What Girls Want in the Afternoon

Makena Onjerika

The afternoons that December came upon Sonni fiercely. As the air turned wavy with heat, she swelled with restlessness buoyancy. There was a strangeness in her body, as if someone or something else occupied her. She was irritable. She was excitable. She was forlorn. She could have run naked and screaming through Hunter’s housing estate. She felt she was coming apart, somehow.

For several months already, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company had been rationing electricity in most parts of Nairobi. A six a.m. to six p.m. daily blackout. With Sonni's parents away at work all day, her brothers too young to be any company to a fifteen year old and with no T.V. or radio, the afternoons sagged and stretched like the dead powerlines slung pole to pole along the murram roads in Hunter’s.

Some afternoons Sonni made her way through the dry and dusty miscellany of haphazardly-built buildings that was Hunter’s housing estate — bungalows, maisonettes, unfinished structures, rental plots, each gated and walled in rough-hewn quarry stone — to take refuge at her friend Patti's house. These afternoons they spent lying side by side on Patti's twin bed. That December, Patti was reading Pride and Prejudice to make up for the lack of reruns of Maria de Los Angeles on T.V. and swooning over a certain Mr. Darcy. She read aloud into the restless afternoon, and Sonni only half-listened, her mind on other things.

By two p.m., the corrugated-iron sheet roof above them began ticking in the heat like an animal whose back itched. Cobwebs straddling the oil-blackened rafters shivered. Patti's mosquito net hung over them like a white-clothed dancer frozen in pirouette. The room smelled of dust and of the sticky sweet mango tree blooming outside the window. Patti's untidiness surrounded and engulfed them. Weeks after their return home for the holidays — after three months of homesickness, showering with cold water and picking weevils and stones out of food in boarding school — Patti had yet to unpack her metal storage box, as if eager to go right back to academic prison. The box sat on the red oxide floor, clothes falling out of it like multi-colored tongues. More clothes littered the floor. To Sonni, they seemed bodies paralyzed in odd, languid postures.

“Do you ever feel you are someone else?” Sonni asked, one afternoon.

Patti stopped reading to give her a look: narrowed eyes, creased brow. “Are you listening?”

“Like you are somehow inside yourself, but also outside?”

When something did not interest Patti, she moved her tongue about in her closed mouth as if looking for lost bits of food.

“You think weird stuff, Sonni,” she said, and she went on reading.

Sonni pinched her own thigh in frustration at her failure to articulate this thing happening to her. Lying on Patti’s scratchy wool blanket, under her sonorous voice, she felt that she was being drawn then erased then redrawn, over and over. She was taking a shape she could not yet make out, and she had no control over the outcome.

A gecko appeared on the blackened rafters and stared at her with sympathetic beady, black eyes. Then suddenly, as if startled by a sound only it could hear, it vanished in a zigzag of tail, leaving her feeling abandoned.

When she left for home an hour later, Patti's older brother, Robba, was outside his standalone room in a corner near the gate of the enclosed compound. He was benching a weight he had improvised by pouring wet cement into two old paint cans and sticking a metal pipe between them. She’d seen him exercise before, had heard him groan under the strain of some thirty kilograms, but this time, his being shirtless sparked confusion in her feet and she nearly tripped. And although she could count the number of times he had spoken to her in all the time she had been friends with Patti, Sonni rushed for the gate.

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When she did not want to see Patti, she crossed and re-crossed the large tracts of open field between the buildings in Hunter's. She plucked long, wheat-like grasses, chewed on their soft stems and spat their bitterness at the dust. Indolence hung over everything.

Most adults seemed unable to work. The posho mill and barber shop on the estate's main road had already closed down.  But even those who needed no electricity for their work whiled away the evaporating hours: the tailors, the watercart men and the househelps.

In this lethargy, Sonni felt she was a dust devil spinning across the dry land, grabbing clothes off clotheslines, flinging plastic bags high into the air and throwing dust into people’s eyes. She threw rocks at a lonely loquat tree standing gnomonic to the wall of an unfinished house. She threw rocks at the tangle of weeds and creepers growing like nose hairs in the windows of the house. She considered throwing rocks at a stray dog, but decided she could not outrun it.

Her restlessness often led her across the vast ocean of wind-swept grass beyond the last houses in Hunter’s. Grass as far as the eye could see and only two lone trees like giraffes raising their necks to feed on the low clouds. On clear days, the horizon was true blue. Beneath it was the black curve of a railway line, like a mistake crossed out in ink. Walking through the grass, she startled grasshoppers and butterflies into flight. She clambered up a favorite rock jutting out of the grasses and squatted there, listening to the distant sounds. It often seemed as if she were alone in the world.

But the world was not hers to wander freely. When she went by construction sites, buildermen ferrying metal basins full of mortar up rickety scaffolding whistled at her. Stonemen hammering quarry stones into rectangular blocks pointed her out to each other with quick movements of their chins. And the sweaty, bare-chested men who fed cement, aggregate and sand in spades to hand-rotated concrete mixers stopped to stare and catcall.

“Black beauty,” they said.

“Come I marry you.”

Her body had changed that last term in boarding school. The vegetable mamas at the shopping center called her enlarged hips madiabas, a word that made Sonni think of pumpkins. One of them had even ululated when she had first gone grocery shopping upon her return from school.

“Turn around I see,” another had said.

They had congratulated her, told her she was now a woman, but all she had felt was exposed, as on display as the too-ripe tomatoes stacked on their rickety makeshift stalls.

“Now listen.” The first mama had leaned in to whisper so that her voice would not carry to the butchery next door. “It is important you be careful. Men are ... you understand?”

Sonni had had a violent urge to spit at the woman’s face.

After that, she had begun taking shortcuts to circumvent this kind of commentary. Shortcuts through fields on whose barbed wire fences hung stern notices: Not for Sale. Trespassers will be prosecuted. But trespassing had its more immediate dangers. One day, she caught her hair in a barb.

“Stop moving,” said Patti's brother, Robba, when he found her struggling to untangle herself.

As he freed her, she felt herself shrink with the shame of being caught bent over with her big behind in the air. She could not look him in the eye when she thanked him. He shrugged and walked off with his hands in his pockets. She imagined him telling all his friends about the stupid girl he'd found stuck in barbed wire. She imagined the laughter. It was terrible. She stomped her toe on a rock rushing home.

After that, he seemed to always have some business or other in one of the stalls littering the main road into Hunter's estate. Most often, Sonni spotted him in the vicinity of the pirated-movies-den that had transformed into a pool-table-den since the electricity rationing began. All the teenage guys in Hunter’s flocked to this wood-and-corrugated-iron-sheet shack to throw off the clingy boredom of the afternoons. A dim cavern with a bead string curtain at the door, it felt mysterious and forbidden. When Sonni went by it, sharp cold chills knifed her in the stomach. She feared Robba would step out at any moment, with his laughing friends in tow, but also found herself wanting him to push the curtain aside and pull her inside.

In the end, a twenty-something year old, whom she later found out was the den’s owner, appeared by her side with sour breath.

“It’s only five bob to play,” he said, a smile splitting his face. Had he noticed her staring at the pool den? Had Robba?

“I don’t know how to play.”

“Small problem. I can teach you.” The smile grew wider and an arm went round her shoulders. She let him walk her to the door and hold the bead strings aside. Through the corner of her eyes, she saw Robba watching her from where he sat with friends on a bench leaning against the wall of the pool den. He did not seem to be laughing at her.

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Because of the blackout, Mama Milly's salon was only offering plaiting and weaving services that December. Its usual smell of burnt hair was missing — no electricity to power blow-dryers and force unruly hair into straight strands that sizzled as they followed the straightening comb upwards, then blew white smoke and fell heavily, as if exhausted. No electricity and therefore no dryers under whose globes women’s heads entered wet and wilted and re-emerged dry and full of volume. And no electric coils to heat the bucketfuls of water required to wash the heads of customers. Sonni went in with her hair already washed and so dry it crackled when Mama Milly pulled a comb through it.

What the salon still had was the smell of female bodies, that sweaty, sticky sweet smell that Sonni suspected emanated from certain hidden parts of women's bodies and now, from hers too.

Mama Milly, multiplied infinitely in the triptych of wall mirrors on one side of the saloon, turned Sonni's head this way and that as if in the act of deciding how best to climb a mountain. Sonni steeled herself against all the pain she was going to feel over the next three hours as Mama Milly grafted synthetic hair onto her own and braided it into a Christmas-and-New Year's-appropriate hairdo. She would have a headache afterwards and for several days, but as Mama Milly constantly stated ‘Beauty is Pain.’

“I'm not saying he did the right thing, but you know how she talks,” said Mama Milly's employee. She was stitching a synthetic weave onto the head of a woman with red talons for nails.

“Kwani, she was not supposed to ask him where he had slept for two days?” asked the customer.

“You can't just talk to a man anyhowly and not expect him to react,” said Mama Milly.

Sonni realized that they were talking about Mama Milly’s second employee who was absent. And the more they talked about her husband beating her, the more Mama Milly pulled Sonni’s hair. Her eyes stung with tears.

There was a stack of magazines on the narrow counter below the mirror. Sonni had seen the hairdressers offer one or two of these to their customers, to help them pass the time. She pulled one out of the stack.

Tattered around the edges and dated three years before, the magazine had a gold-colored cover featuring a world-famous celebrity in an almost see-through top, bikini panties and a thin gold belt. Her hair was wet, her makeup running and her nipples almost visible through the top. Sonni left the magazine on her lap for a few minutes, expecting Mama Milly to take it away at any minute. Then she cautiously peeled it open and turned the pages until she found the article titled “Understanding What You Like.”

It was not about discovering one’s hobbies. Not at all. But Sonni found she could not shut the magazine. She felt thoroughly naughty. All the parts she had studied in Biology class were discussed in the article and not in dry scientific terms. Her cheeks grew hot. She wanted to squeeze her eyes shut, but instead squeezed her legs together and kept reading, hardly breathing or noticing Mama Milly’s pulling. Number 1 discussed impossible positions. Number 4 was a description of something that made her want to gag. Surely, not with the mouth? Sonni looked up at the women around her and wondered if they had ever done a Number 4.

“Me, I don't understand how someone can beat you and you stay with him,” said the weave customer.

“You are young-young. Just wait, you will see how it is,” said Mama Milly.

Number 7 was about lingerie. Sonni imagined herself in tiny bits that hardly covered her behind, strutting in high heels. She felt slippery, her whole body oiled and fragrant.

“Eeh, what is making you so happy?” asked Mama Milly’s employee.

The three women looked at Sonni and her dirty magazine. The weave customer laughed and said, “Leave her alone. She is just curious.”

But Mama Milly was already tearing the magazine from Sonni’s hands. She shut it and threw it back on the pile.

“You, young girls. You want to know everything,” she said.

“Knowing is not wrong,” said the weave customer.

“Knowing is how doing begins.”

Sonni’s shame was soil in her mouth. She wished to spontaneously combust, but instead had to endure two more hours of Mama Milly giving her disapproving glances in the mirror.

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Patti paced up and down her bedroom and said it again: she hated Robba with all her heart. Her agitated movements reminded Sonni of the old, overheating lorries that delivered quarry stones, ballast, cement bags or sand to construction sites around Hunter’s, farting dark smoke, throwing up dust and shaking cacophonously out of joint on the murram roads.

Patti pulled off her sweater and slapped the floor with it. Then, without any warning, she pulled her dress over her head. She was stark naked underneath and did not have a single hair down there.

“Open your eyes, this girl,” said Patti. “Do I have something you don’t?”

“And what do you have exactly?”

That earned Sonni a slap on her shoulder with the dress. Patti’s body was as straight as a ruler, with small hard mounds for breasts. Sonni had once been like that. Perhaps if she were still, she would be as unselfconscious as Patti and nakedly going about trying to locate some clean panties among the piles of clothes on the floor.

“I do everything. I wash clothes, the house, dishes and then he comes to ask me where is lunch.”

Sonni kept mum on the bed where she sat, and watched her friend slip into whichever piece of clothing smelled clean. She wanted to be Patti’s friend, to agree with her and spit out her own expiates at Robba. All these things were true about him, but he did repair the gate when it came off its hinges and he burnt their garbage once a week in the corner of the compound.

Patti fixed a hard, suspicious look on Sonni. “Are you even my friend?” she asked.

“Aki Patti. But he is your brother.”

“So that means his hands are special?”

“Have you ever eaten something cooked by a guy?”

“And us, were we born knowing how to cook and scrub sufurias?”

Sonni put on what she hoped was a sympathetic expression. Truthfully, it was Patti’s fault that Robba never helped her with house chores. She did not ask him nicely or make him feel he was being a good brother by helping her. She preferred doing things the hard way, fighting.

“I'm ready. We go,” said Patti.

“Like that?”

After all that fuss finding clothes, Patti had only managed to look more slovenly — uncombed hair, a creased T-shirt and baggy jeans. She screwed up her lips with disdain. “Madam dresses, not everyone likes walking with her thighs rubbing against each other.”

Sonni smoothed out the pleats on her dress. Patti was just Patti.

The water drum that had started the fight between Patti and Robba still lay on its side at the door of the main house — Patti’s doing. A muddy patch of spilled water clung to its lip. A wheelbarrow piled high with plastic jerry cans stood beside it. Patti muttered curses as she locked up the main house. Sonni stole the moment to glance at Robba’s standalone room. His door was shut, but through the open window came Lucky Dube’s laden voice, off his battery-run radio:

“I’m a prisoner. I am a prisoner.”

Sonni imagined Robba inside, lying on his back in bed, one knee bent and raised, one hand flat on his face, shirtless. He had come inside to watch her learn how to play pool at the den, and had not chuckled with the other guys when she’d ejected the cue ball out into the main road. His gaze had made her felt electric. But he had not talked to her afterwards.

Patti gave the empty water drum a kick, sending one of her mother’s hens flying and squeaking to safety under the coop.

“He won’t go fetch the water. I will still have to do it,” she said as they stepped out the gate.

Sonni said nothing, not wanting to encourage further complaining. She’d chosen a bad afternoon to visit Patti and was now being dragged to the diesel-powered posho mill five kilometers away to grind maize seeds into flour. She just wanted to get there and back as soon as possible. Her parents expected supper on the table when they got back from work at seven p.m.

“You think I am being dramatic,” Patti started up again.

“It’s just how things are.”

“You don't wish you were born a boy?”

Sonni only thought of the soreness in her hand from gripping the fifteen kilogram bag of maize seed they carried between them, and the heat and her sweaty, smelly armpits. She seemed to sweat all the time now. A drop of it ran down her back and slipped into her panties. They could not go back and be born boys, could they? Patti could be exhausting, and her mood only grew worse when they arrived at the posho mill and found a queue.

“Guys are so stupid,” she said.

People in the queue turned to look at them, but Patti either did not notice their glares or did not care.

“You know a girl was expelled from school this term because of a dirty letter from a guy?” she said, running her fingers through her already unkempt hair.

Sonni wished she had applied less Vaseline Petroleum jelly to her feet. They were red with all the dust she had collected on the way. She did not really want to hear Patti’s story — sweaty patches were embarrassingly blooming at her armpits — but she asked the question she knew Patti wanted to hear: “Kwani she didn't tell him teachers in boarding school normally read our letters?”

Patti pushed her at the shoulder. “Why are you blaming her? Everyone knows that.”

Sonni could already sense that they were headed towards a big argument. “But how can she have been expelled only for a letter?”

“Does it even make sense? She didn’t even write it. And then at assembly the next Friday, our headmistress said she knew we were opening our legs for boys during the holidays. Ati she did not want malaya in her school. As if all of us do dirty things with boys.”

Sonni imagined the expelled girl waiting for her parents to pick her up from the school gates. All that shame, as thick as eating dry sweet potato. And for something involving guys, her mother would call her worse than malaya, and her father would never speak to her again.

Patti looked teary. “Nothing ever happens to guys.”

Patti’s tone and the small crease between her eyes made Sonni less annoyed with her. Patti was just Patti. Sincere and perhaps too sensitive.

Their friendship had begun with a whispered secret on the way home from their local primary school. Sonni did not now remember the secret. What she remembered was Patti’s warm and tingling breath on her earlobe and her own gratefulness at having been chosen for it.

They walked back from the posho mill in silence. Patti seemed to have recalled the chores awaiting her at home, and Sonni was grateful for their faster pace; it made the bag of flour feel lighter.

There were more people on the roads now, some arriving from work, others out for an evening walk. The sun was sliding out of the sky and drowning in a pool of orange-red light. Sonni felt cooler. These were the final moments before the electricity came back at six p.m. Conversations transpired in the middle of the road. People stopped to buy intestine-sausage roasting on charcoal grills outside butcheries. A man shook a plastic bottle of cow-bone soup to distribute its fat evenly then poured cupfuls for his waiting customers. A breeze came along and stirred the hem of Sonni’s dress and went up between her thighs. She felt sharply aware of her body, a pleasant, sparkling sensation. She thought of Robba benching his improvised weight.

“Oh God,” said Patti.

Her exclaim pulled Sonni back to earth. She too saw the five guys sitting on a heap of quarry stones outside one of the houses up ahead.

“They don't have any chairs at home?” hissed Patti through her teeth.

Sonni’s body now felt all wrong: large, wobbly and out of control, and her panty chose just that moment to wedge itself into her butt crack. She dearly wished for the ability to become invisible. With five pairs of eyes on her, she was wading through mud, her clothes and limbs heavy with it. Her palms were so sweaty, she could hardly keep her grip on the polythene flour sack. Already the guys were whispering and snickering. Sonni regretted wearing a dress. She felt it shrinking under their gaze, exposing her legs and oversized buttocks. The guys were going to make comments, she was sure. One of them started singing the Thong song: “Oh that dress is scandalous.”

“Don’t be like that,” said a second guy. “It’s rude not to greet people.”

“They think they will become pregnant from talking.”

“Sista that dress is shaping you nicely.”

“Look at those hips.”

Sonni forced herself not to run. She shook her head at Patti, but the girl was clearly thinking of doing something regrettable. Patti set her end of the sack down and turned to face the guys, arms akimbo.

“What is your problem?”

“Let’s go Patti.” Sonni tried to pull her away.

“No, let go of me. Why can’t we walk around without being disturbed by these dogs?”

“Who are you calling dogs?” This was the Singer, looking just like a bulldog.

“You, shapeless head,” said Patti.

His friends chortled at this and slapped him on the back. He didn’t seem to find it funny. He stood and climbed down the stone heap. Patti meanwhile added that he was also a goat without manners.

“Patti, let’s go.”

The Singer came right up to Patti and pushed her on the forehead with his rude finger.

“Are you a boy? Look how shapeless she is.”

That got his friends slapping their thighs and quaking with laughter. Sonni itched to have a stone in her hand.

“Girls in this area have no respect,” said one of the guys.

A harsh laugh tore out of Patti. She looked crazy with her uncombed hair. “Respect? You think you are important because of those things hanging between your legs.”

Sonni’s stomach plunged. Where had Patti learned to talk like this? Now the other four guys stood up. She could already hear the sound of the slap about to land on Patti’s face.

“You want to beat me? Try it, you big important men.”

Sonni saw that Patti had lost her mind. She refused to recognize that they were just two girls against five. She didn't see that no one was coming up or down the road, to their rescue. She wasn’t thinking of all the bad things these guys could do to them. She thought she was invincible.

Sonni did the only thing she could think of. She slapped Patti hard across the face. “Stop it.”

Patti’s face cycled through emotions: surprise, confusion, hurt and anger. She growled and pushed Sonni hard at the shoulders, enough to make her fall on her buttocks. The guys called for a fight and gave each other high-fives, laughing. They had won and Sonni saw she had helped them win. Patti gave her a look meant to split her into two, right down the middle. Then, she hefted the sack of flour onto her back and walked off.

“Learn some manners,” shouted one of the guys.

Sonni didn’t dare look at them. Their taunts and jeers broke in waves on her back, over and over, until they were too far away to hear. Under clear blue skies, she felt rained on, drenched to her underwear.

“Patti,” she called.

She was going to apologize. She was, but their paths diverged at the local chief’s house. Patti turned left. She walked with such straight-backed righteousness, as though she had not been in the wrong too. As though she hadn’t endangered them both with her stubbornness. As though Sonni hadn’t saved them.  Did she think she was the only one who could get angry? Sonni turned right.

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For a time, fear of meeting those five guys again kept Sonni close to home, confined behind the perimeter wall enclosing her parents’ house. When she went out the gate, it was to the vegetable mamas and back. Christmas drew near, and she longed for Patti, but she would not be the first to apologize, not this time.

Her morning chores done, she sat outside on the veranda listening to the sounds of Hunter’s estate. The electricity blackout had forced children away from their cartoons and out-of-doors, where they rediscovered the primitive joys of kicking a ball around and screaming themselves hoarse. Her younger brothers’ voices ricocheted wildly on the walls as they played in the open fields between houses. Drying clothes snapped on the stolen telephone cables. Insects on window sills cleaned their mouthparts with their spindly feet. And whiffs of heat-baked latrine poisoned the air.

In this cage of heat and idleness, the restlessness Sonni had sought to escape through her walks attacked her more and more often, insistent and suffocating. It was a certain warmth in her belly. A certain tingling sensation between her legs. A certain dryness in her throat, a thirst no water could quench. She thought back to the pool table den and imagined Robba’s hand on her hand on the cue stick, his body an excruciatingly small distance from hers as he stood behind her and his breath too sweet from the Coca Cola he was sipping.

Locked away in her bedroom, she slipped out of her panties to feel her cotton sheets against her bare body. She pinched her nipples. She stroked them. She imagined Robba kissing her from breasts down to her dark triangle of coarse hair. He parted her. He said he liked how she smelt. Her middle finger explored the whorls of flesh around her small, sweet fire.

At first, she just touched it, pressing and pinching it gently. Then she began rubbing it, growing wet and slippery. Slowly, deliciously, as she imagined Robba whispering things to her. Shivering flashes of hot and cold spread through her limbs. Faster and faster and faster she rubbed, opening up, blossoming. Her body felt wholly hers then, with so many interesting places to feel and touch. Her thick thighs, her pot, her buttocks were sumptuous flesh to knead. Her small breasts just the right size to cup. Tongue, she thought. Robba’s tongue. She found that she did not squirm when she thought of doing Number 4 on him.

She breathed. She sighed. She felt she was too full to breathe. She rubbed fast then slow, hard then gently, cultivating the sensations coursing through her body. She tightened and tightened. A wound spring. A kernel of compressed energy. She detonated. A small animal sound involuntarily escaped her as she shook and constricted into a microsecond of ecstasy.

Then, she returned and her body poured. It became loose and liquid, almost transparent. She was clay to the potter. She was dough to the baker. She was wax, melting. She was woman.

Some afternoons, sleep took her immediately. Others, she descended into a riot of emotion, part shame, part doubt, part exuberance and part things she could not name. She tried to convince herself that this thing she did was normal. She was normal. Patti probably did it too and many other girls at her school. She could not be the only one whose body overwhelmed her.

But would she ever say to Patti, “Sometimes I feel depraved. But others, I feel I have become myself.”?

And would Patti ever say, “We will one day feel at ease in these bodies, my friend.”?

No, they would never talk about this, if they ever talked again.

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She relented first and went looking for Patti. But for the third consecutive day, Sonni found the iron-sheet gate at Patti’s house chained. She looked back at the road she had taken in the sun. Why was Patti so stubborn, making herself absent when it was she who intended to apologize? Sonni took hold of the chain on the gate and rattled all her frustration into it, so hard that the gate shook and whined at its hinges. She wanted to pull it right off. But suddenly, someone on the other side yanked the chain from her hands. The padlock unclasped with a click and the chain noisily slithered away through the holes in the gate.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Robba stood there, shirtless and glaring at her. Heat crept up her skin and she had to restrain the urge to bolt off in a mad run. She had not imagined he would be home. That was the look of someone who thought her immature and just crazy. She mumbled a sorry and dug her nails into her palms.

His expression softened. “She went upcountry for Christmas,” he said.

That was just like Patti, holding onto a grudge all the way into the new year. Sonni should have gone home and never returned. Instead, she made a decision and put out her hand when Robba went to shut the gate.

“Can I listen to your radio for a little?”

He gave her a quizzical look but did not protest when she slipped under his arm into the compound. She was only going to sit on the steps outside his room and listen to the radio, nothing more. But then, when she got to the door, she pushed it open and stepped inside.

“Okay,” he said.

He didn’t have any chairs and gave no indication of where she should sit, so she settled herself at the foot of his made but rumpled bed. He was so much neater than Patti: his shoes were on a clean, polished parade along one wall, and all his clothes clung to the shoulders of wire hangers on a sisal rope slung between walls. The radio was on a low table and beside it was a neat stack of cassette tapes. His old secondary school books occupied the rack under the table, carefully sandwiched between wooden ends. And above the table, on the wall, was a poster of Bob Marley in a haze of white smoke.

“Stir it up, little darling, stir it up,” sang Robba with the radio, now reclined on the bed, hands behind his head, eyes closed, chest sporting sparse wisps of hair. For all his being eighteen and a secondary school graduate, he looked like a boy just then, trying to sing in that rough voice.

“Are you a Rastafarian?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

Now what did that mean? This close, she saw that his lips were not symmetrical. The top lip was wider on the right and pulled back more on the left when he sang.

“So?” he asked.

There was something dangerous about his question, something that would burn her if she responded. Quivering a little on the inside, she slipped from the bed to take a closer look at the cassette tapes. Some were labelled in ballpoint pen — Wailers, Tosh, John Holt, “Scratch”, Hammond — but most were not. One of these latter had spat out a tongue of its black, shiny tape. She tried to nudge its spools with her nail, then set about looking for a ballpoint pen which she found under the table. She swung the cassette on the pen’s axis and it swallowed the errant tape with a satisfying zap.

“You don't have Backstreet Boys or Nsync?”

He chuckled.

“I’m not a kid,” she said.

He wasn’t listening.

“I’m not innocent.”

She went to the bed and in one quick movement, before she could change her mind, she bent over him and pressed her lips on his. She hoped this was how it was done. It was, because he sat up and kissed her back. Her body lit up; her nipples pressed against her bra-top. But the kissing was also strange, wet and full of teeth and tongue. His mouth tasted of orange juice and onions. His breathing was loud. His hand roamed her chest, trying to reach under her blouse. Then he stopped and pushed her away, so that she stumbled.

“Chick, why are you looking for trouble?”

His rejection stabbed into her innermost parts. She understood she was supposed to run out of his room. She was supposed to cry and lament into her diary. She was supposed to feel embarrassed for the rest of her life. But she didn't want to do any of that. Instead, she settled on the plastic paisley sheet that covered his floor, her arms hugging her knees. She had such small toes and such big nails, she thought.

“You should go,” he said.

“Don't let them fool ya. Or even try to school ya,” advised Marley.

One of Mama Patti’s hen was watching her through the open door, its chicks chirping at its feet, its one visible eye, large and moist and tinged yellow with sunlight. Sonni was feeling something large, but it wasn’t shame or anger or disappointment. It wrapped itself around her and pressed in close. She smiled at her toes.

 

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