WRITER’S WORD: This is a sort of anthology series, a work of fiction peppered with real life experiences. Every chapter is different and has no connection with the other, but the characters interact and are sprinkled through chapters.
“I don’t think God will create me just to punish me, but Adam and Eve might beg to differ.”
Ever since Ummi was an adolescent blooming her way past teenage years, as she struggled through her oversized uniforms and had her crown of abundant dark hair twisted into thick braids which seemed incongruous for her small-sized head, she had never enjoyed the idea of kissing. One afternoon when she was thirteen, she’d seen a movie where the blonde-haired actress had tilted her porcelain head to the side, puckering her red lips for the dark-haired man who leaned forward to claim her offering. Ummi had been revolted by that, the idea that girls were supposed to kiss boys and like doing so. For some time, she wondered why that should be so, and at other times, she stopped wondering. Sometimes she would try to envision herself in the hands of a person, often her favourite American actor Brad Pitt; she’d try to picture them both, lip to lip, and the image never stayed in place. It just didn’t work. She talked about it initially, and Mama and the ever vocal Grandmamma told her the nausea she felt would pass, that Ummi would eventually grow to find the right man to kiss. Ummi would nod her pea-sized head at them, and would be content in not knowing about what sexual future she had waiting for her.
She was seventeen when her older sister Zuleika got married. Zuleika was fresh out of her teenage years and had already physically blossomed amongst her peers, like the butterfly that made the caterpillar question its own existence. Ummi was a bridesmaid. Her sister got married in a church, the Catholic Church, despite family disputes over her inter-religious relationship. The reception was held in a pretty hall, somewhere around Opebi. A peach dress with draping shoulders was wrapped around Ummi’s forming figure, the front of the dress revealing just the teeniest cleavage that was enough to hold Jide’s leering gaze during the ceremony. Ummi’s hair was shorn for the wedding, the thickness that was usually worn in braids now short and curly, neatly combed back and doused with olive oil.
While the two families gathered around to party at the reception, she wandered around the venue and crossed paths with Benatare, the groom’s sister. Benatare’s dark chocolate skin glowed under the hot Lagos sun, praising the gods of melanin. Ummi felt her nipples chafe against the fabric of her bridesmaid’s dress and harden at the sight of the tight scarlet dress that held Benatare’s full breasts up into a properly burgeoned cleavage.
“Hi…” Benatare’s smile flashed, white against the beautiful blackness of her skin.
And the two girls remained attached to each other’s sides, while they talked about everything they both hated about weddings and the hypocrisy in their families.
Ummi and Benatare kissed behind the hall, right after they shared a slice of the wedding cake, heavily saturated chocolate with a mousse-like texture in the middle. Benatare drank alcoholic wine, and Ummi nursed a glass of Fanta. This wasn’t the first time the two of them had met, but it felt like it. Ummi was enjoying Benatare’s company, and wished time didn’t pass by so swiftly. She enjoyed the touch of Benatare’s soft palm as she constantly stroked her knee, as they sat on the pavement next to grass right there where they kissed. That day was beautiful. The kiss was magical. And Ummi found herself realizing that kissing wasn’t disgusting. Kissing boys was what was gross. Certainly not kissing girls… Certainly not kissing Benatare.
Jamal had always bragged about kissing the best boys in Lagos, and she often wondered how he was able to. Halima was calmer in describing her experiences. Thelma really didn’t like talking about what she did with whoever she did it.
The wedding passed, and so did the months. Ummi battled some confusion. The roiling emotions were stamped on her countenance too often, and those who Jamal wanted her to further experiment with were discouraged.
And then, the news that shattered Ummi’s world came when Zuleika announced during a luncheon visit that Benatare was getting married. She wasn’t only getting married; she was going to relocate to Dublin with her new husband. Ummi felt crushed. She felt breathless. The sensation was like getting buried alive and wrapped inside a disposable bag while the shovelfuls of sand were dumped on her. Benatare was betraying her, she thought savagely. She met her fiancé, a nobody – so what if he was a surgeon? He also spat out half of the food in his mouth when he spoke and always smelled of dried fish. Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh, but Ummi would rather get imaginative than truly describe this man who had come to steal her girl.
As if Benatare was ever hers. As if they ever properly talked about the things they did. As if Ummi herself hadn’t begun avoiding Benatare and sousing herself in prayers at the end of every encounter with her.
Ummi missed the wedding. She was thankful that she had a reason not to attend it. A chronic menstrual pain had come to her aid. Better that than the internal burn she would have suffered while being forced to cheer the wedding couple.
More times passed, and Ummi grew older. African countries were turning their backs on their LGBT communities. Nigeria had just signed into existence a draconian law persecuting her LGBT. The news hurt Ummi to watch, to observe. She read stories of men who were lynched, simply because they had loved differently. Ummi cried at the stories of girls in the Middle East who were stoned for slipping out of line and just loving. Everyone in the house wondered why Ummi took these news items so serious; they were bewildered by her abrasive reactions whenever Mama brought it up to scorn. Zuleika knew something. She must have, because she didn’t act as baffled as Mama and Grandmamma. Instead, Zee cautioned her, told her to better control her emotions and not give people any reason to suspect that something was off with her.
Ummi processed her sister’s advice the best way she could. She became withdrawn, quiet, too quiet. This alarmed Mama and Grandmamma. Ummi was the jovial one, the chatty one in the house. But these days, the silences stretched gloomily in the house, because Ummi was quiet. She was listless too. Mama got stern. She scolded her when she missed morning prayers thrice and for lounging in the living room when it was time for maghrib. In the face of Mama’s ire, Ummi would only shrug, mumbling something about God being in her heart and knowing her conflict. Nobody would hear, or want to hear.
Ummi mentally beat herself up, wondering where this conflict came from, especially since nobody was around to ignite her emotions. There was no Benatare. Forceful thoughts hammered away in her head, attempting to reassure her that this gloom within her was just a phase. That she’d get over it. That it was simply because there was no boyfriend. Ummi chose to believe that. It made sense. Grandmamma was right; the right man was yet to come. And this was her body’s way of reacting with impatience.
Then why did she get turned on watching those women on her favourite TV shows? Why did she find herself often wanting to replace Danielle Brooks’ character on that television show, just so she could be with Samira Wiley for a moment? It didn’t matter, she told herself firmly. The right guy just had to come along.
Ummi was at war within herself. She was caught between the desires of her body and the realities of her mind. She worried. Her secrets gnawed at her. Her thoughts began irritating her. Ummi knew she had to do something. She was going crazy.
Jamal stepped in, her saviour. An invitation to a show at Freedom Park was all Ummi needed to set fire to her heart. Nneka was going to perform, along with Magic System and other contemporary acts. Ummi was excited, but didn’t know how to tell Mama about her intention to go out for a night concert. It came down to lying about a sleepover at Adama’s place; Adama was a good girl and they were from the same village in Kaduna. Mama believed her.
The black abaya draped over her frame concealed the rather sheer T-shirt and three-quarter-length denims she was wearing. Jamal met her in his father’s car a short distance away from her house. Ummi didn’t hurry to take off her abaya; it was a bit cold. But the chill was the last thing on her mind when she let herself go to the music at the concert. She danced away from her concerns and into Kainene’s arms. Even in the darkness of the night, punctured by the winking lights from the weak concert bulbs, Ummi paused to take in Kainene’s beauty – her oval face with almond shaped eyes and passively aggressive acne. Her thick afro was all out, an Ankara bow attempting to style and hold the wild tresses in place, and matching the sleeveless short-collared dress which complemented her coffee-coloured skin.
Ummi kept a smile on her face, keeping it friendly as she danced with this beautiful girl that smelled of Lavender and a whiff of coconut oil. Their shoulders pressed against each other and their hips ground against each other. The chemistry was there, the magic too present. But they kept it friendly as they became locked together, lip to lip in the backseat of Jamal’s car. They kept it friendly as they melted into each other’s arms, because lips weren’t enough to slake the heightened sensations they were feeling. They kept it friendly as Ummi urged Jamal to drive faster in a voice turned husky with wild desires. They kept it friendly as Ummi tasted Kainene in Jamal’s guest room, lapping up her centre from whence flourished liquids, surging from between her thighs as Kainene arched her back and gave out throaty sounds of surrender. So friendly that Ummi forgot herself, forgot the world, forgot the worries and collapsed into Kainene’s arms, drifting off with satiation and only awakening to the balmy touch of the morning sun.
Ummi was hooked and she didn’t know how to let go.
She carried on with Kainene for days, and then weeks, and then months. A closeness was forged, the forces awakening. And then Kainene said to her what she should never have, plunging Ummi into that familiar pit of darkness she’d since crawled out from. The depression came back, biting off her happiness like an angry shark that had been starving for hours. It returned, ripping off her smile like a disease that had been waiting to spread. I love you. Ummi was paralyzed by the words. She withdrew. She ignored Kainene’s calls and wouldn’t reply her messages. Friends were shut out. Mama got concerned again. This was a different kind of withdrawal, Mama could tell. Grandmamma noticed it too, but she wasn’t bothered. She smugly believed this time, it was about a boy. Only a boy could do to Ummi what she was going through, Grandmamma declared.
But they talked and they speculated, and no one asked her. Mama summed it all up: Ummi had probably lost her virginity and was troubled by the responsibility of telling. Grandmamma summed it all up: Ummi was dating a Christian boy and didn’t want to turn out like her sister had. Zuleika summed it all up: how about they stopped assuming and actually asked Ummi what was wrong.
And all this while, Ummi battled away in her private hell. She returned to her prayers, her agonized supplication to the heavens, the fasting, and yet nothing changed. She knew she felt too many things for Kainene. It was like fire to wood. But it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Ummi knew something was wrong. She knew this when she went on to ask David out on a date, and rushed to kiss him, tasting the food in his mouth as they grasped at each other’s bodies under the compound tree and cloaked with shadows.
Maybe she simply needed to take things easy.
Maybe she needed to wait.
Maybe she –
Ummi snapped in the middle of a particular night. It came from nowhere, unexplainable, but she snapped into the decision that her life would not be dictated by the desires and wishes of others. It became clear as she snapped, like a cold-bathed twig in the rough hands of a person. Her vision cleared. She reached for her phone. A half-asleep Kainene was roused by a phone call, and an inundation of teary apologies. Ummi was excited. She couldn’t wait to be unleashed.
“I’m gay,” she told her friends the next day.
“We know,” Jamal said, lifting his thick brows in surprise.
“I want to come out to my mother,” Ummi said.
“No, you can’t do that!”
“This is not America oh. Even in America, you cannot just come out like that and think everyone is going to wrap the rainbow flag around you and spray confetti on you,” Jamal explained with a kind smile.
“Plus you don’t owe anybody anything,” Thelma cut in. “Why come out? This is your life, baby girl, and you should live it on your terms. I am not asking for you to remain in the closet, but you need to know this is your private life, and nobody needs to know what happens in it.”
Ummi struggled with the logic of her friends. She wanted to be unleashed. Oh, how much she wanted to be free. She would have her freedom. All this didn’t matter if she couldn’t love and live free.
And then came the phone call, one that had her racing to the hospital on a distressed visit that changed it all. Grandmamma was sick, she’d had a stroke. Ummi couldn’t believe it. The old woman had always been so strong, never once falling to the clutches of any ailment. When she got to the hospital, Mama hugged her close, explaining how it was minor and that Grandmamma was already awake enough to see her. Mama looked distraught herself, her features so like Ummi’s drawn and sagging. Ummi was suddenly struck by an awareness of her family’s mortality.
And without knowing it, mentally, she began gradually gathering the deep mahogany woods, nails, hammers and anything extra that she would need. Her feet, feeling water logged and webbed, dragged all the way into the ward that oozed of a mixture of hospital chemicals and Grandmamma’s Oudh. On the bed, the weathered-faced elderly woman sat, holding onto her prayer beads and smiling as her favourite granddaughter approached her. Ummi chewed on her chapped lips, wearing a tired smile and coming to stand next to the bed.
And then, the construction began.
“Wallahi, God knows I am only alive because of you,” Grandmamma chuckled.
“I am glad,” Ummi said as she reached out a hand to stroke the sparse iron-gray hair. A small smile teetered on her face.
“You know, I have achieved everything I could have dreamed of and I have lived a good life. But I still haven’t done it all, and in your favour, God kept me.” Grandmamma smiled, bright-eyed but tired.
“You should rest some more,” Ummi hummed, avoiding eye contact.
“Nothing is worth it if I don’t see you get married, my child – nothing at all.” She shook her head slightly, from side to side. “My only daughter didn’t get married, but I was blessed with two beautiful girls from her. And yet, life doesn’t feel complete.”
“Zuleika is married,” Ummi murmured. “Let’s thank God for that.”
“She’s married to a Christian boy,” Grandmamma chided. “It doesn’t count.”
Ummi tensed in anger, feeling the construction stretch firmer. She shrugged, suddenly tired herself. “He is a good man. That’s what matters.”
“Gaskiya he is, but it’s like telling me a man who is with another man is good, even when we know it’s a mortal sin.” Grandmamma chuckled at her jest.
Ummi felt her heart constrict. Her eyes welled up, a sheen of tears she refused to shed.
“Oh no, don’t cry, my dear girl,” Grandmamma soothed. “I am alive, and I will remain so to bless the man you will bring home, to carry your child when you have him, and to dance to celebrate your good fortune.”
Ummi could bear it no longer. She could remain here not one more second. Her heart was bleeding. She leaned forward and kissed her grandmother on her age-creased forehead. And then, she exited the room.
Within her, change had happened. The construction was complete and her closet perfected. In there, she and Kainene would thrive in peace, bound by love. In there, there would be rainbow confetti and enough rainbow cupcakes for everyone, to go around. It would be perfect and nobody would have to know.
Ever since Ummi was an adolescent blooming her way past teenage years, as she struggled through her oversized uniforms and had her crown of abundant dark hair twisted into thick braids which seemed incongruous for her small-sized head, she had never enjoyed the idea of kissing boys or the idea that girls are supposed to like kissing boys. It just never worked for her. For some time she wondered why, and at other times, she stopped wondering.
Written by ThatGayCousin