There is a memory of us that I often take to be the first time it happens. We are sitting on the wooden bench outside a window in your corner of our house, the window of your grandmother’s bedroom from which we clearly hear the radio blaring her usual station, Radio Lagos.
And in the thick of the moment—the husky voice of the singer raised in a song “ Radio Lagos, Tiwa tiwa mutiti ” to which we usually sang along, the tenacious Lagos midday sun beaming down, the sweat trickling down our faces—you reach for my shorts, slide your hands into them, and I feel a tingling that I had until that moment been unaware of.
I am not even sure how old exactly I was. Eight, maybe seven, the memories come in scraps. But he was older and should have known better.
I type to my brother the first time I tell him this story; we are talking on BlackBerry Messenger. We seasoned our conversation with emojis that portrayed how we felt, and send voice notes when our fingers are tired of typing and whisking our fears into the night.
I sense the panic in his texts, speckled with typos, and listen to the anger that is starting to swell in the gruffness of his voice captured in the recordings.
When I drown my sobs in the comfort of my bedroom pillow, and tell my brother it’s okay for him to send screen grabs of my chat to the family group, I realize how distant we were from feeling better, how far-flung, and I vowed to be okay with that.
Healing should never have to be forced, I write in my notepad that night when our conversation is over, and I return back online to text: “I love you, Edozie.”
There is a second time. You are wearing a discolored basketball jersey the rich color of carton, so that I can see your muscles and the mass of brittle hairs on your chest; so that when you say, Bring your hand , and then shove my hands into your shorts, I do not know how to react.
Here is another story of you for context. Your father is a wealthy man. My mother describes him as not as poor as we were, and he calls me Japanese , because I look like them, he says, smiling every time to reveal a complete set of teeth.
Your father wears round glasses and flannel shirts tucked into khaki pants; he drives three cars; he grooms a grizzled beard, controls a large family and, one Christmas, drove my brother and me to Bar Beach. Your father reminds me of safety, of things that are familiar.
But you—you are slender; you have a large head, obvious features; this is your third time repeating the same class, and you smell. You wear faded boxer shorts and walk gingerly with your hands in your pockets; you are a Big Boy .
And who am I? I am eight. I have a stutter. My father has just lost his job a few months ago. We owe rent. My life is a blur of days buried in the golden pages of books and I only ever say a few words.
I am just as every child would be, a stranger to this intense form of passion, and yet I—for some reason—feel like I am supposed to know something about it, believing that you wouldn’t have expected me to if I couldn’t.
You call me Caleb. And from the next day after the first time, Caly or Cal in what I imagine to be endearment, wearing a slight smile, reaching across the bench to wrap my hands in yours. I remember feeling elated that you thought of me as an equal.
For this is the thing with secrets: They are thrilling to a child who has lived his life only in the open. They seem at first to be exclusive tickets to the movie of the adult world, and so I clutch them close. I reveal them only in a smile, or in the exasperated way I call you, a blend of muffled sounds. I never say your name. Never to you at least.
And this places me inside a strange hallway, this knowledge of a shared secret. I am tugging at your weight in your shorts, unsure of what to do with it, unsure of what the satisfaction on your face means, unsure of why your eyes are tightly shut as though you cannot look at me, but I am tugging anyway. You guide me with your hands this time, teaching me to properly stroke in the way that pleasured you, schooling me silently on why the sensation deepened when I began fondling.
Years later, when I think of that day, I would resolve that you had probably not known what to do either, that perhaps you, just like me, were a stranger to these dark places, only more familiar, and this thought would heal a sore in my soul, this acceptance of what I wanted to be the truth.
And mine is a life of knitting truths, of spinning threads of memory into desired fabric, blowing air across it to scatter loose threads and being comfortable with this result, of choosing what is to be truth and what is to be imagined, of surviving.
I am fine. There is nothing wrong with me. I am really very fine.
I text my brother the day after I tell him and blow a kiss. He is worried. I imagine him pacing about in his bedroom, miles away from me, hands flung carelessly to his sides, the whites of his eyes speckled with red from lack of sleep, wondering how he could not have known.
If I ever have anything close to a guardian angel, then it is my brother; as lacking as he thinks he is, as limited by the very idea of being human, he is my guardian angel. It is he who I catch praying once, God instead of Caly to die, please kill me ; it is he who whispers into my ears on my first day of secondary school, If anybody beats you come and tell me , although I know he can barely fight for himself.
Is there something I can do? he texts back.
Nah , I reply. I am fine . Then I turn off my mobile data.
People say abuse has a smell. Google calls it an implicit memory . On my journey to healing, I would resort to Google. It would find me articles upon articles, shared experiences; implicit memories, I would find out, do not require conscious memory of the event itself and they are known to be the most accurate.
And while all of what Google says is true, I do not find my smell until the third time, under the stairs, when you are lying on my back, when I am turned over, and you are moaning, writhing over my lean frame.
Midway through, our flat door clicks and my father calls to me from above the flight of stairs. You let me go. I shuffle up the stairs towards him, wondering if he would notice the difference in my gait, wondering if I wore shame like a veil over my face, wondering if he would perceive that smell.
He does not.
He heard noises from the stairwell and was wondering what was going on, he says. I shake my head. Nothing is going on, I am fine, I am just playing with you , I tell him.
I think now that “playing with you” was in some way for me a synonym for what we were doing. I think that I believed my father would sniff the truth from within my lies. That he would notice that my fingers quivered, that there was a loud thump in my chest, that I did not look him in the eyes as I spoke. I wished that he would.
I did not play with you before then or with anyone at all. How could he not know that something was wrong? How could he not tell?
When I return to your impatient figure in the stairwell, there is a delicate grin on your face. You want to speak but you do not know what to say. So you sit by the wall, and we lock gazes, and I hate you, and hate you, and I want you to die, but I do not say a word.
You reach for me again, haltingly at first, as though my father’s interruption has somehow reset you to your default settings, as though the knowledge he is only a flight of stairs away is a prompt that you are not doing something right. You are worried that I would decline, that I would scream and he would come prancing down the stairs, but even you do not know that one cannot end things like this willfully and alone. I do not decline. I do not show any form of restraint at all. And you pull down my shorts, then hurriedly pull down yours. I perceive that smell and it stays with me.
It stays with me until many years later. We no longer live in that house, nor do you. My reading books have paid off and I now earn a living as a writer. And midway through the events of my life, the smell comes. When I am in church or at the mall or anywhere really, I on impulse often say, “I know that smell” before silence, when I realize that I indeed know it, but I cannot speak of it. I probably can never speak of it.
The next time I see you is at your father’s funeral. Your father has died of Parkinson’s; he wobbled endlessly until his death. I am attending with both my parents and you are making your way through the sea of guests when you spot me.
Your hair is fuller, your head is larger, your skin has black spots from bleaching gone wrong—which is the only way it ever really goes—and you still walk gingerly with your hands in your pockets.
You smile. Caly , you say, staying a while on the last syllable, your eyes bearing answers whose questions I did not realize I was asking.
I nod. It is still the only way I know to reply to you. You shake my hands, as if to say we are buddies now. Your lips are pursed from the weight of unuttered words; you want to say something, I do not know if I want you to.
You coyly linger for a while and then you walk away. The smell stays with me.
I have tried to somehow design resolves that would make it all my fault, that would heap the blame on me, because it’s easier to move on from one’s mistakes than from those of someone else. But I have come to realize that abuse really isn’t about heaping blame, or faulting, or finding someone to blame for the inconsistencies in our life; I have come to learn that it is in essence just what it is—abuse.
I still ask myself the usual questions. What if I had told someone the first time ? Would it have been any less horrific if he had not been a neighbor ? Are you sure it was abuse, Caleb? He was just catching fun. Maybe you are attaching too much importance to this.
But on those days, I take solace in a quote from poet Nayyirah Waheed:
Be easy. Take your time. You are coming home. To yourself.
I am coming home to myself. I am a ragged sojourner whose hands tremble and whose legs are tottering from the weight of a long journey; I am carrying the world on the shoulders of my slender frame, but I am trudging still, mumbling the lyrics of a Tom Rosenthal song:
And I am happy, nothing is going to stop me. I’m making my way home. I’m making my way . I go solo, oh, I go solo.
On this road to me, there is you, in a dull basketball jersey and faded boxers. You are looking at me, in that way you have always looked at me, smiling delicately.
But I move past you to the door to myself. I tap lightly on the door to me. There is running water and I have made hot coffee; there is peace in the confines of my soul.
You have just smoked weed the last time I see you before completing this. It is one night somewhere in Lagos, I am with my brother, and I do not know why your eyes are red and dreary-looking until he tells me. He says also that you do a lot of weed smoking these days.
I can tell on my own however that you took a lot more than weed, because your mannerisms are in an odd way sluggish. So that when you look at me, you look through me as if you do not see me at all.
The only words you speak come out as mumblings, and your hand lingers in my brother’s when you stretch it limply in what is supposed to be a handshake.
Your hair is a lot lower than it was from the last time; your eyes are distant, vaguely present; and when you turn to walk away from our brief encounter into the night, I notice how haphazard your movement is. It is the only time I have not seen you walk gingerly.