Uneasiness pooled at the pit of my stomach like a thick Harmattan fog as I climbed the steps toward my bedroom. A myriad of thoughts ran through my mind over the reason why my father would want to speak to us. It wasn’t that unusual, him talking to his children. There’d been a talk when Tonia started dating Eric, and he wanted to impress on us the responsibilities that came with living the adult life. There’d been another talk when I became recalcitrant to my mother’s admonishments over the issue of my church attendance. Dad doesn’t like making a fuss; his parenting is easy, laidback. Mum is the firebrand. And this makes him the parent none of us challenges. His voice calms storms, and his words commands regard. The old man always seems to know what to say.
But what will he say in this situation? the Voice queried.
I don’t know… Maybe he doesn’t know… Maybe Fabian hasn’t told him… I answered silently.
Right. And maybe, you’ll get married to a woman tomorrow. What other thing could he possibly say he wants to talk about in that grave tone?
To caution me on the number of nights I’ve been spending out lately?
With your brother and cousin as the audience?
I had no response to that. My mind was still a maelstrom of contemplations by the time I had changed from my street clothes into more casual mufti, and walked back out into the living room. Nobody had moved from their original positions in my absence; Dad was still behind his newspaper, Fabian was still glued to the TV, and Chigozie still sat beside Dad as though his seat was the last place on earth he wanted to be.
Which was puzzling, I thought. He looked as though he was the one who was about to be on trial. He looked the way I felt.
Is he gay too? the Voice wondered.
Does this even have to be a gay issue? I countered, silencing my mind as I took my seat, spreading my body out on the sofa in a deliberate attempt to relax. I stiffened though, when the newspaper rustled as Dad closed and folded it, and placed it on the coffee table beside him. He cleared his throat and hollered, “Antonia!”
There was no response from the kitchen. Something oily hissed. Tonia’s off-key humming sailed out to the living room.
“Antonia!” Dad called again in a louder voice.
Her humming stopped abruptly. The hissing continued.
“Yes, dad!” she answered.
“Have you finished in there? I said I want to talk to you children.”
“I’m almost done, daddy,” she called back in an apologetic tone. “Let me just bring down this fish from the fire.”
We waited exactly two minutes before she materialized into the parlour, wiping her hands on a small towel. She hadn’t changed from her work clothes before starting with dinner, and the peculiar smells of her day and the kitchen clung to her as she plopped down on the sofa beside me.
“Is your mother still upstairs?” Dad asked her.
“Yes. She said she has a mild headache and wants to rest it off.”
He nodded knowledgeably, and waited a beat before beginning in a somber tone, “I was twenty-five when I married your mother. And a year before that, I had already taken charge of my life, already started making something for myself. In those days, life wasn’t very indulgent. Much room wasn’t given for one to be dependent on family. So once you could cut it, you were cut out.” He paused to divide his characteristic solemn expression between the four of us.
I struggled to hold his stare unblinkingly when it fell on me. Independent… Family… Cut out… My heart was starting to beat very fast.
He continued, “The times have changed, this I know. But there is something I’ve taken with me all these years. That if I could become an adult that early in my twenties, then my children too can be the same. And adulthood comes with being given the latitude to be responsible for your life. To do what you must, and being answerable for whatever your actions are. Your mother doesn’t agree with that. She coddles you, and pries into your lives, and fights you every step of the way. I believe in letting you have some reins over your life, and God forbid you to hang yourself with it. And I have being fortunate so far. God has blessed me with children who haven’t brought any form of disgrace to the family…”
Until now…right, dad? I am the one who has finally brought disgrace to the family, right? My heartbeat was now roaring in my ears.
“Until now,” he said.
My eyelids fluttered shut, and I felt rage begin to simmer in my mind. Fabian, you asshole! I cursed silently at my brother. How could you do this to me?
“Chigozie here,” Dad continued, “traveled here all the way from Owerri to bring to me the news that he has impregnated a girl he has no wherewithal to take care of.”
Wait – WHAT?! My eye flew open, in time to join the collective gazes my siblings turned to my cousin. He was studiously looking down on the floor, his frame appearing shrunken from our shocked stares.
This isn’t about me? This isn’t about ME! My mind clamoured with silent joy. And I breathed out noisily, as if deflating, and I collapsed into the sofa. I was almost exhausted from my earlier anxiety. Thank God!
“Chigozie hasn’t got a job, he’s still running his Masters program,” Dad continued, a sliver of anger finally leaking through on his voice. “And instead of focusing on building his life, on shaping his future from the present, he decided to get careless. And made the biggest mistake any man who isn’t ready yet to be a man can ever make. He forced responsibility upon himself. Because, make no mistake” – he turned his severe look to my cousin – “you will marry that girl. And you will have that child. And they will be responsibility like no other. Do you hear me?”
Chigozie mumbled something.
“What was that you said?!” Dad’s voice was a whiplash.
“I said, yes, uncle,” he muttered more audibly.
For a few moments, the ensuing silence pulsed with some tension. However, when Dad resumed speaking again, the wrath was gone from his voice. His tone was calm and serious; the kind of serious that was intended to let us know that there would be no negotiations over any of his utterances. “What is worth doing, my children, is worth doing well. This is a saying that is applicable to all aspects of life without getting overused. If you must do something, due process must be followed to ensure that you get it right. As a father, it is my duty to ensure that you do the right thing, walk the right path, and” – his gaze sharpened – “pay for any foolishness you allow to overtake you. This duty is one that cannot be overstated. Let me make it crystal clear” – he lifted a finger to emphasize this juncture of his words – “I will not tolerate any unwanted or unplanned pregnancies in this house. Anyone who brings home the news of a girl he has gotten pregnant will, as Chigozie is about to do, step up and face the consequences. Antonia, even with your engagement, be sure to be properly settled as a wife before you start carrying around any baby bump. And you two boys, Declan and Fabian, the day you get any woman pregnant is the day you move out of my house to get yours and start your own family.”
An amused snort burst reflexively from my mouth. I quickly clamped my lips shut when I realized what had just happened.
Dad oscillated a glare in my direction, and his tone was flinty as he said, “Is there something funny about what I’d just said, Declan?”
“No, dad –”
“Then what is the source of your amusement, care to share with us?”
I could feel the stares of my siblings and cousin on me as I answered carefully, “I wasn’t amused, dad. I was just…I wish you’ll know how, without a question, I will be the last person in this family that will embarrass you with the news of an unwanted pregnancy.”
Through my peripheral vision, I caught the ghost of a frown flit across Fabian’s face.
Dad nodded, and his expression softened. “Of course, I believe you, my son. The same goes for the rest of you. I believe in all of you, my children, even you, Chigozie. As a father, I want the best for all of you, and that includes being ready for whatever circumstances in the right time. Chigozie has made a mistake, yes. And we shall make the best of the situation. But I don’t expect this kind of mistake to happen again. When you step out of that door and go out to face whatever challenges there are to tackle in the world out there, in whatever situation you find yourself, before you act, think! Use your head! And remember the place where you come from. Making a family is a beautiful experience, and I want it for all of you. I want you to know the joy of having and nurturing extensions of you. But that must happen when you are ready, when the time is right. Have I made myself clear to everyone?”
“Yes, sir,” we chorused.
“Good. You may return to your business. Chigozie, tomorrow, we’ll talk some more, after I’ve spoken with your mother.”
There was a stir in the parlour as the four of us rose from our seats and departed in various directions of the house. There was a skip to my gait as I walked up the steps, as relief coursed through my body. What had just happened had made me realize just how unprepared I was to let my family know about my sexual orientation. I wasn’t ready, and it had nothing to do with the question of my independence in the event that the consequence of such knowledge is my disownment. No. I just wasn’t ready to see myself be the reason our family dynamics would be upset so. My father had taken umbrage with Chigozie’s unplanned pregnancy, and that was a societal expectation. It was just a question of how much worse things would get when news of my homosexuality became known to them. I knew I’d have to come out to my family someday; I am too true to myself to go through some of the shams that are the obligations of a heterosexual son. But one more day that I didn’t have to tell them is one more day everyone had peace of mind.
Bryson was on my mind when I got into my room, and I was checking the account balance on my phone and contemplating the possibility of a long distance call to his cell phone, when my door was shoved unceremoniously open.
“You are the last person that will embarrass this family with an unwanted pregnancy?” a voice, taut with anger, lashed across the room.
My feeling of insouciance vanished and choler began to drop down on my mind like a shutter as I turned to face my brother. “Hello, Fabian, since when did you start walking into my room without knocking?” I said frostily.
“You are the last person that will embarrass this family with an unwanted pregnancy?” he reiterated waspishly, ignoring my question.
“Yes, that’s what I said downstairs. I’m glad you were paying attention.”
His eyes narrowed at the barb, and then he snapped, “Were you paying attention to what daddy was saying? Were you?” When I didn’t say anything in response, he continued, “You are going around, claiming you are homosexual” – he whispered the word the way some people whispered the word AIDS – “and here –”
“I am not going around claiming anything,” I interjected furiously. “And it is not a claim. I am who I am. I thought you had learned to deal with it.”
“I don’t have to deal with it.” He appeared to recoil at the thought of ever having to. “I don’t like it. It’s an abomination. And you shouldn’t identify with it.”
“Are we really going to do this again?”
“Yes! I have to make you understand that what you’re doing is not good –”
“You are one of the biggest womanizers I have ever known,” I interrupted him heatedly. My eyes flashed with mounting anger, to rival the fire of his expression. “Is that good? You going around, jumping from girlfriend to girlfriend, and running the risk of doing exactly what daddy just warned us against –”
“That is different –”
“Really!” The cutting sarcasm in the word was heavy. “How hypocritical of you to sit in judgment of me while dismissing what you do as acceptable –”
“At least I can own up to being a womanizer to the world, and no one would crucify me for it. But you, you have to hide with this nonsense you are doing.”
“It is not something I am doing, Fabian. It is who I am. The sooner you understand that, the better for our relationship.”
“It is not who you are, Declan. I refuse to accept that. You need to distance yourself from this thing. Daddy is down there, talking about how he expects us all to have families. Making a family is a beautiful experience… Having and nurturing extensions of us… Did you hear all that? And here you are, identifying with something that is guaranteed not to give you any of that. You should” – he jabbed his forefinger in my face – “distance yourself from this thing. Those your friends – I know they are the ones infecting you with this abomination.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, letting out a stab of mirthless laughter.
“Laugh all you want, it’s true. Your friends are a bad influence. The sooner you cut yourself away from them, the sooner you can stop yourself from embarrassing this family.”
“You are a bastard for saying that, Fabian,” I said hotly, as I felt my heart expand with rage.
“It is your mother that gave birth to me, Declan,” he retorted, his lip curling with disdain.
“Get the fuck out of my room now!” I threw my hand at the door to emphasize my command.
“I will go. But you have to first realize that this thing you are doing will do nobody any good. If it gets out, this family will be disgraced and you will be a shame. Come back to us, Declan. Think about our parents, about all they have done for you –”
“It is not an us-against-them situation, my dear brother,” I said with a sneer. “Homosexuality is not a cult. I am not some gullible fool recruited by my friends to live a life with the sole purpose of embarrassing our family. It is who I am. Listen to those words carefully.” And enunciating every syllable as if I was talking to someone mentally handicapped, I repeated, “It is who I am.”
“It is not. I refuse to believe you’re gay. You have to stop saying that –”
“Who is gay?” a voice cut in through Fabian’s tirade.
The two of froze momentarily, and then began to unfreeze as we turned slowly to the doorway, which in my anger I’d forgotten had been left open after Fabian barged into my room.
Tonia stood there, with that kind of gobsmacked expression one wears when he’s just walked into a startling revelation. As she advanced slowly into the room, her expression changed like the mercurial transitions of a kaleidoscope. “Declan? Fabian?” Looking from one brother to the other, she asked again, “Who is gay?”
Written by Pink Panther