My first lecture had been GES 101: Philosophy, and it was slated for 7:00 in the morning.
I arrived ten minutes late, with a Lisa Gardner novel should I be bored, only to find on arrival that the hall where the lecture was to be held: California Hall —which had taken me at least ten minutes to find —was already filled to capacity.
From the looks of it I was probably the last student in; perhaps, one of the few for whom the buzz and excitement at being in university, being an undergraduate, hadn’t outlived the horror and initial disappointment at the penitentiary Holy Mary Mother of God University was turning out to be, a prison into which we hadn’t only committed ourselves, but paid good money to be manhandled.
Our lecturer was a priest, Father Bernard, with a quiet cherubic face, tiny slits for eyes that sparked with intelligence; intelligence that oozed out each time he opened his mouth and spoke in his calm, unhurried manner. His English was tainted with German inflections, but it seemed to make him all the more pleasing to hear, as he spoke about Socrates, Sophocles and his tragedy: Antigone, Tatiana Goricheva; painting worlds that came long before us with poetic words, and making me feel like I wanted to be part of all that history.
Father Bernard is a genius, if I ever saw one, and by the end of the class, I was in awe. This would change when I hear his sermon for the first time. It was more PhD thesis than preaching, unintelligible for the most of it, and I hated it.
During the class pieces of paper were passed around on which we were to write our names, and at the end of the class Father Bernard started to call out the names and have the students to whom they belonged stand to their feet so we could all match the faces with names.
“This has to be a joke” he muttered into the microphone at some point while calling out names. “What is this? Who wrote this? Photograph Fineboy…”
“Yessir!” A hand shot into the air in the middle of the class and a boy rose from his seat who from where I sat at the back was just a big bulb of Afro and the back of a checkered shirt.
“Is this your name?” Father Bernard asked, looking quite confused. “Photograph Fineboy?”
“Yessir” the boy replied and the whole class erupted in laughter. Me, I was trying to decide if the name was a phrase or a sentence.
Father Bernard stared at him open-mouthed for a few seconds, before waving him to seat with a shrug that said he didn’t think it was the young man’s fault he was a victim of freedom of expression. He made no attempt to hush the class either, just went on with his roll-call.
“What sort of name is that?” The guy sitting to my right said to me once he had recovered from his laughter spasms.
“If it was me, I would have gone and changed the name siiince.”
“Well, no one can accuse you of being a fine boy, and there isn’t much to photograph, so…” I said before I could catch myself, then shrugged again.
He gave me a look that could melt ice, and then turned away. I wanted to apologise and tell him it was a joke, but didn’t.
“That was mean” the girl sitting on the other side of me said.
“And you’re median?”
She laughed. “No, I’m Uchechi.”
“Adaora” I said, smiling. “And it was a joke” I added with a furtive nod towards the guy on my right who was now paying me no mind.
“It’s not a joke when no one is laughing” Uchechi said reflectively.
“Well, someone’s got to be the butt of jokes. You can’t laugh when you’re on the receiving end” I countered.
“You know what else has got a butt? A gun. You don’t shoot someone and expect them to laugh off the pain.”
“You are perceptive” I said with a hint of sarcasm.
“And you’re not friendly” she replied calmly.
“I’m talking to you.”
“Only because I’m interesting to talk to.”
“Its not even been three minutes. Don’t congratulate yourself yet.”
She giggled. “You’re a frosty one.”
“Well, if all the body heat in this hall doesn’t melt me, nothing else will.”
She laughed, then said: “At least they got the educational angle right.” She was right. For all the mediocrity and flat-out failure of the Holy Mary Mother of God university in areas of housekeeping and accomodation, it would appear, if this lecture was anything to go by, that the school did hold up its end of the bargain when it came to education. I’d had only an hour and a half of lectures and I already felt smarter.
“Yes” I said reluctantly, “I guess you’re right.”
“I stay at Mama Ehiteuboma hostel.”
“Yes. It’s named after the chancellor’s mother. You stay at Texas hostel, right?”
“Yes. How do you know that?”
“Aren’t you the one who stood up to Sheddy on Saturday.”
“Oh, I see. News travels fast, huh?”
“What’d you expect when people are bored out of their minds and have nothing better to do? They turn to gossip. In your case though, admirable gossip.”
“I suppose I should be relieved.”
She smiled and patted me on my thigh.
I suppose I’d made a friend.
That afternoon I saw Fejiro —he’d asked me to call him “F.J” and I refused. He’d called me on my phone and we met in the only classroom on the topmost floor of the law faculty building.
From the window of the classroom, which overlooked the school’s clinic —a post-stamp sized cement hut with four rooms: the doctor’s office cum consultation room, the pharmacy, which was manned by a nurse and was really a dent in the wall with a blue-tiled counter that was chipped and scuffed in the way only cheap tiles would, and a window through which the nurses handed out cheap yet overpriced medication; a male ward and a female ward, each containing a pair of uncomfortable beds with infrequently laundered sheets —we watched as sick girls made a big production of dry heaving and well…being sick; the guys, most of whom were escorted by girlfriends or girlfriend-wannabes, doing their best to put on a show of masculine strength and stoicism. Needless to say, it was an entertaining view, but what was more entertaining was listening to Fejiro talk.
He was so easy to talk to, so calm, and he always had something interesting to say. Truth be told, the view beyond the window was more distracting than entertaining, and I pushed myself to be distracted, to not look at him and find the intensity that cored his gaze. There was a strong primal attraction between us, which thickened with every moment we spent together, and it was teasing, and somewhat frightening.
Neither of us was a good conversationalist, but weirdly, we didn’t need to try. Sometimes, the words just dried out and we lapsed into silences that were anything but uncomfortable, just companionable. We didn’t always need to talk to each other to stir our connection; the silences were just as infused with magnetism as when we spoke, and he seemed to be able to read my mind: finishing off my sentences, supplying me with words I was trying to find, saying the exact same thing as me, at the exact same time.
It was our third “hang-out” that afternoon, but it was beginning to feel like we had known each other a long time, and I thought about him a lot. I didn’t feel the need to be caustic around him, and I learnt quickly that though he was sweet with me, there was some sting beneath the pretty boy veneer. And he had a brain, a functional one.
I couldn’t kid myself. I was falling for him, and each time I looked at him, or I caught him staring with that endearing smoky glimmer in his eyes, I had a sense that I wasn’t the only one who had butterflies stirring in my belly. But we were very respectful with each other.
Being demonstrative hasn’t ever been one of my stronger traits, and I keep bodily contact as minimal as possible. We’d never hugged. I always stretched out a hand whenever we met, and save on our first hang-out, he’d always taken it without hesitation.
The way I think, things like hugs have to be earned. It was probably a control thing, but before I started acting out on feelings I had to be sure I was wanted, he had to say something, and I had to make him think he was more attracted to me than I was to him, make him feel if he ever asked me out that I was doing him a favour, not the other way round; that was the only way to hold all the power in a relationship. Or at least that’s what I gathered from the latent feminist literature and films I digested.
He was yet to ask me to date him though, and secretly, I wished that he would. I thought about him at night before I went to sleep, and did things with him before I woke, the memories of which caused me more than a little embarrassment each time we were together and fragments from one of those dreams flashed across my mind.
What passed between Fejiro and me whenever we were together was a strong physical pull —which even if I had felt once or twice in the past —I had never once acknowledged; and from the way he held my hand and my gaze that evening before we parted, a moment longer than necessary, long enough to be uncomfortable and amorous, I found myself thinking that I might not have to wait too long for him to say the magic words:
Would you be my girlfriend, Adaora…?
I already knew what my answer would be, and I didn’t think it was an answer he’d be expecting.