A small white plastic box gasps every two minutes over my head, perfuming the air with each dying breath. He barely notices it but I discreetly steal glances, hoping to catch it breathe. I suspected things like this exist but I never realised they were in Lagos, in my Lagos.
“… it’s sad.”
I look up at him, smile. He’s been talking almost non-stop since we got here. I should be listening but everything else seems far more interesting. The waiters speak three languages and their shirts barely crease when they lean in to pour water into crystal glasses. Like the one on my left that catches the light and twinkles, reflecting it back to me.
“It really is.” I say, and touch his hand.
He looks down at my fingers, and up at me and I withdraw my hand slowly, as though his wrist is the belly of a snake. He laughs.
“You should see your face right now.”
I look around, at the other occupied tables, away from him. The two white couples seem not to notice we are there. They laugh and sort expertly through the clutter of spoons and forks as they eat, dabbing lips with napkins and drinking dark wine that sloshes around in glasses with wide bowls. I find that my extensive vocabulary seems insufficient to describe this place.
I tell him so and he laughs, out loud.
“RSVP is actually modest o! What will you now say if we go to Oriental?”
I laugh and nod as though I know what he is talking about and hold off wondering what a place more opulent than R.S.V.P must look like. Even though calling a place Oriental is like calling a place Negroid, doesnt really mean anything.
He asks me to tell him about books and I do, the one that I am writing, about a girl that lives on a city built on rivers but is terrified of water.
I shake my head, and explain to him that this city is more like a shanty, held up by rotting wooden stilts and that that sometimes fish bubble up to the surface, killed by the dirt and sewage that turns the water the green of dark forest. I tell him the girl’s fear comes from watching her mother disappear in the water, taken by the mami wata that the old people swear govern the waves.
I finish and he scrunches his nose.
“… so a dystopian Venice.”
I start to explain and then fatigue barely held at bay rolls over me and I shrug and say, “Yup, a dystopian Venice.”
I dont mention anymore that the book is sort of autobiographical. I dont have to, the downside of being on a full scholarship in a private school is that every fundraising dinner at the end of the semester, I get paraded in my school uniform in front of my classmates rich parents as a ‘success’ story.
“…most boys in his situation from Makoko and other slums in Lagos end up on the street in gangs or doing sex work. He is a shining example of the life your donations can give. For now, our scholarship is purely academic, but we can do more…”
They gasp in their finery, trying to imagine me in the shadows under Ojuelegba bridge, a gaunt corpse dimpling the skin over someone’s ribcage as they empty their pockets. I smile and pretend I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
It usually takes a month into the next term before everyone loses interest in me. Except him.
The hardwood ceilings echo as one of the white couples stand from their table after settling their bills and skirt by our table on their way out. Perfume lingers in their wake and my stomach rumbles.
Under my catholic school tie and pressed shirt, my stomach is a far away land that I have detached from. I thumb the menu in front of me pretending to listen to her, to understand what the fancy words in the menu describe, ignoring the persistent gnawing in my abdomen. I pretend not to hear my stomach rumble. I want to savor this moment, where I am just a boy from a catholic school where everyone wears a uniform hanging out with the closest thing I have to a friend.
But the hunger comes unexpected, and I wince from an abdominal spasm.
“Are you alright?” He asks.
I stand and nod. “Which way to the bathroom?”
He points, I follow. The bathroom is blissfully empty. He told me the place doesn’t really come alive till evening. I was afraid of embarrassing myself, or worse, running into people from school. One rarely comes without the other.
I lean against the sink, cup my hand under the running tap and drink. The first gulp burns as it clears my oesophagus but the next is like numbing balm. I am tempted to drink my fill but I manage to stop at four gulps and fix my tie.
If you’re too poor for food, a bellyful of ice cold water works just as well.
Our table is full when I return, almost like magic. He is smiling.
“You were taking too long so I ordered.”
I groan as I tear into the first chicken stick, rolled and cooked in what tastes like bread. My taste buds rejoice. My eyes swim to the back of my head. A thought zips in, a mocking quip of what I must look like, but it is swiftly subsumed by more immediate thoughts.
“This is amazing.” I manage to mutter between mouthfuls.
“You’re guileless.” He pushes his plate to me and laughs. “This is why I never go anywhere with anyone from school. Nothing impresses them. They peck at their food like hens, even the boys! But you…”
What little shame I have left rears its head and I stare at the plate of chicken sticks. He waits, a manicured hand twitching on his end of the table.
I notice then that he is wearing too many bracelets. They tangle around his bony wrist, a rainbow of brightly coloured plastic. There are scratch marks underneath, dozens at least. His lips are chapped under the thin layer of lipbalm that smells like vanilla. His eyes are trained on me; not my face, my mouth.
His cheek is dimpled and his jaws move almost imperceptibly in time with mine. I recognise the signs, hunger is one of the few constants in my life.
He is starving himself.
I leave the plate in limbo between us, meet his gaze for the first time in the months we’ve been friends as an equal.
He hesitates, his eyes momentarily betraying his longing. He clasps his hand over his mouth and gives a weak nod. I take his plate, stack it on top of of mine.
“Thank you.” I say, and take a chicken stick.
Then I make a show of sinfully stripping flesh from bone.