Netflix And Chill
The eighteen year old died after choking on saliva last Saturday, whilst engaging in a — what’s a posh way of saying making out? Pre-sexual activity? Probably. Whilst engaging in pre-sexual activity with a young man named Ola Johnson at his family home in the East London suburb of Beauford Green. It was his saliva.
On second thought, the 10’o clock news probably wouldn’t reveal his name. The eerily soothing newsreader voice would be neutral of accent and emotion as they informed the public of my watery demise. Tonal inflections gliding up and down as it relayed a thirty second contracted biography of my life. Predicted Three As and a B at A Level, Temi Adesina was planning to go to UCL this October to study law. She is Nigerian so I guess that is no surprise. Although I do wonder what her parents think about that pesky B. Nigerian parents are known to have pretty high standards. Particularly hers. She would say it in the same factual tone, chin dipping and tilting in micro-movements, the way newsreaders usually do when they want to add some spice to their performance. She leaves behind an extensive collection of MAC lipsticks, and 947 Twitter followers. Her best friend Jasmeen Khan told London News Night that she was hoping to reach 1000 by the end of this year.
Wait. Nope. I’m black. There’s a slim chance they would mention the fact that I’m going to UCL. I bet they’re going to mention the time I got caught on the DLR without tapping in. They’d use my supposed vagrancy to paint my death as inevitable. And which picture would they use? The selfie I took in Jazz’s bathroom the other night with that new filter would be ideal, but I have a feeling they’re probably going to use a picture from last Halloween, when I dressed up as 2009 Nicki Minaj.
Ola pressed closer, his tongue an aggressive tango instructor to mine. Backward bends. Twirls. I mean, I get that saliva is kind of part of the whole deal, but there’s a specific degree of wetness that is agreeable in this kind of scenario. I felt like we had surpassed it. The more excited he became, the more sloshy each head-tilt got. I shifted on the sofa. It was June, and the air that meandered in from the windows was slow and tepid. My skin made a minute kissing sound as it unstuck from the leather. I was wearing denim shorts and an over-sized white t-shirt that scooped low at the neck and displayed a thin, gold chain with a T hung from it. It swung low like a pendulum. Apparently it was kind of hypnotic. Ola’s eyes followed it — or whatever lay beneath it — before shifting my body beneath his. Technically it was hot. However his wetness kept on disrupting my commitment to arousal and the irony was irritating. He shifted up and down a little. It was high tide in my mouth.
I hope Jazz isn’t too grief-stricken to tell the funeral cosmetologist to use Ruby Woo on my cadaver. It’s my favourite. Brings out the warm reds in my skin.
Ola pulled away and pushed a hot, sweet breeze across my face. He’d chosen Ben&Jerry’s as a snack. When we first kissed, the taste of chocolate and caramel had made me optimistic. Made me follow where his lips led. Maybe I confused the taste of ice cream with the taste of him. He was heavy lidded, a sultry obsidian glint squinting through a frame of long, feathery lashes. The combination reminded me of summer nights in Lagos at my family compound. Grey-blue puffs softening the dark night sky, stars peeking through the haze. Their flashes of light winking and incising through the deep azure blur. Don’t be fooled, they chimed. Yeah the sky looks romantic as fuck, but there’s still fire in this shit. Not us, because we’re dead, but we’re reminders. Things are still burning within the depth of this height. I could never tell if the soft edged smokily translucent blobs in the Lagos sky were puffs of pollution or cloud. Plumes of toxicity or water; life. They looked beautiful either way.
A small smile slid around on Ola’s Abercrombie & Fitch model face, complementing his sultry gaze. Calling for camaraderie in pleasure. Incidentally, Ola did actually have a summer job at Hollister. The one in our local shopping centre had a new diversity scheme. One black and one Asian to add to the rotation of pink-nippled, faux-caramel, topless hunks paid London Living Wage to stand outside and entice fifteen-year-old girls into a darkened mock-beachhouse. Ola got the role of the black.
I’ve been inside a Hollister exactly once. It was for my fourteen-year-old sister’s birthday present. She wanted some hoodie that made her feel like she lived in a sleepy beach town in California. She already called our Westfield ‘the mall’ and pronounced Adidas, ‘A-dee-das’. She didn’t need encouragement. Adolescent disappointment was a sobering thing to be the object of though, so I decided to get it as well as a purple, leather Moleskin diary for her to chronicle her teenage years in.
“Why did you get me a notebook?”
“It’s… a diary.”
“When I was your age—”
“Writing things out helped with a lot of stuff. Made me straighten things out in my head. And it’s fun to look back on when you’re older. Sometimes you don’t realise how awesome you are till you read back your own words.”
“Like when you read your own tweets back?”
“So it’s like old school Twitter.”
“Except it’s just for you. And you have the freedom to do you without worrying about other people’s opinions. It’s like, self-developing.”
She nodded slowly. “K. Thanks for the hoodie.”
Going into Hollister was a triggering experience. It smelled like the preppy white boy I’d met at a party who informed me that He Just Loved My Skin-Tone It’s So Gorgeous And He Was Planning For A Gap Year In Africa What Age Did I Arrive Here Wow I Didn’t Sound Nigerian Where Did I Go To School Was It Grammar You’re So Well Spoken Ha Ha, before leaning forward, breath smelling like jaegerbombs and curiosity and confessing that He’s Never Kissed A — quick furtive, shy look to my right shoulder, and then to my face — Black Girl Before. Said with a shit-eating-gee-shucks-aren’t-I-so-open-minded-self-congratulatory smirk.
He was a faux-bro; the kind of guy who said sick and dope and fam and bruh with a Chelsea By Way Of LA lilt. “Kendrick Lamar, man,” he told me by the chips and dips as we were being warned to Not Kill The Vibe, “is the fucking man, man. So dope. What a dude. So sick. To Pimp A Butterfly? What an insight into the Black Experience you know?” I cast an eye out for Jazz so she could save me from this funky-fresh hell, but she was giggling and smacking Adam Suliman’s arm and he was smiling demurely and looking at her like she was a slab of skinless chicken breast and boiled broccoli (he was a gym nut). He was newly single and so was she and far be it from me to get in between my best friend and the man of her vision board (Adam kind of looked like Drake). I would have to endure V-neck-tee for the time being and when I really thought about it, tilted my brain a little and squinted, it was really quite entertaining. He seemed delighted by his attraction to me. So fucking wild with his exotic taste in dark-skinned black girls. I had waist-length black and purple box braids then too, so I bet he gave himself extra points for having the hots for an Authentic Looking One. Probably would have given himself half a point if he saw me with the wavy, 16-inch weave I have on now.
I smiled and titled my head to the side, “How does it go again? It starts with this sample… super old school — ” I shut my eyes and waved my hand around. “Kinda like the theme of an eighties sitcom…” I opened my eyes and gestured to him, “You know right?” He smiled, pleased that he could finally give me something to bite. “Every nig — “
He stopped. Frozen for a sick, silent second. He coughed, his cheeks matching my white, plastic cup of £5 rosé. I sipped from it — nodded deeply. “Ah, that’s right. Every nigga is a star.” To my knowledge he did not kiss a black girl that night.
Ola’s grin was a wicked slant. Turned out he also looked good in Ruby Woo. We shared the same base tones.
I found this out at our end of year talent show — he treated us all with a Chris Brown ditty, the lyrics of which could be referred to if you ever you required a list of synonyms for moist and vagina. Jazz had squeezed my arm, lilac shellac digging into my skin but I was already looking right at Trey Wrong, who, to be sure, was giving me a look designed to make my pussy purr. I can’t take responsibility for that neat bit of alliteration, though. Pussy purr was a lyric in the bridge, and it was what he was serenading me with when his gaze sought and snatched mine. It was a particularly-tricky-to achieve balance of urbane nonchalance and seductive charm. It was cultivated to disarm, but my security systems were reinforced with questions and he had just blinked the machinery awake. Welcome To Temi Adesina’s Intrigue. Name and qualification? Will You Make Her Laugh? Be able to discuss Junot Diaz and Hip Hop in the same conversation?
I cocked my head and squinted my eyes and let the notion ruminate as he rhymed kitty with licky, flicky with sticky. The proposition rolled in my mind as he body-rolled and lifted up his shirt to display part of a six-pack that narrowed into a razor sharp V. Almost exactly like the one that Usher displayed in the “Confessions” video. That was a pivotal moment in my pubescent transition.
There was no real stratification in our school; if there were though, if this were an American high-school rom-com and I was doing the introductory voiceover, he would be the person the camera zoomed in on in the cafeteria wearing a letterman jacket, a football under his arm, surrounded by cheerleaders and sycophantic bros.
“And that? That’s Ola Johnson.” My words would slide through a sigh. “Star of the football team. He sits behind me in English. We talk after class sometimes. He once wrote a poem about how he’s conflicted between working for his dad’s construction business and his dream of singing Justin Bieber covers on Youtube before being discovered and having his own line of urban streetwear! He’s so sensitive!”
“But…” — a pause as the camera pans to me sitting at a table with Jazz. Probably staring forlornly. Maybe with an open notebook in front of me, signifying the fact that I’m an introverted writer — “I’m not part of his world. Not really. He just sees me as the nerd he talks to about books and the complexities of Kanye West. He’ll never see me like The Other Girls. Like A Cool Girl.”
That though, would lean on a movie trope that provides the only reason for my inability to suspend disbelief in your average teen rom-com — a genre in which one can only find the perfect date outfit by trying on fifty ridiculous ones to a pop-rock soundtrack at a suburban mall.
It relies on teenage girls with dichotomous personalities. Bookworms or fashionistas. Smart and funny or vacuous and conventionally hot. One is not like the other. And as per the diktats of the genre, the Hot Dumb Chick only has the guy for maybe 60 minutes of a 108-minute movie. Smart, Funny Bookish Girl has him — spiritually for the whole movie and physically for the last eight minutes — and as hinted at, Ever After. Sickness and in health. University and the quarter-life crisis after uni where you don’t know who or what you are or if you truly want what you always thought you wanted. There would be various clumsy awkward meet-cutes on the way, of course. Dropped books. Hands brushing accidentally. That fission upon first physical contact that causes electricity to course up his veins right through to his optic nerves to jolt the advent of him seeing you in That Way.
The origin story of how I ended up beneath Ola Johnson in his front room didn’t quite happen that way. I wasn’t humbled by his attention. Like I said, there was no real de facto social hierarchy at our school. It allowed for the complexity of human beings and didn’t compress to faction. So the fact that I liked books didn’t relegate me to a life of not knowing what clothes suited the dip of my waist and the curve of my hips. Model UN didn’t teach me that my smile is a weapon and the fact that I often spared boys from it only conserved its potency, concentrated it, increased its lethality so when I shot a sniper smirk at them their hearts stopped. I wasn’t overly concerned with being liked so I guess that made me liked. Treat them indifferently cultivate a mystery. I had a close-knit group of friends, with Jazz and I a unit within it. But I wasn’t special. The only thing about me that teased out curiosity was the fact that I didn’t date. No boy at our school had got a Nandos stamp from me yet. It’s important to note that this wasn’t out of any worthy objective. Like, I wasn’t saving myself for Michael Bae Jordan. I needed to sow my wild oats before I settled down within his sinewy arms. There was technically choice. I’d been asked out at school. And even though I’m ideologically opposed to them I was shortlisted for the Pengest Girl of Year 11. The most prestigious of accolades. If fifty spotty, skinny boys finding me attractive isn’t proof of eligibility I don’t know what is.
The fact of the matter is, no one appealed to me. Dating for dating’s sake wasn’t attractive either. Sure, you’d maybe get a free meal out of it if you were going on a date with a guy who didn’t bend feminism to balance his cheapskate on. But most of the time we know — within the first three seconds — whether we like someone, and everything else is an extended road to disappointment.
When I say liking I’m not talking instant hots. Though it helps. That moment where eyes meet, that gaze-kiss acting like a key for unlocking a trap-door within your belly, allowing electricity to slip through and dip low and make your blood pulsate like 2011 pop-R&B-electro. That’s great. That’s thrilling. But I’m talking about something less tangible. Within the first conversation, I think you know — whether you acknowledge the knowledge or not — that there is a premise for something more. Most people ignore it, braced by the fear of being alone. Flattered by the notion of being Wanted. Reward: the burden of Feelings. Yours and another’s.
One time I got tricked into going on a double date. Jazz, some guy she met at a University open day, and his best friend. We were at a Pizza Express on a Wednesday night. That was the only day they accepted a student discount. There was a small candle lit between three Americans and a Sloppy Giuseppe. Jazz and her guy were talking about something that caused her to flick her thick, dark hair off her shoulder and tilt her chin like she did when she was in her zone and a guy was unwittingly experiencing his last few moments of autonomy before he found himself fully submerged in the Jazz Juju that inspired two love letters on Instagram and a now-deleted passive aggressive Twitter rant in the past (Mandem. Girls are RUTHLESS uno!). There was a tinnitus-inducing silence between myself and Wingman. Two anchors trying to bond. Eventually, he asked me what my favourite kind of TV was.
Him: Like, “Big Bang Theory” and stuff?
Jazz: (Wide eyes. Warning. Pleading)
Me: “Big Bang Theory” is not comedy.
Him: That tall dude is pretty funny.
Me: I mean sure Sheldon is an alright comic character — but I mean, that doesn’t detract from the fact that the show is a lazy caricature of nerd culture. Like it’s so one dimensional. Besides, Sheldon’s character lacks creativity — he’s only quirky because it’s implied that he is slightly autistic. So it’s not just unfunny, it’s offensively funny. Don’t even get me started on race and the fact that the Asian guy — Raj? — is used to buttress bullshit racialised idiotic jokes. I tuned in the other day because I was waiting for “New Girl” to come on, and this guy with a bad haircut walks in and says “What’s up my nerdizzles!”
I paused. His smile wavered. I jutted my chin out, beckoning him with a nod.
Me: I mean what the fuck right?
Him (scratching the back of his neck): Ha. Yeah. So weird. You go proper in. Fair enough. You gonna get the cheesecake?
So maybe I’m also just not breezy enough for it. I can’t drip-feed my personality; temper it till someone gets used to my temperature. I can only be hot or cold. My lone (pesky) B in GCSE physics taught me that heat is energy. It’s easier for me to focus on things I know won’t waste it. Myself. My friends. School. Things that don’t require anything but me, unrefined. Things I don’t have to soften to make me digestible to them. Things that don’t require ego-stroking.
So, Ola and I meandered around each other. He joined our school in sixth form; we didn’t know each other well. He dated around, I didn’t date at all. But in the space between us, I guess there were question marks. He was my direct rival in AS politics. Top of the class flirted with both of us depending on its mood. We quietly competed for its affection. If I rolled my eyes surreptitiously when someone said something dumb in class, Ola would catch it and shoot me a small smirk. He had a face I liked. Jazz once described his skin as “deeply lickable.” Objectively, I had to agree. His skin was dark and poreless, lips shaped ridiculously finely — delicately — for things so full and bold and heavy. He often held a pen between them when thinking. He wore black-rimmed glasses in class. They complemented a jaw that could slice a finger when dragged across it and were propped by the strong curves of his Yoruba nose. He pushed the sleeves of his shirt up often — the politics classroom was stuffy. His arms were steep slopes, sharp dips you might take a trip up or down if you were so inclined. I was latently intrigued.
Ola was at that party where I met Mackle-oh-hell-naw. He’d walked in alone, but upon entrance, a girl had linked arms and nuzzled into him like a cat, back arching, tongue darting out, licking lips that were already glossy, eyes flashing. She was skilled. It was as if she had some sort of sixth sense that was triggered when he walked in — she had turned around immediately, alerted maybe, by the scent of her prey — notes of sandalwood and genuine confidence alloyed with the fake-it-till-you-make-it variety that didn’t look counterfeit to the untrained adolescent eye. I hadn’t recognised her — this was an inter-collegiate party, the birthday of someone who went to a neighbouring school. Friends of friends and frenemies of frenemies in one suburban semi-void of responsible adults, due to a weekend wedding in the country. I didn’t know her, but I knew she was cooler than me, probably. She had blue and black bum-length box-braids — half up, half down — and a gold septum piercing with tiny, intricate, jangling adornments. She looked like a manic-pixie-Tumblr dream in a crop-top and culottes pairing. I’m not intimidated by much, but a girl who can pull off culottes comes pretty close.
His best friend had just announced him town-crier style, Just Look At That Handsome Motherfucker, and he had been making a beeline for his posse before she intercepted and dragged him over to the make-shift bar in the corner of the room. She led him by the hand. She was beautiful; her skill, artful. An arm-slap would mutate into a stroke. That stroke would evolve into a breast-stroke as she reached over to get a bottle opener, shirt brushing arm. It was a dance and Ola knew each of the moves, performed his part. He bent his head so she could whisper something in his ear — the music was, after all, at a very reasonable decibel for comfortable conversation. He nodded, flashing a grin as he quipped something that would make the girl shake her head and slap him on the arm and the canon would begin again. She followed as he drifted over to his boys. She meandered over to her friends once, but only so she could bring them into what was becoming a rookery of penguins trying to keep their heat in. Once or twice or thrice his gaze cast out and caught mine and he released a small self-effacing, slightly embarrassed smirk, like he was above all this, the posturing, this makeshift clique that had formed so his friends could survive this party — fortify themselves against social nakedness — and my face remained straight, maybe turned up a little as I sipped from my dinky white plastic cup, because I wasn’t about to swallow his lie. I wasn’t about to let him believe it either. I respected him too much — he had beaten me by a percentage in our last mock before exams. I knew and he knew that part of himself enjoyed being a part of it — even if he felt apart from it.
I tore my eyes from his and turned to a friend who was tugging at my arm to dance, and when I glanced back at the cluster of cuties he was breaking free. Septum-piercing had stumbled back unnecessarily to perform her shock at his audacity in extricating himself from her promise. Her eyes trailed his movements; they happened to be in my direction. It only took about six strides to cross the room and he was on step four. I turned to my friend — she shook her head to dismiss any attempt at explanation and vanished. Her movement revealed that Jazz — from Adam’s lap — was smirking with wide mock-scandalised eyes. I rolled mine, and by the time they turned back in front of me, he was inches away. His smile was boyish and shy and dangerous.
“Hi. You’re here.”
“I am. Or am I? Are any of us really here?” Did I always have to tilt my head like I was doing right then when I wanted to look him in the eye? Was he always this tall? Had I ever really looked him in the eye?
“l wasn’t expecting you to come. You don’t come to these things.”
“Gotta chill with the mortals every once in a while. Keeps me grounded. Relatable.”
He caught the beat between his teeth. He nodded, face straight. “Of course. Remind me of your powers again?”
“Eyes that can carve out the hearts of wastemen. All I need to do is say when.” The corner of his mouth rose up, presented a slanted curve. The spark of his grin ignited something in the space between us. His eyes didn’t leave mine. Something shifted. This was different from any other conversation we had ever had — in that it was a conversation. Before, we had moved around each other in corridors and classrooms, brushing past each other, potential energy crackling, but he was always dating and I was always hating the idea of it. Besides, I had convinced myself that despite his promising veneer, disappointment lay behind it. Nothing personal, but just the very fact that he was a teenage male. Unfair, maybe. Protection, probably.
I’d seen Jazz get her heart broken. Eight months with a guy from a nearby sixth form college. He cheated on her. She’d found out through a social-media hole, big brown eyes filled to the brim, chest heaving. We balmed the wound with ice cream, sleepovers, and movies with Channing Tatum. There was nothing extraordinary about it. It happens daily. Globally. Universally. But maybe that’s what I found so insidious about heartbreak. It’s so very ordinary. And it reads so boringly. He cheated on her. They broke up. It neatly compacts and diminishes the residual damage — like my best friend with a smile like daybreak found it trapped beneath the rubble of hurt for two months following. Or the fact that her bounding, trusting eyes took months to shed scales of skepticism and regain its light and playfulness and her ability to see potential again. The worst part of it all were the questions. Insidious and dangerous. Lacerating her self-esteem in such broad strokes that I too, standing as close I was to her — always am to her — caught the edge of them.
And all of these questions were asked knowing that he was a piece of shit.
He wasn’t absolved, but still, the self-doubt nicked at her resolve. Jazz was sunlight and strength; a sweet cocktail with sugar round the rim of the glass that held it and burned through your chest as you swallowed, but she was knocked. He cheated-and-they-broke-up, doesn’t include the strength it takes to rebuild one’s self after someone has broken off bits of you.
Cheated-and-broken-up doesn’t include the effort it takes to neutralise the bitter aftertaste. Doesn’t encapsulate the self-love it requires to cleanse your palette and choose to resolutely, stubbornly believe that there is nothing wrong with you; to let that fact alloy to your mind to protect it from the questions that resurrect themselves in your quietest of moments or when you run into him with another girl at Westfield Vue while queuing for some Marvel film. It doesn’t nod at the confidence it takes to run such a cool eye across him that his fro-yo stops melting — before turning away, leaving him shivering and regretful in your wake, the pretty girl with him smacking his arm and asking him whothefuckwasthat. There is a certain strength, requisite for the rolling of eyes, the shrug at the potential tension and wound opening, to move on with a group of hot men in tight costumes avenging something. Teen heartbreak sounds trite — a supposed rite of passage, but it’s brutal and siphons emotion, energy. I didn’t think I had the capacity for it. I was sparse with my feelings and tight about things I gave a shit about. I guess this was probably why I was intense with the things I gave a shit about. Friends and writing, and in a dry, objective sense, school. Romance was a high risk emotional expense. I didn’t have space for it. I wasn’t willing to make space for it.
There’s something about romantic trust that gives intimate power to its object. You can have many friends but traditionally romance is a narrower scope. It has an element of being chosen — its object has something over you. It knows it’s been separated from an ore of technical potentials. With the right person, that should feel like a privilege. In the wrong hands, a license to exploit. If the wrong hands are attached to a canny brain it means they’ll work out that the more they make themselves chosen, the more they can get. “More” might be attention, affection. Could be sex. Often it is. I’ve noticed that if the wrong hands and canny brain are attached to a young, straight male, everything that comprises what it takes to make a girl Choose can be cynically melted down to a key: Make Her Feel Like She Too Is Chosen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The wrong hands will try this key, just in case it clicks. A lot of teenage boys are the wrong hands.
But. Ola smelled kind of good right them. Really good. Mint and citrus and sandalwood and seriously was he always this tall and I liked his bomber jacket and his collarbone was like etched from polished mahogany or whatever and it gleamed from the neck-line of his thin, grey t-shirt and he was looking at me, really looking at me. It was the last party before the end of term. There were two weeks before we left for exams. It was unlikely we’d see each other again properly without concerted effort. He seemed aware. He was bolder tonight, the glint in his eye wilder. He used to edge around me before; we’d never had a proper conversation. Not one held long enough to give us time to unpack the fastening of gazes and the tilt of the atmosphere between us. There were nods and heys, nothing else. But the nothing else only accentuated the something else. And now we were here. Him, me and our blushing, pet elephant.
He nodded. “So. You look really gross tonight.”
“Thank you. I was really going for repellent though.”
A short pause. Ola’s gaze glinted, his grin too, kept at bay, bouncing against the film of his pupils. “Of course you wouldn’t get offended like I’d planned for.”
“Why would I be offended?”
“Because I just said something offensive.”
“Did you? Because all I heard is you trying to do A Thing.” The smile was picking at my lips, trying to pry it open, push the corners further apart. I bit it back. I hitched a shoulder up. Ola bent forward, his eyes trained on mine.
“Okay, so it’s for a thing. Can you please play along? Gasp and be pissed and ask me how fucking dare I. Like, I know I’m an idiot. You remind me of that in class. You’ve reminded me for two years. Humour a brother.” My smile began to rattle in its cages. I cleared my throat and put my drink down on the table I was leaning against.
He shot me a look of gratitude before he cleared his throat. “Wow. Temi.” He ran his eyes across me almost imperceptibly, purposefully. The glint in his eye snagged on the corner of my mouth and tugged it upwards. “You look…really awful tonight. Just…ugh. My eyes.” His smile deepened. “They’re melting, from like” — he waved hand in front my face — “the horror. Of your face.” Something escaped from my lips. Might have been a laugh. I swallowed it back down quickly.
“How fucking dare you.” My voice was flat, making space for our new energy. My eyes sparring with his. My lips started to become uncharacteristically malleable.
He cleared his throat, Shakespearean with his principle line. “Sorry. I do this thing where I say the opposite of anything that comes to mind when I see beautiful girls.”
My eyes glanced upwards and my smile remained inwards. “Ah.”
He shrugged. “I get nervous. Say the wrong thing. Come on way too strong. I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying too hard you know? I figured I need to start playing hard to get. Want them to wonder what’s going on in my head. Like Oh , Ola! What is he thinking! He’s so mysterious!”
I bit my lip but it slipped from my grip. When the fuck did he become funny? Was he always this funny? I always thought he was vaguely amusing when I caught residues of the sarcasm he directed at his friends. I retweeted him sometimes. But this was an interesting turn of events. He caught my smile on its way out, swallowed it and stepped closer. He looked like he had won something. I had a sniper smile, but this guy was acting like he had a death wish. I cleared my throat. “Yeah. You’re fucking impenetrable.”
“Right. And I bet it’s working. You’re intrigued right? I bet you want to know how long I’ve been playing this game for.”
I shifted my weight within my boots and relaxed against the wall next to us. I was wearing Docs and a grey jersey midi-skirt and a crop-top combo because I was really into the sartorial representation of the fact that I was tough but cute. I drew a circle on the inside of my cheek with my tongue. Picked up my drink, sipped. Put it back on the table. He was feeding me the lines, but I didn’t mind. I was curious to see where the crumbs would lead. His words were building a gingerbread house and I wanted to know who would be swallowed whole and who would be burned up or if it was going to be a case of both.
I bit into my cue. “How long have you been playing this game for?” He turned his lips downwards and looked to the side — the theatrics of a thought process, a calculated presentation of a calculation — before snapping his gaze back to mine so sharply it almost elicited a jolt in my pulse. Almost.
He shrugged. “I dunno. Two years, maybe.” I stilled to make up for the inner whirr.
“How do you think you’re doing?”
“Well. You haven’t said ‘when’ yet.”
“Not much though.” My eyes narrowed slightly in assessment, lips now completely pliable, softly curving to match his. Definitely bolder. If all his edges were blurred before, if I could never really define him, everything was coming into sharp focus now. Intense eyes, long lashes. Sure my smile could kill, but his could feel like a kick in the guts. It wasn’t anything to underestimate. It bubbled under the surface like he wanted to share it with me but didn’t want it to spill over to other people. When he finally released it, it was like he reckoned I was worth the risk.
I nodded behind his head, in the direction of the pretty panther who was shooting us bullets from between two heavily lined lids. I’d snatched her catch. “She’s buff.” Ola didn’t turn around. His eyes remained on mine.
“Who Kyra? Yeah. She is.” The silence wasn’t uncomfortable. It was taut with promises. Felt volatile. The music faded into a distant thud, and it was replaced by the one tapping a new rhythm on the drum in my ear. He smiled and I ran my tongue across my lip and nodded slowly, releasing a sharp exhalation through my nose together with a sound that I guess could be interpreted as a laugh which was weird because boys never made me laugh and yet here we were, bubbles falling out fast and loose. Every time they escaped, his lips bent deeper in triumph.
He put the beer he was holding down next to my plastic cup. I looked up at him challengingly from where I stood against the wall. He took a half step closer to me. We were contained, and with the minimisation of the space between us the air became thicker, whatever we had, more potent.
His head was bent. His voice lower, more naked, something about its timbre speaking to something base in me and it was talking back which is bizarre because I thought it was mute. “What do I have to do.” It was a question but also an acknowledgement.
“Nothing. It’s not personal. I just don’t date.”
“That’s been well publicised.”
“Every guy in school who’s tried to save face and cover the huge fucking hole in their chest after you’ve rejected them.”
Yet another smile slipped out. “We’ve got exams.”
“And a whole summer after them.”
“And then we’re off to uni — ”
“In the same city.”
“New people, new experiences.”
“Two years and we barely know each other. We count.” I paused.
“What if I just said no?”
“Are you saying no? If you are, no problem.”
I stilled. I’d never had to think about that question. No usually fell out freely, rejection by rote, but right then it kept getting stuck in my throat, halted in its progression by the way he was looking at me. I was weakening. My usual defences kept snagging on their way up. I was pressing on the trigger but no bullets were being spat out. That had never happened before. Tactics had to be switched. Apparently I couldn’t stop myself. I had to make him stop.
I shook my head. “Okay. You wanna know something about me?”
“I thought I made it clear. I’m not interested in you at all.”
“I’m a romantic. A huge romantic. A sucker for a grand gesture.” Ola rose his brow skeptically.
“Oh yeah. I love the drama of it all. I love public declarations. For example, trying to stop various modes of public transport just so you can jump on board and tell the love of your life that you like the way she crinkles her nose when she laughs and picks tomatoes out of sandwiches, all to stop her from moving to a new city. Buses, planes, trains, I’m not picky. It’s just so fucking romantic, y’know? “I Love You” written on a jumbotron at a sports games. Do they have that in England? I dunno. I’m sure it’s possible in like Leicester Square. You know what’s also cool? Blimps.”
“Blimps. Your love literally being written in the sky. Stand outside my house with a boombox. Chase after me on New Year’s Eve. Tell me, breathless with realisation that I am Not Like Any Girl You’ve Ever Met. Whilst crying, preferably. I’m cool with just a touch of mist.”
Ola nodded slowly and rubbed his jaw, his head dropping as he laughed, before meeting my gaze.
“Okay. I get it. You don’t date.”
I hitched a shoulder up. “Sorry.”
His smile was soft now, small now.
“Don’t be.” He reached for my elbow, gently touching it as he bent down and kissed my cheek. It was a fraction of a second, but it was an almighty burning brush of lips against skin. It was so searing that it must have been noted by giver as well as recipient. He straightened back up, nodded at me, frowned, and then suddenly put his hand flat against his chest, tapping frantically in a circular motion. He pulled a grimace, and slowly brought his hand before his face, a look of horrified realisation adorning it. His heart had been carved out. It melted back into a gentle grin and he walked two steps backwards, bowed, and turning around, faced his court.
My blood cooled. I had approximately 30 seconds to gather myself before Jazz extricated herself for a debrief but every time I picked up a piece of what was supposed to be me, I didn’t recognise it.
My stomach started to swirl sickly, darkly, deliciously and leaning against the wall became a practical need for support rather than the semblance of nonchalance.
I planned for everything. Everything I did was weighed and measured. I had to work hard to get good grades so I could study law to proactively assuage and appease my parents in preparation for when I neglected that degree and hurtled towards the uncertain, unsteady realm of The Arts. I wanted to write. Anything or everything and anything and would go anywhere that passion transported me. Law would be their comfort. Their £9k comfort. I planned for romance in a distant mythical way. In a maybe-I’ll-meet-someone-in-uni sort of way. I didn’t have time or the capacity for it and it never seemed worth it but now I was presented with something I never expected. Finding Ola Johnson really kind of fucking adorable.
His words fell out and into place with mine, matching in beat and in tone, parrying and thrusting, and speaking of thrusting he was really stupid hot. He smelled really good. I’ve said that.
It was pushed to the back of my mind for a week and a half. Superficially, it seemed we had fallen back into being acquaintances. Cursory interactions. Smiles and nods. Except now, when he smiled, it wasn’t shy, or polite. It was small, and deliberate and concentrated. It made something velvet and dark and chocolate pool in my belly. The air between us felt tauter, like if you plucked it something would snap. Someone would snap.
Then came the talent show. Ola, on the stage of our school hall, spectacularly calling my bluff through impressive riffs. Touché. I shook my head. He winked at me. I laughed and Jazz’s jaw dropped. This was my grand gesture. It was ridiculous and technically embarrassing for us both. In reality it wasn’t though, because this was just for us. Now we had some glue, further traction. It was a public, private joke. It was the work of an evil genius. The dark pool in my belly simmered. On his last note, he threw the microphone on the stage, making it screech in protest over the roar of our year. He leaped off the stage and weaved through the audience and picked up my hand and led me out into the corridor and said, still breathless, sweat glistening on his forehead, “It doesn’t even have to technically be a date. Doesn’t have to be a huge thing. We can just watch Netflix. Eat snacks. You can destroy my self-esteem. We can chill”.
The “Shit. Fine.” made its way through a bubble of a laugh without cognitive acquiescence.
But now we were here and I was drowning.
It started off well enough. He’d opened the front door to an empty semi (his family was visiting friends) with a half-smile, black t-shirt and jeans, scents of white musk and cocoa butter ushering me in. Fresh out of the shower. “I always thought you lived in a beach house in Westfield.” Ola groaned as he followed me inside.
“I needed a job. They scouted me. Saving up for NYU summer program next year. Film.” Of course. Why quit with the cute now? He gestured to my leather jacket and I slid it off. He hung it on the coat-hook. I think I swallowed my startle but I wasn’t sure I did it fast enough. It may have made my eyes glint. Can’t be sure.
“Cool. I was looking into their lit summer program. I write.”
“I know. I read your blog. All the time. It’s sick.” We both paused. He nodded slowly.
“Wow. Rewind. Really, you write? That’s cool.” My smile widened. Biting it back was no longer an option.
He had Netflix set up on his TV. On the glass coffee table was popcorn, Doritos, M&Ms, water, Coke and a first aid kit. I looked at him questioningly. He shrugged. “My heart just grew back. Don’t wanna bleed out on mum’s carpet. Never too old for the slipper.” My laugh tripped and rolled out. It never saw its triggers coming.
“Relax. Your heart isn’t in danger of being eviscerated from your body. Again.”
Ola sat next to me and rose a brow. “Woah. Look, I like you, but isn’t it a bit soon for you to be declaring your love for me?”
“Sorry. Got a little ahead of myself. Is it awkward now?” I noticed that he had Brown Sugar queued. He must have done his research. It’s my favourite. I made a mental note to hit up Jazz to check if Ola had hit her up. He relaxed beside me, smile playful and slanting, cocoa butter wafting into my sensory attention. “Just rein the emotion in bit. It’s a little embarrassing”
Ola’s smile faded. Registration fell on his face. I wasn’t present. “You okay?”
He held still on top of me. The smile melted and slid. His brow furrowed. I wiggled my head about, trying to encourage words that were both right and kind to fall in formation. “Um…it’s just…”
“Fuck.” He hoisted himself up and I straightened, readjusting my top and reaching for a bottle of water. He groaned. “I thought something was weird. Like, in my head I just keep remembering the fact that you don’t date and it took two years to talk to you and now you’re here, amazing, and here and there’s all this pressure and I guess I overcompensated and… too much tongue?
I took a third swig of water and put the bottle back on the table. I either did us both a disservice and protected his feelings (however temporarily, because we would not be kissing again if what had just happened continued happening) or I respected whatever metallurgical reaction was happening between us. Gave it a chance to show us what it could do. This meant being myself — full capacity. Untempered. “Kinda. And with the tongue comes a lot of like… wetness?”
“Thank you. I want to die.”
I shook my head with a laugh that this time, worked no magic. I scooted closer to him on the sofa and unpicked his hands from his face — he had dropped in them, leaning his elbows on his knees. “Hey. It started off okay. Good, even. But I think you started to think too much. And it made me think too much. And maybe I didn’t give it enough attention. So you overcompensated. I dunno.”
“You know what it is? I don’t usually do this on a first date.” There was a stubborn light dancing in his eye despite the potential awkwardness, determined to maintain our rhythm. “I have morals and principles. You’re a bad influence.” His straight face bent my lips. I was still holding his hand. “This doesn’t count as a date.”
“Even worse. What are people gonna say? That I’m easy?”
“Yeah. You’re kind of a slut. I’ve lost a lot of respect for you.”
“My dad always said, never kiss on the first date. Stay away from girls with faces like yours. Smiles like yours. Chicks who wear leather jack — ” I pulled his deflective humour into my mouth. It tasted just like mine. A few seconds, and he followed. His lips took their cue. Their stage fright was wearing off. His thumb and forefinger moved to tilt my chin upwards and he beckoned me deeper and the dark, delicious feeling I was missing rose and then sank me further into whatever this, whatever this could be. My eyes closed. They hadn’t before. My hands took the scenic route to his shoulders — up the steep slopes of his arms — and pulled. His own curved round my waist to my back and pushed. We were kissing like any second we could both be burnt up. Control was ceded as quickly as it was seized on both sides. I guess our competition had moved from the scholastic to another arena. As soon as we parted for air we came back together more voracious. Oxygen + fire.
Eventually my palm pressed against his restless chest to separate us slightly. I cocked my head to the side in question. He shrugged in explanation. “You kissed me this time. Maybe knowing for sure that you’re into me was what I needed to — ”
I snorted. “Cute bullshit.”
“Had to try.” Our mouths and noses bumped and hovered and the heat was ratcheting up again. Our eyes locked. R&B electro. 2011 Usher. Ola’s lips spread against mine, into our conversational silence. “ Hi. You’re here. I wasn’t expecting you to come. You don’t usually — ” I flicked his arm and gave him a laugh to taste. “Wanna get Nandos with me tomorrow?”
I entered a short story competition, a collaboration between 4th Estate Books and The Guardian (an amazing one, a blessing, one that I think is groundbreaking and will change the British publishing industry) and I made the shortlist. I didn’t win, but it isn’t hyperbolic or bullshit triteness when I say that I feel like I did. Making the shortlist meant a lot. A lot. Even if you know you can’t not do something, even if you don’t know who you are without it — even when your brain and fingers feel too heavy and too full when you don’t do it, you still wonder if you should. If anyone would even want it once you’ve done it. I don’t often dwell on things I should technically be proud of. I move on quickly and eye up the next goal. This is different. This is something that is me in a way that is different from anything else. Writing is very much my first love. Well, second. After reading. They’re related anyway. I messed around with siblings, so sue me, I like to have fun. I have a lot of stories to tell. Mainly for young girls. Young black girls in particular. Girls who don’t often see themselves in the type of stories they love most. I craved them when growing up. This is the first time I’m putting something out there for strange eyes. I’ve always written for myself. It’s fun to know that other people may want to read what I’ve written too. It’s humbling and I am very grateful. OKAY, YEAH YOU’RE RIGHT, EW, GROSS.
Hope you enjoyed! (or not. Your prerogative. Just don’t @ me, I am a delicate flower. With petals that can close in and bite your face off.)