Very recently I visited Abuja for a week – I had dropped off my license for renewal. The plan was to see my sister, stay at my cousin’s, visit three friends – all female, and generally chill out. What I ended up doing was nothing like my calculated plan.
On my second evening in town I was chilling at a friend’s, just lying down and listening to music off my phone while her cousin read my old posts. D’Angelo’s “Cruisin’” had just ended and David Archuleta’s “Crush” came on.
Walking on tip toe, I went from room to room. I listened from behind a closed door for any signs of movement, and poked my head around the other to visually confirm everybody was asleep. I even checked the toilet, bathroom and kitchen to make sure I was the only one awake in the entire house.
Still on tip toe, I reached the parlour door and quietly turned the key in the lock. I dared not breathe, lest the action unsettle my hand, thus making me unable to contain the click when the lock turned. Then very quietly, I pulled the door inward, gently supporting the frame, for though I had only yesterday oiled the hinges, I had not had the opportunity to confirm if it still creaked.
Inch by inch I pulled the door open, and as soon as there was enough space for me to squeeze through, I was out of the house. FREEDOM!
My instinct was to whoop loudly and run wildly, but an image of myself caught and made to ‘pick pin’ flashed through my mind, and stilled me. Just as silently, I pulled the door shut. It was not until I had left the compound and was outside the gate that I remembered to breathe.
I wanted to turn cartwheels, I wanted to dance – OK, do a jig as I couldn’t dance; I wanted to do a lot of things, but I knew I was living on borrowed time. Mama might come out of her room to use the toilet. That by itself did not hold any fears for me. If she looked in the room, she would find four sleeping ‘forms’ anyway. It was my sister with her suspicious nature that scared me.
While nobody would think of it, it was only she I knew who would poke and prod until she dislodged the wrappers I had moulded in the foetal position I preferred to curl into when I slept. Everybody knew I covered my head when I slept, even in the heat, but she would pull the wrapper down to my chin saying “Only the dead are covered from head to toe.”
So with all these fears causing my feet to tremble, I raced off to the next street while the rest of the family observed siesta. My feet gathering dust, and the blood pounding in my ears, I thrust my chest out even further while my pumping hands easily kept rhythm with the slap slap of my feet landing flatly on the dry and dusty road as I ran.
I was on Casco street, and though the house numbers flew past as I ran, I did not need to check them or count the houses. I had done this run so many times, I was familiar with all the dips on the uneven road.
And there, in the distance stood her house. For me the most beautiful on the street.
Casco street was really a crescent, curved like a sliver of moon, and Number 10 lay somewhere in the gently curving centre so that one could see around both curves from the verandah. The faded cream colour of the pock marked walls, the most attractive sight on the street to my eyes.
Church was on the other side of the bend and I had never before paid any attention to Number 10 until that Sunday not so long ago when, hurrying back from church to go and watch “Globe Trotters” had I seen her.
It was not my first time seeing her, we attended the same primary school and where in the same class, but something about her in house clothes made me aware of how beautiful she really was. From that day, her house became the most beautiful on the street.
I would never say a word to her in school, my mouth became parched each time I was in her presence; but I moved seats in class the next week so that I sat three seats to her right instead of six rows behind her.
Everyday after school, I would pace myself as we walked home so that I had her in my sight without seeming obvious. My best friend wondered why I started going home right after afternoon assembly, instead of staying back and participating in whatever after school activity there was.
On those walks home, hidden in the throng of pupils heading home, feet raising swirling pockets of dust, I let my mind wander.
I wondered what it would feel like to have her as my girlfriend – thanks to “Wonder Years” I already knew about women. Wondered about what and what she would allow; her breasts were just beginning to show. As small as they were, her areola and nipples were just really exciting to stare at, jutting out through her vest and uniform. But even these were not as exciting as her smile. When she smiled the sun seemed to bounce off teeth – so white, I knew she had to brush at least five times a day. She had ‘open teeth’ which were rare for me, and dimples deeper than my sister’s. Her smile altogether had an exotic quality.
Then would come my frequent late afternoon forays to her house. When I got two houses from Number 10, I would cut into the long corridor of Number 6. I would walk to the end of the the face-me-I-face-you house, drop down the small decline that ran behind most houses on the street and crawl the rest of the way to her house. Here, I would then drop onto the stepping stones in the marshes running behind the houses, the water so clear you could see to the bottom. If one held his hand still in the water for long enough, tiny beautifully coloured fish/es would actually swim between the arches made by the fingers. And here I would look for a sizeable rock to sit on and wait to catch a glimpse of her as she came out to do any number of things. Sometimes she would come out, and some other times she would not. Again, I would not say a word sitting in the shadows of low hanging vines, but just watch her move about.
On this day however, she came out to empty the contents of a cooking pot. She swung her left hand and the contents emptied and fell a few feet from me causing water to splash on me. “The bottom-pot of amala” I muttered under my breath. Still I did not say a word to her. Oblivious of my presence, she squatted and taking some fine sand in her sponge proceeded to wash the pot inside and out, rinsing it into the water.
I knew I had over stayed my allotted time, but short of jumping out and startling her, I could not leave discreetly.
When I pushed the door open and slipped into the parlour, the first sight that confronted me was Mama sitting in in her favourite chair facing the TV. I gently shut and locked the door, and was turning away from the door when her question reached my ears. “Ebe ka i shi?” Startled, I dropped my slippers I had been carrying in my arms, and sweat pouring down my face, I turned towards her and contrived to looked resolutely – almost defiantly – at a spot between her hairline and the ceiling; eye contact would have gotten me killed.
“I asked a question young man, where have you come from?” She did not raise her voice, she did not need to. The calm spelt more doom than if she had shown her anger. Anger meant a ‘rushed’ beating, some blows of which may not land properly; a calm mien meant a calculated and measured beating – value for the energy expended. “Choi!” Was the only thought in my mind.
Pointing to the tiles in front of her, she said, “Pick your squares.”
And as I selected four squares, none of which I dared step out of in the course of the flogging that was to come, my eyes fell downwards and I saw my feet for the first time; covered in white dust almost to my knees, tiny strips of brown skin in the ‘Y’ shape made by my slippers reminding me of a similar ‘Y’ of the rivers Niger and Benue on the Map of Nigeria as we were taught in Social Studies. The sight made me smile, and memory of school reminded me of her and her smile, and I knew seeing her was worth this punishment. Not even my brother calling out “Form blazing sword,” when Mama reached behind her and pulled out the cane secreted in the cushion of her chair could dim the glow I felt somewhere in the core of my 9-year old stomach…
“Next!” Her voice brought me back to the present. She had finished reading the article. I pulled up another of my articles before Luther Vandross’ “I’d Rather” started playing off my phone.
PS: I saw her again years later after NYSC and we talked. My family had moved after my primary education so there was plenty of catching up to do. She got married less than a year later, and has three children now; but I doubt I will ever forget her, this first CRUSH of mine.