I am running away. It’s the cowardly thing to do but I can’t stand one more second in this city.
Sitting in the backseat of my favorite cab, I give my house one last look before we zoom out of the quiet neighborhood that has been home to me for years. There is a note for Aunty Ada on my bed, and right beside it is another for Eben. I have also left my engagement ring behind. Last night, Eben visited, despite me making it clear that I didn’t want to see him. He came to plead with me to try another hospital; this time, in Lagos. Aunty Ada agreed with him. They believed there was a mistake somewhere. I gave them no answer. I think it’s insensitive of them to try to put me through hell the third time. I’m falling apart as it is. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror. They now want me to find some sort of hope to cling to and then watch it snap and let me fall again?
I pray they understand when they read the notes I left. I am done with this phase of my life. I don’t care about the money my father has left me with or the fancy lifestyle I’ll have as Eben’s wife. I just want to find some place to hide and accept my fate.
I open the flap that covers the back of my phone and take out my SIM card, exchanging it for a new one. The process is done with heavy breaths and a voice that keeps asking me if I’m sure of what I’m doing.
I am not sure. The decision to go away took me a couple of wakeful nights. I didn’t think long and hard. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
I breathe out as the cab speeds past buildings in the fading darkness that comes before dawn. I’m not going to miss Abeokuta.
The blaring honk of a horn jolts me up from a long nap. I rub my eyes and look around. I’m in Lagos. In Victoria Island, precisely. We’re under a red traffic light with the famous 1004 buildings towering over us on our right. To our left, beyond the wide lane that bears cars going the opposite direction, is a body of water. It drifts by quietly under a bridge that leads to Ikoyi, a place I have never been.
“You sleep well-well o, Aunty Halim,” the cabman tells me. “E reach tiri hours. Na so you take tire?”
I yawn, giving him no reply. He is still under this strange impression that I’m pregnant. If he wasn’t such a kind soul with a fatherly manner, I would have gotten tired of him and his meddling ways a long time ago.
“I no sabi Lekki like that o.” He slaps a palm over the nape of his neck as if trying to kill a mosquito. He leaves a mark on his dark skin where soft, curly hairs lie. I’ve always wondered how he got such enviable hair. “Which side you dey go?”
My destination is not on the island. I have only lured him away from the mainland so that he would not lead anyone back to me.
“I dey go…Ikate,” I say, calling the first word that pops into my head.
“Na third roundabout be that.”
I have no idea what he is talking about. I know little about Lagos besides the famous Ikeja City Mall, Balogun Market, Freedom Park and recently, Eben’s house. Left alone, I’d be lost.
“You get person wey dey stay for Ikate?”
“Yes. My friend.”
“Okay. Na there you go stay? For how many weeks?”
I roll my eyes.
“Because you carry two box. E be like say you wan tanda for here. Your work nko?”
“Oga Shikiru, you too dey ask question. Dey drive, dey go.”
He laughs—a funny ‘he-he-he-he’ sound coming out from gap teeth—his see-through shirt dancing with each heave of his shoulder.
I peer at the screen of my phone. My data is on but there is no notification from any of my social media handles. I had deactivated all my accounts yesterday. No one would be able to reach me.
My lips puff out in a sigh. I try not to think about Eben but images of him fill my mind. It hadn’t been love between us but it had been special, so much that his betrayal cuts deep. And then Aunty Ada…why would my own mother engage in a plot to see me get married into a family that wants to rob me and hide the truth about my past from me? Who really is Aunty Ada? Is she my biological mother?
“Chai. Hunger dey kill me,” Shikiru whines. “Once I drop you now, I go just find one small buka, chop correct amala. But for this Lagos sef, dem sabi do amala so?”
“Dem no sabi.” I don’t know for sure. I just want to be polite.
“I go manage anyone wey I see. I no fit drive this motor go back ABK with empty belle. Person go just die for road.”
And he laughs again and in the same breath, asks, “Aunty Halim, make I put song?”
He knows I hate any form of Fuji music.
“No be Fuji. Na dem Davido and Olamide.”
In seconds, Phyno is playing in the background. Shikiru is bopping his head in a running ostrich-like manner and mouthing off words that are supposed to be Igbo that don’t even sound close. Normally, I’d laugh but I’m too deep into my misery that nothing interests me.
I’m thinking about living a life with HIV.
The word hangs over me like a noose. Soon it will wrap itself around my neck and tighten me until I can no longer breathe. It would be a welcome demise. I can’t imagine myself living with the disease. A quick death would be mercy for me.
I stretch out my legs, listening to Shikiru sing off key and rap off lyrics until we arrive at Ikate.
“Make we enter estate?” Shikiru asks as his car winds by a roundabout, leading into the main Ikate estate.
“No. Just stop me when you turn. I go call my friend, make she come pick me.”
I dip my hand into my handbag and take out some money as the car comes to a halt a few paces from the entrance of the estate. Shikiru hurries out to the trunk and takes out my luggage. When I step down from the car, I pass the money to him. He counts. It’s more than what I owe him.
“Aunty…?” he asks.
“Just take,” I say, feeling emotional all of a sudden.
“Abi you no dey come back?”
“I dey come back.”
He starts to take some money out of the bunch but I stop him, placing my hand on his. “Give your children. Buy biscuit for them.”
“Ah, aunty. This one too much na.”
“I know. Just give them.”
“Ah, God go bless you.”
I nod. Tears are on their way to my eyes. This is the closest I’m having to saying goodbye to my old life. I feel the urge to hug him but I hold back, listening to him bless me in Yoruba.
“Amin!” I say when he is done.
He enters his car and I watch him drive away, his left hand sticking out to wave at me. When he disappears from sight, I look about me, lost as to where to go. There’s a woman to my right who is selling cigarettes, handkerchiefs, bottled water and recharge cards. I ask her where I can get transport to the mainland.
“Where for mainland?” she is frowning at me, probably annoyed that I’m not buying anything from her.
“E no get any place like mainland, aunty. Na Ikeja you wan go, abi na Yaba, abi na Ojota, or Oshodi or Ojuelegba? Wish wan?”
“Ikeja.” I can’t tell her I’m headed elsewhere. I don’t want to be ever traced.
“Ehen! You wan go Ikeja, you dey say mainland. Mainland na the main land wey cover all dat place.”
Someone passing by chuckles. She looks at him, he hails her. They speak in Yoruba for a bit and he carries on.
“Just waka small,” she tells me, pointing ahead of her. “You go see motor wey dey go Obalende or CMS. Anyone, make you enter. But Obalende better pass.”
“Okay, ma. Thank you, ma.” I’m shielding my face from the sun as I keep my stare on the spot she has directed me to. I’m thinking about how I’ll drag my luggage to that place.
“E be like say e go hot today. You no want hanky or bottle water?” she asks, pronouncing the ‘bottle’ as ‘botu’.
I take out a hundred naira note from my handbag and buy both items. As she packages the bottled water in a polythene bag, some guy approaches me.
“You want drop? Where you dey go?”
I look at him. He seems responsible but I am determined not to use a cab to my destination.
“I dey go Ikeja.”
“Ah. Ikeja. Airport abi Alausa side?”
“Oga no worry. Na bus I go enter,” I reply, unhooking the pull handle of one of my boxes.
“You no fit find bus straight o. Just come, make I carry you go. Only eight tausan. I get AC for car.”
I shake my head at him, hang my handbag over my shoulder and unhook the pull handle for the second box.
“You go lost o!” he says after me as I walk away. “Okay, bring six tausan!”
I hurry ahead and find myself standing by the Lekki-Epe expressway. I am not alone; there are commuters waiting for buses. Above us, on our left, the sun bites. I mop my face with the hanky I just bought. Just then, a bus slows before us.
“Obalende! Obalende!” The conductor shouts. “Falomo! Obalende!”
A couple of people rush to get in, although the bus has enough empty seats to go round. I don’t find their behavior strange. I have heard enough tales about how Lagosians are always in a hurry to go nowhere.
“Aunty, Obalende?” The conductor asks me, already going for my luggage. “Na two hundred naira o. But you go pay four hundred for this your overload!”
The stench from his mouth is enough for me to want to slap him. I get annoyed that he wants to cheat me.
“Abeg, drop my box jare.”
“Oya bring tiri hundred.”
“I no dey give you anything.”
The driver honks. The conductor hisses. “Oya enter. Na because you fine o. If not…”
I hop into the bus and sit beside a thin, old man that reeks of alcohol and is in deep sleep.
“Baba!” the conductor shouts. “Suseyin e jor!”
The old man jolts up, looks at me and shifts in. The bus jerks forward.
“Driver, easy o!” a woman behind shouts. “You just dey drive this your akpala motor from Ajah anyhow.”
The driver ignores her and zooms onto the road, heading for Obalende. This is my first-ever ride in a danfo.
My eyes are fixed on the tall, brown building before me. It’s called Honeymoon Guesthouse and it’s somewhere in the heart of Ojodu Berger, far away from Ikate. I had looked up the place online before picking it as my accommodation of choice for the next couple of months – or rather, until I run out of money and have the courage to kill myself.
The guesthouse didn’t look appealing online but I didn’t expect it to be this uninspiring. The gateman, a bored, old man helps me carry one of my boxes into the building as I follow him in with the other. I thank him and get an offhanded mumble. When he goes away, I face the front desk where a bright-looking male receptionist who is much younger, welcomes me with a smile.
Like the exterior of the building, the interior lacks class. With stained walls, cracked tiles and a television set that looks like it is from the 80s, I suspect that many would-be lodgers have turned away from here.
In quick negotiation, I book one of their cheapest rooms for a month. My total bill is forty-five thousand naira without meals. I pay for my accommodation as the receptionist who calls himself Dudeman informs me that sometimes the hotel runs out of water and I’ll have to go downstairs to the backyard to fetch a bucket of water from a standby well.
“Or you can just call me and I’ll fetch it for you for only fifty naira.”
“Okay,” I reply. “When does the generator go off?”
“Aunty your side doesn’t have gen o. It’s only NEPA.”
“So if NEPA takes light…?”
Dudeman shakes his head. He seems to me like someone who could have a better life than this. His manageable command of English, trendy fashion sense and cordial airs would fit best in a superior environment. But I don’t care about his story. I have my own headache to worry about.
“The gen is only for the VIP area,” he informs me with an apologetic smile.
I sigh. I am tempted to stay in the VIP wing but the hundred-and-forty thousand naira in one of my boxes, all the cash I have in this world, will run out in no time if I indulge in unnecessary pleasures. Dudeman is staring at me with red eyes that I suspect are gotten from weed intoxication.
“You want the VIP?” he asks.
“No. Just help me carry these.”
He grabs both boxes in a show of machismo and leads me up a short flight of stairs to a room he calls the best amongst others. When I walk in, I gag. Below average is not even a good enough phrase to describe the setting. Dirty, cracking walls, a bed covered in a cheap blanket, an old couch that would do better in a dumpster and then that bad stench coming from the bathroom.
Dudeman opens said bathroom and I almost cry. It is the size of my wardrobe back home with an un-tiled floor and a toilet that gives me instant itchy skin. I immediately regret my decision to choose this place.
“Enjoy!” Dudeman says. “If you want to drink beer and nkwobi in the evening, just come downstairs. We have a bar.”
Still shaken by the environment, I simply nod.
“Okay, Ms. Blessing.”
The name Blessing sounds odd, but I had chosen it because I was told by Uncle Greg that my dad originally named me Ngozi. In English, it translates to blessing. It’s the name I’ve decided to use around here. Halim is dead and gone.
Dudeman takes his leave and I manage to find some spot on the bed to sit. The mattress doesn’t sink in as I expect it to. I rub my hands against my upper arms to placate the goosebumps that won’t leave my skin.
I’m homesick already, thinking about my comfy bed at home, about Aunty Ada and her signature vanilla perfume that spells motherliness and comfort to me, of my colleagues in the office whom I’ll miss, of Aunty Bisi who treats me like one of her daughters, and finally of Eben. When I think of him, I feel a stab in my chest. I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive him. But what does it matter? AIDS will probably kill me before I get the chance to. I have no intention of taking any kind of medication. In fact, I have no plan for my life right now. I’m simply going where the wind takes me. I have lost all will to do anything other than exist.
I pull my legs up and slowly lie on the bed, staring at the dirty wall in my view. I remain that way until darkness comes. Dudeman knocks on my door sometime after 8 p.m., asking if I’m hungry. He wants to walk down the road to buy some food. Would I like something to eat? I give him five hundred bucks and in a short while he returns with the most miserable rice and stew I’ve ever seen. Leaving me with some change, he bids me a restful night.
I return to my former position on the bed, abandoning the meal until later in the night when I become hungry. Upon first taste, I find it flat and peppery. I manage only a few spoons. Soon after, I fall asleep, and wake up to another bland day. I don’t pray and read my bible. I am angry at God as well. I know I did a horrible thing with Paul but I don’t deserve HIV. I don’t deserve a mother who chooses money over me. And I definitely don’t deserve a man that can look into my eyes and lie to me, yet wants to make me his wife.
I feel abandoned by God. I feel alone.
The day goes by with me lying in bed, shedding a few tears and then spending time by the only window in the room, taking in the sights of the neighborhood below. There is a fat woman who sells sweets, cheap hot drinks and cigarettes across the street. She has a toddler who seems too much for her to handle. Sometimes, he wanders off onto the street without warning. She would chase after him, her wrapper falling off to reveal black leggings underneath. And then, she’ll smack him. When he cries and refuses to stop, she will slump down on the bench on which she always sits and pull out an enormous breast for him to suckle on. A vulcanizer’s apprentice nearby always ogles her, looking forward to the moments when she yanks out the breast. He would stare until the little boy is done sucking and then pretend he isn’t looking.
I take in the scene every day for nearly two weeks, watching the woman, her son, the apprentice and the customers that frequent both businesses. I watch as people, cars and bikes move up and down the street. Sometimes when it’s quiet, I can pick out conversations and quarrels or even the occasional moaning sounds of a couple having sex in the hotel. On many nights, a woman screaming in ecstasy keeps me awake. I’ll lie in bed, listening to the screams until sleep forcefully takes me.
And then one day, just like that, not inspired by anything, it hits me that I’m going to die without really living. I say to myself, “Halim, you will fall really sick and die of AIDS in a miserable way. And it’s when you’re dying that you’ll realize you haven’t lived life because you’ve been too afraid.”
I wake up, and without a second thought, pack my things and tell Dudeman that I have to go away.
“To the nearest park.”
“No, where are you traveling to?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
He gives me a weird look but he doesn’t ask any more questions.
“You still have two weeks left on your bill.”
“I know. I left some things in the room. Please, take care of them for me. I’ll come back.”
I trust him to keep my belongings safe. I have not had a dime go missing during my short stay.
“Safe journey,” he says. I nod.
Strapping on an Ankara backpack full of my clothes, I walk out of the hotel and find my way to the nearest motor park. There are buses and smaller cars leaving to different locations in the country. I am confused as to where to go but some guy makes it easy for me to choose when he grabs my hand and leads me to a car headed for Yenogoa. And without asking questions, I pay the fair and take the last available seat in the car.
Thus, my journey around Nigeria begins. I travel, not as a happy tourist or as one discovering myself; I travel as one simply observing life. Or maybe as one running away from reality. I don’t know which. I don’t even know who I am anymore.
I don’t make friends on my trips. I don’t talk to anyone except to ask necessary questions. I get robbed twice and almost raped once when I wander off into a wrong street at night. A Good Samaritan saves me. I meet an old secondary school friend at an eatery in Enugu. She is happy to see me and hugs me a couple of times, asking me a million questions all at once. I don’t respond. I stare at her with a blank expression until her excitement turns into confusion.
“Are you not Halim? Halim Diobi?”
I shake my head. I’m not really looking at her. I’m looking at her dreadlocks and wondering why they are so dirty.
My eyes slowly wander into hers, and whatever she reads from my gaze makes her shrink. I turn around and leave the eatery. Thank goodness, I don’t have any more of such encounters for the rest of my escapade which comes to an end after I run out of cash, having visited sixteen states.
I return to Lagos, back to my dingy hotel room at the Honeymoon Guesthouse and lock myself in. I feel nothing inspiring from my short tour around the country. The experience passed through me and registered little impact, except overpowering exhaustion and swirling memories of strange tongues and faces.
Days and weeks pass, and my stay away from home stretches to three months. I have become skinny now – and pale too. I tell myself I look like an AIDS patient, although I haven’t suffered anything beyond the ordinary headache and period cramps. Dudeman worries about me, and also over the fact that I’m out of cash and I’ve overstayed my welcome.
“Ms. Blessing,” he tells me just yesterday, “you have to go before my oga finds out. November is already here and he will soon come back from Yankee. If he knows you have stayed for almost three weeks without paying, he will sack me.”
I stare at my chapped nails, and at my skin which has gone fairer despite my circumstances. I still don’t have a plan for my life. I had thought that in the quietness of this hotel with its stinking toilet, moaning guests, dirty walls and noisy generator, I would have found the strength to end my life. Many times I fantasized that Dudeman would walk in and find my dead body hanging off the fan or sprawled on the bed from being poisioned. But I haven’t brought myself to do anything, coward that I am. And I’m still here, broke, alone, about to be kicked out on the streets.
Okay, I’m not entirely broke, because Aunty Ada has been sending me a lot of money. But I don’t intend to touch it. I don’t consider it mine.
“Just give me tonight. I’ll come up with something,” I tell Dudeman. When he leaves, I sit in deliberation. I have two options – to roam the streets until somehow help comes my way or to call a friend.
I choose the latter and dial an old friend who is a medical doctor and lives here in Lagos.
“Halim!” he calls in a jovial tone when I introduce myself on the phone. “Na wa for you o!”
I smile. Probably my first smile since I came to this hotel.
“How are you? Where are you? Are you married with kids now?”
My smile turns miserable. I pick at the tufts of my unkempt hair that are now turning natural. Dudeman’s girlfriend has been kind enough to offer to braid it but I have declined. I don’t want to make friends with anyone.
“I’m fine. I’m not married and I’m in Lagos,” I reply my friend’s questions.
“That’s good to know. So, what are you doing in Lag?”
He also asks about my mom, about church and about work, all at once. I answer him vaguely, and sensing I don’t want to say much, he goes silent.
I hear a busy street on his end. “Um…Clement, is this a good time? I want to talk to you about something.”
“Sure. Is everything okay?”
“Talk, my dear. I’m listening.”
I suck in my breath and pour out everything to him – the Paul part, the HIV part, the Eben part and finally, my present situation.
Clement is a friend. He was formerly a client who didn’t qualify for a loan from our bank but I took a huge risk on him, processed his application and ensured that he was granted the loan. My risk paid off and he not only repaid the loan on time, but I got a personal commission from him. Today, I am hoping that one good turn would deserve another.
“Wow, Halim. HIV?”
“I’m so sorry, dear. I feel for you. And not because of the HIV. I’m sorry for all you’ve gone through.”
“But you need counseling. You need to talk to someone and be around people who are going through the same with you, dear. You need to be on anti-retroviral too. You can’t just give up on life.”
“All I want right now is somewhere to stay and I’ll figure out the rest later. Can I come and stay in your house for a bit?”
“I’m no longer in Lagos, Halim. I’m in Abuja now.”
“Okay.” My sadness deepens.
“But I have a friend who lives in this two-room apartment in Surulere. Some months back, he was looking for a housemate. I don’t know if the offer is still on the table. I can find out for you.”
“Please, do. But the thing is I can’t even afford it without having to run back home to my mom.”
“Just give me a minute.”
He hangs up and I sit on the floor of the hotel room, waiting for him to call back. Almost an hour later, my phone rings.
“Halim, you’re in luck. The room is still available. But my friend specifically asked for a guy. I’ve spent more than thirty minutes trying to persuade him.”
“And what did he say?”
“He says you can come.”
I breathe out. “Thank you.”
“Now, to the money part… I’ll pay for the rent as long as you promise me that you’ll go for counseling and see a doctor who will put you on medication.”
“Either that or nothing.”
“Okay. I will.”
The above is a lie. I have no intention of seeing any doctor or going for any silly counseling.
“I’ll also send you some cash to help you take care of yourself. The good thing is that Yemi—that’s the guy you’ll be staying with—has also been living with HIV for four years. So, you’re in good hands. He’s a cool guy and he’ll guide you through your difficult moments.”
I’m not particularly elated by the news, but I say, “Thank you, Clement.”
“It’s no stress, Halim. I’ll send you Yemi’s number. Call him early tomorrow morning.”
We make small talk, Clement takes my bank account details and hangs up. He sends me Yemi’s phone number and I save it as HIV Guy. Early this morning, I try to reach him but it doesn’t go through. I give him two hours and try again. The voice that comes on is deep, laidback and sounds like its owner is in his forties.
“Hi. Good morning. I’m Halim. Clement gave me your number. I’m supposed to be your new roommate.”
“Oh,” is all he utters. I wait for him to say more but he doesn’t.
“Can you please, send me your address?”
“Oh! Halim!” He laughs. “My new roomie! Of course, I’m expecting you. I’m at home at the moment. It’s at Surulere. I’ll text an address.”
I don’t get to thank him before the line goes off.
I clutch my phone and look around in weariness. My tummy whips at the thought of leaving this den that has been my escape. I still have no plans for my life or the desire to do anything. Part of me misses home and wants to return but such thoughts are always ousted before they make an imprint on my brain.
Forcing my legs into motion, I get off the floor. I have a moment of staring at my hands, wondering how far the HIV is invading my system, calculating how long before I begin to crack. It’s something I do every other day. It comes with dread that is quickly glossed over by other thoughts.
I lift my head to the door when I hear a knock.
Dudeman walks in to inform me of my promise to speak to him about my prolonged stay. He is efficient like that.
“I’m leaving today. In fact, right now.”
His face shows surprise and relief.
“Do you want me to help you pack?” he asks, adjusting jeans that are falling off his waist.
He remains awkwardly standing, like he wants to say more or even hug me.
“You can go.”
He turns away. I pack my things, have a shower and give the stinking room one last look before heading downstairs. Dudeman rushes upstairs and returns with my luggage. I press five thousand naira into his hand, thanking him for his kindness. Smiling like he has just received a million bucks, he takes my boxes outside and out to the main highway that would lead me to my destination. He asks where I’m headed. I don’t tell him.
“Sha call me when you reach.”
I nod. He strolls away.
“Aunty, where you dey go?”
I turn to the friendly conductor who stands outside a rickety yellow bus with a toothpick hanging between his lips.
He points ahead, to a bus that is loading passengers under a bridge. “E go carry you go Ojota. From there, enter motor to Stadium. From Stadium to Masha.”
I look at the boxes and the distance I have to carry them. The conductor regards me in pity.
“Make I help you.”
He leads the way. I follow him, unsure of what lies ahead. But for the first time since I began this journey to nowhere, I feel something good inside of me.