Ola is finally trying to defend himself against the lackeying bully, Cornelius.
“But you just said if we have any question, to ask, and that we could give you a call. I am just repeating what you said.”
“Hold up ‘Holla.’ I was just correcting your English that’s all. How are you going to make it through a writing class if you stumble in every sentence, and you won’t even take correction? I know what I said, and I said it correctly. I said, ‘if you have any questions’ and not what you just said that I said: ‘any question.’ That’s your problem Holla, you’re too stubborn and too proud. Look man, I’m done. Whatever. You do you.”
It was the second time Cornelius, the Teaching Assistant, had corrected Ola’s English in class, and right in the middle of a question, when he was asking for clarification. Ola was the only black male in class, and the black T.A. dehumanized him in front of the other students over peccadilloes. Although Cornelius’ caustic way of repeatedly denigrating Ola before the other white students in class could have caused other less confident blacks to feel humiliated and inferior, Ola was unruffled. He did not even feel any antipathy towards his oppressor.
He actually felt sorry for the young gay African American student who went to church almost every Sunday. It was not because most other Black Christians and pastors condemned homosexuals to eternal damnation, fire and brimstone in the afterlife. Ola did not actually believe in hell. Ola’s believing and wise mother, who had transplanted all five of her children to America, to start over, had exhorted him to always show kindness to African Americans, whom she called Ola’s cousins. Besides, Ola’s only brother, the first born, was gay and a good person.
The Johnsons had started all over again, packing themselves—all seven of them—in a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Three pubescent daughters, two sons and both their parents, who slept in the only bedroom, made it work somehow. They were socially worse off than they had been in Lagos. But Ola realized how fortunate they were that they had each other. They had their history, awareness and knowledge of home, which young men like Cornelius did not have. He knew Cornelius believed he was better than him. But he also knew Cornelius was a deluded ignorant fool who was bitter—for no good reason.
“That African bombada keeps getting on my last nerve. How in the world did they let dat Holla in school anyhow? Just yesterday, I had to correct his English again…he be like ‘everybody is going…’ And I’m like ‘Holla, hold up, you mean ‘are going’…you use are for plural—more than one person—fool.’” The 6 ft. 3-inches tall Cornelius sashays back into the room, aware that Jeremy has his eyes trailed on his derriere.
“He be like ‘whatever.’ I said, ‘nigga get your black ass out of my Caucasian class.’”
“Excuse me? You said that? He’s right. And his name is ‘O-la.’”
Cornelius jerks his head around to the voice in the corner of the studio apartment where the bed was, a bit confounded by what he heard.
“Do what now?”
The doorbell saves Jeremy from another fight with his black boyfriend of two years. The tension has been rising, making Jeremy a tad uncomfortable. He’s wondering if he should simply leave the studio apartment they have shared for a year to Cornelius. But he has not been able to break the news that the relationship has run its course.
“That’s Katie! Got to run,” Jeremy bellows, jumping to his feet and putting on his brown leather jacket as he bolts for the door.
“Hey Katie,” Cornelius hollers.
But there’s no response as the door bangs behind Jeremy. Cornelius pulls his shorts around his muscular thighs, reflexively tensing to emphasize the grooved striations running from his upper, down to his lower thighs; the vascularity in the chocolate toned calves reveals he was an athlete. Even the temples hugging the glistening oblong-shaped bald head showed fine veins running through them. Cornelius was a runner who took care of himself. He’d dropped his towel, expecting Jeremy to come on to him. But his ruse had not worked, as he’d been circumvented by Jeremy’s quick exit. Cornelius had thought he and Jeremy would have started something physical, and Katie, who was Jeremy’s girlfriend, would be forced to wait. And then, Cornelius would get a chance to spend time with the beautiful Georgian as Jeremy jumped back into the shower. Jeremy always showered after encounters with his black lover. As if he was nervous he’d turn black too, if he let the aftermaths of their trysts settle on him.
Cornelius could not understand how Katie could agree to date Jeremy, knowing he and Jeremy were lovers. He knew why Jeremy did it, as the Alabama native tried to keep up appearances as a “normal heterosexual” male. Katie was fit: she had deep blue eyes like the sea, her golden hair crowning her symmetrical, oval-shaped head, shimmered as it cascaded down to her shoulders. Everything about Katie’s form revealed balance, as her hooded eyelids tempered the brightness of her deep blue almond-shaped eyes. Their sadness was countered by the soft curve of her lips, displaying a constant gentle smile.
If he could not see her petite and athletic 5 ft. 2-inch, svelte frame, Cornelius at least hoped to hear her tiny and shy voice. Nothing. Cornelius felt a pain in his stomach, some kind of movement that hit close to his heart, each time he was near Katie.
The feeling started after the Halloween party, when he’d carried a wasted Katie, who had puked all over herself. Jeremy was high as a kite, but was still partying hard and doing the rounds at every Irish bar in Hell’s kitchen, the plucky neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan. Now alone in their studio apartment, he could not just leave the intoxicated and vulnerable Southern belle reeking in her own vomit. She’d think him inhumane afterwards. So, he undressed her, after he’d run a bubble bath in their tub. He washed her gently. And he dressed her in his green Celtics tee shirt after toweling her down. He was hard throughout the affair. Cornelius knew something nobody else on the predominantly white campus knew: he was attracted to women.
He bent to the other side after his mother’s boyfriend had sodomized him, just four weeks after coming out of jail for armed robbery. Twelve-year old Cornelius, then a studious happy altar boy, unable to tell his mother about how her live-in boyfriend had been rear-ending him regularly, claiming it was to make him a man, turned to Father Geoghan for help. And then the newly transferred Father Geoghan hugged him. He looked at him, tears starting from the old man’s green eyes, rolled down the cracks of his shriveled pale skin. He felt the hot liquid hit him on his cheek, because he was so close. And then Father Geoghan guided him to his knees. The Catholic priest made him do dreadful things. Father Geoghan did things to him that even Rasheed, who’d turned Muslim in prison, did not do.
He cries, and then in a rare show of angst, Cornelius punched the wall. The snap in his knuckles wakes him up from the forbidden reverie.
Cornelius shrugs off the past as he sits behind his laptop. As he checks his feed on Facebook, he sees a photo of the sublime beauty, Katie. But incipient rage makes his head swell with pain as he sees that she is posing in a restaurant with that light skinned African nigga, Holla!
He still could not get over why the pretentious immigrant, Ola was light skinned. His uncle, Leroy, had told him how hot Africa was, and that it made all the Africans black as pitch. Uncle Leroy always used to say although the white master was bad during slavery, he saved the black people from the hell of Africa.
“Africa was the next thing to hell,” said uncle Leroy. He said black men were fast and strong because it was a jungle out there in Africa, and they had to run fast so they could not be eaten by the lions. Blacks were strong because they wrestled with the gorillas for food.
He would be ashamed if he lived under those deplorable conditions in Africa. Uncle Leroy was an evangelical who believed no sinner would go unpunished. He averred that Africans were dying of AIDS, famine and wars because they had sold their brothers and sisters as slaves to get mirrors, because blacks are vain.
So why was that pretentious Holla light skinned and proud?
“Nigga be talking like he bougie saying he traveling to London, when y’all be naked in Africa,” Cornelius angrily blurts out, although he is alone. He has a solution to free himself from the oppression of Ola, until the African gets the fate of the rest of his kinsmen back home. Cornelius grins as he unfriends Ola on Facebook!
“Buyaka! Buyaka!!” the Virginia native screams at the screen like a Jamaican as he solves his problem. Now he can return to drool over Katie’s photos in her Timeline. But he is interrupted by the phone ringing. Cornelius picks up the house phone from the bedside table, as he continues to surf the web.
“Yo, what’s up?”
It’s Jeremy. Just at the same time a photo of the trifecta’s last fall’s hiking in Great Falls, Maryland, emerges, and it evokes a smile on Cornelius’ weary face. Jeremy, Cornelius and Katie had all gone hiking just before Katie got wasted on Halloween. The photo had been taken at the serene Billy Goat Trail, where he had been at peace with Katie. But Cornelius’ smile was short-lived. Just like every happy event in his life, it was extinguished prematurely, and befuddling pain took over.
He couldn’t believe what Jeremy was saying, “You can keep the place, since the lease expires at the end of the month. Kwame will come over and pick up my things. I’m sorry, things didn’t work out, but I just have to move on with my life. Ciao.” And then a click. Cornelius is physically frozen, but hot liquid tears keep blocking his nasal passage.
“Jesus,” he exclaims. “Awh, nawh…naah,” he wails.
Cornelius’ thoughts are racing, and confusion, envy and anger all set in, as he cries out softly, “Kwame? That dark skinned African.” Cornelius could not understand why he’d just been dumped for Kwame. He looked black as pitch, just as uncle Leroy had described Africans. He was even darker than him. What is it with white gay men and dark-skinned brothers? Cornelius is choking up as he gets up and walks to the kitchen to pour a glass of cold water from the refrigerator. Cold water calms him down a bit when he is stressed. After pacing the studio for an interminable period, and biting on his nails until his cuticles hurt and bled, Cornelius folds up on the King size bed.
He drifts gradually into sleep amidst his laborious sobbing.
Cornelius opens his eyes suddenly, and he has an idea: this Jeremy saga might just be auspicious after all. Although Jeremy paid his bills, Cornelius knew he was not really into men. The childhood abuse in the hands of the predators who’d exploited him had forced him into living a lie as a homosexual. He was in love with Katie.
While asleep, Cornelius had had a dream. Angels were talking to him, he thought, telling him to return to the Church. Perhaps, to even build his own Church, and lead people to Jesus, like he once did before the pedophiles preyed on him. Cornelius drifts into a trance-like reverie in mid-day, as he fantasized pastoring his own church with Katie as his wife and co-evangelist.
Giddy elation drives out his sorrow as Cornelius jumps off the bed and dashes to his laptop on the dresser. He gets his sign from a chime as Facebook notifies him of an update from Katie!
No sooner had Cornelius settled into the chair to see what the update was than the room had started to spin around him, causing him to fall off. The proselyte shakes his head as he lay on the ground, steadying himself with his hands as he crawls back to confirm the tragedy he just saw on Katie’s Facebook update. Stretching out his neck closer to the screen in disbelief, his hell is confirmed. Katie is in a new relationship. Her fine gleam of pearly white teeth, canopied by her symmetrical high cheek bones, reveal a new happy Katie.
Behind her like a bulwark, with his arms wrapped reassuringly around her, is the African he’d ridiculed all semester. Katie is in a relationship with the African—Ola. Cornelius, still on his knees, clasps his hands together, instinctively thinking of asking forgiveness from a God he has not believed in for a decade. Although he goes to church most Sundays, he does not know how to pray anymore. They only sing and dance in his church. But he is too beaten up to do either now. From the floor, with quivering lips under a drenched face, he cries: