That night, Martha did not sleep at home. She had some money to lodge in a hotel for two nights and she did. Uchenna would come looking for her at her place and seeing his face could make her die of something she did not know yet – hatred, disappointment, anger, a dose of love, disappointment or all of the above. Two days are enough to get over him in solitude. She locked the door and gulped alcohol like a horse. It burned and she winched, feeling the annoyance in her head replaced by hotness. She crawled like a cat on the cold floor and waited for sleep like a widow waiting for her deceased husband, her vision blurred, her body cold, but she wouldn’t stand from the floor or wore something better than the gown she wore to his place.
She laid on her side, her head over her joined palms and stared at the wall, remembering her home in Abeokuta. On a night like this, she would be asleep in her room; she would have eaten a meal prepared by Mrs Ajasin. Then she cringed as if she felt a sudden wave of cold touching her body as she remembered what Mr Ajasin would do in the middle of the night. She stood lazily, slipped out of her gown and lay back on the floor, slid a hand into her part and touched herself repeatedly.
She woke up early at around two in the morning, still lying on the cold floor. She was hungry, but she couldn’t think of what would be the best to eat and when to eat it. The floor was cold on her body, her head ached and her body shook and she steadied herself with the bed stand while getting up. Looking at her gown on the bed, the events of last night come to her rapidly – the flash of it started and how it had gone wrong so soon. ‘I’m not your customer,’ he had said. She brushed a hand through her hair which was now messy and rough. Why did he say that? She had only wanted to satisfy him, to move things further as Sophia had suggested. She thought he would love it. Most men loved it, especially the older and pot-bellied men who could have been her father’s age, who would grin like a toddler and rub their hairy chest. He didn’t. He was different from most men anyway. She wiped her face with three fingers. She was stupid to have treated him like one of those men. She still wanted to go out with him, to visit the cinema with his hands on her shoulder like the weight of a perfect cap on a head, to share a drink at his house or to eat her favourite dish at a restaurant with him at the other end of the table, staring at her. All that has gone like sand house washed away through flood and she thought about it all day and through the night, ate some pepper soup fish and drank more Johnie Walker. Her head felt heavy all the time like she added more weight to her head and her body was weaker to carry it. She would wipe away the tears on her cheeks and sniff and sniff and drink more alcohol and cry and drink more.
She sighed, eyes wet. She was a piece of something, she thought, she was a piece of something meant for satisfying men and some women, something to hire for sexual pleasure and that stigma followed her when she thought she had found someone different with a different perception. She was like that since she was young; at least that was how often her foster father made her feel. It was part of her now, her mistake, and it cannot be undone except to cry her eyes out and let out whatever was the pain. It was costing her joy and more. She wished she could curl up to someone – her mother – and cried on her shoulder like she had seen before, listening to wise words but she looked around and the wall of the hotel stared back, the pillows, the bed, the door of the bathroom, her gown on the floor. Wailing loudly, she covered her face with her palm and vibrated all over like a leather drum. She had chosen wrongly. She could have waited and could have withstood the torment at the hands of her foster father; perhaps, she would escape one day when she would be admitted to the university. Who told you he is planning to sponsor you in school? She cried more, put the bottle of Johnie Walker on the floor and supported herself on her palms, and wailed loudly, till her face was a mess of tears and sweat. The veins of her neck were visible, taking as much responsibility as her sweat glands and wet eyes. She grew weak and fell slowly over the tiles and slept and sobbed slowly. Her phone was still off.
She lay on that floor for hours. Later, she rose and turned the phone on. It began to ring almost immediately. She checked the caller on the phone and sighed, brushing her eyelid with her backhand. Sophia was calling. She did not want to listen to anyone now, she would rather be alone and let the darkness of pain envelope her. She was born and had fallen into many wrong hands since her first time on earth. When she came to Lagos for an escape, she was even falling into another wrong hand, made to choose to become a stripper. Did she even have a choice about it? She answered the call.
‘Anti Sophia,’ she said, switching back to the use of ‘aunty,’ just like the old days when she arrived in Lagos from Abeokuta. She needed help, someone to talk to. She was getting close to insanity, her life was messy, blurry and she had found herself wishing that one sleep would take her away to wherever the dead goes, free from pain, disappointment and whatever is the remnant of her life on earth.
‘Yeah, darling. What’s up with you? I’m at your place. You weren’t at home. Uchenna has been calling. You didn’t pick. You even switched off and then blocked him. He has told me everything. I have told him he acted immaturely. But for you, baby girl, you can’t hurt yourself because of that. You are more than that.’ she paused and continued. ‘Where are you so that I can come?’
She gave her the address of the hotel and spent the next couple of hours thinking about her life from now onward. She wouldn’t work at Rendezvous anymore or fall in love with him again or live with the shame in this town. She would rather become a waiter or house-help and live with the little that comes from it. What if he comes and asked for forgiveness and promise to sponsor your education? She shook her head, placed her hand on her forehead and drank a little more. She shook in her naked body. Her stomach rumbled for some minutes and her throat felt itchy. She vomited a plain liquid substance. Someone was knocking and she tried getting up. Her strength was that of a toddler. Her body ached and felt cold. She was wearing just her pant and she wished the person on the other end wasn’t a man. Sophia came in when Martha asked her to, saw the mess and started cleaning it.
‘My God, what have you done to yourself? You have been crying,’ she said, not as a question, but as a conversation with herself. She helped Martha to the bathroom and stand by the door watching as she immersed herself in cold bath, wearing an expression of ‘you should do it or you will force me to do it for you.’
After the bath, they sat in the bedroom and watched a comedy show. It was Sophia’s choice. Martha just sat and watched like an obedient little baby in the company of her motherly sister. The smile on Sophia’s face amused Martha; the show wasn’t as funny as the way she tapped her shoulder to call attention to something they are watching together. Sophia was older, bigger and particular happier this night like a mother seeing her daughter after a long time. She had added weight in the short time they have spent away from each other. She was still a fine woman, fine for the job. At her age, Martha thought, I should not be doing our kind of job anymore. She looked at her hands and her face, imagining how many men she had spent her life with. Has any man ever asked to marry her?
Before Sophia left in the morning, a strange thing happened through the night; it was the first time they slept like sisters. It felt awkward at first when Sophia extend her hands over Martha’s waist and hugged her from behind. They remained that way for some time, Martha frozen, it only eased when she felt the woman behind her breathing rhythmically to the tune of sleep. She woke with a smile across her face. But Sophia left in the morning with the promise that she would check on her again.
Morning came and loneliness descended on her again like a heavy wall. She had what to do in mind though – to sit in the room and have breakfast, to spend all day behind the television, eyes fixed on some Nollywood movies. When night comes, she would go out to watch what the world looks like, sit in a restaurant and eat and see how different it would be to eat alone and drink his choice of wine. By evening, while sitting by a pool, she watched people going about swimming and talking. No one treated her like a slut. No one talked to her about spending a night with her if she would accept a certain pay. When she looked at her pictures in the side window of a car, she realized her neck was lean and her face seemed like someone who just recovered from an illness. That was it, the explanation to why no one out of the men around the pool had come for her. This was the truth about the business she worked; if she is not looking the best, she would not get any request.
The day grew to night steadily. She had spent her day waiting for a night – watching movies, sitting by the poolside and imagining life outside the wall of Rendezvous, how life would be if she decided to quit now and become a doctor. It would be hard, to earn that much so easily. Although she couldn’t say it was easy, the other girls made her think that way and sometimes when she was driven around Lagos traffic she would accept it was easy, looking out the window and seeing how other women earned a living.
She danced deliberately for the first time. No man was asking her to dance. No one was placing a naira note on her chest or rub a palm on her butt. She danced because she felt like it. The song was her favourite back then in Abeokuta, P-sqaure – do me, so she danced effortlessly and for the joy of it.
To ease the boredom, she went out of the room by the night. She was visiting a club. She wore her dark hoodie and a jean. Her hands pocketed into the cloth. She walked a reasonable distance before she took a bus heading to a club. She hadn’t been there before. She was going to see what it feels to be a visitor at a strip club just like she was the first time she came to Lagos – free, innocent, curious and confused. She knew she wasn’t going to feel exactly like that anymore but she was going to try anyway and see what it feels like. Maybe that would help her decide to quit or not to quit. Maybe that would settle the stupid ideas that some have that she was meant and would always act like an object of entertainment, a slut. Maybe after this, it would help challenge her foster father, bury her past, this ugly story.
The club was bigger than Rendezvous, hidden in a corner of a street where no eyes could have found it except if questions were asked. Inside, the lights switched intermittently from blue to red and red to blue. A TV was displaying porn and the disc jockey performed his job at a corner. Martha tried to feel like a stranger. She couldn’t pick out faces. She wasn’t looking for one either, she just wanted to enjoy her night, to feel what it is like to be a viewer and not the one dancing on the pole like a slutty monkey. She looked over the crowd and especially at the stage, especially at the strippers. They were her point of interest. What is their life outside this place? Do they have ambitions that meet what their parent would appreciate? How many of them have no real parent hey could call their own? Perhaps many of them were orphans, abandoned and displaced. She dismissed the thought. She had stripper friends who lied about their lives to their parents? Did they have a lover who knows the kind of job they do? No, of course. No sane man would keep with this kind of work, more reason she should find her escape…
The song soon changed and although she found this new one irresistible, she remained firm. Her feet were moving and her lips pushing apart to sing along. A feeling of de-javu overcame her. A man was standing to her right and she had been trying to not look up from her hoodie-covered head but it was apparent now whoever it was would not give up no matter how well she pretended not to have noticed him.
‘Hello,’ the voice said, ‘Martha?’
The voice was one she remembered. It was different though. She turned and tilted her head up forty-five degrees to see the man’s face. No. Wait. No. it can’t be. Although the light was poor, she could still recognize him. he had a beard now and he was taller than her now and he wore a bigger smile but it was not much different than the cute smile she used to know, that young boy who would back her on their way back from school in Abeokuta, that boy who would slide under her blanket when she was sleeping in the parlour and they would tickle each other and whoever won would leave the blanket for the other. It would lead to one begging to get under and the game would continue. A smile spread across her face, she moved closer to him, slow and short steps at first, then she flung her hands around his neck like she was holding to a lifeboat.
There was a short pause and they held onto each other.
It was true that two years could do a lot to someone. If she had thought of going back anytime when she was in Lagos, somehow it would have to do with this boy. He was like his father and he wasn’t like the old man. She loved the younger version of the beard and the deep and throaty laugh that come out of his mouth now like Mr Ajasin. She held to him and shut her eyes. They would start what they didn’t finish under the eyes of their parent. Fate was playing to their tune. Was he studying engineering already? Has he forgotten his promise to buy a big teddy bear on her eighteenth birthday? That was gone now but she would take it. When they detached, Martha’s eyes were holding a kind of flame that could melt the walls of any man. With the way Ayo was staring back at the face, her chest and down to her thighs, it seemed his walls were long melted and the liquid form had gone far away beyond retrieving. He grabbed her hands, saying ‘we really need to do a lot of talking’ and walked towards the exit. Yes, Martha thought, I need to remind you some of the things you said when we were young.