Stay

It’s been a year since you moved back home from the electrifying fullness of New York. You hated that city, so full of people, so lonely, a year since you last cried in a filthy subway. Metro cards to distant places filled with light, music and madness, full of empty.

You wanted to hear your name in a way you could understand.

That’s why you came back

Why you wanted back in your own madness

Abuja with loneliness, yes, but not enough to swallow you, familiar in a way you could navigate.

You went back to your old office and nights at strange bars, bars still filled people who seemed to be in exclusive groups whispering secrets you had to live without.

Then the bar where you met Dapo.

Dapo with a limp, Dapo who drove new cars to Cotonou every other weekend and was a life assurance marketer by day.

Who started the conversation in the bathroom?

The bathroom at a new bar lined with little figurines, Dapo on the corridor, you at the sink. You both look in the mirror. He doesn’t look at his reflection but at yours, you smile emboldened by vodka.

He smiles back and moves closer, there’s a pin in your hair, then your back on his wall, your hands on his back. He’s kissing the nape of your neck in his badly lit room, it’s easy to forget with him, taking off your bra, his hands feel good everywhere. Large hands, his finger in your hair, his fingers in you, Dapo whose name you just learned in between your legs taking quick shallow breaths.

You do not want to sleep over, you pick up your dress feeling a little raw. His room is littered with half-drunk bottles of water.

He begs you to stay.

You refuse but lie in his bed anyway, you notice scars on his hips, the bed is large enough so you don’t touch each other, and you wished he wanted to hold you.

It’s 6:30am when you leave, you didn’t get much sleep, spent most of the night staring at the paint chipping on the wall and counting his breath.

Dapo calls a cab and doesn’t say goodbye, he doesn’t make any plans to see next time, doesn’t promise to call, it’s awkward, you wish he hugged you or said something. Human contact. You held his hands, he didn’t even look and you got in the cab.

Dapo shows up in your tiny flat 2 weeks later, he has alcohol and apologies.

You tell him you understand and let him in. You get two glasses and he tells you about his trip from Cotonou last week, smuggling new cars into the country, something he did for the money, he narrates with an air of pride how he drove with the lights off at night to evade the customs police. You tell him it’s dangerous, he replies that that was obvious.

You ask about his limp, he tells you about his surgery, tells you that his bones were rotting from the insides, and tells you that his red blood cells are ill shaped, you get him water.

You tell him that alcohol dries up his insides. He laughs, just like the day you met and says that too is obvious.

You ask if he’s afraid. He doesn’t answer. He tells you he’s lost two brothers. You assume he isn’t

When he rams into you on your living room couch, you try to hold your breath, try not to ask what the fuck you’re doing. You have your hands around his neck even though you know he isn’t something to hold on to.

You ask him to stay after

He doesn’t.

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Whispers

“No one will tell you but it’s louder than a whisper”

The men at the gate who chorus greetings when you pass by

The men smoking under the lime tree, the sour smell mixing with your name.

Chioma with the squeaky voice who keeps the office clean

They all believe it and no one will say a word

Maybe they don’t think you’d understand it

They say it’s the madness, it runs in your family like the dark on your skin

Your grandmother at 68 danced out of her husband’s house.

In exasperation, smiling with her wrappa loose under her breast

They said the madness made her leave

She argued it was the madness that kept her there so long

Let’s not talk about your mother

You know your mother

Let’s talk about the words you keep whispering to yourself when no one else is listening

The journal by your bedside where you’ve written the same word every single night

The same word in over a 100 languages

Over a 100 pages filled with “sorry”

What is wrong with you?

Ward

The mother of the baby next to me is covered in her burqa. She can’t stand still, she’s already paced the ward several times. She can’t stand beside her baby, she keeps making sounds from her chest. I forget the word for that.

I wish I could reach out to her and tell her “it will be okay” but I might be wrong.

She’s on her knees now, sometimes I wonder if God keeps a list for the times we shouldn’t have bothered. The times our prayers were just words. Her stomach is still swollen, I wonder if it’s another baby then I remember Ada telling me that your stomach doesn’t go back to normal immediately after a child. Ada has a lot of strange answers, most of them mummy doesn’t agree with.

The doctor looks panicked now, they’re moving the baby to another ward. There’s a wire around her tiny nose, she’s pink, looks like a girl but you can never really tell with babies. The mother is pacing again hands on her stomach.

My left hand hurts from the IV line, I don’t want to tell the nurse about it, sometimes it feels like pepper going in through my veins.

I hear screaming down the corridor.

Ada said she’d be back with food soon but she’s been gone over an hour. I don’t blame her, she hates this place so much and tries hard not to show it, making jokes to cover the silence, buying pizza and holding my hands.

I once told her I was sorry and she couldn’t stop wiping her eyes.

Ada walks in holding my iPad, “I was putting some new cartoons” she smiles.

I smile back.

Lessons in Necessity

You were heavy in your mother’s womb on her 21st birthday. That day she sat beside her husband, smiling at the photographer, playing along to the unwritten script for Nigerian women of her time. 

She had recently gained admission to the university and found a boy, not any boy. A boy fresh out of UniLag with a medical degree and the ability to pay a bride price. Your grandfather, who had recently started questioning his memory did not express his surprise that someone wanted his problem child. He wrote a note on his bedroom mirror. 

“Do not ask if he’s sure.”

Months later, the boy visited with his father as your grandpa counted the tubers of yam and pinched the fat on the goat.

You were born of necessity because what else is expected from a 27 year old doctor but to settle down? This was the way life manifested in your society, there was no time for useless soul searching or chasing unattainable answers, just the comfortable and familiar. You now remember your younger years like a hazy dream, you remember only the things that don’t make sense, sometimes it was your mother wrapping moi moi in leaves, other days it was your father’s laughter. You tell your mother that you remember a locked room with toys from when you were 5 and she tells you that you can’t possibly remember all that.
Your early years were oblivious as it should be till you started to notice things, the things you did not understand anyway, your mother away sick for months. Being alone for months with your father who brought several aunties whenever she was away. At school you noticed that children did not come in ones and most of your friends had siblings. Then there was the time in primary 2 you told your mum you wanted a sister and she got upset. You could not understand all these things until you could. You got into a boarding school pretty early and found sisterhood in your mates at the junior school, girls who slept in the same room showered together and shared cutlery. You hated it and only wanted to go home to your mother. 
Senior secondary came and so did letters from the boy’s school on the opposite end of the street, girls pitted against their friends in competition over boys and you were a part of it. You never got far with that anyway.
Graduation came and you learned your mother wanted a divorce, you learned about the locked room prepared in anticipation of a sibling, the miscarriages, your learned your father’s mistresses by their names, you also met your younger brother, taller, darker, eyes like your father. He arrived on a Sunday in a luxury bus and just never left. The divorce never happened.
You were out of the university when you realized you were feeding off your mother’s betrayal and never learned to properly cultivate relationships. Friendship to you was something transient and you abandoned necessity, taking a liking to fiction, withdrawing into yourself, most things you did to convince yourself you were nothing like your parents. Your father who was convinced he was a god and your mother unwilling to leave. Still they were etched in your very being, strangers would see you and recognize the face of your father and mannerisms of your mother.
You soon learned that necessity was a big part of your life in a society where nothing worked unless it was imperative. This did not comfort you. You were also a late bloomer, chest swelling and hips widening into your 20’s, realizing that this also came with the attention of strange men, mostly older. You enjoyed the sway you held over them till you began to recognize the entitlement in them, the dominating personalities you swore you’d never be suppressed by.
By 21, you found alcohol as an elixir, harsh and tasteless down your throat. It taught you to dance, made you feel like a god, and helped you forget. You also realized how easy it was to love a boy and forget to leave, looking into his eyes and losing your senses, tasting mints and cigarettes. You realized how endorphins could be released and how for a moment a life of necessity wouldn’t be the most horrible thing in the world.

Alone

You often wonder what people will think while scrolling down your tweets, the words that remain on the screen after your suicide. Will they feel pity? Sadness? Will they be irritated that you chose the football season? Will they pretend to know what you wanted or comment on how they just passed you by the market a year ago?

You think about these things. You try not to.

I try to forget the truth. I’d never leave this place alive.

Life happens when we don’t realize it, the days pass as we remain ignorant of what time steals from us, every second, every minute dragging our souls deeper into debt. A debt death always collects. I’ve seen death come around before, unannounced but focused. She’s always in our stories, gossip, the papers, and her weakness for the spotlight possesses her. The headlines. The news. The drama.

Shola says you think of death too much. How do you ignore someone so loud?

You think of you elder brother, who started shrinking, not like granma whose back curved as she celebrated her 80th year but in a way a teenage boy shouldn’t. Fat cheeks gave way to jaw lines. You grew tired of the endless days by his bedside. The thick smell of disinfectant, the white tiles, the nurses you knew by name who offered church pamphlets and unsolicited prayers. You just wanted to be free. Didn’t you? You wanted to leave that place. You loved him though, like no one else. The guilt.

The guilt will never leave you. Even when you pack a black bag and move 10,000 miles, it remains like smoke on your hair, the dark on your skin. The dirt on the coffin. Thick sand and the only reason you didn’t want to leave is so he wouldn’t be alone.

So you wouldn’t be alone.

Asiko

It’s best to know when you’ve crossed the finish line. Although recognizing defeat is considered necessary for survival it has eluded generations. For mama Biola it was her sixth daughter, she could have stopped at two. She heard the whispers, knew it too well.

“A womb barren of sons”,

“Mama Biola’s poor poor husband. Who would carry on his legacy?”

The gossips omit that his legacy consisted of a dingy bungalow and millions in debt.

Mama Biola went on her knees every night for vindication. Mercy from god, for a fertile womb. Strong sons.

The third she named Asikooluwaloju; the ‘Timing of God is best’, her name a prayer. A useless prayer which meant thank you but this isn’t enough. A plea for more.

Asiko grew filled with bile, suckled on her mother’s disappointment and grew into puberty like an unfulfilled promise. Drawn to weary men who could never satisfy her.

Undeterred by gossip

“Asiko Ashawo”

“Asiko never keeps her legs closed”

“Asiko who sleeps around like a man”

Asiko, unsatisfied as they come, Asiko searching for the right moment. Asiko who never stays.

Ronke (Part 2 of 2)

I took a bus to the island and tseexted Mr. Falade from a small supermarket off Idejo

“Please I need your help sir”

His texts had become erratic and less frequent, from meeting every night to just weekends.

Perhaps another clue for me, maybe he had found someone more satisfying.

There was no reply after an hour.

I debated returning to mother, I imagined her going through the compound screaming “Ronke!”

Maybe she wouldn’t notice today. I wondered if her eyes would swell with tears when she found my empty wardrobe or if she’d say a prayer and move on.

The sun was setting accompanied by panic. I started walking home, walking slowly, what was I thinking going this far. I thought of mother gloating loudly in my ears, screaming her testimony about how God arrested me found a cheap hotel halfway home.

The receptionist eyed me and my belongings suspiciously but decided to slip me his number whispering “In case your body cold for night”

The next day Mr. Falade texted where to meet him as usual, my prior text unacknowledged.

He didn’t acknowledge the text in person either, demanding I turn my face away this time. He barely ever looked at me. As he thumped into me from behind I kept my eyes fixed on the red curtain, it didn’t hurt anymore. I felt myself in the room, then far away. I wanted a way out, all my life I just wanted to escape. When he finished, I began speaking still looking at the curtain.

“Sir please I don’t have anywhere to go from here. Please help me”

Silence

Tears filled my eyes, how did I get here? To this red curtained room and then he spoke, not hiding the irritation in his voice

“How old are you?”

“16”

“What do you think I can do for you? Don’t I already pay you?”

He was right

“I just thought…” I trailed off… I didn’t think

“I can give you somewhere to stay. In Ikorodu, one of my businesses, you’d work for your rent and we won’t have this arrangement anymore. You’d deal with my manager”

I agreed with silence the way we always had.

That was how I met my first family, Oga Salim who was like a father, making sure we got paid in full. Chioma in the opposite room who taught me to count my money before sex. Lade gave me a pocket knife. Cynthia borrowed me her shoes on my first night out.

I didn’t see Mr. Falade anymore but once in a while Mr. Salim would give me envelopes with cash from him. No notes attached, the silence that assured me he hadn’t changed.

Akin was my real promotion, randy as they come. Years later he picked me from the roadside, slipping his hands into my skirt as soon as I got in his car. He was a real bastard

He liked to talk about power and how he owned it, snorting drugs off my stomach after I undressed. The world was divided into hunters and meat for him and I was just another bush rat, some days brought ropes and whips, binding me before fulfilling his appetite. He was an insatiable man.

I tried to stop him, begged, begged Oga Salim who screamed that I was ungrateful.

Lade dabbed my bruises and handed me a gun one night, shouting in pidgin

“Ronke! Off that bastard!”

The last night Akin hunted meat was in his own bedroom, he was demonstrating how he was going to choke me with his belt, the white powdery drug around his nostrils. I sat in the middle of his bed, clutching my bag, my hand on a gun I had never fired. I was shivering.

He must have noticed my fear, I remember his cackling laughter

“Don’t worry the belt will only make it more enjoyable. You’re a common ashawo, this is the only thing you’re good for”

I aimed straight at his head.

I can still remember the panic in his eyes as I pulled the trigger.

Oga Salim visited my room not long after handing me two hundred thousand naira

“We were paid good money for Akin. Tomorrow you’d meet Charles Ekeh.”

Ronke (Part 1)

People obsess over things like justice or morality. I don’t have that luxury. What is right has always been about survival. So many fools try to sugar coat it, try to make us think there’s more, but in the end it is what it is.
I started this job maybe 5 years ago, it was an accidental employment. Maybe not that accidental; my father used to say a liar is also a thief. My point is that some professions are separated by blurred lines.

Akin liked to grope at my butt even when I wasn’t on duty. I mean it, the bastard would take trips to Ikorodu when he needed his fix. The motherfucker didn’t even pay much for the long sweaty nights he spent on top of me, his hands around my neck as he shook violently. I’d learned to stay put just as he liked. He was a bastard and I’d put a hole in him again if I have to.

Mother says bad things happen to wayward women. After my WAEC examination as if to help me cast my doubts the many E8s assured me I had peaked in education. I never had the head for school. My mother always prayed to God for first positions, I sometimes wonder why she didn’t pray for average. The excesses in her requests, for riches instead of food on the table, for dead enemies instead of apologies. It’s useless thinking about that now.
I have always followed my mother to the market for as long as I can remember, we own a big umbrella, a plastic chair and stool. It was my job to go about beckoning women to come fix their hair, which went full time after WAEC.
“Aunty please come, I fit braid well”
I stared at all the “aunties” passing by, trying their best not to meet my eyes as they ignored me. The haughtiness on their faces reminded me of how insignificant I must be to their worlds, no one remembers the market girl hungry for work.
It was in that same market I met Mr. Falade, it was already time for the market to close and I was going to return the bottle for coke I bought from Iyabeji. He was seating in his benz and honked as I passed by. I knew better than to answer so I kept walking till he stuck his head out and shouted
“You with the bottle please come”
I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t used to hearing please or maybe he looked like he had the type of money I could only dream of, either way I went to meet him. He asked for my name and where I was going, he spoke in a thick Yoruba accent, not pronouncing the H’s and switching between Yoruba and English. I knew what he wanted the way he looked at me, like he could see through my clothes, then straight in the eyes like it didn’t matter what I thought anyway.
I got into his car the same day, lucky mother wasn’t in the market. He took me home and made me wash in his bathroom before shoving his fat penis in my mouth. That was our formal agreement. No words and I left with thirty thousand naira afterwards.
I went home and tied the money in an old under pant. Tucking it in my wardrobe as mother brought down God’s wrath on me for coming home so late.
“USELESS GIRL. YOU WANT TO BECOME AN ASAHWO IN THIS HOUSE!”

I continued to make hair at the market then see Mr. Falade afterwards, each day he did something different, some days he just wanted me to touch myself as he watched, other days he would pound me senseless from my butt.
He didn’t talk much so after a while I started working out by myself what it all meant.
The large family portrait meant, he was happily married with two sons.
The fact that he was fucking me in his house meant that his family was abroad. I know some rich men do that.
After a while he got me a nokia phone and would text me the address of where to meet him; Maybe his wife was back visiting.

I began to stay out later and mother got restless, she began to hit me again, slapping sense into me. I didn’t mind all the beatings until she began looking through my things, then the time she found 50 thousand naira in my wardrobe and gave it to the church.

That was the last straw for me. I couldn’t stand this woman, I didn’t care she was my mother, we didn’t agree much on anything. Without really thinking it through, I packed a small bag and walked out on a Sunday morning.

Maybe Mr. Falade will help me, maybe not.

I had my dreams and I refused be contained…

Stench

Bola discovered early that death was a shameful thing, and not just because the day after Biodun died, mother came home and threw out her belongings, it was mostly the prayers, the endless rejections of being cut off from respiration. Biodun was just another instrument God had created. Mother fainted in the same hospital, her knees buckling as they wheeled Biodun’s cold body past. The next morning Mother ripped off her IV line and headed home, red eyes swollen shut but she’d be damned if she did not accept the will of the almighty.

Comforters came in flocks, many pastors too but that was a long time ago.

Bola witnessed many more deaths, learned to smell it on the living, it was her curse, and she could tell when one was called by the inevitable.

It started with the neighbor, Mama Pelumi who wore expensive lace and fortified her marriage with tithes, the pastors saw the young witch who wanted to break her home but did not foresee the heart attack; maybe it wasn’t what they were looking for. But Bola heard it when she spoke, the resignation she tried to cover in prayers, the misplaced restlessness, the stench.

There was also the boy in class who always carried extra bottles of water, he had a loud voice and played ball as much as he could often missing classes. Bola imagined he knew he was going too, maybe he also recognized the stench in his sweat.

Bola tried to dismiss them as coincidences at first, then she told her mum who bathed her in oil and brought down fire from heaven.

“Don’t say such things! Only God knows our end”

Then she tried to live with the stench but ended up living despite it. How could one learn to live as death’s gossip buddy? It wasn’t specific, she couldn’t tell exactly when or how they would die. A useless talent, she couldn’t warn anyone. She once told a boy from the other school, Dozie, who ran the 100metres on inter-house sports to “Stay Safe” and he threw back his head and laughed.

Years passed by, sometimes the stench went away, returning briefly, from the woman with the engagement ring at the cinema, from the bus conductor ilupeju, who she slipped five hundred naira before walking away.

Ninety Eight

I did not deserve you.

I was a coward. I didn’t give you any explanations because I couldn’t face the truth. I couldn’t face that I had betrayed you. That I was such a disappointment. I was so ashamed. I had no excuse for leaving like that, I failed you.

I got married in 2004. Her name is Elizabeth, I don’t think she’s happy, she treats me as one would regard a houseguest, formal but polite. Perhaps I’ve failed her too.

I remember what early 98’ felt like, and I realize that being with you is the only time I ever felt alive. I often remember when you started teaching History at the government school, when I stayed home most of the day filling out applications, the evenings we laid naked in bed for the heat. The memories still create a dull ache in my chest. I long for every moment we had, even the not so good ones when you complained about the school for hours. How you hated when the principal called you a liberal extremist. I’d give anything to hear you complaining while I held your hand one more time.

I’m sorry I left like that, I thought of you often, I still think of you. How you saw me as much more than I was or ever would be. I could not bear watching your dark eyes fill with disappointment. I’ve not been able to forget the days we spent under the birch tree. The first time your lips touched mine, the confusion, and the denial. The realization that we craved the forbidden. I long for the past.

Life has taught me a lot of things but I can’t get over the regret, the feeling of going on so long without what I truly wanted. I must sound ridiculous hurting for 16 years ago. This isn’t the first time I’ve written to you, there have been hundreds of letters, written and destroyed. Perhaps I would destroy this too.

I wonder why you never got married, if you ever had another lover. I wonder if you still think of me.

I’d give anything to get you back but I know that isn’t fair to you. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to stand up for what I wanted. What we wanted.

I wonder how things turned out for you. You were always the bigger man. I once came across a paper you wrote on Abacha’s foreign policy on the internet and I remembered the day you took to the streets celebrating his death. Sometimes I think the universe is chuckling at his own brilliance.

I’m not asking that we pick up from where the past but…I’ve been unhappy for a long time

I don’t know how to explain that the worries of yesterday pale in comparison and I can’t help thinking “What if?” I’m constantly haunted by the things I wanted most and ignored.

You may think me crazy but please I’d love to hear from you.

Maybe one day you could forgive me.

Your Old Friend,

Dapo.