In his first short story to be published, Roy weaves the intricacies of relationship issues, as experienced by the narrator, and by the latter’s aunt, into a beautiful juxtaposition that portrays two people’s differing approaches to love.
There is a kind of desertedness about Lagos; I thought about this a lot in the weeks after I arrived, seated at the back seat of a cab, and watching the lives of people seep into each other. I imagined their lives, invented their dreams, and I felt a particular emptiness, a loss. The city thinned into films of brake lights with people hastily rushing past it to do something somewhere. It always seemed they had all completely forgotten the city and were focused on solely milking its resources. To be Igbo in Lagos, especially with the millennials that visited from the east, was to denounce the language. And even when they did speak it, they spoke with a certain carefulness, a frothiness, avoiding to be coined into a rather demeaning phrase: those of you from the east.
I learnt about this identity in a clash I had with an Edo girl at a book club I attended with my friend, Fanasi. We had opposing views of a character in a novel we had selected to review. She said my points were bland and devoid of proper character analysis, which was exactly what I thought of hers.
‘Where are you even from?’ she asked angrily.
‘Enugu,’ I retorted, unwilling to flinch.
‘Oh, that makes sense now; those of you from the east are not particularly smart.’
Later, I told Jindu about this, how I cracked when a few of the members laughed, and how it had upset me even more when Fanasi said that I would get used to it. Used to what? Her lack of common sense? I said. He laughed and said that people would always be people. Something about this irked me, but coming from him, I knew it was from a good place. Jindu’s Lagos allowed my existence. It was full and happy and consuming, and it was also terrifying–this was the beginning of our relationship.
We met at a job interview Aunty’s friend had told her about. There was something about Jindu–a certain fussiness dressed in absolute authority–that irritated me. He stared at me; a man wearing a three-piece suit and a silver wrist band he rubbed impatiently, as one performing a task painfully assigned to him. I stared back. I imagined him taking in my nervousness with distaste. Beneath his stare, I found myself suddenly too aware of my inadequacies and constantly too eager to bridge them–dabbing at the sweat on my forehead, sitting up straight, arching my brows. But there was something else between us, between the large table and chairs separating us, between the ladies asking the questions I was undoubtedly failing at–something in his eyes.
His expression was colorful when he followed me out after the interview and asked if we could get together sometime. It amused me the way he said ‘sometime.’ When we did get together, it was not sometime, it was that evening. He took me to Freedom Park. Femi Kuti was performing live. In his car, when I told him that I was not a fan of Afro-Jazz, that I could not relate to it, he laughed and muttered ‘ridiculous’ as though it was my taste in music that lacked, and then leaned in and kissed me. Kissing Jindu felt perilous: his hand around my neck, his tongue thrust into my mouth and mine into his. I would come to learn that this was how he took on most things–with an open authority.
He had never dated anyone my age, he said, after weekends of intense romance as though it was something he only did because he couldn’t bear not to–something I should feel special about. And I did. People your age are naïve, he said. I ignored this. I took pleasure in his choice of word: date. I did not get the job at his office, but at least I got him. I curled up under the blanket and stared at his erection, this erection I was dating–all its massiveness.
I ignored a lot of things he said and did, and perhaps it was because of this that I slightly expected that he would do the same, a year later, when we broke up. And when Fanasi asked about what had happened, I said that we had fallen out of love, and that class was one of the reasons, but said nothing about the cheating.
There was a centered calmness about Jindu, this head-above-water persona that spilled extreme desire. The uncanny stillness that willed me to believe that apathy is sometimes a virtue. He reminded me of my father: the relaxation with which he moved the glass of fresh orange juice to his lips, the ease in his gait, the intense look in his eyes when he did not like something. These things that made him whole.
The risk that came with being together was never a thing we talked about. And though we had dabbled into the conversation from time to time and proffered little. Though he nodded along when his friend, Kanayo said that the Police was biased and would not harass a rich man kissing another man in a 2014 Prado jeep, or holding hands along the streets of Ikoyi or Lekki, because they didn’t know who was who and who could leave them jobless within the hour. Though we read the blogs and websites about the lynching and mob attacks and shared our disapproval, we never really talked about it.
But it was there.
It was there when he let go of my hand too quickly at the estate supermarket because the woman with the crying baby stared at us in a certain way. When I met his mother, sweet little Patty–who came from one of those families that embraced foreign cultures and referred to people from the east as ‘You People,’ as though she wasn’t from Aguata, and used words like homely and subservient to describe us–and she said that Jindu and I were almost like lovers. And he rambled on for minutes trying to explain that we weren’t, in a manner that only heightened suspicions.
It was there again in the evenings we had dinner at Rhapsody’s, when he complained that my pants was a little too short or my shirt too bright colored, and insisted that we sit beside each other and not opposite, and when I asked why, he lied that he wanted to feel the warmth of my body.
And even when I brought it up, when I felt its grip tighten around my neck–when I silently despised him–we would talk about it in that watery way that admitted nothing, and engaged nothing, and always ended at nothing.
So I began to think about other things, to like other things. In a world dedicated to choking our existence, we somehow managed to squeeze out compliments–how he said, ‘You’re so adorable,’ or ‘How I miss you, Kemdi’ at the oddest of times. I liked that, with him, life was a complete model, overflowing with details, verdant and lavish. We were spectators to this model, listening to his collections of The Beatles and Onyeka Onwenu, rocking our bodies to the beats, and teasing each other about trivial things. Old soul, I would always tease him and he would laugh and call me ‘millennial baby.’
With Jindu, these songs had new meanings. We would make love to them and snuggle up under his sheets, sheets that smelled of Lavender. He would nibble at my ears and I would wiggle and arch my neck. And three months into our relationship, while doing this, he would say ‘I love you,’ and I would let out a light snore and think about these risks.
Aunty’s hair was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived Lagos. There was an unsettling look about it. The silky texture that had rested gently on her shoulders had been cut to a bubbly low-cut and bleached gold. ‘Kinky’ was how she described it, and I knew this was not her word, that this newly-acquired persona was not hers. And though the new color accentuated the honey brown of her eyes, though it took a few years off her, I knew this was not entirely by choice. This was her subtle way of fitting in, something Jindu had described as the only way to survive Lagos, in a tone that made Lagos sound tedious.
‘I makwa afa ya: Do you recognize his name?’ Aunty asked admiringly when I told her about my friend, Jindu Nnanyelugo from Nimo, and demanded that I bring him to dinner. He is royalty, she finished. Aunty had become one of those women who felt the need to prove herself worthy in the midst of wealth, who believed that a person without a renowned surname was nobody in the society.
The evening Jindu came over, Aunty had taken on a new appearance. She smiled too quickly and told tales I had never heard of. She asked if he spoke Igbo, and smiled approvingly when he said he understood more than he spoke it, like this was a great stride that deserved applauding. She spoke of her time in his hometown, Nimo, and how she was almost married to his distant relative. I nearly married into royalty, she joked, and Jindu laughed and said we would have been one big family. I focused on my meal.
Before he left, he said that Aunty had been sweet, that she had entertained him and in some ways, reminded him of his mother, and that I had been the bore.
Aunty was different with each person. It was the kind of difference one would find in a woman who ached to find her foothold, a woman thrown out of a childless fifteen year marriage. When she wasn’t trying to impress, she was a womb. A woman religion had molded into splintered shapes of selfless reality, whose God had become hostile and exacting. Aunty lived her life with the belief that there was a certain someone or something waiting patiently to devour her destiny. I remember thinking this the first day I arrived Lagos, the day Ejiro killed the bat that flew into her apartment, and she called it witchcraft.
Ejiro, this man in her life. This apathetic man who whistled his days away along to Morocco’s tracks and brushed off topics about politics and football, yet, had that sort of unconcern that somehow managed to stifle someone.
I always wondered what she saw in him, what part of this short, slender man she found attractive. I asked one day, and she mumbled something about lemons and lemonades, and the unavailability of choices.
But that was not the day he hit Aunty. That was not the day he slapped her head against the wall at 2 a.m. because she did not open the door on time, and shouted and hit her till the neighbors began to cluster at the door to beg him to stop. Or the day they woke the entire building with Aunty’s cries from her room as he punched her harder to muffle them. That was the day before.
That was, however, the day he brought flowers that smelled of chlorine and begged her to forgive him, to look beyond his weaknesses and see him for what he was: kind-hearted. She took him in her arms as he cried on her thighs and began to cry along with him. That was the day Aunty said that Ejiro was not all bad, that there was a tender side to him, and that we all had our bad sides.
That was the day I slowly began to dislike Aunty.
Later that evening, after Jindu and I made love, I told him about Ejiro, the days I had walked in on Aunty smearing too much concealer around her eyes, and the days she locked herself inside the room and sobbed silently.
He listened quietly and held me close to him, holding me tight from behind, because he felt I needed to be held.
‘I’m sorry you had to witness that, Kemdi. But maybe she’s right. You shouldn’t judge a person based on one of his bad characters.’
One of his bad characters? Something in me broke that night. I sank deeper into his arms and said nothing. Resentment rolled inside me. I felt it in my tears as they trailed down my face. I would, at this time, realize that my tears were not for Aunty’s relationship, but for mine, for Jindu’s capacity to somehow justify hitting a partner.
After the breakup, I convinced myself that this was the beginning of our end. That if he had said something else, the walls between us would not have gained height
I began to know Jindu when I met his friends, friends whom I had only heard about from him, friends that drank whiskey and coke over the discourse of football and sex, and embellished themselves with an air of superiority.
He had told me about Jachi, the dark, burly one with short locks and even shorter limbs, who believed that everyone out there wanted a piece of him. And of Kanayo, the one with the British-American accent whose idea of a relationship bordered on his partner being submissive and meek, who would nod his approval as I dropped a plate of jollof rice before him, and say, ‘Now, that’s what I’m talking about.’
I remembered Tarfa from a photo Jindu sent to me–his best friend–calm and collected with fiery eyes, lips that curved so coyly into a smile, and a slender tongue that left me wondering what sex with him would feel like.
And there was Collins with the stinging appearance and nose-itching colognes; this man whose pontifical opinions hung heavy around the room, who would say surreal things and force everyone to listen. He was not like the rest: he seemed older, in his late thirties, an unabashed braggart who courted publicity. He was the kind to be driven more by vanity than anything else. I wondered why Jindu was friends with him.
I told him about the way Collins watched me: his eyes taking in the gold of my skin, my toned thighs and rounded butt. And that when he groped me in the kitchen and tried to kiss me, I should have slapped him. ‘You look like the type that can swallow,’ His voice rang in my head.
‘That’s just Collins. He is a pervert,’ Jindu said, and laughed, and tapped my shoulder, and then frowned but did not say anything else. It confused me, this person–the capacity to become alien so quickly.
‘He is the problem with the gay community,’ I shot back, ‘and so are you for defending him.’
‘Let’s not call it gay, let’s call it happy,’ he said, coming around back to hold me–this thing he assumed I needed. ‘Gay seems too frigid, don’t you think?’ He kissed my neck, nibbled at my ear, and then slid his hand into my sweatpants and massaged my penis. I said nothing. He kissed me deeply, took my tongue in his mouth and thrust his into mine. When he slid his finger into me, I moaned deeply, and then pushed him away.It was much later that night that we had our first actual fight. He held me from behind, my fingers grazing the hairs on his forearm.
‘You know, Kemdi, I like that you are not obviously happy.’
For a second, the room fell silent, registering time. I turned startled eyes at him. ‘Obviously happy?’
‘Yes, you know that in-your-face kind of happy that is just uncomfortable,’ It was not more what he said but how he said it that bothered me–so casually like this was a part of me he didn’t have to bother with, a part that lay comfortably at the base of his acceptance, a part he could swallow without having to feel the bile in his throat. I listened as each word scrapped off yet one more scale of self from me until I felt naked and wrong.
He laughed when I sat up and I stared at him, at the bizarre look on his face, the look that expected that I would be foolish to take offense. This was a compliment after all. Something about meeting his friends had brought out in Jindu something I loathed with a visceral twist in my throat.
I called him ‘shallow’ and he called me ‘silly’.
The next morning when I left, I decided I would not take his calls or return his messages. He was sorry if something he said upset me, his texts always read. That he was not sure why I was acting up, and felt I didn’t deserve to be upset at all. That this was why he never dated people my age. It continued till he stopped calling and texting–till I slapped Aunty and knocked on his door.
‘She deserved it,’ I said, and flung my hands around his neck.
On the day I told Jindu about the cheating with Tarfa–fiery eyed Tarfa, with the long tongue that worked wonders–I wondered whether my moving in with him had contributed in some ways.
‘How could you?’ He accused, after his pause for a laugh yielded nothing, after he laughed and pushed my shoulder willing me to laugh along and tell him I was only joking, that I could never truly hurt him like that. But I wasn’t joking. I should not have taken pleasure in telling him, but I did, in the distraught look on his face when it settled in.
He watched me; perhaps he thought it had always been good between us, or that I was incapable of such a despicable act. I expected him to flare up and demand a reason, to hit me. But he didn’t. He yelled, ‘You disgust me,’ and stormed out of the house in anger, and I reveled in the thought of him hitting Tarfa.
It had been two months since I moved into his house. Each waking morning rose with cement in my soul; preparing his breakfast, sweeping the house, puffing the cushions, doing laundry. It brought with it formless longings, sated resentment, flashes of other lives I should have been living, that over the weeks blended into a penetrating hatred for him. We began to argue a lot. I expected a fight each night he came home. If he didn’t say ‘Thank you’ after eating, I nagged. If he didn’t hang his jacket when he took it off, I huffed. I demanded that he made his side of the bed before leaving. The first time he raised his hand at me, I spat on his face and locked myself in the guest room all day.
On bearable nights when I watched him sleep, I searched his face for nothing in particular, anything, a glint from the past. I wondered how being so close to him could make him so distant.
One morning, as he got dressed for work, I told him that I loved him–last resort. I wondered if he heard in my voice the sound of resignation, the longing in my eyes. He cupped my face in his hands, stared deeply into my eyes and kissed me. I was not sure what I wanted, or if I wanted anything at all, but it was not what he did.
‘Why?’ He asked when he got back from work. Did I need a reason to love him? I wondered. Who asks why when told that you love them? Had he not said it first, barely three months into our relationship? What reason did he have then? We fought again that night, and as it was becoming the norm, I slept in the guest room.
A week after I told him, I moved back to Aunty’s place. He asked if I thought it was a good idea to leave with the way things were between us. ‘I have to’ I said, and I knew he heard in my voice an ending.
Aunty called, the previous day, to say that the house was empty without me and that two months was more than enough time to heal from anything. I should not have slapped her, but she understood why I did it. That she needed the revolution that came with it. That she deserved better from Ejiro, and it was time to demand for it.
In his car, we made light conversation, about the Lagos traffic, the heat, the Rhythm FM presenter, Frabzy and her British-American accent. I told him she reminded me of Kanayo, of the way their words took different accents in different sentences, and when he said nothing, I realized we weren’t ready to talk about his friends. I stared at the purple blobs on his fist and truly felt sorry.
‘I am sorry, Jindu.’ It was the first time I said it, the first time I truly meant it.
‘But why, Kemdi?’ His voice broke into something like the feel of sandpaper. He was asking for a reason, a single cause.
I looked out the window and watched the Marina brush past us in forgetful strides wishing the skyscrapers and slums would spit out a good reason, a cause. I blamed him for making me do it, for letting it be my decision, for not ignoring. If there’s one thing I’d learnt from being with him, it’s that we somehow become the people we give our attention to. With him I learnt the possibility of love and hate to exist for the same person.
I swiped at the tears that rolled down my face and said nothing.
When we arrived at Aunty’s house, Ejiro was hitting her. The neighbors were shouting. Jindu and I ran up the stairs and knocked at the door. I was shouting, but he remained calm.
He shoved me aside, kicked in the door and rested his first punch on Ejiro’s temple. Ejiro groaned in pain and fell to the floor. There was a wooden spoon in Aunty’s hand. The duo descended on him while I stood aside watching. I would, at this time, wonder if this was how Jindu descended on Tarfa, if Tarfa had curled into a womb and cried and begged him to stop like Ejiro did.
That night, Aunty and I talked–really talked–about real things. She took off her blouse and her breasts hung bare. The power was out and the air still smelled of reprisal. We drank wine and laughed, and danced to songs from the radio.
She was different. Her hair was black again and fragments of her from Enugu had begun to come alive. We danced and sang and drank, and when we were exhausted, we lay bare against the cold floor and talked.
‘Do you know I pay the rent here, just me?’ I knew this but I never spoke of it. She talked about choices, losses, and victories.
‘Ejiro is eight years younger than I am.’
‘He gave me power, Kemdi. Power. I don’t know how to explain it to you, but he gave me strength. When everything had fallen apart, he came into my life and handed me back my power, made me worthy again. I’m not trying to defend him, but it’s difficult not to acknowledge that.’
‘It all changed when I got a new job and had to move from the one-room apartment I lived in to this place. He lived a few doors down the hall, and since we were already seeing each other and spending most nights together, we didn’t think it was a bad idea to move in together,’
‘And this required him hitting you, how?’
She scoffed and said something about the decisions we sometimes take, about the fear of being alone, of approaching forty and having nothing to show for it. ‘The society isn’t ready for a middle-aged single woman. Everybody knows this.’
I took her hand in mine and said nothing. The power came back on and the fridge hummed quietly. She joked about her body–groped her breasts–and the possibilities of a man wanting her again. I laughed and told her that she didn’t need the desire of a man to feel valid, that she was enough. She said nothing for a while, and then shook her head and laughed. We laughed because laughing came easily, because it masked the uncertainties of tomorrow, because it felt good to really laugh.
‘Would you take him back?’ I asked, staring up at a stain on the wall.
‘I don’t know. Anything is possible.’ She wiped the sweat from her face, and stood up to turn the fan on. When she lay back down, she asked, ‘What about you and Jindu?’
I swallowed down hard. ‘What about us?’
‘Oh, come on, you know I know. Plus you were never the most subtle with these things anyway. Why did you think I invited him to dinner?’
‘I have known from the time you were a child. I watched you grow; a mother always knows, and that’s why I know your mom knows.’
I considered this for a moment, and then laughed and shook my head. ‘I messed up, Aunty.’
‘Then fix it, Kemdi. Fix it. Jindu is a keeper.’
I scoffed. ‘And what about you?’
‘Me?’ she smiled and placed a hand on her belly. ‘I’m fixed; I’m pregnant.’