After much persuasion from Aliu, I finally agreed to go with him to dinner at his parents’ house. When we were in the car, I said, “Okay, give me the cheat sheet for your parents.”
“There’s none,” Aliu said. “They will be polite but not warm. We don’t have to chill the wine at home, the atmosphere does it for us.”
“Oh, great,” I said. “This is exactly the time I want to hear jokes.”
Khalil said cheerfully from the backseat, “I know a joke.”
The Adegbenros lived in Banana Island in a majestic limestone mansion; there were extensive, manicured grounds and gleaming vehicles peeking out of a vast garage. As Aliu drove down the driveway, I ogled the edifice we were drawing up to, radiating anxiety like I was about to have a meltdown.
“Don’t be nervous, please,” Aliu said soothingly as he pulled up and turned off the engine. Behind us, Khalil was softly snoring in the sleep he’d fallen into during the drive. “Nothing that happens in there has anything to do with you and me. I promise you, my mother is decent, just misguided and used to getting her own way. My father is the devil and he’ll try everything to make me pay for the abomination he thinks I am. But I promise you, I won’t let him do anything to you.”
I let out a small sigh, looking down at the tense hands I’d tucked in between my thighs.
He reached out a hand to my chin and tipped my face up. “Trust me.” His eyes held a world of promise. I couldn’t help but find comfort in them.
“Okay.” I released another breath.
He tugged playfully at my lower lip with his thumb and smiled. “You sound like me.”
“I do, don’t I? Let’s do this. I’m not usually insecure and I don’t like it.”
“I’ll protect you. Just remember it’s dinner and not the firing squad.”
I chuckled at that. “Are you sure about that?”
He didn’t respond as I turned to wake Khalil. “Hey, Trouble, we’re here.”
The maid that opened the front door to us was polite. The hall we stepped into was breathtaking. A vaulted ceiling loomed a storey above. Oriental rugs formed islands of subtle colour on the marble floor. The curving staircase that swept upward to the floor above was an architectural marvel. The space was vast and as hushed as a cathedral. I felt like I was being led to see the Pope as we were led across the hall into a sumptuously-furnished and even more impressive-looking living room. The gilded sofas with their snowy brocade covering discouraged any derriere from getting too comfortable on them, and the glass-topped centre table gleamed with a polish that made me wonder if anything had ever been placed on the surface.
Aliu’s parents were just as icily unwelcoming as their furniture.
“We are pleased to have you,” Mrs. Adegbenro said to me in a cultured voice that hinted at several summers spent overseas. She didn’t look pleased to see me: she didn’t look anything but darkly and elegantly beautiful, every inch of her – the salt-and-pepper cut of her hair, the unlined, artfully-made-up face, and svelte figure that seemed to defy age and gravity – was deliberate and strict.
In the case of her husband, nothing had prepared me for the startling resemblance between the man and Aliu. They had the same face: the finely chiseled nose, the square, thrusting jaw, the wide mouth and arresting eyes. Like his wife, Chief Adegbenro’s hair had turned silver, but otherwise, father and son were almost identical, except that Aliu was, of course, leaner and younger, with looks that I imagined was like seeing Chief Adegbenro as he must have been thirty years ago, right down to the curious habit of raising his chin so that he looked down on most of the world through half-hooded eyes. Those eyes, on Aliu, drew people in; on his father, they gave him an expression of perpetual arrogance.
Soon, dinner was underway, and in spite of the tense atmosphere, I was enjoying my meal.
And then, Chief Adegbenro finally directed a question at me. “What is it you do, Morris?” He was concentrating on slicing through the beef in his plate.
I swallowed hard as I felt his wife’s stare burn into me from the other end of the table. “I’m a student. In my finals,” I said in a clear voice that belied my nervousness.
“I see,” the man said, not impressed but not scornful either. “What’s the name of your school?”
I told him.
“Really? I know your Vice Chancellor,” he said.
“Oh. Okay.” I realized what he was doing and I smiled. “She’s my father’s sister-in-law.” It was a lie but I wasn’t about to let this man intimidate me more than he should.
“Do you have any plans after school?” he asked again.
“I do. I’m going to work for my mother.”
Mrs. Adegbenro interjected then. “That’s very wise of you.” I turned to meet her cold dark eyes as she continued, “To take the job I presume your mother offered you.” She turned a pointed look to her son and added, “Very wise.”
“Well,” I said, making my own expression pointed, and dividing it between the couple, “it comes with no strings, so there won’t be any downside.”
Aliu’s father caught my subliminal message and turned to face his son, dismissing me. “Aliu, we need to talk about how you’re going to sell that company to me. It’s high time you give up what you’re doing there and step in over here to take over as my successor.”
I saw Aliu tense at the introduction of what was no doubt a weary and contentious issue. He dropped his fork, looked at his son and said quietly, “Hey buddy, could you go to the kitchen with your dinner. We’ll call you when we’re done with our adult talk.”
“Yes, dad.” Khalil then turned to his grandmother. “May I be excused?”
The woman cracked a smile. Her hard edges softened into an expression that made her beauty more remarkable. “Yes, dear,” she said.
The boy pushed away from the table, picked up his plate and we watched him walk out of the room. It felt to me like watching the lull pass by, knowing a storm was about to hit.
“Father,” Aliu began once Khalil was out of the room, “there’s nothing to talk about. That company is my son’s inheritance. I can’t even believe you’d think I’d hand it over to you.”
“Well, if that were true, you wouldn’t have agreed to come dinner this evening.”
Aliu stared at him, incredulous. The look on his face was an expression of how I felt. “I thought you asked me…” He paused, and then rephrased, “Asked us here because you wanted to meet Morris and not because of this absurd notion that I’d sell my company to you. You can’t be serious, Father.” His voice had an edge to it.
“Aliu, taking over the family business has been your goal. Since you were a boy, we’ve been grooming you for this sole purpose –”
“Stop it!” Aliu’s voice lashed across his father’s words. “This has been your goal, Father. And yours too, mom. It’s never been mine.” He included his mother in the heat of the glare he now had on.
“What are you talking about? This has always been your dream,” Mrs. Adegbenro returned sharply. “I remember you telling your grandfather all the wonderful things you would do when you take over. And you were just eight years old then.”
“I did. I remember because it was what I started doing after the day grandpa told me I needed to get better at sports because a sissy who couldn’t catch a ball would never be the president of his company. At the time, I didn’t know what a sissy was, but it sounded bad coming from him and I understood he would be disappointed to have one for a grandson. As a child who already knew he was different from the other boys, it was pretty devastating to think that something might be wrong with me. I thought that if I talked to him about being a successor one day, he wouldn’t think I was a sissy anymore.”
“You knew you were homosexual at eight years old?” Aliu’s mother said in a breathless voice, sounding disbelieving, completely unaware her latent homophobia had taken center stage.
Aliu had once told me that in her mind, being gay was the same as being weak and effeminate. Aliu really loved his mother. According to him, she had always been good to him, as good as good could get with a husband like hers around. But in her position as the matriarch of the Adegbenro family, her duty to her husband and her family took precedence over everything else, so she had eventually turned her back on him as well. Though from that day, Aliu said she barely smiled and that thought saddened him always.
“No,” he responded to his mother, “I didn’t know I was homosexual at that age. I just knew I was different.”
“Look, this is nonsense,” His father cut in. “And it doesn’t matter. You have to take your place as my successor. This has always been our plan and it’s a –”
Aliu lost it and banged a fist on the table. “Do you even hear yourself?” he railed at the older man. “We’ve been planning. We’ve been building. As if my life belongs to us all. It doesn’t, Father. It’s mine. And I’m not a child!”
“Well, you’re certainly acting like one. And the sooner you start behaving like a responsible adult, the better for you. You can do whatever you like when you’ve fulfilled your duties to this family. Your life has been full of privileges that others only dream of. So, son, I don’t care about your plans or what you think your plans are. Just do right by us and maybe, just maybe, I will forgive your past atrocities.”
“Which atrocities would those be?” Aliu retorted with a sneer. “My refusal to marry the woman you wanted for me? Or that Mother’s close friend had a son for me? Or that I’m in a relationship with a man? Which one will you just maybe forgive?”
His father reacted to his taunting with a laugh. It was humourless, mocking. “A man? You call this boy a man?” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand over me. “What does he know? He’s still in school for heavens’ sake.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, boy,” the man snapped. “You shouldn’t be with him at all. You shouldn’t even use the word ‘relationship’ to qualify whatever you’re doing with him. Isn’t it enough that I tolerated you? Looking the other way from the abomination you are? Now you’re setting out to dismantle everything that has made this family great.”
“Great?” Aliu let out a humorless laugh, not unlike his father’s from seconds ago. “Our great” – he dropped a mocking stress on the word – “family is built on lies and deception, on fear and control.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Don’t I? I don’t know what I’m saying when I talk about how you’d have had me killed when Suliat asked for a divorce? Or that you almost took Khalil away from me when his mother died? You still think I don’t know what I’m saying?”
This was news to me.
And from the shocked silence that descended in the room, it was also news to the only other person at the table.
“Sodiq…” Aliu’s mother rasped, looking stunned. “What’s he talking about?”
“You didn’t know?” Aliu turned to his mother with raised brows. “You didn’t know that he wanted to keep me away from my son and erase the black sheep from the family?”
“Sodiq,” the woman said her husband’s name again, demanding an answer.
“Your faggot son is making mockery of this family, woman,” the man growled, not looking at his wife. “He has no respect for elders.”
“Right. Because you’re all about respect,” Aliu rejoined. “You have respected the hell out of me for years. Oh, wait, no, you haven’t. In fact, you’ve gone out of your way to tell everyone how unfit I am to breathe the same air as them.”
“Sodiq, whatever your opinion or feelings on this issue, this is my son you’re talking.” Aliu’s mother sounded aghast. Her shattered stare was still on her husband. “My son, Sodiq – our son!”
“It’s not my fault you gave birth to an abomination. I should have gotten rid of him long ago.”
“What!” his wife gasped.
“No!” someone yelled a second later. We turned to see Khalil run into the room. In a flash, he was at his father’s side, grabbing his hand and turning a defiant expression that was so adult to his grandfather. “I won’t let you hurt my dad!” he declared.
Aliu’s hand went instinctively to his son’s head. “Khalil, it’s okay, buddy. Why don’t you go back into the kitchen and wait for us?”
“No! He wants to hurt you and Uncle Moe because you’re different.” Khalil glared at his grandfather, his small hands balled into fists at his sides, “Uncle Moe is my friend. He is family.”
The much-older man gave his grandson an indulgent smile. “Khalil, you’re a child. One day, hopefully, you’ll understand.”
“I may be a child, but I understand the difference between right and wrong, and you’re wrong. You’re mean and selfish. You should want your family to be happy, instead you do everything to make them miserable just because you can. You’re a big bully!”
It was clear from the startled expression on Chief Adegbenro’s face that he had never encountered the reckonable force that was Khalil Adegbenro. The shock at his grandson’s audacity soon gave way to outrage. He bared his teeth as he shoved up from his seat. “And you’re an impertinent little brat who needs a good spanking.”
He had raised his hand, his intention clear, when Aliu shot up from his seat and grabbed the hand. The contact brought both men face to face with each other.
“Don’t even think about it,” Aliu hissed with unmistakably quiet venom.
His father yanked his hand out of his grip and stepped back, wagging a finger at him. “You! You dare stand in my way? Because you’re all grown up, eh? Do you know who you’re dealing with?”
“I know exactly who I’m dealing with,” Aliu shot back. “You might be able to hide from my mother and my siblings, but you can’t hide from me. Not anymore. I can smell your fear.”
I entertained a small smile of satisfaction as I saw the shift in dynamics: Aliu was sure and advancing, and his father, the big, bad wolf, was retreating. Everything my boyfriend had ever done in his life had been a disappointment to this man, and he had made certain to bare his son’s failings at every opportunity he got. The poster boy for disgrace, he’d been called. And for a time, Aliu had started to believe it, but thanks to the nuclear family he got in his son, me and Ivan, he’d learned he wasn’t anything his father proclaimed him to be. He might not be perfect, but he was a good man – a good father, a good lover, and a good friend.
“My whole life, you’ve looked down on me, simply for not living up to your expectations!” Aliu barked at his father. “You who would kill in the name of power – who’s the real depraved person here? You know what? I’m done with you! Come on” – he turned and gestured at his son and I – “let’s get out of here.”
I got to my feet.
Aliu’s mother got up too. The four of us turned to stare at her.
“I’m coming with you,” she said while staring challengingly at her husband.
“What are you talking about?” he barked at her.
“I’m going with my son,” she reiterated.
I looked at Aliu. Aliu stared right back.
“All right, that’s it!” the family patriarch turned to his son, his gaze hard. “See what you’ve done to this family? You and your son are a stain on our noble name.”
“Then we don’t want to be a part of this family anymore!” Khalil declared. “We subji – abjucate – um, abdicate! We abdicate our positions in this family!”
The silence that followed after the childlike declaration could be poked with a pin. We all turned to the little boy who stood there, looking very determined.
“Khalil, champ, you can’t say that unless you mean it,” his father said. “It’s a very serious proclamation.”
“I am serious. I don’t want to be a part of this family anymore. I have you and Aunt Suliat. I have Uncle Moe too.” He hesitated as he looked in his grandmother’s direction, as though he wasn’t sure about including her. Then he said roundly as he returned his defiant stare to his grandfather, “We can’t be part of a bully’s family anymore.”
Aliu looked at me. I shook my head. This was bigger than me and I couldn’t make this decision for him.
He understood. He looked at his mother, his son and then his father.
Then he said, “Let’s go home.”
My ear was ringing from the slap Aliu gave me. My palm was placed against my cheek. I couldn’t even feel that part of my face. It was cold and yet hot. And my mouth had dropped open below eyes that were bugging so far out of their sockets. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I quickly replayed the conversation that led to the moment. I couldn’t find anything that called for the slap. I stared at Aliu.
He was looking at his hand. Then he turned to me. Horror was etched on his face. “Babe, I’m sorry. It wasn’t –”
His words petered out under the onslaught of my icy stare. I dropped my hand from my face and pulled back my composure. Then I turned to go downstairs and stopped.
Khalil was a few steps away from the landing. His distraught expression said it all; he’d witnessed what happened.
“You’re not going to fight, are you?”
The warbled plea caught me off guard. His lips were quivering. He looked from me to his father and back, before the waterworks started. The high pitch wail gave us a start.
Aliu quickly made for his son, grabbing him into a comforting hold. I moved forward, walking past them. I stopped when Aliu grabbed my hand. I turned to look at him, to take in the silent plea on his face.
I was torn. I wanted to hold Khalil and soothe him. I wanted to heed Aliu’s pleading and reassure him with a kiss.
But I couldn’t. I didn’t. I yanked my hand away from his grasp and continued on my way down the stairs. Khalil cried out my name. I didn’t respond as I went into the living room, got my books from the chair and took my car key from the table by the door.
The boy was still sobbing my name. But I didn’t stop for anything. And anyone.
I opened the door, stepped outside and shut it behind me.
Written by Vhar