Things We Do Not Say In Public – Isaiah Adepoju

She and I didn’t hold hands in public. She would try to force her fingers into my palm. I’d push them back with my thumb, stylishly, of course. A man never disgraces his woman in public; that is called principles.

“Why don’t you hold my hands in public, and why don’t you show your love to me in public, and why are you afraid of showing your love in public?”

“I show my love the best I know how,” I replied. “I told you already I’m not used to being loved this way, and I don’t know how to call you sweetheart, and when you look at me that way, I feel guilty of something.”

She had an innocence in her eyes that could wring a soul out of a man. That endeared me.

After three months together, she told me she was sixteen. I did the sums: I was eighteen, legal, and she wasn’t. The innocence in her eyes became a sea I was to drown in. I felt this drowning more intensely. In a corner of my soul, a voice called me a molester. Another voice sprung, and then another and another. It became shitty there in my head. And I got talked about in the third person. It was worse because it felt like listening in on a conversation about me, and I couldn’t interfere to defend myself.

—what did he do, ehn?
—if he leaves, he’ll hurt her.
—she asked him out!
—he kissed her first!

The voices went on and on and on in public. One evening, we were at my parents at Alekuwodo. She firmly grabbed my shirt because I couldn’t look into her eyes. She asked what was wrong with me, but I couldn’t talk.

—is it about me, Isaiah? Don’t tell me nothing’s wrong, Isaiah. I know what I’m saying.
She could be really beautiful when she holds me. She laughed a lot when we first met, but now her laughter had sorrow. It was a sorrow I could hold in my hands.

—his incertitude!
—a coward!
—he’s an imp, a deek.
—he’s causing her strife!
—she has beautiful innocent eyes, tho!
—the softness of lips!
—molester! molester!

We sat on the three-seater. Sunset flitted through the louvres, and it turned her shoulder blades and clavicle into the faded gold of rust. She was very nice that afternoon. And she taught me things: Your hands on my waist, that was how to hold; your wrists touching themselves, that was how tight. Tighter and firm was called love.

Then I told her matter-of-factly that she had beautiful eyes. She fell silent, and then she smiled. Again, I said, tracing the rust of her clavicle past the warm, supple lips to the softness in her iris:

“You have dark eye ridges. They are very beautiful.”

She giggled, and then she sighed. She held me close for a long time. In the following weeks, she talked on and on of her eyes. In those moments, she made me look at those eyes critically and even cynically.

—those words are mundane!
—she can’t think, that’s why!
—he should stop the pretence!
—he should leave this girl alone!
—molester molester molester molester!
—rotten world and rotten teenagers and rotten sinners on Mount Zion!

After she gaslighted me in March, and as a reconciliatory joke, she called herself my girl with the dark eye ridges, I thought to myself: “Now that’s fucking enough.”
I called her a leech, and then we broke up.

—you’re still guilty!
—if you were going to leave her!
—why did you make her love you!
—sadist! molester!
—molester molester molester!

Days after that day in March, I lived under a false sense of freedom. After all, while we dated, I felt shackled by her pretentiousness or naivety. I laughed a lot in April. I met many people in May. The happiness I felt and the eagerness I now had with strangers was a copy of a kind of joy within me, quietly obliterating. I tried to talk these things out with a friend, but these are things we do not say in public.

Isaiah Adepoju is a novelist resident in Nigeria. His debut novel is out with Abibiman Publishing, UK, and he is a fellow of the International Ebedi Writers Residency, UNDERTOW Poetry Fellowship, London. He will perform at Lipfest in 2023, and he’s working on his second novel.