by Francesca Ekwuyasi
At 6:43 am last Wednesday, Kareema banged on my door with so much force that she bruised her knuckles. She was distraught, with a heavy book bag slung over her narrow shoulders and a red silk scarf still wrapped over her thick locs.
“Kanyinsola,” she’d sobbed “Banji kicked me out.”
It’s been over a week now and she’s still here. I don’t mind too much, I’m glad that she came here and not to Tokumbo -the reason that her husband, Banji in his rage, shoved her out the door of their two-bedroom flat in Victoria Island. Kareema and I are old friends, we went to secondary school together. We weren’t particularly close as children, but we found each other again as grad students in upstate New York, and bonded over our deep hatred of the seemingly endless Buffalo winters.
Now she sits on my sofa and we talk about everything but her marriage. She is helping me undo the box braids that I have had for far too long.
“Kanyinsola there is no need for you to be leaving attachments in this long biko, you’ll mess up your edges and be gorimapa before you know it.” She cuts and unravels the light brown synthetic braids. “Anyway, I’m all sex positive and whatever and up until last month I was even pro-feminist porn, but there’s just so much out there, it’s hard to tell who is being exploited and what’s ethical. You know?”
“Wait, what happened last month?” I dab a mixture of castor and coconut oil on the tender edges of my hairline where she has just taken the extensions out.
I humor her random tangents because it seems like that is what she needs for the moment. Before this conversation about porn, we talked about the logistics of operating a Suya food truck.
“Well I was watching this free porn online, and it was all well and good until the guy took the woman’s shirt off and she was flat chested!”
“Like nothing at all?” I stuff old hair into the black plastic bag on my lap.
“Well, like a little bit of boob, but more or less flat chested. Anyway I was so freaked out, and I desperately want to believe that she was an adult and I hadn’t unwittingly stumbled upon kiddie porn, but I have no idea!”
“Yeah, so I just jejely closed out of the page and started praying for forgiveness. Because the thing is even if that girl was eighteen or older, she was probably cast because she’s small like a child, and that is just so somehow. Like who is that made for?”
“So anyway, no more porn for me.”
“Is that your New Year’s resolution?” I ask and let her hear the laughter in my voice. I feel around my head to find that there are only a few braids left in my hair. Thank God! We’ve been at this for over two hours, my arms hurt and I’m hungry.
“Yes o,” she says “that and, maybe starting a small business. That Suya truck might just be my next venture.”
Kareema’s beauty strikes like a weapon, and she is so sharp she has even the most manipulative sorts recoiling so quick that the whiplash is blinding. But she is plagued with that same curse that most of the women I know carry; she seems convinced that she is deficient in some profound way. It colors everything she does; she frames her requests as apologies even -especially- when it is unnecessary. And if you love her for free, forget it, you’ve already lost her. I think that she trusts me because I’m gay. To her, that means that we are not and have never been in competition for anything. By anything I mean men. She thinks that men are synonymous with love or belonging or some other final satisfactory ending to a romance novel.
Kareema touches her chin length locs like, she tugs at one that is about an inch longer than the rest of the uniformly thick light brown strands. It’s funny about that because she’d twisted her hair into locs as a ploy to defy her mother, or get her mother’s attention—it’s never quite clear with her— It accentuates her high cheekbones and large dark eyes, and lends itself well to her carefully crafted air of mystery. Anyway, I wouldn’t say that we’re best friends because that just seems a bit childish, but she’s certainly a good friend, a frighteningly loyal friend. She was the first person from home that I came out to. It was just because we lived together for over a year before I graduated and left Buffalo, but it was an immense relief to be open with someone that knew me from my life before.
I’ve come to think of it that way, my life in two parts; on one side there’s me as a painfully shy child in Lagos, living with a deeply unhappy mother in a polygamist home, most of my memories soaked with shame— everything was always sinful, and girls mustn’t behave that way. On the other side, there is my life after getting a greencard through the US Diversity Visa lottery; moving to New york, learning to fend for myself, relishing in the independence, and ignoring my mother’s resentment. I ‘came out’ relatively late in life, although it had never been much of a secret to myself. I’d just hoped with all my might that there would be a man somewhere to whom I’d be attracted. That we would meet, this man and I, and I wouldn’t have to worry about being queer. But before I had a chance to meet this man, I met and fell for Farrah. The relationship was turbulent and it didn’t last very long, but I was exhausted with hiding so I told Kareema. She just shrugged and said, “Yeah I know, she’s here all the time.”
We finally finish taking out the braids and I start to pull my hair up into a poof and Kareema shrieks. “Eh no o!”
“What?” I ask.
“We’re going to wash your hair, what are you doing?”
“This girl, please, I’m hungry. I’ll wash it after.”
“I thought we were going out to eat?”
“Eh now, we’re going to that place, Lems, near the beach.”
“And you want to go with smelly hair?”
“It’s not that bad!”
“Just because you don’t smell it? Better go and wash your hair.”
We banter like sisters—I suppose that we are by choice. I have quite a few sisters of my own, seven to be exact, and five brothers. I ran away from them as much as I did my mother. I am the tenth child of my father’s—that we know of—and the only one from my mother—she’d prayed for a son to solidify her place as my father’s third wife—but after a few years of no other children but me, the man took a fourth who gave him twins boys. They stay with me sometimes.
I’ve been back a little over a year, my younger brothers used to come around every weekend, but since their mother came into the flat- instead of sending Shakirat, the housemaid, as she usually did, they’ve stopped coming quite so often.
My flat is too big for me, bigger than anywhere I’ve ever lived on my own. In fact the living room can hold the entirety of my first bachelor flat right in the center, with plenty room to spare. The appliances still shine new, and cockroaches haven’t yet made homes in the crevices of any of the kitchen cabinets. Its paid for by Bright Eyes, the solar energy NGO I work for. It’s furnished with ‘modern Afrique’ furniture—carved mahogany, and brightly patterned wax print—that I didn’t choose, and seems for more lush than anything I would be able to afford if I was being paid in Naira; the solar powered generator hums silent and less than ten minutes pass between NEPA cutting the power and the generator whirring it up again. That was my only request when they offered to relocate me from New York to Lagos. I would go as long as I was under the expatriate contract which covered housing and paid in US Dollar instead of the fickle Naira.
In the bathroom, I don’t have to fill a bucket with water boiled on the kitchen stove, it runs hot out of the shower. I rub a grainy bar of black soap between my palms until it lathers in thick white foam, then I rub it into my scalp. I start to rinse it out just as a pain strikes suddenly as it always does, without warning. An intense searing that moves in waves from my abdomen to the middle of my sternum. I double over from unbearable pain. It always surprises me that I am not yet accustomed to the fire. I will myself to vomit, but only bitter water comes.I cry in the bath until the burning subsides, then I stay a little longer to curse myself.
I’ve finally rinsed the suds out of my hair when Kareema barges in.
“I knocked but you didn’t answer,” she frowns. “Are you okay? You’ve been here for long.”
“Eh, sorry jor, I just…my stomach.”
Kareema takes my orange towel from where it hangs behind the door and she wraps it around me. She squeezes me and rubs my back.
“You need to eat.”
Being held this way, with so much tenderness, it’s too much.Tears spill out of me again—for a different kind of pain.
I haven’t had a lover since Sanaa. She is Ethiopian, she’s lived in the U.S since she was seven years old. She was almost through with the first year of her psych residency at Mount Sanai when we started seeing each other. I moved to Lagos seven weeks after she left me. We lived together in one bedroom no bigger than my palm in Brooklyn. It was an old brownstone with high ceilings and water stained crown molding, but we made it something. We were in love—I was in love. In the most filthy and impossible sense of the word.
For the better part of three years, Sanaa was my family. In the winters she coated me—hair to toes—with a mixture of thick green virgin olive oil infused with lemongrass.
“For brightness and warmth.” She would say it each time as if it was the first.
I read to her on the nights that she made it home before I`d fallen asleep. She is one of the most level headed people I’ve known, although she sometimes took prescription sedatives recreationally. Through some sort of osmosis, or because I was codependent, her habits became mine. I might also just be weak-willed and prone to self-harm. I started out using her sedatives, then I found my way to opioid pain pills, and when I could no longer get my hand son them quite so easily, I turned to over the counter stuff. I damaged my stomach. And Sanaa saw me through all of it.
On her suggestion, I consumed articles about the Mother Wound. She told me, in various ways, that I’d learned some sick things about love; “You don’t have to earn this Kanyinsola, who taught you that?”
She eventually left me, she said it was because I didn’t know how to love myself; that I didn’t even know that I didn’t love myself. As she packed her things into a tattered leather duffel, she muttered, “Your stoicism isn’t bravery, Kanyinsola.”
Something in me unraveled in that instant. I’d been holding a large terracotta planter with vines of devil’s ivy plant cascading out of it—we’d bought it together when we moved into the place and I’d wanted her to take it—but in that moment, her words felt like a slap against my cheek. I hurled the planter against the wall. She, in shocked silence, looked at the pile of brown earth, the broken shards of red clay, and the still intact tangle of vines that slid down the wall and settled on the pale blue tile floor.
She started to say my name, her face contorted in sadness.
“No.” I said, “No, you’re the one that doesn’t love me.” I pointed at her, sharp, like a stabbing. “You’re the one that’s walking away from this—You.” I reached for my keys and headed towards the front door, “So just shut up and get the fuck out. Be gone by the time I get back.”
I untangle myself from Kareema’s arms and leave wet footprints on the white marble tiles on the way to my bedroom. Cold air pours out of the split unit a/c high on the wall above my bed and raises goosebumps on me. And I try to calm them by warming olive oil between my palms before coating my skin.
I’m almost completely dressed when I hear a knock on the front door. I hear Kareema open the door and a man’s voice floats through the living room to my bedroom. It’s Banji. He says “Kareema you need to come home.” His voice is heavy marble.
Kareema screams, “I don’t need to do anything, You kicked me out!”
“Please calm down.” I shake my head quickly and cover my mouth, no no Banji wrong choice of words.
“I will not calm down.” There is caustic laughter in her voice. “Are you joking right now? Don’t you ever ask me to calm down, ever.”
“Kareema I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, but can you blame me?”
“Nothing happened Banji,” she says, no longer shouting. “I told you, I showed you the messages, nothing happened.”
There is the flat stretch of silence, then I hear sobbing, I wonder which one of them is crying.
I pull a white T-shirt over my head and decide to stay in my room until they sort things out. The only time I ever raised my voice at Sanaa was the day she moved out. We haven’t talked since. I ignored her calls and never told her that I was moving back home. She wrote me a letter, and I received it in the mail a few days before I left. I never opened it—left it pressed between the pages of my black leather bound King James Bible.
Now I sit on the edge of my bed and tear open the white rectangular envelope. There are three pages, front and back are filled with her sloppy handwriting. Just seeing it triggers such a strong memory that I can smell the sandalwood oil she wore in the scoops of her collarbone.
Kayinsola, I want to make peace because I love you. I think about you often. I think about the time you told the story of the burn scars on your thigh, I think about how you chose courage in that moment. I think about what happened that made you do that to yourself, and I’m sorry. I pray you find healing. I miss you.
One of the first few times we slept together Sanaa ran her long fingers over the taut and shiny welts that cover a large portion of my inner right thigh. I was hesitant to share, but I was intoxicated enough to shake off the weight of my words once they left my mouth. I told her that for a time when I was fifteen I burned my inner thigh with the portable heating coil we used to boil small bucketfuls of water to bathe in the morning. She’d looked at me with confusion and some horror, so I explained that my mother had left my father briefly the year before. We lived with her sister in Obalande, and she didn’t waste any time before falling into a relationship with the landlord, Mr. Wasiu. I found him repulsive even before he raped me; he caught me sharing a bed with one of my schoolmates, Uzo—nothing happened, we were just talking and laughing under the covers—but when he walked into the room and saw us he hissed “see corruption!”
After Uzo rushed out, he cornered me. He had his calloused hand over my mouth and nose so that I couldn’t breathe.When he finished I felt something warm run down my right thigh; in my mind’s eye his vile cum would sink into my skin and stain me inside inside, I would have to burn it off. He shook his finger at me and said, “Don’t let me tell your mother what I saw.”
I tried to tell me mother, but I didn’t have the language. My silence has calcified into this acrid resentment. I will not forgive her, but I’m self-aware enough to know this—I think that counts for something.
Kareema walks toward my room, giggling.
“Babe,” she says peeking in, “Banji is here, we made up!”
“Adupe o!” I throw my hands up in mock supplication.
“I heard we’re going to Lems,” Banji shouts from the living room.
I shout back, “No one invited you!”
His booming laughter travels far. It sounds like he is right beside me.
This is the second time that Kareema has come to stay with me and Banji has come to ask her to return home. The trouble is that she knows Banji loves her—he has already lost. It’s not a bad thing. I would give a lot to lose that way.
Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer, photographer, and art maker from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work explores themes of faith, family, queerness, consumption, loneliness and belonging. She often has incredibly vivid dreams and she writes about them. You may find her work in Winter Tangerine Review, Brittle Paper, Jalada/Transition Magazine Issue 05/123, Guts Magazine, and on her portfolio at ekwuyasi.com.