tonight, they are silhouetted against disco lights. silences of cosmic proportions lay between them. up above, stars: white flames enclosed in a fantasy glasshouse. behind them, leonard cohen’s hallelujah. behind them, excited voices trapped in the ephemeral ecstasy of nightclubs. in the distance, the intermittent blares of a foghorn.
luqmon speaks first: we can make it work, lucky. please.
he inches closer to lucky. places an uncertain hand on his knee.
say something, please.
lucky is silent. his eyes on the ground, he watches a firefly struggling on the asphalt, extinguishing its flame, fluttering tattered, transparent wings. he watches it give up its flame, give up the ghost. he says it a silent prayer. he looks at luqmon for the last time, rolls up his trousers, and takes to his heels.
cold night. the winds: sharp, cutting deep, like a raccoon’s claws in quicksand. lucky’s chest heaves. his breath swells, like it had become concrete—congealed—a child’s ball, a child’s fist, a popsicle, or anything solid like that. his eyes and nostrils are running rivulets. yet he keeps running. past the terraced houses down the streets. past the kiddies park: pyramidal silhouettes, spinning lights—reds twirling into blues twirling into oranges twirling into greens. past the illuminated ferris wheel. past the night markets: choppy lights from hurricane lamps, chatty women and lurking boys, tarpaulin shelters smelling like smoke-dried dreams. past ordinary bungalows: lopsided roofs—lawnless, orchardless, numberless.
in five minutes, he’s home. secure in the secrecy of his room, he buries his face in his hands. then: slowly, slooooowly, the tears engulf him.
all his life, lucky has been running. from himself and himself only. but he pretends it’s from other people and things. like the exclusively quiet nightclubs he frequents. the soporific music. the dreadlocked, tuxedoed guitarists. the swaying listeners. the tiny dancing lights. the half-clad girls slithering up the poles, flicking their tongues as though licking air, leering with passions swollen underneath their eyeballs like tennis balls in skin.
he always imagined himself, in these clubs, lost in the girls’ bodies, wooden with desire. desire so raw and sore it burnt his loins. he imagined taking one of the girls home. stripping her. kneading ice-cream into her navel. licking it off. he imagined her moaning, squirming under the spell of his searching tongue, his quivering lips, his burrowing fingers. he imagined himself exploding, orgasming: a frenzied zoom over the cusp, into nothingness, into the abyss, the dark hole, the bermuda triangle.
but he could only imagine. fantasise. build castles in the air. he’d never feel that way about girls. and sitting here, building imaginary castles—all of these stemmed from a frantic denial of self, of his rippling, raging, reality.
he’d rise, amble out, and break into a race. the winds would whoosh past him. the lights and people and vehicles would slide past him, like preachy movie scenes fast-forwarded by a bored teen.
in his room, he’d dial mum. he’d have to come out to her once and for all.
mum, i don’t like…
i’m not into…
i don’t have a girl…
girl what, lucky?
mum would never take it well. no nigerian parent would. it wasn’t a potato waffle, something you chew and swallow. it was fire. fire that licks off flesh and leaves bones charred. fire, capable of wolfing a grown man together with his grown dreams.
oh mum, i was going to say as soon as this semester is over, i’ll come home.
is that all?
you sounded like you wanted to tell me something else… like something about a girl?
whenever he visited home, mum always asked after his girlfriend. his heart skipped, a quick slurp, then he swallowed hard. he showed her sandra’s pictures. sandra, a coursemate, loud and cheeky, she’d take pictures with anyone. the ones lucky showed mum, sandra was always wrapping her arms around his neck, thrusting her body forward, a sheepish grin stuck to her face.
while mum squinted at the photos, noticing sandra’s chipped teeth, her fiery eyes, her beautiful cheekbones, lucky collected bits of himself and tucked them in, hugged tight. lying to mum—that was like shitting on a lectern. he couldn’t watch himself do it. he ran into his room. to gather the bedsheets in his bosom. to cry into them. next morning, the sky a glaze-clean plain, he tucked his clothes in his bag and ran back to school.
meeting luqmon, he thought he’d reached the end, that he’d never run again. he was at the club, drinking, when luqmon stepped in. luqmon: impossibly tall, like a child’s idea of god. wore a wildly embroidered caftan that flirted with the coral beads at his ankles.
that was what drew lucky: the coral beads. you don’t find men who wear coral beads lying on the road like that.
lucky fixated on him as he strutted across the hall. then he settled down. a few tables away from lucky. then he caught lucky’s eyes. there, lucky felt a feral urge. to know him. to discover him. to unravel him. to nestle in his arms and make melodies of his heartbeat.
he got up and came to sit beside lucky. i’m luqmon, he said, not reaching for a handshake. mind me sharing a moment with you?
luqmon: it sounded exotic, like snowfalls in american tv shows, an infinity of dazzling white: luqmon.
i don’t mind, lucky said.
so you’re a student or what?
student. computer science. one-hundred level.
oh. nice. luqmon looked into his drink as though consulting it, then: look, if you don’t want to talk, just say so, i’ll understand—
i’m sorry. lucky wanted to say more, to tell him how beautiful his fingernails were, how breathless his presence made him, but he swallowed. we can talk about anything, he said.
ordinary guys don’t come here, luqmon said. i mean, what happened to all those wild-wild clubs downtown?
you don’t seem to talk that much?
lucky looked at him. his eyes, they held soggy secrets. secrets like an orange holding its juice; you could squeeze it out in seconds.
you can ask me anything though, luqmon said.
what’s your hobby?
luqmon started laughing first. lucky joined him. lucky had never laughed like this. wild, loud, carefree. had he ever laughed before, at all?
i love chess, you know, that sort of thing, luqmon said. so, what’s yours?
oh, you mean the sport?
yeah, the sport.
that’s good. you have the right muscles.
lucky expected him to grope for his hand under the table and squeeze. to communicate without descending to words. but after three bottles, luqmon was gone. the music came heavier: slurred, muffled, inducing drowsy disco romance. lucky ordered another beer. but he left it frothing on the buffet. he crawled out. the air was ruthless. riding wildly on its ruthlessness, he ran home.
lucky fell at luqmon’s feet, heavily in love. he imagined him shirtless. antlers of veins popping up his long arms. corrugated lobes of muscles taut over his abdomen. he imagined running a slow finger down his lips, then feeding him his salt, his sweat, his liquid. he wound his mp3 player until the volume was earsplitting. then he reached into himself. he soared heavenwards, his body weightless, his soul corpulent.
if home ejects you, mum would say, run to god.
here, lucky, running again and again, again and again, to god. lucky, a speck on an ocean of sand; a mote amid a universe of stars. lucky, stretching, craning, reaching up to him, the god of the universe, high above in the clouds, listening, yet silent; loving, yet silent; omnipotent, yet silent.
the solemn voices from the choir would blend with the tranquility of sunday mornings. lucky would fall to his knees like others. but while others prayed for good husbands, for good jobs, for good lives, for good everything, lucky gasped. he couldn’t mouth the word, jesus or god. yes, he was made in god’s own image, but did that mean he was like god? did that mean god, who, through his prophets, describes lucky’s craving as an abomination, requesting he and anyone like him, “be put to death”—did that mean this same god wouldn’t toss him into hell on the last day?
lucky wanted to tell himself no. that god loved him. that god created him and called his creation whole and beautiful. but pastor freedom pierced his bubbling hope, once again:
brethren, protect your children from the satanic sin of homosexuality. remember sodom and gomorrah…
lucky sneaked out through the back door. he looked sideways. with nobody in sight, he broke into a race.
luqmon has said the magic words: i. love. you.
bubbles swimming in his beer. outside, lightning sparking like naked wires touching. a couple slow-dancing, humping each other, a crescentoid slice of light on the woman’s face. valentine night, the lights waltzing in reds and whites.
luqmon says so at that time.
lucky can’t say anything. luqmon is contented with his silence. he doesn’t kiss lucky’s lips. or hold his hand. or rub his shoulders. or hug him, before he leaves.
he only leaves his number. call me. let’s talk more.
and away, he flies.
they meet at the club every night. that’s what luqmon wants. i don’t want to destroy you, he says to lucky. i don’t want to complicate your life.
lucky says nothing. he presses his legs firmly to the floor so he doesn’t flit away. he reaches for his beer. but he doesn’t guide the glass cup to his lips. he studies the ripples in it instead, tracing his fingers down the cuboid patterns on the cup. he bloats with desire. every breath from luqmon sends ripples through him. the slight slant of his voice. the way he cocks his head to the left while laughing. the manly gruffiness of his laughter. they all awaken lucky. but he leans back. gurgles. drowns in lana del rey’s mournfully sensual melody.
let’s dance, luqmon says one night.
dancing with him is the only way to touch luqmon without rules. without restrictions. the only way to explore his body like a scientific phenomenon. but it doesn’t last five minutes. a ruffle, and luqmon pulls away. someone is coming! his voice is urgent. sit down!
lucky tries to initiate a kiss one night. skinfolds of anger appear on luqmon’s face. people could be watching, he says. anything can happen. do you want to be torched?
why did you come to me if you didn’t want this?
wow, lucky. this is like the longest thing you’ve ever said!
i want this. i want you. but…
the words trail off, like smoke from a tilted cigarette.
i’m married, he says finally. but…
her name is ayi, he tells him later. she’s the sweetest in the world. she’s too good for him. she was forced on him, though. he used to think she could change him, straighten all his deformities. but she couldn’t really make him happy. and he didn’t care enough to wonder if he made her happy. after these years, with four kids between them, he’s still angered by every little thing she does. but she always nods okay. her face stoic, inscrutable, hardened like timeworn rocks. he always wishes she’d tell him she’d had enough. pick up her things. pick up her kids. leave. leave him alone. for good.
but here we are, he says declaratively, throwing his hands in the air. then in a lower voice, i’ve never done this before, you know, this boyfriend thing, that’s why.
lucky says nothing.
i’ll try. but give me time…
lucky pushes his drink. it topples, comes down like an avalanche, soaking the rug in minutes. he crawls outside, but as he breaks into a race, luqmon grabs his wrist.
i’m sorry, he says.
leave me alone, lucky says.
luqmon looks sideways. no one in sight. then he leans in to kiss lucky. his lips: as cold as the night. he extricates himself before lucky can close his eyes to gulp the moment.
take me in your car, lucky says. i don’t want to run tonight.
for a while, they sit in the car, in the silence, in the gloom. luqmon places his hands to the steering and stares. the sky is flat-dark. in the distance, houses appear like looming threats in a thriller film.
i feel like…, lucky says.
i guess i feel same.
no, luqmon. you don’t know how to feel. you don’t understand. you don’t get it. you don’t—
i want to come down.
he slips out of the car. he sits on the kerb. luqmon joins him. the cosmic silences begin here, first as a ripple of sand. then it deepens: a rabbit-hole, a valley of ancient bones, a mariana trench.
i can’t, lucky says finally.
i understand. it’s difficult for me too. but we have to try. you know, many people like us are into this here. this is the only option—
lucky bends to roll up his jeans. he looks sideways. to the left, the signboard: opsqene club for meditative dances & reflections. to the right, a bush of lilies, mottled flowers in the half-gloom. in the near distance, the kiddies park. the clustered buildings, the pyramids. the kaleidoscopes: red and blue and orange and green lights.
he reaches into himself that night. but it doesn’t feel deep. doesn’t feel genuine. the images in his head are whitewashed; then smudged, as though paved in mud; dirty, carnally so. he bobs along until he squirts. then he washes himself clean and, curling up in bed, he dials mum.
she picks on the fourth ring. lucky?
i don’t have a girlfriend, mum. sandra is just a coursemate. i don’t like girls. i don’t think i like girls. i’m—
slow down, slow down. you’re taking it too fast.
start talking now.
later, he’ll recall these moments with sea-green clarity: the strangulated silence, olivia rodrigo wailing through a neighbour’s mp3 player next door. he’ll recall mum heaving at the other end, dropping the call, the beep so loud it slithers through his ears and leaves a blister somewhere. he’ll recall days bleeding into nights bleeding into days bleeding into night without him actively playing a role besides snapping his eyes open and close. he’ll watch his phone ring and ring until the frequency of calls sucks all of its battery. he’ll bolt outside and run. he’ll stop by the river down the street, where, at daytime, students swim and fuck and catch fishes with warm blue tinctures. he’ll dip inside the water and will it to carry him away. but, like a god spitting out rejected sacrifice, the water will fling him out. he’ll run back home, sit on the stairs outside, and listen to crickets and nightingales.
but for now, he holds his breath in his hands. for now, he sucks his underlip. for now, he gets up from the bed and paces his room and kicks off his shoes and swipes a gossamer of cobwebs from his matriculation photo. for now, he has mum on the phone. he sits on the floor, away from the candlelight wiggling in the wind. he plucks out spiky stuff from the rug. and the words slide off his mouth, thick and spumescent:
i’m gay, mum. i like guys.
© Ola W. Halim
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Ola’s interview]