Alheri is standing on a ledge on the seventh floor of a seven-storey hotel she helped design.
It was her who sat at a drawing board for an unusually long week to visualise the details of the building finishes. The finishes are in the works now and she should be proud. She feels numb instead. So she climbs to the seventh of seven floors and stands on the scaffolding hugging the building to provoke an emotion in herself. She gets vertigo but she knows that height is a kind of aesthetic. It roars up at you like the end of the world and threatens to swallow you and if you don’t know what language to reply it in you get overwhelmed and feel like you are spinning. She knows the threats of height are half its aesthetic. The knowledge ruins the thrill of it: Alheri gets vertigo. Yet, vertigo is not quite an emotion.
Her life feels wrong now that architecture has stopped intriguing her. Alheri knows what she must do and does it without thinking it over. When she has missed work for five days, her employers call her. ‘I’m quitting,’ she tells them and they let her be. But then, a woman who speaks with the cockiness you associate with people who have generations of wealth cushioning them begins to pester her. She says she is Lola. She owns the hotel whose finishes Alheri helped her former employers figure out.
‘I heard you quit your job.’
‘It makes me feel dead.’
‘That’s one less good woman in the field.’
‘I know. But I want to feel alive.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean what I really want to do is paint.’
‘Okay,’ an awkward silence settles in the magnetic field between them, mediated by the sound of static. Lola takes initiative. ‘You should paint me sometime then,’ she says.
And Alheri does so several times. She paints Lola everywhere. On her balcony. In her bath. Under a persimmon tree. And when the hotel whose finishes Alheri helped figure out is completed, she paints Lola in her private study on the seventh floor. She finishes the paintings and stand back to look at them. The brutishness of her own methods intrigues her. Her roguish strokes. The way she bullies colours into screaming on a canvas. The chaotic beauty of the frames.
Now, there are several framed versions of Lola whose new pastime is sitting for Alheri: monochromes, psychedelics, caricatures, nudes, watercolours, oil paintings. Alheri stares at them until she feels something that scares her; a turning whirling swimming falling feeling. Ah. I love you, she thinks to the portraits of Lola. She eventually finds herself telling the real Lola what she is only meant to think to the portraits.
They make love violently – like an invasion. They both climax, clutching each other as if scared they would transcend their bodies and dissolve. And like everything that climaxes, their romance races to a denouement.
Lola tells Alheri she is engaged. To who? She says that’s not what matters; she has to stop seeing Alheri.
Now, the artist is alone, mourning her broken heart and starving her body for tricking her into the affair in the first place. She locks herself in her room and tries to paint her sorrow but the colours don’t flow. She doesn’t remember how to paint. She bawls and loses weight until one has to wonder how her frame could support such large breasts.
She just wants something that stays.
Then one day, smack in the middle of her grieving, she happens upon a discovery. She is meditating on the substance of her hurt when it occurs to her that maybe the way to cure a hurt is to return it back to the origin. So she pulls a baseball cap over her head to cover her face and heads for the seven-storeyed hotel whose finishes she helped her former employers figure out, where her portraits of her runaway lover hangs.
And you both meet.
The merger of opposition parties in the country is having a plenary and the founder of the most prominent of them, Barr. Wale Oke, is not about to leave his secretary behind. He says he wants you to bear witness to this watershed in your national history. ‘You, my dear, should never miss a chance to be present wherever history is being reconstructed,’ he says. Truth, though, is that he wants you to come because of your face – your long face and prominent cheekbones and double chin and cowpea eyes. Politics is easier with a pretty face trailing behind you even if it’s just your secretary’s. Soon, it will be his wife’s – he is getting married later in the month.
This is how you are in a conference hall sitting beside a man whose hand is slipping onto your laps, wriggling between your thighs, under your skirt, while he stares straight ahead, at the podium where Barr. Wale Oke is giving a speech, like he hasn’t registered your body and his hand is just truanting. You lift his hand onto the armrest between the both of you. He looks at you and grins – a wide, gummy, off-kilter grin that churns your tummy. Fat tribal marks bracket his face. Your amusement morphs into disgust. And suddenly, all the air is suctioned from the hall. Lift yourself from the chair and walk to the back, out the exit.
The conference hall is on the ground floor of a seven-storeyed hotel such that when you leave the hall you are standing on a landing. The landing is nostalgic – whitewashed walls, mahogany flooring, complete with a large curious-looking painting. A Beethoven classic would look like this if transcribed. Overwhelmed, sigh deeply. Let it be the whole of your body sighing. You stand before the painting until a fiftyish man and a younger chap smooch their way down the stairs. You begin to feel awkward so you chide yourself, ‘Isn’t it just a painting?’
Hazard a guess: there is a painting like this on every landing. There is. You follow the trail of nostalgia set firmly against the walls until you reach the top, the last landing. A slender man has beaten you to this one. His back is turned, a baseball cap covering his head, leaning against a wall before the largest and most pathetic of the paintings: a generous splattering of black, red and newspaper clippings on canvas. Your thighs itch where the grinning, tribal marked man’s hand crawled over them in the conference hall just a few minutes ago and you want to be away from every man.
You begin to walk away, your feet attempting stealth but the man spins around and says, ‘This painting must be the saddest thing in this building.’ You realise that he is, in fact, a girl. She looks younger than you, tenderer too, like mutton. She is dark and heavy-breasted and you have to wonder, first, how her slender body could support such large breasts, then, how you had mistaken her for a man.
Stutter, ‘Yes, it is.’
‘What do you think about it?’ She asks.
Tell her, ‘I think the painter is a really sad person.’
‘Yeah. Yes, I am a very sad person.’
Your face feels hot. You watch the girl closely, she doesn’t seem offended but she says, ‘There’s an empty room with a sofa somewhere on this floor and I think I want to sit down.’ Concurring is your apology.
The room is not as empty as she promised. A study of some sort, with a bookshelf foregrounded by a wall. The bookshelf contains large leather-bound volumes of a travel journal, arranged alphabetically, spanning Aberdeen and Zanzibar. Several portraits of the same lady festoon this room. If they aren’t initialled the same as the landing portraits you would argue that the artist is a whole different person.
Her name is Alheri and if you had known that she has brought you to the private study of Lola Adedeji – the proprietor of the property and Barrister Wale Oke’s fiancée – that she is the estranged lover of the carte blanched Lola, that in a few minutes a half-spent cigarette will negotiate a trajectory between her fingers and the bookshelf, you would watch a fire blossom, escape to her room together and your life would accelerate sharply, you would choreograph your exit right away.
But you don’t.
So, sit down next to her on the sofa. Watch her tuck a cigarette between her lips and let your breath hitch.
Your first time in a night club. Sip a bottle of soda while you think about your mother the prophetess and wonder if she is currently praying, prancing around her house like she used to about this time of the night when you still lived with her. You consider leaving Alheri because, really, she is bad influence. A man takes the seat at your side, a high stool by the counter, the one Alheri vacated for the dance floor, derailing your thought train. Face away when he brings out his wallet and turn back when he offers to share his bottle of liqueur with you.
‘Don’t say you don’t drink please,’ he says, head angled to the left, lower lip jutting out mockingly, his face kneaded into a smile. His eyebrows meet at the middle, the dim unsteady light of the nightclub makes him look eerie. He is half-angel and half-demon, pleading and daring in the same breath.
Smile back, ‘Of course, I do.’ But that is a lie.
You fill a tumbler and try to gulp it, your throat burns. Slam the tumbler on the countertop and grip your neck. Terrified, he bathes you with questions. What happened? Did it choke you? Are you fine? Then he laughs, pours himself a shot and gives you your first drinking lesson, ‘The first shot is always hottest.’
Laugh. Shift the liqueur back to him and return to your soda.
He introduces himself, ‘Tolu.’ And at the turn of midnight, with a Tuface Idibia track coaxing everything from walls to bodies saturated with spirits and beers to shake, he asks, ‘Do you dance?’ He manoeuvres you to the dance floor. When he tries to clasp your waist, spin you around, and work your body, you stiffen like a frozen herring. You are an old shrine in a gentrified town, unsure what to do with itself.
Alheri glides over, leaving her dance partner canoodling with the air. Now, sandwiched between Tolu who turns his back, bends and shakes his buttocks when a fast track comes on, and Alheri, who humps your behind with the wetness in her skirt, shed yourself. Gyrate with the party. This will be the character of your trinity from this night: Tolu and Alheri squaring off, you in the middle – umpire sometimes, a spectator at other times. Dance until the club empties out in the hour before dawn and the DJ comes to announce to the few of you left on the dance floor, ‘We are closing for the morning.’
‘I could drop you girls off,’ Tolu says, his eyes glistening with intentions. You glance at Alheri who, drunk, is still swaying to music which has gone silent, and do not decline. Home is Alheri’s apartment. Tolu chauffeurs you in his V Boot, steering with both hands, trying not to fall asleep. Seated beside him, your body squirms. The car seats smell fusty, like sex. You list your head against the door so the wind is in your face. Recite the Psalms until you are bored, and then play hopscotch in your mind.
Alheri, splayed in the back seat in her advanced state of inebriation, mumbles, ‘Fuck me.’
You turn to look at her, then at Tolu who mirrors your movements. Laugh when your eyes meet.
He says, ‘I have wet dreams when I’m wasted too.’
‘You girls are so different,’ he says. ‘How are you friends?’
Say, ‘Well, there was a meeting.’
Now, in the car, a silence begins but its death is premature.
Tolu chuckles, ‘That’s it?’
You say to him, ‘I’m tired. I could tell you the story later.’
‘Like on a date?’
Conceal your smile.
Early morning, a month later, sit in Tolu’s car and let him drive you to his apartment, your baggage in his trunk. A month during which you tweet at each other, share funny images and make long video calls. In which he tells you while you both watch a stage play at Terra Kulture that you look like he could fall asleep between your thighs every night and you grin and say, ‘I think that is sexist.’ But before that, Alheri is mad at you. She thinks you are letting Tolu, that mo’fucker, gaslight you.
‘And can’t you see that I love you?’ she screams.
‘That is scary, Alheri. You can’t love me.’
You like Alheri, honestly, but you can’t be with her because she is a whirlwind. You don’t like girls in that way anyway. Or maybe it’s just that you have never been with a girl that way. Then there’s the case of your mother the prophetess.
You don’t have to love Tolu. Please, anything to escape Alheri.
This evening, you watch the president, on cable TV, garbed in black like an executioner, outlaw queer love. Tolu is downcast. He asks how you feel about it.
You don’t know. You are not gay.
His brows furrow, his eyes roam over you and you get the feeling that in the three months you have lived with him he is really seeing you for the first time.
‘You don’t need to be gay,’ he says. ‘You only have to be human.’
Say, ‘Ok. Why are you so worried?’
‘It’s Alheri I’m scared for,’ he says.
Gasp. How did you not think of her? Save for curt, perfunctory exchanges over the phone, you haven’t really talked since you left her. Ring her up.
‘Check twitter,’ she says when she picks up, sobbing. ‘They are lynching us.’
‘Where are you?’
‘Remember our night club? I’m hiding in the toilet. Guys are baying for gay blood.’
You ask, ‘Why? Is it a gay club?’
Turn to Tolu and wonder what he was doing in a gay club the night you met him. But what were you doing too?
‘Stay there. We are coming for you.’
You find Alheri in a toilet stall, sitting on a toilet bowl, wheezy from crying, puffy-eyed and shivering. It is the most vulnerable you’ve seen her. The toilet smells like lemon. Lemon from air fresheners hung in the stalls. Graffiti canonize the walls, the words oblique, crisscrossing, scattered and punctuated by bungled smileys. Some meticulously punctuated like a calligrapher’s life’s work, others rude, shorthanded, as if by a dissident on the run.
U wl fnd luv evn if ur fat.
Thank you I was worried.
Behind Alheri, in the space between the cistern and the window, a cursive line reads, You are home. You pull her off the toilet bowl, draw her head to your chest and let her rasping breath rock you both. Then kiss her fiercely, your bodies quivering, the weight of her breast speaking to the weight of your breast. Try to remember your name and don’t. Laugh. Laugh some more to shed the awkwardness that befalls. When she asks why you moved out of her room, glance out the tiny toilet window, find darkness and swallow the truth.
Instead you say, ‘Let’s go home.’
The clockwork night has fallen.
You head to the rooftop of your office, sit on the parapet, legs dangling over the city. You feel cold. The headlamps communing with brake lights in traffic, the distant din of car horns, they make the city feel like a dream. The glassy Guaranty Trust Bank and the curvy, white shopping plaza abreast to it make you think of a marriage – the glassy bank the groom and the curvy plaza the bride. On the ground floor of the bride, in the middle where a vagina should be, a neon sign glows: Purple Strip Club. Squint. This street is some mad art, you think.
When you have lost a lover in the manner that you have, everything looks like a purveyor of art. You uncork a bottle of liqueur. It burns in your throat. The glass almost slips from your hand. Pour another shot. Your phone beeps, a text message from Alheri: ‘Babes.’ Silence the phone. You just want to get drunk and jump off this roof.
You are startled when your shoe drops into the street. You fall back, off the parapet, onto the rooftop. Your sight is blurry. Hold your chest; try to steady your heartbeat. Pour yourself another shot and check the time. About an hour to midnight.
The moon is absent tonight. Like it was the night you moved out of Alheri’s room. There wasn’t much to pack, just a large bag of clothes and a small box of paraphernalia. Tolu’s car was parked at the gate.
Presently, you set your second shoe and the bottle at the top of the stairs and waver towards the base, barefooted. The stairway warps continuously. You leap where the steps appear wider and stop for a measure of time to plot your passage when they seem to taper. Sober days spent bounding up these steps with stationeries suggest that you are seeing wrong but the liqueur, rising like mist into your head, is more persuasive. Tumble out at the foot of the stairs and postulate that walking, if preceded by drinking, equates swimming. You call a cab, gush out an address and blackout in the back seat. The next time your eyelids separate the cabman is holding the door open for you to alight. You trudge up the stairs to Alheri’s second-floor apartment. The night continues on its way without incident, such that in the morning when you try to remember, the memory clips where you settle on the parapet and uncork the liqueur bottle.
‘You were going to die over a man?’ Alheri asks.
You say, ‘Girl, he left. I woke up to an empty house.’
Outside, the day gathers momentum. Bourgeois cars vroom past, conveying different age groups of the wealthy to their various destinations, and their proletariat counterparts compete with them in beat-up commercial buses. Roadside vendors set up market on the curbs, kicking litters onto the tarmac with their feet before displaying wares with which a characteristic aroma is unleashed on the street: Warm muskiness of oven-fresh bread, dry pulpy smell of newspapers, harsh fragrance of second-rate clothes. The city eases into its daytime landscape as patches of pink appear in the sky, heralding a sunny day.
Alheri wants to paint you. You strip naked and lie in the middle of the room, buttocks flat against the cold ceramic tiles. You try to follow her hand, to measure her strokes, to see how much colour you can absorb but she is chaotic and you tire out early. The prophetess is at the fore of your mind again. You hear her voice, chastising, administering judgement.
Alheri saves you from her before she could pronounce you cursed. ‘How good is he?’ She asks.
You tell her that he is a really good guy.
‘I mean, in bed.’
Pause, flush with coyness. ‘He fucks like you paint.’
Her eyes mist up. Yours too.
‘Maybe he will come back someday.’
You realize that you must have known he would leave since the night you watched the president outlaw queer love. The same night you kissed Alheri in the toilet and sobbed as you confessed to him in the midnight and he cuddled you and said nothing.
He had sighed. And it was the whole of his body sighing.