Aito Osemegbe Joseph - The man with the Pink Underwear

Anabel’s eyes widen when she sees me. She leaves the door open and disappears into the house, leaving me to drag my boxes in myself. Inside, she sits on the sofa, legs crossed, almost in the same spot I left her as if, except for answering the door, she hasn’t moved in three years. I want to tell her the plan, why my return home will work, but she won’t entertain it.

“Anabel.” I sit beside her, after dropping the boxes in the bedroom, “Where are the boys?”

Anabel only looks at me and sighs.

“School?”

She nods in affirmation. She doesn’t utter a word; a nod here, a sigh there, that’s all I get.

 


It is almost midnight and my eyes start to drift shut. A few sharp taps on my shoulder rouse me, and I join Anabel at the sitting room window. I peer through the window but there is nothing outside but small puddles of water sleeping in potholes, reflecting the moonlight.

A slight hum floats to us on the cool night breeze.

It grows louder and turns into a verse, a song, and decipherable chants as a group of people come into view; a score of women, both young and old. Most of them are stark naked, uncaring of being exposed.

The moonlight accentuates the wide forehead of a huge woman leading the procession. She holds a bucket half-filled with water, and a long broom which she dips into the bucket and then flicks upwards, sending up water droplets in a moon-kissed arc. The procession pauses in front of our compound and the huge woman looks straight up at us as if she can see into our dark sitting room. She flicks the wet broom and a few drops of water fly towards us but their journey is a short one. They drop to the ground just shy of the gate.

The huge woman turns away, her voice ringing like a gong, bitter words piercing the night.

May we not divide the meat we forbid with our teeth.

May there not be so much dirt in our pot of soup that the blind can see it.

The crowd’s response to each sentence is a cacophony of loud wails, curses and jeers. Then the procession moves on until they are far down the road, their jiggling rears to Anabel and me.

“This is about me, isn’t it?” I ask, turning to Anabel. The moonlight reveals the gleam of unshed tears in her eyes. She says nothing. I slide my hand over hers and we stay still for a moment. When she starts to cry and whimper, I pull her into an embrace.

“Things are going to change. This will end,” I whisper, my voice trembling with all I feel- angst and sorrow for bringing bad drama into our lives.

 


There is a framed picture of James and John resting on the TV. In it, they are identical, down to their white shirts, navy blue blazers and wide grins. High above them is my wedding picture with Anabel, still hanging comfortably on that spot where it is the first thing that greets visitors as they enter the house. The picture holds trapped smiles, oblivious to the fact that the people in it no longer have that kind of joy, a reminder of the times long before all the madness.

My awakening began on a warm day in 1992. The sun was setting and about a dozen of us were tired from playing with old car tyres along 2nd cemetery road. We were playing make-believe and because there was an uneven number of boys and girls, I played ‘wife’ to one of the boys. I had knelt to serve my husband a drink when a group of older boys stormed our spot behind the car mechanic’s shop and slapped the cup of water out of my hands. They needed ball boys for their football match so they mocked us for our silly games and teased the boys for engaging in such silliness. I joined them in teasing my friends, telling them to go do boy things like chasing after stray balls. That was when Anabel squinted at me until her eyes became slits.

There was a moment of silence as everyone stared at me. One of the older boys broke the silence with jeering laughter, and then they all left for the football field, throwing a few uneasy glances at me.

It wasn’t until I got home that night, that I understood what the silence and glances were about. I hid in the makeshift bathroom at the back of the house and took my clothes off. My mother’s voice calling for me and the sound of static from the monochrome television in the sitting room reached my ears but they both sounded like the stuff of dreams, like there was another Friday inside me who had to answer my mother’s call; like I was an observer in my own body.

I looked at my body, at every little bump on it, until my head ached. Until that day, I hadn’t given much thought to who I was, what I was.

“I am a boy,” I whispered to myself, repeating the words until they caught in my throat.

The next time I saw Anabel was in 2009, after she had graduated from the university and came visiting her brother, Osahon, for the first time since their mother left Benin with her. I went to see them and was glad I had no expectations. The memory of Anabel at five didn’t provide enough to imagine her at twenty-two. She’d blossomed into a beautiful, bright lady.

She offered me lunch and over the meal, the three of us recounted as much common memory as we shared. I was having fun until she turned to me with a smirk.

“Are you guys fucking?” she asked.

Neither Osahon nor I could say anything for a few seconds. I was slack-jawed.

“Seriously, for male adults, you two are cute, like puppies,” she went on, giggling. I remained silent but Osahon chased her playfully, the duo scampering around their sitting room like children. I watched them, recalling how I raced after old tyres on 2nd cemetery street with them and other children, before their mother ran off with Anabel.

Rumour had it that the timid woman, tired of being hit every other day, stabbed her husband and ran off, leaving him for dead. Osahon never spoke about it, but the nurses in the hospital where his father was taken for treatment had gleefully confirmed the presence of stab wounds to their gossip cliques.

The chase ended with the siblings lying on the sitting room rug, trying to catch their breaths. I watched Anabel’s chest rise and fall, her parted full lips, her hair flung across her face. I felt an urge to lie beside her and listen to her ragged breaths.

“Why?” I asked. “Why do you think stuff is going on between us?” It wasn’t the first time someone would insinuate that I was homosexual but I didn’t think Anabel knew enough to assume that.

“Please, Osahon tells me things,” she said, propping her torso with her arms. “At least, I know he’s gay.”

I was surprised. I didn’t think Osahon had ever had that conversation with anyone. I knew of his sexual orientation but to us, it was just one of those things friends know about themselves but never really talk about.

“But I’m not gay,” I said.

“Oh, if you say so,” she responded, giggling.

“He’s not gay!” Osahon said with a tone of finality, the same tone he used to avoid tough conversations.

“I’m sorry,” she said and sat up. “It’s just sweet the way both of you behave. Like you holding Osahon’s hands in yours, trimming his nails like it’s the most natural thing for two men to do while passing the time.”

It was still hard to accept that certain actions were okay for women and not for men. At first, I thought it was a memory problem, that for some reason, I kept forgetting I was male. I had to continually remind myself; I felt it was all I needed to do, but I was wrong. It didn’t work. Puberty came and I was consistent at the gym. It helped the looks, the man-look, and reduced curious stares, yet once in a while I did things that reminded everyone that Friday isn’t what he seems to be on the surface.

“So, because I’m trimming his nails, you just assume…”

“Hey, I’m sorry. I mean it,” she cut me off. “I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions and you know, stereotyping.”

I was impressed by the apology and the way she said it. At that moment, I realized I liked her very much.

“So, what’s your deal?” she asked, a mischievous smile dancing on her lips.

I didn’t respond to that question until two weeks later when she was in my home, helping me break melon seeds in the kitchen while I made dinner. She talked, peeling layers of me open, like I was an onion. She began slowly, and suddenly I was opening up as I never had before, telling her things I was yet to unravel about myself, telling her about my ‘unsureness’. She listened to me talk until she had my aching core in her gentle palms. She cradled my head between her breasts and let me weep.

That evening she placed a call to Osahon and told him she would be spending the night at my place. It was my first night of definitions and acceptance.

“Gender dysphoria,” she said, her head on my chest, her index finger drawing imaginary circles on my chest.

“What’s that?” I asked. It was the first time I’d heard the term.

“You’re transgender,” she explained. “That darkness, the confusion you experience living like a man while you’re actually a woman, that is the dysphoria.”

“Isn’t a transgender person someone who has undergone surgery?” I ask, more to myself than to her. Being called a woman was pleasant and strange. I mused over how comfortable it felt.

“That’s a transsexual,” she said.

“Plenty English. And what about my working penis?”

“A penis doesn’t make a man,” she answered cheekily, then stood up from the bed and headed for the bathroom, her buttocks wiggling.

 


I count one hundred naira notes into wads of ten each, put a dozen wads into my purse
and join them in the sitting room. They had come as soon as I texted them. Before the bustle of school children leaving their nests in the morning, they had arrived. Now the children have started to return and they are still here, solidifying the details of our plan.

Osahon is my closest friend, so I understand why he would help. It was the support from the other guys that moved me. Oseme had also grown up in the same neighbourhood as I but we didn’t become friends until we were in our early twenties, when he and Osahon had become close. Very close. He was married now, with three children.

Osaze, we first met at a party in Ugbowo. Oseme had brought him along as his plus one. Osahon acted with grace, showing no hint of the jealousy I suspected he felt that night. Osaze was a banker and I wondered what lie he had told on a weekday, to save him from the daily drudgery of running off in his suit and tie to his air-conditioned cage.

“Have you told Anabel?” Osahon asks.

“No,” I say.

“Good.”

Osahon still hasn’t forgiven his sister for making me leave but I have different reasons for not telling Anabel about the plan. I had watched her change. I witnessed her lose hope.

“She isn’t going to leave, is she?” Osaze asks.

Osahon frowns. “She isn’t like our mother.”

When the rumours about me kept making the rounds, I’d also had that fear that Anabel would leave me. I knew the basis of the fear—the knowledge that her mother had also left her father. She didn’t leave in the end; instead, she made me leave. Seven months later, I show up at the door with a plan I wasn’t willing to share with her until fully executed.

“Let’s go,” I announce.

As the four of us walk out of my house, a neighbour’s door opens and pairs of curious eyes peer out. When I look up and meet Mama Chiboy’s eyes, she offers a wry smile. Her children disappear behind her. I wonder if she’d heard the procession the night before.

Outside the gates, we settle into Osahon’s car and our journey begins. The ride is uneventful until we reach a police checkpoint. An officer flags us down and peers into the vehicle. His head is almost in through the window. He scans each of us, licks his lips and returns his gaze to Osahon, who is driving.

Beside Osahon, I pull out two notes from one wad in my purse and offer them to the officer. He glances around, licks his lips again and stretches his hands towards me. In a flash, the money is out of my hand and in his pocket. There is a thankful smile on his face. We just start to drive off when I notice the smirk on his face vanish.

“Hold it there!”

Osahon obeys immediately and the car jerks to a stop. The officer takes two long strides and his head is halfway into the driver’s window again.

“That purse, na you get am?” the officer asks, looking at me.

“Yes,” I say.

“You get wife?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“Pikin?”

“I have two children,” I say.  He stares at me steadily.

“Boys,” I babble and add lamely, “Twins.”

“Nor dey carry that kain purse, you dey hear me?” the officer warns.

I didn’t return to Benin to argue or prove anything.

“I hear sah,” I reply. He nods and waves us away. I open the purse, take out a pen and small jotter and write as Osahon resumes driving.

 

4. DITCH THE YELLOW PURSE.

5. DITCH THE ORANGE JOTTER.

 

I replace the jotter and pen and stare out the window, looking out for anything new in the old town. Nothing stands out. The car judders over a yawning pothole and our bottoms leave their seats for a moment. In the rearview mirror, I notice Osaze’s hand fall on Oseme’s thigh. His slim fingers linger. After a few seconds, he slides them off. I look away.

The rushing wind from the open window relaxes me and I drift into a light sleep. When I open my eyes, we are parked on the opposite side of the road from a brown and rusted gate. There is a wooden signpost covering one side of the gate. The lower end of this signpost just grazes the ground and is waterlogged, brown mushrooms layering the edges. There is a faded inscription on the signpost. Still, with the large size of the letters, it is easy to fill in.

I am a traditional Jesus spiritual healer, psychic medium, fortune teller, love spell caster, white miracles consultant, astrologer, clairvoyant, palm reader, and traditional doctor.

“Na here?” I ask.

“Na here,” three of them respond in unison. I don’t hide my dissatisfaction.

Walking in through the gate, the first sight that shocks me is the building’s front door; layers of dry blood and patches of feathers are splattered across it.

 


Something hard and sharp hits my head. I sit up from the student-size mattress and catch sight of a scrawny boy as another small stone zips past the burglary proof bars. My hands go up in reflex and the stone meets my left wrist. I wince and then charge towards the window. The boy, no more than six, backpedals and giggles.

“I know you,” he says, laughing. He picks up another stone and I duck before he throws. Standing beside the window and out of view, I rack my brain as I try to remember if he was someone I had met before, perhaps, a friend of the twins. Nothing clicks. I assume he is the prophet’s son.

“Where’s your father?”

“In 2nd Cemetery,” he says, his laughter drying up. I risk a peek. There’s no stone in his hand anymore.

“When is he returning?” I ask. “Have you eaten?”

“He is dead.”

“What?” It has to be untrue, the man just bade me goodbye a few hours ago, promising to return before evening. The boy giggles and runs off, leaving me nonplussed.

“Hey. Little boy!” I shout after him. “Junior! Prophet’s son! Small boy! Hey!” I call, until he turns a corner.

I turn to the bed and am about to sit when a knock rocks the bedroom door. When I open it, I half-expect to see the prophet but find the scrawny boy.

“I know you,” he says. “You’re the man that danced in church.”

I sighed. “This story is never going away,” I say to myself. It happened a year before the hospital incident where the nurse attending to me had seen my pink undies and started the rumour that I wear my wife’s panties. It was in the Ekehuan Community Anglican church and the priest had asked all the women to come forward. We danced towards the pulpit, in tune with the rumbling drums and I was carried away until the music stopped abruptly and the church erupted in laughter.

“Mr. Friday Adun, I asked the women to come forward,” the priest’s voice bounced off the speakers. I still didn’t understand what the problem was, and I stood there with the women, palms up and asking what? So? It took another bout of the laughter from the congregation to awaken me. I dropped my hands, and my head too, and nodded at the priest, before I turned and headed for the last pew where Anabel sat waiting for me, her face an expressionless mask. The drums started again and the other women resumed their dance towards the pulpit.

I walked back to my seat like a zombie, numb. Like the rest of the congregation, I perched outside of myself and watched the walk of shame. All of us observers had the same questions, “How?” “Why?” but no one, including me, dared ask.

When I sat beside Anabel, she slid her palms into mine, smiling. She was still strong at that time. She was still strong a year later when the nurse’s rumour of the pink underwear spread until it reached her. She took the subtle jabs thrown our way with grace and humour. I assumed she was a strong, tolerant, loving pillar but I was wrong. She was strong and tolerant, but she was no pillar; she was a deep cup. I didn’t realize the cup was getting full.

Her cup overran not long after the hospital incident; it was the day of James and John’s supposed enrolment at Benin technical college, our preferred secondary school. The principal didn’t allow them in. Before he slammed the gate in our faces, Anabel had demanded an explanation.

“Questionable family traits,” he had said. “This is a boys’ school. We can’t admit students who come from a family with questionable traits.”

That was the first break for Anabel. Right there, outside the school, she folded her skirt, tucked the excess material between her thighs and sat on the floor. Her cries were quiet and soft. The twins had never seen her that way before and even though they didn’t fully understand what had transpired between us and the principal, they joined their mother in crying. And I stood there, confused and unsure of what to do.

Anabel’s reaction had me wondering if she had heard about the latest incident triggered by the rumours; the fight at House 18. A few evenings earlier, Osahon and I had attempted to slide into the only free seats at House 18’s bar, but a man already at the table wouldn’t share it with me. He claimed he was fine with Osahon but insisted I leave. He was loud, calling for the management to throw me out just before Osahon hit him. Things went downhill from there, of course. I didn’t tell Anabel about the incident. Had Osahon mentioned it?

Thursday of that same week, our landlady made some sly remark and that did it for Anabel. That was the day she asked me to leave.

“I can take care of the boys,” she offered. “Osaze can resign from his stupid job and help you manage the sugar factory. After all, he helped you get most of your customers.”

At first, I was mad at her but she didn’t budge or relent. She wanted me gone.

“Sir. Sir.”

The scrawny boy’s voice brings me back to the present. He is standing by the door, a grin
on his face.

“Sir, come and see,” he says and walks away. I follow him until we walk through an open door and into a large room. Inside, labelled plastic jars sit in rows on a large shelf covering one wall. The boy points at a jar in the far right corner.

I pick it up and inspect it. Lemon-green liquid, at the base of which is a layer of sand and yellow washed-out weed, their tendrils dancing with the movement of the jar. ANCESTRAL STRONGHOLDS, the paper label reads.

I return the jar to its place on the shelf and turn to another jar of a blue transparent liquid. At the bottom is snakeskin, coiled into a spiral collage of yellow and green scales. The text on its label is written in small font; Make people like you and start progressing in life.

I smile and the boy takes my hand in his, dragging me to the other end of the room. He points at another with the label: “Bring back your lost lover, even if you separated a long time ago.”

“Mr Friday!”

I turn to see the prophet standing at the door. He seems shocked to see us in the potion room. He signals for me to come with him, then closes the door, leaving the boy alone inside.

“Mr. Friday, I kept you in a separate room from that boy because he is very dangerous,” he says, index finger pointing at the door.

“How?”

“How?”

“Yes, how?” I ask again, gobsmacked.

“A month ago, he confessed with his own mouth.”

“That what? He killed his parents?”

“Yes, and many other evil things,” he swears. He catches the shock and disbelief on my face and shakes his head.

“It is time for night prayers.”

“Okay.”

I head towards the designated prayer room.

 


The Thursday before Anabel asked me to leave my family, factory and just disappear, she had gone to a hair salon and returned home in tears.

I was in the kitchen making her dinner when she joined me, still crying. I held her close, comforting her with words to no avail.

“They will whip you,” she said when she finally managed to look up at me. Her eyes were reddened.

“They will strip you naked and drag you to new Benin market,”

“What? Because of the stupid nurses?” I asked. Surely the rumours about my pink underwear weren’t enough to cause any mob action.

“They will rain stones on you,” she sniffed. Goosebumps sprang up on my arms. The thought of stones cutting my body freaked me out.

“A tyre will find your neck and the police will come to meet your ash and blackened bones in the middle of the road,” Anabel continued, pounding my chest with her fists.

Both of us were soaked in sweat. Dark smoke had begun to rise from beneath the dried up kettle. I stretched out an arm and turned the cooker off.

“People have talked before, this isn’t the first time. We will be fine,” I started to say but she cut me off.

“How the fuck will we be fine?” she wriggled free and pushed me backwards. “How, Friday? Tell me.”

“It will boil over and people will forget all of this,”’ I said, reaching for her. She slapped my hand away.

“Friday, three salons! Three different salons in this small Ekehuan!” she crumpled to the kitchen floor and I sat beside her, wondering what had happened. She reached towards me and pulled my arms around her again.

She giggled through her tears. “I went to three salons today, Friday.”

“And?”

“And nobody was willing to attend to me.”

“Maybe they…”

“Maybe what?” she exclaimed, sitting up. “Friday, there is no maybe here. When I stayed put in Mama Onyinye’s salon, refusing to leave until I was attended to, guess what happened?”

“What?”

“All the customers left because of me!”

“That is impossible.”

Anabel let out a coarse, drawn-out laugh.

“Oh, it happened,” she said and repeated the strange laugh again. The resignation in it sent a cold shiver running down my spine. “As soon as I finally gave up and stepped out, Mama Onyinye brought out a broom and a bowl of water and started washing the floor after me.”

My jaw dropped in shock and Anabel seemed gratified. Perhaps, my reaction showed that I was finally getting the picture. I imagined how she felt when Mama Onyinye with the loud mouth swept the ground clean after her, how she would surely be regretting taking the risk of being my wife. But she didn’t know that I was just as scared, that all I had left was a bold front and a poker face. There was no point telling her my three biggest customers had stopped buying from me.

“Let me be seeing what sugar on the other side is going for, first,” Chief Osemudiamen had said before placing a call to my closest competitor.

“Friday,” she called.

“I’m here.”

“Our little boys will walk the street and people will point at them and whisper.”

“Our boys are in school, they will be fine.”

Anabel stood up, cleaned her face, then filled the kettle and lit up the cooker again.

“Friday,” she said again, voice firm.

“I’m here,”

“I will be too afraid and ashamed to defend you,” Anabel said. “Where do I start to explain? Could you not just be like Osahon and keep these things private?”

“I didn’t mean to be all out there—”

“Friday,” she said, curtly. “You have to leave!”

 


It is evening already and all I’ve had is a glass of the prophet’s potion cocktail. I sit down on the floor but he commands me to get up. I do, reluctantly, and the prayer continues.

“Raise your right hand,” he screams. “Lift it above your head, close your eyes and open your mouth like a hungry shark.

“Now pray this special prayer after me;

“The spirit of the Lord will fall upon you like a Mike Tyson blow.”

“The spirit of the Lord will fall upon me like a Mike Tyson blow,” I repeat, personalizing the prayer.

“Mr. Friday, open your mouth very well and pray,” the prophet screams. “Some evil spirits cannot go out with gentle gentle talk.”

“Mr. Friday you will open your mouth wide like a goal post. You will scream like a mad woman is chasing you with a pestle. Scream like a grass-cutter trap has caught your leg.”

“Yes sir,” I answer.

“May the almighty God smite you with the thunder of deliverance,” he continues. I repeat after him.

“May the lorry of transformation ram into your life.”

And so on, until midnight. I feel weak and only manage to respond with faint amens to the prayers. Finally, the prophet takes me by the hand and leads me outside to the back of the two-storied building cum deliverance centre. Under an almond tree, there is a bucket of water beside a large black pot and a small stool. I notice a sponge and soap beside the bucket.

“Sit,” he orders. When I do, he lowers my head over the empty basin.

“Spread your legs apart and don’t raise your head until I tell you to.”

He goes into the house and returns with a bible. When the water and soap touch my head, he starts reading. His left hand holds the Bible opened to Psalm 142. With the other hand, he washes my evil spirit into the basin. His fingers course through my wet hair, going back and forth gently, the lather adequate lubricant.

As soapy water glides over my shut eyelids, I mull over this situation. Osahon had suggested I try the prophet and I agreed to the plan.

“If they can believe that queerness is proof of demon possession, they will believe that exorcism is a solution,” he sent a text message two months after I left Benin.

“This is the story that would be told of you,” he texted again, winning me over;

Friday, a man, once possessed of the vilest of spirits, has been delivered and healed.

The news of my deliverance will reach Anabel before I do; the town is a small one. Forgiveness, and then acceptance will follow and people will start to forget the church episode and the story of the pink underwear. The choice was simple really, and choosing to hide my pink underwear deeper in the closet was a better option for me than staying away forever.

The prophet dries my head with a towel, spouting gibberish about freedom, and spreading the news of God’s work in transforming my soul. But as he is speaking, I catch the moonlight in his eye, a mischievous glint. For a moment, I think he understands, he knows something about this dance of hypocrisy, and the darkness to come.

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