GRIEF IS THE GIFT THAT BREAKS THE SPIRIT OPEN

Before Toju met Agbon, she’d been loved more times than she cared to count. She had spanned the breadth of the country, moving between cities, loving and leaving people with an equal, jarring swiftness. Just like that, she was fleshed one day and dust the next. 

Of course, as with most abandonments, it started in the heart first, an involuntary reflex. Hoverers are this way  because, well, if you lose a body and people surround it as breath leaves it, watch as it bloats with death, then if you choose to find, unearth and wear it again, certain rules apply. There is an inexhaustible amount of anywheres that you can occupy, but you cannot be seen where you were mourned, you cannot live where you already left.

Toju was to pick the body back up as she’d left it, long-limbed and lithe; fifteen. She’d been lying on an operating table the morning it happened, with a gloved hand inside her, loosening a knot in her intestines, when she felt a sudden slowing down inside, followed by distant sounds of people panicking on the outside. Voices. ‘We’re losing her! Get Dr. Njideka in!’ Toju knew there was something to be afraid of – of course, voices didn’t sound that way when there wasn’t – and she thought briefly of her mother sitting in the waiting area, most likely praying and ‘believing God’ as she liked to say. But then Toju noticed something else: a small partition between the body flayed open on a table and the her that hung gaseous on the body’s interior – a fleshless divide, suffused with light. She stood at the clouded eye of a small tunnel, staring into its endlessness and found herself liking the pink haze spreading inside it. ‘Suction!’ The hands moved with a tighter speed inside the body, as blood slowed to an almost-halt. Toju found her inside self being lifted up and forward, floating quickly into the haze. It was such a freedom that at first she didn’t resist it; everything was weightless. 

When she finally realized where she was going, she tried to turn around, but the body continued to recede as she sped forward. My mother’s going to kill me! she thought, trying to look back, which was a joke in itself if you think about it, considering that the woman really had warned her in those words. ‘Toritseju, they said there is risk involved o! I take God beg you o, don’t die. If you die during this surgery, know that me, as your mother, I will find you and kill you!’ They’d laughed and Toju promised. ‘Don’t worry, okay?’ her mother had said with a glittery assurance ‘You are covered with the blood of Jesus.’ 

But none of that mattered now, because dead people were, amongst other reliefs, largely exempt from their mother’s wahala. When Toju slipped out of herself, it was with the doctor’s hand still steeped in her. That was before the I’m sorry, we tried everything, before Toju’s mother’s wail ripped through the hospital walls in wild waves, before her voice shouting ‘You people have killed me, she was all I had, you have killed me ooooo! Jesus, come and see. I put her in your hands ooooh, now come and see!’ 

Now, on this side, where time was a smooth and silvered nothing, Toju couldn't tell how much of it had passed. All she knew was that after the leaving, she (the one who did the leaving from the inside) had, instead of grinding to some sort of existential halt as she’d expected, felt merely... unplugged. So, she had that panicked thought; about not knowing what to do with herself, how to move disembodied, where to go, if she was even supposed to still be awake in the mind, thinking and feeling anything at all – and now here she was, facing yards of flesh, laid down and folded neatly, clearly for her. Toju hesitated before she reached for the body and slid it back on. Everything was a startling newness. She closed her eyes and steadied herself to let the dizzy feeling fall to a flat calm. 

When she opened her eyes, she was at the entrance of CJ & Babalola Secondary School, in the body, now dressed in a blue-and-white pinafore with a black backpack to match. She took a few steps inside the compound (No security? What kind of school was this?), looking around and wondering if she jutted out awkwardly there. It was a loud and bustling contrast to the old town with its slow spirit and red sand– the unnameable one with the mad mourning and a too-young dead body in the ground. And it was here, in the crowd of student bodies, that she met Ikenna.


* * *

It was lunchtime. Ikenna found Toju by her usual hiding spot behind the library, sitting in the shade with her hair woven all-back in eight neat cornrows, reading The Philosopher’s Stone. He stood in front of her and held out a meat pie and Gold Spot between them. ‘For you o. Since you no dey like to chop.’

She dogeared her page and looked up at him. ‘Thank you.’

‘No yawa. One more thing sha.’ He reached into his pocket and handed her a folded piece of paper with a heart on it. It was drawn with a pink gel pen.

By then, they’d only known each other for the week. That is, as long as Toju had been successfully camouflaging for. She dodged the teachers, looked nervous when other students tried to speak to her, until everyone concluded she was too thick in the thoughts - too slow for her own good and her own youth - to be seen anywhere near them.  Most of them left her alone for that reason, assuming that since they’d never heard her speak, she was mute. But when Ikenna found her, he pulled her first words out. He was one of the strange kids too,  and since he didn’t pose much of a risk (who could he run his mouth to since people hardly spoke to him too?) they’d spent their free time playing games and reading together every day since.

‘What’s inside?’ she asked him.

‘There’s actually a way people usually find out these things, you know?' His mouth curled upwards. 'By unfolding it.’ 

Toju laughed, even as streaks of panic congregated in her chest. She was hoping he hadn’t gone and found her out, or that he wasn’t going to ask anything she couldn’t answer, because what then? She hadn’t been there long at all, but already she’d have to leave, because it was common sense, really. Being a Hoverer meant staying as free as driftwood, footloose, nobody’s. This was the rule. Wait, she thought back at her own head, reminding her of this. But what if I jus– 

Which is how she knew she was in trouble. 

She unfolded the letter, trying to hold a steady hand as Ikenna peered over her shoulder. Please, please, please, she thought, don’t say anything heavy. 

‘Just read it,’ he said, as if he could hear her whole skull, ‘it’s nothing bad.’ 

She read the first line: ‘Dear Girl-With-No-Name’ and she held her breath for the remaining six lines. He liked her (everything, but especially the recklessness of her laugh), he couldn’t wait to get to know her more, and if she liked him too (which he thought she did – must do, if they hung out so much) then could she at least tell him her name? He wouldn’t tell anyone.

His handwriting moved in reeling whorls and she jammed her teeth together to stay encased. What should she say? It hadn’t even occurred to her that he could tell anyone, but now that he mentioned it, why wouldn’t he? This was their school, their city, these were his people. She wasn’t real in the ways they were, she was nothing.

‘Yo, babe. Are you okay?’ 

‘Um. Yeah…’

‘Are you sure? Your face went all weird just now.’ 

‘Like how?’ 

‘I don’t know… Like your mind was far. You’re sure you’re fine?’ 

Toju smiled at him and wound an arm around his back, finding his side. ‘Yes. I’ll find you after.’

He shrugged and left, disappointment spreading a slight slouch over his walk.

Ikenna was kind, she knew this much, and she didn’t want to hurt him. Of all the students, she’d chosen him for the texture of his affection, the general softness of his ways, the generosity of his friendship and the quality of his ears; but now, something in her needed to gather both strength and sense, despite that. Exhausted from trying to resist the pull, she slipped a note through the metal slit of his locker. I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this anymore.

He found her after school, holding the note up to her face, her handwriting a blue-biroed mess. ‘What do you mean? Did I do something wrong? What did I do to you? You can’t do what? I’m not even–’ He was angry and tears were rising tall in his eyes but he saw how upset she was too, how she refused to meet his eye, so he softened his voice to an almost-whisper. 

‘Is something happening at home? Did something bad happen to you? If there’s anything, you can tell me. I’m your friend, remember? I don’t just want to be your guy, I’m your friend.’ 

But she didn’t remember (couldn’t afford to, really) and nothing he did to remind her helped. In fact, the harder he tried, the more urgently she needed to move. So, she left him, left the school, left the city. How could she stop all of it and take off this entire thing, in fact? When she tugged at the arm or thigh, it didn’t feel optional, like an outfit. It felt stuck to her and it was frightening. She closed her eyes, and focused on the multiplying steam on the inside of her head. She’d gathered from experience that whatever was in there, controlling this and her, didn’t talk. It answered by taking her places, by moving her around. Please, she thought, show me how to remove it


* * *


She opened her eyes to noise in a large white bus heading out of Lagos. When the driver parked by the toll gate to allow people ease themselves, Toju watched them rush out in small droves, scurrying to private corners to do their business. She wondered why she’d been put on the bus. She hadn’t even been told where it was heading. Nobody could hurt her, right? Since, essentially, she wasn’t real? But still, she was wearing a body. Bodies could always get hurt, no matter who was wearing them. 

She was still thinking through this when a thought diffused through her with a sudden sourceless assurance. Come down and walk straight. She knew this feeling and how sometimes the voice of peace was simply loosened tension in the chest. Toju found the deepest part of the bush and squatted. The body budged at the crotch for the first time since she’d worn it and Toju sighed, relieved at the weight of skin and bone sliding off. She stepped out of the body – left it there on soaked grass – and soared back into an unmoored freedom. She’d left before, obviously, but this time, there was less guilt in her transition; because at least now she wasn’t ripping her own bloodline to shreds, blowing a wound open where her life had been. All she'd done was throw a heartbreak in Ikenna's way, and he'd get over it eventually. 


*

She would have been around 19 in alive years when she took the body again. It was moulded differently – more fullness, more assuredness - and she felt like a woman in it. Looked like one too. She met Ejiro, the 50-year old physics lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She was in a small canteen called Iya Peperempe, eating nkwobi when he walked in and found her sitting alone, listening to music out of her walkman. Toju was wearing red lipstick, which remained largely unperturbed even as she dealt with the meat. He hesitated by the door, scanning the room, then took a few steps in her direction. ‘Mind if I join you?’ 

She didn’t actually hear him, because she didn’t take off her headphones. Styl Plus kept on telling her to Imagine That. But what he was saying was obvious from how he gestured towards the chair. She shrugged. If you like. What people chose to do or not do had no bearing on her for the most part. She’d always been able to retreat into herself completely, to take noise, places, people and collapse them into an unrealness; and, as she'd soon learn, this indifference she had towards them would be exactly what endeared her to people.

When he sat down, Ejiro tried to make conversation (of course), but she had decided against seeing him, so she focused her eyes on her food instead and he became all the way invisible. ‘You don’t attend this school, do you?’ ‘I’ve never seen you around.’ ‘Hello? Hello?’ He tried and tried and she ignored him. When she was done with her food, she got up, paid the bill and left. Ejiro watched her in embarrassed surprise. 

They met again two months later, when she showed up to his class. Her hair was shaved and dyed red now, and her cheekbones were almost yelling. Before her, he'd never met anyone whose features were so distinctly theirs they couldn’t look like anybody else if they tried. When she picked a seat all the way at the back, he found himself hoping she would come and say something to him after class. She left in a hurry instead, disregarding the crucial tail of his lecture. When she finally spoke to him, it was weeks into the semester and only because she needed to clarify something, for no other reason but the sport of it.

She’d tried on her voice in different instances and decided that she liked herself best when it was direct and unsentimental, leaning vaguely towards what most people would call rudeness. It was fine, she realized. She wasn’t a child anymore and she was nobody’s daughter now, so she could do as she liked. 

‘What are your office hours?’ she asked.

‘Good afternoon to you too,’ Ejiro said, thickening his voice to hide his eagerness. Toju stared at him and scoffed at how predictable he was. When it became clear to him that not only did she not intend to greet, she was also about to turn around and leave, he cleared his throat. ‘Mmm, 12-4 on most days. But you can send an email if you want to book an appointment outside of those hours. That said, it won’t kill you to be respectful.’ 

‘Thanks,’ she said, making her way out. 

‘What’s your name?” She stopped, but with her back still to him. It was a good opportunity to look at her ass, but something he couldn’t quite name kept his neck straight. “Uh…” he continued, warning his eyes, “So that I can, you know, be on the lookout.’ 

She decided on the first one that crossed her mind and turned around. ‘Steph,’ she said. ‘I’ll be there.’

It was the first time he realized he was afraid of her. Small girl like this, making him fidget anyhow, in his own lecture hall! A whole him? The thought of her bringing questions to his office even made him question if he knew enough about anything at all. Imagine. In the first three decades of his life alone, he’d conquered three degrees and two grave losses and gone on to do so much more since; who the hell was she to stand on top all that? Who was she to make a mountain of herself? And in how long of knowing her? Running all this through his head, he felt angry, then embarrassed, then hopeful.

She didn’t show up that week, which was fine because he could use that time to brush up on what he’d been teaching. He tried to look her up on the university’s portal when he got home. He typed the name Steph, then Stephanie. Both times, an infinite scroll of names fell before him. He should have known; how silly of him not to have asked her last name.

He should also have stopped there. But when she eventually showed up, Ejiro couldn’t hide his relief. They sat in his office for two hours, then went to dinner after. He had no kids, his wife was in NYU doing her PhD but they were basically separated anyway. These facts were useful for Toju; an affair meant a secret and a secret meant she didn’t have to worry. It was a plus too to see how good he was at taking care of everything. He never let her lift a finger when she visited, not that she would volunteer in any case. But still. He fed her, read to her in bed, explained topics using the most useful analogies, offered to help her ‘study’ for other subjects too, which she accepted, because she genuinely enjoyed this life she was trying on. 

‘So when can I come and see your place?’ he asked once, as they lay naked in bed cuddling. He was smoking a cigarette, a habit it had never occurred to him to pick up in five decades until he met her. But she always smoked after sex and if you could see this girl right now, you’d understand. She made you want to pirhouette on the edge of danger. I want to get there, he thought often, when they were together. I want to hack this game; give me the cheat code; get me to the level of freedom you’re in. 

‘Your place is bigger,’ she said, then kissed him, pulling a tripled curl of smoke from his into her mouth. She wriggled out from under him, rolling him over on his back, then she straddled him, leaning into him. ‘There’s just… so much more room here.’ 

‘That’s fair. But…’

‘But nothing then.’ He didn’t ask again.When her voice got clipped like that, the rest of the conversation fell off without question, like split ends, disappearing.

Another time, they were cooking jollof rice in his kitchen. Well, he was doing the cooking really, as usual, and she was sitting on the marble counter. ‘You’re always by yourself,’ he pointed out, concern folding the skin between his eyebrows. ‘You eat by yourself, go out by yourself. When you’re not with me or studying, what do you do? Don’t you have friends?’

‘No need for all that. I’m perfectly happy with you. I don’t really need anything else.’

‘Well… I asked because I was going to tell my friend about you and I wondered if–’

It was right there on the counter that Toju felt it: her heart standing to its feet, climbing out from behind her ribcage, steadying itself on the ground, then finding its way out the door, as if to say Oya oh, meet me when you’re ready. There are so many things a body can do heartless, so she still let the weight of him press her back into the spine of his scant mattress, night after night, until he woke one morning to find her gone. At his big age, she had him writing letters (he didn’t even know where to address them), looking for her through lecture halls, asking around (nobody knew her well enough to guess where she could be). The leaving was not to say that she didn’t pity him, because that was not necessarily true. It wasn’t about him. She’d made this choice for herself knowing the possible difficulties involved. In that sense, every damage caused was incidental, simple collateral harm – the kind that people can cause when they’re swerving between lanes at breakneck speed. 

In Edo, she met Tinubu, the 6’1” football player who trained at Ekpoma Stadium every Saturday. He’d been watching her for a while. When she finally caught his eye, she held his gaze until he looked away. When he looked back, which was inevitable really, seeing as nobody ever looked at Toju only once, she got up and walked to the deserted back of the stadium where she simply stood and waited for him to arrive; an unuttered instruction. When he arrived, she held him against the old brick wall and kissed him. ‘Tell me if you want me to stop,’ she said, tongue pacing the rim of his ear. ‘I will if you want to.’ 

‘Oh no. Please.’

‘Please what?’ she asked, finding the inside of his shorts. Her voice was erect with authority.

He hesitated, then begged. ‘Don’t stop. Abeg.’

And so she’d made her way to her knees and held her palms against his hips, keeping him in the warm dark of her mouth, until he yelped, oh god, oh god, and unravelled with such a force he lost track of breath. 

‘What is your name, sef?’ he asked after, embarrassed, to which she replied, ‘Does it matter?’ He shouldn’t have insisted, but he did, so she told him Etin, which was a random name from the Old Town, meaning Strength – a name she decided to keep for the rest. She knew from the way he held her and from the saccharine pride with which he showed her to all his friends that Tinubu’s mind was going to follow her when she left him. But he was not the first and he wouldn’t be the last either. 

After him, there was MuryDee, the musician in Benue who hibernated for a week straight. Then Vincent from Port Harcourt, a manager in Zenith Bank who, unable to tell his colleagues why he couldn’t function at work, lied that his sister had died suddenly. Then Yasmin in Kano, the guitarist, to whom the entire thing felt like a long hallucination. Emem suffered the least after, but only because they’d both been high through all the public sex and night walks anyway. Toju sifted through them with more ease as she went, shrugging off their desperations, moving quietly and quickly, leaving a trail of pleas in her wake.

But you know how they say it: just as water must find its level, wahala sef must find its mate. So in a way, this is what God must have intended when he sent Agbon to Toju that night, perched atop a bar stool in a dank nightclub in Rivers State, black velvet romper with a deep cut speeding down her sternum, dark rum on the rocks, a small forest full of thick dark curls for hair.

Toju had started on the dancefloor with her eyes closed, throwing her body back into the bass. As usual, the club shifted its collective eye in her direction, replete with desire as she moved, bodies hovering around in clusters, trying to touch, wanting to watch, as she moved marvelously alone. Someone had told her before – who knows which of them now – that she danced like the music was internal, like she herself was a soundsource, a body with a boombox at the chest, shooting her limbs out in perfect synch. It was true. Between the dancing and the mere fact that Toju knew herself and trusted her body’s epic proportions, nights out were predictable. She danced with uninterrupted focus until sweat started leaking in stray lines, and by the time she made her way to the bar, there would be a short queue of men asking ‘Please, what would you like to drink? Just name it,’ and she would pick the one she found most bearable.

Women usually moved differently, with a more calculated intensity, but so far she had been able to trust that whoever she wanted in the club would find her by the end of the night or at the very least, have a Yes in their gaze that made it easy for her to close in on them. A certain pride had grown in Toju because of this. Awake to the fact of her own power, she refused to stand at attention inside it. Instead, she’d relaxed her shoulders, put her feet up on the center table, put all her luggage down. She was at home there. She didn’t approach people really, because she didn’t need to; people came to her, the world moved to find her with shame in its eyes, begging for her attention. It knew also, what it was like to be left by her, to be shrugged off and swatted like a perching fly.

She arrived at the bar to order her double shot of Hennessy, neat in the glass and she was right, there were three men behind her. But when she looked to her left and saw Agbon there, she stood still for some time and watched the woman as she watched herself in the mirror, bobbing her head to the music. Despite the desire drooling through Toju’s body, she decided against approaching her. Instead, she bet with herself that it would – based on rough estimations and past experience – take two hours at most, for the woman to make her move. 

By the eighth shot that night, Toju’s skin had glazed with sweat and at most, Agbon had gotten up twice to sway from side to side to songs she enjoyed. When she moved, she seemed to bend the mood of the room. When she walked across the room to take a phone call outside, the sweating crowd on the dancefloor gasped apart to give way to her, as if there were an invisible barbed-wire fence around her that warned them with its spikes, donttouchme, donttouchme. When she walked back into the bar, Toju tried to resist, but she found herself glancing back in Agbon’s direction, trying to win her own bet. I bet she’ll stand up, Toju thought, because she was fond of saying that she couldn’t trust anyone who could sit still through good music and it was fucking Gyptian playing. Who could resist his voice doing that thing it does over a beat, on a night like this? It was an order, an instruction to touch somebody. She’s going to get up and walk up to me. But two hours had passed already and Toju was mostly wrong.

One thing had changed though: where before, Agbon had looked at her with the same calculated curiosity with which she regarded the rest of the club, now she watched Toju with a stubborn unshifting focus as she wound suggestively against a stunned man– but that was it. When Toju tried to make her get up by beckoning to her, she held the same divine posture, politely resisting, wearing that refusal in her squared shoulders, holding Toju at a distance. Toju was afraid of Agbon because it was clear that she was the type who made people discard their pride, those quasi-cruel kinds who were used to devotion. She knew this because even now, only with Agbon’s eyes on her, Toju found herself wanting to say yes to questions that hadn’t even been asked. 

Toju walked into the bathroom with two results in mind – that Agbon was either going to walk in there to find her, or she was going to come out and walk straight to her. It was that time of night when the shots had built an extra brave bone in her body and unhinged her at the mouth; she could do as she pleased in Jack Daniel’s name. But when she returned, Agbon was gone with her bag. Panic slithered through Toju as she exited the club, looking around, regretting every moment she’d extended her dumb game for. She found her outside, leaning against the wall, a beat up phone in hand. 

Toju walked up quickly, muttering thank yous to godknowswho under her breath. Agbon turned in her direction, just then. ‘Ah,’ Toju said, ‘you’re going already?’ She knew this was a stupid thing to say to someone she’d never uttered a word to. She sounded like the men she was often amused by. 

‘I wasn’t leaving just yet. Just came out for a cigarette.’

‘Oh,’ Toju said, wondering what to say now that she’d brought herself outside. Inside had been so much less intimidating. If she’d waited, she would have had the strobe lights to lean on. She of all people knew how useful they were for casting shadows and swallowing the razored edges between people. ‘Okay.’ Where had her words gone?

Agbon held out the pack of cigarettes to her. ‘Want one?’

She nodded, then took one and held it to her mouth. ‘Lighter please?’ Agbon leaned forward and lit the cigarette for her, then they leaned back against the wall together, in silence. 

‘So, you’re a dancer, huh?’

Toju was thankful for the question. She’d gone through many possible icebreakers in her head, but they’d all gotten caught in her throat like tiny cold stones. ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that. But I do love to dance.’

‘That much is clear. You’re a pleasure to watch. But you knew that already.’

‘I like the way you watched me.’ Toju said this before she could stop herself.

Agbon turned to face her, looking at her intensely now. ‘Yeah? How did I watch you?’ 

Toju averted her eyes, suddenly hyper-aware of her own face. ‘I don’t know, it’s just very… sure? I don’t know if that’s the word I’m looking for. But um, yeah.’

‘Well, does it make you uncomfortable?’

‘No, I told you – I like it.’

‘It can’t be both?’ 

‘Well, maybe. I guess it could be, yeah.’

Agbon looked away, watching the road ahead of them. ‘Where are you heading after here?’

‘Nowhere planned,’ Toju said, quicker than she would have liked. ‘Where do you live?’

Amused by something Toju wasn’t quite certain of, Agbon giggled and then said, ‘I guess you’ll have to find out.’

They walked for ten minutes and arrived at a road, which bent left into a soft darkness. Toju looked up at the building, unclear about its colour (was it white? off-white? a light yellow?) only to decide that she didn’t care. She wouldn’t have cared if Agbon had taken her to a matchbox at that point, she just wanted to be where she was. 

The door opened to a small flat with bare walls, save for the plasma television. There were also two black sofas and a centre table. ‘Here,’ Agbon said, throwing her bag onto the sofa. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’

Toju looked around, trying to figure out what it was about the place. ‘Your house is so… clean,’ she said, finally, even though that was putting it mildly. The house looked unlived in. ‘It must be new space, right? Because I know that me, I could never keep a place so clean, except I just mo–’

‘Would you like some water?’ Agbon asked as if she hadn’t heard Toju talking at all. ‘So you’re not hungover in the morning. Getting some.’

‘No, thank you.’ Then, ‘Actually, yes.’

‘Okay, well, I’ll go get some and then we can go inside. Except of course you want to sit and watch some telev–’

‘No, no, no, not at all.’ Toju said hurriedly. ‘I think it’s best to go inside. It’s late anyway.’

Agbon kissed Toju as soon as they entered, with the lights still off. They kept their eyes closed, both starving at the hands, feeling for each other blindly until there was a flurry of clothes on the ground. 

Toju woke up to a lightspill on the tile and collected herself quickly, remembering herself in pieces: I am in the body, I am safe, and I’m with her; I didn’t imagine it, it was real. And it was real, because Agbon’s arms were still around her. ‘Good morning, you.’ She kissed Toju’s neck. ‘I’ve been waiting for you to wake up because my arm has low-key been numb for like an hour. But I didn’t want to wake you. You look fine anyhow when you sleep.’

Toju laughed and said, ‘Oh God, sorry. Was I asleep long?’ She shifted. ‘I’ll leave now, don’t worry.’

Agbon kept her grip in place. ‘Who asked you to do that one now? Oversabi.’ and Toju found herself feeling flattered that she wanted her to stay. ‘Except you want to go, of course. Do you have somewhere to be?’ 

‘No, no. I just thought you’d, you know, want your space back or something.’ It was also then she realized how ridiculous it was that they hadn’t asked each other’s names. She figured it might be less awkward if she flitted through her own collection of names and decided on the first one in mind. 

‘Etin, by the way. My name is Etin.’ For a moment, she regretted lying. Nothing about this woman called for it, but it’s not as if she knew anything about her either. Agbon made to get out of bed and Toju watched a sunray climb down her back.

‘Right. Etin. They don’t do breakfast where you’re from?’ She looked back at Toju from the edge of the bed and caught her staring. She smiled and shook her head, and Toju’s face refused to close. ‘I’ll go make some.’

The full english was made with so much love it had Toju forgetting she still didn’t know her name. She remembered again the next morning, the second time in a row they’d woken together. They’d had dinner, made out, eaten, had sex, watched films, eaten, slept and woken up, suspending the world outside for each other, and still. ‘You never told me your name,’ Toju pointed out as she lay against her on the sofa.

Agbon looked at her. ‘Well,’ she said, holding Toju in her arms, ‘you never asked.’

‘True. But I just thought you’d–’

‘You can just ask now, if you really want to know, you know?’

‘Okay, what’s your name?’

‘Agbon.’

‘Wait, so Agbon means…’

‘Life.’

‘What’s the full name?’ 

‘Agbontaen. Life is long.” And responding to the look on Toju’s face, “I know… it’s not very common. But that’s my name sha.’

She stroked the side of Toju’s head. ‘Etin,’ she said, weighing the name in her mouth. ‘I like yours too.’ Toju found herself wishing it was her real name that was being pronounced with that much kindness, so before she could stop herself, she said, ‘Actually, it’s Toju’ and Agbon repeated it, ‘Toju’, without asking why she’d lied about her name in the first place.

A fear yawned in Toju, stretching larger in her chest the more time she spent with Agbon. She was in an apartment with hardly anything to look into, with someone for whom she had no references, whose bedroom was literally a mattress on the ground. Who was Agbon? What did she do? What did she like? 

Agbon instructed Toju to lie down and massaged her shoulders and back with oil. ‘You’re so restless. You remind me of a younger me. If you calm down and stop looking for answers and the meaning of things all the time, you’ll enjoy them more. You can actually just relax. That’s an option too.’ 

Toju looked back at her and smirked because her body was already stupefied by Agbon’s weight on her. She knew her voice would be shaky. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just curious. But okay, I’ll stop.’

Three nights later, they were eating dinner when Toju started again. ‘So tell me, what about your family? Where do they live? Do you have friends? Don’t you like art?’

Agbon let the discomfort show then, a warning skipping through her face. ‘Are you sure you want to spend all the time we have together asking all these things? What do they have to do with anything?’

Toju was on her fourth glass of wine and raising her voice now, ‘What’s the matter, naw? What’s wrong with what I’m asking? I just want to know. That’s all. Why the hell won’t you let me know you?’ 

Right then, Agbon felt it: her heart ejecting itself, then making its way out of the room: Oya oh, meet me outside when you’re ready. She got up and looked at Toju, saying with a new and detached calm, ‘Listen, find me in the room when you’re ready to just be here with me.’ She shut the bedroom door behind her, trying with everything left to stand still and have mercy.

Toju found her some minutes later, apologetic, though that didn’t stop her from wanting to check around, from trying and snooping. Until it was being withheld from her, she hadn’t realized how much she depended on knowing, how much the predictability of the others helped her map out herself. What could she do with a person she didn’t know at all, someone who didn’t care to know her past or future either, who didn’t ask questions that were intrusive, giving her an excuse to disappear? How was she to love someone who clearly knew how to leave and be left, who loved with her palms open instead of bundled up in a fist? Toju didn’t know what to do with these easy mornings and safeties.

The next morning, Agbon needed to get groceries. Toju pretended to be asleep. Agbon kissed her forehead and whispered an ‘I love you,’ into her ear, before walking out of the door. Toju wanted to wake from her pretend sleep to tell her that this was mutual, that her heart had never felt this way for anyone before, that this was a threat, that she had never planned to fall into a love that grounded her in her body, that made her want to abandon all the leaving. She wanted to tell her to please stay and hold her instead. She even wanted to confess, to tell her about the hovering, about how she’d left the body before and was only now wearing it again, how ungrounded she was, how gone. But the longer she thought about this, the more she wondered what else might come out, if Agbon might freak and throw her out instead. After all, when Toju asked, ‘So, what if I leave?’ Agbon had responded with a crushing indifference, ‘Then you leave.’

‘You won’t cry? That’s it?’ 

‘I probably would, but the universe is expansive, you know? We never run out of possible loves. Everything is about choice, then. I’m here now, you’re here now. This is good. It’s enough.’ 

This was too close. A person this disconnected from everything, untethered from the world and its expectations, unbothered by the possibility of grief, could do damage. All this reminded her too much of herself. 

When she heard the door click smooth into a lock, Toju jumped out of bed quickly and began pacing the apartment, looking for clues. She was right: there were no favourite objects lying around, no letters, no photos, nothing. Everything inside there was simply functional: sofa, table, knives, bed. In response to the anxiety shooting through her like a din of live sparks, Toju banged her fist against the table, frustrated now, afraid. Maybe I should just calm down, she thought, maybe I should just relax. But she had started the search already, troubling the house for answers and now it answered by ejecting a tiny brown chest into the room, right by the center table. Toju blinked twice and moved forward.

Inside, there was a note in black ink, written by a steady hand in perfect calligraphy:

Oh, love, but I warned you. I told you what your questions could do. 

Now look what you’ve done.

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