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Shade sleeps with shadows dancing in her head. The way she says it, I always imagine the shadows playing tag in her subconscious, each one looming bigger, larger and scarier like a grim reaper, coming one after the other, whispering sweet evils into her ears in her sleep. Whenever she regains consciousness, she would pick her phone and dial my number, no matter when, two, three or four in the morning when I would be deep in sleep. Negotiating myself out of sleep, I would listen in between sniffs and weeping. She’d tell me the dream she just had, with as much detail as she could remember, till the first light of the day. We will share the burden, the fear and the scary dream. “They told me to kill myself; they said it would be okay if I did, I want it to stop but I don’t know how, Tolu. I don’t know how, I am afraid.” In between my assurances of okay and it will be fine, I will wonder why she had to be assaulted by such demons, I will wonder why these demons had to choose the one girl I had fallen for and how I am supposed to deal with this. Selfish.
There had been moments like this before, with other women. Women I had nothing in common with, women with high cheekbones and long necks, women with curves firmer than a python’s grip, women I fancied but couldn’t bring myself to talk to. Like Abiola, who told me one day that my face made her insides soften and asked if I would like to feel the moisture converging between her legs. I had never been with a woman at the time. I was curious but religious. I wanted my hands to travel her body down to the place she wanted them in. I wanted to watch her squirm, to know what my fingers would do to her. Instead, I stood before her and imagined my hands feeling her up, not just the place between her legs, but also her breasts, her neck and her ass. I imagined how soft they would be, the kind of moan that might escape her lips if I massaged them right and then I began to imagine the possibility of my hands finding places she wouldn’t want explored. It had been twenty seconds since her words and I stood suspended in a longing gaze before her. Then I felt her hands on my skin; the touch awoke me. I stared wordlessly at her. I tried to use my mouth but my voice betrayed me. So I collected all the men in me and ran. I ran like a man chased by demons. I ran breathless. I tore through the day one stride at a time and allowed the winds to take me home. When I arrived at my room, I entered and locked the doors. I climbed into my bed and imagined my hands trailing her body. I masturbated to the memory of what I should have done.
The first time I spoke with Ada I was intimidated by her freedom, by her boldness, and masqueraded it as being shy so I wouldn’t have to be around her. But she rolled my shyness like blunts and smoked it away. We had met in church and bonded over our interests in books and literature. Our second conversation would happen at a bus stop in Ikeja on a beautiful Lagos Sunday. I was waiting for the bus to ferry me to Ketu where I would get a cab to continue my journey home, she was waiting for the Uber she ordered. She had spotted me before I could turn and assume my pose of nonchalance.
“So you were going to pretend as if you didn’t see me!” she said. “Typical you.” I smiled an uneasy smile in response. What else could I do when I had been caught in the act. So we began our dance, because that was what it was. A dance around the obvious.
“You look very sharp today, Tolu. Nice suit.”
“You don’t look too bad yourself,” I replied. She smiled and patted herself and curtsied.
“Looking good is good business and you know, I am in the business of looking good, so you know, appearances matter.”
“Don’t be so modest.” I said.
“I wasn’t,” she replied. “I was being honest.”
We expanded the scope of our conversation that afternoon and flitted towards the territory of the personal. We asked each other clichéd questions in the variety of:
“How is a beautiful person like you single?”
“So, what quality would you seek in an ideal partner?”
“Do you like me?”
Before that Sunday expired we had conversed ourselves into a relationship, or something that had the semblance of one. Even after our respective means of transportation arrived, we continued texting and calling each other till the last light of the day. She told me she wanted to do right by this relationship and take it all the way. I didn’t object. It was convenient for me. I liked her enough. Then later, she said she wanted to have me for keeps, and I said okay. It seemed like she was saying the same thing in different ways; this was how I interpreted it. After it all went bust, I would query my decision not to have seen the warning signs from the beginning, because they had been there. She had written them in bold letters, yet I was too excited about the prospects of this glittering beautiful girl who I liked; I didn’t want to be bothered about anything else.
It didn’t take long for me to begin shedding myself, folding myself into different layers to accommodate her insecurities and her assumption that I was about to cheat on her with the next girl who smiled at me. It didn’t help we were both members of a church where relationships were monitored like clockwork and we had both sworn oaths of celibacy. Whenever I spoke to my friends about these problems I was having with her, they would tell me to have a sit-down with her and make a decision about this oath that wasn’t doing much for us. When I eventually took the advice, she became hysterical and broke up with me only to come back two days later to apologize. I wasn’t done with the relationship at the time, so I was excited when she called and we had a sit-down where we decided to keep our oath. With time I learned to measure my words and lie better. What I didn’t know at the time was that I wasn’t a model boyfriend; all I cared for was what I could get from the relationship. Although I pretended that I didn’t, I reveled in the attention she showered on me and the gifts and the endless surprises that characterized our time together. Ada invested so much in the relationship and I wore her out with my indifference, my insistence that my presence was all that was needed and nothing else.
When Shade left me, things I didn’t know existed escaped their leashes and assaulted me. I walked around as if my shadows were chasing me. I carried my sadness around like a teddy bear, hugged it, spoke to it as if it was alive. I sought succor in the familiar, the softness of breasts and the wetness of nether regions. I fucked around as if the best way to move on was by using my dick. But none of it mattered because I still missed her. I missed being present in her life, I missed spending time on the phone with her, hearing the cackle of her laughter, the bass of her voice when she defends herself when I tease her about the miniature size of her ass; I missed hearing her tell me about the stress of her day. So I reached out to her again with the pretense that I had momentarily forgotten the death of our relationship. I lied to myself that I was fine with the gift of friendship, the only thing she claimed she had to offer. One hot evening in front of her Lekki apartment, I wept like a child in the name of grand gestures. That night, she fucked me for pity’s sake. I felt the emptiness scream back at me as I held her when we came. The satisfaction on her sleeping face tricked me into hope. I wrote her flowery poems and begged for another chance, swore that I would divorce the depression she claimed I love more than her, begged and promised to be the version of me she fell in love with. I told her I would fold myself into the layers she needed me to be folded into. She listened as a mother tired of the truancy of her stubborn child would and said to me, “I don’t need you to be better for me, I am good enough for myself. I need you to be better for you, and then maybe we can try again.” It was at this moment, after the words had escaped the prisons of her mouth, that I recognized them for what they were. It was then I realized that the moment a relationship breaks is never the same time the idea of the breaking occurs.
The first day we met, we made love. A strange mix of sunlight and rain welcomed her to Abeokuta that afternoon as we negotiated the afternoon to my house. My body ached from the work I had done to make my house presentable for her arrival. The moment she walked into my room, she pulled me into a kiss. We tore at each other’s clothes as we kissed. She tasted like forever. We ate each other like greedy children stuffing their faces with dinner. Thunder and rain attended the event as witnesses as they pounded the windows of my room that evening. We stayed in bed for the rest of the night, hungry for food but hungry for each other more. Before the night expired, she said “I love you.” She must have assumed I was asleep. I didn’t move, I pretended as if sleep had claimed me but her whispers had triggered a debate in my head: Was this how people fell in love? What does she love about me? Is it because of the intensity of my strokes or the way I worshipped her body? The questions ping-ponged in my head till the first light of day intruded my room.
As we sat down for breakfast, I watched this girl, who I’d loved from afar for years, for the first time. Her skin was glowing with a milky fairness. She had a small face. She was daring in a way that I didn’t know she was. When she spoke, she would look me in the eyes and demand I respond the same way.
“I love you, Tolu.” The words came out of her lips softly with her eyes holding mine. “You don’t have to say it back.”
“I love you too, Shade.” I said it knowing that love was a feeling I had never felt before, a feeling I had not negotiated with myself yet. Knowing that if ever the day would arrive when I had to prove this love, I would fail – and this was what happened eventually. I failed her over and over. I failed because I was afraid her demons would tip her over and overflow into me. I failed because, well, just because. I would wonder years later, if perhaps had I been honest and untangled the emotions that coursed through me that morning, maybe if I had admitted the truth, perhaps we could have made it.
I once told my older sister about a decision I made never to get married, and I could see in her face a disappointment indescribable. She would go on to quiz me about my past relationships, the ones she knew about, the ones she thought would be worth something, and each answer I gave only took her to another level of disappointment. What she could have asked me might have been whether I thought I was good enough to marry someone else, and perhaps our conversation could have yielded something different. I am a monster with desires.