The Boyfriends Club: Short Story by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke
Chicago took a new meaning in the summer of 96 when my friend, Fadeke introduced me to The Boyfriend’s club. Before then, Chicago was the place, to which I was never going to adjust to, the place, in which I was never going to fit in, like one sitting on a comfortable chair but not reclining.
It was the place I remembered in the faint light of the morning when my Nigerian Boyfriend had called me to say that my application for a master’s programme to Loyola University had been approved and that the school had sent my approval letter to his Port Harcourt flat because it was the address I had used in my application. And I had known then when he, Odunola said “I am so happy for you, Baby,” that he was not happy for me or anything like that.
Chicago was vast city parks and soaring skyscrapers.
I told Odun about the skyscrapers on our first phone conversation when I arrived, three days after I had landed at the O’Hare international airport and I had waved for long for my Aunt Chinwe to find me.
“They are so big, so tall, we have not seen anything in Nigeria sef,” I said and he laughed softly with the innocent animation in his voice that had attracted him to me when we first met.
Odun was a lawyer at the Shell branch in Port Harcourt, one of those people who never complained about the huge disparity between his wages and that of the actual Shell engineers. He never said, “They are belittling what we do in the arts” like his Lawyer friends did and this calm reserve, this head above water persona had made Odun irresistible.
It was in Chicago that I first realised I was black, that black was my last name and not “Okoli”. I might not have been Igbo, might not have been Nigerian or African, but I was black. The airport officials, my Aunt Chinwe told me, had paid closer attention to me than everyone else because I was black, and then Nigerian. They had ruffled my bag for longer and questioned each content from my face wipe to lip-gloss because I was black and Nigerian.
The cab driver from the airport had asked us to pay before entering because we were black and my Aunt Chinwe had paid for a woman’s bus ticket the next day “Because she was black and looked like she had it tough” she said.
“The black concept issue I believe is not born out of difference, it is rather born out of similarity,” Odun said three months later during one of our phone conversations. I had just told him about a White attendant at the University who had been rude to me. “The problem is that the blacks choose to stick together, not that Whites single them out.”
“That’s a very silly thing to say, Odun” I said, trying to remember the face of the white woman who had yelled with such disgust “Get the hell out of my office, you monkey!”
“Is it really, Uche?” He asked me “I don’t speak lies. The woman was mean to you because your kind has chosen to be separated, not because she is naturally mean.”
“You are a very stupid person, Odun,” I said and slammed the receiver.
I broke up with him two days later, not because of what he had said, I was of course not just realising he was stupid. But because the minute I had boarded the flight at the airport in Lagos with him waving until I feared his hands would dislocate, I had known that I would break up with him and he had known this too.
I had felt empty afterwards, riding the bus to school from my Aunt’s apartment on 19 Michigan Avenue every morning, returning home in the same manner. Drowning myself in Television, watching events of the White-water scandal unfold and saying Hillary Clinton looked nice when she testified before the grand jury. In Chicago, I did not matter. I had no friends, I was not in school long enough to have friends, I did not go to church because my Aunt Chinwe did not go too.
In April 1996, eight months after I had arrived, my Aunt Chinwe found me a job. I was going to work as a sales personnel at an hardware store when I did not have school, nothing like the banker job I left behind in Nigeria, but something, my job was something.
“You are very lucky” She said, “Most immigrants work as nannies for wicked white bosses, this job we got you is everything” and I had replied “Thank you Aunty”
I earned five dollars an hour at my new job, and by May, I was able to save enough to send home to my Parents in Nigeria not because they actually needed it-they were both comfortable- but because one in America had to send something.
It was there I met Fadeke, a postgraduate student too but at the University of Illinois. If we had been in Nigeria, Fadeke and I will not have been friends. I did not like the way she brushed off conversations about art or politics, how she was only interested in talking about Men and sex as if her life did not matter except when placed in those beams.
“Uche, Come for our Boyfriends club meeting” She said when I told her I was single and did not need a man anymore. I was done with my shift and changing to go home, she would get off in two hours.
“What’s that?” I asked, drawing my top over my bra.
“We are a group of black ladies with man problems, but we talk about other things too, we meet at a friend’s place on Rush Street first and last Sundays of the month,” she said and pushed an address into my palms.
I went for the meeting that Sunday at a brick built house on Rush, Fadeke had introduced me to everyone as her colleague proudly and I knew it was not because she liked me. I attended the next meeting, and the one after that.
With time, I started to know everyone. I knew Oyenike, the host who was divorced from the white husband she had married simply because of “Kpali” and Zainab who I never forgot because she limped. I knew, Itunu who was the topic of discussion at the first meeting I attended because she wanted to marry a man who said they would have to split the bills and Chilemba, the Kenyan lesbian woman with giant locs.
There was Sewa, “fantastically rich” as Fadeke described her, who when I said my last Boyfriend was a Yoruba man whom I had had sex with only twice retorted, “It’s a lie! Don’t lie here”
We had been talking about the Centennial Olympic park bombing at the summer Olympics that week and somehow the conversation had drifted to men and preference.
Itunu had said, “I know few Yoruba men who can only deal with sex six times a month. I had a Yoruba boyfriend who lived in Atlanta few years ago. He came on weekends just so we could have sex”
Fadeke said “And they like different styles. Hay, God!”
It was then I told them about Odun, that we had had sex only twice, and then Sewa had spoken before Oyenike concluded that it was because I was Igbo.
I had my first fight at the club two months after that day when Chilemba had said my weave was smelly and the other women had looked at her astonished.
“She is jealous of you” My Aunt Chinwe said when I told her, “The Kenyan thing is jealous of you”
“But to say it! Itunu’s perfume itches my nose, Sewa has a mild mouth odour, but I have never said it” I whined
“Not everyone knows how to keep things to themselves, sometimes it becomes an excuse for stupidity”
“I would never go back there Aunty” I said
“Why?” She asked, “They make you matter”
“I just won’t. I am better than small talk” I replied
But when Fadeke had come with Sewa a month later in the pouring October rain, brownies in paper plates and said, “Itunu just met an Igbo man, we need your advice on how they like to do it and Chilemba has found a girlfriend we all think is terrible for her.” I had known then that I would go back; I had known that I always would.
“Come in” I said, “My Aunt Chinwe made Ofe Nsala”
The events succeeding my first fight were like my rebirth in the club, I sat at a different position during meetings and not the new girl spot anymore. There was a new girl, Toyin – Sewa’s cousin from Nigeria – and when Sewa had introduced her to me, I realised I had just become a grounded member.
Oyenike had said that everyone in the club had fought at some point in time and that it was very normal that I had gotten upset; she said it meant we were real and honest, not a group of girls who told each other what they needed to hear.
At my first meeting after the fight, Chilemba had walked up to me and apologised for calling my weave smelly, then we had moved on to talking about the lesbian girlfriend she had just found.
“I think she’s too fast for you,” Itunu said about Chilemba’s choice of a partner, “You say she’s an actress, why would she want someone like you?”
Fadeke shook her head “Do you mean Chilemba doesn’t deserve her?”
“No” I replied for Itunu “She simply means that such things don’t happen except in movies. Everyone should stay on their lane”
“Uche is right, such things don’t happen” Sewa said, smiling tenderly at me.
She said it again, Sewa, two months later when I told them I had found a man, a white man, Jim. She said it and then added “He is white Uche, are you forgetting that? Oyinbo?”
I had not forgotten, I knew very well he was white. The first time we had gone for lunch in a strictly white restaurant on a street I did not know, people had stared at us oddly, he was very white and I was very black.
I met Jim at the store I worked, he had walked in one morning in a sweater and grey pants requesting to buy glue and needing me to prescribe one to him. He looked like a cut out picture from the Basketball Lives magazines Odun kept on his room dresser, the same sophistication in the simplest of things.
“I don’t know which to recommend” I said, “I haven’t used anyone, I don’t even know if anything on that shelf works at all”
“Your Boss would not be proud of you telling that to an ignorant customer,” He said, pouting his lips
“My Boss should actually be more concerned about the customer’s welfare” I replied and he smiled softly then pushed his business card into my palms.
I did not call him, not that night, or the night after. Not even when my Aunty Chinwe asked me to because a white husband was an easy way to get my papers or when I saw him reading the local news on the small television in my bedroom.
It was three weeks later he came to the store again. He wanted to know why I had not called him; he had outright asked if I thought him unattractive, if I thought –because he was white-, that he had a small penis and if I preferred a black man because ‘they had it longer,’ he said.
I had been amused and disgusted, all at once, but the former emotion took the dominance and I found myself giggling to the words that rolled out of his mouth, there was the vulgarity about him that amused me.
Itunu said during the next meeting that it was because I was from a country where sex was a minority, where it wasn’t discussed and where everyone acted like they never got into bed which made her wonder how we were so densely populated.
Nevertheless, I did not think it was that. In the months I am with Jim, when I tell him I am a virgin and I want to be celibate –I do not know why I do this- because I am saving myself for marriage, I enjoy watching the disappointment in his eyes as the glass of vodka touches his lips. When I tell him that I would miss his mother’s 60th birthday celebration because I am a feminist and he says that I have started to lose my cool, I am thrilled.
It is from Itunu that I first hear the word “Feminist,” when she is talking about her man who wants to split bills, when she says “He gave me a name for what he is, he is a feminist” and when I see the excitement on the face of the girls. It is from her that I first realise that it is somehow all I have always been, and that word, that word that she had defined in her Nigerian understanding to mean “A woman who nor dey gree,” shaped most of my decisions with Jim.
Years later, I would realise how faulty this definition was, how flawed, but not then. Not when it became the only thing, we talked about during meetings or when Oyenike said we should rename our club to The Powerful Feminists Club, I did not find the true meaning then.
The faulty concept of feminism I had was there when I said I did not like how Jim looked at me, in that way that objectified me, as if I was only a sexual item and he said my resolve was silly because I could not assert that he only wanted me for sex if we were not having sex.
It was there when I complained about the porn I found on his desktop computer, how it went an extra mile to show he had no concern for issues as important as “Feminist sex.”
“Your porn treats the woman as an animal!” I yelled, “And that is not alright, Jim”
It was there the day I said his friend called me a “Nigerian woman” and that I did not like the tone with which he had said it, that he said it as if there was something wrong not just with being a Nigerian, but being a woman and that I thought his friend was a misogynist.
And with every issue I raised, I watched this man who loved me slowly lose himself. I watched him miss his cues when he read the news those nights, I watched him force a smile when his friends wanted to talk about feminism, yet somehow, for some reason I did not know, all of this thrilled me.
“I am not doing again” is what is sprawled on the note Jim leaves in my purse the day he breaks up with me -it is one of the Nigerian expressions I taught him- and it is escorted by a “You are too much of a feminist.”
I do not flinch when I read it, I am somewhat relieved and when I tell the girls later that he broke up with me because I was a feminist –the topic had then become the major bane of the club; they raise a toast to men who cannot contain feminists, who cannot contain “women who no dey gree.”
Sewa whispered in my ears as she passed me brownies that evening “Hope the break-up isn’t hurting, hope you’re fine?”
I was fine. I was actually really fine.
Featured Image: Frank Morrison