There’s a meeting going on. Accumulated exhaustion saturates the conference room. Fridays are not good days for this sort of solemnity, yet I have stubbornly called for a meeting. Everyone is hating me right now. I’m hating myself too, but the feeling comes and goes. Halim takes center stage in my head. I can’t seem to concentrate on anything extra. I’m staring in listlessness, waiting for some miracle, waiting for Halim to call me.
When my phone rings, I startle up but fall back to my chair when I see Eniola’s name on my screen. The phone rings on. It’s loud. Everyone is staring. I don’t care.
Halim… I saw her at Berger yesterday, but I didn’t know it was her until I had driven a far distance. My mind had been on other matters as my car whizzed past a bus stop on which yellow buses hung about in moving clusters, waiting to pick passengers. Halim had been walking behind a guy carrying a box. She had on a dress I had bought for her two years ago; it was now faded and it hung on her body. She was emaciated. She didn’t look like Halim. She seemed like another version of her from a parallel universe of the poor.
But my mind hadn’t picked out these things until I was far gone, because one does not expect to be driving on the streets of Lagos and chance upon one’s ex-fiancée who has been off grid for a long time. When it eventually came to me that it was her, I had already gone quite the distance. My foot jabbed the brake pedal and I found myself in the middle of a busy street, nearly responsible for an accident.
Ignoring the insults that were hurled at me by other motorists as my car remained immobile, I put a call across to Aunty Ada.
“I just saw Halim.”
“Where? Where did you see her? Does she look okay? Is she fine? Did you talk to her?”
It then occurred to me that I had done a stupid thing by calling the poor woman. She hadn’t been faring well following Halim’s departure, even though she acknowledged that she got the random text from her, stating she was fine.
“I don’t think it’s her. Sorry. It’s someone else.”
There was disappointment in her tone. “Are you sure it’s not her?”
She hung up and I was forced to continue my journey. From that moment till now I have been restless. Seated in this conference room, I’m listening to some wet-behind-the-ear boy whom I have just hired give a presentation about new marketing ideas for the company. I’m tired of his pitch. It’s all brilliant but its presentation flags. I rise up, cutting him off. I see the apprehension on his face. Just yesterday I had fired two of his colleagues for incompetence. I’ve been on a short fuse since Halim left.
“Wrap this up,” I say to the manager and point to the boy. “Cool stuff. That’s the kind of brain we need here at Crafter. But we’ll talk on Monday. TGIF, everyone.”
I make my exit. Eniola is calling again. I still ignore her call. When I get into my office, I lie on a couch that is part of a three-piece set that is situated by the left upon entry. There’s a small glass table before the couch and on it rests my other phone which I use strictly for work and business, mostly handled by my personal assistant. I pick the phone and make a call to the head of network engineering and ask her over to my office. She walks in some minutes after.
“Good morning, Mr. Nosakhare.”
I point at one of the single couches and she sits, crossing a leg over the other. She is not your typical tech person. She is married with three kids, has a banging body, fashionable, and goes about in heels. I had had to make good use of my negotiating skills to steal her away from one of the big telecoms company to have her work at Crafter. I pay her a little higher than her colleagues who are heads of their departments.
“Dora, I need you to find someone for me,” I tell her. “She’s been off radar for three months. She changed her number and uses different numbers to send texts to her mother now and then. I want her phone traced and I want her found.”
“Is this personal or work-related?”
“Is part of your job description looking for missing persons?”
“Good. See this as a favor you’re doing for me that I’ll pay back someday.”
“If you’ll be kind enough to let me have her social media details. Gmail, especially. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all of that.”
“She deactivated all her accounts on the day she disappeared and they have not been active since.”
“Which does she use? Android or IOS?”
“Great. We’ll trace her through her Google account. As you know every Android user is required to have a Google account, so it doesn’t matter if she has changed her line or is off social media. As long as she uses that phone or any other phone that has her Google account on it, we will find her.”
“Thank you.” I sit up and walk to my desk to pick a pen and paper. I write down Halim’s details and any other information I feel needs to be known.
Dora takes the paper. “I’ll have something for you tomorrow. Any last known address?”
“Berger,” I say, my tummy churning as I recall Halim’s appearance. “Dora, this is really important to me.”
“I’ll get working on it right away.”
Dora leaves. I lie on the couch again. I know Halim made it clear that she doesn’t want to be found, but after three months of torture, I need to see her. I’m desperate to tell her how sorry I am. She needs to know that I don’t think less of her for sleeping with someone else or contracting HIV from him. I don’t know if we can still have a future together but it won’t hurt to have a talk and see if we can rescue the good thing we once had. My family thinks warmly of her, despite her health status. I don’t know if her wealth which they have richly benefited from is the reason why they are compassionate. A fortnight ago, my mom was speaking to me about viral loads and how Halim would not be able to pass on HIV to me if she takes her medication and lives healthy.
“Are you saying I should still get married to her?”
“Delomo, it’s your choice. Anything you want.”
I had looked at into her eyes and seen nothing. The type of nothing that would be happy if I married Halim and happy still if I don’t. That type of happy that would rather not pick a side.
For me, if Halim walks back into my life this minute and wants to wear my ring again, I would gladly oblige her. HIV is just a tag. Halim is beyond the disease.
My phone rings. Eniola is calling a third time. I pick her call.
“Nini,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m at the house. Since you didn’t answer my calls all day I figured you were busy. I jejely respected myself and stayed in my friend’s house. I’m just getting to yours now.”
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Just a stupid cold coming on. Wait for me. I’ll be there in a bit.”
I drive home, tired, my throat and head aching. When I get into the compound, I see Eniola waiting outside the door with a box and a bag, both big enough to let me know that she wasn’t joking when she said she needed to bunk in my place. She had told me she would be around for a couple of months. But this seems like she is trying to take permanent residence in my life.
I’m not complaining, however. Anything for my friend’s sister.
I get down from the car. We hug. She feels warm and soft. I haven’t felt a woman in a while. “How are you?”
“Good,” she answers. “But you seem to be burning up.”
“Yeah. I have a little fever. I’ll just stay in and sleep it off.”
I help her with her luggage. When we get into the house, I open the windows.
“So, tell me about this your new job.”
Eniola smiles. “It’s not far from here. I can walk sef. Better position than what I used to have at Ako. Better pay.”
“Pastor Love will miss you,” I say.
“She will, but I have to move on to better things. Just as you have.”
“True. So, let me take you to your room.”
We carry her things up the stairs to a bedroom that is facing mine.
“Thank you for this, Eben.”
“Enjoy your stay, Nini, for as long as you want.”
“I will. Thanks.”
“I’ll just go and lie down for a bit.”
I walk into my room and hide underneath the sheets. I soon fall asleep. When I wake up, I see that the sun is setting. The fever isn’t gone. My head aches even more. I enter the bathroom for a leak and when I return, I hear a knock on my door.
Eniola walks in with a tray. On it is a mug and a dish of something I’m sure smells heavenly, judging by the steam it’s producing. Unfortunately, my nose is blocked. I sneeze into a tissue as she strolls to my nightstand.
“I have ginger, lemon and honey tea. And catfish peppersoup.” She is smiling. I don’t return the smile.
Her face falls. “I’m sorry, I should have asked before doing all of this. I’m just so used to taking care of people…”
“It’s okay, Nini. This is actually thoughtful. Learn to ignore my pokerface. It’s just the way I am.”
“Okay. It will take some getting used to.”
“So did you bring all this stuff from home? The fish and all?”
She laughs shyly. “No. I made an order online and they were delivered right at the front door. Took about an hour.”
“I also got you some pills to help with the cold.”
I sit on the bed and she stands before me like a waitress. She hands me the tea. “Drink this first.”
“Thanks.” I take the mug, expecting her to leave, but she doesn’t. “I’m fine, Nini.”
“No, you’re not. I’m standing here until you finish everything on this tray.”
“Okay. You may as well sit.”
“I want to say something.”
She fidgets a little, linking and unlinking her fingers. “I know you miss Halim, and you’re probably still heartbroken. I just want to let you know that things are going to be fine. If it’s God’s will that you two will be together, you’ll reunite with her. So, just take things easy on yourself.”
“I will, Nini. Thank you. Now, sit.”
I sip the tea and engage her in small banter. We talk until I consume everything on the tray. She then picks the tray and leaves. As she walks out, I can’t help but stare at her bum. When the door shuts, I scold myself for my straying eyes.
I turn on the TV. There’s nothing of interest except business news. I watch it until the drug Eniola gives me begins to work. I nod off, waking up at 11 p.m. I feel a lot better. After a shower, I head downstairs to prepare dinner. Eniola is with a friend, some girl that is chubby as she is. They are both dressed for a night out, in outfits bound to cause a stir. I wonder what Eniola’s uptight mother would say if she saw her daughter dressed like this.
“Eben, you’re awake.”
Eniola comes to me. She places the back of her palm on my forehead. “The fever is gone. How are you feeling?”
“Okay. Still weak.”
“Pele.” She links her arm in mine. It’s strange behavior. “I want you to meet my friend, Sandra. Sandy, meet Eben. I told you about him.”
“Nice things abi?” I ask, playfully.
“Many nice things,” Sandra answers. “Hi.”
“Hi, Sandra. So where are you girls headed?”
“A few clubs here and there,” Eniola responded. “Sandy wants to show me around.”
“Don’t you hate Lagos or something?”
“I know, right? Look at me now.”
“You girls want me to drop you off?”
“No, don’t worry. We’re taking an Uber.”
“Okay. Give me a sec.”
I go upstairs and return with a debit card which I hand to Eniola. “7218. Enjoy.”
“Eben…” She is surprised. “We’re…we’ve already got ourselves sorted out.”
“I insist. I’d have gone with you but I still feel awful. So, let this night be on me. Enjoy.”
“Thank you, Eben.” She takes the card. “Yay, Sandy! We’re going to max this card.”
I laugh. She links fingers with Sandra and they hurry out. Again, I stare at ample backsides.
“Perv,” I say to myself as I lock the front door. When they are gone, I enter the kitchen. There’s still some peppersoup left. I consume it with French bread, take some pills and go back to bed.
Morning comes and I find that I have breakfast waiting downstairs with a note from Eniola.
I didn’t want to wake you up. I’m off to Sandy’s for the day J
The time is past twelve. I have a few missed calls, two of them from Dora. I ignore the rest and return hers.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Eben.”
“Hello Dora,” I say.
She’s breathing tiredly. I can hear a toddler crying in the background.
“Give me a minute.”
Seconds pass and the screaming child is gone.
“Sorry about that.”
“So, any good news?”
“Yes. I found her. Easy-peasy. Her phone is still in use. A few days ago she registered a new alias Twitter account. She’s following you.”
“Any luck with a physical location?”
“Yes. I’ll text it to you right away.”
“Thanks a lot, Dora.”
“You’re welcome. I have to go.” I hear the child screaming once more and the line goes dead.
Dora’s text drops a couple of minutes later. I sit to have my breakfast, staring at my phone screen. Aunty Ada would be more than excited to have this address, but I know I can’t betray Halim like that.
I have a steaming shower after breakfast. I still feel like crap, sniffling like a little child, sneezing like one with allergies. I step out to the hot son and enter my dusty car. My destination is Surulere.
I’ve not had anything to eat all morning. I’m hungry, tired and having a dizzy spell. The good thing about all of this, though, is that my room is clean after two days of procrastination.
I had entered my new home two days ago and gotten introduced to a junkyard that is supposed to be where I’ll be sleeping. There were books, clothes, dismembered laptops, gadgets, an obsessive collection of sneakers, and even a dead rat! Its dried body was hung by the neck and tied to the ceiling fan. It seemed to have been there for months; the cobwebs that covered it at some point had somehow given up and were now falling away, making an unsightly mass of brown cobweb thread, heading towards the floor. Only that there was no floor. Junk covered every available space.
“I’m a hoarder,” Yemi told me, chewing a gum noisily as we both peered into the room. “And the rat, I hung it there as a warning to the others not to come near. It worked.”
“You can just clean the place out and move your things in.”
I grinned at him. It was not a nice one. Clement had already paid for the room. I had expected to find a room and not a garbage dump. But Yemi had no apologies to offer. From the moment I walked into the house and met a tall, lanky guy with a beard gang thing going on, an offhand attitude and the occasional caustic mouth, I knew I’d entered a different time zone.
And so on that night I slept on one of the couches in the living room. Yemi offered me his bedroom but I politely declined his offer. He didn’t ask a second time or even yesterday. He went about his business like I didn’t exist in the house. But he was kind enough to let me use his bathroom, which I found unusually clean. His bedroom was a different matter.
“You’ll have to eventually clean your room,” he finally told me last night when I struggled to snuggle into Aunty Ada’s wrapper to ward off the cold weather as I lay on the couch.
“I’ll do it tomorrow,” I replied.
“You want me to help?”
“How else will I know where to keep all that junk?”
“Oh, it’s not all junk. Some are important to me.”
He turned towards his bedroom, leaving me concurring to Clement’s statement about his strangeness.
On Thursday, he had given me an orientation of the house. His books were not to be touched. Same as his gadgets. Even if I found an earphone lying around, I was not to move it by an inch. The garbage must be emptied every night. The windows locked by 6 p.m. He swore the rats in the neighborhood were capable of opening windows a hundred times heavier than they were. No loud ‘die by fire’ prayers. No alcohol. No cigarettes. No guys allowed to sleep over. He liked his space and didn’t do well with girls around him. I assured him that I wasn’t going to butt into his personal galaxy. And then he laughed.
“Witty. Nice one. Remind me to be careful of your tongue.”
Despite his casual cockiness, we get on well, and that basically means I have to keep my distance. I get that although he isn’t your direct definition of friendly, he is nice. He made me breakfast yesterday and this morning, but was quick to remind me that it’s not going to repeat itself.
I also notice that he doesn’t go out. He sits behind a laptop all day. I’m not sure what goes on there, but I’m guessing it’s work. He receives the infrequent phone call, and ignores some. In fact, he ignores a lot.
Last night, he had friends over. Two guys and a girl. They came with drinks and suya and invited me to hang with them, but I declined. I told them I had a date with someone, picked my phone and left the house. I strolled about aimlessly until I found a cybercafé where I plugged my phone to charge and also browsed. I was on Twitter for two hours, keeping myself updated with what was trending. Social media had been a huge part of my life, but I had denied myself of that lifeline when I came to Lagos. Now, I was crawling back into familiar places, peeking into my old existence, stalking Eben. He doesn’t say much on Twitter except the casual bants about politics, tech and football.
I’m beginning to miss him. My anger at him isn’t thawing away soon but it doesn’t hurt to admit that he means something to me even as we’re apart. I don’t know what has changed. Maybe I no longer feel the sting of living as a HIVer. Maybe that tour around the country did me some good. Or maybe it is this house and the prospect of starting afresh. I just know I’m beginning to want to smile again. I am yet to accept my fate, though. I was unable to have myself registered in the system as one living with the virus. Clement won’t be happy when he finds out.
“This place looks great.” Yemi is at my door, peering in. My bed is covered with pink and purple beddings. The walls have been decorated with wallpaper that has a pattern of black and ashen bricks. The setting is a reflection of my room back at home.
“But I still smell a dead rat in here,” he remarks.
I frown at him. He walks away. I shut the door and strip. I’m grateful for a cold shower after all the work I have done this morning. The junk I removed from this room now rests in the guest toilet. I had suggested to Yemi to have them thrown away and his collection of unused sneakers given to charity. But he had replied with a grunt, a sign that he doesn’t like being told what to do. I may never get to understand him. I’m not trying to, anyway. I just want to pick the fragments of my life and find out what to do with them.
I return to my bedroom, hungry. Yemi is making lunch; I’m not expecting he would make some for me. I’ll run across the street and buy some noodles. Later on, I’ll hit the market to get foodstuff.
I change into jeans and a t-shirt. My hair is still a mess. I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go natural.
I hear a knock on my door.
“Halim?” Yemi calls. “You have a visitor.”
My hands drop from my hair as I freeze. A visitor? Who on earth knows I’m here?
“Please, who’s the person?” I ask, but get no reply. I feel my pulse rising. I’m apprehensive. Who the hell can it be?
I pick an Ankara scarf and do a quick wrap of my hair before I aim for the door. But I stop, inhale and then step out to the living room.
Standing right in the middle of it is Eben. I take a step back, my heart doing a thousand lurches all at once. He’s looking at me, I’m looking at him. Coincidentally, we are dressed alike – in deep blue jeans and black t-shirts. He looks tired. Red eyes stare into mine. An unshaved beard gives him an older look. If we were still together, I wouldn’t let him change this appearance.
“How did you find me?” I ask.
“Hali,” he calls. His face is pregnant with many expressions. “You… I…”
“I said I didn’t want to be disturbed, Ebenezer. I made that clear to you.”
“I know, but I saw you at Berger the other day and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you, wondering how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine,” I reply, crossing my arms. Yemi is whistling in the kitchen. It’s a tune to some song he was listening to earlier. He loves music. He loves to listen to it loudly.
“So…” Eben is looking round. “This is where you stay now?”
“And the guy…he’s…”
“My boyfriend,” I lie. Eben’s brows pucker up.
“I don’t understand,” he says.
“He is my boyfriend,” I repeat curtly.
“He was the one that…”
“Infected me? Yes. It’s him.”
Yemi steps out of the kitchen with a heap of food on his plate. He gives us curious stares and heads to his bedroom.
“You know you could have told me that you had fallen in love with someone else,” Eben says. I hear pain in his voice. I also pick out that he has a cold. He had always been susceptible to flus. And I had always found pleasure nursing him.
“Eben, Yemi is not the reason I left.”
“Yemi. That’s his name?”
And Yemi steps out again. He is headed back to the kitchen, but Eben stops him.
“Hey man,” he calls. Yemi turns. “Sorry, we haven’t been introduced.”
He walks to him. “I’m Eben. Halim’s ex-fiancé.”
They shake hands.
“As I told you,” I cut in. “Yemi, my boyfriend.”
Yemi’s brows go up. He looks at me, blinks a couple of times and turns his gaze back to Eben. “She’s lying. Ignore her. She probably still likes you.”
I look away.
“Nice to meet you,” Eben says as Yemi enters the kitchen. Eben comes towards to me. He stands so close I can almost taste his breath.
“Was the lie necessary?”
“Eben, I need you to move on. Forget about me. My life with you is done. It’s over.”
“Why? Because you have HIV?”
“No! Because you, your family, my mom, you all lied to me!” I yell. “You never loved me in the first place! It was all about the money! All the love your mom was showing me was not real! Everything you and I did was fake! And I’ll never forgive you guys for it! Never! So, just take yourself and the money, I don’t want it! I’ll survive! Leave me alone!”
I’m trying hard not to cry, but the tears are having their way with me.
“I love you.”
His words break me further. “No, you don’t. You love my money.”
“I didn’t touch your money. My parents did but I did not. I took a loan from my uncle to build Crafter from the scratch. None of it was yours.”
“I don’t care, Eben. Go away!”
He places his hand on my waist. “I want you back, Hali. I want us back. Please…”
I push him away but he holds on tightly, and then his lips clamp down on mine. The kiss is short because I break away.
“Go!” I yell, desperate to show him I am serious, because his lips have just weakened me.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
He takes my hand. I slap him away with the other and push him backwards. “Get out! Go!”
“She says you should leave, man.”
Yemi has appeared from nowhere. He stands over Eben, eyes focused in the type of frown one gives a petulant child. Eben looks from him to me.
“Respect her wish.”
“And please, don’t come back,” I plead.
Eben gives me a sad stare before he turns around and makes his way out.
“Are you okay?” Yemi asks. I shake my head and give into tears. My feet can’t hold me. I slip to the floor.
“Okay,” he mutters. “A girl can strip for me, show me her boobs, dance sexy for me and I won’t bat an eyelid. But when she cries…” He sighs.
“I just lost my appetite, Halim. You didn’t tell me you were coming with baggage. Do I need to expect more of this?”
He sounds so gentle it breaks me further. “I’m so sorry.”
“Okay, stop crying. I can’t handle it.”
I try to end the waterworks but I can’t. Yemi stands around awkwardly, shifting from one sneaker-clad foot to another until somehow, I manage to stop crying.
“You want to get up from the floor, maybe?”
I rise up and apologize once more.
“You didn’t tell me you were rich. I should have charged you more for the room.”
I know he just made a joke but rather than being amused by it, I fall into another sob.
“Oh God. What have I brought into my house? Halim, I was just joking.”
I run into my room and slam the door. I’m angry at myself for letting back in emotions I had done away with, for breaking down this easily. When you have a heart that is a breeding ground for ruins, you begin to realize that pain doesn’t have an end button. It may wane but it never goes away, always looking for some reason to sneak back in. But I don’t understand this person I am right now. I used to be so free, so happy, so sparkling. What happened to me?
I sit by my window on an old couch gotten from the junk I had cleaned out. It seemed perfect to have it situated beneath my window when I was thinking of where to move it. I’m already familiarizing myself with the little holes and time-worn patches found on its polyester material. The smell of mold doesn’t bother me. I love the way the couch wraps around my bum and how it would give me the occasion to nurse my thoughts in the future.
Right now, I’m thinking hard about Eben and what has just happened. His words have found their way into me. Eben is not the type to lie. If he’s being truthful about the money, then maybe he isn’t an accomplice to the lies I was told. He probably is a victim, as well. I feel a bit of pity for him. But unfortunately, that line of emotion isn’t going to be charted. We are two different people from different worlds now. I’m always going to be HIV positive. I don’t want him to have to deal with that.
I lie on the couch. Yemi is beginning to play his music loudly again. I close my eyes, listening to the sounds.
I’ve just gotten home. My mood: all forms of bad. But I will not dwell on Halim. There are a million other problems a man has. A woman shouldn’t be on the list. I will need a better approach to Halim. She’s too damaged right now to listen to anyone.
I let myself into the house. The drugs I took earlier have worn off and my nose is beginning to run again. I pull out some tissue from a box on the dining table while scanning around to see if Eniola is in. Blowing my nose, I go upstairs. I can faintly hear the sound of Abba’s Dancing Queen coming from her bedroom. I have no desire to say hi, so I aim straight to my room. But as I get closer, I pick out the distinct sounds of moaning. I also notice that her door is open.
I don’t mean to peek, but I do, and my eyes fall upon a fascinating scene. Eniola and her friend, Sandy are pleasuring themselves. Eniola is receiving most of it; Sandra giving all the love.
It’s bad habit to stare, but I can’t help myself – and that’s how I stupidly get caught. Eniola, sighting me first, jumps up, shields her breasts and shuts her legs.
“I’m sorry,” I say as I move backwards and hurry away to my room. I’m laughing silently when I get in. I have never suspected Eniola of being a lesbian. There have never been any external signs. I don’t know how to feel about it.
But my little man knows – apparently. He thinks we’re stimulated by what we just saw. No, we aren’t. We cannot be stimulated by Lekan’s baby sister. No.
She knocks on the door.
“Um…I’m coming,” I reply, my eyes on the guy downstairs. He’s being stubborn. But I force him down and open the door.
Eniola is in a black bathrobe that stops above her knees. It has been worn hastily. In a glance, I see more than I’m supposed to in the cleavage area.
I look at her face. She has tears running down her cheeks.
“It’s not what you think, Eben. I know you saw something but it’s not what you think. Please, can you forget it?”
This babe is kidding me. I know what I saw, I know what it means and I sure as hell won’t forget any of it for a long time.