I first met Funmi when I was fourteen and in my second year of secondary school. I was a weird kid, and I guess we both were, but she was the weird that was endearing and got called “quirky” while I was the weird that got relegated to goalie during PE class because nobody wanted me on their team. We bonded over the fact that both of us were considered foreign and, therefore, mysterious. My parents had been separated for about two years at that point, and I had returned with my father from England the year before. Truth be told, I hated my dad. But I loved my mother, and I figured that the last thing she needed getting back into the dating scene was an obnoxious thirteen-year-old son, hanging off her frame like the tag on a shirt you weren’t quite sure if you’d return yet. So, full of youthful pessimism and thinking myself to be quite the martyr, I relegated myself to the oppressive heat of life in Lagos.
The heat was all I could think of the second I stepped off the plane. It permeated into my very being and prevented me from thinking of very much else as I felt my body produce more sweat than I had thought was possible. If I’m honest, I’d felt the shifting of my reality the second I’d boarded the plane. I distinctly recall having looked out of the plane’s window out onto the grey tarmac and the equally grey sky to remind myself that I was still in England and had not yet left the ground. Nigerians were just different. They were loud and messy and just took up so much space. My mother had never been close to her family, and my father had no relatives in England, so my first experience with Nigerians was something of a shock for the young me who had grown accustomed to adults with names like Dave and Sharon who only ever got loud when they were drunk. Dave would never make so much noise calling his relative from the plane and Sharon wouldn’t be caught dead yelling at a flight attendant for a broken screen. These people were strange to me, and with a sinking stomach, I soon realized that my dreams of reinventing myself as a flashy young foreigner would be hard won.
My father had made the decision to put me in a boarding school. He claimed that having me around children my age would help me get “accustomed” sooner. Admittedly, it was rapidly becoming awkward when adults would gape at me once I greeted them with a perfectly polite “hello” accompanied with my left hand outstretched, but my dad was never one to be so considerate. Rather, it more likely had to do with his 19 years younger girlfriend who was closer to my age than his. Perhaps he thought I’d be a nuisance to her. Perhaps he feared that she’d prefer me to his overweight, uninspiring frame. Whatever the cause, I was promptly dropped off at a boarding house that I was assured was the best in the country, with a suitcase full of clothes and the number of our driver, Mr. Sampson, in the case of emergency. I arrived in the dead of night, which I honestly preferred, as I was never one for a crowd. I remember listening to the low, steady hum of the generator and wondering if there was no constant electricity and would I have to listen to this every night? The buckets in the shower stalls confused me, as would the later knowledge that they had to be filed with a near-dangerous level of Dettol before it was considered safe to shower. On my first night, I was plagued by a strange whining in my ears that frightened me and only ceased once I dove under the too-hot sheets only made hotter by my rapid breathing. It was only later, about a year or so, that I would think back to that first night and finally realize that the strange whine had in fact been the sound of mosquitos.
Needless to say, I was not very well received by the boys my age. I was a skinny, squeaky voiced virgin who preferred films to movies and thought myself better than the majority of other boys in the house because of it. Evidently, the latter was apparent. I wish I could say that my weirdness made me a pariah, avoided and left to my own devices, but Nigerians are not known for ignoring things we do not like. The boys in the dorm thought it funny to do things like steal my towel during my showers or borrow my clothes without asking. Any complaints on my parts were met with slaps to my head, and jeering taunts about my wealth and apparent snobbery, which I suppose was intended to make me hard and build my character. Any complaints to my housemaster led to tales of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his seniors during his schooldays, which for some reason, were remembered rather fondly by him. This “teasing” went on for about three months or so, during which time I carved out a neat little space for myself as a freak who wasn’t interested in learning about African Magic or Afrobeats and would rather watch Japanese cartoons than walk aimlessly around the mall looking for girls. I had accepted my role as a social outcast, and I was happy to live out the next three years of my youth just so until I met Funmi.
Funmi was one of those girls with whom all the other girls didn’t quite know what to do. She was pretty enough to warrant intense jealousy and hatred, but she was so goddamn nice. And nice in a genuine way, which I’m surprised I could even notice back then since I was one of those assholes who was sarcastic all the time for no apparent reason other than being caught up in the importance of my teenage rebellion. Back then all the girls did their hair the same, cornrows, mostly, with braids now and then. If they were confident enough in length, they would blow it out to the absolute limit, then straighten it until it was paper thin and stuck up in weird directions any time the wind blew. Our school had a uniform and most managed with what they could. The boys were alright. We had a basic white shirt, grey trouser combo. The girls, however, had a rather unfortunate time of it, with these horrible tartan skirts that had to go past the knees (and the teachers were sure to check, frequently) paired with white shirts. We all had to wear blazers, which to me seemed like a pathetic attempt at being a “real British school,” because what other reason would have students wear blazers in 30-degree weather? The skirt and blazer combination were such that the majority of girls looked as though they were drowning in fabric, regardless of weight or height. But not Funmi. Perhaps she was unnaturally attractive for a thirteen-year-old girl, but then perhaps it was the fact that she didn’t take herself too seriously that made her stand out from all the other girls, who donned sweaters in the blistering heat to cover up their rolled up skirts. There was something about her that called out to my persecution complex as being “worthy” of my attention.
Our first meeting was accidental. I had been sent out of class by a geography teacher for some reason or the other. Rather than stand there and wait to be caught and punished by the principle, I decided to take a stroll to the bathroom in the gymnasium, which was by far the best bathroom in the school; a fact that only a loser like myself could state with absolute certainty. She was sitting on the steps in front of the gym, sketching something in a notepad. This action must have resonated with the indie movie protagonist in me, as I felt inclined to call out to her.
“Hey. You alone?” I have to thank the inflated sense of self-worth I must have possessed at the time for giving me the confidence to ask such a blatantly stupid question without remorse. She looked up at me, then pointedly around her and responded, “Yeah?””
It was the first time I’d heard her speak, and the sound of a foreign accent filled me with a sense of camaraderie. According to the conversations my roommate held with friends whenever he forgot I was in the room, she had come from America, with her two happily married parents and a younger sister. I found myself wanting to hear more of this voice.
“Haha, yeah, right. But, um, what are you doing? Not drawing, I mean, but outside?” It was at this point I was forced to confirm something I had suspected for a very long time. I hadn’t avoided talking to girls for the greater part of my life because I was too deep or mature for them to understand me. I had avoided talking to them because some part of me, more honest than the rest, had realized that I was awful at it. She stared at for a bit, before putting down her sketch pad.
“I was in art class with Mr. Ayo, but I finished the assignment early, so he told me to get started on the next one, which is landscapes, so here I am.” She said, picking up her sketchbook and flipping it around to show me a decent drawing of some trees. “You?”
I wondered if telling her the truth would make me seem nonchalant and edgy, before quickly convincing myself that I didn’t care because I was just that cool.
“I got kicked out of class and decided to take a detour. Decided to pass on waiting for Mr. Okafor to find me” I replied.
“Well, that’s stupid.” She said, “considering that his office is much closer to here than it is the geography classroom.” That was the first of many times that Funmi would alert me to the fact that I was not as bright as I believed myself to be.
We hung out a lot after that. I think that I might have been a refreshing change from her regular friend circle, who in my honest opinion, tried too hard. To them, she was a deity. Smart, pretty, and above all, American, which to a lot of the students made her cooler by default. Of course, that isn’t to say that I didn’t try hard. I probably worked harder than anyone. I just spent a lot of time trying to make it seem like I wasn’t, and I guess that difference was refreshing to her. I always got the impression that she was effortlessly cool, but now and then I remember that she probably tried as hard as any of us. I remember hanging out and lunch time once and hearing her say “abeg jo, go and see what’s on the lunch menu.” Hearing her attempt at Nigerian slang made me burst out laughing, and it wasn’t until I saw the genuine hurt and embarrassment on her face that I realized that she too was a teenage girl trying to fit in, just as badly as the rest of us.
Unsurprisingly, the other kids never really got our relationship. Neither did I, honestly. We spent a lot of time together doing nothing, reading in silence, showing each other music and movie trailers. This time often consisted of me trying to impress her with my wealth of useless knowledge, and her simultaneously correcting me and making me aware of how seriously I took myself. I think she considered the daily deflation of my ego a sort of charity project. She still hung out with her much cooler friends, who saw me as a leech, monopolizing her time and infecting her with my weirdness. Spending time with her made me the envy of the boys in my dorm, who regarded me with a mix of confusion, awe, and jealousy. Obviously, I was secretly in love with her, as I suspected half of the school was, male and female alike. When people would come up and ask her if we were dating, she’d say “Yeah, so?” at which point they would run off giggling or mildly disappointed. She would then laugh and drag me off somewhere. I never asked if she was serious about her answer, probably because I was too much of a coward to find out either way.
I stopped boarding in year 10, and after that, she’d sometimes come over to my house after school, something which confused me to no end. Lagos wasn’t London where a home visit required an oyster card, and a couple of bus stops, home visits in Lagos required a driver, a car, fuel in the tank and patience. She claimed that her parents worked during the day, and so her driver was free, but I would have much preferred to have visited her if only to avoid my father. For a long time, I blamed much of what happened between Funmi and me on my father. By the time I moved home, my dad’s girlfriend was long gone, as he had discovered her to be an “ashaweo” which he meant to suggest someone whose sole purpose was to drain him of money but I took to mean she had slowly begun to discover she could do much better than him. On that particular evening, my father had been ranting at me, about how much of a nuisance I was, how grateful I should be to him for paying my school fees, feeding me, bringing me into existence and so on. My father was one of those round-bellied pompous rich men who had gone through life receiving much of what he wanted with little difficulty. He tended to spend his evenings back from work drinking beer and disturbing the peace of anyone unlucky enough to be nearby. Unfortunately, that person tended to be me, most of the time.
Unlike my mother, my father felt no guilt hitting me. I was a man, and any tears would result in a disgusted look and his suspicion that I was “one kind,” by which he probably meant gay. That particular evening, I had just been on the receiving end of a series of punches from my father, due to a report he had received from a friend of his who claimed I saw him in public and didn’t greet him. I had tried to explain that the man in question had been on the phone at the time, but my father would hear none of it, and proceeded to beat me as he believed that I had “become a big man now.” I was in my room, in no mood to receive guests, when the gateman rang the house saying there was a Ms. Funmi at the gate. Given that my dad had gone to see a friend, and that she would probably have refused to leave, I decided to let her in. I hardly remember what we ended up fighting about. But Funmi was good at reminding me I wasn’t as smart as I wished I could be, something I usually found funny and cute, but, this time, it wasn’t. This time I had had enough of being told how stupid and weird and unwanted and worthless I was, and I just wanted her to shut up. Because why did she always say things that made me feel so small and inferior, and didn’t she know how much I despised myself and the fact that I couldn’t seem to relate to anyone and that I hid behind her confidence to mask how utterly terrified I was of the fact that people would realise I cared more than anyone and how much their rejection and her casual pity hurt me and reminded me of how entirely alone and strange I was in a city of posers that identified me as an outsider and, Oh God, why wouldn’t she just shut up.
And then I hit her. Once, in the face.
I don’t remember what had started the argument. Maybe she said something, or maybe I was just an asshole. But I do remember the stillness of the air and the absolute silence in the room after that moment. Both of us were stood, frozen, me staring at my hand, not quite believing what I’d just done.
After a moment had passed and the gravity of the situation had sunk in, I moved towards her. “Funmi I’m so-”
As soon as the words had left my mouth, she flung open my bedroom door and bolted through it and down the stairs.
That night consisted of me basking in my own self-loathing and waxing poetic about Nietzsche and how in that moment the abyss had looked into me and made itself home, essentially turning me into my father, which I would usually have choked, rather than admit. I think at that point I still expected that things would return to normal. I would apologize profusely, and she would forgive me, perhaps after a few days of the silent treatment. She would forgive me, and we would be back to normal, her, confident and assured in her strangeness and me wearing mine like a blanket to hide how entirely empty I was under all the fabric of my bravado.
But she didn’t. And we weren’t. That evening in my bedroom was the last time I spoke to Funmi until graduation. I had tried to approach her on several occasions, but she avoided me, sometimes more outright than others. This avoidance pleased the boys in my year to no end, and they took great pleasure in aiding my fall from grace. She was never particularly mean to me, but the stinging cold of her silence hurt more than anything her words could incite her loyal following to do.
After a month of no contact, I realized that I had damaged things between Fumi and me in a way I hadn’t realized. I had done something unforgivable, and unlike my sweet, grace-filled mother, Funmi would not wait for a repetition before severing our connection. When I next saw her at graduation, She regarded me with a smile and threw a “congratulations” my way before turning to hug a friend in near-hysterics over the thought of leaving secondary school. I remember looking at her knee length skirt and her neat cornrows, slightly damp in the unrelenting heat, before walking over to my father, who was surrounded by teachers that probably despised me but continued to tell him how proud of me they were. I looked over at Funmi, hoping to share an eye roll at the very least, and met with space where she had been. With a last look towards the trees that had once been captured in a decent landscape, I turned towards the car and left them all behind.
After that, I returned to England for my A-levels. Once again I tried to re-invent myself. Part of me believes my moderate success was due to Fumi’s influence making me a little cooler, but part of me realizes that I probably just met a group of people who happen to be as pretentious as I was. I was two months into my second year of university when I saw a photo collage of Funmi on Facebook captioned “R.I.P babes.” I honestly can’t remember what exactly happened after that, but I do remember suddenly waking up and realizing I had blacked out for about four hours. According to rumors, she had died of an overdose of pills. Normally people would call it suicide, but everyone who knew her said it must have been an accident, some university experimentation went wrong, because Funmi was always so happy, and smart, and respectable, and a girl like that would have no reason to kill herself. Depression never even factored into the narrative of a girl like Fumi who emitted ease with every part of her being. Everyone who knew her loved her and thought her incapable of being so emotionally and mentally troubled as to take her life. Which made me think that maybe nobody knew her, including me. And maybe that’s why she killed herself.
I initially wrote this at the behest of my therapist, who is convinced that I’m repressing my emotions and that this has made me unable to form genuine relationships. And maybe I ‘m writing this to convince myself that I have a reason to feel the way I do, six months after the fact. Maybe I’m writing to prove that she and I existed together at a point in time despite not being entirely friends nor lovers but something that brought out enough passion and anger in me to hit her and still be able to remember the look in her eyes four years later.
But now I look back and think that maybe I didn’t know a damn thing about her. Perhaps we all made her into who we wanted to be: the cool, pretty girl from America who was always laughing and still looked pretty in cornrows and would let you borrow her math homework if you bought her a pack of skittles. But did she like her parents? Did she have any genuine friends, and did she consider me one of them? Was she ever sad enough to consider killing herself? Even now, I’m romanticizing the person she was in an attempt to come to terms with how incomplete of a person I was at the time. To me, Funmi was always the person I wished I could be. She was a blank slate that made all the bullshit and absolute nothing in me that much more evident, both to me and anyone who would take the time to compare us. She showed me how pathetic I was and maybe that’s why I hit her that day. Or maybe I’m just a piece of shit with delusions of my importance in the life of a girl who maybe killed herself because she was constantly seen as a projection of what people like me wanted her to be. I don’t know. And I won’t ever know; because that’s how it works when people die.
Recently I returned to Lagos for my uncle’s funeral, at the demand of my father and perhaps on my part to get some form of closure from the city that I had both cast aside and been exiled from. While shopping at the newly-renovated mall, I ran into the girl who Funmi had hugged during graduation. She eventually caught my eye, and we stared at each other for a second, before she turned away and we walked past each other in silence.