Two weeks post-NYSC, Sogie gets a job offer with a start-up NGO. It is 2015, her candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, has just won the presidential elections; her brother, Ehis, has returned home after over a year of distancing himself from this family and its negativity. The boyfriend has broken up with her via Skype (he is in love with a Brazilian course mate in the UK), but Sogie doesn’t care, they had reached the end of themselves anyway. At this point, all she’ll miss him for is his 10 percent student discount on asos.com. These are her best years.
The NGO, Purple Hearts Foundation, is a somewhat shabby outfit that operates from the back of the Boss’ family home—empowering women she says. The pay is minimal but the experience promises to be fulfilling. It is no surprise that Sogie takes this job (jumps at it actually), if she were to list ten things about herself, Activist would make top three. Two more weeks, after she realizes that living with her sister is a brutal way to exist, she scrapes up three hundred and thirty thousand naira (her mother lends her fifty thousand) and rents an apartment in Sun City Estate, a room with sallow walls and a kitchen too small to properly accommodate her plentiful hips. Her current salary means she cannot necessarily afford this place but that’s okay, she has a good feeling. The gate man, Philemon, introduces her to the neighbours—Pastor Ukah, a large man, two times Philemon’s size, who enjoys morning prayer walks in boxer shorts, showing off an abundance of curly chest and thigh hairs and his wife, Pastor (Mrs.) Ukah, large too, but slightly smaller with square, white teeth that grace her generous smiles.
Sogie is not particular about much. She’d be the last person you’d find obsessing over irrelevant details like smoking or non-smoking or the toilet seat, if it’s up or down. But of the things she does get particular, she is rather intense—like her privacy which, really, is the only reason she takes this apartment. You see, the design of the house is so that she doesn’t have any need to bump into the neighbours or even hear them. The few times she does encounter them—maybe hanging laundry out to dry in the morning, or taking out trash in the evening, or raising money for the electricity bill—are filled with smiles and polite questions, how is your day going? How are you enjoying the weekend? And then they are done. There is the occasional overnight prayer session with the accompanying tambourine but that aside, Sogie quite likes her neighbours.
Sogie isn’t sure how she feels about this small man with a strong tendency towards negligence. On a normal day, she wouldn’t feel anything, wouldn’t find him prominent enough to warrant a care. But Philemon, small as he is, is a difficult man to ignore. While he might seem like a dim-wit, Sogie sometimes worries he has the whole Usual Suspects shit going on. For example, one night, she hears movement by her window (where the pumping machine is), and the next morning the pumping machine is bad and who else to fix it but Lazarus (who she’ll learn soon enough is his brother)? And Lazarus takes his sweet time—and their money—with it, collecting a little extra today, a little more next week. Till then, they have to make do with getting water from the tap by the fence.
Then comes Sunday morning. She is by the tap with three buckets, begrudging Philemon and Lazarus and the damned harmattan when she hears her neighbours.
“What don’t I do for you this woman?” smash, smash, “did your people send you to me?” smash, smash. Then the son begins to cry. They have a three year old boy by the way—Joseph—adorable. She stands outside for the time it takes her buckets to fill, fixing her gaze studiously on the rising water level in her buckets, careful that her eyes don’t wander off to places they shouldn’t. Then she goes back in and begins to clean her apartment.
Three months of work and though Sogie would never admit to any one else, she could at least admit to herself: that start-up NGOs are hell to work with, that there was nothing fulfilling about drafting letters and drawing up project plans that would not go beyond the office calendar, that minimal pay meant fewer visits to her favourite online store to buy shoes, and what is life if one can’t fund its pleasures? That’s when she met Sisan, seated across from her on a large donut-shaped table.
It was a video training session on family planning and too many times, one caught the other’s eyes straying from the screen and smiled. When the training was over, they found each other and set up a lunch date—to talk about work of course. One lunch date became two and lunch soon became dinner and movies and drinks by which time they had started making out in his car while they waited for Philemon to decide if he was up to opening the gate for her or not. If he wasn’t out by three honks, it usually meant he wasn’t and she was left to struggle through the ridiculous mechanism of the gate.
Sogie and Sisan
It would be nice to say it was romance between Sogie and Sisan but it wasn’t. Besides work, there was little else to do with her time but think, about home, her sister and her sickle-celled sons, her father and his geriatric challenges, her mother and her sadness. She tried her hands on Church, explored the faith thing, even worked in a department for a while. But faith is all things-not-seen. It has no arms to hold you at night when your shoulders quake with tears. You cannot reach out and touch it, it is without lips to kiss.
As for Sisan, he let her know early enough that he was not in the right emotional space for a relationship.
So here they are:
Sisan has come over to return some books he borrowed from her shelf. He also has a large pack of M & Ms for her. He is squatting in front of the book shelf, putting the books back in place.
Sogie watches him. She doesn’t tell him about the phone call she just had with her mother where she cried about being all alone with a sad old man who she cannot recognize anymore as her husband, about how she feels her life is on pause while she waits for him to get better (or die). She doesn’t tell him she doesn’t eat M & Ms either (or any coloured food for that matter, that much colour must be dangerous somehow), she just smiles and stashes them in the fridge.
“Will you sleep over?” she asks.
“Should I?” he asks. Sisan had always been one to secure the ball firmly in your court.
She disappears into the kitchen and returns holding a pan.
“I’m having fried yams for dinner, shey you’ll eat?”
She proceeds to peel the yam and cut thin, half-moon slices and while they fry, she reemerges to find him making the bed.
“Do you have condoms?”
“In my car.”
He looks at her for a few seconds, long enough to be sure, but not so long that it seems he doesn’t want to. Because he does. He has wanted to from the day she walked into the conference room, red bow clipped onto her fro. So he goes off to get them—a pack of three ultra-thin condoms, leaving her ample time to think, to realize it isn’t her best of ideas, to recognize that she really doesn’t care, that he had lit a spark and her body was aching to burn.
The next morning is Sunday and as Sogie stares at her 6:00 am alarm, she knows that guilt will not let her sit in church. This guilt also makes his heat a discomfort in her bed. She resents his peaceful snores and the gentle rise and fall of his chest (which by the way is the most beautiful chest she has seen). She needs him gone. So she taps his arm.
“I need to get some work done.”
“Come and be going.”
Now at this point, Sogie will not admit it but not far beneath the layers of guilt is wonder. For that is what the night was. Sisan did things, said things—made her witness parts of herself that were a surprise to her. By Wednesday there is no shame as much as a yearning that touching herself cannot quench. On Thursday, she sends him a text and thus begins the cycle of wonder and shame that soon evolves into a constant state of shameful wonder, a wonderful shame. Him constantly in her bed, she never in his (she prefers having him come to her and he likes the ball being in her court).
“I think he beats her,” she murmurs to his chest, as they lay in a tangle of each other’s scents. “My neighbour, I think he beats his wife.”
Silence. He attempts to pull her closer, like that is even possible.
“You should talk to her.”
“And tell her what?”
“I don’t know.”
We see her on TV, we see her in real life, she’s not far-fetched fiction. She cries in silence, working hard and overtime to keep her pain a secret, like treasure; if one were to ask her, she’d deny its existence vehemently. Then there’s the other woman that reaches out, gives her comfort, gives her hope, a reason to believe in people, maybe even puts a genuine smile on her face. But isn’t this easier said than done? How do the words form? From where do we begin? I love your smile? I brought lunch? Is your husband beating you? Soon, you find that five weeks have gone by and while you have said nothing more than the occasional good morning, you realize you haven’t heard any kicks or punches and slowly begin to relax, to hang around the tap less, to eavesdrop less, to watch her less closely, looking for bruises.
Then he beats her again. And their son cries. Then he cries, I don’t know why you make me do this! Then they get dressed and leave for church.
The quality or state of being apart from company or observation. A word which, first used in the 15th century, has now become the carpet underneath which, anything and everything can be swept. So when we stumble on a text on our sister’s phone telling her husband she regrets marrying him and wants a divorce, we replace the phone carefully and act like we’ve seen nothing. It’s private. When our colleague begins to over eat, gaining more than a few extra kilograms, we do not bring it up, even though we see the red in his eyes. It’s private. Sometimes we tell ourselves there’s nothing much we can do. If we believe in God, we might say a prayer for them at night, put it in His hands. Is anything too big for God?
And when one week grows into five, we are certain our prayers have been answered.
Like the time with Ehis’ fainting spells. He would be in the middle of talking, or playing soccer or just keeping watch for her while she snooped around their father’s room, and pass out. The doctors checked his blood pressure, his heart rate, his sugar levels and many other things that were more of numbers than words and found no problem. So they, as a family, took it to God. And one day, they realized he hadn’t had a spell in two months. They tiptoed around this for a few more months, holding their breaths, waiting out the calm before the storm. But the storm never came.
Sometimes, their father says God wasted a miracle on Ehis.
When Monday comes, Pst. Ukah leaves for work (he is the pastor in charge of church accounts) and Laide is home alone (Joseph is being dropped in school by his father). This is her golden opportunity to be the other woman that reaches out. So she spends over an hour in front of the mirror rehearsing her lines, going over them so scrupulously, they take up room in her tongue.
Mummy Joseph, well done o, how are things? (pause for response) How is Joseph? (pause for response) I heard sounds yesterday, hope all is well? (pause for response, then let your heart guide you from there… you can do this).
Laide is outside, weeding around her tomato and ugwu plants when Sogie finally pushes herself to her.
“Mummy Joseph, well done o. How are things?”
“Fine!” Her smile is too convincing. It’s unsettling.
“How is Joseph?”
“He’s fine o, he has gone to school,” she pauses, “no work today?”
“They are fumigating my office.” Pause. “Emmm… I see you are doing some gardening.”
“Yes o. These weeds won’t let them be.”
“Why didn’t you ask Philemon to do it?”
Laide laughs. “Philemon? So he’ll uproot them along with the weeds?” she laughs again, Laide joins in. “Let me do it myself, abeg.”
There is a pause. Sogie lingers awkwardly, like a child about to report her mischief.
“Okay then, take care.”
“Enjoy your free day!”
Acts of Kindness
Why tell what we can show?
Sogie begins with laundry. Every Saturday, when Pst. Ukah goes out, she would pile their dirty clothes into her washing machine. No, it’s nothing, she would say whenever Laide tries to protest, I enjoy doing laundry. Sogie hates it. But you never found someone as dedicated to a task as Sogie and her neighbours’ laundry. How she would sort them according to fabric, colour and water temperature. Use the perfect amount of detergent and softener, hand wash if necessary, bleach if necessary, pour in some lime juice if necessary. If Sisan notices any of this, he says nothing.
Then she moves on to food. She’d buy shawarma or chicken suya from the junction, then pick up two bottles of coke from the corner shop and show up at her neighbour’s. Her husband is always away on Saturdays, so this becomes their day of bonding. If Sisan is around, he’d be on his laptop working on one thing or the other. If he notices anything, he says nothing. Besides, complaints are for people who have the right of relationship.
It can be said that Sogie and Laide became friends.
“How is your fiancé” Laide asks Sogie as they sit in her bed, going through her wedding photos: Laide walking down the aisle, Pst. Ukah lifting up her veil, intense pride in his eyes.
“You mean Sisan?” Sogie turns to the next page, the newlyweds dancing into the reception. “He’s not my fiancé”
“Oh… but are you at least talking about marriage? You know, marriage is such a beautiful thing,” Sogie looks up at Laide, surprised at this woman’s bullshit ability, enraged by her blissful face that seems convinced by itself. “You have to enter into—”
“He’s not even my boyfriend. We are just fucking.” Laide gasps. “Yes, that’s what it is. Because sometimes, it’s about problems and solutions. It’s about coming to terms with who you are and right now, I’m a woman who wants to be intensely pleasured. Besides, it’s people like you that make me question marriage.”
“What does that mean?”
“The walls are not that thick, Laide.”
And what are friendships without fights? And this spans exactly two weeks. Within which Laide realizes she misses Sogie more than she is ashamed at being discovered. Besides, the husband is out of town for some weeks and the son is with her mother. She doesn’t want to be alone.
So she shows up at Sogie’s door with jollof rice and an apology. And Sogie receives the rice with thanks and an apology and an invitation to come in. And they eat in silence, punctuating it with the occasional sigh.
Now, about those wedding photos. First, know that there was nothing fake about the wedding that held in Faith and Miracles’ Assembly (FMA) on the 11th of June, 2011. Not the pride and joy that elevated Pst. Ukah’s shoulders, not the excitement that quickened Laide’s steps, not the gold jewelry that graced her neck and fingers. You see, Pst. and Mrs. Ukah were genuinely happy. They were at the beginning of something beautiful and neither could wait to see where God was taking them.
But neither of them saw Monalisa coming. 5 feet tall Monalisa with glorious lips and a head for numbers. Monalisa who volunteered to serve in the accounts’ department of FMA, two years into the steady marriage of the Ukahs. Monalisa whose lips Pst. Ukah beheld and immediately understood the height and depth of lust. How he imagined her lips, doing things, saying things, going places. Three months later, they were fucking. If you were to ask him, he would say he tried his best, tried not to picture Monalisa’s face while he was in bed with his wife, tried not to grow warm as her hand occasionally brushed against his. If you were to ask, he would say he had honest intentions when he offered to drop Monalisa home that evening.
A few months more, and he was convinced that he was in love.
“If a man marries a woman, but later finds his true love, and he and his wife don’t have any children yet, can he divorce her?” he asked his pastor colleague one Sunday as they updated the church accounts.
“But what if this other woman for sure is the love of his life? What if he knows she will make him happy?”
“No. Once you are married, it’s till death. Don’t worry, Pastor Ukah, God will give you the grace to love your wife.”
And so he went home that day with a strong resolve to love his wife fantastically. And his wife had good news, she was pregnant! What else could this be if not a sign from God?
But how quenchable are our desires? Soon Pst. Ukah found himself back in Monalisa’s arms. Increasingly put off by his wife’s smiles, increasingly trapped by her swelling belly. And one day, when he came home late from a Saturday at Monalisa’s, Laide asked one question too many and his response was a fist to her mouth.
“My husband is a good man,” Laide says as she walks home with Sogie from the corner shop. “He just needs time.”
“By then, you might be dead.”
“But it’s the truth! You should leave him.”
“God forbid! You are the one who needs to leave your—your—whatever he is!”
And Laide quickens her steps, leaving Sogie behind.
And what are friendships without fights?
So here is Sogie at Laide’s door, rehearsing an apology she doesn’t mean: I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, I was out of line. Our friendship means a lot to me and I hope I haven’t ruined it with my careless words.
“Sogie, come in.” Laide smiles, letting Sogie in on the first knock.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—“
“It’s fine, I understand. Come in.” She sits and pats the cushion beside her, “please, sit.”
Sogie sits. “I really shouldn’t have said that. I was out of line.”
“It’s fine, really. I know you were just trying to be a friend,” she smiles, “maybe I too should come to terms with who I am… the battered wife.”
“No, no, that’s not who you are, Laide. You are a strong, confident woman, you are beautiful, have you looked at your skin? If your husband is too stupid to see how lucky he is then maybe—”
It is a kiss that cuts her short. Laide’s lips on hers, tentative, asking; the first kiss Laide has ever initiated in her life.
Will Sogie ever admit that she kissed her back? That in that moment, there was something pleasantly surprising about the kiss that tempted her to probe deeper? What she will admit to, however, is that she pulls away, awkwardly lifting her weight off the sofa and goes to her room, where Sisan awaits her, brow raised.
“How was the apology?”
“Oh… that? It went well.”
The next morning, she doesn’t go to her neighbour’s to get her laundry and when evening comes, Sogie avoids her gaze as they run into each other at the clothes line, managing a robotic showing of teeth. She goes into her apartment and deposits the clothes, then goes to the tap to get some water.
That’s the first time Sogie hears her cry.