As the Keke Marwa slows, I feel my heart quicken. The driver gestures impatiently at the quaint building that stands beyond an ornamental metal picket fence, heralded by a modern cyclic driveway, a curved mustache rising to meet the mouth of the building.
“Na here?” I feel a little stupid for asking.
The Keke driver grunts and revs the engine, the Keke spurts forward a few inches. I look at him askance, nod and crawl out onto the street. There’s music, loud and raucous, echoing disrespectfully against the even older buildings that look up at the City Hall like wizened, resentful relatives. I’d heard about Lagos Island , I mean everyone has, but all I’d been told pales in comparison to actually standing on the same pavement suffragettes walked, waiting in paved streets that bleed history into the air, purifying it somehow. Hundred year old buildings here are modern without the garishness of the high-rises of Lekki. They look like they’ve settled in for the long haul, committed to the task of outliving me, the way they outlived the people who built them.
It’s hard not to feel small and irreverent.
I dial your number and put the phone to my ear. When the line clicks on the other end I can barely hear you over the din.
“Took you long enough.” You say. You never bother with pleasantries.
“You didn’t tell me the party was going to be in City Hall!” I reply, trying not to sound whiny.
I can hear you frown on the other end. “But… I did.”
I hate that you always make me sigh.
“I know,” I concede, “but when you said “City Hall”, I didn’t think you literally meant City Hall.”
There’s a pause, then the din softens. I think you’ve realized that I’m stalling.
“Okay I’m outside now, where are you?” You ask.
“At the gate,” I mouse whisper, “just looking at the number of cars parked here is making my skin crawl.”
You laugh, “God, you’re hopeless. I’m waiting for you, downstairs, outside. Just follow the music.”
The music isn’t hard to follow. It beats like a foreign pulse in the death-like silence of the district. You stand outside the doors, a massive canvas poster of a posed woman behind you. She is the one they’re celebrating, ‘a life well spent’. Even the bad print job does nothing to dull the intensity of her glare.
You are nothing like your Twitter and yet it is you, the person I’ve spent the last year unravelling. You’re taller than I’d expect but the kind that doesn’t announces itself till we stand shoulder to shoulder. You’re wearing your hair in braids, piled on top of your head. A slightly faded denim dress sits languidly on your shoulders, layered over a plain cream t-shirt. But there is none of the easiness that seemed to come so naturally to you online. The person before me is a cat walking a narrow ledge, your spine so taut I’m afraid if you stand any straighter, you might break.
You watch me watch you, your face glazed over. I don’t know if I’m allowed to proceed. Then you grin and take my arm.
“I really should have asked you to come by three, these people are somehow about unoccupied tables.”
Inside the grand lobby of City Hall, framed by a wooden wall of grotesques is a hive of uniformed servers and caterers, screaming over each other as they expertly balance trays on both hands. It feels like someone transplanted a buka here to mess with me. They barely notice as you dip mid-stride and swipe two bottles of Orijin from the crates arranged in rows on the floor. You laugh when you see the horror on my face.
“Jeez! Suswam, chill.”
There are bouncers at the door, round as barrels, their muscled side pushing their arms into an eternal akimbo. I am convinced they will bounce me, but you flash them a quick smile and distribute the bottles with ease that suggests you’ve done this before. They hail you by name, Maima, before they part to let us in.
I feel like Alice in Wonderland, slipping through unreal worlds just behind unremarkable doors. Purple lighting bathes the walls inside the banquet hall, turning them a pretty lilac. The light is so forgiving, the women and men crowded around the gilded tables have at least a decade shaved off their years. With how old they are, that decade is a mercy. You lead me past women in their sixties with clawed hands, consumed with gossip and oblivious to the gold plated cutlery laid out before them. The men are not much better; many have pushed their chairs out into the aisles between the tables to give their Agbada swathed bellies space to fill as their belly laughs echo against the dome ceiling. At the banquet hall’s centre is a portable dance floor where the youngest thrust and wiggle to passable covers of Sir Victor Uwaifo.
The clink of spoons, punctuated by chatter and the odd argument feels right, as does the reams of uniform acid green lace these people wear, washed out to a pale neon by the unsettling lighting. The sombre part of the funeral is gone and with it the mourners. The people who remain have no time for quiet contemplation.
I tug at your arm just as we get to our ‘table’; chairs set against the far end of the room, right beside the live band.
“How do you know the people doing this? God knows I’ve looked and there is no one here under 45!”
You smile at me mysteriously, and secrete a bottle of champagne from under one of the seats.
“You said no one ever takes you anywhere fun. Well have you been anywhere like this before?”
You give me a pointed look and thrusts the bottle into my hand. I look at my watch. it’s nearly 9pm.
“Can you babysit that for me?”
You don’t wait for an answer before you flit into the heart of the party and return moments after, two gilded goblets in hand. A wicked smile illuminates your face, and I see, finally, why everyone falls in love with you. There is ice in the bottles, the kind made to last, and you smirk as you pour out libations, filling our glasses.
We polish off the first bottle, you with the muscle memory of a veteran, me in panicked gulps. By the time we reach half of the second, I don’t even pause to worry when you lean in and whisper in my ear.
Only the hardcore partiers remain, the 40 year old housewives glad to find some relief from the monotony of their lives and daddies hanging perilously to their lost youth. The younger crowd, have drifted off elsewhere, whispering of an after party. The champagne sings in my head, warming my ears and freeing my limbs. The live band has made way for the DJ and talking drum bearing praise singers circle the patrons, thrusting bowls in their faces as they sing out Oriki. We dodge them, dancing out of reach as they approach. It is a fun game, one that sweetens as the patrons tire and leave. When we are down to ten people you grab my hand and we flee, laughing as we run, into the women’s bathrooms.
I am sober enough to realise I shouldn’t be here and make for the door, but you catch me just in time, and drag me into one the stalls with you. The door clicks shut and I feel it through my anxiety and the alcohol, tension singing in our blood. You reach into my drained goblet, fish out a chip of ice, put it on your tongue. Even I know what happens next.
“You kiss like you’re lapping up milk from a plate,” you say, smirking as we come up for air. “Why do you do that?”
I am stumped for answers so I say, “I… I don’t have rhythm?”
You laugh, push me onto the closed toilet seat and lower yourself onto my lap.
“Relax.” You say, finishing the sentence by closing your lips on mine. So I do, I stop trying and let you work. There is a rhythm to you. Urgent then not. Hesitant and voracious. Ambivalent. I am embarrassed by my erection, growing against the under of you. I can’t think, it feels like my body can’t decide where to devote its energies so it glitches.
A loud rap on the door startles us.
“Who dey there?”
You scramble off me, and smack my crotch.
“Pain, will make it go away.” You whisper to me, smiling apologetically.
“Who dey there?” The person asks again.
You tiptoe to the door, peek through the slat between it and the frame.
“I dey change pad!” You yell.
Whoever is on the other end doesn’t seem convinced, but they don’t push.
“Them say tissue don finish. New one dey the sink.”
“I don hear.” You yell back and wait for the telltale creak of the door closing shut.
You grab my arm, pull me to my feet. “Time to go,”
I check my watch, a few minutes to midnight.
Meekly we exit the stall and find the worker, a girl a little older than me waiting in the powder room. She tsk’s and goes into the bathroom herself roll of tissue in hand, probably unwilling to trust us with something that simple.
The hall is nearly empty.
The purple lights are off and harsh white fluorescent bulbs hum in their stead. You head straight for the half bottle of champagne left and swig, only half heartedly offering it to me once. I am sobering, so I refuse. The bottle empties and you drape yourself over my shoulders and sway to no music. I notice then there is a hole in the corner of your t-shirt, aged at the edges. The hem is frayed too, the cream of the shirt from age rather than design.
There are bags under your eyes too, darkness pooling in their crevices. You hold my gaze, really hold it, long enough that it goes from romantic to uncomfortable. I know I’m supposed to say something, the vacuum demands to be filled but every thought that floats to the surface is stupid, or whiny. The moment passes and your hands drop, and your favorite mask coalesces, tilting your lips into a grin.
The tables are a trove; and you rifle through the detritus, picking up baubles. I join at first, but I am terrible at discerning what is of value so I stop and shadow you instead. A third bottle of Champagne, barely opened is the night’s big prize.
“Maims!” We look up to see one of bodyguards, gesturing to his wrist. I look at my watch, 12:50am.
“You have to go right?” You ask, watching me.
“Yeah, we do.”
The caterers are gone when we leave the banquet, the space they filled now forbiddingly empty. The guards, once friendly, now glare at her.
“You code pass this one now,” one says to her, “you suppose don ex comot for here by now. You fuck up oh.”
You mumble an apology and hustle us out of the foyer before they realize I am not an invited guest. A look passes between you and them that worries me. Outside you make us stop so you can catch your breath then we walk to the gate and wait while I call an Uber.
“Where are you going, maybe we can drop you off halfway or something.” I offer.
You smile that cryptic smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure, its not safe to be out alone this late.”
You glance surreptitiously at the road, and then at the car icon on my Uber app. It is perilously close to our location.
“Your driver is almost here.” You say, with barely veiled relief.
I realize then that I am not ready to let the night end, so I ask instead.
“Are you hungry?”
You don’t answer, you just open the passenger door and climb into the Uber.
The drive is quiet. The driver is a newbie to Lagos and the maps have tricked him enough that he doesn’t trust them. You provide directions instead, while I sit quietly, trying to not to think too deeply of the evening’s happenings. It’s 1:30 and you swear Road Chef is the only place open at this time with decent food. It is empty when we arrive and there’s nothing I particularly like on the menu so I order a milkshake. You skim through the small menu the server finds for you when you tell him you can’t read the overhead menu, and your face falls. I ask the waiter for a triple burger and fries in a takeaway pack and pay with my card.
“It’s for you.” I say. “I’ll worry if I don’t see you eat something.”
You take the pack, but you don’t say ‘thank you’. I don’t expect you to, you never bother with pleasantries.
When I pull up my Uber app the driver who brought us here is the one that comes up when I request a ride. We wait outside Road Chef, in that awkward place between tipsy and sober.
“Where do you live, Maima?”
The app announces the driver is arriving when the question just escapes me, like word vomit.
“Not far.” You say.
“Obalende? Dolphin? Lekki?”
I can see the yellow glare of my driver turning the corner.
“Don’t worry Suswam, I can take care of myself.”
“Just tell me,” I plead as the Uber stops in front of us, “I won’t be able to relax if I don’t know for sure you got home safe.”
You open the door, looking at me. I reluctantly climb in and the driver starts the ride. Suddenly you push your head through the passenger window and find my lips. There’s no alcohol or adrenaline behind this kiss, just intent. My lips sting after.
“Thank you, for today.”
I watch you in the rear-view mirror, shrinking till you disappear. A lump grows in my throat, my palms grow sweaty. It takes a second for me to realise I’m having a panic attack. I look back, I know it’s futile but I try. The street is empty, there’s no one.
I will never see you again.