Good afternoon, fam!
I sincerely apologize for not sharing today’s episode of Where To Find Breasts. This is because I haven’t had time to work on it, being that I only have a rough draft that I can’t put up. The reason I have this lapse is because I have been totally working on Stranger In Lagos.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why this book is taking so long. It has an interesting backstory to the whole publishing process, you see. Please, sit tight and let me tell you how the journey started and how I gained back full rights of my book after falling out with the publishing house that contacted me to have the book in print.
If you recall, late last year, I announced that a certain publishing house (let’s call them CMS Bookshops) reached me and we got into discussions on how to bring Stranger In Lagos into print.
Before this, permit me to give you my history with paperback books. Many times, people come to me and ask if I have my books in print. Some even go as far as telling me that they wouldn’t read my books unless they’re in print (insert rolling eyes here). I remember going on a radio show with Titi da Dynamite and she said that she wouldn’t call The Fourth Finger a book, but a story, because it wasn’t in paperback (insert more eye-rolling here) until she read a part of the book and started looking at me strangely.
Now, when I began writing, like most writers out there, my highest goal was to see my stories in paperback. I did everything to ensure that this happened, in the sense of going via the traditional means. Traditional means involves you sending your manuscript or first three chapters and a synopsis to publishing houses with a letter, requesting that they have a look at your story for possible publishing. I did this numerous times, to different publishing houses, with different books. What did I get in the end? Silence!
If you know a bit about publishing, especially in Nigeria, you would understand the importance of using the traditional means, as against self-publishing. I can’t list the benefits here. Just know that asides financial profit, there’s a lot to gain from using a reputable publisher.
None of the big names responded to me, so I concentrated on e-publishing. The other option was self-publishing on paperback, but did I want to do that on my own? No. I’ll tell you why. It’s expensive and I am yet to hear about any author that has gotten back the money they have sunk into their self-published books. For those who play it safe by not publishing in bulk, it’s the same story when you have to order and they print on demand. It’s even more expensive. Self-publishing includes paying an editor, graphics designer for your book cover, publisher, PR and marketer. And you’re not even certain that you would make your sales back. Ever wonder why authors ‘launch’ their books? That is where they hope to make the money they have put into publishing. How many self-published novels have you heard that have become bestsellers in Nigeria? I’ll leave you to find an answer and come back to me in the comment section.
Selling e-books has put value on my work and has made me a millionaire author. I would love more millions, but hey, that’s a blessing already, one that paperback might have not given me if I began that way.
So, back to CMS Bookshops. We signed a publishing contract deal with my lawyer in October last year. My husband, who stands as my manager, and my lawyer, weren’t happy with the percentage I wanted to get. They weren’t happy with the entire thing from the start. Even Ofili of Okadabooks advised me to ignore the deal and self-publish, but I wanted to do it. It wasn’t about the profit for me. There were certain benefits that I was looking for, and these CMS folks boasted of about 150 years in publishing, with a reach outside Nigeria. I wanted that. Having now made my name in the literary circle, they were not the only publishers that approached me, unsolicited. Two others had come before (for The Fourth Finger and It’s Another Saturday), but I had turned them down on the basis of lack of experience on their end. I believed something good would come out of CMS.
How wrong I was! Earlier this year, I received the first edit of my book from my editor, and what a mess it was! Firstly, they had changed my American English to British without seeking my permission. Secondly, the book was riddled with italicized words because I had Pidgin English in it. They felt that Pidgin had to be italicized, which wouldn’t have been a problem if they had italicized entire dialogues and phrases; but no, they would pick only the Pidgin words in sentences, and leave out the English words in the same sentences. It was an utter mess. Thirdly, some of the corrections they made altered my writing style. The other things I noted were alterations from them, which were grammatically incorrect. I didn’t care much for the missed typos and grammatical errors, because that was just the first edit and I believed they would fix them up in subsequent ones.
Was I upset? Very. I had tears in my eyes when they sent that book back to me. So, I requested the original manuscript to see the work they had done, so that it would be easier for me to review and correct. Mind you, I wasn’t going to alter what they had corrected. In Microsoft Word, you can review and add comments, and that was all I wanted to do. This would have made my work easier, but they said they couldn’t give the original manuscript to me because they didn’t work that way. I was going to hear this phrase repeatedly during my period of communication with them.
“This is how we do this and that.”
According to my editor, they print it out, mark up mistakes and whatnot. I didn’t get that part at all. It seemed like an excuse not to let me have the manuscript because they had trust issues. This made my author corrections harder. I had to work with the PDF copy they sent and kept going back and forth with my original copy to find pages and make corrections. It took me almost a month to correct their mistakes and pick out the ones they had missed. At this time, I had sent the manuscript to my trusted friend, who always helped me with editing and proofreading. Before he got back to me, I sent them a forty-page document, fixing their mistakes. When my friend got back to me, he didn’t seem impressed by their work. He also noted major errors and helped me correct them. I sent that to them also. They fixed them up and sent me a second PDF copy.
By now, I had expressed my displeasure with my editor, letting her know that I didn’t think she understood my voice as a writer. Furthermore, she and I had gone back and forth on other issues, which led me to call my lawyer, asking how I could back out of the deal if it ever came to that. She gave me permission to proceed whenever I was ready, stating that my contract with them only began once the book went into print. However, she told me that if I had to do it, I had to back out the proper way.
But I decided I’d go through with it. I believed I’d jump over every hurdle and succeed. I am not the type to walk out on people over little misunderstandings.
Moving on, we concentrated on the book cover design. My editor connected me with a graphics designer whom I shared my ideas with in detail. He designed the cover and sent it directly to them without sending it to me to see if I was fine with it. Of course, he didn’t nail it. He did a shoddy work, which they liked. I rejected it, and it became a problem. My editor was trying to let me see why she thought it was lovely, making excuses for the guy. When I asked her why he sent it to them and not me, she blatantly told me that it was because they paid for it and because “this is how we do it.” I told her I wasn’t accepting it, so I paid someone else to design the cover for me, even though I was not supposed to do that. They were to handle everything, but they didn’t. There was no talk on their side to reimburse me. I either use their guy and his designs or get mine and handle the cost.
Should I tell you how they frustrated my graphics designer? I never wanted him to contact directly them or he would have been verbal with them. I was the middle person between both sides and got the stress of it all. Still, I pressed on. But at this point, I was exhausted. I just wanted the book out. I already counted it a loss. My hopes were on Biyankavitch. Another publisher had reached out to me, proposing to publish the book anytime I was ready.
On July 19, I called my editor and asked when they planned to publish the book. She said a date wasn’t fixed yet. I then asked for the final draft of my manuscript, to have one last look. I got the shocker of my life when she told me blatantly that she couldn’t do that. What was her reason? The book was queued for press and I couldn’t see it before then. As far as I was concerned, that was not a valid reason. I wasn’t asking her to go to Mars to get it. It was in PDF and Word. Why couldn’t I have it?
She told me, “that’s how we do it in CMS.” I insisted that I needed to see the manuscript and she told me she would get back to me. Come July 22, she called me to inform me that it was not in the procedure of CMS Bookshops to give authors the camera-ready (final draft) of their manuscript. Hian!
My own book? Something that I spent endless nights on, work that I started writing in 2017? My own intellectual property?
I told her that I had every right to see my work before it would go to press. She told me, without apologies, that she would talk to her boss, but she wanted to let me know that my request would go nowhere. She said this to me quite casually. Rudely, in fact. Thank God, my husband was there and heard the entire exchange, because I had complained to him several times about her manner.
She promised to get back to me. I received an email from her a while later, reiterating that my manuscript could not be sent to me, with no explanation whatsoever. At this point, I lost complete trust in the process. There was no transparency on the side of CMS Bookshop in giving me reasons why I, as the author, should not have the final copy of my manuscript before it went to press.
I replied her email, stating my displeasure at her response and requesting to meet with her boss in person, in the presence of my lawyer and manager, in the hopes that we could lay the above complaints to him and seek a better resolution to this problem. Rather than receiving a favorable response to my request from him, I was sent an undeserved and unjustifiable termination of our contract, with no regards to my person as an author signed to their publishing house, and as a business client. I expected that a physical meeting would have created a better environment for a mutual termination since the agreement was done in the same manner, but in our typical way of doing things in Nigeria, uncle carried shoulders up to show me who’s boss.
Now, here’s the sweetest thing. Before I got that termination letter, I had prayed to God to either smoothen the path between them and me or put a stop to the whole process. He answered swiftly, ending all the stress. I was so happy and relieved, that I responded to their letter quickly, telling the guy that I’ll send back their agreement (because they had requested for it). I wanted nothing to do with them any longer. But my lawyer, pissed on my behalf, replied their email and told them that they had no right to demand the agreement back. I only had to reply their letter and agree to the termination or we would meet in person and end it mutually.
I emailed them, detailing everything I endured from them, from the start to finish, and letting them know what I felt about them. Their response was that I already stated that I was displeased, hence they didn’t think it would be right for us to continue. What unethical bollocks!
Anyways, it’s back to me and Stranger In Lagos. I had to convert the last PDF they sent to me to Word, because my own corrections, and the one my editor friend did were in it. I started the whole editing process again, and it’s taken me three weeks, but I am done. And I am glad I did that, because if that book had gone to press like that, you guys would have been displeased. I saw some things they had messed up and ones they had missed that I had to correct. I can’t believe the editor and her team wanted to publish the book that way. Thank God for forbidding bad sumtin.
Fam, that’s my story o. I don’t know why this book has stressed me like this. CMS Bookshop was not the first to have access to it. A major blog wanted it and had a huge international brand that promoted safe sex, wanting to sponsor it, because of one of the major themes of the story. But I don’t know what happened on the negotiation table before I got there, The deal fell apart. That was when I decided to share it here.
I’m not discouraged, though. I have to publish this book on my own and journey the road of those who have gone before me, even though I’d rather just put it up on Okadabooks and make massive profit from it. But I have set my mind to do this, and I will accomplish it, Lord willing.
Did the process waste my time? Yes! This was rather annoying, let me not lie to you. I wish I had listened to my husband and Ofili, two people who have reiterated repeatedly that paperback does not a great author make.
Do I want to hear anything about traditional publishing again? Hell no! Unless they are offering me a huge percentage on returns, I’m done with them. Self-publishing on the other hand is something I might do a second time, just to see my words on paper. Other than that, I’m a poster child for digital books, because they’re the future. A time would come when paper would be too expensive, and books, too stressful to carry around. Anywhere you see a gathering of people today, they have devices that can let them read books no matter where they are without the stress of carrying them around. It’s my desire to ensure that my books are being read on those devices. Yes, we enjoy the aesthetic value of paperback, but the words and stories are more important than their medium. Whether on stones, papyri, scrolls, paper or digital books, these stories must be told.
End of my long rant! I do hope I didn’t bore you. I’m still in the market, searching for the best printing house that offers value at an affordable price. I intend to end my search by next weekend. I already have marketers waiting. If you know any good publisher, please link me up.
I do hope you all buy the book when it comes out. It would mean so much to me. I would know that this stressful journey hasn’t been in vain. But know that you’re buying value. Stranger In Lagos is a beautiful story, one that would surprise you (you know me nau;) ). Can we make the book a bestseller?
I’ll leave you with an excerpt. Enjoy! And please, don’t worry about WTFB. I’m dedicated to bringing it to you consistently.
Aunty Ada is in love. Who would have thought that she could ever give herself completely to a man? It seems I have a dad now. I have woken up every morning for five days to find him in the living room, at the dining table, and everywhere else with Aunty Ada. He has taken up space in my life. Another woman’s husband. A tall, quiet man with a full white beard. Aunty Tolu’s husband. Eniola’s mother.
Look, it is difficult for me to adjust to this. Aunty Ada says I have to, that it’s for the long haul and Uncle Dairo is not going away.
“He’s always been the love of my life,” she tells me. There’s a gleam in her eyes when she talks about him. A smile at the left curve of her lips, eager to spread out. “I’ve waited for years for him to come to me.”
“Can’t you wait some more? Allow him finalize his divorce from Aunty Tolu first.”
“They’re already in the process and it’s going to take a long time. Why do I have to wait?”
I want to tell her that it’s all wrong, but I see her happiness. It’s not something I’ve seen before. It’s so tangible that I feel she’s been fake-happy before now.
“I need your blessing,” she tells me this morning after Uncle Dairo leaves the house. “I want you to support me.”
Her eyes plead. She hangs his laundered clothes beside hers in her wardrobe. Her bedroom has a new look, redecorated to accommodate him. I’ve just discovered that he is an artist. I find an unfinished work of Aunty Ada’s face on a sketch board. The art captures the gleam in her eyes.
There’s a prayer mat on the couch on which Aunty Ada enjoys resting to take her evening wines.
“Is that a prayer mat?” I ask.
“Yes. Dairo used to be a Muslim. He converted because Tolu would have him no other way. I bought him the mat so many years ago.”
I sit on the bed. Aunty Ada’s eyes plead still.
“Please, don’t call me that. It’s not a good sign.”
“I…. This is all new to me.”
“Me too. I’ve never lived with a man like this before.”
“I’m all for your happiness, but I feel you should wait.”
“Halimnye, I waited for years. You won’t understand.”
“I do, actually. Just…give me time to adjust. Maybe the adjusting is the problem. I like Uncle Dairo. I really do, but….”
“He loves you.” She touches my cheek. “He wants to be your father.”
“How about his children? Are they happy with you guys? Has he told them?”
“He will. That’s not a problem. Kolapo is already fine with it.”
I consider their situation. Having Uncle Dairo means accepting Eniola into my life. I am yet to forgive her for what she’s done. I don’t know if I ever will.
“Halim?” Aunty Ada calls, anticipating a favorable response. I look at her.
“Okay?” she asks, nodding, breath held.
“Yes.” A smile cracks through.
“Yes! Yay!” Her arms enwrap me and she gives me multiple grateful kisses on my cheeks. “You always wanted to have a father. Well, you have one now. So, on Sunday, we’ll have lunch together and….”
“I’m going to Lagos tomorrow. Yemi is coming back.”
Her shoulders slouch. “Oh.”
“We can have dinner tonight, though.”
“Okay. You’d like that?”
“Great. Em….” She looks around. “Let me go to the market and buy a few things.”
She is up on her feet. I watch her change into a dress and slip her feet into a pair of slippers. I don’t recognize this side of my mom. The side that does everything to make a man happy. Is this how I am with Yemi? Will I eventually become like this?
I return to my bedroom. Someone is calling my phone. I dive on the bed before it rings out. I take Eben’s call, disappointed that it’s not the potential contract that I’ve been pursuing since Christmas.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Please, am I speaking with Halimnye Diobi?”
Eben is being playful this morning. It’s been like this between us since the Eniola drama. We had a serious talk after I was cried out. He wanted to know if there was any chance we could get back together. He had asked this at that same restaurant I had walked out of months ago, following the breaking news of my fake HIV status. He held my hand, his bearded chin resting on it, eyes looking up at me pleadingly.
“I can’t,” I answered. I felt bad. “Yemi….”
“But he’s HIV positive and you’re not.”
“It doesn’t change anything. We were not together because of our statuses.”
“It changes everything, Hali. You want to live your life with him like that? Walking on eggshells, evading mines?”
I excused his ignorance. It was borne out of a broken heart.
“I’m sorry, Ebee. I can’t leave Yemi.”
I got a soft kiss on my hand and he pressed his forehead there for a while. We’d gotten closer since then. Just friends. No boundaries have been crossed. He respects my relationship with Yemi.
“So, how are you today?” he asks over the phone.
“Good.” I turn around and rest my head on a pillow.
He tells me he’s returning to Lagos. He asks if I’m ready to go as well. I’m tempted to say I am. Traveling with him is fun, but I need to give us some distance. I don’t think it’s wise to pretend like there’s no chemistry between us.
“I’ll be here a few more days.”
“Okay. Just wanted to know.”
We chat for a bit before he hangs up. I am bored to stupor. I have a few ideas on what should occupy my time. I could visit friends or lounge in the living room and watch daytime Mexican soaps or maybe I’ll just sit in front of my machine and finally work on that crazy design that’s been brewing in my head. I chew over it for some time, and decide to do all three.
I take a shower and I’m off to see a friend who just had a baby, stopping by a kids’ store to pick a few items for the newborn. My visit lasts longer than I anticipate. There’s wine and finger foods, and stories about motherhood and marriage. All but two of us, out of six, are married. In a strange way, I don’t feel left out. That pressure to be married is no longer there, although it is something I would want to look forward to in the near future. My focus and dreams gear me towards my fashion line presently. I guess my journey over these past months has reordered my priorities. Wanting to be a wife and mother are now secondary desires, but I will not hesitate one second if Yemi asks me to spend the rest of my life with him. The only problem is that Yemi is not the together forever type of person.
I return home. Aunty Ada is baking a cake. She hasn’t done that in years. She says it’s for me. I have almost forgotten how culinary she can be. Uncle Dairo is changing her. I fear they won’t last, that she’ll wake up one day and realize how much of herself she has lost, and dump him.
“Are you planning on getting married to him?” I dip my finger in the cake mix and lick it. I miss doing this.
“Marry?” Aunty Ada snorts. “No, baby girl. My love is not that stupid.”
“But you wanted me to get married.”
“No. Diobi wanted you to get married. I was merely playing my own part in fulfilling his wish. I’m glad you opted out of that stupid contract.” She wipes her hand on her apron and goes for her glass of wine on the kitchen counter. “But if you want to get married, go ahead. I’m all for you doing what makes you happy. Don’t just get stuck in a bad marriage, though. Men are not worth the stress.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
She peeks at my face. “You’re not planning on being Yemi’s wife, are you?”
“I thought you just said that you were all for me doing what makes me happy.”
“Why were you asking?”
“Nothing, really. I like him. He’s a good guy. It’s just that…I prefer Eben, now that your health is no longer an issue.”
“Can we not keep talking about this, please?”
“Of course. I’m just….”
“I need to do some work.”
I go to my bedroom. I drag my sewing machine out to the living room. While I work on my design, I watch daytime soaps. I am there until Uncle Dairo returns home.
“Good evening,” I greet.
He gives me a smile as he takes his shoes off by the door. I quickly realize how he has changed as well. His fashion taste has gone from basic to silver fox status. He is neat in a pair of jeans and flannel shirt. The outfit strips years off his age. I’m taken back to the past when we lived in Lagos and he visited us a lot. I didn’t know then what an affair meant, but I recall how I often looked forward to his visits and how much of a father role he played in my life. On some nights, he carried me on his laps and rocked me to sleep. We do have some history. Maybe I should be nicer to him.
“Hello Halim. How was your day?”
“Good.” I smile.
“Great to know.”
He pats my shoulder as he walks past me to Aunty Ada’s bedroom. Soon I hear her laughing. He makes her laugh all the time. It’s actually the cutest thing.
A short while after, she emerges from her bedroom and asks me to help set the dinner table. I do so. She informs Uncle Dairo that dinner is ready. Aunty Ada puts me at the head of the table while both of them sit facing each other. Dinner is a noisy affair. The lovebirds enjoy teasing each other. Uncle Dairo can be quite the clown when he tries. I’m left laughing at his jokes until tears run down my cheeks. But the mood is cut short by an unexpected visitor. When I open the front door to respond to a knock, I find Lekan standing outside.
“Hi,” I answer in surprise.
He is frowning. I’ve never seen him frown before. “Is my dad in?”
“Yes. Come in….”
“Just tell him I want to see him.”
I return to the dining area.
“Uncle Dairo, Lekan is here. He wants to see you.”
Uncle Dairo rises from the table while I settle back in my chair. Aunty Ada begins to tell me of her plans to visit me this year in Lagos.
“I hope you have an extra room for me?”
“You’ll sleep in mine.”
“You sleep like a child, flinging your legs and hands anyhow.”
“I’ve changed. I know how to stay in one place now.”
“Please, rent a bigger place. You have so much money. I don’t understand how you like managing your life. Your daddy would be so mad at you. He knew how to live large. That was why they killed him.”
“Okay, ma. I’ll rent a bigger….”
I’m cut off by Lekan’s voice. It’s loud and bitter, spitting words at Uncle Dairo in Yoruba. I don’t need to train my ears to get every word.
“Your wife is sick and you left her! She needs you and you’re here?”
“Lekan, your mother will be fine,” Uncle Dairo says gently. “She’s stronger than you think.”
“No, she’s not! You have to be there for her!”
“We’re going through a divorce, Lekan.”
“Don’t tell me that! I don’t want to hear it! Mommy gave you her life! She gave you everything! She was there for you all those years! But you cheated on her! You never stayed at home! Still, she took over your responsibilities and raised us alone when you lost everything. This is how you pay her? No! I’m not taking it!”
“You have to go back to her! Even if you want to get married again, not to this woman! She’s the reason your marriage fell apart–”
“Olamilekan!” Uncle Dairo roars. “That is enough! If you can’t talk like an adult, and want to keep yapping like a little boy who needs his mother, then go back to her and continue to suck her breasts! Get out!”
“Come back home, Dad. Open your eyes and see what this woman is doing to you. Get back to your senses!”
Silence follows. I look at Aunty Ada. She seems undisturbed. Her egusi soup is more important to her. I hear Lekan mutter something and the front door slamming so hard I flinch.
Uncle Dairo returns with an apology in his eyes. “This is one of those times I wish you two didn’t understand Yoruba.”
“It’s fine.” Aunty Ada smiles.
It’s not fine for me. I have lost my appetite.
“Uncle Dairo?” He looks at me. “Is everything alright with your wife?”
“Halim….” Aunty Ada chides me in a whisper.
“No, it’s okay,” Uncle Dairo says. He takes a drink of water and gives me his attention. “Tolulope has always struggled with her health. She’s asthmatic. She’s struggled with that along the years. What Lekan doesn’t know is that I tried to stay with her because I was scared that her health might worsen if I leave. I gave up my own happiness for Tolu, but nothing I did made her happy. She fought me every day. It was hell, Halim, but I can’t go through that anymore. She and I are over.” He takes Aunty Ada’s hand. “This is the woman I’ve always wanted to be with. Without her, I’d have lost my mind. She’s my angel.”
Aunty Ada doesn’t smile, but the light in her eyes is unmistakable.
“Supporting this relationship would mean a lot to us, Halim. We’re tired of living unhappy lives away from each other. And we haven’t got so many years on this earth. You get to a certain age and you stop caring about the things that bring you misery and start following every little ray of sunshine you see. I hope you understand?”
He’s gotten my heart with his speech. What would I gain if I stand in the way of their happiness? I don’t want to be like Lekan.
“I understand, Uncle Dairo. And I already told my mom that I’m okay with you guys.”
He disengages from my mom’s hand and reaches for mine. “Thank you. I know this is difficult, considering what Eniola did. I’m not asking you to forgive her. I’m simply praying that you understand that she’s just misguided. I hope she gets the help she needs.”
I hope she doesn’t. I hope she burns in hell. But I smile at Uncle Dairo.
“You have a father now,” he continues. “You’ve always had a father in me. If you need anything at all, or you need to talk to someone, I’m a call away.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Dinner ends for me here. I tell them that I have to call an early night. In my room, I lie in bed and hit Yemi up on WhatsApp. My message goes unread. He’s probably out with friends. I turn off the bedside lamp and go to bed.
The prodigal son. This is what my father calls me when he sees me after six years. The lost but found, he adds. I drop to the floor before him in respect. I am surprised to feel his hand on my back, and the touch that meets my shoulder when I straighten up.
“Ope,” he mutters and smiles. Here, they call me Ope, and not Yemi. Opeyemi. “Welcome home.”
Everyone is watching us, my mother especially. Upon arrival, I had walked into her bedroom and almost given her a heart attack. She had already concluded that this holiday would go by again without seeing me. She gazed at me as if I were some miracle. Her eyes were weak with tears. Her hand rested on her cheek, which was uplifted in a smile.
Out here in the living room, with the old man and other family members, she still looks at me the same way. The house is always like this – filled with family. It’s a constant party. Here, no one speaks English. It’s all Yoruba and culture and family values. During the holidays like this one, the crowd doubles.
Father informs me that he has to see a friend in town. We would sit and talk when he returns. The moment the door shuts behind him, the living room breaks into hearty banter. I get a warm welcome.
Everyone wants to know how I’ve been. I am tempted to tell them that Lagos is not outer space. It’s just an hour away. But I remember that it is I who have shut them all out. My mother asks them to give me some space. She snatches me from their presence and drags me to the kitchen to prepare something for me to eat.
She talks while she cooks, entertaining me with the gist of this uncle, and that aunt, and the other cousin, and the one I never knew existed. She stops when the meal is almost done, realizing she has probably talked more than she normally would. She requests that I fill her in on how I’ve been. My response is sparse. She knows that if she doesn’t ask specific questions, she won’t get an answer. So, when we sit in her bedroom, she throws the first question.
“How are you? Your health, I mean.”
“You look very healthy.” Her eyes are all over my body. I have gotten the same look from other family members. It’s as if they’re trying to find the HIV on me.
“How is work?”
“Work is good.” I suck soup off my thumb.
“I hope they’re treating you well?”
“My clients are great.”
“And how is Lagos?”
“Lagos is the same.”
“I haven’t been there in a long time.”
She has been in this house for years. In this room with its pale pink walls and bookshelves. She is a fervent bookworm, a woman who has visited a few of the places in the world she reads about. She was a trophy wife then. Beautiful and dreamy. But the loss of her only daughter, my sister, sapped life out of her. She lost zest and withdrew from everyone, so much that it affected her marriage. My father got himself a second, younger wife who bore him only girls, increasing the old woman’s agony. My disappearance drove her farther into her shell. Having me at home gives her unimaginable joy.
“Will you invite me to your house?” She’s courteous in her ways. Polite even to her children.
“Yes,” I tell her. “Anywhere else you want to go? Do you want to start traveling out again?”
She laughs. I smile at her laughter. It’s a rare thing to see, and I’ve already been blessed with buckets of it today.
“Lagos first, my son. After that, we can talk about visiting other places.”
The door opens and one of my nieces runs in. She’s a toddler. Her grandma lifts her onto her laps. The child’s eyes focus on my meal. One look at her and I am reminded why I don’t want to have kids. But I can’t tell Halim this.
“So, I hope you have plans to give me one of these soon?”
“A child?” I ask, feeding the little girl a mold of amala covered in soup.
“I’m not even married.”
“But you have a girlfriend, at least. You young people are always in a relationship these days.”
I give a chuckle. I hope she knows the difference between casual sex and a relationship.
“Yes, I have a girlfriend.”
She adjusts her sitting, an act that shows she wants to hear more. I tell her about Halim, and how beautiful and enterprising she is, and how she freed me from the prison of myself.
“Why didn’t you come with her?”
“She went home to visit her family.”
“I want to see her.”
“When you come to Lagos.”
My niece reaches into my bowl and grabs the largest chunk of pomo there. The old woman smacks her. I let her have it, rescuing her from my mother’s arms and placing her on my laps. I haven’t held a child in years. This one smells of something sweet. Her soft, full hair, parted in two buns, reminds me of my late sister, Sikemi. I played with her a lot back then. She was the baby of the house, doted on by her brothers. A happy soul. Carefree. I see a lot of her in Halim. Coming back here, to the home where we grew up, brings back sunny memories.
I am given her bedroom to stay for the duration of my stopover. My mom hardly allows people use it, with the exception of one of my cousins who has lived most of her life with us. Nothing has changed in the room since Sikemi’s passing. I don’t disturb the serenity of it. In this house, we respect the dead.
My stay in Ibadan has me visiting friends and other family members every day. I avoid the next compound where Tosin and Alex live. My aunt is late now and Tosin owns the place. I do not wish to see them. The gist being whispered in my ear about Tosin is not pleasant. It makes me wish I had done more than what I did to him the other time. This is why I shouldn’t see him. I’m sure to finish off what I had begun.
Alex, however, requests my presence. She sends an SMS.
Please, come. Tosin is not at home. I only want to talk.
I don’t respond until the next day.
Is today a good day to stop by?
Her response is immediate. Yes, she says.
I stroll to their compound. More family members and familiar faces there. One of my distant, non-Yoruba cousins, is celebrating his birthday.
The celebrant isn’t home, but the party carries on without him in the abundance of music, food and drinks. It takes a while for me to make it into Alex’s part of the house, because I stop to respond to greetings.
She is in her living room, undisturbed by guests and family, waiting for me. She looks sadder than the last time we met. I expect to find her with a heavy baby bump. Or at least, a baby. But she comes to hug me with nothing but bags underneath her eyes.
She’s the only one who calls me by that name around here. Back then, it was Yems or boo-boo.
“Thank you for coming.”
I am held tightly, and when I’m freed, a soft kiss touches my cheek. I move a step backwards.
“I’m here. What do you want to talk about?”
I take the chair she offers. My bum sinks in too deeply. The chair is old, like everything else in the living room. No progress here.
“How is Halim?” she asks.
“Can I get you something…?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Somewhere in the house, something falls to the floor and makes a clatter. The sound causes her to jerk. She turns her head in its direction, and I take note of a bruise on her neck. She catches me staring. She covers the spot with her hair.
“Did you have the baby?” I probe.
She shakes her head. “Stillbirth.”
“It’s fine. I’m used to it now.”
“Are you used to him hitting you too?”
She’s taken aback by my question.
“I’ve been told things, Alex. How can you allow him do that to you?”
She stares at me, helpless. I am irritated.
“You won’t understand.”
“He goes out, gets drunk and sleeps with other girls and comes back to hit you. What’s so hard to understand there? He’s a monster, Alex. He’s always been. That was why I was fighting hard for you not to marry him, asides me being heartbroken. I begged you to leave him alone. I told you I didn’t care that you were carrying his baby, that I’ll take care of it and you.”
Alex doesn’t cry. She just stares. A pair of lines starting from the sides of her nose go all the way down, drawn by lips that no longer know how to smile.
“Get me out of here,” she whispers. “I want to leave. I’m scared. He said he’ll follow me and find me and kill me and….”
“I met this guy online. We’ve been chatting. We’re dating. Sort of. He lives in Cotonou, but comes to Lagos regularly. He wants me to get married to him.”
“What’s his name? What does he do?”
“His name is Josh. He’s an exporter. He’s so serious about me and wants me to leave Nigeria, but I’m scared, Yemi.”
“Does Tosin know about him?”
“No. And I’m scared that if he does, he’ll do something to him too. I’m also not sure about him, if he’s genuine or not. Look, I’m not asking you to help me get out of here because I want to meet him. I just want to go away. I’m tired, Yemi. Tosin wants to kill me.”
“You don’t know him.” Her head is shaking. “You think you do, but you don’t know what he’s become now. Please, help me. I don’t have anyone or anything. Please, Yemi. I’m begging you. Please.”
I stand up. “When I get to Lagos I’ll call you. I’ll make arrangements to get you out of here.”
She dashes to where I stand and hugs me. “Thank you, Yemi. Thank you. God bless you. Thank you.”
I hurry out of the house, and just in time to take the call of my cousin whose birthday is being celebrated. He’s at some bar with other friends. He wants me over for a drink.
I take my brother’s car and hurry over to the bar. There are more than a few friends there with the celebrant. When he sees me walking in, he rises up and comes over to welcome me.
“My guy!” I hail.
“The baddest!” We hug. “Na wa for you o! You just enter ghost mode, forget your guys! Which kind life!”
“Na so we see am o! But you sef, no be you dem organize party for? Wetin you dey do here?”
“Omo, all my sidechicks dey dat party. Wifey sef dey, but she no recognize any of dem. I no wan yawa to gas for dia, abeg. Make I dey here with my guys, make dem sef dey dia.”
“Abeg, come kill yourself with manya.”
He drags me to the corner of the room where friends are drinking. Tosin is present. The bastard.
My cousin introduces me to a couple of guys I’m unfamiliar with. I sit and the drinks and gist flow. I get a few jabs for opting for wine instead of the beer and spirits they’re all getting wasted in. Tosin, especially. He’s far gone and his mouth is beginning to utter rubbish. I can see that he’s largely ignored, but he doesn’t stop. He’s bent on showing how much disregard he has for women with his utterances. He brags about how he brings his women to heel with his penis, and if that doesn’t work, with his fist. Most of the guys don’t approve of his way. They waste their energy arguing with him. I concentrate on my wine. I can’t be caught dead having this type of backwards conversation. I need to go home soon.
“Or what would you do, Ope?” Tosin makes the mistake of dragging me into the conversation.
“What would I do with what?”
“With a woman who talks back at you and denies you of sex?” There’s a demon dancing in his eyes. Tosin is poking the anus of a rabid dog and he knows it.
“I’ll change my ways. If my woman talks back at me and shuts her legs, I must be doing something very stupid. I’ll look my ugly ass self in the mirror and fix my shit.”
I get more than a few nods for my response. Tosin is not satisfied. He leans towards me.
“What if she is unable to give birth? She just keeps getting miscarriages and stillbirths, and still has the effrontery to nag and refuse you sex and reminds you how wonderful her ex was to her. What would you do? Hmm?”
The table is quiet. Everyone knows what this is about. I don’t dignify the fool with a response.
“Opeyemi, answer me!” He slams his bottle hard on the table. I pick the bottle and smash it on the floor beside me. Tosin jolts up at the same time I do. He finds the broken edge of the bottle on his neck. Our cousin separates us, jabbing our chests, pushing us away from each other.
Tosin froths at the mouth, raining invectives on me.
Someone frees the broken bottle off my hand. I remain standing, my eyes on him. They drag him away as he threatens to end my life.
When his voice fades off, I reclaim my seat and continue with my wine. The table returns to normal.
My mother tries hard not to cry when I get into my brother’s car the next morning. She promises me a visit. I tell her she’s welcome any time. The old man is less expressive of himself, but I know he’ll miss me. He gives me his blessing. My brother and I begin our trip to Lagos. I know he has been instructed by the parents to find out where I’m living. He probably knows Lagos more than I do. He lives and works in the city. He’s expressed how unhappy he is with me for shutting him out. We used to be so close.
“Don’t let me look for you again,” he says when his car comes to stop outside my house in Surulere.
“I’m not joking.”
The gate opens and Halim steps out in shorts and a crop top. I think she’s super cute.
“Who’s that?” he asks, smiling mischievously.
“Halim. She’s super important to my existence,” I reply him in English. He laughs.
“I hear you. Halim….Hausa girl?”
He shrugs. “They make nice soups. Does she?”
I tap him on the shoulder and get down from the car.
“I’m always available if you need me.”
“I’ll remember that,” I reply. Halim comes leaping towards me. When she jumps into my arms, I lift her off the ground and take her lips hungrily while my brother watches. I want him to go away, but he doesn’t. He stays until our lips disengage. He lets down the passenger window. Halim looks his way.
“Hi. I’m Mide. Ope’s big brother.” He stretches his hand towards her. She reaches in and shakes it.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Just Mide. What’s your name?”
I love the way Halim says her name with a native twang. Not the way the rest of us call her.
“Nice name. I hope he takes care of you?”
“And he behaves himself?”
Halim giggles. “Yes.”
“Good. You two can stop by at mine any time you’re free. Family is always welcome.”
He steers his car back the way we came. Halim hikes onto my back and kisses my ear. We get into the house. It smells of fresh oranges. Halim has just cleaned the place. It’s airy as well.
We spend the next ten minutes kissing and allowing small talk in-between. I don’t realize how much I’ve missed her until she puts on some Wizkid song and starts to sing and dance to it as I have a shower. She doesn’t let me towel my body dry when I come out from the bathroom. She strips and comes to me with kisses. We end up on the bed, and the rest of the morning is spent in moans and orgasms. Halim falls asleep afterwards. I enter the kitchen, hungry. There’s a chocolate cake I take a chunk out of to satisfy my hunger while I watch something on TV.
She wakes up hours later, hungry as well. We make lunch together, filling each other with tales of how our holiday went. Lunch is had at almost 5:00 p.m. We have too much of it, and so we stretch out our bloated bodies on the two couches in the living room, facing the ceiling.
“I have something to tell you,” she says.
“Remember the test I went for at the HCT?”
“The results came out.”
She turns. I turn too. The look on her face makes me curious. And somehow, before she utters the words, I know what she’s about to say.
“I’m HIV negative, Yemi.”
There’s regret in her tone, like she’s sorry for being free of the disease. I’m absolutely happy for her.
“Are you serious?”
“The lab guy said he ran the test twice to be sure. I didn’t believe him, so he did an instant test and the result was the same.”
“That’s good news, baby. You should be happy.”
“I don’t feel happy. It makes no difference to me. I lived a normal life as a HIVer. Same as now.”
“But wait, where did you get tested before? How did they come up with their own results?”
Halim pulls herself up into a sitting position. “You might want to sit up for this gist,” she tells me. I straighten up to hear her tale. I get weak when she tells me about what this Eniola person did to her. I am speechless.
“Well, she got what she wanted,” Halim mutters. “She and Eben were steadily smashing this whole time.”
“That girl is plain evil.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Aunty Ada is blaming her mom for the wickedness, but I’m not having that. It is all on her. She did what she did on her own, and I’ll never forgive her.”
“Come here.” Halim scoots over. “Are you okay?”
“Right now? Yes. When she confessed to me? No. I was a mess. But I pulled through.”
“And you didn’t tell me this whole time? You didn’t even show it.”
“It’s not something you share on the phone.”
“And Eben, what was his reaction?”
“He was also in shock. They’re not talking now. He asked his gateman to throw her things out of his house.”
“But he’s still friends with her brother?”
“Naa! That chick is cold! Damn!”
I can’t recall half of what I say to Halim after that, but I’m upset with the Eniola witch. How can one person be so wicked?
Halim rests her head on my laps. She starts to talk about getting a shop for herself. She tells me there’s a place that has a three-bedroom house we can rent and a collection of shops in front of it. She also thinks it’s about time she gets some training in jewelry designing.
I listen to her talk, agreeing to everything she says. But thoughts in my head are in a jumble. Her HIV status shouldn’t mean anything to our relationship. It should not affect us, but I don’t entirely feel that way. I feel I shouldn’t let her go through the discomfort of being with an HIV partner. It would take a lot of sacrifice on her end. Do I want her to go through that?
“What are you thinking about?” She touches my beard.
“You.” I take her hand, press it to my lips. “Only you, baby.”