Like a Candlelight Struggling Against a Soft Breeze
The name of the shop is Yori Yori Beauty Palace. I often see it when I’m coming back from campus. It’s just around the corner, exactly opposite Dream Centre Church, AP Junction. This is low-key, unpopular opinion, but I think the owner, judging by that name, is not tush. In these times of WhatsApp businesses and online CEOs with no staff members or office except a dusty DM, owners go for names like GlambyZoé and Quartz Kollectionz. An Ọrẹ owns an Orel Perfumery. An Adéọlá, an Ade’ol Kickz.
A five-minute walk from my tenement, and I’m stepping over the street side drainage and into the shop already. The white interior of the shop makes up for the name—the shining surfaces and mirror smell of cleanliness mixed with hair chemicals. The well-polished furniture, as glossy as newly fixed nails, can only be new. Spacious enough, but not palatial as the name suggests. I bow my head a little as I say: Good afternoon, ma. The shop owner replies to my greetings. She’s probably in her late thirties. Her skin is bleached, and most of it looks like the back of an overripe banana. Her ears are covered in studs and earrings, and her flat lips are as dark as the afterlife. There are two girls in the room, the woman’s daughters. One is around seven or eight. The other is perhaps under thirteen.
I ask if I can get my ear pierced. Of course, she says. Sit down, biko. I settle into the chair before the large rectangular mirror. She stands up to me and is at once all business. She cleans and softens my left earlobe with wool dipped in surgical spirit. She then shoots a stud through it with a piercing gun. It’s not painful. You are a man now, she keeps saying when she sights my body slightly shaking. The older daughter has by now come closer. She provides whatever her mummy requests of her, from extra wool to shea butter. The younger daughter is no party to our business. She’s busy singing along to Naira Marley and fidgeting with a doll’s tattered hair. Before we are done, the lone stereo has belched out hit songs from Omah Lay, Tems, Rema and a host of new hit makers, and she has kept the stereo company, voicing every syllable of every song lyric. Have you done your homework, Jessica? Won’t you go and carry your books? the woman says but does not mean it. She enjoys her daughter’s towel brain that has absorbed so many lyrics.
The woman tells me to come by when passing so that she can apply ointment and shea butter to my newly pierced ear. I’ve told her I reside close by. With that, she releases me. I say my goodbye, especially to little Jessica, who, with the shape of her forehead and lips, softly reminds me of a darker Rihanna, high-fiving her newly baked, bread-like, soft palms. Jessica’s smile is gentler than the spirit-soaked wool in my ears. Out on the street, I walk into my barber’s a few shops away and get my blonde-tinted hair cut and dyed black; I do not want to be too loud. It’s bad for attention. Tinted hair and stud will just be too much especially on campus. Without the stud, I always wear caps, from baseball cap to head warmer, whichever fits the weather, to hide the hair.
I half run all the way to the tenement afterwards. I am quick to show my hostel mates who have been following my intention to pierce. According to them, it is nice, and it makes sense. The only thing is that they wish I had kept the blonde hair. I hop on the bed as soon as I get into my room, sit up with my back against the window curtain, take a selfie with a focus on the stud and send it to my WhatsApp status. I have blocked all family members from viewing my status, and my status viewership is highly restrictive, so, that is easy. I send it also, as an afterthought, to The Legit Tribe WhatsApp group chat. Comments stream in afterwards:
—Way 2 secy
—I’d luv to get dat 2
—What a beautiful boy!
—Why so VGL? Wow
That night, a smile burns at the edges of my lips like a candlelight struggling against a tender breeze, and my fingers rub around the stud till I sleep off.
Tell PartyNextDoor I’m Hitting TLT Before It Gets Dark
The Legit Tribe WhatsApp group chat is a safe space. It’s a large tent that protects us lost souls, as we jokingly call ourselves, the LGBTQ community on campus, from the sulfur-fueled hellfire of hatred. It’s highly inclusive and is a sphere of great learning. On matters of sexuality, my learning curve has risen higher than it did during my entire years in school. Sometimes, some guys would persuade us to opt for LGBTTQQIAAP (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Agender, and Pansexual) instead of just LGBTQ. And it is not a theoretical kind of lifestyle because I can point out tribe peeps who wear these identities like Christ’s crown of thorns, with pain but with victory in sight, optimistic to the very last cell in their body. Like me, though, most peeps over there are questioning, are finding and learning to be themselves. Well, isn’t that what living is, learning to be oneself till one is no more?
I joined TLT roughly about ten months ago. A classmate had sent me the link after seeing me recreate an outfit for Denrele, one of the popular cross-dresser TV hosts. It’s a male outfit—black suits, white inner shirt, black tie and black shoes. But the make-up, the ladylike mid-afro and the female hairline gave it a feminine touch. I recreated the outfit with heavier make-up and pinker lipsticks. R took some shots of me, and we uploaded a few of them on my WhatsApp status. A classmate saw some of the pictures not long after. He replied to the status with the TLT group chat link. He said, You’d better check this out. You’d like it, sissy. I changed it for the guy, called him names and eventually blocked him. But I joined anyways, only to find out that Israel, that’s the guy’s name, is a bona fide member of the group, an admin even.
In no time, Israel was on my matter. I’d unblocked him when I saw he must have not meant it when he called me sissy (he prolly said that to conceal his own identity, his own secret). Besides, he’s queer himself. So, he was on my matter, and my DM was littered with subtle advances. He soon found a way to arrange an outing for me at a bar. We would talk over bottles and rolls, he said.
It was an enclosed bar, which could have possibly been an underground club. I didn’t know how we got there. All I knew was that it was in Ife. About 50 people, loud drag queens, happy queer couples and all kind of free birds, gathered around the club’s porch. They were their happiest selves. I needed no one tell me that. In the back, a guy was arranging his gele pleats. Somewhere around the bar, another guy was checking his newly applied lipstick in his pocket mirror with a lesbian couple kissing behind him. A guy in batman’s costumes, without the mask but with the loudest makeup I’d ever seen, stepped behind a lone, spotlit mic with a box guitar. He was shy, but the cheering clearly pedalled his spirit. Soon, his ballad and the red light scanning the whole place started working off each other. It was an ordinary miracle, a touch of heaven.
Israel and I got a table. He ordered a tableful of alcohol and pepper soup. With the way he got a pat here, a handshake there, from the bouncers to virtually everyone who seemed big, I was beginning to realise how well-wired his connection must have been to be this known and loved. We got down to business immediately. His talk was simple. He was interested in me and wouldn’t mind helping me make money with my fine face. You be fine boy nah, he said. Would I mind? I didn’t know yet. He should probably give me some time to process everything.
When he’d spilled all his emotions and thoughts, he asked me for a dance. The batman guy was done with his ballad now, and loud pop music had started flying past our ears. Wizkid had joro-ed, Tekno had pana-ed, and Burna Boy was currently ye-ing. What was good music without good dance? And so, we danced. But it was after I had taken some cute selfies and uploaded on my status and TLT chat group with the caption: Baby boy is willing to die where the fun is.
After that outing, I would hear he was one of the owners of that place. R told me that. He, Israel, was doing well, obviously. He had a car, a Lexus. I didn’t know how he would do it, but he should be able to contribute funds for running the club as a joint owner. R said other things about him. The guy, R said, is a sugar baby to big politicians, old men, those hypocrites who signed the bill. He said, Where do you think he gets all those money from? All those cars, hun?
We were chilling at my hostel, in my room, seated at the edge of the bed. The smoke from his pinkie-size weed occasionally interjected between his words, creating a filmic feel, as though the moment had spilled out of a television screen. So subtle, so divine. And oh my, R can inhale. He smokes badder than a silencer. How do you know that? I asked. Info dey leak, guy, my guy said. Info dey leak, Mo. For real. I sighed and lit a new roll. R ceased speaking on the matter, and I cooperated—that was the last time we breathed a syllable about it, about Israel. He reached for his phone, busied himself with it. I could tell he was chatting with Rita, one of the girls in a sexual relationship with him—just sex, no strings attached. That boy isn’t just in for the long term. Between sex and weed, in fact, only God can tell which R loves the most. I read the room and grabbed my phone as well.
Queen Elizabeth Is Black
My earlobe isn’t healing fast. It still pains. Though I have been occupied with other things lately, I’ve dropped by the woman’s shop a few times already. Today, I phone the number painted above the door of the shop. She says she’s sorry. She’s at an urgent family function. Will I be able to give her an hour? I can go and come back since I live nearby. She won’t disappoint me.
I come back in about an hour and meet her at the shop. Ndo, my brother, she says when she sees me. I needed to be there. Biko, no vex. She cleans my stud with surgical spirit and applies shea butter around it as she tells me: You no fit change the stud now. E must heal first before you go dey wear earrings. Make e heal well, well.
I stay a bit longer after the treatment, busying myself with my phone and occasionally chatting with the woman and her customers. My ear takes longer to heal, and, gradually, staying back after my treatment becomes a habit. Most times, the woman’s daughters come back from school to meet me there. Jessica becomes friendly with me, and I help her with her homework. But that cycle does not last as it becomes consistently difficult to meet the woman at the shop until I have called. This, however, doesn’t affect the friendship Jessica and I have picked up.
I get there on a Wednesday for what is supposed to be the last treatment. It’s the same old story. When I call, the woman, in a strange voice I would never think of associating with her, proposes I come to her apartment. Though reluctant, I agree to go over. She stays at Parakin, in one of the many three-bedroom apartments built in a large compound, their outside walls unpainted. I meet a man coming out of her door. He’s a middle-aged man in brutally ironed senator outfits and a marching round cap. His butterscotch skin tone blends into the brown of his outfits. He stops the moment he claps his eyes on me, makes to say or do something, then gives up and finally leaves, looking back as he walks out so that my eyes meet his questioning eyes.
Thick marijuana fume anti-ed with lavender while the coolness of the aquarium blue walls and curtains engulf me as soon as I step into the sitting room. I meet her sitting on the three-seater couch. She’s Burna Boy-ing a thick roll really hard. A wisp of smoke rose up from the bluish ash. When I take my eyes off the smoke and focus on her face, I see a tear rolling down her left eye. Bawo ni, Uncle Mo? she says. Her voice is cracked. She must have been crying for a while. Aunty, what’s wrong? I get no reply. I take my seat beside her, still pressing her for an explanation about all this. She sighs and drops her head on my shoulder and settles deep into it, into all of this happening. She punctuates her talk with slow, long drags on her roll.
It was the world against her and her lover a few years ago. They met in school, Abia State Polytechnic, during their OND programme. They befriended each other, and they fell in love pretty soon. Things were hard, but they got by somehow; while she was doing menial jobs, he was studying hard so that he could write for them both during tests and exams. But she soon got pregnant by him and needed to drop out of school to focus on nursing the baby, and drop out she did.
A year after he finished the three-year programme, she was pregnant yet again. With two kids, things became harder, and they realised they needed a stronger support system. The man proposed they find ways to leave the country. He can leave first, he suggested. He would come back for his family so that they would all live as one happy family wherever they migrated to. And so, they started a trip-to-Canada savings mechanism and relocated to Lagos to find better work. The man opened a radio repairer’s shop, thanks to the skill he picked up from his dad while growing up, and she did runs at shady Lagos hotels several nights because, at one point, the menial jobs were not just enough to support the family.
After three years of blood, sweat and tears, the man landed in Canada. Once he got there, he completely disconnected himself from them. She tried all she could to reach him but to no avail. It took her a while before she could bring herself to admitting the man’s disappearance from her life, from her kids’ life. She worked a while in Lagos, as a sex worker, of course. When she had saved a bit, she relocated down here with the children and opened her shop. But she needed real money to afford a decent apartment and send her daughters to good schools so that they turned out better than her and she could live a modest life for the sake of her daughters at least. Hence, the erratic disappearance from the shop between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon—when the girls would be attending classes at school—to come home to do business with willing men.
I ask at the end of her talk, Why do you confide in me this much? She lifts her head from my shoulder and stares up at me. She says, I’m just tired. I needed someone to speak to. She kneels down between my legs afterwards. Confused, I try to talk but cannot, merely mouthing what I want to say. She unbuckles my belt and shifts down my jeans and boxer briefs and takes me in her mouth. Looking down at her as she throws her head down and up, up and down, it surprises me to think how much detail I have missed of her life all this while. Her to-die-for curve has only been hidden by her free-flowing gown, and she has those butts that are—like R would say—round and flat at the same damn time.
I-I have never done this before, I say when she’s done downtown. What do you mean? she says. I mean I do BJs and all. But I have never had sex before. The closest I ever came was with a guy. I don’t think I can stand ladies or, yunno, women.
Are you even straight? she says. Sorry, I don’t speak that language, I say. Hun? I don’t get that, she says. I’m human. What does it mean if I’m crooked or not? I reply. There’s a reason for calling a thing a thing, she says. Names are necessary. And I say, When it comes to calling, they are. But they aren’t when it comes to loving. I do not tag myself because I’m not trying to get called; I’m trying to get loved. Don’t worry, she says, you’re safe here. Be what you want to be without remorse, biko. I’m sorry, Aunty, I say. But I will always love you.
On my way home, I get a notification on TLT WhatsApp. A guy has been mobbed. There were two of them. Neighbours caught them having sex together. One escaped through the back door with just boxers on. The other, who is Israel, was beaten with nailed planks. It is not long before my screen is beclouded with tears. Incidentally, I have been making my mind up about Israel. I have been hoping to confront him with some burning questions so as to know which way to go with him. And now this!
I find R in my hostel room—he has a spare key to my room. He says he’s been waiting here as hopelessly as a criminal pronounced guilty because he has something to say. Honouring the dead, yunno. I ask, What do you mean? Why? And he says, All those things I said about Israel, they may not be true. I-I just got jealous. I’m so sorry. Wow, I say. I don’t get it. I can’t understand you. What do you mean? See, he says, standing up to me, I’m so sorry. I think I’m—he shuts his eyes and places his two hands on my shoulders—in love with you. And Rita? I ask. He says, I am bi, dude. What’s that? How long have you known that? I ask. As long as I have known you, man, he replies. Wow. You hid it this long? You aren’t judging me, are you? And then I say, No, bruv. We don’t do that in this church. Let the dead bury the dead. Besides, he said something about helping me make money with my fine face which means you might not be exactly, I mean, technically, lying. I take a breath and say, Oya, come to daddy.
I Am Fiercely Mo
The following morning, I call the woman to know if she’s at the shop. She’s there, just opening. Great. I go reach una soon. I need to get more piercings. I dey here for you, Mo, she says. When I get there, I get a second stud on my left ear, a nose ring on my left nostril and a stud in my lower lip, on the left. When she asks why go to that extent, I reply, I am being fiercely me, and she laughs. When she’s done with the piercings, I enter my barber’s shop and get my close-cropped hair tinted pink. On my way to my hostel, I exit TLT group chat, reset my WhatsApp status viewership to include everyone from family to the strangest of strangers on my CL. Then I take some selfies against the newly opened Airtel mini shop on my street and upload some of the shots up on my status with the caption: I am fiercely Mo.
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