The waiting area is full of people, milling about and chattering, congregating and whispering. Eyes excitedly alighting on eyes, they crowd around the wooden benches lining the walls. You sit at the end of one of those benches, staring absently at the wood paneling on the opposite wall. Its surface, cratered like the moon, glimmers in obedience to the morning sun shining brightly outside. Then you watch the people as they walk by in twos, in fours or more, their exuberance announced by each eruption of gleeful laughter. Women flash toothy smiles as men clasp their hands. Others, with grins frozen on their faces, trail them.
You are wearing your purple knee-length dress because it’s the most pomp and circumstance you could muster for this day. Your brown flats are not so festive – you want to bend down and rub the scuff off the left one, but you don’t care enough. Your newly-done thick black braids aren’t in honor of this day. They cascade heedlessly down your shoulders, stopping just shy of your mid-back. You can’t believe you’re here, about to do what you’re about to do. The confusion is too diabolical to contemplate now and your eyes, hidden behind small, round glasses, start to smart. You focus on the obvious joy of the others in this waiting room and you take a sudden interest in Brian’s attire; he’s sitting to your left. You notice his beige button-up makes him look paler than usual, almost like it’s in quiet dialogue with his blond hair. The dark blue tie, his favorite because it’s splashed with the binary codes of Os and 1s, blends too well with the shirt and his dark blue khakis. You don’t like things that match. Ironically, you like the idea that you and him don’t match as spouses-to-be, that this occasion clashes with your idea of yourself.
“Where are they?” You ask no one in particular, your lip a thin tight line.
“I don’t know why you chose Jim,” Brian replies while taking another peek at his watch. You ignore him because he’s made this complaint enough times in the past. Engaging him will mean repeating yourself, repeating your explanations.
“Of all the people…” he trails off. “You know Jim still has feelings for you?”
“I know,” you say, annoyed. “She was one of the few people I felt comfortable asking.” You snap, your voice croaked by that familiar desperation, that sensation like a whirlpool in your gut threatening to consume you from the inside out.
You look away, not wanting to get pulled into this conversation again, yet you can’t help but appreciate the sheer ludicrousness of the act of asking Jim to do this. Then you remember the main reason. Jim, though heartbroken by it, will keep the secret of this wedding.
Nine months ago, student visa expired, options for legal immigration status dwindled from slim to nil. That desperation forced you to ask Brian to marry you. He said no, then he said maybe, then he said yes because he’s your best friend who will do anything for you. You never stopped to think of sitting together in the courthouse, your mind evading the gravity of a marriage that is as real as the ruse you put on to prove things are legit between you two: the shared bank accounts and credit cards, the shared residence, the shared false narrative of a fast moving romance that preempts this moment, the shared lie.
“As soon as you guys are married you can apply for a work permit,” Lani your best friend had gushed over the phone months back after you’d ehm-ed and um-ed your way through the telling of your upcoming nuptials.
Marriage had taken her far away from you and now she resided somewhere in the Midwest you rarely traveled to. Over the phone you could hear her cooing at her half-Pinoy-half-white baby.
“Yeah, Greg and I fast-tracked this baby to prove to those muthafuckas that things were real.”
You shuddered. There was no way in hell you’d go that far.
“They will scrutinize the hell outta you,” she added as her baby made delicate sounds in the background.
“But think about it,” she continued, “an actual work permit! Hell, picture having an actual green card. No more putting up with slime just so you can get paid under the table. Imagine!”
You thought about Jason who managed the bookstore where you worked. As far as slime goes, he wasn’t the worst, and sleeping with him wasn’t the absolute worst, and he’d only asked the once. If he asked again?
Cheering reaches your ears from one of the doors lining the walls. You imagine each door leading into a hidden chamber that hoards seductive mysteries where its inhabitants partake in clandestine rituals and are sworn to secrecy about what they experienced. This all sounds a lot more exciting than what each room is in reality. You picture the judge, black robes and white ruffled collar. You see a reddened face wizened and wrinkled with age, balding dome with thin gray wisps of hair flattened down. You see a man peering down at you from his judge mount with sharp, keen eyes, hands clasping a gavel. He forcefully brings it down while announcing to uniformed men, “Fake wedding! Take them away!”
“Guess that’s what it sounds like to be happy about your wedding,” Brian says, his head inclined in the direction of the cheerful sounds, a mournful look on his face.
Just when you’re about to snap at him out of frustration, you catch sight of Jim weaving her burly frame through the crowded hallway.
“There she is!” You leap up and wave.
Jim strolls towards you and Brian, muscles bulging through her ragged orange t-shirt and paint splattered light blue jeans, dreadlocks bundled together at her back of her neck by a red bandana.
As you look at her walk towards you the word beefcake comes to mind, bringing a smile to your lips. You remember that night by the river she’d pleaded with you to drop that perception of her.
It was because of that beefcake appearance that you were surprised when she first recited Audre Lorde’s A Litany for Survival to you. You didn’t expect her thick fingers used to wielding a mop around the gray floor of your university cafeteria to maneuver delicately hued abstract images onto white canvas. But they do. That’s the reason you let yourself get slowly pulled in. It was when she recited Rumi, the way she uttered the words as if she’d spent hours plumbing the mystic depths of their meanings. That’s why you let yourself get involved with this one initially, even though you were confused about what this meant for your sexuality, even though you knew your very Nigerian parents would probably kill you. Never before had you wanted someone this badly, especially someone who was neither a man nor woman, whose gender expression challenged your own so deeply, so much so you ended it.
Still you couldn’t stay away.
A year ago, in1999, you met her at the gym, where you practically lived and found yourself over and over on the bench press. You went to the gym when the emotional pain of the abortion and the would-be father’s desertion no longer let you go to class. When depression forced you to wear nothing but black and skip classes, the only way you could wrestle free from its grasp was by lifting weights way too heavy and feeling your muscles tremble in protest. Each time you hoisted the hefty barbells overhead you pictured Angela Basset’s bulbous biceps in Strange Days and imagined another you in a different body, one like Angela’s but more, one androgynous like that model Jenny Shimizu but more.
There, one day while working the tricep pull-down machine,
“Do you live here?”
You looked up and were suddenly ensnared in eyes boring into you and a bulky body that towered over you. Is this a man or a woman, you wondered? Without the usual gender cues, you weren’t sure which scripted greeting to follow.
“I always see you here and I’m always here so I know you must be here…always,” she continued, that slightly sardonic smile you came to know so well tilting up her lips.
You usually don’t chit chat with guys in this place. The least annoying of them try to give you “workout tips,” which you usually reject with a cold glare and a swish of your braids as you turn back to the 45lb dumbbells you were arm curling. The most annoying of them try to say something about your body, how you look in sweats and why that’s appealing to them. Those guys you want to do grave acts of violence to, but Jim’s masculinity didn’t seem particularly man-like. Her eyes disarmed you and her sardonic smile intrigued you.
“I’m exorcising some demons,” you finally said, using a forced tone of nonchalance.
The sardonic smile widened until her straight white teeth were visible and her eyes continued to bore into your own. There was a message they were trying to communicate, you thought. Suddenly the air around you was charged with electricity and you remembered the last time you got laid was many moons ago, the last time you fucked your ex-boyfriend and the condom broke. That had been before the abortion, before the depression thickened until you felt every part of your body weeping in despair. You looked at this person standing before you whose gender you couldn’t place, and that excited you to no end.
The next day you met her at the school cafeteria after her shift ended late at night. Together you walked to the lake at the other side of campus and settled in by the water on the green grass. The lake was a long black winding snake, its surface dotted with reflections of the moon and stars overhead. There you and Jim traded stories of growing up, the army brat life that had taken her to Germany and back to Charlotte where she’d gotten kicked out of her home for being queer, for not being girly, and suddenly found herself homeless. You talked about growing up in a Nigeria still hopelessly lost after the Biafran war, the three year civil war that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians, most of them Igbos. Her family was headed by a drunk, abusive father and winged by a perpetually cowering mother, yours by a raging, forceful mother and a perpetually absent father. There by the lake, as she talked and gazed from you to the full moon in the sky, you had an urge that you decided to obey. Hooking your right hand around her waist, you pulled her closer to you. The kiss was sloppy and libidinous. It was full of loud lip smacking and moans, rough caresses and clothes ripping.
You’d never felt so free sexually. All that depression and rage over the abortion and your ex’s departure, you laid it all out on the grass under the cover of night. You squeezed her sturdy shoulders hard because she could handle it. You scratched and pinched as you fucked and sucked and she moaned through it all. When you were spent, your fingers were sticky, your lips and tongue sore. When you’d stilled your movements on top of her and just allowed the locking of eyes to continue, then she flipped you over, then her calloused fingers went in you in one swift motion. She pinned you to the ground with a force you could absorb, your bare back scratched up by the sharp blades of grass underneath, and breathed hotly into your ear, “I’ve been wanting to fuck you since I first saw you at that gym.” Her full weight on top of you felt like home. The feeling of her moving inside you blocked out your surroundings.
For what seemed like eternity it was just you and her.
After that first rendezvous, you met her after her shift every Friday night. And every Friday night, she took you to the lake. You started to become familiar with her body. That tiny Bini mask tattoo at the nape of her neck. The mole right below her left nipple that you liked to nip with your teeth. The keloid scar on her thigh from a fight she’d gotten into with her father. The tramp stamp of the Om symbol that you liked to tease her about, after which you’d duck down and kiss the tattoo over and over. One moonless night she licked you till your orgasm was a geyser erupting out of you, your mouth emitting loud groans so loud you were both worried campus security would turn up.
One day she asked you to tell her about home. You tried to laugh off the question, derail the conversation, ask her to answer instead, but she held fast and pushed till it all came out of you, all that you’d been fighting to hide about your so-called illegality on US soil. You told her about leaving Port Harcourt, traveling to the U.S.in the early 90s thinking you were coming for a visit, but hearing mom say, “you’re not going back,” as the plane launched into the sky. Though you were all of 15, you may as well have been six at that moment, so scared were you for what waited on the other side of the American border, so scared were you of having to rely on your mother for survival. The woman who had very nearly killed your dad on many occasions, who’d beaten you and your elder sister bloody numerous times would now be fully charged with your care. As the plane soared through billowy clouds pinned against the backdrop of a light blue sky, you thought your life was over.
You told Jim about how the question of home is always one of papers and paper work. You left home with Nigerian passport in hand, visa affixed to one of its crisp green pages. When you arrived at the US border, the North Carolina division, you showed the customs officers the passport and the papers that entitled you to officially step foot on US soil. You showed them the contents of your backpack.
“More,” they cried. They wanted to see more, so you showed them your suitcase, they opened it roughly, moved the contents around roughly, your clothes and underthings spilling onto the dirty black and gray linoleum floor so filthy it suctioned the soles of your shoes. They searched your mom’s suitcase too. The one bursting with dried fish wrapped in old newspapers, thigh-sized hairy tubers of yam, plastic packets of chin chin, packets of ogbono seeds, crayfish, egusi seeds, and amala powder. Each and every one of them, the custom officers dumped in the trash. “Contraband. You can’t bring these here,” the black female customs officer said with a wrinkle to her nose, her gloved hands limp at her sides like she no longer wanted to be associated with the very part of her body that’d touched your things. Another officer stamped your visitor visa. On your way out of the terminal, you spied the sign, the one that read, “Beware of Nigerian drug smugglers from Murtala Muhammed International Airport.” You wondered what that could ever mean because all the Nigerians you knew who traveled abroad filled their suitcases with the same foodstuffs you’d brought with you, rather than cocaine.
You told Jim about seeing the white two-level house, the American home your mom took you to, on a tiny street in Charlotte for the first time and feeling like you were looking at your new jail, about being your mom’s maid and cook and punching bag. She’d rather the punching bag was your father, the womanizer that he was had pushed her to the boundaries of sanity. You told Jim about what you now call “Cornflakes Day,” the day mom, in a fit of rage, pounded your body with her balled-up fists, then scooped up the soggy cornflakes you were eating with her bare hands and smeared them on your face. When you described the taste of salty tears mingled with the rich sweetness of milk, her crying melted your heart.
There was that call where she spent 4 hours reading The Color Purple to you and you wondered why you were so afraid to let this relationship be, to let your feelings roam where they wanted. You pondered again on the mysteries of sexuality, gender and desire and who controls this stuff anyway? Why feelings rear up in the most unlikely of places. It was Jim’s androgynous face you pictured next to yours when you lay in bed at night. And it was Jim’s calloused nail-bitten hands you pictured sliding down your bare thigh when you jerked off right before sleep. But it wasn’t just wanting to fuck her that drew out your fascination for Jim, was it? It was that boyish way of hers that fascinated you, wasn’t it? Because somewhere deep in you was a boy wanting to emerge, and you weren’t quite sure what kind of boy exactly, but you knew he was there, biding his time.
You broke Jim’s heart the day she told you she loved you.
“I can’t be with you anymore,” you said unable to meet her eyes. “I think I’m not strong enough to…” Date someone like you? Explore who I really am? None of these sounded right. Instead you just repeated, “I can’t be with you,” your eyes boring into hers this time. Your feeble, “I’m still trying to figure myself out,” didn’t do much to erase her pained expression, the crestfallen look, and the downcast eyes.
And then on another day,
“I’ve asked Brian to marry me.” You felt ludicrous saying this. After witnessing the epic dissolution of your parents’ marriage, after seeing blood bead up on your dad’s cuts fight after fight, after seeing your mom wave that butcher’s knife in the air, after seeing her raise and try to bring down an empty wine bottle on his head time after time, you knew marriage was not in the cards for you. Yet, with no other options in sight, here you were.
“I wish I could do that for you,” she said because she knew the only type of desperation that would compel you to do such a thing.
“I know,” you responded quietly.
“Hello,” she says, bringing you back to the crowded courtroom. You smile back, shyness and anxiety keeping you from hugging her. You’re so glad she’s here, you’re glad someone else you trust will be a witness to this thing you’re doing, because this is madness to be getting married when you don’t want to, to be getting married because it’s your ticket to safety. You’re so glad Brian said yes when you asked him to take this leap, yet in a way, even if it’d meant your eventual deportation, you wished he’d said no. Faking a marriage, putting on a show for people vested with the power to decide if you stay in this place you’ve called home for the better part of a decade or go, is the world’s bitterest pill to swallow. And what awaits you if leaving this country is what befalls you? A life of unfulfillment as you stifle the sexual desires and gender journey that’s yours and only yours to explore?
“Thanks for coming,” you smile again, hands dangling at your sides because you don’t know what to do with them. Jim burrows her hands into the pockets of her tight jeans as the sunlight streaming in through wide windows catches a glint of her deep black eyes. She retracts one hand and tugs at her tied-together locks. You know that move. It’s a nervous tic.
“It’s weird,” she says while looking around then finally landing on your face, “but I understand. Desperate measures…” she trails off and looks away for a second before training her eyes once again on you.
“Sorry I’m late!” Emily, your former classmate’s sudden appearance startles you. “I left as quickly as I could. I had to set up these cultures in the lab with Professor Steck breathing down my neck about those VBNC numbers.” She looks at you then at Brian.
“Hi! It’s your big day!” She beams, the only one who thinks this is actually what it’s supposed to be: a real wedding. Then she notices Jim, “I’m Emily,” sticking out a clammy hand, hazel eyes dancing behind her thick glasses. Jim takes her hand and introduces herself just as an older black man in a dark blue uniform, with salt and pepper hair, emerges from one of the rooms. He announces the surname you and Brian had agreed on. With your husband-to-be and two witnesses in tow, you follow him into the courtroom. The uniformed black man closes the door behind you.
Ola Osaze is a trans masculine person of Edo and Yoruba descent, who grew up in Nigeria and now resides in the U.S. Ola is a Voices of Our Nation Arts workshop fellow, and has writings featured in Apogee, HOLAAfrica, Black Public Media, Black Girl Dangerous, Black Looks, Autostraddle, Trans Atlantic Times, Trans Queers: A Transfags Sex Journal, and anthologies, including Yellow Medicine Review, Queer African Reader, and the soon to be released anthologies, Queer Africa II and Outside the XY: Queer, Brown Masculinity.