“One day the river will overflow.
And there’d be no where for us to go.
And we would run wishing we had put out the fire.”
Asa’s Fire on the Mountain.
IN HER FINAL days, Nelo used to tease me saying I would have her close by if I poured her ashes to serve as manure for the mango tree we had planted earlier this year. That fantasy never materialised into reality – her siblings crushed my dreams to dust as they thumbed through the pages of Holy Scripture to say cremation was sinful.
“She lived a sinful life,” her brother seethed at me through clenched teeth and eyes filled with disdain. “At least, let us help her do something right.”
Luisa and Ifeanyi, our last guests, left as twilight came. Diana and I were the only inhabitants of the house that had been home to three of us for thirty-one years. I still think Nelo is around sometimes. The bags under Diana’s eyes intimated me on how Nelo’s passing dealt a cruel punch to her. The past two weeks were a rollercoaster of many contrasting emotions.
“Ma,” she placed her head on my breasts as we stood in the sitting room. “Will you be fine?”
“Yes, baby,” I muttered into the curly locks of her hair and pressed my lips lightly against her temple. Time paused to stare at us as we clung on to each other. In that moment, we were not mother and daughter. No, we were two people seeking solace in each other.
She broke the hug and held me at arm’s length to gaze lovingly at me, “I miss her so much.” Tears were moistening her dark eyes. She was trying so hard to get it together.
Gingerly, I stroked her cheek with my knuckles and impulsively, a contrived smile formed on my lips, “We miss her.” Seconds of pregnant silence ticked by and I increased my grip on her arm. “You should sleep,” I whispered. Without another word, she let go of me.
All week, I built a dam that held back my tears. I wanted to be strong for Diana. But in doing this, my tears gathered to form a river. Seeing her walk away from me reminded me of Nelo and my tears threatened to burst the dam.
Trudging to the mantelpiece, I picked the frame with Nelo’s picture. She was thirty-four at the time – young, ebullient, beautiful, feisty. It was one of those random pictures I took of her that turned out good. With the frame clutched to my chest, I lumbered into our bedroom. Looking at her pillow, sadness made my heart swell. So heavy was its weight on my chest that I staggered and I collapsed on her side of the bed in a heap. I sobbed into the pillow. In doing that, I inhaled her scent – it was sweat mingled with lavender.
The mall was noisy that Friday afternoon and there I was taking a picture of her as she walked ahead of me.
Turning on the balls of her feet, she saw me holding my phone and with a certain look in her eyes, she walked to close the distance between us. “Are you snapping me?”
In reply, she shook her head with a smile, “You can’t even lie.” Taking my hand, she steered us towards a shop, “I want you to pick a scent for me from this perfume people.” Leaning into me, she whispered, “It’s your girlfriend-y duty.”
She loved the perfume so much it became her scent until she passed on.
TWO WEEKS AFTER my 27th birthday in October 2014, my boss insisted I followed her for an interview she had at a radio station somewhere in Ikeja.
On getting there, I saw a tall vision clothed in black standing before the audio console. Carefully, I took her in. I must have stared hard at her that she felt my gaze drill a hole in her back. The moment she turned to talk to us, I became a bumbling fool. Stringing words together became impossible – my IQ had taken a nose-dive to the depths of idiocy.
I was awestruck.
That was how I stalked her on social media for five months. In the day, I spun fantasies of us together and at night, my subconscious brought her to me through dreams. Unable to take it anymore, I threw my fears out of the window – fear that she would snub me. I contacted her.
I was astounded at how sweet and nice she was. One thing led to another and we were at a bar in Ikeja after work hours.
“I was totally scared you’d be mean to me.” I blushed and gushed. I was fifteen once more.
“Why? It’s the 21st century; women are getting nicer to each other.”
“You think we have stopped competing?” I inquired.
“We’re expected to be naturally… competitive,” she replied.
“When you repeat a lie, it becomes the truth. It’s socialisation. Being friendly to another human doesn’t mean you’re sexually attracted to them. People are weird. They confuse friendliness for flirting.”
She scoffed, “Humans are narcissistic. That’s why they think the universe was created for them alone. Humans believe animals were made for them to use…”
In that moment, the ground beneath me gave way and I fell into her. In all our years together, nothing broke my fall. I loved her deeply despite her flaws and faults.
Initially, she was engaged to a work colleague at the radio station and whenever she turned down my idea of a hangout because she was seeing him, it felt like someone stabbed me in the gut and I thought I would die from the hurt.
All that changed one evening in June 2015 when she came over to my place unannounced. Opening the door, I saw her all puffy-eyed, with bruised lips.
“He beat me,” she sputtered before breaking down. Without any thought, I wrapped my arms around her neck. With her clinging to my body, we walked to the loveseat close to the window.
She bawled profusely and all I did was rub my palm on her back to soothe her. “Let’s lie in the room,” I whispered close to her ear. She leaned away from me and vigorously shook her head. I moved us to the cold floor lest we dozed off on the chair.
“Nicolette,” I was startled because she never called me that. “You love me?”
I swallowed at that. Was she so stupid to see I was head over heels in love with her?
“Do you?” She prodded.
“Yea, yea…” I tried to sound offhanded.
“Thanks,” her voice sounded hoarse. “That means a lot.” Not long after that, her breathing had become relaxed, peaceful.
The next morning, when I reached out to touch her, I felt the cold, hard tiles instead. She was gone! All my efforts to reach her line wound up in futility. Worried, I called her fiancé and it was not funny. He claimed he knew I had a thing for her. On and on, he raved and threatened to report me to the police.
I felt threatened for the first time in my life
At the time, the Nigerian federal government had signed the anti-gay bill into law. What amused me about this law was everyone was guilty in the real sense. “Anyone that engages in sexual activities against the order of nature…” Most people engaged in oral and anal sex; these were deviant sexual acts. Some people engaged in paedophilia in whatever guise. We were all guilty of breaking that law. Still, I was petrified. Thinking he had beaten her for my sake made me sink.
Two weeks of muddling through life with sadness sitting on my shoulder went by before Nelo called to say she wanted to see me.
Seeing her at my doorstep that Friday evening melted the anger, frustration, and sadness I bottled up. She did not wait for me to turn around from locking the door; she pulled me into an embrace and kissed me.
How cruel of her! So many emotions were whirling within me and she did not give me time to organise my feelings.
What started as frenzied kisses culminated into series of orgasms. We clung on to each other until the wee hours of the following morning. Jocosely, I asked, “What are we?”
In response, she silenced me with a feathery kiss on my lips, which made my head spin and I imagined I was floating. Gently, she twisted the curls of my afro while smiling into my eyes.
Disappointment hit me in the gut on realising that I had been another girl’s experiment. Once is a mistake, twice is stupidity, and thrice is madness worthy of chastisement. I deserved chastisement.
Sitting up with my elbows propped on the bed, I inquired in a voice devoid of humour, “Chinelo, what are we?”
“You ask too much questions. Let’s bask in the moment,” she drawled. Something about the way she said it made me feel used.
“Basking you say? I’m not a lizard; there’s nothing to bask.” With that, I rolled off the bed and stormed off to the sitting room.
“Nicky!” She hurried after me and caught me by the arm. “Nicky, stop.” Her hand cupped my chin and gently, she brought me to face her. Searching her eyes, I saw the earlier playfulness replaced by something more sombre. Words caught in my throat and I looked away. “Nicky,” she held my chin again. “I’m confused. I don’t know anything anymore.”
I was beyond livid. “Wait, you’re confused and you felt the way out of your confusion was fucking? Fuck this!” So repulsed was I that I yanked my arm away from her grip thereby making her nails scratch my arm. I did not know which hurt more – she breaking my heart or my bruised arm.
“Nicky, please, I don’t want us to stop being friends. I want you in my life.”
I had not moved two steps when I felt her breasts pressed into my back. It felt sinfully delicious. I did not want her to let go. Nevertheless, I had to do what was right even though my heart would bleed. “Well, I want more than that,” I pried myself from her arms. “You don’t have sex with someone, who you know has feelings for you, and think things would go back to the way they were.”
We stared at each other in silence. A space materialised between us, pushing us away farther from each other, as each second ticked by. Nothing could close that space. I was scared. I was hurt. I was angry. I was disappointed. I was tired. I was in love. I was in lust. I was hopeless. I was desperate.
Few minutes later – few heartbreaking silent minutes later, I watched her leave my apartment.
Every day, I called her line. It never went through – she blocked my number. That blow sent me reeling and spinning. I thought I would lose my mind and do something bizarre. In turn, I deleted her number and blocked her on all social media platforms to save myself from the temptation of contacting her.
It was not until October 2016 I heard from her.
At her request, we met up at the same bar we met the first time. Seeing her after so many months made it seem like she had gotten prettier than the last time I saw her. She was thinner, paler… All those months apart hurt her, same way I was hurt. Good.
“I was confused,” she said. “I was feeling so many things for a girl and I had my fiancé and I was fucked up inside and out.”
Without any trace of emotion, I asked her, “And the sex?”
“I wanted to be sure I was feeling what I was feeling and I was feeling things, Nicky.”
My reply was silence. Because it is a form of communication where the receiver projects his/her thoughts, silence tells one what one desperately wishes to hear – it says a lot while saying so little.
“You’re quiet,” she muttered and nervously licked her lips.
“You want me to say something. You never said anything when I needed you to say something. Why should I say anything?”
She reached across the table and I saw her well-manicured long, slender fingers clasp mine and as before, I felt that jolt I did most times she touched me in the past. That second, I knew I was going to forgive her.
“Please,” Nelo’s voice dropped to an earnest whisper as I saw her eyes moisten.
“Are you going to cry here? It doesn’t fit you, abeg.”
“Baby, please,” she squeezed tighter. Baby. That was a first.
“Okay, I’ve heard. What do you want?”
“I want an ‘us’”. She did not wait for my question to fall on the table.
“I want to be with you, Nicky.”
“Okay,” I shrugged.
I smiled at her, “I’ve loved you since the first day I met you at the studio, you know? I can’t hurt you. But you hurt me bad. Why?”
I spent the night at Nelo’s and we talked about everything there was to talk about. She told me there was no point being with someone else when I was there. When I asked about how she intended to cope with the marriage talk from people, she simply stated, “It’s not by force to do something you don’t want to do. It’s not as if my unmarriedness is going to pinch anyone. Companionship, right? I will have that with you and I’ll be happy. Marriage is a commitment. If you say you’ll be committed to me right now, and I say the same thing, it practically becomes marriage. Reminds you of Ruth and Naomi? ”
Her Ruth and Naomi analogy sounded zany that day; however, it made sense as the years rolled by.
That was the beginning of our life together. She gave me the best thirty-four years of my life.
Nelo and I had friends that knew we were in a “real” relationship. We should have left the country, but for some reason, we decided to stay behind.
We got an apartment together. But it was much of a hassle. I remember how we went to a house agent.
On getting to his office, he gave us a warm welcome. Hanging on the beige wall above his head, was a crucifix. I took him in and I was flung into despair. My instincts told me he was one of those religious zealots even without seeing the finger rosary or the miniature statue of the Blessed Virgin on his desk. Although this was not the first time we would hear the question, he asked if we were sisters. To this, we sniggered and replied in the negative.
“Why do two fine, young girls want to get an apartment? Won’t you get married in two years? You can’t be less than 30,” he jutted his chin in my direction.
Once more, Nelo and I chuckled. For some reason, people always thought I was older than my age. “I’m not close to 30, sir.”
“Ah!” He peered at me.
“We just want an apartment,” Nelo spoke up with a mean, patronising – almost condescending – smile. “We are friends and we want to contribute money to get an apartment. It’s our business to bother if we are getting married or not. Your business is to get us an apartment.”
There went my girl!
“Well,” the man sat back in his capacious armchair whilst placing his clasped hand on his corpulent belly, “I don’t think the landlord is willing for two women to stay together. We’ve had cases like this and the men that visited them were too much that it became a case. One woman alone is trouble. Two would be disaster.”
“Are you insinuating that we-”
“What he meant to say is that,” I squeezed her thighs under the desk to interrupt her knowing she was about to blow a gasket, “the landlord doesn’t want single people.”
Nelo laughed devoid of any trace of amusement, “He called us prostitutes because we are not married.”
She turned to him, she was taking deep breaths and her nostrils flared. “You called us prostitutes.”
She stood and I did the same. Lord, I was scared for him. This woman was anything but diplomatic, “You are one of the problems we have in Nigeria. All you backward ignoramus.” That mean laugh escaped her mouth and she went on, “You are holding on to culture, right? How can you be the upgraded version of your ancestors when you have refused to upgrade from the beliefs they held on to?”
The man was astounded. That did not stop Nelo, “Look around your office; Jesus and Mary everywhere. Your Jesus never discriminated against people. See you discriminating because we are not married.” She looked at me and muttered, “He’s a problem.” At that, she left the office.
I was too bewildered to move. When I found my voice, I apologised to the man. That was how our dynamic. Nelo was the vocal one; I was the quiet one. Sometimes, I felt being a “Radio Donna” contributed to her being so feisty. You should have heard her talk about politics on her breakfast show.
After failed attempts, we decided to get an apartment in Nelo’s name. Even at that, it was difficult. Everyone, save the last landlord, thought a single woman was irresponsible.
Our house was somewhere in Lekki. For some reason, people on the Island were more open-minded in comparison to people that lived on the mainland. I assumed money made people mind their business. Miserable, insecure people judge and condemn others as an escape mechanism out of their sorrows – they want people to feel as miserable/insecure as they are. Money is a distraction.
At a point, I imagined some of our neighbours knew we were a couple. Were they “forgiving” because we were women? Would they have been this clement if it were men? I guess it boils down to sexual objectification. The concept of two women together is pleasing to some people. Sometimes, we got jokes from some of our male friends that they would love to watch us have sex.
There was an instance Nelo and I sat with a married couple at an event. Somehow, “The Talk” came up.
“Homosexuals are against God,” he shrugged at us. “Look at Sodom and Gomorrah. See what God said in Leviticus. They are disgusting.”
“How is love irritating you? Anyway, you are clean-shaven,” I smiled. “Leviticus says you should not apply razor to your beards.” I pointed at his plate, “I can bet there is crayfish in this catfish pepper soup. Do you know Leviticus 11:9-12 says you should not eat catfish ad crayfish?”
He was dumbfounded. Nelo giggled at him, “By the way, the sins of Sodom were mentioned in Ezekiel 16: 48-50. Those are the sins we have normalised in Nigeria. And what did Jesus say about it?”
“But they are stopping the propagation of the human race,” he blurted when he saw he was losing his argument.
“God allows disasters.” Nelo raised her glass of white wine to eye level, tilted her head, and smiled meanly at him before taking a sip. She licked her lips and said, “God allowed genocides in the past. He’s the one stopping the propagation. Not everyone wants biological kids. Besides, you use condoms. Did you know the withdrawal method is against the bible? Read up “Sin of Onan.”
He chewed the insides of his mouth and added, “The constitution says fourteen years…”
“It says fourteen years for sodomy.” Pointing her fork at him and his wife, she taunted, “I bet you two have anal and oral sex. Have you even read that law? The best place to hide things from a Nigerian is in a book. What a shame!”
Impulsively, I pinched her thighs under the table – she was going too far. “She’s just stating her point,” I explained. “That’s what lawyers do.” I laughed and she joined in. Soon, his quiet wife joined in. As laughter is contagious, he joined in.
Life is a coin. There were days we were so in love we felt we could fly, leave earth, and touch stars and there were days our relationship was a cauldron cooking a melange of all the negative emotions you could fathom.
It is a thin line between confidence and arrogance; Nelo crossed it with reckless abandon! She was so confident and bossy and overbearing that it seemed her will was more powerful than mine was. I remember a major fight we had. Imagine living in the same house with someone and not talking for two weeks.
“How do you pick blue for Diana’s room?” I yelled after her as she walked into our room.
“What is wrong with blue,” she did a pirouette to stare me down as I got into the room. Her voice was so cool, so condescending and annoying.
“Everything!” The anger in my chest burst through that yell. “That’s what you always do. We’d agree on something then you turn around and do something else. Every time, Chinelo. Doesn’t my opinion count or what?”
That blank gaze she gave annoying people shrunk me.
“Now, you are staring? Chinelo, really. You’ve crossed a major line.”
“Why are you making an issue out of this? We can always repaint it.”
“It’s not just this!” I blurted as I smacked the wall. She flinched with her brows furrowed and mouth agape. I was pleased she was startled, but hid it. “It’s every time we agree on something and you do the opposite. You don’t respect me.”
Nelo did not say anything. I needed her to pull me into a hug, apologise, and tell me she wasn’t going to ignore my opinions again. Instead, she was unapologetic and to spite me, she left the house to return later in the evening.
Although we lived in the same house, Nelo was too proud to say sorry. We stopped sleeping together. She would wake in the morning and she would go about as if I was not there. Even though I heard her talk on air every morning, it was not my Nelo. I missed hearing her talk so much that I began to long for those moments she made phone calls. It did not seem as though my silence, my distance hurt her. Was there someone else? That was how some marriages collapsed – they stopped talking and someone cheated. I questioned my choice for deciding to be with her.
One day, I came home to find grinning. “I understand that I was wrong,” she started. “But I didn’t know you were going to take it out of proportion. Is it the pregnancy hormones?”
“Is this how to apologise to someone? You’re an idiot,” I was irked.
“I know I’m your idiot,” she smiled goofily and my heart melted. She was annoying and adorable in one breath and it was inundating. “I got ice cream and cake.”
“You don’t play fair!” I could not feign anger – I burst into hearty laughter.
That was how we made up and made out on the couch.
Nelo was not perfect, but she was the best person I ever met. One of the many things I’m grateful for is our daughter, Diana. Although we were not anti-adoption, we freaked out at having a “strange” baby. Our friend, Dipo, helped us out.
There were times Diana felt strange for having two mothers, but time and travelling to the US and UK for vacation made her understand nothing was wrong. Honestly, she didn’t miss anything.
Nelo and I also made sure she schooled out of Nigeria to save her from being taunted by children of homophobes. No one is born prejudiced – people learn prejudice. We teach children all forms of prejudice. We could have left the country; however, we decided to stay. Maybe we could have done something to contribute to the betterment of the country. Nigeria was so bad that we had institutional corruption.
When we were younger, everyone was venting and ranting. On a bus, on a queue, on social media… we all ranted. Nevertheless, our rants amounted to nothing.
Some of us got married under pressure. Most were miserable, but could not leave. There is strength in numbers. How were we ever to achieve human rights for gay people if we were cowering? They lied to their spouses, they lied to everyone, while marinating in misery. They thought they were a minority, not knowing we were a majority. There were lawyers, doctors, writers, painters, engineers, teachers, clergymen… brilliant Nigerians that had to pretend and live lies. All that pretext for a messed up country that celebrated corruption!
We had time, yet we did nothing. The country is damaged! Nevertheless, some young voices are speaking up and I support them in every way I can. There was fire on the mountain; we did nothing about it. Now, that the river has over flown its banks, most of us live with regrets. We could have done something, but we did not. There were moments I imagined killing all the old people in power that people below forty would get into power. Besides, we were hypocritical, too. We were running to countries that had same values we were opposed to.
THE NEXT MORNING, I woke up to Asa’s Eye Adaba playing in the sitting room. Nelo loved that song.
The song reminded me of my lover, best friend. Society tells you to marry your best friend, but not that best friend. Why could people not get that loving someone was not all about sex? The deepest unions, friendships turn out to be the ones without sex. Our soul mates could be anyone – father, mother, siblings, best friends, teachers, grandparent, neighbour. Anyone. We are falling in love with the mind, not the body, not the genitals. Love can come from anywhere, with anyone. Some people were comfortable with rape, with people forcing their sexual urges on others. But when it came to two adults consenting to be together, they lashed out. The hypocrisy was stifling us and we let it.
When it got to the interlude where the flute played, I remembered different faces of Nelo laughing at a prank or joke. I laughed and shook my head at those memories. It was like she was there with me. Last two weeks, she told me, “Baby, death isn’t the end. It was beautiful doing life with you and in another life; I’ll do life with you. Thanks for doing life with me. And trust me, ghosts are real. I’ll be here watching you and Diana. You can imagine I’m going on a long trip and you’ll meet me later. I love you, Nicky. I do.”
I smiled at that and hope, like water trickling into an empty kettle, filled me up while listening to Asa.
“Morning has broken and it is well with me.”