It’s the first week of primary school and summer isn’t ready to say goodbye.
Your skin is enjoying the delicious crispy feel of a brand new uniform – a striped white and green dress that is too long because your mum wants it to last for at least two years. But you don’t mind because your legs are still on show and they’re a shiny roasted brown from all the baby oil your mum rubbed into them earlier that morning. Even at that age, you know your skin is extra glorious when moisturised and in the sun. You love the pristine white of your socks, the frilly lace that lines the top and wraps around your calves. At the beginning of the week you were extra careful, moving slowly, sitting gently so as not to crease your dress, dirty your socks or scuff your new black ballet pumps. But by Friday, all the girls are doing cartwheels and handstands and you forget about being neat and clean. Soon your dress is billowing up in the summer-autumn breeze, socks soiled, girly underwear flashed each time you show off your best tricks.
You’re making your way down the hopscotch grid, sweating and focused, when you notice her. The girl with the longest, silkiest blonde hair you have ever seen. You are overcome with a longing to run your fingers through it. The girl has stopped too and is looking back at you. Both of you balance on one leg, waiting.
What’s your name? She asks.
Oladunni, you reply, setting your leg down and taking a step closer, the game forgotten.
Besides her hair, what you will never forget about this girl, even 17 years later, is her smell. It is a smell you taste on your tongue and feel in your throat. Soft and dewy. Almost milky. So close to her, your entire body pulsates, drumming a beat that blurs out the sound of everything else.
She wrinkles her nose, tries to repeat your name but her tongue will not take it, nor does it want to. Her eyes go bright.
I’m going to call you Oli, she decides. It sounds better.
She tests it out on her tongue. Oli, Oli Oli, giggling with delight at what she thinks is her genius, but is really her destruction. Much later, you will learn how her kind often mistake the latter for the former.
In that moment though, you just nod and smile. You try to ignore that your new name sounds like one for a pet dog or a teddy bear. You tell yourself that a nickname means the pretty girl wants to be your friend. And you know you want that, with every inch of your body. You want that.
So you ignore the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right, that something is being stolen from you. You tell yourself that it’ll be worth it in the end and this blonde-haired girl’s friendship will fill the hole that’s slowly growing inside you.
Within a week, the entire school is calling you Oli – including all the teachers and the headmistress. You’re not sure how it has caught on so quickly, but that in itself tells you how desperate they all were to be rid of the burden of saying your name. Nobody asks for permission. It seems they do not have to. You learn quickly that their comfort comes before everything else.
You tell yourself it is fine. You didn’t even like your name that much. Not when they butchered it the way that they did. At the time you do not realise it, but you are being taught a lesson. One of the greatest lessons you will learn within the walls of this school. A lesson about sacrifice. What one must lose in order to belong. Time will inevitably show you that it takes more than a nickname. That the power of the space you so desperately yearn to be a part of lies in how inaccessible it is for people like you. But you are four years old and excited to be in a new school with a fancy uniform and you do not know anything yet. So when they dangle the carrot stick of a nickname, you stick your tongue out like the naive little thing you are and strain your neck trying to get closer.
Dunni Abisayo is a queer Nigerian storyteller who grew up in London. A senior at Georgetown University, she is studying English and African American Studies. She was a recipient of the 2020 Singing Bullet Poetry Scholarship.
Related country: Nigeria
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