The bristles, dark like unfettered charcoal crowding his chest twirl like a deformed leg. They contrast with the brownness his leathery skin reeks of as if someone had intentionally placed them there to make his chest region less alluring.
I am sitting on the broken brick wall that separates our class from the next staring at him. He is clothed in the school’s uniform. The stainless white shirt on black trousers, still to me he is still very unclothed. In my eyes, I see the long legged teenager who had coerced me into going with him to a friend’s house so we could ‘do’. I see a boy too reticent that boldness becomes a veneer that everyone but him can see.
He doesn’t notice me, he is talking to his friends. They are arguing about the validity of a rumour on the change of school prefects. He dips one hand into his pocket and then leans on the railings of the veranda, his golden wristwatch because they are bigger than his lean arms race downwards till they almost fall out through his palms. He flexes his arm to steady his watch and he turns simultaneously. Just then, his eyes meet mine. Quickly he turns away, so quickly that I think I imagine it all. I think I imagine feeling the warmth only his circular pupils could bring.
A girl is walking towards him, her hips swaying like the hips of masquerades trying to please a crowd and her bossom bobbing as roses did on galloping water. Her name is Blessing, she is in my class. The first to raise up her hand when a teacher asked a difficult question, the only one flocking around male teachers to buy her Gala and Coke from the canteen during recess. He smiles as she stops in front of him. I cannot hear what it is that she tells him but he erupts in laughter, she says something else and he laughs some more. His forehead wrinkles from premature age lines that showed only when he laughed or when he was too serious, or when he had the quietest girl in class writhing in his bed.
Chikwado didn’t speak to girls like me. He had his clique of friends, the boys who got dropped in school by cars with company names emblazoned on their refulgent metal skins. The boys who could afford to buy more than one bottle of Coke and who were best friends with the canteen attendant because they patronised her during every recess. She teased them constantly calling them “My husband” and making light jokes when it was either of them in line. Once she had joked with Chikwado as he stood in line for a soft drink that because he was a fine boy, she would not marry him again as she wasn’t pretty enough to deal with the competition from other girls. Chikwado was friends with girls who powdered their faces and used attachments in braiding though retrograde to school rules, who trimmed their school skirts so it held tightly and fell before their knees. The girls who knew the happening places in town and not on a mission scholarship from a caring catholic parishioner like I was.
It was the manner he had approached me, the austerity in his voice when he had first spoken to me.
“Please what is the exact meaning of Chikwado?” He had said. He grinned, in the way people did when they saw something unpleasant. He had been arguing with his friends about the meaning of his name. I had not believed my eyes, the hairs on my skin stood on edge. The kind of feeling I had when Brother had been diagnosed with Cancer. Boys like this didn’t pally with girls like me. But I answered.
“Chikwado means God is in support, or God arranges”
His eyes brightened up. His face was bereft of the grin that had tied it before.
I thought he’d walk away, that his legs would part the little minute we had shared and tear it to shreds. But he did not walk away, he stood. He stood hands in his trouser pockets, the way he stood when he talked to other girls, girls like Blessing whose beauteous faces merited the glory of his stare. I wished he’d walk away, wished that my heart would stop to pound like the drums heralding the Igwe during his Ofala. I wished my quavering lips would steady and hide how nervous I was. But they did not, they quavered continuously as if the words “Chikwado” had left them helpless and tottering under its weight like they had left me.
It was the amused pinches the “Back of class girls” gave themselves when they caught sight of us speaking. The more amused pinches seasoned with giggles in the weeks that followed when he bought me gala during recess or waited during chemistry so we could go to the lab together.
It was the manner with which he suddenly started to enjoy my company. The manner with which his life seeped into mine like Garri and soup placed in the same dish.
I knew I was in love when I buried my head in the tender warmth of my pillow to take his midnight calls so the noise wouldn’t sift through the walls to papa’s bedroom. When I went to Aunty Bridget, mama’s tailor’s shop and told her to trim my skirt so it held tightly and fell before my knees. I knew I was in love when I bickered at my hairdresser to add attachment to my hair, when I began to powder my face with Mama’s Tony Montana before leaving for school every morning and when I told Mama my eyes had gotten better so I wouldn’t have to wear the spherical glasses to school.
Soon, I became one of the “back of class girls”. I made jokes about other girls who wore big dresses to Saturday lessons; I made even more jokes about the ones who did not oil their lips and who braided their hairs in the market place. Because I had once been part of them, I knew them quaintly. I knew Mkpuroma, the girl who had a Bible and cotton scarf lodged between her textbooks because she went to prayer from school every day. I knew Abosede, a western student whose mother whipped her severely when she as much as breathed to a person of the opposite gender. I knew also Immaculate, who hawked Okpa after school because she owed her fees since class two and Pauly whose hands fluttered as he spoke, who walked as women did, whose chests flapped as breasts, whose behind bounced as creamy butter when he walked and who still told everyone he was straight.
No one asked about my own stories, no one asked to know why a catholic father came to see the principal once a term on my behalf, why my father drove the rickety bicycle that croaked like a frog when ignited. It was as if the fact that I spoke, that I told other people’s ugly stories meant I had none of my own, meant that I was like them, with perfect lives seamed by threads of gloss and wealth. As if something had wiped off their memories of me being the bespectacled front seat girl in not just big Saturday lesson dresses but big uniforms as well.
Still, Chikwado’s tenders increased. Increased so much that my grades fell, but I did not care. I had the finest boy in the school, the finest boy in the world, madly in love with me. I did not care also that my old friends went through hell, that the “back of class girls” taunted them with the stories they never would have found out but through me. I was immersed in the text messages he sent every morning, the calls he gave at night. I was immersed in the conversations that we had, so that one or two shrugs and hisses from the front seat folks could not in the slightest way bother me. He took me to meet his direct elder brother, an exact copy of him but with slightly darker skin, the one at nineteen who already managed a branch of his Father’s factory in our town. His brother had been pleased to meet me, he had told me that Chikwado had never brought any girl to him, he had said he must be serious with me and ordered his company driver to drop me home.
When the Toyota Camry with the company’s name BEN BROTHERS emblazoned on it got to the first house on my street, I had told the driver to stop. Because I knew he couldn’t drive to my house, because I knew even being on my street was risk enough. I let Chikwado kiss me before I opened the door of the car. I let him fiddle with my hardened nipples and grope at the swirl of my breasts bulging like large oranges in the blouse I wore before I walked out.
“I love you” He said then grabbed my hands before I walked out “Look, I would marry you. When I’m eighteen and done with secondary school, Father has promised me the factory in Onitsha, I would come for you then.”
I closed my eyes because his words were music to my ears. I closed my eyes because Aunty Bridget said the best things were always felt with the heart, because I couldn’t believe the words I heard.
“Don’t lie to me Chikwado, don’t” I said
“Why do you find it hard to believe me, eh, why?” He asked, his words sliding over each other easily, as if speaking good English was the same as counting ABC “I love you” He said again but I had pulled away from his grip and begun walking home feeling his eyes all over me.
He said it more often in the weeks that followed, that he loved me. He had even said it in the presence of his friends. We had been in the canteen, I was sipping a bottle of Coke and squealing at Blessing who smiled at me from another table. A girl had walked past our table which was crowded by his friends, I knew her, she was a senior. We waited at the same bus stop every morning for the big Coaster buses that were free for students.
“Bingo!” One of his friends said and they all laughed loudly, so loudly that the girl turned and looked at us. She had a certain disappointment crowding the circular frame of her pupils, disappointment tinged with betrayal. The look in her eyes grew fierce when she rested them on me, as if she was trying to tell me something, something words alone could not explain.
“Bingo who rode this boy fiercely” Another said pointing at his trousers and they laughed some more.
“See how she was staring at you, one would think you were the one making fun of her” The first said.
“She is appalled by her Beauty” Chikwado said before adding “I love you”
I wondered where that had come from.
Later, when recess was over and I had asked him what Bingo meant and why it had hurt that girl, he waved me off with his arm signalling it was not important. He had never done that about anything.
When he told me about his friend’s birthday that was going to be held on the last Friday of the term , I had told him I would not go. Because it was an all night party, because Mama alone didn’t let me go for parties that stretched into the early hours of the night speak more of parties that lasted all night. But he had asked me to find a way and I had. I had told mama I was going for a vigil at Mkpuroma’s church.
“What church is that?” Mama said when I told her, she was breaking Orah leaves from their fibrous stalks to make soup for dinner.
I did not know the church, but I knew it was Pentecostal and I knew also what their names sounded like. “Word of fire and faith and deliverance and blessing ministry” I said under my breath.
Mama sighed “The pastor must be a strong man” she said her eyes refulgent from expectation.
I nodded “Mkpuroma said he made a woman that was blind from birth see by just giving her a page from his notepad to chew”
“Eh, Eh!” Mama exclaimed “Eziokwu?”
I nodded once again, even though Mkpuroma had only told me that miracle had supposedly happened at their headquarters and not the local branch.
Mama had allowed me go, she had even given me one of her crisp fifty naira notes to use as offering and a list of prayer points.
I met with some girls from school at eight. Together we changed dresses, then powdered our faces before we took a bus to the boy’s house in the GRA where the party was supposed to hold. Chikwado was there when I arrived, a bottle of drink in his hand. He hugged me, pressing me tightly to his body and then motioned that I seat, his breath smelled of alcohol and his eyes had reddened. He seemed foreign from the Chikwado I knew, he seemed a different person from the finest boy in class with few words. Yet, he seemed also strangely familiar.
It was that night he had lured me upstairs to “do”, the night after which he never spoke to me again.
I am no longer sitting on the brick wall, a teacher has walked into the class. I stare at him as I walk to my seat. He is still in the company of his friends and they talk as they walk to their seats. Blessing passes by him and he slaps her on her behind. When I put on my glasses and stare at the board, the teacher has not written anything. I can hear their voices from the back of the class, but I do not know what it is they talk about.
“Bingo!” One of them says loud enough for me to hear and they all laugh. I do not want to turn, but I want to know also what they mean by “Bingo”. When I turn, they are pointing at me and laughing.
“Bingo sat on this boy at a party and rode him fiercely” Chikwado says pointing at his trousers and they laugh loudly. He looks like he did on the night we had last spoken, he looks distant, different.
They laugh some more till tears roll down their eyes. I look at myself in the tinted windows of our class. My eyes have disappointment crowding the circular frame of my pupils tinged with a certain betrayal. I know that look.
“Stop making noise” The teacher says. He is still looking at me.