Crap. I’m turning twenty in four months. God, the questions are going to start rolling in. Karina when are you bringing a man home? Karina what are the colours for the wedding?Karina how many children do you want to have? Karina what comes next after school? The answers to all these questions?Ha, well, Karina 2.0 wants to breathe. Just in and out. Maybe once, maybe twice, but I want to breathe.
My father wants me to cut my afro. Apparently it stopped being cute this year and a man of twenty years of age shouldn’t have an afro on his head. I’m not even twenty yet. April is like lightyears away. Okay, it’s in four months, but still. I like my hair and I want to keep it. It’s good for this photography thing. I’ll have to fight my father for this one.
I think I want to be something more than pretty. Okay, I know I want to be something more than pretty. I want to fly planes, not sit at home and birth children. Twenty is on the horizon and if I sit here, they’ll marry me to one of these boys. I want to fly planes and see the world for what it is. I need to leave this place before April.
Football is my absolute best thing in the world. You know. The sand, the dust, the sweat, the screams, the men. That is the name of the game. My love for it. But mummy doesn’t agree with me. Instead, I should bring snacks for the boys and daddy and not watch my favourite team win the champions league. Hell, man, April can’t come sooner. Zika 2.0 will watch all the matches that she wants.
That was the thing about Millennium children. The Universe was able to monitor everything they did. They couldn’t be lost in the numbers or the leap years. Their number of years echoes in the same number of years the Universe had been turning.
Zika was enthralled by it. She was enchanted by the tiniest things. That was her superpower. The ability to fall in love with anything and anybody. Joke had once called it her enigma, even though at the time she did not know the meaning of the word. Karina did not mind the Millennium reminder. She liked it sometimes. She never had to search her brain for how old she was meant to be. Joke despised it. She wanted to be able to mask everything about herself and the last digit of the year always mocked her because it rhymed with her own number of breaths of existence. Dede forgot he was a Millennium child most of the time.
Dede was the photographer who had an afro and a good soul. He had loved one girl all his university life. Only she did not feel the same way and well he had never actually told Joke. He was not the rebellious one or the one who his parents had heartache over. In all honesty, his father sometimes bullied him after Yimika, his younger sister, had died during his first year in university. Everyone blamed him for her death. On bad days, he blamed himself too. She was in secondary school and lied about coming to see him at the university when she was really going to see someone else. It was something that Dede strongly disapproved of for reasons like power and age dynamics, but when he told Yimika these things, she laughed at him and paid no attention. When she died, he wished she had survived and kept laughing at him again and again for looking out for her.
It was one of those cases that when it surfaced on the Internet there were a thousand different versions, but none of them actually true. The only person who knew the real story was dead. Yimika had died and part of Dede had died with her. A tiny bit of Zika too.
Zika once saw Wayne Rooney score a goal from the middle of the pitch at Old Trafford and that was it. The thrill of it all was on the pitch on her screen. Nothing else captivated her like that. The only thing that came close was art. Art like Donatello and Picasso and in her eighteenth year, Nok art rang a bell in her head. Those were the two loves of her life. The boys , but she didn’t like any of them. She dated two out of pity, and when sex became a deal-breaker, she left. She had contemplated the idea that she might have been gay or bi; it was something she secretly studied. There were so many spectrums to choose from that it excited her. Half of her fire,however, dimmed when her cousin died. Yimika was the only other sun in the family and when she stopped burning,sometimes Zika felt less like a sun and more like a house on fire. Except when she met Karina. Fire lighting, far dreaming, men-loving Karina. They could burn houses together.
Karina was beautiful. In every sense of the word. Her love for everything lovable and her gift of never actually giving up no matter how hard it was. She never even let people know if she was hurting. Her parents had fallen in love severely and that was a tick in her box for things that had gone right in her life. Not even the fact that her parents were practising atheists could sway her happiness. When people asked her what religion she was, she simply smiled and said “Whichever one saves me in the end”. It was poetic and quite true. Survival was pivotal to Karina. She never cascaded anything. She always told her friends, “Most of what I do is because I want to be here tomorrow and the day after that”. Karina liked to live that way. She believed in “extreme” living and survival was key to living. The harder you survived, the wider your plane of living and being able to characterise your events, “The grand event of being alive”.
Joke was… There is no word in English strong enough to describe Joke. The fierce look in her eyes when something irritated her. Her longing to do things no one had done before. Her wanting to do things just because people said she couldn’t do it. She wore feminism with her wig. Cutting her hair off just because she felt like it — that was Joke. She felt fear and she never hid it. She believed that being afraid meant you were trying something out of your reach. She was also very deep into things she felt people her age couldn’t relate to. After starting what she terms the best series on the planet, “The Good Place” was all she could rant about. She spent a lot of time reading philosophical books mentioned in the series and talked about it to her friends. She dreamed of owning her own library full of these books when she finally moved out. It was something that kept her moving.
The crippling fear and longing to turn twenty for various reasons started rising on the first day of the new year. It had slept in their bellies on the previous day. Now it had wings. The fear even grew heavier when news of the pandemic had surfaced in China. They worried about turning twenty in what was arguably one of the worst years in modern times.
For Dede, it began when his father had sat him down, telling him of the reasons why his hair would not get him a good job to make enough money. Dede listened with rapt attention but looked at his father with concealed disgust. His father had never once asked him what he wanted to do because as far as he was concerned, Dede was born to be an engineer. It was ironic because Dede narrowly escaped failing. He wasn’t at the top of the class, but he was close to the bottom. He was at the lower middle for so long, sometimes it felt like the top. The lower middle was a term his sister had coined. She insisted that they deserved recognition too. They convinced themselves that the lower middle was a good place to be. Never to be caught not trying, and never to be caught trying too hard. Dede dreaded turning twenty. Twenty meant no more hiding in school where the shutter of his camera could give him ecstatic deafness. Twenty meant convocation, youth service, and plunging into a job he didn’t like with a spiral that only went down. Twenty meant SEND HELP.
Zika could not wait to turn twenty. She felt that when she turned twenty she could finally leave her parents’ house where no one ever listened to her when she wanted to do the things she liked. In Zika’s house, she was meant to do everything for her parents and four brothers but nothing for herself. The minute she sat down to painstakingly rewatch a match she already knew the scores to, her mother’s voice would erupt from her room ever so loud, telling her to get up and stop watching football. It was not for her. She should learn how to cook, how to clean, how to take care of a man, and not how to be a man. Twenty meant Zika could leave all this behind. It meant maybe running away, maybe disappearing but for sure, it meant the freedom to be herself.
Karina despised turning twenty. Ever since she was nineteen,her parents and relatives had not stopped asking her when she was going to introduce them to their in-laws. Her parents’early love had negated any other train of thought that didn’t end with her finding love at the same age they did. They insisted that even now it was easier. What irritated her themost was the feigning of concern, the pretending like it was more about her than it was about them. It sickened her. Where she was at was an isolation room because when she left for school, they could not see her to annoy her but after convocation, they would chew her raw. Now Karina liked men. They were okay for her except for the fact that she was meant to cling to one for the rest of her life. The one who might not be the best for her. The one who her parents might not let her leave if things went south; that fact came with a paralyzing fear. Twenty meant paralysis. On some mornings, Karina couldn’t feel her toes.
Joke longed to turn twenty. Then she could leave the country for her masters. She didn’t plan to return because she felt there was nothing to return to. Her old father would not last long and her mother was already long gone. Maybe she would miss the girls but her longing to fly planes and climb mountains was stronger than that affection. When she left, she would be able to explore her sexualities. She wanted to have the freedom to try on different personality outfits to find the one that suited her best. It was basically the only reason she did anything. Twenty for Joke meant happiness untamed and ambition unbridled.
It was raining the first day the girls saw each other in the new year. It was odd because rain never fell in January but then again there they were. Joke was arguing with the security man at the gate for something neither of them could remember, but they were too deep in so they continued. Karina had been observing them a while, smiling and knowing that Joke wasn’t going to stop unless someone or something intervened.
“You know, I wonder why we’re friends with Joke. She can kill us in our sleep,” Zika said from behind an unsuspecting Karina. Recognition took its course and of course, screams of delight and affection.
“Boo, your skin is glowing, Zee.”
“Thank you, thank you. I told you goat milk was the secret,” Zika replied batting her eyelashes repeatedly.
“I know, but I mean 7000 naira for only cream. Cream I can’t even rub on my face, abeg abeg,” Karina laughed. She continued,
“Oya lets go and get our girl so we can do another thing.”
When they got to the ruckus, Joke was rounding up.
“Mister man. Please next time you see me avoid me. You hear? I will leave this school for you people this year, so I know we can manage till then.”
The man, who looked like his head had seen better days, shook it and headed back to his post.
“Joke, we both know you can’t remember why you were fighting with that old man,” Zika said while extending her hand to get Joke’s box out of the rain.
“Ehn, I can’t remember, but that’s one less trouble for the two of us. Abeg, how are we going to get the room with this rain?I missed you people small sha. You Zika with your nonsense football boys and you Karina with your plenty men.”
“Mhm Joke we missed you too. Zee, call the cab man. This sweater is cashmere.”
“Story,” Zika replied, getting her phone out to call the cab man except she couldn’t remember how she saved his number. They were there another hour talking about everything from the man who built the palace for his dead wife in India to the courses they were offering that semester. Dede came by in the last thirty minutes.
“You guys, I think it’s weird how all four of us are turning twenty in the same month. I honestly can’t wait.”
After Zika’s voice, all the jaw-aching smiles, and a few hmms, the rain took centre stage.
The next important milestone on the road to twenty was one night in February. Dede’s roommate, who Karina felt she could cling to for the rest of their lives, was having his twenty-first birthday party. It wasn’t exactly what a person would call a party, but it was what it was.
Karina was necking with Tunde in one corner and Joke was realizing that she didn’t look at Dede in the same repulsiveway. Zika was watching a football match. The Millennium children were in balance for once. Ding! Ding! Zee’s phone chimed. She lost it.
“Guys come here. Come here. He replied me. He fucking replied me!”
Karina was the first to respond.
“What Zee? You’re so loud. It better be the lottery.”
“Oh, it’s better than the lottery. He replied me. My football man, as Joke calls him, replied me on Twitter.”
That got all their attention. Joke was initially smiling at Dede,but now she was opening her mouth to speak to Zika.
“Zee, congrats what did he say?”
“He said,” Zika’s eyes glued to her phone, “Thank you for naming me your best footballer. Means a lot. Will be in touch.” After that she screamed. “You guys, I think I’m in love.”
Dede laughed, “You, Zee, if I hear…”
“Oya na be there. I’ll marry this man and have cute babies and most of all, I’ll watch all the matches I want.”
“I’m really happy for you Zee,” Joke said, sounding the most genuine they had ever heard her sound.
The whole group went back to doing what they were doing and, out of nowhere, Karina started,
“Hey you guys, I feel we will be okay you know after we turn twenty. I mean it’s just twenty.”
“Ehn because you finally found a man to take home to mummy and daddy,” Zee said and laughed.
“Maybe,” Karina muttered under her breath, but Tunde caught it and smiled.
The whole group was more or less waiting for Dede and Joke to say something, but they didn’t. Night faded and then it was three a.m. Zika and Joke went back to their rooms. Karina slept over and that morning for the first time in a while, she could feel her toes.
The rest of the days between February and April happened,but they were laced in school work and discovering new music and new old antiquities. The news of the pandemic dulled all the other anxieties they felt and took centre stage. Karina went on about how she couldn’t celebrate her birthday in a pandemic. The rest of them reminded her that they had to celebrate theirs in the pandemic as well, so she should at least leave a little of the tantrums for them. Joke couldn’t be bothered. The only thing that bothered her was the uncertainty of how long the world would stop and how the after-effects would stall her plans to move out of the country. School wasincreasingly uncomfortable and the pinnacle of the worry came on the day the government ordered that they all had to go home within three days. Disaster struck and our Millennium children never saw what twenty had in store for them.
Dede was the first to turn twenty in the first week of April. That morning he felt better than he thought he would have. It was a good day only for him, as his father obsessed about the increasing numbers but for once, he left him alone. He spoke to Zika that day and he secretly rejoiced in the pandemic. It was something that gave him a break from his father’s pressures. It was also on that day, as Joke had wished him a happy birthday, they began talking more and his years of silence were paying off. Joke was listening to his advances and he got an online job with a magazine he had applied to in the previous year.
Karina turned next, then Zika and Joke on the last day of the month. On all their birthdays they called each other to make sure their sanity was intact. Some were holding up better than the others, but May brought sadness when Karina told them she contacted the virus. It was a long month, but in June, she tested negative. She also said she had now chosen a religion that had in fact saved her, but she didn’t tell them which one it was.
After what held the world at a standstill, our Millennium children turned out okay in their twentieth year. Not because everything went perfectly, but because there was no need tofear it. Joke left the country almost immediately after convocation.
Dede and Joke ended up together three years later when they were far apart. She had been with a girl and she found that she liked it. When it ended, Dede was still there, so she gave it a shot and it worked. She found that she didn’t prefer being with any of them over the other, so she finally got her answer. Zee met her football man. He wasn’t perfect, but better because he made her heart skip a beat every time he spoke about what he did and who he was. Sometime later, she thought she was going to explode when she attended her first football match. Karina and Tunde made it work. Even years later. All that happened but first, trouble hit home when they were twenty-one. That’s another story. One they will tell you.