Define “Boy Friend…”
So I’m standing there – behind Derin who is basically radiating hostility –
I am gaping at Etomi who is standing behind Akudo – who is low key glowing for Africa.
I’m wondering if Akudo is completely alright in the head.
Not only is she 100 years late for the dinner her husband slaved over – let’s face it – for her… when she finally appears she’s not alone. Nope. She is in the company of the one person her husband can actually not be paranoid enough about.
This is none of my business, I’m thinking. I shouldn’t even be here right now. It’s late, I have work tomorrow and I don’t really want this high definition third person POV of Akudo and Derin’s marriage. Especially since Akudo is my primary friendship here.
I should’ve left but the thing was, Akudo was not the only one electrified by Etomi’s presence.
I peeked over Derin’s shoulder at him. Since stepping inside he’d only looked at me once and his gaze had been polite and brief. His attention was now on Derin who was wearing the expression of a Club Bouncer pre – bouncing. Did he know about Etomi, I wondered glancing at my excited friend again.
Maybe I should explain all this – why Derin should have been worried, why I suddenly couldn’t leave – why this situation had MESS stamped all over it.
Bear with me as I digress into this gist …
It all goes back to Secondary School, Day 0 of JSS1.
Because of the lack of F surnames in my class, I, being a Folorunso, had my dreams of attaining cooldom by strategic classroom placement abruptly shattered when I found myself seated behind a short, bespectacled boy whose last name was, the unfathomable to me then, Eyakodevu.
Luckily, back then I wasn’t the sort to angst – even after it turned out that he did not wear his efiko glasses in vain. When I discovered that despite his worrying academic ways he liked movies, comics and sci-fi and fantasy TV shows like I did, I became determined to be the Aladdin to his Jasmine and show him a whole new world of slacking off.
Fortunately for him I was never that successful in making him neglect his studies but through it we somehow became best friends. And I mean BEST. As the years passed in Junior Secondary School I made friends that were girls too, from my classes, my dorm rooms, my clubs – but Etomi and I were the thickest. We had stupid code languages, wrote (and never finished) our own comic series together about a feral boy hero who fights monsters (he wrote and I drew) and we came as a package deal when our parents came on visiting day.
No one ever asked if we were dating or anything weird like that. Most likely because back then neither Etomi (small and studious) nor I (a gangly, open mouth laugher) was anyone’s idea of a romantic interest. I know we must have looked funny together; him all short and class prefect looking with his glasses and chubby cheeks, me properly heighting him with my perpetually rumpled uniform and flyaway hair bun. Me forever gabbing, him forever listening and laughing.
And that was what I just liked about him.
He looked up to me back then and listened to everything I said (except, of course, when it had to do with school work, where he wisely took the lead). He laughed sometimes till he cried at my jokes. He was incredibly loyal and if he didn’t actually get in trouble with me he would still be there at my punishments to keep me company.
For his loyalty, during that time in my life, he was the friend I put above the rest and everyone understood this. If you got in a fight with him, you were in a fight with me and he would always forgive before I did.
So how did such an epic and heroic friendship come to us standing in a mutual friend’s doorway pretending (on his part at least) not to know each other?
It still confuses me till this very second but, in a word? Puberty.
Back in JSS we had friends but no one would ever have called us popular. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And that was okay. The popular kids at our school were the above average – the beautiful, the gifted, the sometimes super rich kids. Thankfully they were also mostly benign. We never had any real Regina Georges (Google it – no – if you don’t know this reference, shut up and go watch Mean Girls) and the worst you could accuse them of was obliviousness to their own power.
They just seemed to exist on a charmed and separate plane from kids like Etomi and I who admittedly lacked that je ne sais qoui and were still a bit immature. We were the ones who looked up to them and crushed. In fact there was this whole middle class of kids dedicated to preserving the school’s social eco system, jealously guarding the boundaries between cool and uncool and making sure no pretenders crossed over. But yeah, these are hardly revolutionary observations. Standard secondary school life break down. Our gist only deviates a little in that Etomi crossed over and I didn’t.
It happened in that magical period for a lot of boys which is the Summer of SS1. Most boys leave school shorter and higher pitched than you – then return lanky with weird up and down voices, zits and the inability to look you in the eye. The luckier ones are suddenly taller than you with mostly cracked voices and that elusive gift of self possession. But then there was Etomi…
At the beginning of SS1 he’d finally caught up to my height and started to take an interest in sports. That summer his family sent him to a basket ball camp in the States. I dunno what he ate there but he came back as a god.
I don’t even know if I can describe this well.
The Etomi that came back from Basket Ball Camp was taller than me and suddenly had like – shoulders.
Even stranger he had musculature; like actual long, lean, boyish muscles that shifted mysteriously when he moved while his forearms flexed with sinew and tendon. His pristine brown skin stretched fascinatingly over those new muscles with not an ounce of baby fat left to cushion it.
His voice was low with a mild roughness – like even its transition from high to deep refused to be awkward.
He’d switched the specs for contacts because of basketball and with his thick eyebrow slashes, heavy lidded eyes, sharply jutting cheekbones and high bridged nose – his now visible gaze was profoundly affecting for even the most stoic of hearts (i.e. me).
His smile was rarer than before but still shy. Despite that, it packed one heck of a wallop and for the first time since I’d known Etomi I realized that my best friend was a BOY. There was just no getting around it. Etomi was suddenly really, really, freaking, leg weakeningly hot and it just came out of nowhere.
I don’t know how to describe the impact on my adolescent self that this collection of physical upgrades had. When he sidled up beside me during the first assembly of the term and bumped my shoulder with his – I honestly thought he was a new student that had mistaken me for someone he knew.
That term I tried hard not to let it matter – to be just us as usual – but it was impossible.
It didn’t help that we hadn’t been in the same class since form 1 after which classes were arranged by performance. Before then, we’d gotten used to just drifting together with our other friends between classes to gist or rant or whatever. But that term whenever he showed up in the doorway, our classroom would go quiet until, painfully and self consciously I would leave whatever I was doing and go outside with him. It was no better if I went to his classroom. His female class mates, even the ones that I was cool with, started giving me looks.
Then for the first time people started asking if there was anything between us. Even worse some of my girl friends acted funny whenever he was around. They would stare at him (as if he couldn’t see them) and talk and giggle behind his back. It was embarrassing.
Add to this the fact that he now had basket ball. He loved it and was actually really good at it. I didn’t like it as much but, before he came back all hot, I used to watch NBA games with him because that’s what friends did. Now he actually played it and had a whole bunch of friends to watch games with. Friends who actually liked it too. Friends who were popular and had started to invite him with them to do the mysterious and unknown things popular kids did.
And I remember that I actually felt relieved – because being friends with Etomi was no longer as easy as breathing. It was difficult and grew more painfully awkward with each encounter. Even when we talked about the things we both liked, there would be good moments when we laughed (me no longer with my mouth open) but then there were those moments where I wondered what to say or I would suddenly feel my armpits prickling with sweat and be filled with dread wondering if he could smell me…
It was just too weird.
So I stopped going to his class and he stopped coming to mine. There came a time when we only saw each other in passing and we at least smiled or waved. But even that eventually stopped. We developed separate lives and separate friends and it all seemed natural and inevitable. The past was the past and this became our new reality. Time moved on and I was sad about it sometimes but I mostly didn’t dwell on it because it actually became hard for me to believe we’d once been best friends. My friends and I even joked about it sometimes talking about what we would have done different if we’d only realized his potential, lololol.
Then came SS2 when the news suddenly blazed through school that a senior girl had asked Etomi out and he’d said yes. I will admit now that when my friends delivered this scoop to me I felt a stab of something that felt an awful lot like jealousy but I would’ve died before I admitted to myself that I was just as susceptible to Etomi’s looks (which by the way only improved with each passing term) as every other girl in our school. So I pretended to be excited and in it for the gist and firmly squelched down my feelings.
The girl that had asked him out was none other than my Akudo who was at that time a goddess by my school’s hierarchy. She was smart, her family was known and well to do, she was physically mature and gorgeous and she was a star of track and field. Akudo was also known as a senior with a bit of temper who would slap first and ask questions later if you messed with her. We were all super intimidated by her and the fact that an entity like her had asked Etomi out confirmed my low key belief that our friendship had been a cosmic accident that the Universe had finally corrected.
To the delight of the entire school their relationship turned out to be a volatile one with lots of public fights, break ups and make ups and all the necessary gist and drama that surrounds such things. She always seemed either crazy in love with him or mad at him about one thing or the other. She even slapped him once in front of teachers and almost got suspended. My friends along with most of the school loved every moment of it. They called them ATomi and branded them the “Lovers On Fire.” I’m cringing so hard just remembering that but in a way I kind of got what they meant. Etomi with his quiet, hot gazed anger was the smolder to Akudo’s blaze. For obvious reasons, I was not that big of an ATomi fan and I literally tuned out the entire thing catching only the most scandalous bits of the general gist.
I didn’t expect Etomi and I would ever have anything do with each other again but apparently the Cosmos is unusually clumsy when it comes to me.
It was the last term of SS5 and Akudo would be graduating soon. The action romance film that was their relationship had intensified accordingly meaning more break ups and make ups than ever. This is important to know because I couldn’t have been his girl friend for an hour and a half if they hadn’t been broken up.
It was a non Visitors Day Sunday and after spending the whole day lying in my bunk reading trashy historical novels with ripped off covers I had managed to nap through the dinner bell.
By the time I arrived at the Dining Hall, huffing, puffing and praying for a miracle the double doors were locked and I knew there was no negotiating with Mr. Odenigana, the teacher on duty that evening, because he was a self admitted miserable b*****d who I believe became a teacher expressly to make students suffer.
I was still cussing him out not quite under my breath when I realized that I was not alone. Etomi was there too, sitting on one of the benches set right in front of the dining hall. I mean of course he was. Because when life is out to get you, it likes to do a thorough job.
He wasn’t looking at me but I knew he’d heard me because though his gaze was fixed pointedly on the horizon, the sides of his mouth were twitching.
Thank God for melanin which shielded me from the additional embarrassment of advertising my mortification. I quickly turned my back to him so I could find some composure and question both God and the Devil because seriously, what the f**kery?
I started to agonize over whether I should turn back and say “Hi.” But since I’d already backed him wouldn’t it seem too contrived? Like I was hoping to start a conversation with him? Presuming on the fact that we’d been friends for a second when we were both young and foolish?
What if he blanked me? Why did it suddenly feel actually possible to die from being snubbed? Or even worse, like it would show on my forehead like a neon tattoo for everyone to see? A tattoo that read “lol, this chicken head thought, sha!”
I heard movement behind me and turned to see Etomi on his feet, unconsciously displaying his still increasing height and looking everywhere but at me. “Um…” he said and I was convinced he was trying to remember what my name was.
The thought hurt and I suddenly needed to show him he wasn’t the only one who had become a whole different person. “Gigi,” I said.
For the first time in more than a year, he glanced at me directly. “What?” he asked.
“My name. Gigi.” I said trying to sound breezy but suspecting I was coming off defensive. “Etomi, right?”
Now he was looking at me pointedly, his expression blank. “Okay…?” He looked at me like he thought I was either crazy or not very bright and I knew immediately that I may have over done it.
“Just kidding!” I said too loudly, “Of course I know who you are! Everybody knows who you are!”
I laughed nervously. This was an absolute nightmare. My mouth was saying things my brain had no recollection of generating and he was now watching me with the suspicion a snake might show a mongoose.
It was all his fault though. Why did he have to talk to me? We could’ve just ignored each other and I would still have had a story to tell my friends.
“Yeah…” he said appearing to have difficulty finding his train of thought. He blinked his heavy lidded eyes at me then said, “Mr. Odenigana said I could come in if somebody showed up later than me so…”
“Oh.” It took a few seconds for his words to sink in then, “Ohhh.”
He hadn’t really cared what my name was or wasn’t. He was just trying to let me know I was replacing him for the late comers’ punishment. My habit of over thinking things and turning them into what they were not – is an old one.
Etomi’s expression stayed carefully blank. “I’m going to go in?” he said.
“Yeah, of course…” I said studying my sandals.
“I’ll let him know you’re out here,” he added.
I nodded. He turned to the door and that’s when my stomach gurgled extremely loudly and we both froze.
My tummy’s habit of kicking me when I’m already down is also an old one.
I watched in dread as Etomi lowered the hand that had been reaching for the double door handles. I was gonna deny it, I’d already decided. Then I would simply walk away from this unsalvageable situation and convince my parents to let me switch schools… switch countries if possible.
Etomi turned. The carefully blank expression was still in place but the side of his mouth was twitching suspiciously again. “Or…” he said like he was continuing a conversation, “I could let you go in instead of me?”
We stood looking at each other. The evening birds and insects and the distant clatter and noise of the students inside the dining hall seemed loud because it was so quiet between us. He’s so much taller than the last time we talked, I thought inanely. He had filled out some more too making him bigger and his face was cut in sharper, cleaner lines, so painfully handsome at that age that to me, he looked more like an idea than a person. I couldn’t fathom how he just kept growing more unrealistically good looking while all that seemed to have changed about me was the nick name I gave myself.
I snapped back to now. That’s right, he’d asked me if I wanted to go in instead of him.
“But – Mr. Odenigana…”
Etomi shrugged loosely. “I don’t think he cares as long as he can punish someone.”
I frowned, “You don’t mind getting punished?”
“You just… er… seem more hungry than me… and I was going down anyway so…”
I really didn’t know what to make of the offer. It seemed like a random throwaway act of kindness but he was now looking at me so intently that I felt like I was missing some subtext. But then I always overthought things didn’t I? What subtext was left between Etomi and I? Unless this was a for old times sake sort of thing?
“Thanks?” I said stepping carefully towards the door and waiting for him to step out of my way. I looked up in surprise when he didn’t it. He hadn’t stopped fixing me with his heavy lidded stare.
“You’re just going to go in?” he asked.
“But… you said…?”
“I said I could let you in… I never said I would.”
My mouth dropped open. What kind of devilishness was this? To dangle dinner in front of an obviously hungry girl then yank it away… that was just cruel! I mean, it was true I didn’t know him that well any more but I had never yet pegged Etomi as mean. I glanced around nervously worried that maybe he had friends hiding in the eaves who would soon present themselves like a studio audience complete with canned laughter.
No one came. We were still alone. For some reason that didn’t make me any less nervous. “I don’t understand,” I said.
“Odenigana’s punishments are harsh, Bolaji,” I startled a little at his use of my name. I hadn’t heard it roll so casually off his tongue in almost two years. So he did remember… “Why would I do it for nothing?”
I dunno, for old times sake? I thought, because what the heck could I possibly do for him? He was smarter, more popular, more athletic and had more connections than I did. And my background wasn’t anymore privileged than his. To my thinking I had nothing to offer him. “Well, what do you want?” I asked anyway.
He never took his gaze off me, “Go out with me.”
“To where?” I asked because I’d never been more confused in my life. He didn’t say anything, just kept looking. I played back his request in my head and received a belated shock. “You mean… As in…,” I couldn’t get the words out because if I was wrong I was certain that I would not survive the embarrassment.
“Date me,” he shrugged. His tone was almost bored. “Be my girlfriend.”
Unlike before when everything got louder, now everything receded and I swear to God the edges of my vision dimmed a little. Horrified I bit the inside of my mouth. I WILL NOT FAINT BECAUSE A GOOD LOOKING BOY ASKED ME OUT I chanted to myself and it worked because things came back into startling clarity.
I frowned up at Etomi and folded my arms defensively. “Why?”
He shrugged again. “I have reasons,” he said, “And you want dinner right? Or should I just leave you to Odenigana?”
“But I don’t understand,” I insisted, “It’s not like you like me. You haven’t even acknowledged my existence since SS1 and everyone knows you and Akudo are going to get back together! Why would you ask me out?”
“What do you mean it’s not like I like you? You used to be my best friend?”
Han-ah? Was he joking with me? I was getting vexed by his deliberate question avoidance tactics. “I mean like like Etomi!”
Etomi’s expression tightened and he suddenly looked vexed as well. “Look, I’ve offered you my terms. If you don’t want them, cool.” He turned towards the Dining Hall doors and started to open them.
“Wait!” I said.
He turned back. He wasn’t exactly smirking but there was the slightest upturn to one side of his mouth.
“If…” I struggled with my words and pushed them past the voice in my head that was telling me I was making a huge mistake. “If I agreed… would this be a public or a private – erm – arrangement?”
“Public.” he said.
“Ok…” I continued tamping down my surprise again, “and what… um… what exactly would we be doing… y’know… if we were…”
“Dating?” he finished my question managing to look vastly amused with minimum expression change, “nothing much. Hanging out together… not seeing other people, I guess.”
I took a deep breath. I had one more important question. “Would you… I mean would you expect… would we…,” for the life of me I couldn’t get my mouth to say the words “make out” in front of him but as some one who had only seen kissing in books and movies thus far, it was a deeply pressing concern.
And he understood because he was finally, fully smirking.
“I can leave that up to you if you want,” he said, “so are we doing this or what?”
It made no sense. I still didn’t know why he was doing this and I honestly couldn’t imagine feisty Akudo being okay with it. Plus apart from being alpha heart throb, teenage dream Etomi… he was also Etomi Eyakodevu, my younger self’s roll dog of life. Could one small word really transform me into his girlfriend? Make him my boyfriend?
My brain told me No but my heart was intrigued and took control of my tongue. “Yes,” I said, “we’re doing this.”
It was hard for me to interpret his initial expression after I said that. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at surprise or relief but it definitely turned to smugness.
“Nice.” he said. Then he turned, opened the dining room door and ushered me in. As I moved self-consciously past him he smirked again but his eyes were warm with something like mischief. Warmer than I’d actually seen them in forever. “Guess I’ll see you later,” he said softly before shutting the doors behind me.
In a daze I went to meet Mr. Odenigana and like Etomi had predicted he didn’t even seem to care and casually gestured me towards the dining tables. Dinner was almost over and I ate in a rush maintaining my daze. All I could think of was how pleased Etomi had looked after I’d said yes and what he meant when he said later. Later today? Tomorrow? After his punishment?
It was after I returned to the dorms that I told some of my friends, asking them to keep it on the down low even though Etomi had said we weren’t hiding it.
I still don’t know which one of them snitched but roughly an hour later I was confronted by Akudo (who, being in a different house and year, I’d never exchanged two words with before then) and about 4 other senior girls. They looked pissed. A spokesperson (Abiola Duroteye, I will never forget) asked me if I was going around telling people that Etomi was my boyfriend.
I looked at the scary girls surrounding me.
I looked at Akudo’s tight expression.
I looked at her twitching hand.
I had never been hit in my life before and I could feel the dirtiest of slaps coming.
I. Denied. Everything.
Jesus’ disciples in Gethsemane had nothing on me and it wasn’t hard at all because to be honest – none of what had happened between me and Etomi even seemed real… At least not compared to the angry senior girls that surrounded me and my fear of getting slapped.
They questioned me for a while and the more I denied it, the more Akudo’s expression eased. She was the one that called off the inquisition and after a final warning that told me I was basically now on their s**t list, I was finally left alone.
After that I had to tell my friends I’d been trolling them but they looked at me weird like they were wondering what other stories I’d told them had been big, stinking lies. I managed to at least hold in my reaction to the encounter till after lights out and then in my bed I cried for my cowardly self like I hadn’t cried since first night of boarding house .
The next day when I saw Etomi, wondering if he was mad at me, I instinctively tried to catch his glance. I knew he would already have heard and I assumed he would want to know why I didn’t follow through on our agreement. I assumed wrong because he looked through me as he walked past like I was an invisible and non-essential gas.
After that trying to get his attention without drawing any to myself from the scary seniors or my friends was too difficult. So was enduring his snubs and so I left it alone.
Like I had predicted, he and Akudo were back together within the week and except for a picture taken together for our parents at graduation, there were no more interactions between us.
I heard later that Akudo and him continued their on and off dating till after his freshman year at some College in the US.
I almost forgot about him till I met Akudo again and as adults we became friends.
I actually reminded her about what happened between us over shopping and brunch one day and after looking surprised (she’d literally forgotten) she’d looked a little mortified and then we’d laughed about it.
Days later she called me and brought it up again asking what had really gone on between me and Etomi. For the first time, I told her the truth and I was surprised by her reaction. It was like she cut me off for a few days. I finally caught up with her in Church where she had the grace to look embarrassed about avoiding me.
I asked her if it was because of what I told her about her secondary school boy friend and I remember, we were standing next to her SUV after service on a day that was blessedly cool. Akudo sighed and said, “well he wasn’t just a secondary school boyfriend, was he?”
I thought she was referring to the fact that she’d kept on dating him even after she graduated but then she continued.
“Beyond the fact that he was my first – well – everything… Etomi isn’t the type of guy you can top… if you’re lucky enough to have him…”
I was literally scandalized to hear these words coming from her knowing she was married to the perfect Derin. I had so many questions but none of them seemed appropriate. I couldn’t hold myself back, however, from asking at least one. “But… you’re over him… right?”
Akudo looked at my shocked expression and laughed then offered me a lift (this was pre- Peggy my darling Nissan).
I accepted the ride and she never answered my question. But I kind of took it as a No she wasn’t over him.
It bothered me a bit at first but then I thought maybe that was how life was. Maybe just because you’d married someone didn’t mean your past disappeared. Maybe it just meant you made a decision to let it go and face your future. And it didn’t even matter anymore since Etomi was no longer in her life.
Except now he was.
He was standing in the hallway with Akudo, Derin and I, dressed in black and looking like the matured fruition of the teenage dream he was as a boy.
And my good friend (and boss) Akudo was looking like she’d gotten a second lease on life.
But I’m always over analyzing and seeing things were there’s actually nothing. There was no way that this scenario was actually setting up to be as messy as it looked…
FYI: All the chapters for this story can be found HERE on Channel Two with the most recent chapter at the top.
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