Excerpt from “House of Hunger” by Uzodinma Okehi
Mist. Like steam, listing, through karst cliffs dense with trees. And green. So-called, finger mountains.
On looming, secret islands, ringed with sand, reaching out over dark water. Born from the ether. Much like the anxieties, little nightmares I had at the time, came and went, they blew over, and I’d be always left with the lightbox image of those steamy islands somewhere in China—sitting in Easy House looking at the framed, backlit poster on the wall, either that, or stretched on the carpet in my dorm room, thinking about it, smoking cigarettes, lying on my back . . .
What I wanted was Inez. On a loop, over and over. But some things were pure coincidence. That she looked Asian, around the eyes. Though her parents, she said, were, quote, standard Mexicans. It was months ago. Sketch in the usual, clustered bodies, no faces, all grey. The one spot of color, and I think I first noticed her nameplate necklace “Paloma”, in gold. Palo, laughing with her friends, waiting for the bus. Almost too thick, she’s big, but she knows how to move. With her laundry basket, or an armload of books. Vendoland, buying pretzels. Bathed in light from the machines. Bright, wide, brown eyes. At least that couple of times, I guess, because she was looking at me. No. Definitely. Even still it was a struggle, a campaign. Hours, in the back stairwell on her floor, pacing, psyching myself up. Man, c’mon . . . But, then, door was open, sidling into her roomful of laughing, multicultural friends. Smile—without smiling. Another few days or so, of hanging around, before I could come up with anything, before it was finally me and her in the study nook, a few other people there on the other side, music thumping. Wanted to take that strand of hair away from her cheek. Or, wait, that’s too much, I thought.
“You supposed to be a dove?” I said. Because I’d looked it up. She’s playing with a notebook, holding it, she bursts out laughing.
“My name is Inez.”
“Ok. Then who’s Paloma?”
But before I met Inez was the summer the N64 came out. Abdul discovered it and by fall he was in deep, playing Super Mario almost around the clock. Weird . . . The fall before that I’d been a freshman, straight from the suburbs. Also, what seemed like the worst—I should say, the most clueless year of my life. That freedom I mentioned. I could set my own schedule, and it was like a trap. If I was truly going to burn out, free myself, then why was I still going to class? My grades weren’t bad, but then also, I felt panicky, out of sync. It was difficult to diagnose. I’d never been too concerned with grades, or the future, not really, so this was an all-new set of dismal insecurities. Meanwhile, socially, I was a loser, by any estimation. I was conspicuous, I could tell, off by myself, and the attempts I made to interact always felt jittery and desperate. Me and Abdul had that initial, pre-rec, Rhetoric class together. It wasn’t a race thing. He was a Nigerian guy, but I don’t think we even ever talked about that. Smoking, having those first few laughs, out by the side entrance to EPB. He was older. I was eighteen. He was twenty-two, twenty-three. He’d dropped out of school in California somewhere, relocated to Iowa City, and whatever his major was before, he’d decided to become a great auteur. This involved, apparently, wearing black jeans, an overcoat, unfiltered cigarettes, and a prolific sexual rotation of overweight white girls. To explain what I liked about him. The Blade Runner Soundtrack, he’d put that on, as we’d lounge around his off-campus apartment for hours, talking, chopping it up. It was also Abdul who turned me onto Hong Kong action films. He was into a variety of things, to varying degrees, but this subgenre in particular, the fighting, flying around on wires; watching the movies on videocassette, then walking around campus, replaying scenes in my head, I’d find myself thrilling, vibrating with a kind of visceral excitement.
But before Abdul, I’d already met Dustin. Outside the Union, after a free screening, some Hollywood movie. The coincidence was that Dustin was Chinese, from Hong Kong, though right then it didn’t come up. By the doors, with people pouring past us into the night. And I’m laughing, charitably, first, then loudly, his offhand, monotone way of talking, things in general, about movies, but also a word he uses is precisely how I’d begun to think about all this. And not just the Mayflower. That what we were all trapped in here was a kind of netherworld . . .
Almost a year later. Some pals, find a girl. I guess . . . What I wanted was Inez. From stalking the back staircase, few days, from crib notes to actual conversation, sitting on the floor in her room, hands trembling, my fingers drumming, on her leg in my lap, talking, the music from her stack stereo slowing, screwing down around us, little chimes, and I gotta do it—finally, easing in, kissing her that first time I’m more relieved than anything, that she seems hungry, eager . . . But I also feel vaguely manipulated. First kiss, to, now, structured make out times, only her room, twice per week, and nothing heavy, till eleven on Saturdays, it’s like I’m on a timer. Then, a Sunday, alone in the elevator, kissing crazily, hands in my shirt, then a lull, so serious, and she wants to know what this is, are we official? From that to three days later in her room, lights off and she stops me twice, fumbling with the hooks on her bra, no sex, again—that she’s not going to have sex with me, then, quietly, is that cool? And I’m nodding. Wait? What. . .
Uzodinma’s book, out now from SF/LD Press, called Over For Rockwell. (More Episodes!) House of Hunger –Misery and youthful delusion abound. Blue Okoye clumsily attempts to conceptualize college life around the dorms: http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2017/06/11/sunday-stories-house-of-hunger/