“Lagos is lit this time of the year!”
The excitement in Tayo’s voice made me chuckle softly.
“Oh really? And what exactly makes December ‘lit-er’ than the rest of the year” I asked cheekily.
“Oh just the sheer number of IJGBs that would be around, the parties every day and I know it’s no New York or London but Lagos actually gets happier…like there’s a happy energy that you feel crackling, wherever you go…and did I mention the IJGBs” Tayo replied, with a smirk on his face.
At that, I burst out laughing. Those who came home to Nigeria from overseas, popularly referred to by their default catch phrase “I just got back” ergo, IJGBs were Tayo’s main source of happiness for a bunch of reasons, but the most obvious one being that he was more at ease with them because they were less likely to be judgmental about his sexuality.
“Well Mr. I-do-it-for-the-IJGBs, we’ve gotta first of all survive this trip to your dad’s, then you can have as much fun as you want in your ‘lit Lagos’”.
“WE. We can have as much fun as we want” he corrected.
“Yes daddy” I replied, tongue in cheek.
“You know YOU are my daddy”, Tayo said.
“I know but I can still call you daddy just because” I replied
At that, we both burst out laughing, Tayo’s warm and hearty, mine slightly sonorous and resonant but still welcoming. Well some people used the word ‘mesmerizing’ and that was fine, it was a perfectly rehearsed laugh and no one I’d met could ever tell.
“We’re here” Tayo said.
I looked out of the Uber and saw us at the gate of a beautiful house that was isolated from the other houses – the closest house at least half a mile away – but although it was ‘alone’, it looked like it was that way because it was of a different class from the others; the house looked as Victorian as houses in Nigeria could get and it was obvious that the owner of the house was a classy person.
“This is where you grew up?” I asked Tayo as we got our luggage out of the trunk.
“Nah. We grew up in Ikeja but after we lost mom, with none of us being in the country at the time, dad built this so he could have his privacy.”
“He’s a man with taste”
“I know. Where do you think I got it from?”
We both laughed as we made our way into the house.
The next couple of hours were a flurry of activities. Madam Sarah and Mr. Akpan, Papa Johnson’s long serving house keeper and chef who both winced when I addressed them as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’ which made me even like them more, had settled Tayo and I in our rooms, I’d had the most amazing meal of Ofada rice and sauce that the pepper had me sweating profusely but inexplicably had me wanting more because of the way it set my palettes on fire, literally. I’d showered and was getting ready to meet the rest of Tayo’s family who’d come in whilst I was freshening up. I did a quick mental recap of all the people that should be on the other side of the door: Ayo was Tayo’s eldest brother who was a techie and was rarely in the country and was married to Sade, who I had no idea what she did but I knew she was no housewife; Dele, who I got along with pretty well, was the only girl in the family and Tayo’s favorite.
We spent hours talking about new recipes and food generally. One would think we’d met in person but we never had and her response to Tayo telling her that we were together was “I guess my kids now have an extra cook to bother with their insatiable appetite”. I’d promised her a bib hug when we eventually met. What I really was after was her husband – Tunde’s connections to all the famous culinary schools and chefs but she didn’t need to know that just yet. Ayobami and his young wife, Catty, were the only members of the family I didn’t really know; they lived in the United States. I’d met ‘Bami earlier in the year during one of his ‘doctors without borders’ trips but it was brief and polite. That was about to change the moment I walked through that door.
I took a deep breath and I chuckled quietly to myself as I felt excited that after over a year of putting up this act, I was finally about to meet the people that would make it all worth it. I wasn’t worried at all because as I’d learnt early enough in life, the most beautiful and intrinsic lies were those that were true. I heard laughter from the living room. That was my cue.
“Wait wait wait, you all are already having fun without me? I feel unwanted” I announced as I walked out of my room, a playful smile on my face.
I was startled as someone walked up to me and started hitting me in the chest lightly.
“You said you were fat! You lied! Where’s the fat ehn?” the slightly chubby but undeniably beautiful and shapely woman said to me. I recognized Dele from the pictures I’d seen on Tayo’s phone so I grabbed her hands and lifted her up as I wrapped my arms around her.
“I did promise you a hug when I saw you, Dele and I keep my promises” I said in-between laughs as she struggled futilely. “And, there’s plenty fat, it’s the shirt that’s covering it all up”.
“Yeah right, and my brother is also the most gorgeous man on earth” she replied.
We both laughed at that.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Williams”
“You want me to smack you bah? Which one is ‘Mrs. Williams’ now?”
“Well it is still your name isn’t it?” The tall man behind her said with a gentle smile.
I walked up to the man who spoke and shook his hand firmly.
“It’s an honor to finally meet you in person sir. You have a lovely wife”
“You say that now, till she keeps you up till 2am trying to figure out why the akara she made the day before wasn’t perfectly golden brown, then tell me she’s lovely” Tunde said.
“But you’re the one that would complain that it’s not like Mama Bisi’s akara” Dele piped in.
“Please don’t disrespect Mama Bisi’s akara! It was the stuff dreams were made off” Ayoade said. “Tayo and Dele would fight over the akara like their lives depended on it and now she’s doing shakara. How won’t she have sleepless nights? Please Tunde, let my sister stress”
“He’s only saying this so he can come and eat” Ayoade’s wife, Sade said.
“Of course! You won’t understand, my darling wife till you taste it but there’s no way I’m buying for you”
Everyone laughed at that.
The rest of the evening was full of catching up and stories of their childhood, while we waited for Ayobami and Cathy. When they finally got in, we had a good laugh when Cathy complained bitterly about the traffic from the airport and swore New Yorkers could learn a thing or two on how NOT to drive from Lagosians. Tayo had been a bit worried about how his family would treat me but I’d told him that all they needed to see was me for who I am and not what I am and we’d be fine and so far so good, we were fine. I’d felt Cathy was a bit hostile to me at first, what with her being very anti-homosexual and I’d been slightly bothered because she was beautiful and also has an amazing figure. But the most attractive thing about her was her intelligence and I would’ve loved for her to see Laurent the person, not the ‘partner to her brother in law’.
I’d wanted to shake her hard and tell her that I wasn’t even close to being gay but between Friday and Saturday, with all the fun and champagne and amazing food Sarah had been pumping us with, she’d warmed up to me and we were almost always side by side, being the two ‘foreigners’ – yes, I’m half Cameroonian. It was refreshing to be able to pick on the Johnsons/Williams and some of their Nigerian ways as a team. Like the way everyone put their hands behind their backs when Papa Johnson talked to them in the sparring appearances he’d made in the two days we’d been in the house.
“I still don’t understand how playing soldier and putting your hands behind your back when your elder is addressing you is a sign of respect” Cathy whispered to me as Papa Johnson told his children a story he’d obviously told them countless times and they were only listening out of politeness,
“Well, it’s probably the same way they don’t understand how your default instinct is to address everyone you meet by their first name, irrespective of the age gap and you’re still able to respect those who deserve to be respected” I whispered back with my eyes closed as I enjoyed the happy feeling the now almost empty bottle of Night Train was giving me.
“But people feel special when you remember and address them by their names don’t they? Like you’re actually talking to them” Cathy replied, the alcohol in her system making her sound her tender age.
I looked at her with one eye and chuckled softly.
“I guess. It all depends on how you see it? And I see that you just may have had a bit too much to drink”
“Haaaa! Not even closssseeeee” She slurred, her accent getting more obvious the more she drank.
“Oh really, miss Lagos-alcohol’s-got-nothing-on-me?”
“Yes, really. But we can stop if you’re at your limit” she said, the challenge obvious in in her voice.
“Game on! Just know I will not be held responsible when there’s a guy playing drums in your head in the morning” I said to her as I opened another bottle and filled up her cup.
“Here’s to first names, Catherine”
“To first names”.
“Guys, will you two still be alive when we get back? We want to go say hi to mom” ‘Bami asked as he and the rest of the Johnson’s got ready to go visit their mom’s grave a few streets away.
“Hopefully, miss America doesn’t make me destroy my liver because I’m trying to prove to her that there’s a difference between the liver that processes Long Islands and the one that processes shepe” I replied.
“You’d be fine last last” Tayo said with a chuckle.
“Careful with that one, Laurent. Her tongue gets loose when she’s been drinking” Dele called out as the front door shut.
I turned to face Catty “make sure you keep up. I’ve been looking for a drinking partner since my metabolism decided alcohol was for mere mortals” I said with a smile.
“Oh, so you’re what? A god now?” she asked.
“Your words, not mine” I replied with a cheeky smile on my face
“Pray tell, your godship, what else are you capable of?” she inquired.
“There you go, challenging my awesomeness again, mortal. You can’t stand me in my true form so I have to tone it down a bit” I said, keeping up with her challenge.
“Cocky much?” she asked as she filled up her glass again.
“Confident please. Just confident”
“Uh hun. That’s what you men say till it’s time to actually be men”
“Oh? And what time are we supposed to be men?” I asked. I knew what direction she was going but she was trying to be careful not to offend me, being ‘gay’ and all.
“You know what I mean. Pleasing men is relatively easy“
“So is pleasing women, you just have to know what you’re doing” I cut in.
“Oh really? No offense but what do you know about pleasing women, Mr. Women-are-for-mortals?” Cathy asked with a laugh.
“I’m not even going to take up that challenge. Those who know, know” I replied with faux-confidence
“Uh hun. I’m sure they do.”
“Humor me then.”
“Like I said, you can’t stand me in my true form and I will not be responsible for your demise” I replied. Cathy was a beautiful, sexy woman and I could see her perfectly shaped breasts over the low cut of her dress and I would happily show her how well I could please her but I wasn’t going to make the first move. I needed it to come from her. I was going to get what I wanted from this family one way or the other and this weekend had showed me that Cathy could be a faster way to go about it.
“Hmmm. Pity. I thought cowardice was just a mortal trait” she said.
Oh she was good. Very good but I was better.
“When in Rome.” Was my simple answer to her.
I could see her weighing her options in her eyes. It was a mix of delicious battle to witness but I could see her curiosity, fueled by the alcohol, was winning.
“You know what, I’m curious but tired. Help me to my room, time to call it a night. You my friend, have the liver of gods” she said to me as she stood up, swaying gently.
“I tried to tell you, but you’re stubborn” I said
“Stubborn, drunk and in desperate need of a massage but I’d survive”
We’d gotten to her door. She opened the door and we stepped into the room.
“I call foul play! Why do you get the nicest room?” I exclaimed.
“What can I say, Sarah loves me” she replied.
“Touche. You learn fast, mortal.”
“I try” She replied with a smile.
She turned her back to me and I guess the smile was my cue to decide what my play was: to stay or to go.
“You were saying something about a massage?” I asked as I closed the door
It was Sunday and everyone had packed their stuff and were preparing for their journey back home. Service had been surprisingly amazing; the sermon being about family and love and togetherness and it had put everyone in a good mood. We were all still somewhat confused by Papa Johnson and the reason he’d summoned everyone, seeing as he’d barely spent time or spoken with anyone all weekend but we’d seen him watching us with a smile on his face or just being in the same room as we bantered and bonded and figured he was probably just content watching his family bond. We were slated to have lunch with him later that afternoon and we all just concluded that he was getting old and wanted to fill up the house with love and surround himself with family.
Lunchtime came and Sarah and Akpan really outdid themselves. Of course there was the famous Nigerian Jollof rice but there was also crab, grilled fish, efo riro that had stock fish, ponmo, snails and no one even knew where to start but we survived, in between small talk and knowing glances between Cathy and I. Thankfully, there was a lot of pepper in the food so Cathy covered up and said that was the reason her face was red. I knew firsthand that her face wasn’t the only part of her body that turned red and I smiled to myself at this thought.
“Uncle, why are you blushing?” Tayo asked
“Oh nothing, just reliving the entire weekend. It was a good weekend” I said as I looked up and smiled at Cathy. She chose that moment to choke.
“Careful darling, have some water” ‘Bami said as he offered her a glass.
When we were all done stuffing our faces and could barely move, Papa Johnson cleared his throat to talk.
“I just want to thank you all for honoring an old man’s request of coming over to spend some time with me, especially you, Catherine. I know it’s not being easy, orun yii po die (this heat is quite intense)” he said with a kind smile.
“Papa, you know we would never turn you down, Lagos sun and all”, Catty said politely.
“But as swell as this has been papa, we need to get going soon. I have a 7am flight to Abuja in the morning” Ayobami said.
“It’s fine. I understand you all have your busy schedules to return to. I just want you all to remember that family sticks together, no matter what. I know you all have your little challenges in life and sometimes you fight within yourselves and I know it was your mother, rest her soul, that was the listening ear for you all but you need to remember that awon isan bulu isan duro pelu opo ko le se”
“Papa, you know you and your proverbs never stick” Dele whined.
“You this girl, when will you learn yoruba?” Papa said humorously. “It means the broomstick that stays with the bunch cannot be broken”
“Oh, why didn’t you just say that to start with” Tayo said. “We understand that we are family, linked by blood and nothing can come between us. You raised us well Papa”
“That brings us to the real reason I had you all come here.” Papa Johnson looked nervous and calm at the same time, like a man about to announce his death but was already at peace with it.
“Papa, is everything alright” Ayoade asked, concerned and I could see everyone seemed concerned too.
“Everything is perfect, I’m surrounded by the children my wife gave me and even though I know I haven’t been the easiest person to live with, I did my best and treated you all the way the best way I know how. But you all are of age and deserve to know the truth” He exhaled before he continued. “You all know the story of how I proposed to your mother.”
“Yes papa, you tell us every chance you get” Tayo said with growing concern
“We’d just been robbed and when the idiots had gotten what they wanted, they still wanted to rape my girlfriend.” Papa continued. “I got mad and somehow fought them off. I ran with your mother and for some reason, they didn’t chase and the one gunshot the fired at us missed. When we stopped, I just told her you know after this, next place to go is the church. She asked for what? To get married of course. Then I passed out because the bullet we thought had missed us, had actually grazed my thigh and I’d been bleeding”
“Papa, not to be rude but is there a point to you telling us this story…again?!” Dele asked, the hysteria in her voice becoming more apparent.
“Yes there is. After I woke up in the hospital, the doctor gave me some news. He told me I wouldn’t be able to have children” papa said with a voice that betrayed his age and weariness
“What are you talking about Papa. You’re here surrounded by your children” Ayoade interjected, confused.
Papa exhaled again.
“My wife to be said she was still going to marry me, no matter what. We got married and when it was time to have kids, we found someone who understood our plight and agreed to be a sperm donor.”
At this point, the room was dead silent.
“What I’m trying to say is, although you all have the same father and mother, apart from you my dear Tayo, I am unfortunately not that biological father. But that doesn’t change anything for me, as far as I am concerned, I raised you all as mine and you would forever be Johnsons…MY Johnsons. I know this is a lot to swallow at this point but I wanted you all together, so you know that no matter what, we are all a family. I love you all!”
And with that statement, Papa Johnson stood up and left the room.