Credit: Serubiri Moses, from the Africa Issue (c) 2013
Tequila induced dreams always go the same way. Three shots, two shots, one shot, wait for my brain to get warmed and let the heat spread below till my fingers feel steady. Smile and count to seven as I put one feet in front of the other and stop. I kneel and lift my right hand, use the index finger to block a nostril, bend my head towards the glass table in front of me then inhale. Stand. Cue magic.
Symphonies flow inside me and I sway in tune all the way to the backyard till I am keeling over. “Ladies and gentlemen” I whisper to my eager audience of grass “I am Zirra, short story darling, voice of a generation and self-effacing hot shit.”
I lie on my back and close my eyes. The grass fades and I’m in better clothes. Eggshell silk top, not white. Silver pants, not black. I’m seated before an adoring crowd. A distinguished member of a panel filled with people like my future self, validated by literary acclaim and valued for my intelligent insights into modern life.
My phone vibrates. I open my eyes and sit up. It is an email from a magazine responding to a submission.
“Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately…”
I am practiced at this part too. Curse, close message, special select for transfer to new folder, press enter on folder titled “rejections”, scroll down past subfolder “rejections/work”, select “rejections/writings” and press enter. Tally: I stopped counting after fifty. I turn of the phone and return to my adoring crowd with whom I practice my fake modest smile over and over till my brain turns cold again and I know it’s time for three more shots.
The sun’s rays push against my eyelids and wake me up. I crawl inside and stick my head under the kitchen tap. Then I fill a glass with water and drink before looking around and willing an apt sentence to describe the profound and penetrating isolation this moment encompasses. A young girl drinking water, her eyes sweeping over the bodies of friends, half naked and asleep, in the semi clean apartment. Young girl depressed and entitled; the poster child for millennial angst. If only I were that interesting.
I decide I will forget that I haven’t written a good sentence in three months and turn my attention to my phone. There are missed calls from my employer. There is a text message too.
Why is your phone off? I had to take the kid to work. Drop by my office to pick him up.
I text Mrs Briggs back.
I am so sorry. I woke up late. I’ll be there in thirty minutes.
Mrs Bolu Briggs works in an office that requires tailored suits and straight hair packed in a bun. She only truly smiles by my estimate when she has driven at least twenty minutes away from the office, not that she never smiles at work. It’s just always a poster expression of the celebrity and politician variety. Once
I heard her and the Mr fighting about her experiences as the only female partner in her office. They assumed I had already left, forgetting to listen for the noise of the door slamming before they began hissing at each other.
“You’d never get it. You have a penis,” she shouted.
I heard the Mr sigh. “You have come again. You know Bolu it’s not always about that.”
The Mrs scoffed. “Really? Please, tell ME how I feel about my experiences at work.” They paused and one of them shouted “Hello?” before I slammed the door and ran. This morning I don’t see her when I get to the office. The kid is in the reception, laughing at his phone. I nudge him and we high five. I gesture to his phone. “What?”
“Check @rayolabae,” he says I load twitter and take my time scrolling through my feed. An acquaintance has shared a link to his newest published piece, a meditation on marrying for money suffused with enough pretty and poignant sentences to warrant a series of retweets with captions like “Wow wow wow” “brilliant” and “SO. MUCH. FEELS.”I continue scrolling till I reach @ray- olabae’s tweets about a job interview where the employer asked if she considered herself attractive enough to be rapeable.
“Why are you laughing at this?” I ask the kid. He shrugs. “I think she exaggerated. No one would ask that.”
“In Nigeria they would.”
“Maybe they meant, did she consider herself attractive?”
“Gbo, rapeable and attractive are very different words. Nobody should ever call another person rapeable.
Would you ever call a girl that?”
The kid laughs. “Sure. I’ll hire you to write my eulogy in advance.
So I’ll be remembered after daddy kills me.” I run my hands through his hair and smile.
On the way home, I look past sweaty hawkers, tune out angry drivers and think about those tweets. By the time Tonte, my best friend, arrives in the evening with food and two perfectly rolled joints, there’s a film of sweat over my palms because I’ve been rubbing all day over the ludicrousness of @rayolabae’s last interview question.
Tonte looks like a stereotype. He measures past 6ft; he wears his beautiful skin with the same ease with which his eyes fixate on pretty girls with large breasts and little to say. Nine out of ten times, they fixate back on him, feeding his ego every time one asks to braid his locs or sit on his lap and caress his lush beard. No kidding.
I like Tonte because he never overwhelms the company he chooses to be around. We’re friends because he exists under a shrinking definition of maleness and I have made it my responsibility to cure him of the straight male ego. When we argue he often bases his points on what he calls “realistic situations” ergo how things are versus how they can and should be. I sit righteously on the other side of the fence because “realistic situations” have never served me adequately.
I push my Chinese food around as he smokes a joint. I start shifting. Tonte glances at me, I glance back and we stare at each other over smoke and cuisine steam till the question pops out.
“Tonte. Do you think women put themselves in the way of rape?”
He takes a long drag and faces me properly. “That’s a stupid thing to say. Did you get if off Twitter?” I slurp my noodles in response. He laughs, “Zirra, Twitter isn’t very realistic.”
“Oshey, Captain Obvious.”
Tonte shakes his head. “Why are you asking anyway?”
“Let me put it this way. If I wore what I have on now outside, instead of my Abbaya would that make me a likelier candidate for rape?” He regards the tee shirt I have on, slightly oversized, barely concealing the absence of a bra.
“Babe. That’s like saying people with money in their wallets are begging to be robb—” I suck in air and out comes a drawn out “yeah”.
Tonte shakes his head. “I guess, realistically speaking, one’s dressing could inspire some kind of sexual urge.” I can see our fences coming up. Tonte looks relaxed on his side, full of reality that favours his kind.
I hiss. “Oh I’m sorry. Maybe outfits should come with a warning tag “can inspire rape.”
“That’ not what I’m say–.”
“No. Of course not.”
“Zirraaaa. I’m saying there is a certain perception associated with looks. Whether you like it or not.”
“Tonte. You know I never fight facts.”
I light my joint and take long drags, exhaling through my nose, enjoying the lightness through my chest and arms, mentally arranging pretty sentences to describe our argument in my head. One paragraph later, I jump up quickly and Tonte drops his lighter.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yeah. As you were.” I reply. I pack up the empty takeout and leave Tonte on the balcony smiling at the inspiration spreading through me, my first in months. Clear sentences, a vague storyline, a theme, topical and interesting enough. It makes sense why those tweets have stuck with me all day; the story is forming in the space between my brain and fingers. I just need to make it happen. I’m ex- cited at my overdue breakout debut. Memoir? Fiction perhaps? The pretty lines keep coming as I try to match sentences to an overall idea. What is my overall idea? I close my eyes and whisper.
“Ladies and gentlemen. The distinguished prize for nonfiction goes to Zirra Albaqari for her insightful yet tender sensitive portrayal of rape culture among contemporary Nigerian youth.”
When I reopen my eyes and look out the window, the sun is setting. From my window, I can see the street. There are cars in motion; a man holds a woman’s hand as they cross the road. On the other side of the street, the Suya man is whistling and setting up shop. Someone is coming out of another house. An Okada zooms by.
There is a sense of purpose, everybody is going somewhere or doing something. Tonte shouts from the porch “Yo there’s a house party at Kola’s. Are you down?”
“Sounds like I plan” I shout back.
“We don’t have to dress up, do we?”
He leans in to look at me critically. “Maybe something you didn’t sleep in? Little lipstick or mascara perhaps?” He offers.
“Haha, fuck you.” I walk back to the balcony. “I could dress up, but I don’t want to put myself in harm’s way.”
“You need to let that shit go.”
“For real though. Should I change?” I gesture at my clothes. “I can tie the shirt to fit around my mid- secti—“
Tonte narrows his eyes. “No. Girl. Put on some makeup and a short skirt. You know I can’t be your substitute boo forever. You need to start attracting normal guys because I’ll soon find a nice girl and settle down, then you’ll be lonely as fuck.”
“I’m changing, I’m changing. Also, let’s take some whiskey.” On the walk to Kola’s we pass by Ajose roundabout filled at this time of night with girls reaching out every few seconds to touch Tonte and throw invitations bearing sex.
“Handsome bobo. Come now.”
“Your girlfriend is fine oh.” I giggle at Tonte’s discomfort.
“Bros, madam. Slow down na, talk to me. Good things dey here, make una just slow down ehn.”
I slow down like the voice requests and turn towards it. She looks like my opening line-leggy and breasty with too much powder and generous black liner over her eyelids. My story will begin with her poorly powered face. I look past her into the empty street.
“Tonte, I’ll catch up with you. I know the way.” I say.
“Yeah I just had an idea for a story. And I want to talk to some of these babes.”
He raises a brow. “For real. I just got mad inspired. I’ll meet you up later.” He hugs me before he leaves and I face the girl.
“Hello” I stretch my hands out. She regards me with a half-smile and raised eyebrows.
“Do you have five minutes, just to talk?” She smiles but doesn’t answer. I keep staring till it occurs to me to give her two thousand naira.
“Ah han, aunty with this your accent, na only two thousand?”
I laugh. “I have Whiskey too.”
She takes the bottle from my hands and moves to sit on a Black Mercedes parked on the pavement near us. I follow her and we sit quietly for a while.
“What’s your name?”
“Tifeoluwa.” She speaks softly now with a mild Igbo accent I did not
detect before. I’m running through ideas. My little chat with the kid, Tonte’s insistence on appearances, me and this sex worker. All slices of a great story, maybe even one a big magazine could accept.
Tifeoluwa passes the bottle to me. I take a swig and face her. “I just want to ask you some questions, no video or anything, but can I record your voice?”
She smiles at me. “No fit aunty”
I hand her another two thousand. She pockets it and smiles but doesn’t speak. I shake my head “No problem. Can we just talk? I won’t record anything.”
She laughs “People and talk-talk sha. You know say many of my customers no dey wan fuck. Dem just want find pesin dem fit yarn to.”
“I just think you could make an interesting story.”
“Okay madam journalist. Talk your question.”
My questions are nervous at first, polite inquiries that might lead to deeper insights about her. She answers with practiced ease. Her friends call her Tife. She uses Tiffany when working. She’s a secondary school graduate and she’s due for travel to Italy in a few weeks. Her job is what it is, a job. She’s not in love with it but she makes enough money, enough to get her on a boat to Italy.
“What will you do there?”
“Na the same thing, but dem pay me with euros.” She’s good at our cat and mouse Q&A but I’m impatient. Her story is too simple. I want more meat.
I cough. “Tiffany can I ask something personal?”
“Ehn.” She drinks more Whiskey.
“Some of your customers, do they get extra. Like they want you to do something you don’t want?”
“It get like that sometimes. Men, dem go finish dem no fit gree pay.”
“So what happens then? The police—”
She throws her head back and laughs, clapping.
“Police ke? Na dem worst pass. Dem plenty wey go come fuck, no gree to drop money. Dem tell una say our business dey illegal, so dem no we us any money.” I have an opening, now I just need a hook. So I lean closer, sharing her air and whiskey breath. I whisper the question I really want to ask as my eyes scan for passers-by.
“Tiffany. Have you ever been raped?”
She drops the bottle quietly on the floor and looks at me, long as if when she looked long enough the story in her head would become mine and she could walk away, lighter. I feel a little cold; something has mixed with the air that causes me to wrap my hands around myself.
“No” she says.
I snatch the whiskey from her and guzzle. What a waste of four thousand naira. Immediately, she stands up and pulls me off the car. A guy is walking towards us, dangling keys loudly in his hands. He gets to the Mercedes and stops.
“Fine boy” Tifeoluwa says.
“Don’t worry ehn, your car dey okay. Sexy bobo.”
He looks down shyly but when he raises his head back up, our eyes widen as recognition snaps into my
“Zirra?” he says.
I look at the tall man with big brown eyes and pink lips. I know if I move close enough I will see the birthmark above his lip, lips that snap back tight when you nibble and release them.
“Isa? Isa umm Ismailah?”
“Yes.” He says, smiling.
“New year’s eve.” We both say and laugh.
“Are you going to Kola’s house party?” I ask.
“That’s the plan. You?” He looks behind me at Tiffany who is walking towards a moving car. The car stops in front of Tiffany and she bends over to talk to the driver. I look at
Ismailah. I laugh and focus on my fingernails.
“It’s a long story” I reply.
“Are you going to the party?” he asks. You can fill me in on the way?” It’s a pleasant idea, going with him into his car, driving to a partyand reacquainting myself with his mouth, possibly more. I stop myself from thinking further. I should be alone and outlining my story ideas, penning the left over sentences in my head.
“Naa. I’m gonna go home instead. I live really close and I’ve had a bit to drink. I need to walk.” I start walking away but I trip on a heel and fall into Ismaila’s grip. He smells like brandy and lemons and he won’t let go of my hands. I don’t want him to.
“Let me walk you.” He says.
“I’m not that drunk, it’s the shoes
“I know. I’m not that drunk either. It was just Cognac, I swear.”
I laugh, leaning and easing into his shoulders as we start strolling. His skin feels toasty through the shirt.
“I remember the last time we walked when I was loaded.” I say. He laughs and rubs his face. “I remember having a very good start to the year.”
I lean more into him, letting his hands move from my shoulders to circle around my waist. I look down. My shadow has disappeared into his tall one as they glide beside us, all the way to my apartment. When we get there, he asks for the bathroom. I show him and walk to the kitchen, contemplating pouring him a glass of water. I pour the glass and drink it, then I pour him a Jack and Coke.
Suddenly, I feel less like being alone because all the words have left my
head. Ismailah emerges from the bathroom and heads for the door.
“Are you okay for me to leave?” he asks. I take the glass and stretch it towards him, “You’re not interested in my long story?”
I don’t make eye contact while he stares at the glass and me. He takes it and sits on the beanbag.
“Thanks. Honestly, I wasn’t really in the mood for a crowded party.” He says. I join him on the beanbag and start talking. He slides down to lie on his side. I stretch my legs out and lie on my stomach, shifting till my face is inches from his. He listens well, and his brown eyes don’t break contact with mine. His brows animate easily, lifting every time he laughs at my expense or furrowing when I recount my numerous aspirations and rejections. I keep talking until the apartment shrinks, until there’s nothing in the room except his face and the way he lingers whenever we clink glasses and our fingertips touch.
“Anyway I’m hoping I can get a good story out of this idea, maybe ashort film script who knows. This thin line between sexual aggressiveness and assault.”
“What will you call it?” he asks.
“I don’t know yet. Consent maybe? This idea that certain people aren’t given that benefit of the doubt when they experience sexual harassment, because of social codes, how they’re perceived?”
“Interesting.” He leans in. I shift closer. “Thanks. I hope I can put it down well.”
“I’m sure you don’t have that problem.”
Everything feels warm inside me and I part my lips a little, inhaling with my mouth to taste the shifting air around us.
“Ismaila, You should kiss m–”
His tongue moves against mine softly and I sigh when he runs his hand up the back of my neck before pulling my hair and biting my lower lip. I pull away when my phone rings. Message from Tonte.
Madam. How far?
Got tired. Went back home. I’m safe sir. I text back
I look at Ismailah, who takes my hand to trace lines on them. He has beautiful long milk fingers. For a second I consider what it would feel like to pick two of them, push them under my skirt, and let them move in circles over where it tickles inside me. I push his hand away instead. Maybe another night when whiskey is not responsible for my primary choices.
“I’m sorry. We probably shouldn’t.” I say. “It’s a little fast”
He looks down, rubs his head. His “yeah” is drawn out and he grunts before shaking his head. He gets up and stretches as I rise to clear the glasses of the floor. He follows me to the kitchen and then back to the living room where we both stand and inhale deeply. I apologize again softly. He laughs and turns to leave and I stop him for a last long hug.
“God, you smell great.”
“Yeah sure. I’m gonna go now.”
At the door he turns back. “Actually no,” he says. “You invited me up here, made me a drink and told me to kiss you.”
“I know. I-”
“What the fuck? I’m supposed to drive home all jacked up?” His face is pinched, his eyes nar-rowed till only his lashes and lids are visible and his nostrils expand as he lets out a growl.
“Come here.” He pulls me towards him. My wrists hurt from his grip. I feel something swirl inside me as my mind tries to read the situation. Ismaila looks angry. I feel my body going slack even as my mind is goes into sharp focus. I open my mouth to gasp and I find myself biting Ismaila’s hands.
“What the fuck?” He slaps my face and pushes me to the floor. My hands are free, I want to get up and kick his nuts and scream but he’s faster than I am and he grabs my neck and pushes my face into the beanbag on the floor.
I’m screaming now, loud enough to disturb anything that’s close and alive, but nothing is happening. I only feel my lips burn as I push air into the beanbag and it pushes back, hot and angry. Ismaila’s hands are hot too. One hand lifts my ass up while the other hand moves from my neck to the back of my head and presses me harder into the bag.
“Bend over, like that yes. Good girl” he says. He leans in and yanks my hair up from the bag. The word that’s been accumulating inside me explodes out of my face.
He licks my ear and pushes my face back into the bag. He sticks two fingers inside me and pulls my head up again.
“Please, stop” I pant as his erection pokes my ass. He pushes my head again
Ismailah struggles to enter for the first few seconds. But I know he is in when I beg God to let me pass out. I know finally, that I am not dreaming when he sticks his finger in my mouth and I taste my own blood. It stings when he withdraws from me, but I don’t move. I feel suspended from myself. There’s another Zirra now, watching from a corner, removed from her likeness. I don’t move when Ismaila’s feet return from the bathroom. The only thing I can look at, Ismaila’s feet. His face and fingers I never need to see again.
His feet pace as he puts on his briefs, pants and belt. His feet make sounds like “I should go now.” His feet move further from me till I hear my door closing. I move my own feet, try to spring up and scream but I have nothing left. The Zirra who is staring at me from the corner has my voice.
My hands are shaking. This small fear confuses me, it smells like Ismailah and all the internet posts and documentary videos and films and articles in the world have not carried instructions on what to do about it. The weight of Ismaila’s spirit is everywhere, especially on the floor where I lie till the sun comes up.