The first time I spoke with Tobenna was on a cold Tuesday during night class in my third year. That it took that long was a curious thing in itself because, apart from the fact that the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus (UNEC) isn’t a big school – the size of a 20 minute marathon run, from the gate to Ekpo Ref to The Law Faculty and back – Tobenna was among the few students that consistently came for night class at Physio hall, abandoning Coscharis where his fellow law students held court. Coscharis, with its constant supply of electricity and ever bubbly activities made Physio look like a demure old aunt and only students who really wanted to study frequented there. Of course, there were the hellos and the occasional handshakes, but they in themselves did not constitute any conversation starter and were the basic congenialities that filled out existence in a university environment.
That day, however, Tobenna had forgotten his textbook in the hostel and was terribly frustrated. It had been almost 1pm and so; he could not go back to the hostel. He had been pacing up and down the hall, distracting everyone else, although no one said anything to him. It had been raining so he had been unable to dash to Coscharis to borrow a text from his classmates there. He had come to sit beside me, folding his lanky frame into the seat and breathing heavily. The unspoken rule was that the seat next to a person be left vacant unless you came in with said person, or the hall was jam-packed. He must have forgotten this because he just sat there, staring at my textbook.
‘Hello,’ I closed my book. It didn’t look like he really wanted to talk.
‘Oh sorry, did I disturb you? I smiled at the question. He still did not make any move to get up though.
‘It’s just that my seat there is close to the window and it is really cold and I forgot my textbook in the hostel’
I smiled at the way he said it, as if the presence of his textbook would have made the cold more understandable, more bearable. Nevertheless, my eyes travelled up to where he usually sat. The seats were arranged in a descending order and he usually sat at the one closest to the window, alone. He would trudge in around 11pm, carrying two sachets of water and his rechargeable lantern. He would pause at the door and scan the room, and then proceed up the stairs, one step at a time. He was one of the few jackos that actually read throughout the night, only getting up occasionally to relieve himself.
‘I must have forgotten it on the bed when I was rushing out. This rain, this stupid shitty rain’.
His voice did not sound like it said shitty always. It caressed the words, taking the bite out of the cuss word. I was sure he could say shitty in front of the Pope and it would not even be an offence. I imagined him repeating it, shitty and fuck and bastard and they all sounded the same. Like he really did not mean the cuss word, that he just used them.
‘I would have loved to give you my textbook, I’m just not sure if law students read anatomy texts’
It looked like he actually considered it for a few minutes, then he got the joke, his eyes lit up and crinkled. He gave a small laugh.
‘I’m not sure even Okwueze could go that far to set questions. Thank you.
The light from my lantern cast long shadows on the floor and after some time, he reached out to turn it off, ‘To save the battery,’ he said
‘Maybe you could tell me about what you are studying,’ he said after a while.
I hesitated. I wanted to tell him that I had barely passed my MBBS; that I read twice as much as everyone because words take a longer time to stick in my memory and that the last time I had had to explain anything to anyone I had cried, but the way he looked at me, it said that I could do anything, be anything so I started, tentatively; chords and ligaments and tendons, and soon I built up rhythm and slowly the night crept off to sleep.
The next day I saw him walking towards the Student Union Building. His white shirt was ironed and appeared stiff. The lines on the sleeves were sharp, razor sharp. He had starched the shirt, so it puffed out, as if it was arrogant. He had on one of those skinny jumped up trousers, and so his frame was divided into two equal halves, the puffed out shirt and the skinny jumped up trouser.
He turned. His face was blank with the faintest hint of enquiry. He stood still for a few minutes and then recognition dawned on him.
‘Hey, brother’. He spoke with an effusiveness that I recognised from the day before, like I was the centre of the sun. I almost expected him to grab me in a bear hug. I beamed like a goat.
‘Thank you for yesterday’.
I wasn’t really sure what he was thanking me for although he ate all of my plantain chips and I had had to explain osteoporosis, at the end he would ask me to explain again or just ask, “Did you say the sternum is on the right?” His tone would suggest that he already knew this but I would still explain again, till he had fallen asleep. Even then I had just sat there staring at him, at the way his long eyelashes framed his face, at the way his lips puckered from time to time. It felt foolish and after some time and I had walked back to the hostel, leaving him there.
‘You are welcome’.
He looked faintly embarrassed. His classmates stood a few feet away. Their silence showed that they were really interested in what was going on. He plucked at his bag and shifted a few times. Somehow we failed to carry something over from the previous night.
‘You forgot your cap yesterday’ I said. It had been when I got to the hostel that I realized I had packed his head warmer together with my books.
He raised his hand to shield his face from the sun; his shadow was cast on the ground, a gangly tall teenager.
‘I could bring it to your room. You stay in Kenneth Dike, abi?’
We stood for a few more minutes
‘Let me photocopy some things’. I was the first to move.
I had moved a few steps away when I heard him call me.
‘You did not tell me your name?’
‘Okay, Olisa. I would love you to come for my church program. It is on Sunday at FBA hall. Can you come?’
I was staring at the card he had just given me, shiny blue with the picture of Jesus on it. This Jesus had his hands out with the holes prominent, dripping blood. It was the same as the picture in my room. I always felt like this Jesus was bragging; like he said, hey, see what I did, isn’t it just swell?
‘I will try’ I said finally, because that is what one said when school evangelists invited them to a program. You do not show excitement or any emotion at all. You said you would try because it afforded you just enough leeway to wriggle out of that obligation.
I got lost twice before I found his fellowship. Two other fellowships used the adjacent venue and in one I had spent up to 30 minutes before I became aware that it was WCF and not SCM. Perhaps the fact that I was a first timer contributed to the confusion because it was obvious as soon as I stepped in that the atmosphere there was a little bit too liberal than the others, in every sense. Here and there, a brother was speaking in tongues and the sister leading the worship alternated between pulling down her skirt and doing the runs in true Diana Ross fashion. It was a surprise she even got the tune right at all.
Tobenna preached that night. It was a different him that came up the stage. It was like he became alive. Like some fire was lighted up in him. He glowed. At some point it almost became comical as he begged, yelled and prodded. Sheer propriety stopped me from pointing out to the sister sitting next to me that the way he jumped up and down was the same way the magician who came to my mother’s shop in Aba gesticulated, sudden movements and all. There were accompanying shouts of ‘ride on sir’ and bursts of tongues to keep the service lively. His tactics worked though because by the time he was through, half of the church was crying and when he gave the altar call, the entire space between the altar and the front roll was full.
There seemed to be some remainder of the fire in him as we walked home.
‘How was the message?’
‘It was good’.
I smiled to let him know that good was the highest in my list of adjectives. Everything was either bad or good, and a smile sometimes was the qualifier.
‘You know, I want to be a preacher someday. I don’t want to be a pastor ooo’
He laughed like I had asked him that question.
‘I just want to pack buses and go from village to village preaching the gospel’.
His face was aglow. I believed him but I did not know how to respond. How does anyone respond to these kinds of comments?
‘I’m sure you can do it’
‘I know’. His voice conveyed so much assurance.
I looked down at my shoes, suddenly seeing just my textbook and more books. Suddenly my life looked bland, watery, bereft of makeup. I wished that I had something that made my eyes light up, that made me speak with so much passion.
‘Are you coming for night class today?’
We were standing in front of the hostel. The stairs separated our rooms.
‘Yes’. I nodded
He sat beside me that night, and every other night after that. A certain kind of familiarity settled between us. We had become friends.
The day he told me he failed GSP 101, I had been eating rice at the refectory. The meal had suddenly gone cold in my mouth as I struggled to ask;
I half expected an explanation as to how he had been sick the night before the exam or that his system shut down; anything. He just shrugged, his shoulders were slumped and his hair looked a little less shiny than it looked in the morning. I wanted to add that the course had been so easy that students that had read the previous night had complained that if they had known they would have spent the night doing something else. Instead I said:
‘But it was CBT now, who fails CBT? All these nonsense GS people sef’.
My attempt at humour did little to cheer him up. He looked so downcast and stared at his screen for some time where he had checked the result as if to confirm that the computation was wrong. A momentary glitch.
‘You can go to ICT and report,’ I offered.
He was silent. He did not have to remind me that complaining to the ICT was a waste of time. That the staff, who shared their time equally between their android phones and their government paid @, performed their duties with no sense of urgency. What was the hurry, after all, the work would still be there tomorrow and if all the work was done today, what would be left for tomorrow? So that sometimes, a complaint took a whole year before it was even looked into.
He packed his bag and left soon afterwards. To church he said. I did not remind him that we had basketball practice, one of the little things he had allowed into his schedule. As he left, I knew he was going to the volleyball court beside Access bank, to pray. It was what he did the day someone called him a fag and the day his laptop disappeared from his locker. Prayer was his way of dealing with issues, or running away from them.
He came late for night class and went back to his former sitting position. I felt betrayed and jealous and angry. It was a stupid thing to do so I packed my bags and left. He did not come to my room or send me texts, perky little things that began with ‘Hey, are you up?’ He was silent and after two weeks the silence became suffocating. It was as if something cold was clutching my heart and anytime I was reminded of him, it pressed down slowly and I would suddenly find that there wasn’t enough air to breathe. I felt a keen sense of loss, as if I suddenly entered a room I once owned, to find it empty. After a while I went to his room. He had gone to the library.
‘But he is supposed to be washing now?’ I asked his roommates.
I had committed his time table to mind. The notice on his locker said washing then scrabble then siesta before class. His life was arranged in boxes and lines. The same way he arranged the contents of his locker, big books first, other books later.
When he returned I tried to tease him.
‘Ah ah, when you start to dey go class for afternoon?’
He dropped his bag on the foam. His white was stained on the collar, probably from ironing. He took as much care of his clothes as every other thing, not as a matter of vanity but because he just had to. I noticed.
‘I had to catch up on my reading’
His voice did not encourage any conversation. He sat on the bed with his hands on his head.
‘I had C in Tort’
‘When did it come out?’ I asked, as if that was the point of his telling me; as if dealing with the minutest details distracted from the C.
‘Today. I checked it with the Wi-fi’.
I did not know what to say. The night before the exam we had prepared. He had crammed all the cases and at some point, I knew the cases too.
‘I am going’. He did not respond.
‘Are you coming for night class?’ I asked from the door.
He struggled as if he wanted to add something,
‘I will not sit with you’. He said it with conviction, with compassion, like it mattered.
‘Okay,’ I said. I understood.
‘Olisa, I don’t think you should come to my room anymore’.
When I turned, his back was away from me. He was facing the wall. That was the picture in my head as I walked to my room; past Chinasa with her basins of food; past the new bulbs the hall governor had just installed. Somewhere in my head I observed that it would not be long before the bulbs are broken again. I hurried; there was a sense of urgency in my heart. I got to my room in a daze. There was a new razor lying on the table. I was always prepared. There was a mirror near the door. I walked to it, clutching the blade. I raised my sleeves and stared at the jagged lines on my arm. I dropped the blade as I felt them. They were etched in my soul and each line represented one that escaped. The ones that got away. Every boy who had built a hut in my heart and later burnt it down. I would add another line that night, hopefully, deeper than the others.