REGINA’S FORLORN SILHOUETTE stood in solitude a few yards from the front of the heavily lit classroom. Her books were firmly gripped by her folded arms which were pressed against her chest. She had been there for roughly ten minutes, unwillingly exchanging pleasantries with passers-by who she barely knew. Her obsession with knowing what others said about her when she wasn’t there seemed to grow stronger with each compliment or critique she received. She constantly fought to find middle ground where she could settle, compromising on decisions based on varying opinions in order to please everyone to equal extents – or at least she tried to. She shuddered from yet another chilly gust of the night’s cold air. The walk to her dormitory was long and routine to her. Halfway along, she walked around the hardly visible ditch by the popcorn machine – as usual. Sometimes, she would jump over it if she felt giddy enough to. There wasn’t a lot of excitement in Regina’s life. She was always too busy with academic work and chess to have time for friday nights at B-52 or open-air movie nights. Pacing frantically, she kept hoping they hadn’t locked her dorm gate.
The sight of Mrs. Alade fastening the heavy metal latches triggered a last gasp effort to gain entrance. Mrs. Alade looked forward to locking the gate. She was short and skinny with severe k-legs that made the sides of her knees knock when she walked. She would frantically stare at her watch minutes before 10 p.m. to make sure it wasn’t locked a second late. It was as though locking the late ones outside at night was her way of exerting revenge on them for making her feel old and invisible during the day. She would watch the Challenge Hostel girls strut out of their rooms in their short skirts and their tight jeans all day, their laughter resounding as they basked in their youthfulness. For those few minutes the late ones stood outside and begged for entrance – some of their expressions genuinely showing remorse, some uncannily theatrical – she would feel magnified and significant. Afterwards, she would go back to her lobby desk and fall back into her abyss of low self-esteem and contempt for the circumstances governing her ordinary life.
“Hakeem, you can’t possibly convince me that Messi would excel in the Premier League. They would shatter his patella.” Yet another Ronaldo versus Messi argument was in full swing in the last class at the social sciences block. All four of them agreed that the two footballers had their places reserved in the pantheon of all time greats, but the eternally inconclusive argument was about who deserved to be placed on the grand pedestal at the expense of the other. Indomie, who always seemed to initiate the episodes, was the only one who exclusively spoke English among the boys. Peter and Ovie were the boys from Warri with the unique Pidgin that effortlessly flowed out of their mouths with musical sounds that were almost spell-binding to those unfamiliar with it. Hakeem was the most reserved of them. He had begun to feel a slight headache amid the argument which prompted him to step out of the class. The sheer number of people in the class had neutralised the cooling effect the fans were meant to have. He could faintly hear Ovie screaming Ronaldo no sabi play freekick again. He decided to take a walk. The rain that fell earlier in the day was the first of the year. To him, the smell of wet grass and the flash of illumination that sudden lightning brought to nights had a special appeal. It was almost midnight, and he had barely read a sentence off the notes he brought to campus. He was starting to wish he had stayed home.
The bright lights in the school clinic made the building impossible not to notice at night. He had never been inside before; he never needed to. Aside short-lived headaches and the occasional fever, Hakeem never really got sick. He thought of walking in and asking for paracetamol. The management did embed ‘health facilities and equipments’ into their school fees, so he thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to exercise his rights. The nurse had her eyes fixed on the plasma TV hung on the wall beside the doctor’s office. She briefly glanced at Hakeem who had just entered, before turning her attention back to the Indian series that was on. He walked past a girl sitting in the waiting area who also had eyes on the show. “Good morning,” he said, staring at his Hublot to make sure the long hand had crossed over to the other side of the XII . “Can I have some paracetamol? I have a headache.””It has finished.” The nurse didn’t bother to look in his direction the whole time. Making his way out of the clinic, his attention was drawn to the girl in the waiting area again. Her braids were black with the exception of a white one that stood out on its own. They were all bound into a ponytail by a pink scrunchie. He sat close to her on the row of black plastic chairs. “Hi, I’m Hakeem.” She turned her face towards him with an expression of surprise, a staged one. She had seen him approaching from the side of her eye, but acted as though she was unaware of the presence of his six-foot-two frame. She didn’t want the situation to seem like she was willing him on to talk to her by looking at him. Hakeem could see through her act. “Oh, I’m Regina. Nice to meet you.”
“I believe I’ve seen you somewhere around school before. I want to ask you to take a stroll around with me so we can talk, but you seem really into the show.”
“Uhm, no problem. I wasn’t really watching, anyway.
“Great. Shall we?”
She told him she had been seeing him around school as well. As they strolled past the cafeteria, he told her he was studying political science. It was the course she wanted to study before gaining admission into the school, but her father decided against it because he felt the field wasn’t suitable for women, too ‘rough’ for her gender. “I could have sworn you were really into the show,” said Hakeem. “I actually wasn’t. We don’t watch Arrow of Love.””We?” he curiously asked with a raised eyebrow, a force of habit. “Yeah. Me and my roommates. We prefer watching Lovers Liaison or Love Will Prevail on Seliat’s laptop. Seliat’s my roomie.” He knew Seliat. She was the one who sang the school anthem during special occasions. The one the VC called his ‘daughter.’ “Can I guess what a possible synopsis for Love Will Prevail could be,” he requested. The show was about a friendly and humble guy in his twenties from a rich family who fell in love at first sight with an innocent, indoctrinated girl from a poor family. The girl’s hostility towards him subsequently dissolved into affection overtime, but the guy’s family were not so charmed because of her lack of formal education and the societal gap between the two families. The accuracy of his guess surprised Regina, and she was also surprised to find that she believed him when he said he had never watched the show before. “Wow, that’s amazing,” she confessed. He seemed to her like someone who knew different things about a lot of things. It was the first time she had ever heard anyone use the word ‘synopsis.’ “I personally don’t like them. I think they’re too predictable and overly dramatic,” he said. There was a long pause which seemed to last for days as they kept strolling. He had been the one asking all the questions and it seemed inevitable that he would be the one to break the silence again. She tried to not seem too eager nor unwilling to talk and made sure she resisted the temptation of immersing herself in their interaction. She could not afford to impulsively reveal a fraction of her inhibitions; they were meant to be bottled up at all times, until when necessarily needed in measured amounts. His phone came to their rescue when it rang. It was so loud that it shattered the night’s silence in one sudden strike. While he spoke Hausa to the person on the phone who he called ‘ma,’ his attention diverted, she took the opportunity to assess his assets. His haircut was a low afro and his forearms were hairy. His gait was loose and confident.
“That was my mom. We hadn’t spoken all day.”
“You guys seem really friendly. Unlike my relationship with my mom.”
The words jumped right out of her mouth. A lapse in concentration. She had begun to feel too comfortable. “Oh, tell me more.” A little indulgence wouldn’t hurt, she thought to herself. “Well, she’s actually my aunt, but I call her Mummy. She just doesn’t like certain types of jokes. You can’t playfully call her words like ‘silly.’ You can’t tease her if she makes a mistake. You know now, the typical Nigerian parent.” She had used ‘now.’ Not the generic ‘now,’ but the exclusively Nigerian now that hinted at some form of familiarity. At that moment, she hadn’t used it because she felt the need to informalise a vapid conversation with an acquaintance. She didn’t even realise she had used it. “My dad is like that, too,” he said with a smile while wiping the concrete pavement in front of a closed barbershop with his palm. The cleaning of a chair or a spot with a cloth or bare palm for her to sit was a gesture she was used to getting from guys. She always felt they were trying to be too nice, too eager to make an impression. But it was different with Hakeem. This time, she found the gesture to be a shade of romantic – a light shade, but a romantic one nonetheless. The flickering neon sign on the door of the shop they sat in front of ironically read OPEN WELCOME. There was a low humming refrigirator sound coming from the next shop which was also closed. He shared his craziest memories – including his bloody fist fight with a popular mad man in Kaduna during his secondary school days – and she found them interesting, but only let out short chuckles when she felt like laughing. She also shared some selected memories while he listened to attentively, laughing the hardest when she told him the one about her roommate’s drunken rant some days earlier. They talked about how fortunate they were to not have to deal with the strikes at federal and state universities. Hakeem told her he had to go study. “I have to make sure I put something in my head before 5 a.m. Been a bit lazy lately.” They exchanged numbers and shared a side hug that was close enough for her to smell his light cologne. As they walked in opposite directions, she wondered if he was staring back at her. In those two hours they spent together, she had given him a sliver of her whole; a sliver she felt was safe in his care.
* * *
HAKEEM WAS IN A DILEMMA. He couldn’t make up his mind up on which boxers to wear: the one he wore the day before or the fresh one. Ordinarily, he was used to wearing the same boxers twice in a row. But this was the day he was going on his first real date with Regina after their coincidental introduction. He eventually decided to wear the old one. He was amused by his own indecision. It’s not like the boxers are going to be visible on the date, he thought to himself. He also wondered if his reluctance to wear the old one was because he was subconsciously preparing for the possibility of sex or something sex-related, hence his indecision. He wasn’t used to preparing too much on dates. He had always respected girls who were bookworms, but the downside of their humourless lives turned him off. He felt differently about Regina, though. Beneath the layers of apprehension, he saw a carefree girl manipulated by her insecurities. Physically, there was nothing particularly eye-catching about Regina. Her breasts and butt were average-sized, and she had nicely shaped bow legs. Her face was pretty, but not the lofty heights of Claire Huxtable pretty.
They were supposed to meet at the plaza by 1 p.m. at the top floor. Hakeem got there before her. The plaza was the biggest, most glamourous in Benin city and it was privately owned. It was a saturday, which meant families came out in hordes to unwind after a long week of school and work. At the table he was seated, there was a teenage couple holding a popcorn each, presumably waiting for their movie to start. The boy wore as much modern apparel and accessories as he possibly could: baseball hat, lurid hightop shoes, tight distressed jeans, rings on four of his ten fingers, a rubber armband with the name of a church inscribed on it. The girl wore a tight short yellow dress, and the remaining hair in front of her braids was smeared with generous amounts of gel. By the escalators, two kids were standing with an unconsenting adult who wouldn’t let them climb down. The kids gazed at the descending stairs like it was a contraption, chattering to themselves in awe. He could see a family in an arcade through the shop’s glass protector. The presumed mother, who took pictures of her cheerful children, was trailed by a prepubescent girl in an unflattering dress carrying their bags. The girl’s eyes were also widened by excitement, but her demeanor oozed of restrained glee.
By the time Regina eventually arrived, Hakeem had already bought the movie tickets. Her makeup looked meticulous. Her contours were symmetrical, her lashes looked heavy, and the bright white lights bounced off the bronzer on her nose. She closely followed him when they walked into the dark cinema. The light of her phone’s torch shone on his fleshy calves as she trailed him. Pictures of him wrapping her in his arms against his bare chest had popped up in her head the previous day. She was used to imagining herself in erotic scenarios. She used to imagine Simon stroking her nipples, or sometimes Taiye sucking on her lips. Even though she knew them at different points in her life, Simon and Taiye had one thing in common: they shared the ‘bad boys’ tag. Simon was the boy in the back seat in SS 3 who never tucked his shirt in and murmured inappropriate answers to teachers’ questions. He smoked cigarettes and thrived on the principal’s disdain. Regina would watch him from afar, tracking his mannerisms and expressions. He simply didn’t give a fuck, and that – for some reason – made her attracted to him. Regina always wondered if the reason he never really talked to her was because he felt there was no point trying his luck with the Scripture Union-going, debate-leading Regina. She could never approach him because she felt she had a reputation to retain, and hanging out with Simon would jeopardise everything. Taiye was the law student in 100 level, her freshman year, who was lightskinned and carried an afro. He raised his eyebrows and pulled off a smouldering, hot model look in all the pictures he consciously knew were being taken of him. He was admired and he was always in demand for one reason or another. He was also a serial cheater who slept around. His girlfriend always waved off rumours of him cheating, and called people who informed her about his sex spree ‘haters’ until the day she caught him red-handed. The last time Regina saw him before he left for another school in South Africa, the girlfriend was still with him. Still holding his hand in public and using his photos as her display picture on BBM. She was terrified of the possibility of losing him. Too many girls were lurking on the sides, waiting and hoping and praying to take her place in his coveted spotlight.
“This is the only drama movie that’s showing. The rest are Nigerian or shoot-shoot films.” He tried to explain why he chose the drama they were about to see before the trailers ended. The general distrust for Nollywood movies at cinemas was mainly of because of their notoriety for poor sound and inferior picture quality. People were scared to spend a thousand naira on echoing dialogues and dated special effects. As for the action flicks, he just assumed she didn’t like them. Regina didn’t care much about which movie they watched. For the next two hours, the spectacle on the wall was just going to be a distraction from Mrs. Ngozi’s ANA 414 assignment. A spectacle on the wall whose details she would forget in no time. The most strict and most ruthless female lecturers always seemed to be called by their first names, rather than their surnames. Perhaps, this was coincidental or maybe the force they wielded magically demanded for them to be distinguished, for their gender role-defying dominance to be announced. Most of them walked inelegantly, never wore tight-fitting clothes, and mostly picked on the girls with the short skirts or the sleeveless tops – publicly calling them out as immoral beings they believed the girls to be.
“What makes you happy more than anything else,” asked a curious Hakeem. “I love to draw, but time is a luxury this days. I still have some of my old drawings sha,” replied Regina. She knew little of popular culture. Too little to Hakeem, but she wasn’t boring. There was something inherently fluid about her. She seemed to Hakeem like someone who could like the music or films or TV shows he liked, but he felt her ambitions had bludgeoned her lust for life up to the point that self-gratification had become disturbingly secondary.
Slightly tilting her head to her right where Hakeem was seated, she could see him from the side of her eye. His expression was raft with focus on the flickering lights of the feature presentation. His slightly furrowed brows and his pink lower lip. Growing up, Regina had always felt there was something exotic about Hausa people. Something exotically isolated about the North. The people from the South who travelled to the North by road always seemed to take more than a day to arrive at their destinations. Some of their people’s hair were soft and curly. Their accent gave their English a certain sophistication. Their lands used to seem distant and dusty, with hanging public address systems blaring out Muslim prayers at orange-red sunsets.
The movie flew by quickly, and they were out in front of the plaza in no time. The sunlight warmed her skin. Roughly two hours ago before she got to the plaza, she had desperately longed for its cool, air-conditioned interiors. Now, the feeling of sunlight seeping into her pores felt great, but she knew she would long to be within those walls soon again when the sun would start to take its toll. But it didn’t. Quickly gathered clouds heralded heavy rainfall. Their taxi dropped them off by the flooded street leading to their school gate. They took cover in an empty blue caravan. Hakeem looked at her as the noisy rain continued to pour. Her drenched, excited self laughing and joking about how she almost slipped and fell while stepping out of the taxi. In that instant, he realised a feeling that had been alien to him. She suddenly noticed his solemn gaze, and her grin morphed into a blank expression. He leaned towards her and they kissed passionately. They pulled back and stared into each other’s eyes, their faces contorted by unbridled emotion, and they realised that words would have no heft in the moment.
In that moment, nothing else mattered.