Two in One
by Samuel Oladele
Bunmi dashed into the bedroom, her face in her cupped palms, sobbing. She fell onto our shared bed, blanketing herself head to toe.
“What happened?” I touched her shoulder.
“Leave me alone.”
“Come on, if you don’t talk to me, who will you talk to?”
She uncovered her face, back top me. “Toyin and Gloria didn’t let me play with them. They said their mummy said that they will get sick if they play with me.”
“Don’t worry. You still have other friends.”
She turned and faced me. “I don’t. Even the girls in my class avoid me.”
I took a deep breath. Those girls and their mothers deserved death. Not knowing how to soothe her, I hand-combed her kinky, full hair. We remained like this until evening when it was time to go to the market to buy fresh tomatoes for dinner.
She got up. “Let’s go as girls, I will give you my meat this night,” she said, her deep eyes narrowed at me. “Isaac. Please.” She clenched her teeth, then sat on the bed.
I sat on up on our shared bed. “Are you fine?”
“Yes,” she mumbled. “Just change and let’s go.”
“You still have any insulin left?”
“Can you just dress?”
Looking up at the ceiling, at the dark spots the rain had left when it leaked through it, I concentrated on my body, on the parts that made me a boy. Tension rose within my chest, and two heavy pounds of flesh pumped out of my flat chest. I stretched my legs that had been curled up, and the thing between my legs drew in. My hair, low-cut, remained unchanged. I stood up, pulled out my Ghana-must-go bag from under the bed and picked my black jeans, and a brown, slacked-neck T-shirt.
“Just wear a blouse and a skirt for once,” she said.
“Not in this life.” We headed out.
* * *
“A girl was raped on this road last night?” Bunmi said, jumping a puddle.
“If everyone were like me, there would be no rapes.”
“Because you can gender-shift your way out of anything?”
I shook my head.
She spat and covered her nose. I smelled it too, the air smelling like a dump. The rain from the previous night had pulled into the air the stench from landfills and gutters.
“If everyone were like you,” she said, “there would still be rapes. Bad men would force the weak to change to women and then rape them.”
“If a boy grabs me now and tries it, I will gender-shift sharp-sharp.”
“I can’t wait for you to be almost raped and then change into a boy.”
“Sometimes you just talk and don’t think.”
“Are you talking to me?” I stood still, hands on my waist.
She hissed, staring at me. I stared back, clutching her gaze, refusing to blink. She would not win today. We kept at it until a Lexus Jeep whipped past us, honking, splashing puddles. We jumped into the ankle-high, wet bush, then came back onto the road after the Jeep passed.
“Idiot,” we said, eyes on the Jeep which halted and then reversed. It pulled to a stop beside us and the backseat window came down. A hairy head stuck out.
“Hello,” he said, smiling, his acidic cologne cutting through my nostrils.
The backseat door opened, and he climbed out and stood before me, his frog eyes on me, fingers stroking his small beard.
“Princess, can I talk to you?”
Bunmi backed away, giggling. Where was she going, leaving me alone? She always did that. I had told her to stop backing away. She never listened.
“Excuse me.” I stamped forward.
He grabbed my wrist. I pulled back.
“My name is Tunde.” His hand was on his chest now, over THE MONEY embroidered on his Polo T-Shirt. “Can I take you somewhere we can talk?”
“Get out of my way!”
“I promise not to waste your time.”
“You’re wasting my time already. Get out of my way.” I pushed past his body that looked like one long leg, dark like my knuckles. I hurried to where Bunmi stood, and scurried past her. His Jeep crawled to our spot. I darted ahead. Honking, it crawled to our location, Tunde’s head stuck out of the window. “Please wait!” he begged.
My feet hurt already, so I stopped running, ignoring him. I would have changed into Isaac, my boy body, immediately but feared exposing my boy face, for it would be easier for him to find me as a boy, since I was often a boy. I didn’t want that. Tired of his pestering, I sprinted towards the market, and Bunmi ran after me. He trailed us until we whipped into the crowded market.
We went to the usual shop we used to buy tomatoes, bought them, and sat down on a crooked bench, waiting for an hour to pass so we wouldn’t meet Tunde outside the market, in case he was waiting for me. Not twenty minutes had we spent sitting when this guy in sagging skinny jeans came up to me.
“Baby, baby,” he said.
“Do I look like a baby to you?” I said.
He grabbed my wrist. “You can be my baby.”
I stood up and pulled out of his grip.
“Leave her alone,” Bunmi shouted.
“I’m just trying to be friendly,” he said, his hand reaching for my waist.
I pulled Bunmi by the wrist away from the shop, praying Tunde wouldn’t be outside the market. He wasn’t.
* * *
When Bunmi and I were little, we used to sit on a mat next to Daddy on his favourite sofa, and he would regale us with nighttime stories.
“So listen to a good story from a wise man,” he always started, saying this at least twice, smiling his wide-lipped smile. He had so many stories, but they always started like this and after a while it bored us, Bunmi and me. We wished he would outgrow it. He never did. There was one story he told at least a dozen times: his childhood story.
He would start after saying, “So listen to a good story from a wise man.” His roots were in poverty. His parents were vegetable farmers with barely enough to take care of him and his six siblings. He was the first child, so he picked up the breadwinner responsibility by becoming a carpenter’s apprentice at eleven.
“Because of me, my siblings went to school and became people in life,” he’d go on, self-admiration lit in his eyes.
To afford Bunmi’s insulin, Daddy took up a second job with the village guards at nights for extra money. His stories and his life inspired me, made me desire to be a man all my life. And to show him that I was like him, that I could provide money for Bunmi’s insulin too, I became a sales boy at an electronic shop immediately after secondary school. But even with his two jobs, with my one-thousand naira daily wages, we could barely afford her insulin, which we rationed. Most times, I covered my face to hide my shame when she had no medication.
* * *
How did he find me? I grabbed the edge of the sofa, calming myself because of Daddy. Two weeks had passed, and I thought I would never see him again.
“Sir,” Tunde said, “I want to marry Bisola.”
How did he know my female name? Must have asked around about me.
Daddy put down his weak leg from the stool. “Young man, are you aware that both male and female live in her?”
“And you still want to marry her-and-him?”
Tunde scratched his beard. “I would like that she remain in her female body.”
“Bisola, what do you have to say?” Daddy said, smiling a small smile.
Head down, I stared at the broken concrete floor, a small hole eating wider and wider. Daddy knew he should not call me by my female name when I was wearing my boy body.
“Isaac!” he shouted.
So he knew what to call me. I raised my head, eyes on him so as not to look at Tunde, the fool, seated opposite me.
With his eyes Daddy said, “Say yes.”
He would not do that to me. He knew I liked girls. He had seen me countless times with Tope, a girl. I had not seen her in months though. She was still angry with me. I had kissed her, knowing she had a boyfriend. I liked her. I was falling in love with her. But she loved her boyfriend.
I caused this. Had I worn only my boy body, a man would not be here to ask for my hand. But it was never entirely my fault. I didn’t want Bunmi to feel she had no female friends. She was always the reason I wore my girl body despite my discomfort. I felt ashamed wearing a bra. Though I liked breasts as long as they weren’t mine. They were so weird, too big to be carried around. In my girl body, I always covered myself, made sure my breasts saw no glint of sunlight.
Daddy’s eyes were still blinking, telling me to say yes. How would I escape this? Perhaps I would run away. I could run to Lagos. Money was easy to find there, so why wouldn’t I go? But who would look after Bunmi and Daddy when I would be gone?
My throat itched. It burned. Tightened. Only one shot of insulin was left. And Daddy had no money. My yes would be a life-changer. Bunmi would get as much insulin as she required: cartons and cartons.
It was overwhelming how one word would change our lives forever, how we would all be ushered higher up the stairway of social class. But it scared me, it irked me, my transition, what I would become for life. A woman. I would always have to look pretty for this man who loved me for only my girl looks. He didn’t know me, so what did he like about me? What kind of wife would I be? Not a housewife, I hoped. God forbid that I would sit at home to cook and clean and satisfy his erections and have his children and have no say over my life. I would not survive it. I would rather die. Or leave for Lagos.
I wiped sweat off my face. Because I didn’t want to disappoint my father, because I was scared to be definitive, I said, “Can I think about it?”
“How long?” Tunde asked, fondling his beard.
How long? Till eternity, rubbish.
Daddy stoned me a hard look.
“A week,” I said.
Tunde nodded, got up, and shook Daddy’s hand. “See you soon, Bisola,” he said.
Not that name again. I turned to face the wall. He left, and Daddy stood, stooping. His body had picked up a stoop for years now, his gaunt body looked breakable. He was already in his late sixties, and he could barely use a hammer without collapsing.
How could I say no with all that was happening? With my secondary-school certificate, no good job awaited me, only odd jobs. How would my siblings and I survive on my one-thousand naira daily wages if Daddy died?
“I know this is not what you want, but you may have to do it for us. For Bunmi.” Daddy went into his room.
On a staggering bench outside Bunmi sat, hand-picking beans. I sat in front of her, two bowls of picked and unpicked beans between us.
“Why are the beans so small?” I asked.
“This is everything remaining.”
So we would go to bed half-satisfied tonight. Again.
She pushed the bowl of unpicked beans to me. “If you just marry him, we will have nothing to worry about.”
I fetched a handful of beans, weevils creeping out. “I can’t.”
“Because women are weak?”
“No. Because I have dreams as a man.”
“Then, you should be man enough to be a woman.”
“What?” I poured the beans on my palm, already picked, into the bowl of picked beans. I watched her, waiting for her to explain whatever she meant.
Eyes on the beans on her cupped palm, her forefinger inching through them, she said nothing. She had started again, pouring out the Solomon’s wisdom she had obtained from Mummy.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Mummy used to say, ‘To be a woman one must first be strong. Because to be a woman is to be a sacrifice. To live your life for others. And to do that, you must first be strong.’ Isaac, see, if you are strong, you will do this.”
“Shut up! What do you know?” I stood and shuffled into the house. What did she know? If we weren’t close, I would have slapped her. I would have... She was wrong. What did she know?
Mummy never said that. “However hard life becomes, we will always survive,” was the only aphorism she always said when she was alive.
Perhaps I was not strong enough to be a woman, but I was strong enough to be a man for life. To be a woman scared me. I would not survive it. I hated to change into a girl, even though my girl body was beautiful. I hated the cramps, the monthly blood outpour, the urge always to be pretty, the consciousness that came with being a woman.
I hated the discrimination. Women were seen as weak, as inferior, as sex-givers. They were belittled, called weaklings. They were rarely employed and, when employed, their salary was slashed.
With all these disadvantages, why would I be a girl forever? The moments I was a girl, bad boys were always eager to throw their arms around my waist, eager to slap my ass, eager to hug me so they could squeeze against my breasts. Whenever I walked through the market, someone’s hand always landed on my ass, and sometimes my buttocks were grabbed. Sometimes I threw a punch if he was someone I could fight.
* * *
The morning sunlight was still dim, the house still asleep. I pulled on my skinny Christmas jeans and shirt, my only good clothes. Lagos would not see me in rags. I didn’t sleep the previous night, perplexed by opposing emotions: scared of leaving my family alone and eager to make money in Lagos. I knew no one in Lagos, but I knew I would survive. If losing myself was the only way to save my family, I would not do it. Without Tunde, we would survive. We had to.
I picked up my schoolbag filled with my few clothes: six shirts and four white-washed jeans. I eased my feet into my leather slippers, which were flat; age had eaten away their thickness. I feared they would be cut before I could reach Lagos. But I knew I would wear nice shoes soon: church shoes and not slippers.
I tiptoed out of the bedroom, scared of waking Bunmi. Through the backyard door, I entered the compound and ran. In the city, I would look for work and start sending money home. I was not strong enough to be a woman, but I was strong enough to be a man. We would survive.
Copyright © 2020 by Samuel Oladele