It started with his photograph.
Dust winds blew it into our studio, which was riddled with so many broken louvres, and Amarachi, my girlfriend and classmate, picked it. She studied it with a grand smile and came to me.
I perched on the sculpture of a man sitting in chains and tried to visualise myself jumping from a four-storey building into a watercolour lake. I wanted her to say, Chimdi, Jesus knows about all your struggles. But she said I must know about the gifted piano player in the photograph, and about the joys of his fellow music students who called him Michael Jackson (even though his real name was Obiajulu Okeke), and about his dance moves and heartwrenching blues, and about his lecturer, Professor Mary, a Reverend Sister in my parish, and some suave actresses in her class who had tried to sleep with him. “But he disappeared. And it was curious,” she said. “Why don’t you want to look at his photograph, for Christ’s sake?”
I gave her a fake smile. “You’ll dump me for your fallen angel?”
She didn’t even lift her eyes from the picture.
Amarachi sheltered me, adored me, but I’m no oil painting. My skinny, scruffy Amara called me her Heart’s Commissioner when I first met her. Her parents were commissioners in Imo State, but she didn’t care about class. “He knows you?” I asked.
She thrust the photograph into my hand. “Look at a true fine boy, big head!”
The glee, the insult: a blade in my chest. I wished I were tall and small-headed. I wished I could play the piano, write songs, sing blues. As I squinted at the bloody photograph, a cloud of dust whirled in through the open door and engulfed us. I dropped it, sneezing, and tried to catch my falling glasses.
Broken things: my lenses, my heart.
Later, as Amarachi fried plantains in the kitchen and the evening sunlight reddened our window, I walked around the room. Help me, Jesus, I whispered, when my eyes fell on the photograph in her handbag. I took it, folded it, and hid it under the foam.
I’ll track Obiajulu using the picture. Or steal his piano. Or injure his fingers. Or destroy his face with a knife.
At cockcrow, I retrieved the photo, blew the dust on it and smoothened it with my fingers. Obiajulu’s face wasn’t discernible; maybe it was my eye defect. Maybe it was the darkness of the room. No power supply, no charged phones, no flashlights. When Amarachi stopped snoring, I stiffened and crept toward her and saw she was asleep. Cautiously, I kept her breakfast—pap and okpa—on the reading table, put the photograph into my schoolbag, and slipped away.
On campus, I took off my new glasses, pretending not to see the waving hands of my classmates and lecturers as I traipsed to the fountain and sat on the tiles, water gushing from the mouth of the lion behind me. My heart thumped as I watched the face of the piano player whose beauty intoxicated my girl. His hair was stylishly coiffed, his nose narrow and straight, his eyes the colour of an Amstel Malt bottle exposed to sunlight. I wondered why he looked sad and weary; why he exhaled cigarette smoke through his nose as the photographer captured him; why he wore a diamond wedding ring on his slender finger; why he reminded me of Ayodele, a gap-toothed model and zoology student who I used to paint.
I looked up to make sure nobody was watching me. A yellow-plumed bird with a long beak whistled before me. I coughed: it stopped and stared at me before pecking at an unfortunate insect that climbed out of the rain-soaked earth. I waved: the bird took flight, swooped over the pool and perched on the white flower of a frangipani tree.
I peered at the moist screen of my electronic watch: ten minutes past nine. Which meant I was forty minutes late for Textile Design 1 class, but I had to pray to God.
Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry for planning to harm an innocent boy. For You, I’ll paint his portrait, frame it with emeralds and exhibit it in a museum for the world to see and sing your praises.
After class, I took the photograph from my schoolbag and began circling Obiajulu’s cute face with my fingers. How many girls’ hearts had he broken?
I slid the photo back into my bag when I saw Amarachi at the door; she turned around in search of me. I escaped from the scene.
At night, I donned my boxers and singlet, left her in the bathroom and groped my way to the balcony, my eyes heavy with unshed tears. When she asked me to come to the foam and powder her face, as I always did, I remained in the balcony watching the moon and the stars in stagnant water, wondering if Obiajulu would like me to powder his face.
That Friday noon I met him, howling winds came, blowing the flowers that surrounded the Department of Fine and Applied Arts complex. Blowing the dust on sculptures and portraitures. Blowing my afro.
Amarachi, just like all my classmates, had hurried back to her lodge because the clouds were grey. I listened to Toni Braxton’s You Mean The World To Me on my smartphone as I painted Obiajulu. When I finished the portrait, I lifted my head slowly with pride, as Leonardo da Vinci did after painting Mona Lisa, and the reflection of a guy standing behind me in the wall mirror startled me.
I turned in my chair and our eyes met. He was tall and lithe, dimpled and sleepy-eyed. His skin was dark and shiny like a wet stone. I liked his black chinos, his camel-coloured cowboy hat, his floral shirt the color of sunrise. But I didn’t like that he reeked of cigarettes and beer. “Obiajulu?” I said.
“Why you dey paint me, man?”
His voice was cold and his eyes were suddenly feral. I got up, my brush trembling in my hand. “Who told you . . .?”
“Answer me!” He touched the canvas, then turned to me with a scowl that made me retreat. “Monsieur Chimdi Ojukwu?”
“Don’t you wanna call me butterfly?” My voice was tremulous, hollow, and so he wasn’t amused by my playful American accent. But he softened. He moved from wall to wall, his intonation rising and falling like ocean waves, as he marvelled at the artworks that lined the walls. His eyes gleamed as I told him my works were the watercolour paintings of the Menelaus blue morpho, an exquisite butterfly found in Central and South America. He licked his lips—luscious cherries he’d darkened with nicotine—and asked me to tell him the name of the fan who photographed him.
“Amarachi told you everything, or there’s a rumour?” I asked.
He unhinged a framed painting of a breastfeeding mother from the wall, as if he didn’t hear me, and started dusting it with a shaky hand. His nervousness amazed me. “Any problem?” I asked.
But his hand shook as he hung back the framed painting, and as he took off his hat and faced me. His voice quavered when he said, in good English, that Amarachi was so beautiful he forgot to interrogate her; when the pretty girl whispered goodbye to him, stars appeared in the clouds and he sat on the statue of a peacock and watched her stroll off in a billowing lemon gown, her tender silhouette diminishing as she went. He wished he had a camera to capture her gracious gait.
“Beautiful,” I said. “Are you a poet?”
“Abeg, speak Pidgin English.”
“But you’ve just described my girl in sexy English.”
“Where you find my photo, man?”
“The wind blew and . . .”
“Je vais vous arrêter. If you no bring my photo this evening!” And he marched out.
Childish threat, I thought. And why did he use French words?
I phoned Emeka, my confidant and classmate, and told him I’d met an archangel that spoke French and played the piano. “Is he that second-year guy called Michael Jackson?” he asked. He couldn’t wait for my answer. “It’s sad that most of us second-year students are obsessed with him. Remember I paid him to play the keyboard on my ex-girlfriend’s birthday last semester and he didn’t come? Obiajulu’s the rascal!”
“Where does he live?”
“Guy, you like him,” Emeka said, his voice low and sodden with disappointment. “He lives in Empire Lodge at Odenigbo. First floor. Room 28. When you’re going, don’t forget your condom.”
“Idiot!” I said, and we laughed.
Later, I put the painting and the photograph into my sling bag. “Babe, I want to study Professor Okonkwo’s texts with Emeka.”
She sat up on the foam. “Where’s the picture, Chimdi?”
I creased my face as though I was infuriated by the abruptness of her undisguised distrust and stormed out without closing the door.
* * *
Obiajulu was dusting his piano with a yellow towel on which BUCCANEERS was written in black when I peered into the high-ceilinged room that smelt of pineapple juice. He welcomed me with a mirthless smile, two Heineken beers and a crooked cigarette, and returned to the instrument.
“I don’t smoke,” I said.
He started crooning Sam Smith’s Stay With Me, then stopped. “Where you keep my picture?”
I handed him the painting, the photograph, and the cigarette. He threw them into the wardrobe and struck random notes on the piano. Then he played Mozart, conducting an imaginary orchestra.
I sipped my beer and watched a bee buzz in the window. It flew into a web and a spider began wrapping it. I wanted to free it, but I needed to beg Obiajulu to look at me, to talk to me.
He struck his piano and burst my eardrums with eight sounds: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.
I muffled my ears with my fingers, but he continued hitting the keys. I slurped the last beer, stood the empty bottle on his reading table close to the first one, and rose. “Good day, Obiajulu.”
“You dey hurry home to fuck Amarachi?” he asked without turning to look at me.
“To paint your face the colour of the Mediterranean Sea.”
“The colour of the Mediterranean Sea,” he repeated, then turned. “Man, wetin be the meaning of this nonsense?”
Perhaps he expected me to dismiss it as a joke and apologise, but I screamed, “Fuck it!” inside my head and repeated what I’d said.
“Amarachi talk say you love poetry, Monsieur Chimdi.” His voice was soft and tender, and I was baffled by this sudden change.
I’d never yearned to learn another white people’s language but that sunny afternoon, I wished so desperately that I could speak French so I’d tell him in the language that I chose the Mediterranean Sea because it’s in France, a country where French, his treasured European language, is spoken, and that I craved to do everything that fascinated him. “I also love music,” I said, peeling the label on the beer bottles. “You’re my favourite singer.”
He got up, pulled me up and sang “Whenever I look at your lips, my room turns into a coffin” with a rueful grin, then stopped, and frowned. “I forget say you be guy, not girl. Well, sing. I wan know if you sing in F major. No Bob Dylan’s ballad, abeg.”
“Every night in my dreams I see you, I feel you,” I sang, looking into his eyes, until he looked away and said, “Stop! I no be Rose or your girlfriend.”
“You’re like all the handsome boys in my history: incomprehensible.” I dropped into my chair and watched him turn off the piano. “Obiajulu, I’d gladly give anybody my kidney in exchange for your biography.”
He sank in his foam and explained himself: He was born at Oba, his hometown in Anambra State. His family relocated to Nsukka after his parents’ appointments as sociology lecturers at this university, where he’d grow old playing his piano and die single. His only sister, Adaife, married an Anglican priest who beat her. His only brother, Chinua, was sent to England to study medicine, but he ended up playing football. His parents compelled him to study law, but he insisted on music. When he was a kid, he constantly played his flute under their guava tree to the chagrin of his parents, and one day, his dad confiscated the flute, and he, Obiajulu, cried to Umuagu River. At sunset, a white-haired man, who usually supplied palm wine to his father, found him sleeping in an abandoned boat. He loved neither his father nor his mother, nor his brother nor his sister, nor the corrupt lecturers, nor the male students who threatened to throw him into hellfire, nor anybody in this world.
“Why do you choose to die unmarried?” I asked.
“Because I dey see your mother!”
The swiftness of this vulgarity gored me. I wanted to jerk the door open and fling our supposed friendship to the winds and walk back into my house and into my Amarachi and into my tears.
“Goodbye, Obiajulu. But don’t forget me. Look at your painted photograph and think of me when I’m gone . . .”
“Your autobiography, man,” he said.
“I’m the deeply emotional boy from the money-filled city of Nnewi. But we have no money.”
He stared at me, his mouth agape, his dimples deepening, as though the confession of my impecunious background was a joke, and I found myself reciting the words I penned in my old notebook:
a god full of winds.
He’ll pick us,
two lonely birds with burnt wings,
and breathe into us,
and we’ll soar out of this graveyard
and into the bluest sky singing of rainbows.
He picked a guitar from the foam and strummed. “Which poet be your idol?”
“My father.” I set the beer bottles on the glistening tile and adjusted my glasses. “Eccentric man. My mother told me he wrote countless love poems on her body by moonlight. God rest his soul.”
“You be the man’s only published poem, abi?”
I turned my face to the window so he wouldn’t see that his joke was a razor on my skin. So he wouldn’t get angry and ask me to go. I fiddled with my shirt button as I told him my father was a wine merchant, who was beheaded in a religious crisis in Kano a few years ago. I told him my jobless mother at Oba always asked God why He let my starving siblings, Jidenna and Lotanna, fall into a deep well while chasing a grasscutter and I worried she might take her life.
“You wan make I cry, abi?” he asked, his eyes on the fingerboard.
“I dread to see people I love cry.”
He thumped a few chords and looked up. “I think you dey craze.”
“I’ll never talk to you again!” I wanted him to apologise and hug me, but he lifted his guitar over his head like an axe and said, “Get out.”
* * *
I was on the foam staring at my sleeping pills when the door creaked open and Amarachi entered, cradling a book of paintings in her arm. “Oh, Chimdi!” she said, dropping her book on the foam. “Are you sick?”
I tossed the drugs into our flowerpot and drank from my bottle water. Amarachi tried to kiss me, but I shifted. God, let Amarachi be happy someday. Let Obiajulu be mine someday. Obiajulu, keep your head on my shoulder. Let your eyes be liquid with apologies. Strum your guitar as I croon “Singing Blues On The Moon,” the sonnet I wrote for Amarachi’s nineteenth birthday. I sobbed because I couldn’t recite it at her party. I felt it should be sung for someone I truly loved.
“Chimdi?” she said, taking my hands.
But I didn’t speak to her. I spoke to Obiajulu.
Obiajulu, I’m losing my mind because of you. I’m a homeless bird hovering in the night sky, seeking a home, and every time I find an open door, violent winds bang it shut. Every night, I cuddle Amarachi, thinking about you. Every night, I fold myself on her bed, praying she’ll not discover she’s a desolate attic in which I live, standing at the window and staring at an imaginary house full of starlight and men whose eyes are so beautiful you want to fall asleep in them.
“Chimdi?” she said again.
The tears in her eyes made me close mine. I imagined my mother on her deathbed, begging me not to break her heart. Begging me not to forget Amarachi’s kindness. Begging me to marry Amarachi for her.
“Chimdi? Is it about the picture? I’ve forgiven you for misplacing it.”
I opened my eyes. “Go, Amarachi. Please.”
She stroked my hand, looked into my eyes, asked me if I’d eat apples.
“Get out with your apples!” I shouted, shoving her away. She fell back and her hand dislodged the figurine on our table. I crumpled to the ground to plead for forgiveness, but she spat on my face and staggered to her feet. “You’ve never made me feel like a woman!” she yelled. “You only touched me when I cried for your body! You must leave! I’m fed up!” She pushed me out of the room, hurled my luggage and drawing materials out, and shut the door.
I picked my things and left for Dedone Lodge where Emeka resided.
When I arrived in the carton-littered compound, he dropped his weight, sweat trickling down his muscled arms and thighs. He laughed as he took my things inside. He served me peppery noodles, showed me a creased, doctored picture of Obiajulu and the late Ayodele singing an acapella at a beach and asked me, in a solemn tone, if I’d paint the lovers in gold. But I was so broken I couldn’t indulge his presumption. My head was full of ghosts.
Emeka turned off his loud television, loaded Osadebe’s CD, and then removed it and played a doleful song that told the story of a tramp who walked for days without food. To hide my tears, I drifted to the open window and watched the rusty roofs of buildings and swaying trees.
At midnight, I refused to shed another tear as I reviewed my actions, as the rain pattered against the ghostly windows, as I lit a candle, as I thumbed my chaplet, as I fell to my knees, as I closed my eyes to pray.
But I couldn’t.
Obiajulu. I thought about him; I saw us strolling in an orchard, our fingers locked, our mouths alive with rhythm and blues, our shoes crushing fallen mangoes. I shook the images off my head and heard myself say, “Don’t let me fall, Jesus.”
Emeka, woken by my prayer, scrambled out of bed. “Chimdi, stop this nonsense! Let her go with her parents’ money.”
I wanted to get up and bare my selfishness, my heartlessness. Bare all my reasons for wanting Amarachi. Bare my crucible of sorrow that contained many tear-soaked Amarachis. But I lowered my head to his feathery pillow and he covered me with that blanket that smelt of tea and comfort.
Emeka (noun): an upright guy who makes certain people suspect he is who he is not.
Synonyms: humanity, hospitality.
The following morning, I copied Obiajulu’s number from Emeka’s small Nokia phone, tiptoed into the toilet and dialed it. “Who be this?” a sleep-clogged voice asked.
“B-bonjour, Monsieur Obiajulu,” I stuttered in French, feeling stupid.
“The wind don give you another picture?”
“I’m sorry, Obiajulu.”
“I dey read, man. But I go save your number. Bye!”
I kept the phone on an upturned bucket and breakdanced. I turned the tap and whistled as the tepid water from the shower washed my body. I whistled to the lecture hall and thought about nothing but Obiajulu as Professor Chris-Nonyelum bloviated about natural science. After the bearded man took his briefcase and limped away, I dialed Obiajulu’s number and waited for him to pick up the phone and tell me why he wasn’t in attendance. But when he took the call, he ignored my question and filled my ear with the names of boys who asked him out. Boys he’d kick and bludgeon and set on fire.
I forced a laugh and ended the call. Then I phoned my mother and told her I was ill and dying slowly.
“Biko, don’t cry, Junior,” she said. “Malaria ozokwa? You haven’t bought a mosquito net?”
“It’s not malaria, Mummy. I don’t even know what’s wrong with me.”
“Junior, kedu ife o? Tell me about the problem.”
“I’ll be fine, Mummy. Don’t worry. Hope you visited the Onitsha doctor again?”
“No money, Junior. But I’ll be fine.”
But one week later, Pastor Uchenna, my paternal uncle who’d never called me and my mother since I gained university admission, phoned from the village and told me my mother passed away.
The world tilted like the Titanic and I screamed. Or imagined that I screamed. “But don’t question God’s decision, Chimdindu,” he added. “Come to Nnewi.”
It was a frosty Sunday night. I was coming back from St. Theresa’s Cathedral where I had been on my knees, praying and crying for Mummy’s survival. I was too weak to cry anew. I stumbled up the moonlit, hilly road full of stones, wondering if my mother would recognise my dead father and dead siblings in heaven if she saw them there.
All my university friends attended her funeral service except Obiajulu who, I heard, was playing his piano at a hotel downtown. After the burial, I locked myself in my mother’s camphor-smelling room and watched Obiajulu’s piano performances on Facebook. His pastel replies to his followers’ comments filled my eyes with tears.
On a bus back to Nsukka, I resolved to stab Obiajulu in the chest because his absence at the funeral hurt me. Because I wanted him to die so I’d cry for weeks and forget about him.
But one evening at Jives, I saw our potbellied SUG president and his girlfriend behind me, squeezing their hands and laughing, and I phoned Obiajulu and told him I’d planned to kill him and I was sorry. I told him my head was under water and there was nobody to rescue me. I told him I’d be fine if he gave me a paltry excuse. But he giggled and said, “Monsieur Poète. Jives, abi?”
“Yes, Jives. I won’t talk nonsense today, I promise.”
“Make you give me fifteen minutes.”
I was so excited I almost went around the pub, high-fiving everybody.
P-Square’s old song No One Like You blared from the loudspeakers when he arrived. “I bet this is no coincidence,” I said. He looked puzzled, so I added, “This song. The deejay obviously saw you coming.”
He settled down and offered me a cigarette. I said, “No, thanks,” and he snapped. “Guy, real men dey smoke.”
And, for the first time in my life, I burnt my lungs: to please Obiajulu who scoffed at my amateurish puffs. He signaled as Amarachi appeared in the pub and snickered when she sighted me and bawled over the music, “You’ve learnt to smoke?”
“Yes, Reverend,” I retorted.
She put a long red fingernail to my forehead. “I’ll fuck you up!”
Obiajulu smirked and, at the next table, an overweight girl with one eye whooped, spilling her Guinness stout.
“I will tell cult guys everything.” She slapped off my half-smoked cigarette before leaving. The chubby girl’s mouth hung open. A group of beer-drinking boys behind her exchanged glances.
“Everything?” I asked Obiajulu. “What does she mean?”
“Why didn’t you attend my mum’s funeral? You don’t care about me, Obiajulu?”
“Malaria hol’ me.” He refilled his glass and lit a cigarette. “Care about you? You be wife?”
“Obiajulu, men care about men. Men love men. I love you.” My voice was barely audible because of the girl’s prying eyes.
Obiajulu cast a furtive glance at her, then whispered in Igbo, “Don’t do this to me, Chimdi. Please.”
“Sorry, but . . .”
His hat dropped on the table. But he left it and staggered off.
I called the waitress and ordered cigarettes and whisky. Drunk and shrouded in cigarette smoke, I dozed off. A dream: the deejay came to beg me for weed and I said, “No marijuana, guy. But please, play Akon’s Lonely for me because I’ve nobody to call my own.” But he shrugged off.
I woke in Emeka’s room the next morning. He allowed me to bathe and brush my teeth before telling me what had happened. A one-eyed overweight girl drove me home in her Lexus, he said. Minutes later, after she’d returned to the bar, something happened: the deejay caught her kissing another girl in the convenience room and Obiajulu helped him strip them naked.
“So Obiajulu returned to Jives?” I asked. But Emeka’s attention had shifted to his smartphone. Perhaps he wanted to chat with Khadija, his Hausa girl in History Department.
I picked my sketchbook and a pencil from his desk and opened the door. “Emeka, I have to see Obiajulu.”
* * *
“Why did you shame those girls?” I asked Obiajulu, after awkward cordialities.
He stared at the new poster of Michael Jackson glistening over the piano, then stumbled to the window and spoke into the sea-blue curtain, “I did that because I be good citizen, Chimdi.”
“How did those girls hurt you? Did they steal any of your musical instruments?”
“Stop shouting, man. Them no be your sisters.”
“Neither are they yours! You’re callous! I’ll leave now and forget about you. I’ll be all right.”
“Stay, abeg!” He dashed to the door and bolted it.
“Stay, Chimdi. I wan make you draw me.”
“I’ve drawn you. Your picture’s the best thing I’ve ever created in my life, but you’re an ingrate!”
He sat at his desk and looked away because tears had filled my eyes. “Obiajulu, you’re going to draw me because I drew you,” I said, taking off my clothes. “You’ll draw me naked.”
He turned, his eyes popping out. I handed him my sketchbook and pencil and perched on his foam. “I want to keep a picture of me drawn by you. In forty or fifty years, when we’ll be old, I will look at the picture and remember you.”
His hand trembled as he sharpened the pencil, as he sketched my egg-shaped face and slim body, as he outlined my hairy dick. He was shading my scrotum when the pencil dropped from his hand and rolled under his piano. Instead of picking it up, he came to the bed and kissed me on the lips.
“Obiajulu?” I said, falling into a swoon. “Obiajulu?”
He turned away from me and began to cry. I wanted to hug him and dry his tears, but he gently pushed me back and undressed.
A few minutes later, we were limp and sweaty in bed as if we’d showered together. “You’re sweet,” he said and kissed my neck. His smartphone beeped beside him, but he ignored it. “I’ll never speak Pidgin English to you again.”
I touched his beard. He smiled and looked into his phone. “Amarachi’s mad!” he said, closing his eyes. I took the phone from him and peered at it: LEAVE MY BOYFRIEND!!!!!!
“I love you, Chimdi.” He sat up, his eyes bleary and sad. “But let’s not build a house that’ll collapse on us. Amarachi will talk if . . . God, I’ll leave. I don’t want anybody to put me in trouble. Let me travel, please. My uncle, a vocalist in Paris, has been begging me to join his band. Tomorrow, we’ll go to River Adada with my guitar and I will sing my farewell song for you.”
I dropped the phone and grasped his hands. “Please, stay with me, Obiajulu!”
A stone banged on the door. I hurried to the window and opened it. Amarachi. She marched with five pallid boys in sweat-soaked football jerseys towards the lodge. I closed the window with trembling hands and turned to Obiajulu. “It’s Amarachi’s guys, so wear your clothes.”
“But this place’s not their room,” he said, skipping out of bed.
I picked the sketchbook from the floor and tore it to bits. “They cannot break our door,” he said, his voice despondent, subdued. “Chimdi, you have to escape. There’s a big hole in the kitchen ceiling. Enter inside it, crawl to the edge and slide down the sewage pipe. Follow me.”
“I’ll do that. But promise me you’ll stay in this school with me.”
He neither spoke nor moved. But as footsteps mounted the stairs, he shook his head and said no and wore his clothes, and helped me wear mine. Four sharp knocks rapped on the door. “Please, don’t forget me,” I said, sobbing in his arms, unable to leave him, because it was probably our last time together in this world.
Ebelenna Tobenna Esomnofu is a Nigerian writer, creative writing teacher and editor. He started drawing, painting and writing music when he was a kid. But books saved him, and he fell in love. His works have appeared in The Scarlet Leaf Review, StoryZetu, Tuck Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, DNB Stories, African Writer, Storried, and elsewhere. He has completed his debut novel and is seeking representation. One day, he hopes, the book will give him money: because he wants to buy a piano and change his curtains and bedsheets. Amen.