Femimo

Originally published in Sable Litmag, January 2014.

I took one of my taxis to the estate so that no one would recognise the car. The security at the first gate waved us in with a cursory flick of their torchlights, not bothering to bend to the window. After all, the taxi was only a common yellow, not the oil black that would tell them they could smile with expectation and not the shiny sugar red that would merit at least a curious glance through the glass. I did own cars like those, but I’ve long found the poor man’s yellow to be the most useful. I inherited them all with my father’s company when he stumbled to his knees and quietly died during a morning jog two years ago. My mother became a muted and folded woman after that, thinning out until I grew concerned about her fragility. Every time she blessed me, her palms felt like spun paper about to flake gently over my scalp. It had been nothing to do my duty, to ease her mind, to come home and take over.

As we pulled through the second gate, I turned over the invitation in my hands, feeling out the weight of the heavy paper. The driver spun the steering wheel slowly and drove the taxi into a corner of the sprawling parking lot. He was one of the few that I trusted, a sour old man with sharp ears, selective hearing and he was a beast behind a steering wheel. I handed him a fold of thousand naira notes and he handed me a mask in return- soft leather, made in battered oxblood. When I held it briefly against my face, it felt like another skin.

Aima had left me five weeks ago, after I watched her crumple against a wall while sobbing that I would never marry her. I didn’t mean to just watch, I knew I was supposed to pick her up, cradle her against me and tell her that I loved her, that of course I would marry her, but the raw bitterleaf truth was that I didn’t recognise the hysterical woman she had become. The things she said sounded like another woman’s mouth had eaten hers. When she finally stood up and looked at me with completely betrayed eyes, I didn’t recognise myself either. Tonight, my intent was to forget about both of us, the interminable drive to the airport and how she didn’t even turn around for a last look.

Stepping out of the car, I slipped the invitation into my pocket and unbuttoned my jacket. The driver opened his door and dangled a leg out, striking a match to light one of his cigarettes. I knew he’d be there whenever I returned, a glowing pinprick in a shadow- my people are reliable. The silk lining of my jacket glinted a jealous green under the lights as I walked through the gleaming accumulation of cars. When I looked up, the buildings were residential prison blocks looming next to each other, dark units broken up by squares of blue and yellow light from the apartments. It was late enough where no one had any business knowing my name, so I fastened the mask over my eyes as I climbed the stairs, leather sinking over me like a relieved breath.

The door was nothing, a smudged beige portal with half the number plate cracked and missing. I knocked once, a lonely sound that seemed inadequate, then I waited. There was a click from the lock and the hinges swung briefly, stopping at a crack. The doorkeeper’s face was covered in a heavy black veil of fine lace and thin gold thread, shining lines that I followed with my eyes, leaning my shoulder against the frame as I fought the reflex to smile. My mask shielded my cheekbones but left my mouth open and vulnerable, one corner undecided. I touched it self-consciously, thinking of the girl from last night and how she had smiled drowsily from a pillow that did not belong to her.

“You’ve got such an expressive mouth,” she’d said, laughing when I flinched from her hand. She was a Youth Corper fresh out of boot camp and working at a bank for the next year, serving the country. They paid her a pittance and I had picked her up at a bookstore. “See, like that? It just went tight. You don’t like your face to be touched?”

I didn’t want to tell her that it was her hand I didn’t like, that I used to let Aima run her fingers over every pore of my face in the cool mornings before the day kicked in. So I kissed her instead, ran my hands down her tight stomach and washed my face after she’d left. Ahmed’s invitation had been on my kitchen table, waiting for me and humming softly in its scalloped gold.

As I stood on the frayed welcome mat, the doorkeeper gently took my hand and pulled me into the apartment. I knew the routine: turn off your cell phone and turn it in, allow the tall man with the milked eye to pat you down, give him your signed doctor’s report. I stumbled slightly when he knelt and lifted my foot to unlace my shoe, flattening my palm against the wall for balance and sighing with exasperation. It had been a while since I had been to one of these but I already knew it would do no good to ask for explanations. You just showed up and went with whatever flow Ahmed had picked for that night. The first party was eight years ago and even though Ahmed and I had known each other for decades before that, I still never knew what to expect when I walked in. I decided to just ask him about this shoe thing later.

Once I was cleared and barefoot, the doorkeeper reached for the weighed velvet curtains separating the foyer from the parlour and I stepped forward, touching my new face to make sure it was in place.

“Wait.”

It was a woman’s voice winding out like soft ribbons from under the layers of black. I stopped and looked at her as she lifted a henna-darkened hand to uncover an unstained mouth so full and beautiful that my hands went numb. She raised herself up on tiptoe and pressed her lips to mine. I stood unmoving for a few seconds before my hands regained consciousness and cupped her jaw lightly, things slithering in me as her tongue flickered inside my mouth. Some of the roiling of my chest settled as her skin warmed under my fingers and I wondered if this was the homecoming I was looking for. She pulled away and her fingers dropped a small white tablet behind my teeth, a gush of peppermint.

“I like the first taste,” she whispered. I didn’t think before reaching for her veil, and she slapped my hand away sharply, the lace drowning out her mouth.

“Not now.” Her voice hardened so I bowed my head in apology as she pulled back the curtain to let me pass.

I stepped past her into the parlour, sweeping the scene with a practiced eye. Bless Ahmed, that hedonistic bastard. The apartment he had rented might have been something sterile and white when they gave him the keys but it was sinuous now, a boudoir that cannibalised every room. The walls were deep blood orange and burnt mustard, lit by scrolled lanterns dropping from the ceiling on delicate chains. The heated light seeping out in dim streams made everyone’s skin glow. And by God, there were skins; writhing sweating gleaming skins. People were pressed up against the walls, shirtless bodies crowding my vision, teeth and fingers shining everywhere. My feet sank into a thick rug and I smiled quietly at the wealth of fabric soaking the floor, the embroidery on the floor cushions and the wine-tinted leather ottomans.

“My brother!” He had appeared beside me, his voice leaping out from under a chalk white mask. After I’d moved to the States, Ahmed had left for London and it stayed in his voice, crisp and biting like a winter. We embraced and then he clapped me on the shoulder, gesturing around him. “It’s just like when we were in Casablanca, right?”

“I see the inspiration,” I replied. That had been an insane layover, sixteen hours of Ahmed squeezing the city until juice ran down his arms. I had followed him blindly, drunk and half-afraid, envious of the ease with which he touched life and it bent before him. “How’s it going so far?”

“No complaints.” He kept his body relaxed and his mouth curved but I could see the razored sweep of his slitted eyes as he combed the room over and over, as vigilant as his guards. In Lagos, Ahmed’s carefully cultivated reputation was that of an  unserious playboy, someone people could underestimate until he severed their vital tendons and left them neatly floundering. I had a great deal of respect for the man. We occasionally traded information on our clients and he hired my cars because I could order my drivers to be deaf for him. But there was no business tonight, just a pit of distractions I wanted to sink into, somewhere to find myself.

“Don’t work too hard,” I said. “It’s still a party, you know.” He laughed and grabbed his balls, thrusting forward slightly.

“Oh, I know. I’ve been temporarily emptied.” He winked with deliberate lewdness and I shook my head as he laughed at me gently. “That’s the face of a man with a fullness between his legs. Go and relieve your aches, my friend.”

I chuckled and looked out towards the balcony doors. A bloated moon hung low in the sky, swollen like the bones of my ribcage. His hand gripped my arm and he spoke softly into my ear.

“Listen, Femi. Try and forget Aima, eh? There are beautiful people here tonight.” With a final squeeze, he was gone. I watched his white kaftan recede and started winding my way through the small crowd, pausing to get a drink. The bartender was a young man in a satin waistcoat, his face curiously exposed and his eyes wide as he mixed liquors and poured champagne with quick hands. It was clearly his first time at one of Ahmed’s parties and I almost wished he didn’t look so excited. Ahmed liked to leave some of the staff barefaced, their identities unprotected. It was a sideways threat- a mask wouldn’t save them if they slipped the leashes off their tongues.

I took a rum and coke from him, sipping it as I looked over the buffet table. Half shell oysters balanced on crushed ice and peppered snails curled around each other. There were meats and cheeses and fruits, skewered and roasted and raw. I was elbowed aside by a large man in a deep blue suit as he reached for the snails, the strings from his gilt mask straining against the flesh of his head. Ahmed sometimes allowed politicians into his parties- he called them the money bodies and they all seemed to smell like this man, clogged cologne and damp sweat. I made way for him and the dancer with feathers layered over his face who was gliding behind him, as I headed towards the balcony. I wanted to look more at that moon, to let it settle some of the tides in me. I was never the type of man to gaze aimlessly into the sky, but two years of this country had left me dreaming of flight and stars and levitation.

When I last visited my mother, she touched my face and told me plainly that she would like grandchildren, before dropping her hand and changing the subject. That had always been her way, gentle as a flame, only blistering afterwards. I’d looked away, biting the inside of my cheek into a raised line. I almost wanted to shout at her, ask her why it was not enough that I had come home, but this was my mother and she was old, so I held my peace. A few weeks after that, I had reached for a condom while making love to Aima and she stopped my wrist with a soft pressure from her fingers.

“Would it truly be so terrible?” she’d whispered. I stared at her in shock, at the woman who used to joke about me getting a vasectomy, and she quickly covered her question with a light laugh, taking the foil packet and tearing it open herself. In that small space between her words and the delayed laugh, I knew I had lost her.

My eyes stung and I passed a hand over my face, breathing away the pain. This was no way to forget anything. The music of the party filtered back into my ears as two models sashayed past me, arm in arm, their small breasts cupped in matching filigreed pearl and long weaves swaying down their backs. They were tipsy and giggling, flirting under thick eyelashes that stretched out from their golden masks, slightly smeared lipstick framing pretty teeth. I raised my glass to them and they burst into soft chattering laughter, glancing over their shoulders to appraise me. Perhaps later. They were probably sisters, I thought, or lovers. Or both.

The television was a black slab against the wall and a woman was dancing in front of it, a twisting collection of sinews and soft flesh. She moved privately, the way women move when they have stopped dancing for hungry men, a thing faithful to the music. It was beautiful and none of my business. Her hair was in long braided extensions and someone had made her a lacquered ankara mask that draped over her face like wax. The low carved table in front of her was balancing teeming towers of empty shot glasses and a half moon of people were seated cross legged, clapping in a steady rhythm as her hips snapped and snaked. A few of them were passing around a joint, frail smoke winging out as they threw their heads back to expose smooth necks. I reached for the sense of belonging I used to feel when I came to these things but this time, there was only a curious numbness. I felt imaginary.

The woman with braids was wearing half of a traditional outfit, a tight printed skirt that clutched her thighs and sliced her ankles. Her top was gone. The bra underneath was triangular and white, more functional than sexy, covering her breasts wholly. It looked like something my mother would wear, something I’d seen dangling from the clothesline of my childhood. Aima would never have let something like that even touch her. The thought of her clawed its way back through my chest and I stopped to catch a breath. Since the day she left, I hadn’t called her because I knew the peace offering she wanted would sink me. We used to lie in bed when we lived together in Houston, making gentle fun of those our friends who had rushed to get married after three months.

“What will ninety days tell me about you?” she had asked. “I want to know what kind of man I’ll be looking at in ninety years.”

“We won’t live that long,” I told her.

“Unbeliever.”

Her mouth tasted immortal so I believed her. After we moved back to Lagos, she changed so slowly that I missed it completely, until she was collapsing and begging me for a ring and all I could do was wonder at the briny taste of desperation this country had put on her skin. I reminded her that we had agreed to wait until we were both ready and she almost spat at me.

“It has been four years, Femi! How much longer do you expect me to wait?” Her words were small and sour betrayals.

I slid open the door to the balcony with her voice reverberating in my head and for a wild second, I thought she was the woman standing against the railing. I thought maybe Ahmed understood the vast landscapes of pain I had been wandering around in and had smuggled her in, orchestrating a costumed reunion that he would have told at our wedding during a toast while I stared at her and wondered how many children it would take on top of the ring to make her happy.

It wasn’t her. This woman was yellow like a firefly, her skin a window in the backless dress she was wearing. She half-turned when I stepped out to the balcony and I saw she was smoking, the cigarette perched lightly between two fingers. Her nails were dark red porcelain, curved and blinding. The moon swung low over her head.

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” I said.

“Do you see anyone else out here?” she retorted. Her mask was a smooth collection of blues with exaggerated cheekbones and she’d painted her lips a deep pink that clashed with her nails. She offered me the cigarette as I leaned on the railing next to her and I took it, only because I thought perhaps I would kiss her before the night was over and I wanted to smoke my own tongue instead of tasting it on hers.

“I hate this country,” she said, as if we were continuing an old conversation. “Don’t you wish you had never come back sometimes?”

“How do you know I ever left?”

Her laugh was like a man’s, low and swinging.

“Ajebutter like you. See your life.”

I raised my hands in defeat. “It’s not that bad,” I said. “You just have to switch over in your head once you arrive.” It was the same line I always told people, as if one simple mental readjustment when your plane hit the tarmac at Murtala Muhammed Airport was enough to fortify against the things the city would proceed to do to you, including but not limited to making your girlfriend unravel and leave you over a ring, or the lack of one. I could almost hear her new friends telling her that I wasn’t serious because marriage wasn’t on the table yet, that it was easy for me to talk about marrying her when we lived abroad but once here, I would want a quieter woman, a Christian woman, a woman I could press between my palms like pounded yam until she became whatever shape I dictated. That my mother would start to think there was something wrong with her and that eventually, I would leave her for a pounded yam woman because they are easier and this is Nigeria and am I not a man.

“It makes you complicit, you know?” She was still talking. I returned the cigarette to her and watched her blow smoke rings out towards the sky. The moon was staring at us in a way that almost made me feel guilty. My mouth was bitter with smoke and I wondered why kissing her had crossed my mind, why I thought forgetting would be possible tonight, and if the two were related.

“What does?” I asked. She looked at me like I was an idiot.

“This country. You think you’ll never be a part of the things you despise. Then you wake up one day and you’re chest deep in it, watching a bunch of homos at some random party on the island.”

Her bluntness surprised me, but I followed her stare past the glass balcony doors to where the politician was leaning back on his elbows, forest green cushions bolstering his sides and his belt half-undone. The man’s face was sweating as the young dancer he’d brought sank to his knees and finished unbuckling his belt for him. The feathers from his mask tickled the politician’s potbelly and glitter marked out his spine as he bent his face over the man’s crotch. I looked away quickly. I was open-minded but I just couldn’t watch men do things to each other.

“Can you imagine?” Her lip was curled up and her teeth clenched the cigarette filter, smoldering eyes fixed on the scene. “I wasn’t expecting that kind of nastiness here. Tufiakwa.”

I didn’t know what to say to her. I never knew what to say to people like her. I thought to ask why she wasn’t looking away if it disgusted her so much, but people don’t appreciate questions like that.

“Gays and paedophiles,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

I glanced back at the politician and tore my eyes away, looking up at the moon instead.

“I hear these parties are very progressive- of course you’ll see gay people here. Isn’t that the point? To come somewhere where you can partake without being judged?”

She looked at me properly for the first time then.

“Some things shouldn’t be indulged,” she said. “Especially not in front of other people.”

“Maybe that’s the part they like,” I countered. She looked at me steadily for a few seconds and I watched the muscles of her face rearrange in calculation as she dropped her cigarette and ground it into ash with the heel of her bare foot. Her smile was oily. I decided she was fireproof.

“Do you like that kind of thing?” she asked, taking a few slippery steps towards me. Her dress was plunging, smooth cleavage presented like gourds on a tray. I hissed a breath instead of answering because her hand was suddenly at my crotch, cupping and kneading. “Doing things in front of people? It can be exciting…maybe we can try it small, see if someone from another apartment catches a glimpse of us.”

I thought about it, thought about her sinking before me, the metal whisper of my zipper and the hot wet of her mouth. I thought about spilling milky clouds over her face, over the sky of her mask. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d forgotten the woman who loved me and taken my pleasure elsewhere. Ahmed’s parties made it too easy- you could believe you were in a different world, that the body rippling around you wasn’t real, that none of this really counted.

“Why do you still invite me to these things?” I’d asked him once, showering away another woman before I headed home. “You know I have Aima.” He’d laughed with a mild amusement as he slung a towel in my direction.

“You’re an adult, Femi. You make whichever choices you desire and you make them alone. Don’t come if you don’t like.”

The fireproof woman kneaded me into steel. I grabbed her wrist too tightly as I took her hand off me.

“No.” My voice was curt, and I tried to soften it. “Thank you.”

She pulled out of my grasp angrily. “Suit yourself,” she spat out. “I’m sure that dancer in there will be happy to service you once he’s done with his Oga. Or if you like children, I hear they’re catering to that in one of the bedrooms.” She was already sliding the door open when her last sentence clicked into place. I reached out and grabbed her arm.

“Wait, what did you just say?”

Even with her mask, the disgust on her face was palpable, a slimy green thing crawling out of her mouth.

“You fucking pervert,” she said. “I should have known you were the type. God punish you.” She wrenched her arm away and slammed the door closed, leaving me reeling. I curled my fingers over the metal of the railing, a dull panic climbing inside me. Why would she say there was a child here? Why would a child be here? The answers came faster than I wanted, news stories running and tripping up in my head, falling into jumbled heaps of fistulas and lacerations and girls bleeding from their grandfathers. But this was Ahmed’s party, and he wouldn’t. It was impossible. I bent over, gasping in shallow breaths as words Aima once said to me lanced through my mind- is there anything Ahmed would not sell, for the right price?

I wrenched the door open, pushing through the crowd, searching for the bedrooms. I could feel a cold premonition running down my back, sticky like a cracked yolk. The politician was moaning obscenely, his shirt pushed up his chest and his hands locked behind the boy’s head as he pumped his hips, feathers stroking his belly. I felt a rush of sickness surge through me. How old was that boy? Where was Ahmed?

Someone was waving around that ugly white bra and its owner was now stretched out across the table, a man and woman sucking on her nipples frantically. I found a small hallway and pushed open the first door, my heart erratic. The two models stared back at me from the bathroom, squatting in front of the toilet with thin white lines arranged on the closed lid.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, closing the door as one of them wiped her nose, her eyes loose. How had I forgotten that the parties were like this? The next door opened into an empty office. The door after that was locked. I thought about knocking for two pulses, then I smashed my shoulder into it and it surrendered, slamming open with a splintering crack. I saw a knot of men turn to look at me before the bouncer blocked me with his black suit.

“You need the password for this room, sir.”

The men had already lost interest in my maddened entry, turning back to whatever they were gathered around. I let my American accent slide in, dragging a wide drunkard’s smile onto my face.

“Hey man, my bad, sorry about the door! I just heard this is where the party’s at, you know?” He looked blankly down at me.

“I’m a friend of Ahmed’s, man, it’s cool,” I whispered. People at these parties never knew the host’s real name, so when I dropped it, the bouncer rearranged his entire body and his voice dropped deferential.

“Of course, sir.” He stepped aside to let me pass. “Don’t worry about the door.”

I was already dismissing him, pushing my way through the men gathered around what I could now see was the bed. They were all older men, without a woman in sight. I closed my eyes and stepped to the front, just by the foot of the bed, then opened them.

There was a girl on the bed. The sounds of the men talking and cheering around me faded into vague roars of static in my ears. She was a waif, small breasts and smooth skin everywhere. Her hands were handcuffed behind her back, her underwear stuffed into her mouth. She looked twelve or thirteen and was lying on her side, crying. There was a naked man pumping into her like she was salvation, one of her legs draped over his shoulder as his hands pressed her down. I tasted tears in my mouth and my hands stung with noise. My legs bent and uncoiled as I leapt on the bed and seized him by the throat. She screamed behind her gag and his eyes swelled in surprise as I tore him off her body, throwing him away from the bed. He tumbled to the floor, his penis slapping wetly against his stomach, too startled to be soft. I stepped off the bed, intending to stomp on his testicles, to crush them like the balcony woman had ground her cigarette. The rage was almost a relief, the first pure thing I had felt in a long time.

The bouncer stepped through the other men and sunk his fist efficiently into my kidney, dropping me to the ground. I screamed in my head but only a pained grunt escaped from my mouth as he dragged me out of the room. The rest of the men were shouting in that way entitled Nigerians have perfected and through the cluster of their sweaty hungry bodies, I saw her wide eyes from where she lay toppled on the mattress. I thought I saw another man climb on the bed as the bouncer forced me out of the room, his forearm pressed against my windpipe. He was quick and brutal, throwing me into the empty office. I ricocheted off the desk and thudded down to the carpet, bright pain blinding me. The door slammed shut and I curled up on the floor, groaning and dry heaving.

My head hurt and my mouth tasted like coppery nicotine. What kind of man would I be in ninety years, I wondered. A dead man, my kidney said back to me resentfully. Aima, I whispered to the air. I was not a man who folded my hands and watched, Aima. Can’t you wait for a man like that? I didn’t bend, not even when it meant losing you. I had to stand for something. I tried to think of her face, of the black wingtipped lines above her eyes, the tart fullness of her lips, but the only face I could see was that girl’s, the mucus from her nose and the thick tears clotting on her cheek. I ripped off my mask and screamed into the carpet as the door clicked open, paused and was closed.

“Femi, what the fuck did you do?”

Ahmed knelt beside me and tried to turn me over. I spat in his face as soon as I saw it. He blinked and wiped my saliva off his cheek, cleaning his hand on his white trousers, his eyes dropping in temperature. The kaftan from earlier was gone, his bare chest was slightly damp and there was a smudge of lipstick on his neck.

“Fuck you,” I managed. He stood up and waited for me to struggle to my feet, watching with a hard mouth.

“Are you trying to fuck up my party?” he asked once I was more or less upright. “You can’t assault my clients, Femi! Just wait your fucking turn next time. Jesus.”

I roared and rushed at him, my fist connecting with his jaw smoothly, snapping his head to one side. He staggered and caught himself heavily against the edge of the desk.

“I don’t fuck little girls, you sick bastard.” I was panting and it felt like everything in my eyes had burst. Ahmed massaged his jaw and looked up incredulously at me.

“Little girls? Did you just fucking hit me, Femi?” He slid a finger inside his cheek and felt around. “You’re mad. Completely mad. How much have you had to drink?”

“You have a child in there. You have a child handcuffed in there while men old enough to be her grandfather fuck her till she cries.” Even saying it turned my stomach and I fought back the urge to vomit. Ahmed stared at me. I ran my sore hand over my face and walked away from him.

“Femi,” he said behind me, speaking slowly. “Listen to me, mate. Listen. She’s not a child.”

“Fuck you, man.” I was running out of venom, the horror coating me like a paralytic.

“I swear to God, Femi. It’s just a set up. The older men pay loads of money for that fantasy, I find a girl who looks like a child and I pay her loads of money to act it out with them. I keep one of my men there to stop them from going too far. It’s clean. On my father’s grave.”

I leaned my head against a bookcase and closed my eyes. “She was crying, Ahmed. Was that part of your set-up?”

He sighed. “They like it like that. There’s more money if she cries, if she acts like she doesn’t want it. More money for her.”

I didn’t want to believe him. It was too easy, a nice package of a story. “More money for you,” I said.

“I’m a businessman, Femi.” His voice spread like open palms, trying to soothe me with logic, trying to soak and soften the brittleness between us. “You know that. Shit, you’re a businessman. But good God, I do not let people rape children at my parties! I don’t let children into my parties. What kind of person do you think I am?”

My side felt bruised, like a battered pawpaw. I rotated my neck till the wood of the shelf was pressed against my temple, so I could look at him. His arms hung heavily and the earlier sharpness of his face had given way to shadows under his eyes and fatigue in his mouth. The white chalk of his mask was scattered on the desk.

“You just let them ‘pretend’ they’re raping children.” I didn’t need any heat in my voice, the censure boiled out all on its own. The lines by his mouth took on sharp right angles and his voice was a strip of cowhide cracking in the air.

“Would you rather they were actually out there doing it?”

I didn’t have an answer to that, as he intended. I wanted to tell him that what I saw was not a placebo for their desires, that he was not a saviour and did he know that you can gag a catalyst with cotton panties? I wanted to ask him if these men went home sated or fueled, if the young girls in their compounds were safe, if he knew the answers to these things or failing that, if he could tell me how much money had been enough to assassinate his wonder. Instead, I let my eyes close again and felt his hand on my shoulder.

“You shouldn’t have had to see it, Femi. I’m so sorry. That was a private session for some very rich, very sick people. I wish you had stayed out with the main party, had some fun, unwound a little. I know you’ve been having a tough time of it since Aima left.”

I’d told all my other friends that she was in London on vacation because I knew how they’d react to the truth. Why can’t you just marry the girl? It’s not as if you don’t want to marry her eventually, what difference does it make if you do it now? They had married old girlfriends who were due for a ring, married whoever they happened to be dating  when they finished their degrees and got their jobs and the next step was to get married, so they did. At least you love her, they would have told me. Marry her, jo. What’s your problem?

Ahmed understood my small rebellion and what it had cost me. He understood things about me that I wouldn’t speak of to anyone else, like my struggle to hold on to myself, even as this city tried to strip me of it. Somehow living in Lagos hadn’t affected him the way it did other people.

“That’s because they don’t know their own dirtiness,” he once told me. “They come here and it grows like a weed inside them. Then it’s a year later and they’re surprised by what they’ve sunk to. Me, I started from the bottom so I was prepared. There was nowhere left for me to sink.” Women were pulled to his playboy persona, to his carnivorous charm and his incisive honesty, tumbling into his bed, some coy, some wild. He had girlfriends, one after the other although never at the same time, an oddity in this city.

The relationships all faltered and died anyway. They don’t believe in my existence, he said.

He terrifies me, one of his exes confided in an email to me. It’s like loving a snake disguised in flesh as a man. Tell him I’m sorry.

Those stretches of being single were when he would throw these parties and the invitations would find their way to me as I traveled for work, no matter where I was. I had woken up in a hotel in Dubai one December and found thick paper pressed under my breakfast plate. A small note was waiting inside my in-flight magazine on a plane to Amsterdam a few months after that, and a girl I spent a weekend with in Cape Town had whispered quick instructions before she threw on her clothes and left with a smirk. Ahmed had pawns everywhere.

I flew to Johannesburg for that murmured invitation and Ahmed stayed sober for my entire trip, even during the party. It was after a sour breakup with a woman I knew he’d considered marrying and he was moody, an island of grey surrounded by his colorful guests.

“My women say they want me, but they’re lying to themselves,” he told me, his mouth twisting. It was the first time I saw anything in the shade of bitter about him. I drank my wine and listened.

“They don’t want a real person, they want someone pretending to be a real person, a character fitting himself to the role. They want me to follow the formula.” He paused and gripped my shoulder. My skin had placeholders for his fingers, shallow grooves waiting for his hand. “Don’t ever fall for the formula, Femi. It’s a rotting lie. We know better, we know to live outside it, we know how to live true.”

There were times when Ahmed spoke as if he and I were a unit, complicit in our own private freedom. I knew when it started- we let it dance around our mouths but never spoke of it, an incident decades old.

We had attended the same boarding school. Close to our final year, we became inseparable. Time had sanded down the defined edges of the memory, of the secret that was now an ossified bird tucked up my sleeve. It must have been when we spent the holidays together, one of the times we traveled to the village or perhaps in the boys’ quarters of his aunt’s house. I was certain of the night, though, of the suffocating darkness and whining mosquitoes. We were sleeping on mats on the floor and I had been masturbating in the blackness that covered us, my hand repetitive and slick, my back turned to Ahmed. The final pleasure was reluctant to arrive and my forearm started to ache but I gritted my teeth and tried to focus. When Ahmed sighed in exasperation and slid his hand over my hipbone, my heart screamed into a halt, shocked and frozen. I stopped moving. He tugged on my side till I rolled over and lay on my back, staring into the darkness and forgetting to breathe.

“Relax,” he whispered, and his hand replaced mine, stroking and coaxing. My heartbeat resumed like a stampede and I briefly wondered at what was happening and if I should stop it, but then he flicked with his thumb and slammed his hand to the base and I stopped thinking completely. My body was moving in unplanned ways, a rocking pelvis and a searching hand that reached inside his trousers and found him hard and hotter than white iron. The sound he made in response to my touch was like an animal in the sweating night and when he said my name, I understood what power could be held in a palm.

“Femimo,” he gasped and my forearm forget that it was ever tired and my ears wanted to hear him say it again and again and so we moved our hands faster and faster and he said it over and over and I wanted to say his name too but it was a seed stuck in my throat and he said my full name, he said my name until the brightness washed the insides of our eyes as we climaxed. I shortened my name to just Femi after that night- he had made a monopoly of me. When I finally managed to crack my voice open, he was already turning away.

“Go to sleep, brother.” We never spoke of it or the stiffened stains of it, but it was there, a pearled bond. I thought we knew pieces of each other that no one else did, for in the twenty years that followed, Ahmed did not sleep with men and neither did I, nor did anyone ever call me by my full name again, let alone with all that surrender in their voice. In the raging silence of his office, my brain was staggering against my skull and his hand on my shoulder felt like a brand.

“How old is she?” I asked, my throat dusty.

“What?”

“How old is the girl you hired?” I made my voice more solid, less like a shadow. Ahmed sighed and stepped back from me.

“Femi, come on-”

“Tell me!” I was shouting now, shouting at his books because I didn’t want to look at his face, didn’t want to shout into his eyes or let the volume of my voice bruise his cheeks.

“She’s seventeen,” he said, sounding tired. I laughed, lacking the energy to cry.

“Those men are in there fucking a seventeen year old girl and you’re telling me she’s not a child?”

“Because she’s not legally eighteen? Where do you think you are, Femi?” He had no bile in what he was saying, just a weariness from even having to reason with me. It infuriated me and I turned to face him. I wanted him to see the contempt seething under my skin, to see the way it was molding my face.

“I don’t know, Ahmed. Tell me where I am, because I seem to be standing in front of a man who lets a girl get raped under his roof because his palm got greased enough, like a fucking pimp. Is that where I am?” I knew I was going too far, but I was lost and everyone had betrayed me and I swear to God, I just did not care anymore.

His face went blank and when he spoke, his voice was calm. “Tell me, Femi, which part of what you saw actually surprised you? Like, is this set up so impossible to believe?” He sounded like dragging silk. “Tell me you’ve never wondered if they really do feel tighter the younger they are. Tell me I was wrong about you just wanting a turn.” Oh, he was trying to hurt me now, the bastard.

“You’re just a fucking pimp,” I hissed again at him. “Selling a child- how the fuck do you live with yourself?”

“This isn’t fucking America, brother.” He was snarling now, his lip curled, his teeth striking. “You can’t walk in here and judge my business by your fucking standards. She’s a prostitute, Femi. She was spreading her legs and having abortions before she was fifteen and if she wasn’t here tonight, she’d be doing this somewhere else. I give her more fucking money than she’ll see in two years and my  people take her to a clinic to get checkups because if she goes alone no one will agree to see her. I make sure they wear condoms when they fuck her, I put a fucking bodyguard there to make sure she doesn’t get hurt and all she has to do is put on an act so these bastards can get off on their fantasies. I do more for that girl than you and your self-righteous bullshit ever will. You’re a client just like those men- you come under my roof, fuck my women, and then think you can lecture me because you walked in on her? She’s lucky, Femi. She works for me. What about the other ones, the ones you don’t see because your windows are tinted when your car drives past them. They get ripped apart and beaten into a bloody pulp, but what the fuck do you care? You don’t see it, so it doesn’t happen? Don’t fucking come at me, mate. I’m a businessman. I hire prostitutes who are old enough to fuck and I take fucking good care of them!”

I felt the air on the wetness of my face before I realised that I was crying. “She’s still a fucking kid, man. Don’t you see that?” My voice was breaking and if it was any other man, I would be humiliated. “She’s still a kid.”

His face softened and he cursed in a slippery stream of words. I sat down heavily in a swivel chair and dropped my face into my hands, dropped my elbows on my knees, and I wept. Ahmed crouched before me and touched his forehead to mine. He was silent for a few minutes, before he spoke. I knew he wouldn’t apologise- after all, no one had forced me here. I came in alone. I did this to myself.

“You shouldn’t be here, Femi. You know I’ve always welcomed you to my parties but…it’s the underbelly, my brother. It’s always been. And it’s ugly and we’re ugly in it.” He stayed like that, balanced against me and breathing my air until I started to calm down. I felt like the sky had fallen, except I was the sky and the ground it landed on and the fractured air in between.

I tied my mask back over my face, the leather pressing against dried salt as I stood up from the chair. He quietly put his chalk face over his real one and we left the party so quickly that I saw nothing, his hand settled in the grooves of my shoulder.  I was drunk and hungover, filthy and deeply marked. The man with the milked eye helped me put on my shoes and the doorkeeper hovered anxiously over me.

“What happened?” she asked Ahmed. Her lace was blurred in my eyes. “Was he drugged?” I could tell she loved him from the way she leaned towards his body and I almost laughed.

“I don’t have time for this,” snapped Ahmed, and she shrank back from the serrated razor of his voice. I wanted to console her, tell her that he was just worried, that he gets sharp when he’s worried, but my tongue felt like expanding foam in my mouth.

Ahmed draped my arm over his shoulder. “Come, let’s go,” he said. We took the stairs one at a time and slowly made our way to the glowing pinprick of my driver. He must have thought I was drunk again. I was grateful for that. Ahmed laid me down in the back seat, arranging me so I was half-sitting up. The driver started the car and Ahmed took my face in his hands, sighing aloud.

“Femi. You have to get your shit together. Call Aima tomorrow. You hear me? Stop trying to prove this senseless point. We all surrender on some level. Call her.”

He patted my cheek gently and closed the door, stepping back as the taxi pulled past him. I tried to breathe as his silhouette blended with the night. Did he pity me? I was, after all, a weaker man than he was. I’d shown it by crumbling at the truths behind locked doors, shown it every time I’d taken a woman that was not Aima, every time I’d come home to her afterwards and kissed her cheek, dropping a lie on the bone behind her ear. Is this not Nigeria and am I not a man?

He was right, this was senseless. I was dancing with worlds I no longer belonged in, doing intricate steps around swallowing pits and I had found nothing, forgotten nothing. I lay in the back seat like a corpse as we drove through the gates. The security guards lifted the metal bar for us quickly, as if they wanted the smell of damp fear and shame gone from their estate. I willed my ribs to stay together, to hold my lungs in deep breaths.

When the taxi drove past the women who walked the night, I closed my eyes.

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