Feel Good

A Bookish Affair

by Edwin Okolo


just got into Abeokuta. Are you at Ake this year?' The text comes in a little before noon, unassuming in its language but loaded with meaning. I am seated in one of the smaller halls, listening to a poet spar with two panelists about the hidden metaphors within her book. She is one of my favourite poets, and I’ve longed to see her perform live ever since I discovered her poem about Water. But in this moment, not a million beloved poets could inspire the warmth that pours through me as I realise he is finally here, and the first person Mazi wants to see is me.

By here, I mean the Ake Book and Arts Festival. It is hard to describe it to anyone who has never been. How, for a 5-day weekend, the sleepy town of Kuto in Abeokuta is lit up by a constellation of revered writers, poets, and thinkers who have earned the awe they inspire as mythmakers and world weavers. We gather in halls and rooms and dimly lit auditoriums, communing with the people who’ve created the fantastical worlds we escaped to as children and retreat to as adults weary of an unforgiving world. Their collective light draws in thousands of young, bright-eyed dreamers who travel from across the world to forget their lives and revel in the joys of being a lover of books.

The big writers, many of them legendary in the literary world, are part of the draw of Ake, but we the readers, are really here for each other. Alchemy happens here, it shifts reality, suspends time, and grants each young person who makes the pilgrimage the power to reinvent themselves and find their tribe. The power of the whole is osmotic, it pulls each lonely visitor in, absorbing their individual griefs and distilling their emotions until joy floats to the surface. The only thing that matters within this alternate world is the books we’ve read, the epiphanies we’ve had and the connections we make.

Here, nothing negative holds weight; not my compulsive worrying or the justifications I have told myself about why the momentous thrill I feel when we’re alone together cannot be explored.

'I came.' I text, 'I had almost lost hope you were coming this year.'

'I wasn’t going to,' he texts back, 'but we’re promoting Ms O’s book and she has a reading this evening so they made the executive decision that she needed a chaperone. I am excited to see you, it’s been too long.'

The poet gets up to read, her voice calling the room to order. She performs, reciting from heart, a poem from her anthology. It is spell-craft, to hear her talk about active waiting, and how it overcomes the paralysing power of fear. Her words skip on the surface of my racing heart, like stones in a pool, creating the ripples I need to get me out of that chair. I pack up my festival satchel, whisper apologies as I shimmy out of the aisle and go looking for him.

From the minute I saw him, I knew there was something different about Mazi. I’d been with men and women, enjoyed them, even loved them, but I’d never felt primal attraction. I’d convinced myself that love was something you stumbled into, a slow and somewhat disconcerting realisation that your nexus had shifted from yourself to someone else, that what everyone else described when they talked about love at first sight, was misdiagnosed lust. Meeting Mazi was like learning a new language. I suddenly understood. The pull was immediate, the intensity, unlike anything I’d ever felt as he poked his head into my office that first time and said hello to my seatmate.

It scared me, how instinctual this attraction to him felt. My once docile heart had turned wild and unteachable. So, I suppressed it, enforcing my will over my desire, and drawing on every lesson I’d learned about self-denial as a tool for safety. I put it out to the universe that if it was meant to be, we would find each other.

And we did. It turned out we worked together, in the same company but different departments. I got dispatches about him from my seatmate, and eventually, we got put on a project together, where we tried valiantly, to be professionals, and not become the cliched trope of co-workers who start a torrid office romance. Mazi made abstaining easy, underneath the quiet intensity of his 6ft1 frame was a man so excited with life. His joy was infectious, he literally squealed my name each time he saw me. I came to find his curiosity endearing, his empathy unmatched. He was brilliant but never made a big deal out of it. He never took it for granted that I gave of myself without asking for anything in return. He listened, genuinely delighted with my madcap theories about the world, and engaged them constructively. A person more suited to me couldn’t have existed.

But it always felt like the wrong time. We both hated workplace romances, thought them indulgent. And when he left, 6 months in, to pursue my one secret wish, a career in publishing, I was genuinely excited for him. But we no longer worked together and distance became a wedge which we tried to bridge with ‘friend’ dates, immortalised with bathroom selfies where we’d scry a possible future of ease together. But the thing that kept us apart, more than the distance and principle, was Lagos.

Lagos demands permanence. Anything you cherish and want to keep, you must nail down immediately or risk losing forever. Loving in Lagos is like surviving a flood. You sit on your safe but isolated perch, waiting for the right moment as the water floods past, rushing to an end you cannot see. You cannot hold out forever, but you wait for a sign that the person you brave the floods for is the right one. You have your criteria, and you do your rituals, but the true test of your choices is if you wash out alone, or if you brave the tide together and swim to safety. There are rarely ever any do-overs, it's once and gone.

What we have to lose is too big to jeopardise, so we make an unspoken pact to remain in the realm of potential. We hold space for each other in a future where we’ll have the time and permission to go slowly, two intrepid explorers mapping out the wilderness that was an attraction as wild and primal as ours.

But at Ake, in this liminal sliver between reality and fantasy, propped by literary worlds and fervent believers, I don’t feel the crushing weight of permanence.

I know Mazi, so it isn’t hard to find him. His pretty head is bent forward, nose scrunched underneath his glasses as he squats in front of one of the bookshelves in the festival bookstore, scanning blurbs. I tap him gently on the shoulder and beam as his face lights up when he sees it's me. He scoops me into a hug, taking advantage of that inch he has over me to pull me slightly off the ground. We draw stares, mostly of admiration. Writers are prone to bursts of dramatic emotion, book lovers even more so, so we aren’t out of place here. His laugh is one of the things I love the most about him. It comes in bursts, with the brief but all-consuming intensity of a hiccup, as though he is overwhelmed by joy and needs to stop to catch his breath. There are faint traces of a stutter that resurface when he is excited, as the words leave his mouth like rain.

'Where were you? I looked everywhere for you.'

'The back auditorium,' I say, 'I had to find W and get the key to our room in case you had luggage you needed to drop off.'

'Oh W, you never go anywhere without him. Did you get a room together?' I shrug. 'If someone had thought to tell me that he was coming this year, then I would have had a reason to get a room all to myself.'

He smirks, 'We’re in Ake, there are always reasons to get a room all to yourself.'

I roll my eyes and smack his arm. He yelps dramatically, drawing a few glances. I know he doesn’t mean it that way, but Ake is known for many things, including the unlikeliest of sneaky links.

‘What hotel did you guys book?’ I ask, trying to get us back on topic.

‘I seriously had no idea we would still come,’ he replies, ‘that’s why I didn’t bring any luggage, just a change of clothes in my backpack. But because it was last minute for me, I decided to sort out my accommodation once we got here.'

I glance at my phone and the calendar where I’ve put in all the panels I have for the rest of the day. The last day of Ake is usually the busiest, with all the big names sandwiched into panels, book chats and signings. My festival satchel is weighed down with books I need signed, and there are panellists I have waited years to meet, but I turn off my notifications and fish out the email with the list of hotels and guest houses associated with the festival. I take his hand, squeezing tightly and lead him out of the hall.

'Let’s find you a place to stay.'

We take a taxi from the gate of the Kuto Convention Centre and sit in the back. His hand finds my lap as we ride to the first hotel. He asks the driver to wait as we go inside to make enquiries. It is a converted manor house with a grand foyer, haunted by an ugly chandelier. The gauche service we receive when we approach the counter is a reminder of how much this festival has shaped the town around it without really changing its people. The receptionist is disinterested as she tells us there are no available rooms and recommends that we check the next hotel, three streets down. I suggest we go back to the festival centre; we both have friends at the festival and surely, we’ll find someone to take him in. He shakes his head and laughs that laugh.

‘For someone who scares people, you give up too easily,’ he says, ‘Let’s at least try. We’ll treat it like our own private tour of Kuto.’

Phrased like that, I have no choice but to agree. We go through the list, zipping through dusty side streets and a few treks when the roads got too bad but every hotel we check is either occupied or only has luxury rooms well out of Mazi’s budget. He could splurge on them and have the conversation with his boss Ms B after, but Mazi likes a challenge and seeing this side of him, this unrepentant bargain hunter makes me like him even more.

We’re having so much fun we barely notice that we’ve been trawling through the town for a decent room for two hours and Ms O's book chat is for 6, an event he can’t miss. He tells the driver to take us back to the convention centre, and that hunger loosens my tongue.

'If you don’t mind it,' I say hesitantly, 'W and I can share. Do you want to stop by my hotel and see the room?’

The corridor is deathly silent as we climb up onto my floor. Everyone else is miles away at the festival. I put the key in the lock and turn, his breath heavy on my neck. I shut the door behind me and lock it, leaving the key in the lock so it can’t be opened from outside. I glance at my phone, it’s twenty minutes to four.

I give Mazi a perfunctory tour of the room, which is in disarray because we’d overslept after hanging out at the festival well past midnight the day before. He indulges me, making the appropriate noises as we circle around but steers so the tour ends on the queen-sized bed hogging up the floor space. He sits on the edge of the bed and looks up at me. I hold his gaze as I close the space between us and sit beside him, taking a moment to take off both our glasses before I lean in to kiss him.

Three years is a long time to wait for a kiss, but all that longing dissolves into nothing once our bodies meet. He feels more practised than I’d anticipated and I am forced to reckon just for a moment he hasn’t spent that time pining for me. It is a relief because I have worried that perhaps in some way, by allowing myself to entertain other attractions and live as though my heart hadn’t already settled on him, I had betrayed him. Instead, I find myself delighted to discover that he knows to run his fingers up my spine, to steady my neck from behind and knead my shoulders as his tongue circles my nipple. He knows that it is sexier to pull his shirt off from the hem and over his head instead of wriggling his way out of it. He lets me kiss his neck, under the stubble of his chin and laughs that hiccupy laugh into my mouth because my moustache tickles him. But most importantly he talks, whispered dispatches that fill the silences when he comes up for air, marvelling that this is happening, we are happening.

We are playful at first, then urgent as the clothes start to pool by the bed. We need more space so we create a nest from the swaddling of the bed and become a tangle of limbs. My Igbo heritage has blessed me, underneath the thin pelt of skin I wear is an obstacle course of muscle groups and Mazi races like a daredevil, familiarising himself with my dips and peaks, speeding faster and faster with each go as he learns the lay of the land. Our hands move, roving from face to chest, to love handles, laying claim to real estate, signing the things we’ve only allowed ourselves to dream of. Before long, only one summit lies before us, the big one. Mazi pauses, that pesky ray of empathy parting the storm clouds of desire.

Are you ready for us to do this?' he asks.

I know the answer even before the words leave his mouth. Ake seems like the place to go there, removed from our lives and stripped of consequences. But the slant of light that gives Ake its magic also strips it of any real heft. It doesn’t feel like if we go all the way without having the very sobering conversation about what we really want from each other in the long term, then it wouldn’t count anywhere else.

'I think we should wait,' I say, hating myself for knowing Mazi isn’t ready and for being so reasonable about it.

Just then, the alarm on his phone goes off, startling us. Ms O’s book chat is in 15 minutes. We dress up and make a dash for the centre. We reach the hall just as Ms O is called to the podium. She scans for him in the crowd and he waves to get her attention. We settle in for the chat, relieved that we have something else to distract ourselves with for the next few hours.

Mazi stays by my side for the rest of the evening. We usually spend our precious time together gabbing about books or philosophy, proselytising as a way to justify all the time we spend alone. But this evening, we don’t even bother. The magnetism is undeniable, just having him at my side seems enough. We run into Ms O, who after chastising him for disappearing earlier in the day, is especially gentle with me. She apologises on his behalf for not introducing us and jokes about enjoying seeing him a little flustered. Then she relieves him for the rest of the evening, shooing us back to the main hall where the evening’s pre-event, a theatrical adaptation of a beloved novel is happening.

We skip out on the play and I urge him to make the rounds. We rave about Ms O’s book to the independent booksellers and reviewers who are congregated in little clusters around the bookstore, responding to dawdling guests who have waited till the very last minute to splurge on books. From there, the swarm of bodies seem to gravitate towards the last hub of activity, the closing party. Neither of us is particularly enthusiastic about it, but we are still at the festival and it seems a shame to at least not participate in the activities of the evening.

Mazi joins me because my friends who I came to the festival with want to go. The closing party is more than a farewell, it is a final mating call.

The biggest hall where the party is underway is decked with streamers, punch, a food stand and a DJ who shuffles between 2018 pop songs and 80’s deep cuts. It's quaint, with nowhere near the sophistication of the book chats or performances, but the lack of finish gives everyone who comes permission to be a little crude with their jokes and a little more direct about their flirtations. Filled with drink and already nostalgic, our legends drop their airs and party with us on the dancefloor.

I want to ease the intensity of the afternoon, so I bring Mazi to the dancefloor. We are pressed against each other as the dancefloor swells with people, and the respectable distance we’ve kept all evening shrinks into a barely decent inch. The giant speakers thump, and we sway in tune, his hands on mine, slick and sweaty, his scent now familiar to me as we lean into each other and shimmy our shoulders like the popular dance. We break apart, heady and disoriented and he pairs me off with one of the girls, instructing her to keep up with me while he gets himself a drink. I ditch her after a few songs and try to circle around and say my goodbyes. I’m halfway through when I realise I don’t want to be with any of these people tonight, not even my roommate who I have ignored the entire day. I check my phone, realising my notifications are still off. There’s a text from Mazi.

'I’m outside when you’re ready to leave.'

I find him waiting outside the hall. His forehead is furrowed, his hands clasped. I know how he feels, I felt it too in that hall, the magic of this place weakening, reality seeping back in with its strict nos. But it isn’t gone, not quite yet. We can stretch it a little longer.

We walk back to the hotel, holding hands and disrobe when we’re alone. Freed of the urgency of before, we take each other in, bathed in moonlight. I am not sure why we’ve come back, or what Mazi wants, but he shows me. He crawls into bed and beckons for me. I drape myself around him like a comforter, his head over my heart. We fit, like jagged parts lining up, become a whole thing. I stroke his cheek and he whispers to me the things he’s wanted to say all these years, about how my feelings were always reciprocated, and how even when we’re apart we are always on the same page. Nothing more needs to be said or done, no big declarations made. We are content to fully inhabit this moment of simple intimacy. Together we feel like a hearth, at home with each other, warm and alive, soothed and soothing, safe and in sync.

We don’t even acknowledge when my roommate returns, or when he converts the duvet into a makeshift bed on the floor. We lie together till morning, murmuring like fault lines settling into each other after a tectonic shift.

Abeokuta is a shrinking landmark in the rear-view as we return to Lagos, in the same car, the same but irreversibly changed. His is the first stop and as he disembarks, I come down with him and let him hold me, long enough that it becomes awkward for the other passengers in the car.

He waves as the car eases out of the service lane and back onto the road and waits till we are out of sight.

'We’ll have this again, I promise.' He texts. I favourite the message, separating it from the stream of code we’ve sent each other over the years. It’s a promise, and no matter how long it takes, we will keep it.

Edwin Okolo

Edwin Okolo is a writer, journalist and storyteller. He offers commentary on the intersections of gender identity, feminism, contemporary African culture and its influence on social values. He started his writing career as a bit of an intervention for a friend, starting the fantasy blog PassTheSaltBand. Since then he has edited and written stories for Stories.ng and TheNakeConvos. He was longlisted for the Short Story Africa Day Prize in 2017 and shortlisted again in 2021. He was also shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Fellowship in 2021.

Read notes

loading, please wait