He shifts beneath the covers and she finds her body tensing; her blood congealing until she is stiff next to him. She recognizes that restless movement of the men who come to lie in her bed; the impatient vibration of a leg, the turning towards her in the darkness, the exhalation of breath. It is usually the last conversation they have in her bed because it is one of two things that follows: a marriage proposal or a break up.
She is sad. Her eyes are open in the artificial darkness of heavy drapes and the solitude of a house that is far away from the traffic of the middle of town. The sliver of light that has fought its way through the tiny space between drapes tells her it is early evening. They had fallen into bed mid-afternoon and gone to sleep afterward.
He sits up and calls out her name. Once, twice. She doesn’t reply; her silence attempting to delay the inevitable.
With a sigh, she moves, letting him know she’s awake.
‘Sit up now, I want to talk to you.’
She pulls herself up to a sitting position, closing her eyes when her back is against the headboard- she doesn’t want to see his eyes when he speaks. Her fingers play over the silk sheets that cover their nakedness- it is cool to touch. She traces the patterns that border the sheets: round and round and spiralled and twisting into each other.
She had always known she was going to end up as somebody’s mistress. Nothing else had seemed clearer to her; it was a case that would insult any psychologist in its simplicity. Her mother had been a kept woman: the ignored and illegal second ‘wife’ of her father. But Arinola had liked having her father around only once a week as opposed to the heavy-handed, over-involved fathers her friends complained about. It was like Christmas to her; an overdose of it would cheapen its value, its importance: her want of it.
And so, her boyfriends never lasted long: they could sense the miles her feet would run if they tried to hold on tighter. They could see the flight behind her eyes whenever long-term commitment was broached. So, when the first married man had kissed her in the back of his car, his driver looking away in studied nonchalance, she had kissed him back.
She is comfortable with having only a percentage of the men who walk into her life. She is aware that the freckles on her back and her cheeks are only a passing attraction for them; she knows that the wit her lips offer is only a short winter holiday. But she wants the husband without the babies; the laughter without the fights; the love without the lugubrious subtractions that everyday banalities would take from it.
Her fingers still over the sheets and she opens her eyes slowly to see that he has been waiting for her to do this.
He smiles a small smile; just a tipping up of the right corner of his mouth.
‘I want you to name the baby,’ he says.
She met Diran when she was still with Emeka. Seated at Jevenik, Diran had saluted Emeka from across the room; an old friend from Secondary school but as her eyes met his, Emeka’s hand which had been moving over her thigh under the table had made the transition from human to stone to slimy reptile. She had broken up with him the week after; just in time to convincingly explain to his wife who called, spewing curses, that she was mistaken about an affair.
The three weeks after that had been one endless moment of waiting. She moved around haltingly, her breath held; her eyes darting around at every movement. She lost weight and answered every phone call; her nights peppered with dreams that had her hot, bothered and panting by morning.
She waited for him like the persecuted wait for Christ’s second coming.
When he showed up at her doorstep; having queried everyone around Emeka except Emeka himself; with hooded eyes and hands that shook with uncertainty, she had pulled him in without word- her hands quietened his fretting, her lips awakened a curiosity he remembered vaguely from his teenage years and her body wrapped itself around his, willingly, asking nothing and everything in return- convincing him that it was possible to have two homes.
‘You want me to name your baby.’ She repeats his words; flat-like: all the emotion evaporating.
‘Yes, Arin. I want you to.’
Her eyes rove over his face, taking in the excitement in the flaring of his nostrils, the intensity in the flecks around his pupils and in his smile, she can see the hope that she will be as excited at this ‘proposal’.
She closes her eyes.
Diran is a good husband to his twenty eight year old wife. He had told her that first day when the sweat on their bodies had dried. He sat at the edge of her bed with his back to her, the silence between them heavy with unspoken demands and weightless concessions.
‘I’m a good husband.’ To which she had said nothing; the new ones tended to want to justify being in her bed. ‘I swear to you, I am.’
‘Only your wife would know that.’ She said eventually.
‘I do all the right things. And I love her, I do. But I think I love you, too.’ His words had become rushed, taking no breaths between words as if to expel a demon from his throat before it latched on to a tonsil. ‘And I don’t know how, when I don’t even know you. But I won’t divorce her. I will not.’
‘I don’t want you to.’ Then she had gone to make them dinner.
They have been together for eighteen months.
‘Arin, say something;’ he asks of her now.
‘Your wife has been lying in bed for the past three months because of this pregnancy and you want me to name your child. Diran, are you crazy?’
He turns on his chest so that his head is beside her covered breasts; his naked bottom now exposed to the cool air of the humming air conditioner. He takes her hand in his. His palms are softer than hers and they warm up the back of her hands.
‘Arin, we might as well be married in an alternative universe…’
‘…and I want to give you something. Arin, I need this; so you can know the extent to which you own me.’
When she doesn’t reply, he sighs and rolls off the bed. She watches his butt contract then relax as he slips one leg then the other into his shorts. The muscles in his back move about beneath his skin as he pulls his shirt on. ‘Just think about it,’ he says before he leaves.
She is still awake four hours after he leaves. Her eyes stare abstractly at the patterns on the ceiling. Box in box in box. Too boxy. It is late. 11pm. Baby’s name. Baby. Baby.
..so you can know the extent to which you own me.
She had expected a break up. She doesn’t want one; she has settled into the normalcy that being with Diran gives her. She enjoys the waiting and pining until he appears at her doorstep; the way children hoard chocolate bars, savouring and pacing until the next explosive indulgence.
Her eyes drift shut and she falls into a light sleep where she dreams that she is running.
She is running slowly in a tunnel; there is a shallow pool of brackish water that her feet are wading through. She is going against the gentle tide but when she tries to stop and turn; she finds that in the queer way of dreams, she is unable to snap out of her movements: she keeps running; her arms rising and falling at right angles.
The first bump against her shin frightens her the most; her scream sails away behind her, fluttering to catch up with the current. Still moving, she peers down at her feet; squinting to see what had brushed against her. There are babies swimming in the opposite direction, eyes closed against the world, legs intuitively kicking and tiny hands which seem to stretch towards her person.
Her second scream causes the surge to rise; her legs begin to tire from trudging against it and the babies move closer to her. She finds that when she looks at a baby, she knows its name.
The names hit the middle of her eyes faster and harder and she stumbles. A baby successfully latches unto one of her legs; and then two and three. They pull her down until she is lying on her back; being pulled away on a boat of soft baby skin and tiny paddling feet.
She wakes up to a cramp in her right calf. The muscle pulls and beads of sweat pop out around her wince. She stares unseeingly at the boxes in the ceiling.
Her phone vibrates next to her. Diran’s face lights up and grins at her from the device.
But she does not reach towards it and her heart beats faster and faster as if about to burst out of her freckled chest in winged flight.
Arinola stares at her front door as Diran pounds on the other side of it. She imagines Paul, her gateman standing helpless behind him, his long hands hanging limp beside him. He has been told in the past to keep certain men out; but he has received no orders concerning Oga Diran.
‘Arin, what’s going on?’ Diran knocks again. ‘Paul says you’re in there. Arinola?’
But she says nothing. She stares at the door handle turn again and again as he tries to get across to her. Knock. Knock. Rattle.
‘Is it something I did? Please talk to me!’ His voice sounds panicked; momentarily considering that he had unwittingly done an unforgivable wrong to Arinola. His voice breaks a little and he is reminded of teenage-hood: a squeaky voice and a face full of pimples. He feels vulnerable again. ‘Arinola?’
Arinola wants to tell Diran that she doesn’t want to name his baby; she wants to yell at him for asking her at all. Because a marriage proposal can easily be discarded in a snapped-shut velvet box but a baby will live on and turn at every mention of the name she chooses; carrying her mark, indelible, till she dies. But her words are condensed in her throat like phlegm; constricting and choking.
Arinola feels overwhelmed and so she slides to the floor, pulling her knees to her chin and says nothing as Diran rattles the bullet-proof front door an old lover had installed.
The next time Diran comes around, Arinola is sitting at the foot of her front door. She places one hand against the vibrating door.
She can feel his agitation through every kick and bang. Knock. Bang. Kick. The reverberations pass through to her hand and she raises that hand to wipe away the tears she didn’t know she’d been crying.
‘If it’s over, won’t you at least tell me to my face? Don’t I deserve that much? To see your eyes when you do this. Ehn, Arinola?’
Arinola almost opens the door then because she remembers that night when Diran had placed his ear against her chest; at that point where the pulse is the loudest beneath warm skin and flowing blood. They lay there quiet for a while.
‘I feel like we can do this forever,’ he had said.
And when she didn’t answer because she was a veteran of goodbyes; a woman used to being easily disposed; he had tried to lift his head to look at her. But she had placed her hands on the other side of his head and pressed him there, as if trying to leave a mark of his ear singed on her chest. The pressure against his ear must have caused pain but Diran stayed there, silent.
‘Arinola?’ He calls out again then leaves.
Arinola dreams again in her second week without Diran.
She is in the same tunnel.
She is wading through the same brackish water but there are no babies.
She spins around and splashes at the water.
She falls to her knees and peers into the dark pool.
But she sees no wrinkled, tight-fisted babies paddling towards her.
She wakes up to period cramps and watches the blood leave her body to stain her silk sheets.
She tightens the Ankara wrapper around her waist and walks to the door. With a deep breath, she responds to the two simple knocks that have unsettled her.
Diran is leaning against the door frame. His buba is rumpled and his car keys hang lifelessly from his right hand. His left hand is pressed to his face, the veins standing out against his dark skin. He is crying. Arinola tugs him into her house and lifts his face, searching for an answer in his red eyes and hollow cheeks.
‘You can’t leave me now,’ he says. ‘I need you, Arin.’ His voice sounds like gravel under a revving truck’s tyre. ‘We lost the baby.’
And Arinola is there as he breaks down again. She sits with him on the floor of her living room as he fills the air with the sobs of a man who isn’t being asked to be strong. She says nothing when he relays the story of a baby that refused to cry and turned blue at the sight of her father.
‘A girl, Arin.’ He says and she wipes the snot from his nose. The tossed crumpled tissue rolls lamely to join the growing pile.
When he looks up at her with the eyes of a four year old afraid of monsters beneath his bed and hooded bats in his closet, she kisses him. Her lips promising what her words will not.
They climb into her bed and he falls asleep, chest still heaving as if crying independent of his cognizance. She curls herself around him; her thigh folding over his adire trousers, her hands flung over his arms in an abstract sign of protection and she presses her nose into his neck.
‘It would have been Omowunmi,’ she whispers into his neck, her warm breath ruffling the hairs of his beard.
And their breathing becomes synchronized as she joins him in sleep. In, out. Up, down. Like waves lapping at the shore.
About the author
‘Pemi Aguda is an architect during the day. Her short stories have appeared in The Kalahari Review, Black Fox literary magazine, Prufrock Magazine and the TNC anthology ‘These Words Expose Us’, among others. She Tweets at @PemiBetty.
This is a reprint of Pemi Aguda’s brilliant story “Naming” which originally appeared in the anthology “These Words Expose Us.”