“Hey, are you ok? ”
“Yes, I am. Why do you ask? ”
“Everybody is having fun, and you just choose to sit here? ”
“I’m getting into the groove, just watch, you will be begging me to slow down.”
“Ok o. Until then. ”
With that, he went his way, leaving you to sit on the sparsely decorated white plastic chair, a tall glass of red wine and a flurry of thoughts being your choice for company, at least for that moment. The curiosity of the man you just had a conversation with was not without good reason; it was not the kind of evening where being alone with your thoughts would be a particularly popular choice, afterall, high school reunions were not organised too frequently, what with the financial obligations, logistics and all.
Yes, it was another reunion of the old students of St. Nicholas International School, that place located in the not-so-urban part of Edo State where you had your secondary school education which you completed nearly a decade ago, where you spent three-quarters of the days in the year between your eleventh and seventeenth birthdays, where your palms developed their first blisters, and where you once had a cane forcefully rubbed against your backside seventy-four times in quick succession because you had immersed your mattress in urine from your bladder the night before.
Reunions were often anticipated by the ones who looked forward to them, but what made this one different was because it involved everyone that completed their education in that school, unlike the ones restricted to certain graduating classes or city chapters, so someone from the class of 2005 could engage in unrestricted banter with (and even diss) someone from the class of 1999, a thing most inconceivable when you all still wore green shirts and grey shorts. Then again, the school’s 25th anniversary coincidentally fell on that week, so the event’s significance doubled. You had never had time for old boy association activities (yes, St. Nicholas was a single gender school), and you couldn’t see any reason why you would be interested in meeting the ones that often teased you to tears for the offence of being chubby, or the ones that made you jump around entire classroom blocks like a frog, but you had been absolutely bored that weekend, and Marcel, one of the few members of your graduating class with whom you still kept in touch, had somehow managed to convince you that running into old schoolmates would not be so awkward.
There had been the expressions of surprise and excitement (which you faked so well) on meeting one familiar alumnus or the other, the compliments reserved for the outfits, the handshakes, the “bro” hugs, and the back-and-forth flattery. Each asked the other what they were up to, where they worked, what they earned, the eagerness in tone similar to how you inquired of one another’s test scores back in the day just to see who was doing better. Then you all moved on to more interesting things, like sharing experiences of how three people would share a bucket of water to bathe with, or one of you admitting after so many years to committing that mischief that got the whole class into trouble at the time. Complimentary cards and Blackberry pins were exchanged, and those with looser tongues and lighter heads went on a kiss-and-tell spree.
But the atmosphere was slowly getting lost on you. In typical introverted fashion, the relevance of the event was wearing off, you were mentally zoning out, and for a moment, you wanted to go home, never mind that home was in Lagos, four hours and hundreds of kilometres away from the event centre in Benin City which had been chosen for the occasion, causing you to book a hotel which was a thirty-minute drive away. Speaking of driving, you thought about the flashy automobiles with which your schoolmates announced their entrance, you dwelt on the fact that you didn’t own one, and those feelings crept in again. The feelings were so recognizable, from back in the day; being too overweight to partake in any school sport, being socially awkward, being slow with manual labour, being rather uncool. The bullying, the self esteem issues, the shyness, all of it came back to you, once again you felt inadequate, and taking a long sip from the glass, you paused to wonder if showing up was not a wrong decision.
“Guy, come inside, Fada wan give speech.”
It was Marcel, interrupting your thoughts with an unsolicited update of the next item on the programme lineup.
You remembered him alright; Reverend Father Titus Osarenkhoe, the light-complexioned man with a rapidly receding hairline who assumed the office of the Principal in your penultimate year at St. Nicholas, the one who oversaw your graduation, the same man who made use of a lot of hyperbole in narrating the infractions committed by students, and did not mind humiliating a boy who failed to tuck in his school uniform by forcing him to walk around naked. Watching him crack jokes that failed to appeal to you back then but were strangely funny now, as he delivered an anniversary lecture whose theme you did not bother to find out, you wondered what kind of spiritual discipline Fr. Osarenkhoe was trying to impact at the time on the days he made everyone say the rosary three times over when it was not recited loudly enough the first time out, or fixing Stations of the Cross with all the kneeling and turning during Christmas retreats whereas it was strictly reserved for Lent (or you so thought), or all the jotting down you had to do during those sleep-inducing homilies (damn, you detested that “liturgy note”). The years had added some width to his waist-line, and the microphone could not ignore his laboured breathing.
And then you caught a glimpse of Peter Mary somewhere on the high table. Fr. Peter Mary Orjiakor, whom you referred to as Brother Peter Mary a lifetime ago. You couldn’t mistake the broad-chested priest, then an equally broad-chested seminarian on pastoral year, football-loving and jovial but with a short temper, speaking with a stutter and preferring to make his feelings known with kicks rather than whips. You wondered how he ever made it to the priesthood; you were in JSS3, but you knew the sounds you often heard when you walked past his room on a number of late evenings. Greg, your closest friend and seatmate of many years (but whom you had snubbed at the catch-up sessions few minutes earlier) was one of his apartment boys, and would often tell you about the adult movie CDs in his drawer, and how he would warn them not to grow erections. You believed him. Being an apartment boy was a big deal; it meant less labour, more food, and first-hand access to movies and football matches. There were other things you heard about Bro. Peter Mary, but you were in no place to judge.
“Dude, how far? ”
You randomly took the arm which had been extended for a handshake, but it was when you looked up and peered into his eyes that you were able to process the moment. The palms that met with yours were owned by Basil Guobadia. Guobadia!! That name took you on a journey you had eagerly avoided for years, and all the memories you had locked up found their way out of your mental pandora’s box and began to gnaw violently at you.
Memories of that Wednesday night in the JSS2 days of your life when you and the others were ordered by Guobadia to kneel down in front of his cubicle for “not participating actively in night prayers”. The five of you had waited for this newly appointed house prefect who was obviously power intoxicated, and after six strokes each of his thick leather belt, he ordered the offenders to run to their beds, but not you. He claimed that you were acting tough, and swore to subject you to special punishment.
Memories of when he dragged you to the poorly lit, soundproof room where school boxes were stacked, ordered you to take down your briefs, and instead of his leather belt, whipped out something else, something not as long but equally black, hard and straight. Commanding you to touch your toes, he inserted this thing and began to thrust, first slowly and then rapidly, forcing you to muffle your screams of “senior please stop, senior this is wrong.” Your elder brother had warned about it, you had seen images of it in prison scenes from Hollywood movies, but never did you imagine that you would be at the receiving end, so you didn’t know what to feel. The pain from penetration, the shock and the horror all combined effectively, so you could not think of a next line of action, and you raised your butt cheeks obediently as Guobadia lustfully slammed into you.
Memories of how you returned to your dormitory that night, weeping silently until the following morning’s rising bell, but strangely craving for it as the days rolled by. The next encounter at his cubicle while everyone else was out for Saturday morning manual labour was more gentle, Guobadia applying vaseline to your cheeks this time, and intimating you of his desire to take care of you. He saw to that; you always got access to buckets of water even when your peers struggled, your name was off the roster of morning chores for three consecutive terms, your locker never ran out of cereals and beverages, your stainless steel plate caused envy at the refectory, and manual labour was mostly alien to you unless he could not help it.
Memories of how your classmates looked at you in disgust, as your dealings with Guobadia became an open secret. Their derisive use of “she” whenever they wanted to describe you cut through to your soul, the jokes about your gait did not help things much, and on the day Efeturi (the classmate who probably loathed you the most) cut up your singlets into the shape of bra slips with his scissors, you could do nothing but sit on your bed and sob. Power changed hands, Guobadia’s influence waned, and the perks you enjoyed were all withdrawn by the time you wrote your JSS3 external examinations.
Memories of the beatings you received from your classmates at regular intervals, of the pangs you felt whenever the topic of homosexuality was discussed at mass, of the judgmental look in the eyes of the school counsellor, of the night you drank bleach in an unsuccessful bid to end your life, of the coming to terms with what you believed was your orientation, and of how you struggled to hide the boners you got from watching junior students bathe.
Memories of how you found it hard to socialise when you gained admission to study Political Science at the University of Lagos, how you became hyper-sensitive to even the friendliest male touch, of your inability to sustain any romantic relationship because your emotions were distorted, of the recurring nightmares about being gang-raped by a group of muscular men, and of the frequent visits to mind therapists.
You wanted to grab Guobadia by the collar and demand to know why he chose to do what he did to you that night, and why it had to be you. You wanted to know if your chubby nature made you an easy prey, or if you were just plain effeminate. Part of you however also wanted to find out if what you both had was anything more than just thrusts and groans, if something deep within, he felt anything which he would not be bold enough to admit.
You just wanted to know.
But Guobadia had long withdrawn his palm, left you alone to your memories, and run along to catch up on his contemporaries who had graced the occasion. You imagined him responding to the questions in your head with words like “boy, you need help. It was just a school thing, curiosity, testosterone, all that. You mean you kept this in your head all these years? Stay away from me, creep! ”
Your discontent grew into anger when you saw Guobadia whisper into the ears of a light-complexioned lady in a blue low-cut strapless gown. You had seen enough; the man whom you could practically blame for the psychological mess that you were was having a good time, had long moved on with his life. At least, that was how your mind saw it. You grabbed an empty glass, half-filled it with red wine, walked up to a bottle of brandy, poured some of its content into your glass, gulped rapidly and made your way for the exit door.
“Ngozi! Ngozi! Where you dey go? ”
Marcel just knew how to make things perfect.
He had resorted to addressing you by the name they called you in school, a name often reserved for females of your ethnic group, a name that haunted you for six years, a name that had to be resurrected to seal the evening’s outcome. You couldn’t be Donald tonight as you had been for much of your adult life, no, Ngozi came alive tonight. You waved your left palm in “talk to the hand” fashion, set out to the road and began to beckon to oncoming vehicles, eager to find a taxi to convey you to your hotel room.