Boys from ana ndi Igbo don’t write with their left hands. Not unless they fall in love with beautiful, left-handed girls. Chika’s elbow bumped into Julya’s as he struggled to trace the familiar formula — “2πr” — the trembling in his arm increased when she looked over to him.
“Sorry,” he’d whisper.
She’d murmur back, “It’s okay.”
Her pen stroke was elegant and neat; his was a clumsy and messy imitation. Chika shifted his paper so that the long side would be parallel to his chest like hers. Even after practicing for a few days he hadn’t noticed that detail.
Mr. Johnson’s cologne snuck up, enshrouding him, blocking all other sensory stimuli. “Mr. Okafor, why are you writing with your left hand?”
Chika blinked rapidly as he looked up at the middle-aged, balding math instructor. “Sir, I just wanted to try it. Two hands are better than one, no?”
Some of the students giggled. Mr. Johnson, sighed, “Fine, but I’ve told you to stop using pens. Look at your shirt. You’ve got ink all over your arm.” He patrolled away his cologne creeping along beside him.
Chika had noticed the increasing potency of Mr. Johnson’s cologne ever since Ms. Herrera had complimented the math teacher on his scent a few weeks ago. Chika had snuck some of his father’s, but he quit when Julya began questioning the weird smells when he was around her.
The screeching of the school bell interrupted his musky daydream. As the students packed their bags and headed for lunch, Mr. Johnson bellowed, “Remember, we have a test on chapters five and six this Friday.”
Julya grabbed for Chika’s paper scrutinizing it like a patron at a modern art exhibit. A chuckle and a smile expanded his heart with expectation. Finally she said, “You really should try to write more neatly Chika.” Pointing to his shirtsleeve, she continued, “Or, you’ll run out of clean shirts.”
As she walked away, he sat deflated. Maybe his cousin, Chudi, had been right — umu nwanyi di egwu.
That summer, Michael Jordan had taken the Chicago Bulls to 72 wins and an NBA title. All the kids on the block loved Jordan; they wore his shoes hoping to be like him. Chika envied them; he hated the Payless shoes his mom would get from the mall. He used to draw little jumpman logos on his sneakers, but, now, he’d taken to cardioids and cursive J’s.
“Ayo lil’ man, throw that ball.” Chika was so engrossed in his art that he hadn’t realized the wayward orange ball. He turned his notes over and threw the ball back.
“Checkup,” commanded the on-ball defender.
The ball handler answered, “Ball live,” as he passed the ball to his teammate to begin play. Chika loved doing his homework at the park. He wasn’t very good at basketball, lacking natural coordination. But, he loved the poetry — like the spoken word artists his mother and father used to go see. The circumlocution of the spin moves, the anaphora of the smack, smack, smack of the basketball, and the sublime trajectory as the ball arced into the basket almost unperceived except for the slight shift of the net. Girls didn’t make sense, but at least basketball did.
The spicy odor of pepper soup wafted over to greet Chika when he arrived home from School. There was the weighty stench of the Hennessy and Guinness Stout following close behind.
“Ise!” The cheerful greeting after the blessing of Oji reverberated off the walls. Chika ambled into the little living room where his dad’s friend Sunday sat glass in hand and belly hanging out.
Uncle Sunday grinned a big gap-toothed smile, “Chika-dimpa you’re getting so big now! Soon you’ll be bigger than your daddy!”
Chika smiled sheepishly at this, and his father beamed at him: “Chika, my boy how was school? Come take some pepper soup!” Chika’s father was tall, dark, and bespectacled. In Nigeria he had been a professor of mathematics at Lagos State University.
Uncle Sunday called to him, “Chika oya come. I have something for you before you take your supper.” He extended his right hand with a five-dollar note in his clench. Chika extended his left hand, his mind drifting to Julya.
“Ah-ah!” His father exclaimed, “O aka ekpe? Chika, you have to be careful which habits you’re picking from the school-o.”
Chika muttered, “Sorry Uncle Sunday. I don’t know where my head went.”
The following day after school, Chika was in a dismal mood. He’d missed an early opportunity to compliment Julya on her new bright yellow hair tie, and he slipped up on a division problem when she asked for his help.
As he walked by the basketball courts with the smacking of the ball to the concrete and the barking trash talk he saw the yellow hair tie rising and falling rhythmically. As he walked closer he could hear her whimpers, “Julya what’s wrong?”
She looked up. Wiped her eyes and sniffled, “Nothing.”
Appraising the dirty chain link fence she leaned against he commented, “You’ll ruin your pretty dress if you sit there for much longer.”
“This is my sister’s old crappy dress.”
He slid down beside her “My mum will kill me if I ruin these pants. She was hoping to give them to my cousin in Nigeria.”
She moved over to create space for Chika to sit against the wall in the alleyway. Chika seized the missed opportunities from earlier, “I like your hair tie; it’s not old or crappy. Is it you’re sisters too?”
She frowned at him in a half serious way, “No! I have my own clothes you know.”
They sat there for a while, silent. The sound of the ballplayers seemed muted like someone had turned the volume down. Chika could hear her breathing next to him. His own heartbeat sounded like a thousand drums and he glanced over at her to see if she had noticed, but her eyes were closed and her hands were wiping at the last of the crusty tears. When they opened she looked over at him as his head snapped back; she smiled at him. She breathed in and asked, “Chika, what do you do when people make fun of you?”
Chika thought for a minute, “In Nigeria we lived in the city, in Lagos. But, when we go to the village, everyone there says I talk like oneya ocha — like a white person. When I come to America where there’s many white people, the black kids say that I talk like an African nigga.”
“But, what do I do about it? Usually, I laugh. One because it is a good stomach exercise, and two because they will think I am in on the joke and it will no longer be fun for them.”
She mulled this over for a bit. Then she cackled, “Chika, imagine you, dark as you are, as a white-African nigga.”
He laughed too. They sat there doubled over — she the left-handed, Jamaican girl with the bright yellow hair tie, he the soon-to-be ambidextrous, Nigerian boy with the newly ruined pants.
Originally published at www.echimezie.com.