Falling | Jude Dibia
Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson
Read in French here
Sasha was thirteen years old when he first heard the word wanker. He had no idea what the word meant. At first he thought he had misheard the common curse word “waka” that children of his age, younger and even older used when insulting each other; it was usually followed with the hand gesture where the curser thrusts and spreads out his five fingers at the intended. He would later learn that wanker and waka, though different in meaning and intention, shared a common trait—they were intended as degrading words. A senior student who enjoyed taunting him because Sasha exhibited what many considered unmanly traits said that word to him.
It was over ten years since he first heard that word, yet Sasha was a little surprised that that memory came to mind now, after so many years.
Slipping away. Slipping away. Slipping. Sleeping. Sasha knew he was slipping away and it felt exhausting, like his body had been on overdrive and was finally shutting down, succumbing to sleep. Death was like nothing he had imagined. There was no doubt that he was dying; a certainty he felt and strangely embraced. He wondered if the others understood this? Did they? And why did the last one look so intently into his eyes? What was it he wanted from him? Could it be forgiveness? And as his light grew dimmer, Sasha had the beginnings of a smile on his face. Memory was his anaesthetic.
Only hours ago, he had been in his room getting ready for what he believed would be one of the best days of his life. The music that played nonstop in his head was like the soundtrack to some epic romantic drama—optimistic, sublime and grand in its scope. As he checked himself one more time in the mirror in his room, he wondered fleetingly if his hair was neat enough, if his face was not too dry and if the outfit he had chosen for his first date with Mr. X was good enough. He took deep breaths every time he felt the pounding in his chest increase. It helped steady his nerves. He raised his right hand and smelt under his arm and then he sniffed his wrists.
“This is crazy,” he had said to himself. Though it was going to be the first time he would meet Mr. X, it wasn’t as if they did not already know each other. They had exchanged a number of emails and pictures, and they had been chatting regularly from the first time they had met online. He felt he knew as much as he could about Mr. X without actually meeting him. He knew for instance that his name was Christopher, but he preferred to be called Mr. X as he was registered in the dating site. He was thirty-five, a smoker and drank socially. No drugs. He was a top. He was not married and was still undecided whether or not if he wanted to. He loved the idea of children and hoped to have at least two. He was an extrovert. He loved hanging out with his friends. Of importance to Sasha was that Mr. X worked, he had a job. This was quite important. Sasha wanted a man who was capable of taking care of himself. He didn’t want a leech or a person who did not have an idea of what responsibility was.
All this had made him laugh. It was not lost on him how he felt very much like a woman on a mission, and it did make him wonder about gender roles, and how it had been drummed into his younger self and other boys the manly way to act and what to expect from girls and women. It made him laugh because in spite of it all, Sasha loved being a man and would change nothing about that. He knew he had to be careful. Only recently the government had passed into law a bill criminalizing same-sex marriages. In other words, the witch-hunt for homosexuals had begun. Not that any gay man or woman had ever lobbied for a marriage license in the country! Sasha knew he had to be careful, very careful. But he knew it was difficult, because people like himself found it hard to mask their true identity. He liked looking pretty and well put together. He loved fashionable clothes that complemented his slim figure. He liked jewellery—rings, chains, bracelets. He loved expensive smelling perfumes. He loved designer shoes. When he was fully clothed and ready to go out, he knew he looked like a sophisticated model. He enjoyed the stares he received from both men and women. He often wondered how people could look at him and not figure out that he was gay! However, since the controversial bill had resurfaced along with countless religious and traditional purists pushing for extreme measures against people like him, Sasha had found it necessary to tone down on how he presented himself to the world.
He did have some apprehension as he left his home. He worried whether Mr. X would like him. He worried whether they would take it further than a date and probably have sex. He wondered if having sex on a first meet would damage whatever long-term intention both of them might have. And then, there was that indefinable worry that loomed in the air without a name or description; it just hovered like an uncertain ominous cloud.
Now with his life ebbing away, he wondered if he should have paid more attention to that last bit of nameless concern. There was no time for regrets, no time to replay in his head the things he would have done differently. And dying could be such a welcoming escape, once it is succumbed to. No struggling, no resistance, just giving in as one does to sleep. But for those eyes…
Lagos was never a quiet city. In the taxi that took him to Mr. X’s house, Sasha eventually became indifferent to the noise from the radio player in the car, the hooting sounds of various vehicles, the voices of beggars and street traders—he insulated himself from these and focused instead on the mental picture of the man he was going to meet. In the picture, Mr. X was a big fellow; big in the sense that he was full bodied, like a toned wrestler, and not fat. He had a dark complexion and well-groomed beard. He was not conventionally handsome in the way Sasha liked his men to look, neither was he unsightly. His picture exuded a presence—confident, charming even. Sasha recounted their earlier telephone conversations, recalling how he had questioned him about how different his voice was to the picture sent. Mr. X’s voice was not gruff or deep-mellow, it was instead high-pitched.
“When did you know for certain?” Sasha had asked in one of their early conversations.
“Know what for certain?” Mr. X said.
“When did you know for certain that you were gay?”
There was a pause from the other end of the line.
“You first,” Mr. X finally said. “When did you know?”
“In a way, I have always known. When I was younger I knew I was different. I was always in touch with my feminine side. I also viewed boys and girls differently. I wanted to play with girls all the time, but I still wanted boys to like me. There were no words to describe what I felt for boys or how I felt as a person when I was younger, but it was innocent and pure. In our time, children didn’t think of sex or sexuality in any terms, we just played roles and copied from the adults around us. I wasn’t exposed to books or the internet that could help define who or what I was. But to answer your question, I knew for certain when the first boy kissed me full on the lips in boarding school.”
“Hmmm! How did it feel?”
“It felt so good and so right. I knew that I wanted more of it but he became shy and made me promise I would not tell anyone. I never told anyone while we were there, and we never did it again. But that day, it was all I thought about. I played over that kiss again and again in my head, reliving every second it lasted and pondering on the relief that seemed to have washed over me. It was an awakening without a name. I never knew the word gay or homosexual until I was in the university and even then, I wasn’t certain it reflected who I was.”
“Why is that?”
“They were used as dirty words, the latter especially. Words that were deeply wounding and misrepresented who I am. I could not identify with those words, yet I am aware that I am only attracted to men.”
It was only much later, after they had said their goodbyes and hung up, that Sasha realized that Mr. X never answered the question. He had allowed Sasha to talk most of the time, giving away very little of himself.
Mr. X’s apartment was in a regular neighbourhood. Nothing fancy or out of the ordinary. Sasha remembered thinking that it was a typical Lagos community—overflowing refuse bin in several corners, the occasional night trader set-up under an umbrella and kerosene lamp, cars parked in front of gated compounds and the grating sounds of various generators. The apartment was easy to find. When he got to the door, he waited several moments, taking deep breaths to still his nerves before he eventually knocked on it.
The door flew open. A man stood at the entrance. He was unrecognizable from the pictures. His smile was quick and nervous. His invite to come in was equally brisk. The voice was the only thing familiar, the telephone voice Sasha had grown attached to. He could not remember walking in, but he found himself inside the poorly lit living room. He noticed immediately four other men were also there.
Questions. Voices. Movement. Panic. Faces. Smells. There was no order to things, just Sasha’s thoughts of why he had ignored his intuition.
“So you like messing around with men?”
“I’m sorry, please,” Sasha pleaded.
“What are you sorry about?” One of the other men asked. He had an awkward grin on his face that reminded Sasha of a hyena. “Are you sorry that you like penis or that you came here thinking you were going to mess around with my friend?”
The beating was sadistic and unrelenting. Belts. Whips. Knives. Sticks. Pepper. There was jeering, too. While Sasha reeled in the motion of begging and crying he picked out a sympathetic face among his tormentors and focused on it. This one man did not join the frenzy of torture. He stood apart, oblivious of the baffled and worried expression his face bore. It was to him that Sasha cried to and begged until even crying was of great pain and effort. When he stopped pleading and crying, and became deaf and numb to everything, his eyes remained fixed on this stranger.
But then, the stranger’s face and non-participation was no match to the welcoming pull of sleep. Fading lights and a soft lullaby did not quite capture the soothing relief of finally giving in to letting go. And so, Sasha accepted that he was slipping away. Drifting. Sleeping. Falling.
Jude Dibia is from Nigeria and has written three well received novels and a number of short stories that have brought him well deserved recognition. His debut novel ‘Walking with Shadows’ is a pioneer in contemporary queer African literature, telling the story of a closeted gay man who is forced to reveal his sexuality to his family and live with the consequences. Dibia’s novel and later stories on LGBTI persons living in Nigeria manages to challenge the Nigerian government’s views and extreme laws against homosexuals in Nigeria. ‘Falling’ is a story that shows the dangers many LGBTI persons face in many parts of the world.