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Of The Dream We Can't Have

Updated: 6 days ago



You once believed it was a solitary battle, you against the world, but then you came to realize it was an internal conflict, you against yourself. Kneeling before your mother, your heart pulsates in a wild rhythm, and your palms turn clammy as she quiets and chastises you, her teeth clenched in a snarl.

“Ebuka, you can't pursue a career as an officer with this effeminate demeanor of yours,” your mother's words cascade over you like a scorching summer raindrop and slice through you like a blade through soft butter. You bow before her because you've slapped Naza, your youngest sister, in response to her calling you girly.

“But mother, I aspire to be an actor, not—”her hand halts the unspoken word on your lips, and she scoffs, flicking away the tendrils of hair attachments obscuring her eyes.

“Can you even hear yourself? You won't become an actor under my watch. I alone dictate the path for you and your sisters.”

“Mother, actors enjoy popularity—" she seizes your ear, twisting it. You whimper. "Fame can't feed anyone. An actor can't shield his family from danger. An army officer can. Just his presence can be intimidating.”

You gulp and exhale, rubbing the ear she's twisted. Your dream of becoming an actor shatters, and tears stream down your cheeks. The monologue practice you've indulged in during your bathroom sessions, where you'd envisioned yourself interacting with imaginary characters, gesticulating wildly—flinging your hands sideways, rolling your eyes, gasping with hands framing your lips and eyes widening, murmuring lines borrowed from movies you've watched, or picturing yourself strutting onto the stage to claim the Best Actor award for performances you've never actually acted in, seems distant and ridiculous now.

A sudden shuffle of feet disrupts your reverie. You swivel in time to witness your father's lips part, as if he desires to reprimand your mother, only to swiftly close them. Your mother redirects her stern gaze from you to your father. A curious twist. You've never seen her act this way, and your father's silence raises questions.


***


Divine intervention played its hand, though it favoured your mother over you. An admission to one of the state's prestigious schools arrived at your doorstep, not your first choice but a close echo of your desires. Here, the art of acting would be your chosen path.

As you rush down the road toward your home, eager to break the news to your mother, a whistle pierces the air, catching your attention. You pivot to find a group of boys engrossed in a game of football, one of them waving you over with a mocking tone.

“Homo, bịa,” he calls, dripping with satire. You halt, pointing at yourself. “Yes, girly. No be homo you be?” He taunts, his friends joining in.

“Omo! See as e dey walk like a woman. Tufiakwa!”one of them sneers. You shake your head, striding ahead with determination.

A hand grasps your buttocks, and you swiftly slap it away, your heart pounding in your chest. “What do you want?” you demand.

“We dey call you, you dey waka comot?” the one who had initiated the mockery steps forward, his towering figure sending shivers down your spine. “Wetin we go do with am?”

“Nothing. Leave the boy alone,” a resolute voice intervenes. You sharply turn to see Uche. He seizes your wrist and pulls you beside him. “Guys, what's all this for? Is this how you behave on the streets?”

Silence hangs heavy in the air, none of the boys responding.

“I no like am. Make una no assault my guy again. E dey pain me,” Uche declares. You exhale, relieved as Uche ushers you away from the group. Out of their sight, Uche turns to face you, his brows furrowing. “You should be more cautious and stop walking alone,” he advises, cupping your chin and drawing it closer. “You've denied me what rightfully belongs to me. Can I have it now?” You tremble, the prospect of intimacy surfacing. Despite your feelings for him, he's persistently evaded the idea of a committed relationship. “I'm not certain I'm prepared for commitment,” he's said before, leaving the topic untouched. You nod, clinging to hope that someday he'll reconsider.


***


You tap your feet impatiently upon the dining room floor, awaiting your mother's arrival. Your gaze darts to Uloma, observing her hand gracefully gliding across the platter of food that adorns the plates. You have an urge to hiss and question what's keeping your mother, but the mere thought of your hiss sends shivers down your spine. You clamp your lips shut.

Suddenly, the sound of footsteps reverberates on the cemented floor, heralding your mother's stubby figure. 

“Sorry, sorry. I was on the phone call,” she apologises, as though her words could magically restore the vanished stream of food. You shrug and reach for the cutlery, but a sharp command from your mother, “Ebuka!” makes it slip from your grasp. You flinch, your eyes wide with alarm.

“Female first,” your mother's voice echoes in your mind, a recurring refrain. It's an unwritten law in your family, prioritizing the females in all matters. You bow your head and offer an apology.

“Do it again, and you will regret your action,” she warns, catching a glimpse of your father's gaze fixed upon you. He remains silent, an onlooker to this domestic scene. There's little he can say. The clinking of spoons against plates fills the air, and you notice that Uloma and Naza have started eating. Your attention drifts back to your mother, who has yet to touch her own spoon.

“You can eat,” she finally says, her finger swiping at the sauce-stained lip of Naza. Naza giggles and continues devouring her meal, a mixture of rice and stew. As your father raises his spoon to join in, you follow suit. The grip of patriarchy may be weakening in your family, but its echoes linger in your mind, concealed from your mother's steadfast gaze.

“Ebuka, when are you leaving for school?”  your mother inquires, her mouth still occupied with a bite of meat.

“Four in the evening, mother,” you respond. “Father was going to take me in one of the ca—”

“No, I've arranged for a driver. He will take you to school,” she interjects sharply, her tone hinting at discomfort with the idea of your father accompanying you.

Uloma chimes in, “Mother, the driver is also taking me to a friend's party at the same time.” You choke on your food, quickly grabbing a nearby tumbler to wash it down with water. It's a blatant falsehood, but you're secretly grateful.

Your mother gazes at you and Uloma, then sighs. “Alright, you win,” she concedes. You hide your triumphant grin. You'll thank Uloma later. “And Ebuka, try to be the man you are. Remember you're heading to boys boarding school and stop all this girly attitude of yours.” You wince and nod, her words cutting deeper than any blade.


***


You find yourself at the school garage, alone with your father inside the car. You turn to see him gazing at you. “I'm sorry. I should have informed you about this shift in power,” he mumbles, his words barely audible over the wind, yet you catch every syllable.

“Is that why mother makes all the decisions?” you inquire.

“The 'Ụtụghari ike' rite is always shrouded in secrecy. The first decision your mother made was to silence me about revealing it to you.”

“That's unsettling. But why remain silent all these years?”

“She monitors my every move,” your father responds, his hands gripping the steering wheel tightly, his jaw clenched.

“How?”

“Through the girls and the CCTV cameras in the house,” he explains. You gasp in disbelief. The presence of CCTV cameras had never crossed your mind, revealing just how closely your mother monitors her husband's actions.

“I need to go,” you decide, unbuckling your seatbelt, but your father's hand reaches out to stop you. You turn to face him, your eyes wide with curiosity.

“Be cautious around boys, so you don't reveal your secret,” he advises. You regard your father with two conflicting thoughts, “He knows?” and “When?”

“How long have you known?”

“Uche confessed to me about your involvement with him. He couldn't bear the guilt any longer. It seemed as though he had enticed you.”

“But it was mutual, based on attraction,” you stammer, wiping the sudden sweat from your forehead. You had trusted Uche after sharing your intimacy, your body with him but now it seems he had exposed you. If he had confessed to your father, it might mean your mother—no!

“Mother?” you inquire hesitantly.

“She remains unaware, which is a cause for concern. Your secret will remain safe as long as you're cautious,” your father assures you. You nod and slide out of the car, heading to the trunk to retrieve your bag. It's time to begin worrying about the future.


***


Before your awareness of Anayọ's queerness, a parade of other men had traversed your life—a revolving door of fleeting encounters. They came and went, seeking solace in your body to relieve what they dubbed as 'tension.' In the absence of female company, they'd cast their longing gazes upon you, alone in the dormitory, their voices resonating in low, masculine tones: "Strip." And with no hint of remorse, they'd engage with you right there, heedless of your feelings.

There was Emeka, who maintained he wasn't gay because he had a girlfriend. Because you're a novice, you didn't know he was bisexual. He reveled in receiving oral pleasures and partaking in penetrative sex but drew a firm line at allowing any penetration for himself, expressing disgust. He clung to his affirmation, “I am not gay.”

Others joined this perplexing dance, publicly taunting you, hurling insults like 'boy-girl' and 'homo.' Their voices dripped with hatred, disgust, and loathing. Yet, under the cloak of night, they transformed into hypocrites, seeking a release for their anger, frustrations, and hidden desires. Were they as unequivocally heterosexual as they professed? Or were you the one wrestling with your true identity? Doubts persisted, especially after your enigmatic entanglement with Uche and that fateful, alcohol-fueled night with Anayọ, where his relentless embrace led to an accidental kiss.

The venom in Anayọ’s voice, the anger etched across his face, and the hostility he displayed the following day when you inquired about his stance on homophobia and the queer community sent a shiver down your spine, leaving you recoiling. Your hopes crumbled. Being together with him seemed impossible, a mantra you repeated to yourself.

“I don't engage in what I despise,” was his chilly retort. The subject was never revisited. Why, oh why, were you assigned a queerphobic roommate by fate?

Now, you sit perched on your bed, immersed in 'The Death of Vivek Oji' by Akwaeke Emezi. Could you accept someone like Ọsita, who boldly denied his relationship with his cousin in public but professed his love behind closed doors? You already knew the answer. You could envision the doubt in Vivek's eyes just before his death, still grappling with his new identity as Nnemdi, even in the arms of his one and only love.

Were Ọsita's actions throughout the book justified?

The grating sound of the door abruptly crashing open jolts you from your thoughts. You gawk at Anayọ as he strides in, plops onto his bed, directly opposite yours, and begins the ritual of shedding his shoes and shirt.

“What are you reading, bro?” he inquires, heaving a sigh.

You hastily conceal the book beside you.

“Nothing much, bro. Just an old newspaper.”

“Man, you won't believe Chidera and Jeffrey are a couple.”

You knew, of course, but Anayọ will remain oblivious for now, so you respond, “Lucky them. They make a great pair.”

"Gosh! They make me so jealous," Anayọ exclaims. 

Your eyes snap to him, ears perked. Did you hear correctly? Anayọ laughs heartily, his head tilting backward.

“I thought you said, you hate queer people?”

“Lol. Hate ni? Hate ke? Don't be shocked, I'm a queer but the misconceptions I have been fed about them before I found out about my sexual orientation, made me hate myself. I wish there was a way to stop being queer. You're queer too, there's no need to act shocked because I knew long ago.”

You hum and lie on your bed.

“Maybe, one day we can give it a try, you know?”

May that day never reach. You can't be with one who isn't comfortable in his own skin.  You have your pride to retain.

“What do you think, Ebuka?” you hear before drifting off.

Never!


 

Ikechukwu Henry is an Igbo-based Nigerian writer, who believes his dreams could be turned into words through writing. He was 2024 PROFWIC Valentine's Day Writing Contest Shortlisted writer and Sevhage Prize longlisted for fiction 2023. His works have appeared/, forthcoming in The Candid Review, World Voice Magazine, Ta Adesa and others. He tweets @Ikechukwuhenry_


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