather. Lying on the couch, Obum wondered about beauty and utility. His History of Criticism professor used to say, “Things do not need to have practical use in order to exist. Some things are useful in just being there, beautiful, pleasing to the gaze.” Obum remembered how he’d paused, letting a dramatic silence wash across the large hall. “This endless need for utility we have, it emanates from the poverty that pervades our society. We cannot imagine someone studying Mozart because ‘what will you do with that?’ We kill and eat every animal. ‘What is beauty,’ we ask, ‘if it cannot solve our hunger?’” Another pause. “And, ‘What is art, if it does not engage and heal our broken society?’”
Lying on his side and pressing a pillow to his chest, Obum came to the conclusion that a warm rug was better than aesthetically pleasing tiles any day. He slid out his phone. Two missed calls from Ibrahim. A text from a friend saying, Go on Twitter!! Beyoncé is that imperialist, capitalist queen I stan! And, from Ibrahim, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me. And: Please let me know you got home safe. I shouldn’t have gotten so high. Finally: My brother just called to ask me all sorts of useless questions, I’m so tired of his wahala. Please talk to me.
Obum put his phone away. He wanted to cry, not because of what had happened, but because he feared that he still cared in spite of it. He’d told himself that tonight’s event was the last straw but how could he enforce that decision if he still wanted to hold Ibrahim’s sad head, stretch forth his arm and heal his pain? He was not okay, he was not okay—and he was afraid that he would not be okay for a long time to come. Sadness rocked his body. When he gasped, it hurt every atom of his being, a deep hurting. He wondered where Ralu had gone to, why he wasn’t here yet, upstairs; being alone made him think, and thinking made him cry. He could still hear the women talking, but his mind registered only the ripples of their voices, just as it registered the street from a distance: music blaring, men laughing, drunk and happy and celebratory, children singing and playing, glad to be out and about this late. He should not have left his friends to go see Ibrahim; he’d been doing well, avoiding Ibrahim the way a recovering addict would avoid a hard drug, with fear and increasing hope, and then he’d gone ahead and squandered his progress. His head was full of memories, of their early days. The notes they wrote each other, Ibrahim writing carefully in his stylish handwriting, his early notes starting off with Ditto, then colon, then the date—until Obum told him that the word did not mean what he thought it meant. How they laughed about it, Ibrahim calling him My Ditto, which was silly and sweet. The meat pies and buns Ibrahim bought him at breaktime. Their heads huddled together as Obum showed him how to solve an equation or conjugate a French verb, Ibrahim distracted and distracting, sneaking a kiss when he was sure no one was looking. Those memories, now tangled with recent, painful ones.
At his place earlier that evening, Ibrahim had answered the door shirtless, a smirk on his face. “My sexy troublemaker,” he’d said. Obum said nothing as he walked into the living room. It had been years since he stepped foot in the house; all the other times Ibrahim returned to Kano, he stayed in a hotel across the street. Obum wondered how Ibrahim could sleep alone in that one-story duplex in a compound covered in trees, a compound that was too dark at night, wondered if he was bored, or lonely, and then cautioned himself against feeling. The house was eternally shrouded, especially with the haze gathering outside covering everything in a white film. Obum had seen it all before—years ago, before Ibrahim’s father got the ministerial appointment in Abuja, before his brother, Hassan, found them together—but he marveled afresh at the ordinary fact of space, the wide verandas with their polished terrazzo floors, the living room with its high ceiling from which dangling chandeliers sprayed soft golden light, its spacious floor covered partly in a soft, red rug around which black leather cushions were arranged in a semi-circle, and partly in gleaming white tiles on which Obum could see his face; all the bedrooms upstairs, but particularly Ibrahim’s, that singular room bigger than Ralu’s entire flat. It was different now, unlike those times Ibrahim brought him home under the guise of doing homework when the house would bustle with the movement of servants and cousins, the air sweet with the aroma of cooking, Ibrahim’s mother doting on him, asking the cook to bring him snacks, asking about his comics. “Ibrahim has told me so much about your drawings,” she would say, “I’d love to read.” How infatuated he’d been with her, her olive skin without blemish, her slender face, the regality of her motions, the grace, as though anything she touched would combust in a flare of colorful dust. Sometimes, when Ibrahim finally got him alone in his bedroom, Obum would clamp up under his touch, unable to relax with the thought of that floating presence somewhere close.
“I’m glad you came,” Ibrahim said, handing Obum a video game console.
Obum waved his hand, no. “I need to get clean,” he said.
“What’s the hurry?” Ibrahim said, punching his console. “We have all night. We can relax and watch Home Alone or something.”
Obum took a deep breath. It was like listening to a roommate play one song on repeat, Ibrahim seated there, face made mildly blue by the television, game console in hand. He’d barely glanced up from his video game as he spoke; that casualness, it had to be intentional. You left me on read for a month, Obum wanted to say, but there was nothing new about that and perhaps Ibrahim was right in acting nonchalant, this was after all the status quo, soul-crushing, and yet here they were, together again. Obum thought of all the times Ibrahim had shown up in Kano, lodging in hotels for days, sometimes weeks, rekindling what they had, and then disappearing without a word. Last month’s had been the most brutal, because he’d believed, truly, that something would change. Ibrahim had said, out of the blue, I love you, I miss you, and then that his brother was at it again, surveilling him, threatening to freeze his bank accounts, and Obum had shown up at the hotel carrying a hastily packed bag, cuddling and fucking and holding his sad head.
Ralu had not liked it. “That boy is a distraction,” he said one evening when Obum came to visit.
“You don’t understand,” Obum said. “You don’t know him, he’s going through a lot.”
“What about me? What do I do while you go take care of him?”
“We agreed to keep this open, Ralu.”
“Because I wanted you to enjoy yourself. This does not look like enjoyment.”
They had been cuddling in bed after fucking, and their playlist was still on. 6LACK’s voice sifted through the speakers. You gon’ have to say my name for this, he sang. The ceiling fan ruffled the curtains.
“Is this how you want to spend the evening?” Obum said. “Arguing?”
Watching the shirtless boy who was now seated on the floor, video game console in hand, it was difficult to reconcile the torn-ness he felt inside with the love, perfect and wild, he’d felt in their teenage years. He remembered, clearly, one morning in Ramadan. They were both sixteen. He had slept over, having lied to his parents that he was attending a night vigil, and Ibrahim, too sick to go to the mosque, had spread a praying mat on the floor of his bedroom. As he prayed, his pink lips moving silently, Obum had watched him from the bed. At that moment, he’d felt a fierce possessiveness. My man, he’d thought.
Now, he said, “I’m going to shower.”
Ibrahim paused his video game. “Okay, babe,” he said. He dropped the console, crawled on his knees to where Obum sat, wrapping his arms around Obum’s waist, his head on Obum’s lap. He said, “You always smell so good,” breathed deeply. Obum resisted the urge to caress his hair, jet-black and mildly curly, resisted the urge to pull him close and bury his nose in the crook of his neck. Inside him, immense love wrestled with immense distrust. He would fuck and he would feel nothing, that was his mission here today, to use and be used: afterwards, he would not text to say good morning, would not send memes he knew Ibrahim would find funny, would not respond to Ibrahim’s memes either. He would be a wall, unfeeling and impregnable.
He left his arms sitting awkwardly at his sides until Ibrahim looked up and asked if he was okay. “Yes,” he said. Ibrahim took his face in his hands, Look at me, he said, and Obum did. Their faces so close, he could feel Ibrahim’s warm breath on his face. Ibrahim caressed his arm, his neck, looking all over his body with a quiet attention, the absentmindedness of it, like someone admiring a prized possession, or checking it for wear. Obum eased him away from his body. He was mad at Ibrahim, at the world, at his body for wanting this. It had to be a moral weakness, his inability to choose his own serenity no matter how hard he tried. He needed to disappear, to feel everything intensely and yet feel nothing at all. “Do you have any of those edibles left?” he said.
Ibrahim looked up at him, confused, and then he smiled. “Someone wants to have a wild evening,” he said. “There are a few left in my bathroom cabinet. I think I might have one myself.” He stood up, his dick print sideways in his red Man-U shorts; he pinched the shorts between his legs, adjusting it, a small, careless act: it filled Obum with lust, after all these years and they still responded to each other’s bodies with such animal thirst. Obum wished they could return to a time when it was not yet complicated, a time before Ibrahim’s eldest brother, Hassan, suspicious and bossy Hassan, dressed up and pretended to go out so that he could walk in on them, as he did, ten minutes later. Obum wished he could go back to a time before Ibrahim’s mother asked him never to show his face at their house again, hate and disappointment on her face as she glowered at this boy who had come to corrupt her precious son, a time before Hassan slapped Ibrahim, reached out to slap him too until Ibrahim stood between them, pleading, saying you can’t beat someone else’s child, you can’t beat someone else’s child.
He missed the times before confusion, when Ibrahim did not show warmth today, coldness tomorrow. At first, around the time they began their final exams, the coldness had been absolute: they would pass each other in the corridors at school and Ibrahim would look away, or harden his face, and it had felt, each time, like fingers digging into a wound. And then Makuo had died in that street fight, and everyone at school had gathered around Obum’s table to say sorry, which had made him cry even worse. How he had felt like all the doors in his life had been shut, darkness surrounding him. How alone in the world he had felt. Ibrahim there later, in front of his desk at breaktime when the class was empty, just the two of them. He pulled a chair and sat in it, silent. He held Obum’s hand. Obum began to cry again, for Makuo and for himself. Ibrahim sat there, saying nothing, holding his hands and saying nothing, not letting go, not even when the bell went off and their classmates returned, filling the classroom with the sound of their chattering.
That had been the beginning of confusion.
But Ralu did not believe that Makuo had died on that day. He believed, in retrospect, that Makuo died all those years when, still a child rolling discarded tires on the dusty streets of Sabon Gari, he looked on wordlessly as the other kids, most of them wearing hand-me-down clothes like him, talked about the places their parents took them to on Christmas Day or on their birthdays. Once, Ralu had gone to Makuo’s house so that they could all walk to Rumfa Field, only to find the door locked from within. Before he heard her voice, he knew that Makuo’s mother was beating him, knew that she was using the same ladle with which she turned garri, Obum had showed him the ladle once, brown, smooth, sturdy wood. “If I don’t teach you,” Makuo’s mother was saying, “Then I don’t love you.” It was a Friday afternoon, and all the adults who lived in the same compound were at work. Ralu stood there, listening to his friend’s crying, his screams, but it was Obum’s voice that moved him, the helplessness of his sobs, the confusion. Ralu ran back home to call his mother. “Mama Makuo,” she said, when she arrived, banging on the door, “You will kill that child! What kind of love is that?”
By the time they entered secondary school, Makuo had learned and mastered ways of manufacturing experiences he’d had with his parents—they had gone to the zoo on Christmas Day, they had gone to Amusement Park on his birthday—each experience lacking, at first, in specificity, and then becoming outlandish. One day, in JSS 3, he came to school with a camera phone. “My father bought it for me,” he said, their classmates clustering around his table, touching the phone, taking pictures. The next day, the principal called him out on assembly ground. There was a song the students sang to taunt people who had stolen. That day, they sang it to Makuo, clapping their hands, stomping their feet. “Mai thief! Mai thief!” they chanted.
That night, someone knocked loudly on Ralu’s door. It was late, the compound had gone to sleep, and the sound of Baba Ayo’s snoring could be heard from next-door, a constant fixture of night. Ralu’s father came into the living room where Ralu slept on the sofa. “Who’s there?” he barked, his machete clasped firmly in his hands, as though it were a weapon he was wielding against darkness itself.
Makuo simply wept.
Ralu’s father opened the door. In the room, Makuo continued to cry, head bowed. It was shame, Ralu would realize years later after the knife fight that killed him, to be seen that way, helpless, always helpless, it made Makuo ashamed. Obum stumbled into the room, holding his brother’s hands. In the soft moonlight that cut the room conically, he looked lost. Ralu’s mother rushed to them, ushering them in. (Years later, when Ralu would insist on returning to Kano after university, his parents relocated to Enugu by then, his mother would say, “It’s because of Obum, okwia?” and he would look out of the window and say nothing, and she would return to reading her bible and say nothing else about the matter.)
Long after Obum had slept off, on a blanket spread for him on the living room floor, Ralu and Makuo stayed awake, watching WrestleMania. They sat closely, their arms brushing. The television was muted, so that even as images flickered in the living room, the night still lent its sounds to them.
“Them no go try this rubbish with Obum,” Makuo said, so quietly it seemed he was telling it to himself. “They should wait and see.”
“Let me see,” Ralu said.
Makuo took off his shirt silently, turned his back to Ralu. He touched Makuo’s back, tentatively at first, then gently. The welts were too red and too many, even though his mother had massaged Makuo’s back with a towel soaked in hot water. Makuo turned around, leaned backward, so that he rested on his arms, his stomach exposed. Ralu touched his stomach. It was hard and rough. The marks were smaller there, thinner, purplish. Ralu touched his navel, drew circles on it. Makuo chuckled. “Tickles,” he said. The night was so quiet. Even Baba Ayo’s snoring had diminished.
“Sorry,” Ralu said, looking away. He wasn’t sure if he was sorry for what had happened to Makuo or for what he was feeling in that moment, what he had felt so many times before, but more intensely at that moment: a need to be closer to Makuo than mere arms grazing, than mere playing football together, than mere fucking the same girls in the same uncompleted building.
Ralu sat on the armrest, watching Obum sleep on the couch, running his fingers in slow circles around his hair. Walking into the house earlier, he’d moved the curtains aside, the darkness softened by the light from the street. The way Obum lay on the couch, in a fetal position, it reminded him of their first time together, a Friday night three years ago, almost one year after Makuo passed. Obum had rushed into the house, waving a newspaper, bubbly with joy. He’d just been admitted to study Fine Arts at ABU, Zaria. They hugged, Ralu opened a bottle of Moscato, and they clinked glasses. It was April, the air soft with impending rain. By then, Obum was already spending most of his nights at Ralu’s flat, his relationship with his parents merely transactional (they gave him money for upkeep, promised to pay his university fees, and in return, he did not totally disappear from their lives, spending every other night at theirs, accompanying them to church every other Sunday), he was eighteen, which, for a boy, especially one who had somewhere else to lay his head and fill his stomach, was grown, he could not stand them, and Makuo’s death had left them too exhausted to fight. They shared Ralu’s bed, Obum always choosing to sleep by the wall, it made him feel safe, he said.
And so, that night, as Ralu felt Obum’s hands on his body, he could have easily jumped out of bed, but he did not. The room, dark, was occasionally brightened by a slash of lightning: it illuminated the billowing blue curtains, the wardrobe, the portrait on the wall, of his mum, dad, and himself in their Sunday best. Obum’s fingers caressing his hair had surprised him, and when they paused, he held his breath. The fingers flicked across his arm, a single, tame motion. And then, with a sudden boldness, reached around his waist, caressing his thigh. Obum, Ralu said, grabbing the boy’s hand, and then letting go. You’re like a brother to me, he said. Yet, there he was, hard as iron. Maybe it was because he hadn’t felt a strong attraction for anybody other than Makuo, rare as it was for people to grip his attention. It was something about himself that used to consume him, keeping him up at night as questions ripped through his head. What was he? he used to wonder. He liked girls and he liked boys, but it manifested as a general curiosity, roving and aimless, without fire. When he crushed, it was with closeness, specificity, and a violent surrendering: he’d had to know Makuo before he loved, or even desired, him, for his storytelling and for his face, but especially for that thing in him that screamed hold me, and though he had learned to control that feeling for the sake of their friendship, it never went away.
He let Obum grip his dick, which remained hard, let Obum kiss his neck, his face, parted his lips when Obum touched his chin and tilted his head around, their lips touching. His first time with a guy, and it was Obum, Makuo’s little brother. He trembled at the thought. To his head, it made no sense, but his body had a sense of its own, full as it was of feelings both physical and atmospheric. Between them, the sound of rain, the coolness of air, desire charged with sadness and hope. Obum gripped and stroked him with such possessiveness; he simply lay there, letting himself be kissed. When he came, he shuddered with a force, wailing into Obum’s mouth, the ugliest wailing. Obum’s lips parted in a sweet, low chuckle, Yeah, he muttered, Fuck yeah. They clung to each other. Ralu said, Your turn to come, unsure what to do to make that happen, but Obum shook his head, Just hold me, he said, That is all I want.
Ralu remembered how he stayed awake long after Obum had rolled away, deep in sleep. How he’d stared at the ceiling, at the fan that stood motionless in the gentle morning light. How he’d gone to stand by the window, listening to the lone tenor chanting, “Allahu Akbar!” A few seconds later, St. Rita’s bell started tolling, sonorous and majestic in the gaping silence of early morning. The muezzin’s voice continued, almost sad in its abundant tremolos. Ralu’s face was cool with the after-rain breeze. The years he had spent going to university in Awka, he had risen on many mornings, longing for that duet, of man and bell. It was what he’d missed the most about Kano, after the people, and yet he knew that when he returned they would be there, the minaret and the belfry, the streets, the convoluted interconnections of main roads and alleyways, shortcuts he knew like rhymes from childhood, intimately. The people, not so much, at least not Makuo. He’d been away, tidying his MSc thesis, when he heard the news of Makuo’s death, and it had been like stepping into an unfamiliar room blindfolded, all that groping, all that stumbling. He thought how unfair it was, the impermanence of people and the permanence of things. Turning around to watch Obum who lay on the bed half-folded, in fetal position, he wondered if it was true that it was a girly way to sleep. If true, then why did girls sleep that way? And why did boys sprawl, as though even sleeping were a battle? Why did Makuo involve himself in that senseless fight with the guys from faraway Church Road? Why did that boy, so young at nineteen, stab more than once? Obum muttered something, still asleep, turned and faced the ceiling, his hands spread, his left leg swaying. In that moment, he was exactly as Makuo would have been.
I can’t hear you.
Always remember that.
Obum remembered that he only heard the sound of the shower when Ibrahim reached around and turned it off, the silence awaking him to the gushing sound it had replaced. He remembered Ibrahim kneeling behind him, prying his cheeks open and burying his tongue in him. He remembered the clarity of his pleasure, his feet lifting until he was on the tip of his toes. He remembered, also, the clarity of his pain as Ibrahim stood up and pushed in, searing pain that split his body in two, from head to toe. Fuck, he said, beating on the wet walls, Pull out, I need lube. Ibrahim holding him there, saying, I ate it, you can take it. He remembered that he did take it, and that for almost an hour, as they moved from bathroom to bedroom, the pleasure he felt would morph into dread as Ibrahim became rougher and rougher, saying, You like to act all stubborn, anger in his strokes, real anger, not the playful one, punctuated with laughter and smiles, that they both liked to toy with when they got high like this. There was no smiling, no laughing, and when Ibrahim put him on his back and looked in his eyes, all Obum saw was that anger: in the whites of his eyes, now red, and in his sweating, laboring body, muscles taut from his aggressive movements. Perhaps it was a culmination of the high and everything that he’d been feeling lately, but in that moment, all Obum could think was Why? The question gripping his body, making him clench up, filling his head, every pore; he thought, Why are you doing me like this? and said, Ibrahim, stop, grabbing Ibrahim’s arms to push him off, but Ibrahim did not budge until he came, an eternity later, shuddering and muttering, Fuck, Fuck, his eyes closed, his body shiny with sweat, a bead of sweat falling from his forehead onto Obum’s face. When he pulled out, Obum felt a sharp, slender pain inside, as though someone had stuck a needle up his ass; he clutched his legs, his body tingling with the pain. He’d been crying all along and had not even realized it, real crying, tears streaming down his face. Ibrahim had fucked him through his tears. He felt such pity for himself, and such rage. He got up, silently, and began picking up his clothes from the floor. Throughout, Ibrahim said nothing; he sat at the other end of the bed, his back to the wall, knees drawn up to his chest, head bowed. Occasionally, he glanced up but Obum could not bear to look at him, confused and ashamed and enraged as he felt, and so did not see the expression on his face. They said nothing to each other, even as Obum dressed up and left the house, easing the door closed behind him, as though afraid to disturb the peace.
The question pierced something inside Ralu, and then shattered it. At twenty-six, he’d lived long enough to know the source of that question: his baby was hurting, deeply. He looked into Obum’s face, his eyes glossy with tears. “What would make you think that? You’re one of the kindest people I know. And you’re so beautiful. You deserve everything good.” He paused. “Did something happen at your friend’s house?”
Obum’s voice increasingly steadied as he spoke, each mounting second of his story making Ralu’s body quake with anger. Halfway through his story, the siren went off on the street, and a roar went up, “Up NEPA!” The appliances beeped awake, blinking blue and red lights all around the living room, as did the Christmas lights that Obum had hung up the previous day, twinkling like multicolored stars in the darkness. A neighbor’s speakers came on, Simi’s voice sifting through the walls: Mama call me o, just the other day /She said hello hello, how you doing, baby?
“How are you not angry with me?” Obum said. “I don’t understand it.”
“Why would I be?” Ralu said. “I’ve said it before that you can see whomever you please, as long as you’re safe.” He smiled at Obum, hoping that it would inject some calm into him. “And as long as you bring your beautiful self back to me.”
He kissed the side of Obum’s head. Of what use was it, to tell him that tonight, waiting in the booth of that club, he’d come close, for the first time, to feeling disappointment? The boy was clearly hurting: it would be like stumbling into someone who had tripped, and then grabbing them by the neck and rubbing their face in the dirt. There was always tomorrow to make crooked things straight. All he wanted, he realized, holding Obum’s head against his chest, was for Obum’s life to be easy, for him to return again to that boy who would walk into a room, talking excitedly about comic books and TV shows, the boy in whose presence everyone felt at ease to be themselves. That was what him happy, seeing all that light, and knowing that, in some small or big way, he was responsible for it.
He thought of the last time he saw Makuo, the evening before traveling back to Awka to complete his MSc thesis. They had both taken a walk, chatting, aimless in their ambling. Finally, they arrived at St. Rita’s hall, climbing the staircase with its gold-plated banisters. Already, Ralu could sense something different in Makuo, a remoteness; he talked about life in a defeated tone, dropping unsolicited advice like an old man who had been through it. “See,” he said, when they got to the last, and only—at the time—uncompleted floor, “You’re so lucky that you’re bright, please don’t lose focus. This country eats people alive, and only the strong and sharp can make it.” Ralu had watched him, worried but mellowed by his earnestness, his use, completely, of English instead of Pidgin, his baggy trousers that were a faded blue, his white shirt with the green letters that said, MY MONEY GROWS LIKE GRASS, his disturbingly yellow eyes with their look of sad resignation. “You see Obum? He has that brightness, too, I think he can even get a scholarship anywhere he wants, he has brains and talent.” He paused, looking out the window; Ralu followed his gaze, below, a group of women had gathered in benches outside, singing in Urhobo, and beyond the fence encircling the parish compound, the farm loomed, green and brown, the stream running through it a thinning black. “But there’s something about him, he doesn’t want to tell me but I know. I know he likes boys. I know that he is doing something with one of his classmates, one Hausa boy like that. He will not tell me, but I know. I accept it, it is his life and I want him to be happy.” Another pause, this time he looked straight into Ralu’s eyes, and Ralu knew that he was speaking to him, not merely about Obum, but also about him. His legs felt weak, and his heart pounded. “I am telling you because you are my person, aloba m, and I know you will understand when I say that I’m worried that his life will be very hard here because of it.”
Ralu thought of that evening all the time, how the sun had turned all yellow in the sky, how the sky itself became a canvas of warm colors, yellow, orange, red, all the bats fluttering against it, black against that background. He thought of it now as he held Obum. “I love you,” he whispered, kissing Obum’s ear, “Never forget that.”
Obum held him tighter. Outside, Papa Ebuka was yelling, Happy, Happy, his voice thick with laughter. He must be closing shop. He never closed quietly, even on nights when the street was not bright and loud. He would yell out words, or burst into song, for this life, I can’t kill myself o, his voice, bright and cheery, multiplied by the deep quiet. Tonight, his words did not come back to him in echoes, but as the responses of passersby, St. Rita’s parishioners on their way home from mass, neighbors out in the street, drinking or making their hair. Happy Christmas! they yelled at him. Banging through all that noise, St. Rita’s bell tolling the end of Christ Mass.
Ralu pressed his lips to Obum’s head. “I love you,” Obum said into his chest.