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Patrick Shyaka | Our Age of Slur

Everything is different now, but for a while I lived off of Gisenyi. I stayed with my grandma in the Amakoro sector before they built the roads, long before Kami drowned in the lake. That year, Serge and I discovered porn.

Serge was two years older than me. He lived all his life between the corners of the bus station and the Red Cross Headquarters. Everyone knew him. He belonged. He introduced me to the kids holding court on Kivu Belt. I began to make waves at the Umuganda stadium playing football with the natives. They were not prone to welcoming an outsider in the mist. But I’d been seen around town often with Serge that it eluded any other choice.

Most days, we showered off to the beach. The dunes cooled off on our feet as we wrestled through to the water. It was usually summer. It was also winter. But it was mostly water.

Serge would spend hours swimming back and forth between the shore and the methane gas reserves in the middle of the lake. I was there for the ladies. It was one of those times your body matured without notice. It rarely does. After scabbing the views for happiness, the evening would settle in, and we would march back home in the dark, passing through methodist churches, ULK, motels and cafes. That’s when we heard the first moan.

Right on the street below La Corniche, we faintly saw a man squeezing between the tall cut trees overlooking the edges of the cityscapes, holding his phone in one hand and the other rustled inside his pants.

“Cut it off,” shouted Serge, slanting beyond the rift of rubbers and volcano remains.

“Fuck you,” shouted the man back. “Get the fuck out of here!”

Serge clinched his fists and almost charged towards him when, abruptly, the man scram off—trousers hanging over his legs—running into the deep dark of the neighbourhoods. For a brisk, I thought Serge knew what those sounds were or meant. But that wasn’t it. Serge loved scaring people off regularly. It was his favourite pastime.

“What do you think he was looking at?” I asked Serge as we marched on. He shrugged.

Almost immediately after, we found the man’s phone between the trees in the same spot he leaned in. The phone emitted the same sounds as before, only louder. Its tune resonated in whimpers and moans. Different pitches, slower or faster, but moans regardless.

With the phone’s password protection, we couldn’t turn it off. Serge rushed to lower the volume to zero. He then suggested I leave it there, but I was curious.

“You can’t take it,” uttered Serge at my urge to pocket it, “Not with those sounds,”

“I can turn it off, sell it tomorrow,” I said jokingly. However, deep down, I wished to keep it. To know what was behind the moaning voices. “I bet the guys at the post office would kill for a phone like this,”

“And where will you tell grandma you got the phone from?” Serge inquired.

“Fuck,” I muttered. I threw the phone back on the ground, behind the bush.

Moments later, Serge and I parted ways into the junction of Parizia restaurant and the police station. I passed by the market where the tailors turned off the lights in their shops, and street vendors persuaded ladies to buy shoes and sunglasses, where there were no headlights at the end of the main roads, where the quarter was quiet.

Grandma began to scold me as soon as I entered the living room. For coming home late. For not buying bread. She reminded me of the lost kids that turned out dead or zooed inside their homes over the last decade because of what I was doing.

“Do you want to give me a heart attack?” asked Grandma as she adjusted her back on the couch facing the dinner table.

I shook my head, trying my best to stay silent. There was a thing about never answering scolds. You got off easy. 

“You and Serge— my goodness, it will end badly,” she said. She hushed me away to shower and eat.

Her place was square enough. She had a big garden, however. A part of it sprouted vegetables, herbs, beans and isombe. She’d planted them years back when she could still move her hips. Back when she spoke utterly.

In the mornings, she would sit outside on her plastic chair and instruct me on what weed to weep out and what mature plant to harvest for lunch. “That one! Yes, plunk it out,” she would say. And I would, with all the mighty force of a thirteen-year-old. I would scrub and clean the house afterwards. I went through every single hole, window, and cupboard. She checked.

When Grandma gathered enough energy, we sat in the kitchen. I cleaned the leaves, the potatoes, and the rice. I peeled. She watched. She judged my every move. We drank milk. We dozed off for a few hours until Monica—Serge’s older sister and my cousin—would come to help Grandma shower and cook her favourite imyumbati dish.

And that’s when I heard the second moan.

Truthfully, it wasn’t that I or Serge were unfamiliar with what sex was. We’d seen movies before. Our bodies had shivered at the kissing scenes, the touchings, the raw hunks of the beds. However, what I was increasingly being launched to, offered a unique perspective. It wasn’t on TV. It was close to home. A fantasy that somehow wasn’t fiction or a bound of imagination but a reality.

Right outside Monica’s closed room, similar moderate whimpers erupted like the ones in the man’s phone a couple nights back.

Additionally, I could hear controlled gasps of sighs and groans coming out of Monica herself. It applied a pattern, slow and wide gasps, then faster ones. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to. I also couldn’t wait till I told Serge all about it.

I found him right by Tam Tam. He lorded over the kids swimming in the lake, ordering them to stop diving. He’d taken a part-time there. As a lifeguard. He said he needed some cash for school fees. The family wasn’t good financially. Perhaps start bringing food to the table too. “Some beef would hit all the glands,” he would say.

I quickly perched myself on the restaurant’s balcony, where he sat, overlooking everyone on the beach. The air was cold up there. I could feel the breeze inside my shorts. It tingled.

“You will never believe what I just heard,” I hurriedly told Serge.

He stared confusedly at me.

“Remember those noises we heard from the man the other night?” I began saying, but waiting for a response that never came. “Well, I just heard them again.”

“Where?” asked Serge, turning towards me.

“On Monica’s phone,” I said with excitement.

Serge tilted his head like a strained branch of a tree. “What do you mean? In her room? Why were you at my place?” Serge bombarded me with questions.

I shook my head. “No, she was at granny’s,” I said. “She came by this afternoon,”

It seemed to take a toll off of Serge. He glanced back at the lake, shouted at some parents for not holding their kids’ hands, and then turned back to me.

“Hey, I met a girl you would like,” said Serge, pointing at her.

“Wait, didn’t you hear what I just told you?” I asked. He ignored me.

“Look, she is sitting right there,” he said. “The one wearing all white,” I tried to follow his fingers, but I soon found my eyes failed to grasp her image. Moreover, Serge kept insisting she was perfect for me. He relentlessly mentioned her smile.

“She is older than you. I know you like that,” Serge grinned.

“You’re making me sound like a pervert,” I remarked.

“Go talk to her,” Serge insisted. But I didn’t.

We stood there silent for a while. Neither saying a thing. Serge could read the timidity on my face, and I recognised his avoidance of the topic that had rushed me to him. We gazed at the waves in the water. The families eating and drinking beneath us, the women in bodysuits afraid of plunging into the deeper sections of the lake, and the men laughing at them.

Then I left alone. On my way, I traced the same path we’d passed through the evening we surprised the man. I thought maybe the phone would still be there. I was on a mission. And sure enough, it was hidden behind the bush where I’d thrown it.

I picked it up, turned it on and faintly could still hear the moans emerging from its speakers. I could easily make sense of what the noises were. I could picture what the people in the audio were doing.

The man would be caressing the woman’s thighs, perhaps kissing her neck too. I’d heard it did something to them. He would slowly pluck his tongue on her breasts, then kiss her again. Then rub himself to her bottoms and crux it all with more rubbing.

Then I ran to the post office. A guy there—Danny—was known to buy or sell anything brought to him. And as a plus, he would give you some commission. As soon as Danny laid eyes on it, he jumped in excitement. It was a jackpot. He hinted I should stay outside while he examined it and come up with a price.

When Danny returned from the backroom, I realised I could kill two birds with one phone. I asked him if he’d heard the sounds.

“Yeah, I did,” Danny replied, gently tearing the phone apart.

“What do you think they are?” I asked.

He grinned.

“You know what it is,” Danny averred.

I shook my head. “No, I don’t,”

Danny pushed his weight on one leg, staring at me with discomfort. “It’s erotica— you know,” Danny said, raising his voice. “XXX. You never heard of that shit?”

I shook my head again.

“It’s porn, my guy,” Danny remarked. “Whoever you got this from was watching that,”

Oh, I didn’t get it from anybody, I said.

Danny stopped playing with the phone’s insides and stared at me again. The look pierced through a guilty soul. And I was painted red all over.

Danny then slipped me a couple hundreds, and I bounced.

I had finally learned what I had been pursuing all this time. I knew what the sounds were and where they originated. I wasn’t quite sure whose mouths they came from nor why. But I had a start. Porn was what its name was. 

On my way home, I brought a gallon of milk and bread. Monica and I made Grandma some mint tea with soya and no sugar, and we turned on the TV in the living room as we ate.

Grandma asked me when I was planning to return home. The big question that silently droned over everybody’s mind. I said I wasn’t planning to. She suggested I should forgive my parents. That it was an honest mistake. I told her if they wanted me home, they would have made a trip from Kigali the last couple of weeks I’d been here.

Grandma told me they might come to Monica’s wedding. I almost choked on my food.

“Monica’s what?” I asked, in a higher tone, trying to clean some of the sauce on my shirt.

Monica laughed. “Yes dummy, I’m getting married,” she said.

“When?”

“In a month,” Monica said. Then she showed me his picture. A bulky Congolese with a fade haircut with a hanging ponytail at the back of his head.

“Aren’t you too young to be married?” I asked.

“Not really. Every girl my age is walking down the aisle now,” Monica said.

“You better start finding a costume,” said Grandma.

Amid the excitement for the wedding, I forgot they had brought up the topic of my parents. I forgot they had screamed at me for being terrible in school. How they whooped my ass. How they menaced that they wouldn’t let me back in the house if I brought back a bad report. It was all gone.

Later that night, I borrowed Monica’s phone to ‘supposedly’ scroll through Facebook. I went outside behind the big tree in the middle of the garden—the only place with some light—and opted instantly to the browser. I googled the word I had held trapped in my mind for hours now, and myriads of explicit imagery popped in front of me.

Pages and tabs of nude videos submerged the screen. Countless pop ads followed suit. I clicked on a few videos in wonder and lust; and wanderlust. The dopamine inside of me ignited. A lot of skin. Howls and whines for background music. My hands found refuge under my clothes. My eyes glittered, not of hope or happiness, but at the thought of a future never before envisioned. My lower body was excited.

When Monica asked for her phone back, I deleted my history as quickly as a bullet train. I reclined back in my chair, still picturing the colourful infinite scrolls of oiled bodies and lipstick. I soon realised tugs of drops on my pants. My hard knob tingled slowly back to softness. I felt a release of something familiar, rather something familiarly exciting. But it was new. It was beautiful. I changed my underwear.  

The next time I saw Serge, we were perusing through clothing stores between the airport and the Mbungangari market. I didn’t tell him about what I had discovered. The world of insanity that had been unveiled in front of my eyes. How I’d spent nights trying to relive those moments, but even though none were like my first time, I’d still enjoyed them.

We spread close to every shop we could find a decent suit in. And in a small town like Gisenyi, there weren’t slews of them flaring around.

And what’s more, everyone knew why we wanted costumes, and who was getting married. They were close like that. There is something to admire about such a lifestyle. As we passed by the Goldy Store, however, Serge stopped me. He tightened his grip on my arm and pulled me back to the front window.

“That’s her,” Serge declared in a low tone.

I didn’t budge. Serge noticed I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“That’s the girl from the beach,” he added.

Before I knew it or had time to respond, he held my hand as we sped into the store. Kami was sitting at the counter, headphones in her ears, so much so she didn’t hear us enter, let alone ask if they had suits in the store.

“Hello,” beseeched Serge, waving his hand in front of Kami’s face to check if she could see us.

“What do you want?” angrily asked Kami.

“Some suits,” urged Serge, angry too. “Do you have any in the store?”

Kami seemed to feel obliged to respond or help. It wasn’t something new to us. The customer service was mediocre everywhere. Serge tried to push her into caring even a little, but she insulted him. I thought they were about to squabble, but Serge only grinned.

“You’re an asshole”, commented Kami.

“It takes one to know one,” replied Serge. “So, can you pretend to love your job and help us?”

Kami stood up, removed her headphones and led us into the back, where a massive wardrobe of suits and shirts in every colour and design hung from the ceiling to the cabins below us.

“Pick your favourite. We’ll tailor it to your size tomorrow,” said Kami.

As she stepped back at the counter, Serge smiled to himself. He spent the next few minutes blabbering about how Kami really is different. Serge wanted to know more about her. A funny thing because he’d said days earlier she was my type. But all that was out of the window. That all showed me if you’re slow to take what you want, someone else will do it for you. 

Then he left me as I tried on the multiple navy and black suits—that surprisingly weighed a lot—to talk to her. I could hear giggles. Slurs. Everything I wished I had but was too shy to go for.

Serge returned with Kami’s number. He told me she loved surfing, that she’d done it on her trip to Zanzibar. She was on a summer break with her family. They usually would be around in the shop, but they had some weddings to help decorate.

“She’s not from around here?” I wondered, putting on a pair of trousers.

Serge laughed hard. “That skin tone isn’t from anywhere near here,” he said.

“Are you going to text her?” I asked Serge. He was leaning on some suits on the wall.

“Way ahead of you. I invited her to the pool party tonight,” Serge said. At that moment, Kami walked into the backroom.

“Ouu, that looks good on you,” she said. She then proceeded to adjust my collar in front of a mirror. “You look cute.,” 

I was out of words to say. Kami was too beautiful. I later deduced as I reigned the whole dressing silent that Kami was indeed older than me, as Serge had said back at the beach. Because only when you reach a certain age can you call kids cute. You also slur a lot.

“Fuck off,” imposed Serge, downplaying Kami’s compliments to me. “He’s alright, nothing spectacular,”

“Fuck you too! You haven’t even picked a costume,” muttered Kami. She gave him a side eye as she took measurements of my hips and legs.  

I laughed as they brawled endlessly like a married couple arguing about who should take the trash outside. I heard them call each other stupid dogs, their parents’ worst disgraces, morons. Serge had found his equal. Another nightmare to handle. Another hill of a person with a big ego, lots of hormones and an unchecked desire to always be in the water.

We left the store with Kami. She closed for the day. We sprinted through town as we made fun of everyone we saw. The corny bus drivers trying to flirt with the MTN agents sitting under umbrellas. The grey-suits-wearing men in khaki trousers and canes who loved staring at strangers. The white tourists taking pictures of everything and anything. We fooled around. We made people uncomfortable.

Serge got us into the pool party at the Stipp Hotel. The sky was still cloudless. I could see people. They could see how young I was. But we moved around regardless. We sat by the gardens where a lot of people drank and danced. Not one questioned our presence. Who would they report to anyway?

Kami eventually jumped into the water. Serge followed suit. They played pool volleyball with other ladies who screamed a lot even when they lost points. I managed to sit by the pool, legs drifting through the unidirectional waves of the blue tiles.

“Come play with us,” shouted Kami, approaching where I comfortably sipped an orange juice by the pool’s edge.

“I don’t know how to swim yet,” I mumbled. Kami drew closer to listen clearly. “I DON’T KNOW how to swim,” I repeated. She laughed. It was reasonable.

“You’re not from around here either,” Kami denoted, grinning.

I nodded. Kami jumped out of the water and sat beside me.

“Are you here for vacation too?” she asked.

“Uh-hmm, yeah,” I voiced. If this was the start of a beautiful friendship, it was beginning with lies. But then again, show me friends who don’t lie to each other.

We sat there in silence until the older guys started dancing on the other side of the pool. Then, we laughed at their moves or their lack of rhythm.

Kami asked me what I liked doing in Gisenyi and what my preferred movie was lately. I told her I was into action films. “Sometimes, I like when they kiss,” I said. She nodded.

“I like Korean series these days,” Kami said. “They are so cute.”

“Do they even have action sequences in them?” I inquired.

“Some of them. Mostly it’s romance and kissing,” Kami said.

“And a lot of sex,” I hypothesised.

“Ahh, not so little after all,” contended Kami, gently pushing my shoulder with hers.

I felt some confidence bulldoze inside my chest from that acknowledgement. That I wasn’t an outsider, young. With that newfound ooze, I wondered if I could talk to Kami about the visuals I had carried in my mind from the not-so-deep search into porn. I imagined she knew about them. That she probably even watched them too.

“Do you know anything about… Have you seen porn?” I stuttered. The words stumbled on rocks as they left my mouth.

“What?” Kami asked, surprised.

“You know, like XXX,” I whispered closer to her ear so no one heard us. 

“I know what you meant. I didn’t expect you to say it,” Kami said.

I sipped my drink again. My hands trembled. I didn’t know if I needed to hide or drown myself.

“Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing,” Kami said.

“Really?”

“Yeah, it helps you learn how to have sex.”

“So, you watch it?”

“Sometimes,”

Kami gently held my hand, rubbing it with her thumb. She looked me straight in my eyes and said, “You’ll understand when you grow up.”

And there was a lot in that, another sentence behind it. Something I knew, if she told me, I would never forget. But before she could open up and give me whatever it was, Serge waded fast to where we sat, wondering what we were talking about. And just like that, more or less, the conversation was gone.

“He was asking about porn,” Kami said. And Serge scowled. He flew from the water like a dolphin, found a towel and looked at me displeased.

“I thought you let that go?” he said.

“No, you let go. I found out what it was. It’s called—” I almost named it when Serge interrupted me.

“Okay, well, good for you. But let it go now,” Serge ordered.

I asked why.

“Because it’s not good for you. It’s addictive. Stop it.”

“How do you know?”

“Just don’t do it, promise me,” Serge urged. “Promise me you won’t continue with this,”

“But she said—” I tried to defend myself, to no avail, unfortunately.

“I don’t care what she said. It’s curtains.”

“It’s curtains?! Curtains? What does that even mean?” I contended, standing up too.

“It means that this conversation is over. Done,” Serge said. “It’s curtains. Go home. Go back home.”

Kami gave me one last look before she disappeared hand-in-hand with Serge. That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept waking up thinking about what Serge had said to me, his tone, his rage and the rush of his words. He meant I should go home. To my parents. To where I belonged. I was hurt. I was a kid. Maybe Serge knew better. Perhaps he knew the sounds from the man’s phone all along. He might have been watching out for me.

Either way, I never left grandma’s house for a long time. I helped her pick a dress for the wedding. We even prepared the flowers the bride would carry on the day, beautiful roses and lilies from the garden. I picked up my suit from Kami’s store with my aunt, who had come to town earlier. We didn’t even exchange a single word.

I ensured that even when Serge summoned some courage to visit Grandma, I would be at the beach, or the stadium, or cruising with the kids on Kivu Belt. I could play hide and seek forever. I was good at it, especially if I was hiding from someone who hurt my feelings.

But rumours spread around this small sphere of a city. Serge and Kami were an item. They were spotted swimming together, scaring men out of bushes. Our thing. But then their thing—kissing in the middle of nightclubs.

Who knows? Maybe I had done them a favour and moved out of the way. Sometimes it’s the best thing you could do for someone. Step aside and let life do its thing.

And most of the time, love is the answer to life. It chants the names of people, and suddenly, they are happy. And they glide effortlessly towards each other in a blue ivory dress and white caramel suit, homemade flowers resting on the bride’s palms, smiling so widely it covers the whole room with colours and a blissful Prada scent following them at every step.

It makes everything seem light. But then it’s mostly stepping aside.

On Monica’s wedding day, Serge handed her to her husband as the Rwandan culture dictates almost as a threat. A sign of surrender, or maybe understanding that your sister or daughter is old enough to be someone else’s onus. That she chose who to be with, that you’re her past. Serge handed Monica with a smile to the groom and stepped aside.

“So, you’re ghosting us?” said a voice behind me so abruptly it shook me. I turned around as fast as I could. There, sitting behind me in a multiway silk green dress that faintly caressed the skin, was Kami. Clouded with makeup and the glow of love.

“We haven’t seen you in a while. What’s up?” She asked.

“Oh, it’s you,” I replied in mild dismay, turning back to face where the action was happening.

Two men in their seventies from both the bride and groom’s families were—to what I could comprehend at my young age— flirting.

“Oh so you’re an asshole now,” Kami muttered.

“Isn’t it what you love?” I said, intentionally trying to hurt her. And she smacked the back of my head. Everyone glanced at us. I adjusted myself momentarily and glued my eyes to the elders drinking champagne in honour of their youngsters’ commitment.

Later that night, after the church and the picture-taking, the married couple slowly danced on the red carpet, and the crowd cheered and joined them. Serge pulled me aside. We cornered outside of the hall by the empty food stands. He told me I was acting like a kid, treating people like shit.

“Why do you care,” I said

“Look, is this about the porn thing? Is that why you’re angry?” He asked.

“What? No!” I asserted.

“I’m sorry. Okay?” He said. Then he put his hand on my shoulder, like older brothers, and said, “Your parents are asking for you,”

And I erupted from some deep sleep, my heart racing. I shrugged off, marched back to the door and stopped. I said I didn’t want to talk. That there was no chance I could forgive them.

“You know they never meant what they said, right?” Serge muttered, plucking his hands in his pockets.

“Oh, I should know. I was there,” I said.

“They’re just trying to save us from ourselves, so we don’t ruin everything.”

I sighed. Maybe from the reassurance. Or maybe from the conversation. But I began breathing slowly.

“Then why didn’t they come for me sooner?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Serge mumbled. “But they are here now,”

It’s one thing to be alive and another to know what life is. To know your purpose, and who you want to love and sacrifice it for. To succeed, to fail miserably. Life takes you apart, sometimes to teach you things, but often for the amusement of the ones who created it.

And at my age, there was no difference. I just knew I was mad at my parents that I hitchhiked rides three thousand kilometres away from them. I knew I was shy. And that grandma was lonely and needed someone to buy bread and make her tea. I knew my parents had come to collect me, but too stubborn to say sorry.

“Don’t mind it much,” Serge said. Then he laid his hands on my head and told me to go home.

“Get the fuck out of here. Learn how to swim,”

And I left the following morning.

As I hugged goodbye to Grandma, the aunts and the streets I had come to love and know in detail, I felt unplugged from my haven. The place I learnt what porn was, even though I knew it wasn’t enough. I got into it years later when I felt really lonely.

I don’t think I need to tell you that nothing like that ever happened again. Grandma found someone else to care for her, but once in a while, she phoned me to lament how they were terrible at it. Two summers later, Kami taught us how to surf. How to stand on the boards. But then she was gone, and Serge was never the same.

Eventually, it just became easier to find each our own lives. But from time to time, Serge and I call each other. We catch up. We slur a lot because I’m that age now—where I call his kids cute.

———-

Image: Tanya Pixabay cropped

Patrick Shyaka
Patrick Shyaka
Patrick Shyaka is the Rwandan author of "I Will Get Drunk" short story collection, visual storyteller and creative writer. His works have been published in magazines such as Brittle Paper, Lolwe, The Kalahari Review and Writers Space Africa. Social Media: Twitter - @ShyakaPatrick_, Instagram - @Shortsiighted

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