STATIONS OF THE CROSS
by Caleb Okereke
Two nights ago, Rasheed kissed me. Outside the safety of his bedroom, out in the open streets of Birnin Gwari where motorcycles whizzed past and traders hurried along, he took my hands, kissed me and I knew some things would change.
It was not the first time he had done it, pressing his tongue firmly against my lips, eyes wide open, and hands fondling my erection. It was not the first time we had been wedged stiff in the web of passion either, too drowned to let go of each other, but this time was most peculiar because he had done it outside, jeopardising our safety.
Of course, he knew what would happen had anyone seen us; they would yank us away from each other, eyes scarlet from disgust, chests heaving and shoulders squared. They would say “Yar Kishili” or “qazanta, abomination” and drag us round the main market to his Father, the Cleric who will receive us with disappointment in his eyes.
He would call it “Sodomy” without flinching and someone from the crowd instinctive into the ways of our Kaduna people would read from the Quran:
“Of all creatures in the world, will ye approach males,
And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates
Nay, ye are a people transgressing-”
The crowd would shake their heads and arm themselves with stones, and Rasheed will clench his teeth, he would lean over and whisper in my ears “Bilal, I fear, I am afraid” and I would not reply, because I will be afraid too.
But Rasheed knew these things, he knew. We had played the scene in our heads a thousand times, so often that we felt it had already happened, like a scene from our past life. We rehearsed the tenacity, with which we would face the livid crowd, the courage with which we would say, “I love him and I can die for him” and the uproar that would follow.
He said most times, that I would chicken out, that I would refute my love for him. He said, “Bilal, you don’t have mind” and “Their faces will scare you”.
We laughed about it, about my chickening out; we always found things to laugh about, things to tease each other about. Perhaps it was because we felt we did not own our lives, because we felt the real owners were around the corner, like sentinels, stones tucked in their breast pockets waiting for our big day of death and we wanted to savour this little time.
Nevertheless, I did not tell Rasheed that it was he who I feared would chicken out; that in my imaginations it was he, his terrified twenty-year-old form, who looked into his Father’s eyes, into the disappointment and hurt, into the brief flash of tenderness and hated me.
He would say “You lie, Bilal, nothing can change my love for you” plant a kiss on my cheek and then increase the volume of the radio. He would lay my head on his chest, hum a tune, play with the hairs on mine and yet I know I would sense the agony in his voice like I did two nights ago when he kissed me.
“When will you leave?” He had asked, arranging his clothes in his wardrobe. He would sort them neatly into organised groups, so that he knew which cloth he would wear to Prayer the next Friday and which he would wear to evening lessons.
“I don’t like being unprepared” was how he justified his actions as if people who did not act that way were somehow unprepared. But Rasheed had the meticulousness of stylish women, he was too conscious of his appearance; he bothered when he had not permed his hair for weeks and asked for my opinion on dressing even though he knew I knew little about fashion.
He worried that the collars of his favourite shirts were discoloured and frowned when his hair crept out of his carved hairline after four days. “I have too much hair,” He would say and I would tease him about how I liked them, how I imagined the hairs when we were apart and I touched myself.
We had just finished lunch of boiled plantains and pepper when he asked when I was leaving.
“Soon” I said, “I have to be in time if I want to catch the bus to Makarfi, Baba warned me to return early”
“But you can go tomorrow?” He said, “Can’t you? It’s easier to travel on Sundays?”
I shook my head and stared at the Arsenal logos that adorned his wardrobe, at the Jersey he was slotting in that had his name inscribed on it.
“No, I cannot, my first cousin, Mansurah, the one whose bean cakes I said are sweet-tasting, is getting married this weekend”
“Okay” He said, and I sensed the agony in his voice. I knew the agony, I knew him long enough to know the agony.
We sat for long on the edge of his bed, his hands wrapped tightly around mine and the receding afternoon sun bounced in golden strips off his mirror. We listened to the Hausa broadcaster on 97.7, Alheri FM for whom Rasheed had a soft spot because of how clearly he said “Barka da yamma Good evening” when it was time for his show although I assumed it was because he was the only one who had carried the news when a gay man was lynched in Yobe.
I was going home to Makarfi that evening, we would resort to calling when we had enough money to buy airtime, texting about the things we wanted to do to each other. We would recommend novels to each other and read from our copies of Giovanni’s Room over the phone.
We liked the character David, the reserve with which he took on the world, Rasheed thought him a little too afraid of himself and I did too but I never said, because it was hypocrisy, a certain two-facedness to accuse someone of being afraid when I was just as afraid too.
It was not my going home that worried him, it was not the first time I had told Baba that I wanted to spend a few days with the Cleric and his Family and gone home after. It was not the first time I would walk to the bus park at Birnin Gwari and he would wave at me until our bus was out of sight.
But in two weeks, I would go to the University in Zaria, I would ride on one of the big buses that read UNIVERSITY SHUTTLE, my life would become a blur of packed classes, rush for seats and midnight reading. I would make new friends and do new things, but he, Rasheed, would be stuck here, in Birnin Gwari, where the sun would remind him of us and the rain likewise.
He would stare for long at the places we kissed, nostalgia flecking the whites of his eyes, his throat tightening, but I do not know if he would be smiling in optimism, or sobbing in loss, yet I knew, I did not want to lose him.
He would smile (I knew this) in fond remembrance staring at the bench in the veranda of their six-room bungalow where we had sat on his birthday reading to each other our favourite quotes from Giovanni’s room.
“I remembered that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning” was Rasheed’s favourite; he said it was the honesty about it, the simplicity and knottiness, all at once.
Two weeks later, I sat beside a grumpy old man on the bus to Zaria. He was a staff member at the University; non-academic staff and his unruffled and collected nature reminded me of my Father whom I had left behind.
“You will like it at the University,” He said to a half-listening me “Especially as a Medical student, you will really like it”
I nodded because it was rude not to reply when an elder was speaking, because Father had trained me better than that. However, my mind was far away, farther than the grumpy old man with cigarette-stained teeth speaking to me. My mind was farther than my parents who had walked me to the park and armed me with the tales given to one who left home.
My mind was with Rasheed, the boy who completed me. In the twitchy and disturbed environment that was the bus, I thought about him, about serenity, tranquillity, and at that moment, I realised he was home.
I met Rasheed when I was seven, we had just moved to Birnin Gwari from Yobe and Mother said his Father, the Cleric had invited us for a welcome dinner. Baba disputed with this, he said we would not go, said he did not understand the friendly gesture and my little sister, Salimah for whom Baba had a soft spot tugged relentlessly at his night robe.
We had gone eventually, driving the short distance in Baba’s Mazda in the pouring June rain. I was not sure if it was because of Salimah’s pestering, Mother’s warnings or simply because Baba had wanted to go, simply because Baba was like a wall of brick and his first reaction to anything was defiance.
But he had laughed the loudest during dinner, he laughed when they talked about the Governor Ahmed Makarfi who had assumed office for a second term. He laughed at the uncertainty of the Kaduna people, compared them to the Yobe’s who knew what they wanted, laughed at the Cleric’s imitations of politicians, tried some himself, and in those moments, I forgot it was the same Baba who had wanted us not to come.
Eight-year-old Rasheed was sitting there at the table, scooping mouthfuls from his bowl of Masa, laughing at his Father’s imitations and smiling occasionally at Salimah and me. His Father said then that he was a Hafiz-one who had memorised the entire Quran and Mother had looked at me, anticipation clouding her pupils, wishing she had something to say too.
“Brilliant” was what Baba said when Mother talked about Rasheed the next day at our house before he added “Fine child” too and then “Beautiful family”
“They have invited us for dinner again next Friday,” Mother said as she ironed Baba’s clothes and this time he did not complain.
It did not take long before dinners at their home became the order of Friday nights, sometimes we brought our own food, Brabusco or Pate in shiny Thermos Flasks and the Clerics wife would smile at Mother before accepting the bowls.
Their house, a six-room bungalow with high ceilings and a gallery that was convenient for our meetings. There were murals on its walls, framed quotes-“So what if this life is not perfect? It’s not Jannah” “Being a Muslim is about changing yourself not changing Islam”-in its lobby and gaudy lanterns on its stools. It looked like a miniaturized museum, like a home cut out of a scene from Haroun and the sea of stories.
There where doors that led to other doors, the majority quaintly locked as if they had never been opened and Rasheed’s simple warning of “They are my Fathers rooms” warded off the ones that clicked slightly when pushed.
It did not take long either before I became best friends with Rasheed. We attended the same school, prescribed to us by his Mother and we came home together, I arriving home first and he walking forward.
We stole minutes away from the Family during dinner to count the comics he had in his bedroom, ran our hands along the edges of the frames in the lobby and made jokes about them. We licked ice from the freezer in the kitchen when no one was looking, mimicked the prayers from the Catholic Church beside the house and made comics of our own in his jotter.
Baba was proud of my association with him, I knew, and so was Mother. They perhaps felt that by associating with a Hafiz, I too might become one; perhaps felt that it was a trait, like Vaseline that could be rubbed off on another.
An accountant at the water corporation was what Baba was, warily counting wads of naira notes from taxes, water levies, and arranging them into neat piles. Saying “Trade union” and “Our rights” in the manner influential people said them. He earned respect amongst the indigenes for this; he was the only one, who drove a 2001 Mazda, the only one who had seen and touched more money than they ever would although none belonged to him.
“Eccentric” was how Rasheed described him on his eleventh Birthday when Baba did not give him a gift. “Your Father is very eccentric, they say it in the Mosque and at the market, he is a no-nonsense person”
I had not known what the word meant then and so I had not known how to react, but I smiled lightly and helped tie balloons on the balcony railing. That night, I looked up the word eccentric in my Longman dictionary and a smile creased the corners of my lips.
My relationship with Rasheed did not become unusual until the year he turned fifteen. I was fourteen; we both were seniors at our junior secondary school; rolling in the waters of youthful exuberance, starting to masturbate to images of Spice Girls and Christina Aguilera in our school bathroom and just realising that sex was not how we previously thought.
I started to notice him more, started to notice the girls that noticed him. I noticed that he ate his rice with little stew—I would later tell my Mother that I wanted to eat rice this way too—and that his hair was a clean-shaved afro, not Gorimapa like the rest of us boys those days.
I liked the way he read his passages during English class, carefully articulating “Brussels”, “Budapest” so that they started to sound like shiny things, perhaps jewellery or glitter rather than cities; liked how slowly he said my name “Bilal” as if he read deeper meaning from it with every enunciation.
He had a way of making things beautiful, Rasheed. I did not like Nazifi Asnanic’s song, “Jai-Jani” until he sang the words to me one evening in his bedroom, brushed off the amicable way with which the songwriter wrote until he pointed it out to me.
It was as if things did not become beautiful until Rasheed acknowledged them; as if he was an immigration officer who stamped beauty on things.
Our conversations those days became about girls with big breasts, boys who had touched these big breasts, ample hips and girls who let boys lift their pinafore for them to touch something. It was later that I would sense the disconnect in his voice when he talked about girls, but not then, there was no way I could have sensed it then.
He was Rasheed, the wiry boy with a mild stutter, Lipton-coloured face and eyebrows drawn delicately, too delicately as if God had had too much time on his hands when he created him. I was not like him; I was not as handsome as he was, not as brilliant; and so more girls were after him, more girls wanted the “Kora” boy with a brain.
“Laila is in love with me,” He said to me once about a girl in our class “But her breast is not so big and I don’t like it”
“You and big breasts” I replied, I could not have known then how wrong I was.
Two days later, he reached out to touch my erection when we were watching TIME IN CHINA on the big colour television in our living room. Baba and Mother were out of the house, and Salimah was playing a game of Ten–Ten outside with the neighbours.
“You are huge” was all he said, quickly removed his hands and stared back at the screen as if nothing unusual had happened. He did not explain what his fiddling meant or what it did not mean; he did not apologise or say that he wanted to feel it once more. There were things about Rasheed I would never understand, things about his bluntness.
We never mentioned the incident again, we never talked about it, we resumed talking about girls and about big breasts as if somehow by not talking about it we could pretend it did not happen, pretend it meant nothing.
The first time he slept with Laila, I was the first person he told.
“You should get a girl to sleep with,” He said after recounting his unguarded experience “I could arrange one for you”
I shook my head “Who says I want to sleep with girls?”
He laughed, “Oh, you want to sleep with boys shay?” he laughed again, this time louder and added, “Of course not Bilal, I would shoot you myself if you are a fag.”
. That was why the first time he kissed me, one evening after makaranta and behind the mosque, he apologised quickly, too terrified to look into my eyes.
“I am sorry Bilal,” he said, “That was a joke; don’t tell anyone about it, please, it would never happen again.”
However, it did happen again, this time even longer than the first and in the safety of his bedroom.
In later years when we are together, I would think that he had kissed me then because I had wanted him to and that he had sensed this longing, I would be brave enough to ask him one night after a round of heated sex. Had he noticed how keenly I stared at him when we took showers together? “It was a candid longing,” I would say. “Somewhat fascination, nothing tied to sexual attraction.”
Did he see the hearts I made over his name in my copy of LISTLESS where a character was named after him? He would blame it on none of that and say that he had kissed me simply because he wanted to.
But not that day in his bedroom when the radio blared a soft song, not when I was fourteen and he had kissed me again after promising not to. He had perhaps realised that I wanted it as much as he did then, and so he did not stop at kissing, he clasped me close, played with my rising erection and a muffled moan escaped his lips.
We kissed many more times after that; kissed and played with each other in confound fascination, as if our bodies were puzzles, we were just starting to piece together, or riddles given without explanations that had just recently surfaced.
But we did not talk about it, we never talked about it, perhaps because we did not know the right words to describe what we were doing or because we felt that talking about it would draw us to the realisation of what it was and we did not want to meet this realisation, at least not yet.
Our conversations remained about girls and big breasts, about our resentment for gay people, about how they were going against Allah’s will and how they would perish.
“I like you Bilal, take off your trouser” was how he asked me to be his boyfriend months later and sixteen-year-old me yielded, wholeheartedly.
“It’s time for Angelus,” the grumpy old man said to me. He was a Christian, Catholic.
Our bus was meandering its way through narrow settlements with familiar sights, small houses on large land expanses, veiled women sitting in front of makeshift stalls, hawkers parading trays of Kokoro.
“Zaria is not so far away now,” someone had said earlier. “Only this driver is too slow. If he keeps at this rate, we would not make it before night fall”
“Haba kai!” Another passenger had answered, “Shuru! It is better he drives this way and we get there with our lives in our palms” and the grumpy old man had nodded approvingly.
But that was before it clocked 12:00 noon when he leaned towards me and said “It’s time for Angelus” as if I were a fellow catholic before producing his rosary from the breast pocket of his shirt with certain pride sprawled on his face.
He was one of those people who believed religion made them sophisticated, somewhat chic, who were grateful for its existence, one of those people whom religion made relevant.
I imagine him at his local church in Makarfi with shiny steeples like antennas to God; staunch Christian, pointing out to the Priest who drank beer with the heathen, refusing to bury a church member who owed dues, and saying “Holiness” “Purity” with the assuredness of one who believed he had attained it.
“Moving” was how Rasheed described the Catholics the first time I watched them pray the “Angelus” at the parish beside their house.
I was sixteen, our figures, clumped at his bedroom window, watching the large bell toll and all activities within the churchyard cease; it was months after the first kiss we shared, months of longer kisses and longer held stares.
“They all stop to pray, no matter what they are doing,” He said with the sincere fascination I would only recognise years later when he encountered Giovanni’s room. He was fascinated by the Catholics, by the stainless white on their Priests and the crispiness of the mass servers.
He talked about their brief masses, the wispiness in the voices from the choir, about the Catholic Women Organisation meetings that held after church and when Easter came, we watched them during the Stations of the Cross- a demonstration of fourteen phases Jesus passed before he hung on the cross.
We recited the lines with them, we said, “We adore you, O Christ and we praise you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world” and the first time we had sex, we had done it just after the sixth station.
He had been atop me, riding softly and steadily with such expertise that I did not bother to ask later how he had known what to do, moaning loudly too, without fear that it felt as if he had done it before.
He said “ban da kuka, do not cry” when the pleasure translated to pain and I wondered if it was what he had told the girls he had done it with.
I would think about this sexual encounter years later when I start school in Zaria, I would think about it and feel the wetness seeping onto my thighs.
Stations of the Cross became a name for our sexual positions, He said, “I learned a new station” or “we should try this station” when he stumbled on a new position from Kama Sutra secrets or the Playboy magazine’s he hid in his wardrobe wrapped in newspaper pages.
“But Kama Sutra does not have anything for boys who do boys?” I said once when he told me of a new station, with the courage in my voice that rose every time I had to label what we were doing.
He called the new station “Bandoleer”, his favourite-as I would come to learn later. The woman would lie on her back and lift both knees on the chest of the man who kneels facing her pushing himself in.
“We will apply it like that” He replied.
Our usual style was the missionary-he lying flat on his back with parted legs and I sliding into him-It was the only style we knew spontaneously. The second station was when I sat atop him instead of riding him, so that he could stretch to take my full length in his mouth.
He had shown me the picture of a red-haired woman riding her man in Playboy a few days after his eighteenth birthday and asked if I could pull it off.
“Yes” I said, not because I could, but because with Rasheed, ‘No’ was never an answer. And he knew this, hell he knew.
I did not speak to Rasheed in my first weeks in Zaria. The first time he called; a day after I had arrived to ask if the University was beautiful, if I liked my hostel, what the weather situation was. Our conversation had ended because he said I was sounding “bored” and I challenged him that I was merely tired and that it was irrational for him to think that I would know the answers to the questions when I had barely been in the school, he never called again.
I imagined him those mornings as I got ready for school, taking long showers in the stately bathroom where we had made love twice only- because we feared someone would run into our naked curled up selves, looking through his wardrobe for his favourite shirts. And whenever I listened to the Hausa broadcaster on Alheri FM, it was because I knew Rasheed listened too.
My roommate, Ekene, talked about my fascination with the station, with the Catholic student’s fellowship, about how keenly I watched them during Stations of the Cross.
“Every time you like watching these CSF people when they are doing Stations of the Cross, I know you miss home, better concentrate on medical school O” He said once when he caught me watching them although I had a test the next day “But you are not a Christian sef,”
That was he, Ekene, he coloured his diction with “Sef” “Biko” “Just Negodu” and countless other Igbo expressions that had previously never sounded so beautiful to me.
“A doctor friend once told me that migration was a key factor in many ailments, he said many healthy people got sick at the airports of new places,” I replied, hoping my answer would quell his assertion. I did not tell him that the friend was Rasheed; that he was not a Doctor and that he had read it up in one of the golden pages of the books that graced his room table.
“Just negodu, what are you saying, Bilal?” He asked, “Who is talking about that one?”
“I am saying it’s okay to feel bad about moving on, about leaving a place, it’s okay to feel bad about a new life, but we welcome it anyway. Allah has given us a blessing, we accept it, no matter what it does to our hearts, to our souls, we welcome it. We don’t put people before Allah, we don’t put our personal selves. Allah ya haramta.”
I said, and I knew from the confused look on his face that he did not understand what it was I spoke about, I felt a little victory at this. I knew I had let go.
In Zaria, I spoke to Baba on the phone and received parcels from Mother. I could not come home for the short Christmas break because they thought it unnecessary to travel the distance for five days only.
One night, three months into school, and few days to my semester exams, I received a call from him, Rasheed. The University of Lagos had accepted him for admission the week before and he thought to call me and share the news, he said.
“It’s a diploma program” He said also, and I wondered how he could speak so casually, how he could call me to share good news when we hadn’t spoken in months. Did he not feel the things that had changed, the new disconnect? Did he only feel the things that remained the same? Like the effect of his voice on me, how it tingled my skin.
I listened to him gush about how excited he was, about his father’s new car and the revival programme the Catholic Church beside their house was organising as though we had never grown apart.
I did not tell him that I had a new girlfriend; that she had asked me a few weeks ago if I had ever been in a relationship and I had not known how to answer, that we had never had sex because I was too terrified, I could not tell him these things.
“I am so happy for you, walahi” I replied.
“Ina sonka, I miss you,” He said, and I knew then that he longed to close this space, that he was sorry for not calling, for not being there. I did not reply, I did not know how to. I did not miss Rasheed. It was this thing distance did, I was learning to say nothing if I could not say no.
Ekene, my roommate was eating boiled plantains and pepper and the scent wafted to my nostrils reminding me of the last time we had been together and had the exact meal for lunch, the last time when he had kissed me outside his house.
I giggled softly. He wanted to know why. It was nothing, I said. It was not the time for memories.
Somehow, it made me feel better, that he too was leaving, that he too would have stories to tell if we ever spoke on the phone again, it balanced the narrative.
And although, I did not know exactly what Lagos meant for him, for us. I did not know too if “us” was something that still existed.
I, however, knew it meant many things, Lagos. It was compunction and belief, faith in things we did not understand.
“Goodnight,” he muttered softly, and it felt as though there was disappointment in his voice. He was going to bed. He had to leave for Lagos early tomorrow. “Allah ya albarkace”
“Sleep well,” I said
“You too,” he replied softly.
Source: From the Rebel Issue (October 2019)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CALEB SOMTOCHUKWU OKEREKE is a Nigerian journalist working out of Kampala, Uganda. He has written and produced features from across sub-Saharan Africa for Aljazeera, African Arguments and Catapult. Caleb was selected as the Best Technology Reporter at the 2018 Media Challenge Awards. He is a student at Cavendish University Uganda where he is undergoing a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Communications, a Bahati Books UK author, and a 2019 MCI fellow.