ISI JI! THAT redundant, annoying, purple-coloured head of a yam tuber! Despite how much my siblings and I hated it, it found its way into the cooking pot whenever mommy cooked yam. Something about pretending stressed me out: I could not pretend to love isi ji like my siblings, and so, I refused to add parts of it to my plate. In slight indignation, Mommy would look at my plate and ask why I did not take some isi ji. You’re meant to distribute it; only one person can’t eat the head. How could you just take the fine part and leave the rest for us, eh? Whenever she rambled on like that, I wanted to ask, “Why cook something no one wants to eat?”
Out of curiosity, I confronted her once. “Mommy, do you like eating yam head?”
She blandly stated, “I like it. If you go and visit some people cook it for them.”
“What if they don’t like it?” I asked. “No one here likes it.”
Looking at me with her head tilted upwards, nose flared, and mouth downturned, she retorted, “I have told you. Before they say you are wasting their yam.”
My parents are obsessed with what people think about them. Sweep the frontage well so that it will be presentable if we have visitors. Don't do it like that! If you now visit someone’s house they’ll think that...
Beneath this obsession for correction lay a sinister kind of selfishness. The kind of selfishness that made them place their ego over their children’s happiness. There were times I questioned if they truly loved me, cared about my feelings. How was it that what people thought was more important than me not wanting to carry handbags for morning mass at seventeen. It was none of their business if I felt it was awkward. Mrs. Okafor’s daughter was my age mate, and carrying a handbag did not mean she had two heads. Maybe if they did not go about poking their noses into people’s business, they would not be bothered about what “they” would say.
You see, amidst all this pretence – not working with what works for you because you are scared of what “they” would say, I turned out to be a rebel. Their desire for correctness was a stench that overwhelmed our house, so that when I leaned out the window to take in a puff of incorrectness, I could not resist inhaling repeatedly. I did not care about what anyone thought of my choices. I did not allow “they” rule me. Who is “they”? “They” is you and I being judgemental. Society judges that which it find absurd or not “righteous” enough. This, in my opinion, is in a bid to validate our own holiness, our own righteousness. You need to understand this: caring about an irrelevant person’s opinion of you makes you a prisoner to their thoughts. You know, a woman that does not seek validation is invincible. All that matters is that I am happy with my choices.
Choice. Often times, in the past, I have heard people ask if we consciously decide whom you get attracted to, but who decides to love someone knowing the negative consequences attached?
Before Chisaraokwu, I dabbled in insipid romances with men. Everything with them was contrived, as I was not attracted to them in anyway. All I ever did was feign happiness, pretended I enjoyed being with them. A woman can fake anything from a smile to an orgasm. Ever since I was younger, I had known I was drawn to women, not men. As it had always been in my head that loving another woman was reprehensible, I always ran away from women that stirred me.
But I could not run away from Chisaraokwu. She was inevitable, like fire to a moth. Not even my engagement to Marcus could hold me back from craving whom I wanted.
I met her during the training before I got my job. Everything about her pulled me in. Her open-mindedness; her joie de vivre; her intellect – she is one of the smartest women I have ever met; her sensitivity; her warmth; her sophistication – she seems to have everything figured out; however, she was mean and cold towards me. Just me. I would have written her off as one of those annoying women who enjoyed bringing other women down, but she was nice to other women at the training school. To humour the universe, I had a crush on her. It is as though she knew I had something for her and she decided to hate me for it.
The first time I saw her, she was wearing a black skirt suit that accentuated her figure. It is not as if I have not seen women with long, nice, shapely legs. It happened that hers’ were... exquisite; like God’s own hands made it the day He was extremely pleased with the world. The 5” thick mass of afro that framed her head and full, sensual lips together with her bronzed skin added a certain allure to her. I often wondered why she was not an artist with the way she looked.
Many months had passed before Chisaraokwu confessed she fancied me from the first time she saw me, but decided not to pursue anything with me. Actually, she deliberately avoided me. “It would have been dumb of us to start anything only for us to be posted to different states,” she explained.
After getting our posting letters, I did not see her. I asked one of her pals where she was, but the dude gave me a vague reply. For all I cared, she might have asked him not to tell me anything. That was the confirmation I needed that she hated me. What else would have explained those cutting remarks she flung at me coupled with those icy stares and condescending smiles?
Gradually, I pushed her to the back of my mind, as the Accounts department was always hectic. Honestly, I did not even know how the days flew by. Time takes wings and flies fast when hard work distracts you. There were long sheets of figures that threatened to snatch away my sanity. Then, there were deadlines I had to meet up. If I had my way, I would have quit, but Reason held me back. The pay gave me financial independence and that was enough to keep me at the job. I had enough money to move out from my parent’s house. I no longer had to belabour my teeth and jaw with isi ji.
Then a month later, I saw Chisaraokwu at my branch in her “dark-skinned goddess glory” smiling softly at me. I trembled. My mind almost flew into panic mode. I was too shocked to react. At the training school, she might have thought I was a total idiot. That might have been her reason for being all hues of bitchy at me. So I would not confirm her suspicion, I looked away. Even at that, my hands could not be steady. I felt she would stare after me if I decided to walk to my cubicle. Good enough for me, it was lunch break. I decided to go to the fast food restaurant opposite the office. I was almost at the gate when I felt a vicelike grip on my upper arm. I was startled.
At the time, I was acting up around him. Everything he did ticked me off. When we are sated with our lovers, everything they do, including the way they breathe, irritates us. I was not okay with my relationship being okay. I wanted more. I knew he loved me, but I wanted him to want me. I needed him to need me. I do not know if you get me. What we had was like diluted palmwine: it looked good to the world, but it lacked taste.
He softened his grip.
“Why are you here?” I tried to contain my anger.
“I wanted to surprise you,” he smiled at me. “Let’s do lunch today.”
We sat at a table in the bubbly restaurant filled with my colleagues, and I was almost launching into a million-word tirade about him visiting me at the office in a bid to “surprise “me, when I saw him nod at someone standing behind me. Chisaraokwu came from behind me and sat with us.
“Sorry,” she smiled as she pulled back the chair adjacent me and lowered herself to seat on it. “No space anywhere and I hoped you wouldn’t mind if I joined you two. I’m Chisaraokwu,” she introduced herself to us.
“Marcus,” he responded, a boyish smile playing on his lips. He reached for my palm across the table and held it possessively, “Tess, my wife-to-be,” he grinned at me. This was just how I wanted my day to go: sitting with two people I did not like at the time.
I did not care if Chisaraokwu was flirting with Marcus. She practically threw herself at him. I thought I was going to throw up on them. Appetite left and I informed them I was going back to the office. Nodding curtly at her, I pushed back from the table to stand up. I squeezed his shoulder on my way to the door while telling him I would call later.
He walked after me and met me at the restaurant’s door. “Hey, babe, you’re angry at me for something and don’t want to tell me.”
“I promise I’m fine. I have just been busy. We’ll talk later, right?”
Marcus, Silence, and I walked back to the office. In the car lot, I gestured that I would call him later. Without waiting for a reply, I trotted into the building.
I was seeking answers to many questions in my head all afternoon. The salient one was, “Why is Chisaraokwu here?” I could have wagered she did not even get the job. It was so annoying that although I claimed not to like her, convinced myself that I despised her, I was still drawn to her.
The next day, I met Chisaraokwu in the restaurant. I would like to think she met me. It was bizarre how she acted as if we were suddenly best of pals. I was used to a cold meanie. I discovered that contrary to her icy demeanour, more like a facade, Chisaraokwu is warm and attentive. For the next one week, we rendezvoused at the restaurant. She told me she never hated me.
“How would anyone hate you? You’re adorable.”
This reply made me feel better in a way. I did not care about anyone’s approval of me, but I cared about what she thought of me.
Taking the BRT from CMS was an experience I always anticipated. I lived for those moments she would squeeze my thighs while laughing at a joke or held my palm in hers’. Every time I alighted at Fadeyi, I felt my heart break. I hated leaving her. She said she always loved watching me walk away from her to cross the road. “Watching you is pain I welcome. That way, I get to watch you sashay on these mean streets of Lagos.”
My friendship with Chisaraokwu gnawed at the fibre of what I shared with Marcus until there was a gaping hole, which could not be mended, between us. I felt guilty.
I felt guilty for not calling him.
I felt guilty for ignoring his calls.
And when I deemed it okay to answer his calls, I hastily hung up saying I had to run off. There were times I had puny excuses not to talk with him. Somehow, he was... cool with the new status quo.
Ignoring Marcus for Chisaraokwu’s sake was akin to ignoring purple-coloured isi ji to pick the white yam pieces from the pot. What did it matter? I found love! It filled me up. It was like insanity. Just that this was peaceful, blissful. I could feel my footsteps were lighter. I could have floated. In a twisted way, I loved the secrecy. I was in love. It was like finding a treasure and hiding it from prying, envious eyes. It is as though something goes awry when we show the world our treasure.
One weekend, Chisaraokwu invited me over to her home. To my chagrin, I discovered she had a flatmate – a young man about our age. What was I supposed to think? I just assumed they were lovers. I felt betrayed. I thought Chisaraokwu had a thing for me. But what if it was all in my head? Maybe I mistook her guileless friendship for affection. Then again, I could not have imagined the jolts I felt whenever she touched me. I could not have imagined those intense gazes that searched my soul, which made me think she had seen my depraved, debauched desires, which bordered on Sapphic eroticism.
“Chisa talks about you a lot. You two are involved?”
“No.” I was uncomfortable. What did he mean by that?
And they were on pet name basis? Nice. She didn't like me calling her “Chisa”. I called her that once and she almost freaked out on me. “You are about to drop down on my like scale. Like, from 10 to 2.”
“What’s the biggie? Who hates pet names?”
“I just don't like them. Just call it in full.”
“So, if you were let’s say ‘Nneka’, I wouldn’t call you ‘NK’?”
“Yes. Just call it in full. What’s the meaning of Chisa? Does it make sense to you? ‘Chisa, Chisa’... no. Call it in full.”
It became clear to me that we were just friends. I probably did not really mean much to her. And there I was imagining... How could she send conflicting signals in one breath? She pulled me in yet pushed at once and it was all so confusing.
Later at night, in her bed, I asked her why he thought we had a thing.
“Oh... well, he thinks we’re an item. I’ve told him we’re not. I mention you. We’re like best friends of some sort now. It’s like I see you more than I see other people. Don’t mind him... He’s just messing with ya,” she stared at me in that manner that made me want to throw caution to the wind and ravage her. But what would she think? I did not want to lose her as a friend. It is not as if she indicated that she was attracted to women. As though she were reading my thoughts, she asked casually, “You don’t mind that I like women, right?”
“No,” I shook my head as if I was on autopilot. I should have acted funny. You know, make an issue out of this. But I could not. Besides, I was turned on. She must have noticed my breath was heavier. She was aware of the effect she had on me. She smirked and turned off the light of the bedside lamp.
“Goodnight, Tess,” she whispered.
I felt disappointed. What was I even expecting?
Five months into our friendship, we were really best friends. We had sleepovers. Innocent sleepovers. When I got tired of the innocence, I invited her to my place. It was time to up the ante.
We did everything the same way – made dinner, watched a movie, bathed, and relaxed with a glass of wine. According to plan, I decided to be daring. I kissed her. She did not object; I took her quiescence for acquiescence and we ended up having sex.
“I wanted you to make the first move,” she told me as she nuzzled my ear and traced circles on my thighs. “I didn't want you to get scared and... you have Marcus with-”
Marcus. Marcus. His name echoed in my head. I made a mental note to ask her never to mention his name again.
That was how we began an intense, torrid romance.
Everything before this paled in comparison. She was an ocean, I was drowning, and I did not want anyone to save me. Working together in the same office added a certain thrill to our affair. There were stolen kisses in the restroom, gazes filled with longing and laced with unspoken words, a little touch here and there... I knew this was the real deal.
I was helplessly in love and desperately in lust with her.
I did not want this to stop.
I spent every weekend with Chisaraokwu and gradually, she pulled me into her circle and her friends knew we were in a relationship. There was one I really liked, ‘Danna. I was drawn to her recklessness. There was a couple – Khadija, a painter, and Nmesoma, an engineer. Chisa told me there had been an item for three years. I was impressed. There was Luisa, a psychologist with a private practice. It was so easy to talk to her. They occupied my time and I saw less of most of my friends. I did not mind because I loved hanging out with them. Terra Kulture was our main place. A lot of artsy went on there. As time went on, I began losing interest in my job. I knew there was more to me than an accountant in a big firm on the Island. I decided to be expressive. I felt writing was a vent for me.
I wrote my first poem for her and she laughed at it. I felt small.
“You just had to write this?” she kissed me. That kiss was patronising. I hated her that instant. “Lover, you can do better. I’ll get you anthologies. I think you should start with Emily Dickenson. But you could go with other poets. It’s the thought that counts. Thanks, baby.”
In four months, I think I improved a great deal. I found myself reciting my poems at open mic nights and it was amazing. She showed me off to everyone. I made her proud. I made her happy, and this made me happy.
“Let’s travel,” she said sometime in 2015 as we were having brunch in bed.
“Where would we go?”
“Somewhere,” she grinned at me. She always had that mischievous grin before she did something naughty.
“I want us to live far away from here,” she took my palm in hers’ and kissed my wrist while holding my gaze. I quivered from that contact. I recognised that dark look – she was peering at me through her lashes, like she had a grievous secret. I knew what it meant. She kissed inside of my palm. Her kisses were electrifying. Straddling me, she firmly held my chin and kissed me – languid and slow and demanding and assuring. Her kisses were unspoken tomes of literature that showed how much she was in love with me.
Marcus dangled on the periphery of memory. How could he still believe he and I were in a relationship with all the distance I succeeded in putting between us? There were times I had hinted at having a thing with Chisaraokwu. Everything in me told me he knew I was in a romantic relationship with Chisaraokwu. But why was he not bothered?
It was not until months later Marcus opened up to me one evening. “I’m gay,” he said. I was dazed. His indifference towards our non-existent romance made sense. “We need a wedding,” I managed to process what he said, albeit my shock. His reasons made sense. “It’s just going to be for people, so that they can let us be.” Eventually, we agreed on a date – April 1st, 2017. It would be our inside joke.