OVIE NEVER seemed to complain about anything. His father, who had two wives, was a commissioner in Delta state. “Mehn, God of War is still the shit,” Ovie said while punching on his PSP with his thumbs. Sitting right next to him was a distracted Hakeem who stared blankly at the marker board in front of them. Hakeem turned his attention to Ovie whose hair begged to be untangled from the knots it had formed. There he was, sitting in all his chubbiness with his lips perpetually parted and his eyes fixed on the video game he was playing. He always seemed to gasp for a little air after his sentences with his mouth open as if he was feeling the effects of having eaten overly spicy food. He hadn’t spoken once about the exams which were three weeks away. His department, international studies and diplomacy, was notorious for cheating on the part of students and impunity on the part of academic staff. Ovie once told Hakeem and Peter the story of how one of the department’s lecturers who was invigilating an exam slept off in the chair he was seated in front of the class. Open texbooks were lying around and students were moving from seat to seat cross-copying as much as they humanly could. When the lecturer eventually woke up, he looked around for a few seconds and only said “May God forgive you.”
Hakeem brought out his phone to check if Regina had replied. She hadn’t. Hakeem imagined her in the library with open pages of neatly-arranged books in front of her. Twenty-two hours had passed sinced the last time she was online on WhatsApp. Hakeem looked at Ovie who had changed the game he was playing and considered talkng to him about his mother who was still living with her sister, but he knew Ovie would only sympathize and forget. Hakeem needed some perspective. He decided to confront Regina at the library where he was certain she would be. He stood up and took off.
There she was in front of the open pages just like he imagined. She saw him and waved him over to the extreme end where she was seated. He noticed she was wearing glasses. He wasn’t aware that she wore glasses and it had never occured to him to ask.
“Sorry I didn’t pick your calls. I’m just really busy right now,” explained Regina.
“Well, you could at least explain over the phone or something. There’s no need to ignore my calls and messages,” said Hakeem.
“I’m sorry. I just felt you wanted to see me or something and I would have said no.”
“I’m guessing seeing you tonight won’t be possible either.”
“I’m afraid so.”
She was looking directly at him. He felt like they were enagaed in a stare down. The look on her face was that of conviction; the look of someone who had made up her mind. As Hakeem left the library a few minutes later, he feared he was becoming a secondary object to a Regina who eerily seemed altered. Her posture seemed a bit more rigid and her demeanour seemed a bit more bold. Her natural hair had replaced the braids. The glasses gave her a stern, studious look. He tried not to imagine undesirable possibilities.
Impeccably polished shoes and exotic weaves. Gold wristwatches and gold-coloured wristwatches. They were all on display at the annual final year dinner. Graduating students went out of their way to make the night memorable, while the others just watched and fantasised about when it would be their turn to be in the forefront of the most glamorous event on campus. Hakeem, who was nominated for three awards, arrived late on the red carpet as he was expected to. It was customary that the popular personalities delay their arrival. He came with Adesuwa as his date, the girl who everyone seemed to be suggesting that he date. “You guys are perfect for each other. Same department. Her fairness complements your darker skin. She has a good CGPA too. You guys would be a power couple. Jay and Bey of life,” Cindy, Hakeem’s course mate, once told him.
Regina arrived very late. And alone. She had been studying all day and didn’t have time to bathe before she wore the wig Jumoke had borrowed her with her blue knee-length sequined dress. She walked into the packed auditorium and tucked herself into a seat in the back. Looking around, she realised she was one of the few who didn’t come with a date. Her mind quickly turned to Hakeem and she wondered if he came alone as well. It had been three days since they talked at the library and she missed him deeply. She remembered how he sat across her with a fat pharmacology textbook lodged between them in more ways than one. The sun that shone through the window that barely made him squint. She remembered feeling an intense urge to jump across the table to hug him and kiss him and sink into him. But she felt she couldn’t afford to. She felt she couldn’t afford to lose her concentration. She felt it was imperative to remain disciplined. She was afraid that a moment of weakness would break the dam. The final lap of her four-year odyssey was around the corner and she was determined to finish as the overall, undisputed victor. She was ready to unwillingly forgo the distraction that was Hakeem.
Regina was announced as the winner of The Most Hardworking Student category. The winners had been announced in all of Hakeem’s categories and he had won nothing. As she walked towards the stage amidst applause, she thought about the name of the category: The Most Hardworking Student. She thought about the vagueness of it and how unflattering it felt. Abraham, who had won Mr. Handsome earlier in the night, presented her with her plaque. He was tall and lean. His brown skin was so clear and even-toned that some of his friends called him African American. Regina had been crushing on him since the first day she stepped foot on campus. She took the mic from him and thanked God, her family, and her friends. The discomfort of standing alone in the spotlight distracted her, knowing she was conspicuous to the entire auditorium. She felt as though everyone in the building could smell her sweaty armpits and the borrowed wig. She heard congratulatory remarks from undefined faces as she walked down the aisle and past her seat, then out the door.
Sitting on the white plastic chair outside the very bright shop close to the auditorium, Regina stared at the wooden plaque in her hand. It had been a year since Sarah won the same award. The clumsy, ungainly Sarah who barely had time for her own self. The Sarah who attended a very Old People church and never wore a skirt above her knee. Jerry had won the award a year before Sarah. He was the guy who struggled to make eye contact with girls. He was the guy who was notorious for masturbating and watching bizarre porn. The Most Hardworking Student: for the crazy and the awkward. It took a trip down memory lane for Regina to realise that she had just been inducted into the league of the socially wayward. She could faintly hear Jane being announced as the winner of the Most Beautiful Girl category. She took off Jumoke’s wig which smelled so bad that she wondered if the stereotype of filthiness attached to Yorubas could actually be true, then began to imagine how she would probably be remembered: the girl who never showed anyone her answer booklet during exams, the girl who didn’t know how the inside of a club looked like, the girl who always read and read and read. She started to wonder why she had tried so hard to live for others in the first place. She couldn’t remember what she wanted or why she was where she was. For a fleeting moment, she thought about walking away from everything.
* * *
REGINA FINALLY CALLED Hakeem. They agreed to meet at Xplosion. Hakeem got there before her. He continuously revised and modified his speech while sitting at the pool parlour, carefully choosing synonyms and expressions. He tried to make sure the words came out in a way that would express his frustration and disappointment, but not his desperation. He couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of growing contempt for him in Regina. He felt he was probably being unreasonable, but something about the day at the library made him feel he ought to be worried. He remembered watching her give her speech at the final year dinner. The perfect symmetry of her flawless legs, her animated mannerisms which she probably wasn’t aware of, the slight tremble in her voice as she spoke. He had never wanted her more than he did when she stood on the stage.
She was wearing jeans and the grey sweatshirt she wore the night they first met. Her braids were back and the glasses were missing. She sat close to him on the red leather couch at the dimly-lit pool parlour.
“You smell like a meadow,” said Hakeem.
“Nigga, don’t nobody know how a meadow smell ’round these parts,” replied Regina.
“Well, nobody talks like that around these parts,”
“I guess we’re even.”
They shared a warm smile. Hakeem had missed their banter. There she was seated close to him, her hands tucked between her thighs. It was a cool night that promised rainfall.
“I’m sure there must have been a better way to let me know you would have less time for me because of exams,” said Hakeem who had started his speech with a measured tone and a neutral facial expression.
“You know how short the semesters are here. I still find it hard to believe that I burned up half of yesterday braiding my hair. I would hate to call you just to tell you I’d rather not spend time with you because of these circumstances. I would hate you if I got a C,” said Regina.
Hakeem took a moment to reflect on Regina’s last sentence: “I would hate you if I got a C.” Even though he knew the sentence could easily have been an exaggeration of how she truly felt, he felt himself grow reprehension for her new-found brazenness. With a mind clouded by resentment, he told her, “So, why are you here then? Shouldn’t you be holed up somewhere studying since your life revolves around getting As?”
Regina looked startled.
She asked him, “What is wrong with you?” to which he instantly replied, “You should be asking yourself that question. You completely ignore everything happening around you because of exams. Are you the only person writing exams? The guy you’re fighting so hard to beat, Segun, is at Club Joker right now clubbing his ass off. What is your problem?”
“Please tell me you’re joking, Hakeem. Tell me this isn’t coming from you,” said Regina with eyes that had quickly gathered tears.
Hakeem’s resolve had dissolved. His impulses had taken over.
“You don’t even have any real insight on anything. You just read and read without end. At the end of the day, you don’t learn anything you treasure. Just stuff you pour out of your head for lecturers to score at the end of semesters,” he said.
Regina stood up and walked away. Hakeem sat where he was. The feeling of self-resentment suddenly overcame him not just because of the things he had just said, but also because he knew that he had meant them.
Regina had been at Ice Cream Palace for thirty minutes. She was too shaken to be angry. She hated that she found truth in the words Hakeem had said to her roughly an hour prior. As she stared at the unopened Coke bottle on her table absent-mindedly, she heard a voice call her name. She looked up to find the owner of the voice standing beside her in a black hooded sweatshirt. It was Abraham. He introduced himself and sat on the chair opposite her. Regina felt a force contort her body into an appealing stance.
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked her.
“No. I just come here by myself sometimes. I know it’s a little weird,” she replied with a tentative smile, as though awaiting his validation of her habit.
“It’s fine. I’m a little crazy too,” he said.
She was happy he had an opinion of her, so she smiled again. She watched him talk about the politics of the final year dinner awards among other things. His eyebrows faintly faded into each other and his lips, which she felt with her eyes, were dangerously succulent. For a few moments, she completely lost track of what he was saying and only his voice seemed to exist. He sounded irreverent and confidently calm. He used the word ‘fuck’ often which made Regina imagine him using the word in other places under different conditions. His jokes were cliches and his observations were ordinary, but she laughed and nodded anyway; his good looks gave him immunity. “I can give you season 3 of Oz. It’s at my place and it’s not too late,” said Abraham. Regina briefly considered how she hadn’t done any serious studying for two days. She also remembered the disgust she had rapidly developed for Hakeem and his self-righteousness, so she chose to take Hakeem’s advice; she chose to live a little.
“OK. No problem. Take me to your place.”
Abraham’s apartment was a two-bedroom. They sat in his bed. Regina knew what was going to happen and it was just a matter of when. She knew she wasn’t just there because of DVDs. When Abraham stepped out of the bedroom to turn off the TV in the sitting room, Regina got a WhatsApp message from Hakeem: I’m really sorry. Can we talk tomorrow? She locked her phone’s screen and tucked it in her pocket. Abraham came back into the bedroom, rubbing his hands while he said “so where were we?” He sat closer to her than he had been before and started to stroke her thigh. She suddenly felt a strong reluctance. He told her to lift her hands so he could take her sweater off. She thought about how the sex they were about to have would be just another anecdote at a gathering of guys who exchange stories of conquest over cold beer and goat meat pepper soup, how he would probably not remember in a year. But then, it was Abraham. The same Abraham who some of the girls in her department would literally kill for. She was in his room, a space where countless girls had been and a place where countless girls desired to know. As she held her hands straight in the air, it felt as though she had taken up a position of resignation to his will. She found this strangely arousing.