I can feel the warmth of his breath
His hand and their sweat
His body is hard, hard in all places
Including his heart
I can feel his edges
Edges and his scoffs
His smell is gripping, sweat smell intoxicating
My senses are dwindling,
My defenses breaking
I hope he can feel mine too
See my strengths through and nothing else
For I can see all eyes can tell
Of our heated hearts that fell
The lyrics caressed the ears with the tenderness of the words of a forbidden lover. The entire room was stage. A couple chose the shadows of the pillar to glue together. They slow danced, lost to the world, oblivious to broken camp rules. One couple found the mood too amusing, and twirled and twisted under each other’s arms amidst giggles. Some though, sipped their drinks at the till and conversed in close quarters. The lights were a perfect shade of luminescent purple veiling the room with its amethyst glow.
JJ stared right over Leah’s head, focused on his breathing.
Damn. Why is she so short? Now she would hear how fast my heart is beating. Leah pressed against his chest, head rested, hands fitted around his midsection. He could not remember how they ended in this position. His feet moved on their own, his mind too distracted by Leah’s hair spray. His whole body merged with hers and he felt her heart beat in a small, steady rhythm. Against the temperature of the room, his skin remained hot wherever her bare skin touched. Her skin was as soft as a baby’s buttocks, moistened by cream. Or was that sweat? The urge to protect her came. JJ allowed it. Yes. He wanted to be around. Stick around. To swat any mosquito that sought to perch on this fine skin as a dragon would for the sleeping princess.
“So…you are a decent enough dancer. I would never have guessed.”
Blast. Her head was off his chest. He gazed at her upturned face. Oval. Hair falling in streams on either side. Her eyes held a purple tint in them. Trick of light, but who cares? They were smiling. At him. His eyes smiled back. Her lips parted, assisting the nose to suck in air. She had not used lipstick. Yet her full lips stared at him with dare. They teased open, pulling him as surely as moth to fire.
“You know what they say about good, tall, dancers.”
The lips split apart, the sound of her laughter rolling out. JJ thought of the next joke to cause her to laugh again. Just as easily. Just as heartily. Just as sensually. He met her eyes watching him.
“So you and Dr Sulo huh.”
His smile faltered, eyes thinning. Then he blurted out, “O no it’s not like that. Me and Sul…Dr Sulo, we just cool. It’s complicated. You get. Not like…you know…not like that.”
Leah went into a fit of laughter, an extra layer of music to JJ’s ears. A sheepish grin formed on his face. Her hand rested on his chest for support as she laughed hard. JJ realised he didn’t mind being ridiculed by her. She collected herself and glanced at him. Then she doubled with laughter again. Hadn’t he kept his face impassive?
“The mighty JJ Armour has cracked?”
“That was chain vest. Only rattled me.” He replied favouring her with a smile.
She was lovely and he knew it. From the first day he saw her. Her hand remained on his chest. Score One, JJ! The music had changed to an even slower tempo, the DJ creating a much-appreciated atmosphere. JJ pulled Leah closer. She did not resist. She wants this, he mused. Her head returned to his chest as they swayed.
“I took salsa lessons sometime back. Though it started as an excuse to leave the house, I soon fell in love with dancing…or the dancing. It was the right expression of my pent up emotions. The music and the mood and the moves and the dancers were always invigorating.” She pulled her face up to look into his eyes as he spoke. “I would leave home with one shirt and come back with another. My folks always accused me of acting like an omota.”
“Why didn’t you just tell them you were out dancing? That’s so normal.”
JJ hesitated. Hands on her waist, he moved her around, their eyes locked on. “They were right. In a sense. Not all nights were spent dancing. I was…the leader of the 16 School Gang.”
Leah’s body stiffened, then relaxed, like a fleeting shiver. Either Leah was an excellent street lady, a concealer of emotions, or she had shelved the information as unimportant. At least for the moment. Either way, it encouraged JJ to keep talking. “There were days I took to the streets, ordering things. My name went round the block. Rumours made me larger than life. Sweet Ma almost had heart attacks hearing of my exploits. They could not reconcile the stories with the boy under their roof. To them, tales of me dancing would have been fibs spun by a forest spider.”
The two of them shared a covert silence. Their eyes locked onto each other. One thread of understanding passed through them: Leah’s next statement was key to whatever seemed about to start between them. In the world of the confused and misfits, to be among you must tag along. That meant you had to understand. Especially when you are granted access into another misfit’s confused world. JJ shared a piece of him, albeit small, with Leah. An unspoken rule said no judgement, only understanding, only acceptance. JJ waited like a criminal awaiting his sentence. He was attracted to Leah. She was smart, witty, sexy, and fun to be with and above all was not afraid to call him out.
Trust was the foundational element to every relationship. People treated others based on varying levels of trust. Relationships differed based on trust. If trust is maintained, a balanced relationship is maintained. If it breaks, there are consequences. Leah next statement held the pivotal trust key. A false word would break trust, clamping on any deep relationship.
“Parents. They never understand our endearing habits.”
His eyes never left hers as she spoke. He knew she knew, that they had crossed a threshold together. They celebrated the moment in pregnant silence. His face moved towards hers without strain. Her head tilted upwards, steadying. Readying. He watched her beautiful eyes shut, her lips part, looking fuller. He made to close his eyes but decided against it. He wanted to savour her expressions. Their faces closed on the air between them. Her ragged breathing faded out the background music. It was froth with anticipation. JJ would have smiled but his breathing was worse for control. She smelled of red roses, romantic, colourful, alluring. His lips neared hers, and unbidden his eyes closed. Her grip on his shirt tightened. Like him, her patience had worn.
And then the noise hit them.
“Wad up all y’a partners cum lovers in da hauz! Say wa wah! It’s time to turn da heat up in da hauz! It’s time to bla bla blaze up in diz joint. It’s time to up ina the groove, blow ina the zanga, an’ move like y’a mada! Yea yea.”
The DJ screeched hard on the turntable, his fingers flying from disk plates to mixer knobs. Sean Paul’s We Be Burning hit the airwaves amidst screams of glee from the campers. The DJ bobbed his head, one hand keeping his massive headphones from flying off. It was impressive the quick swap of atmosphere. DJs generally focused on switching up songs but this one had effected an ambience change. He nodded his head as his gaze swept the dance floor filled with frenzied dancers.
The DJ’s morale would have dropped though, if he cared to look towards the left pillar, at the couple tossing him daggers for looks.
JJ’s head reeled as he imagined different ways of punishing DJ Fash. That was his name right? JJ looked round, disgusted by the sight of a happy crowd. Was no one making enough progress with the slow dance to protest this noise? He chanced a glance at Leah and saw her craning her neck away from him. The moment, and the build-up, were shattered. As he looked round he noticed Dr Sulo laughing at another camper’s jokes. JJ had a sense they were not as funny as she made them to seem. With a near imperceptible glance, she turned in JJ’s direction, gave a cute nod to the right, where stood a door, and returned to her conversation.
Dr Sulo was, without doubt, his fairy godmother.
JJ turned on Leah. He pulled her close, his face speeding towards hers, oblivious of her surprise. He noticed her eyes flutter close as he brushed past, settling his mouth beside her ear.
He strode towards the door. Dr Sulo raised a glass of red wine. Her companion struggled to raise his, not realising the toast was not to his success. JJ wrenched the door open and eased through it, shutting it after Leah.
They had stepped into another world. It was a humongous room, larger than the Great Assembly Hall. The ground was carpeted with trimmed grass. There was no patch of upturned soil anywhere. It looked like the grass had grown in the house. Leah removed her stilettos in a rush. As her feet rested on the grass, she let out a deep sound, one reserved for private moments of pleasure. JJ followed suite, kicking off his converse. He was glad he had not worn high tops. A tingle of pressure drummed into his sole and through his body. His shoulders slumped in relaxation and he let out a sigh.
“Rubber acupuncture grass.” Leah explained.
JJ could only grunt, his head upturned in ecstasy.
The shrubs towered over JJ by at least a head. They ran all around the hall, like a maze. Two trees stood apart in what appeared to be the centre. Pink leaves and fruits serenaded the green leaves. Around the groomed shrubs were flowers – not roses. He did not care though. He spent the next moments plucking every pick within reach.
“And if you rid this place of flowers?”
“It would be worth it.” He smiled and gave a mock bow, presenting Leah with a crude bouquet. She blushed and batted her eyelids, her fists balled together on her chest. She collected and sniffed them, a satisfied grin splitting her face.
“Dr Sulo sure knows how to work the mood.” JJ said.
“Yeah. I never experred eet though.”
“I said I never experred eet.” Leah responded; her arms spread out. A cool breeze blew across the garden. The sweet smell was intoxicating. She moved her head from side to side, standing on tiptoes.
JJ shrugged. “I thought you were all poised and finessed. You know…tush.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you pretty boy. Speaking of which, can you speak pidgin?”
“You mean in addition to my obvious charm and endearing traits, you need me to add gutter-English speaking?”
“I bet you JJ,” Leah chuckled, “many Nigerians that will skin you if they hear you call our national lingo gutter. Can you though?”
“Didn’t I tell you I was street lord?”
“Forget that thing. Can you? Or are you all soft and gooey. How would you cope if I placed you in a molue from CMS to Costain, without bus fare? Is it English you will speak with the conductor or you’d dig in here,” she tapped his torso, “and belt out the Yoruba demon in you.”
JJ slapped his hands together, “Ggabe Osi. Babe yi n try mi sha. O di gba n ti ma fi oju yi n ri ko ti enu o le so. Wa gba.”
“Ah. Pretty boy goes street.” She fell silent after that, walked up to JJ and took his hands in hers. “I don’t care about your past. Well I care because it made you but I don’t care in the judgmental sense. I think you are all right the way you are.”
“You think? That’s what I get for the dance and this place. A thought?” JJ painted shock over his face.
Leah laughed and sniffed the flowers again. “These are real nice.” She threw her arms round the entire place. “This is all nice. I would have bathed in fire if someone had told me Dr Sulo could do this. I hated her you know. She has this sexy Einstein thing going for her and it pisses me.”
“Sounds like jealousy, smells like envy.” JJ sang.
“More like recognition.”
JJ caught the tone drop. He had not spent eons negotiating for deals, playing kphasi, bedding women, lying to his folks, without picking up subtle changes in voices. He glanced at her, edging closer and wrapping his hand around her shoulders. She leaned against him, as if she had been waiting for him, her head light against his build. He motioned to the ground and they both sat with their backs against the shrubs. JJ pulled several new flowers and dropped them in front of him. Then he picked one, tore off a petal and passed the flower to Leah. She gave an appreciative smile and twirled the stem between her fingers. They tugged and handed the flower one to the other until it was lean.
“I hate my mother. She made me hate my life. She is a witch that has worked tirelessly to snuff the life out of me.” The words rolled out with ease. JJ passed a single-petal flower to her and she plucked the last with looking, and returned the stem.
“My father messed up bad. I get it. He screwed her and called another woman’s name. I get, that can be a bummer. I mean, I guess so. Then he began screwing the woman whose name had crept up like a bad dream. To add insult to injury, he moved in with her. Nobody divorces in Nigeria. At least our parents don’t. They stay for the kids, get to a point where they can’t remarry, then they turnaround like love doctors and give stupid pep talks to younger ones. My dad said he didn’t want all that. So he moved out. To the woman of his dreams he said. It raped my mother’s mind. It made a fiend out of her. But you know what, JJ? She was a monster to begin with. Just needed the right push.”
“Don’t we all?” JJ leaned back on his arms and stared at the roof. The roof was the sky. He blinked and pointed. He heard the sharp intake of breath from Leah. There was no roof. Maybe it was an illusion, but it played its part of awe-inspiring. It was black like shadow with little dots of shining white freckled across the surface. Every few minutes, stars shot across the expanse. JJ and Leah sat still, gazing at the starlight, each lost in the starry wonders.
“I…my brother got it worse. He’s grown with no love. Not motherly. Not fatherly. We are twins and he has an unhealthy hold on me. My unhappiness is his. Stuff like that.”
They let a comfortable silence fill the space. “We aren’t normal, are we?” Leah broke in.
“Why do you say so?”
“Well, we are a toe away from overboard. You said your deal was desperation. Caused by childhood?”
“That’s not my deal, as you put it.”
“JJ the liar.”
“JJ the cautious more like it. I didn’t know y’all. Only a weak man spills his weakness before unknowns?”
“That’s a street saying isn’t it?”
JJ smiled in return. “My deal is nightmares. I’ve seen, caused, wittingly and no, too many deaths. So I replay my parents’ death every night. And when that movie gets scratched, I’m chased by dead folks I don’t know. Screaming. Pleading. Asking me to stop. Begging me to forgive. I get scared of sleeping. I had a path to redemption planned out. Stupid thing didn’t work out. Now I’m back to square one. Waking up drenched in my sweat. That’s why I bath every night.”
He showered Leah with a I-started-morbid-but-ended-comic look which she didn’t return. Rather she looked thoughtful. “Your parents?”
“Ah yes. I stay with my guardians. They kind of adopted me. The doctors kind of told them I have amnesia – can’t remember past a point, so they kind of made up fake memories for me to make me think that was my real childhood. It’s painful. Traumatic. But I understand why. Sometimes love comes at a cost.”
“That’s what the preacher said the other day. He said God’s love for us came at a massive cost.”
JJ scoffed. The preacher had not defended himself against JJ’s onslaught the other day. Not anything he says would be trusted. “Time to get up,” he said as he picked himself. He helped pull Leah and she landed right in front of him, nose to nose.
“JJ.” Leah breathed.
“Leah.” JJ responded, inching closer.
“Get me my mood back and maybe then.” She said and wheeled round, bouncing off, her skirt twirling in her wake.
Damn you DJ.
They walked round the garden, making small talk. JJ went on about Bessy, working to convince Leah of a ride. Leah told him not to change her too fast. They laughed at their silliness, JJ carrying Leah on his neck and leaving her to hang off the top of the shrubs. They made flimsy wishes as artificial comets flew through the fake sky. Leah wished for a good tailor to make fitting Ankara that did not flatten your intestine and waged war against your boobs. JJ wished for a mechanic he could have a decent bike conversation with without wanting to blow his own brains out.
JJ steered Leah towards the bench under the tree. She curled up on the bench and laid her head on JJ’s laps. He stroked her hair, raking his fingers inside her curls.
“Camp will end soon.” He mused.
“And nothing will remain the same.” She replied in the same dreamy voice he was using.
“Some problems are solved. Others aggravated.”
“With personal counsellors like our benefactor I doubt there would be much aggravation.” JJ traced her hairline, down her nose and then her lips. His fingers followed the curves, as would an artist on his canvas. “We should all leave here better. The question really is, is the better sufficient to cure our fears?”
“Not all of us will have that privilege. At least I know someone who won’t.”
“Someone who would be worse?”
“Who is already worse.”
“Mamita right? What’s her deal?” He asked.
“At the moment they are working to figure it out. In The Clinic. You’ve heard of The Clinic?” She asked.
“Ah. OK. Here’s the scoop.” Sitting bolt upright she faced JJ and crossed her legs on the bench, yoga style. “The Clinic was instituted by President Gawan under the advice of the Britons when a few prominent men in society had some problem kids. It was meant for the truly kolomental cases. I think it was just jazzifizzle that was working overtime then. The project was running successfully for several years. After a while, senators and the likes with delinquents for kids started bringing them to The Clinic. Time showed it wasn’t a bright idea to place money before medics. 9 months after the first set came in, to be exact.
So they built this place. For delinquents. For those with slight disturbances. The aggrieved cases were taken next door. Sometimes though, a slight disturbance becomes a major one. And a major one becomes The Clinic’s business. Unfortunately, The Clinic has claimed one of ours.”
“I’m so sorry Leah. What happened?”
“She tried to kill herself.”
JJ’s tracing wavered. He covered it up by moving to her chin. Leah adjusted on her makeshift pillow, making her chin more accessible to JJ’s touches. He swallowed hard “Has word gone out to her parents?”
Leah squeezed a nod. “Yes. That’s the thing JJ. They won’t take you there simply you tried to kill yourself. They take you because you tried to kill yourself and permission has been gotten from your parents. Because visitors are not allowed.”
“Visitors are not allowed JJ. Video feeds are sent to parents end of every month. Like salary. Mamita won’t be seeing any familiar faces. Nor will we be seeing her. I wasn’t close to her that much but this is a bit excessive. I think Dr Sulo might have done a number on her.”
“Seconded. What will you do then?”
A door slammed shut in the distance before Leah could reply. The unmistakable voice of Dr Sulo boomed across the hall. “That’s enough non-musical time you both have had. Make sure to apologize to my DJ on your way out. I’ll see you both tomorrow. Now, come and be going.”
JJ flung his shirt over his chair and dropped into his bed, shoes and all. His mind determined to shut down at once.
“How was it?”
“Shit.” JJ cussed as he rolled on the bed. “Are you an assassin? How can you move without a sound?”
“I move, you say I’m too noisy. I don’t move, you say I’m too quiet. I pity your wife.”
For one brief unguarded moment, Leah Abba popped into the mind of Jide Jackson. He dunked his head into his pillow, clearing the image, chiding himself for being a pansy. It was a night. A good one, yes. But a normal one. Nothing special. Right?
“I’m tired Emeks. It’s past my bedtime.”
“You night crawler. What bed time is that? I’m even surprised you didn’t bring home any squeeze. What happened? Your counsellor made it a kumbaya session?”
“Hardly,” JJ mumbled, “it was all right I guess. My counsellor was loose, which came as a surprise.”
“You tapping her?”
“You planning on tapping her?”
“What’s happening man? I thought I was supposed to talk this way, not you. She was loose, there was music, pairing, food, drinks. You know, the works.”
JJ paused. He couldn’t see Emeka’s eyes in the dark. He could only imagine it shone with anticipation. “Yes, pairing.”
“She paired you all up? My God! This is just my luck. I chase one girl round camp when I could have simply waited for the great pairing. So who you paired with?”
“Some douche bag.” JJ lied with the ease of Pinocchio.
“Don’t bother. She near ruined it. I’m not telling. Neither am I discussing further on the subject of the pairing. Now, I need my beauty sleep. Let me be great please.”
Emeka stood from the edge of the bed he had perched on, went into his room and burst out again. “I forgot…” he dodged a flying pillow. “Nice reaction brother but pillow fight? You want to play this game JJ?”
“No I don’t Emeks.” JJ said. “I regret my action. Please leave me alone.”
Emeka laughed and tossed him back the pillow. “A letter came for you. I was around and picked on your behalf. Take. Goodnight.”
JJ pulled his curtain open a little to let in silver moonlight. He would have gone back to bed but for the strangeness of the letter. Who would write him? Only one person knew where he was. Only one reason the person could contact him. That is why he struggled to tear it open. The reason filled JJ with hope.
Jicko. The Capital Flight has been found around the Dead Sea. Queen.
Jide Jackson crumpled the paper, his grin matching the moon’s crescent.