Literary gangster/seasonal romanticist. Boloere Seibidor—B.S—is an African writer, her work featured on The Temz Review, Feral Journal, Neologism, and others. She is largely inspired by music and art and all things beautiful, unnamed. Say hi on Twitter @ BoloereSeibidor, where she fondly calls herself a black swan. Visit her website and follow her on Instagram.
by Boloere Seibidor
Irene snaked through the aisles in the mall, heading for the toiletries section. If she ran into anyone she knew—and the chances were always high—it would result in a minute of awkward hi's. And if the person was a woman old enough and blessed with the ancient northerly wisdom, she would take one look in her eyes and know.
She picked up a packet of Cadbury as she reached grocery and stared at it dubiously, weighing the money she had on her, and weighing it on a scale of importance. One might have thought she was having a conversation with the sealed beverage.
“Looking for something, miss? Can I help you?” The man was dressed in the mall’s official navy blue uniform with stripes of orange on the arm.
A startled Irene let the Cadbury drop from her hand to the polished floors with a deep thump. Clumsy as always. She muttered profanities to herself, picked it up, and inspected for a tear. There was none. A relieved sigh.
“Didn’t mean to scare you, I’m sorry.” He adjusted his collar with hands that left a damp streak on his shirt.
She nodded, trying to pick sensible words from the jumbled nonsense she was mumbling. It was her first time seeing him despite being a regular. Also, his chirpy, vivacious manner suggested that he was new.
His smile was elegant for a salesman, illuminating strikingly dark eyes, as the light bouncing off his teeth braces gave to an effortless glitter.
She smiled back. “You didn’t.”
“Nene!” Gomezga called from the aisle facing hers with a glare that meant focus. The salesman shriveled away like a scolded dog as she resettled the scowl on him. The same scowl she gave every guy who so much as looked at her with a lingering gaze. Gomezga didn’t hate men, she claimed, but if she had to choose between living with one or becoming an owl, she hoped the animals would welcome her.
“You didn’t have to be rude,” she said to her on their way out, slightly crossed.
“I didn’t say a word to him.”
Gomezga, so raven and stone-faced, had sweat tearing down the brawny edges of her face and shoulders. She was dressed in loose clothing and a floppy hat, else she would have been complaining about the Lagos sun and its murderous tendencies.
Just before they exited the mall, Irene’s eyes caught on the thin pink box between a pack of Longrich tampons and toothpaste. Her heart beat twice in the same second and sank to the hollow pit of her stomach. After casting a surreptitious quick glance, Gomezga being ahead of her, she snatched it and tucked her hand underneath her shirt. The doorman was fond of her, so even though she acted a bit curious, he let her through.
It was a short distance from the mall to their apartment and they arrived ten minutes later. She left her bag on the carpet and hurried into the room before Gomezga followed her. Her hands were sweaty, quivery, and her lips shuddered subconsciously in prayer. It’d been years since she’d spoken to the big guy. Irene took off her jewelry. For accuracy. Then she stood on the weight scale. Her heart pounded loudly, dampening the hope in her chest as she felt the machine's silent buzz underneath her feet, calculating, freezing on its final figure.
She took a deep breath after a minute and looked down at the scale, her jaws clenched tight enough to hurt.
She stayed awake at night to read a copy of Ocean Vuong's novel but only made it to the second chapter. Gomezga snored too loud and it was impossible to sink in anything in the frustration, so she stepped out to the verandah. The air outside was welcoming, but the mosquitoes were wild and famished, so she didn’t stand a chance there either. She settled in the parlour, pinched by the two noises. Pulling her cheeks was all she could do to keep from sleeping, but even then she would doze off and hit her head against the lamp. When she dozed off this time, she slapped herself hard across the cheek. Then she opened the book once again. Gomezga had finished it in one seating. She had to, had to finish it tonight. Four hours ago before her roommate had woken her up for grocery shopping, she had been out like a light, saliva drooling over her favorite couch. That was five hours of sleep that day if she calculated the extra hours she had stolen after morning chores. It was barely midnight now and her eyelids felt like Atlas.
It was true that she slept too much nowadays; too much sleep meant extra weight. How else did she move from 140lbs to 160lbs in less than two weeks? Where did the flabby skin and swollen cheeks come from?
With a book slouched underneath her breasts and the candle flickering in the breeze, her eyes caught on a loaf of bread. It was beside the box-shaped LED television, on a small stool occupied by everything; make-up, CDs, blue pens, a black bra. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until then.
The brazing sunlight wasn’t the first thing her eyes opened up to. It was Gomezga's hard, angry face staring at her through an empty bread nylon worn over her head. Irene squinted to be sure she was not dreaming, then she frizzled into laughter. It was always hilarious how Gomezga could be so mad, and yet, helplessly theatric.
“It costs seven hundred naira, Nene. Break your piggy bank and give me back my money.”
“So you think I have to pull out my life’s savings for seven hundred naira?”
“Are you going to prove me wrong?” Gomezga stamped her hands on her waist, beneath a belly fold. She had the accent of an avid Ugandan, but was of deep Malawian descent.
“I’ll get you your bread back . . . If you let me have a peaceful morning rest.”
She scoffed and swapped a cotton wool, damp with rosewater facial cleanser over her face. “It’s almost noon. You sleep like a pile of bricks.”
Irene jumped, cursing loudly and racing to the room. She pulled down the green linen which did little in terms of concealing and stripped out of her nightgown. She had an interview and could not be late.
Screaming in fury at her dishevelment, she grabbed the ends of her golden-tinted afro. When she reached the bathroom, which was a small untiled corner in the narrow passageways, Gomezga was already in it, singing in a foreign language.
“Oh, Gome! I’ll be late.”
“You woke up a quarter to eleven—”
“Never mind, I’ll join you. No wahala.”
She didn’t like having to shower with Gomezga, even though it was the one time there was softness in her gaze, felinity in her poise.
And sometimes, she felt it wasn’t a mistake when their bodies randomly grazed.
Lagos traffic was the absolute worst. The cars were jammed like pieces of Lego, moving an inch through every five minutes. The sun flamed like a giant stove. Snack and drink vendors shoved their heads against the window, imploring your patronage, demanding it. And all you could do was sit there and try not to lose your mind.
Irene, in frustration, gave the driver of the rickety taxi fifty naira and flagged down a bike. She was wearing a beautiful, moth grey gown that easily caught to sharp edges, but what choice did she have? If she didn’t get to the interview on time, she would lose her chance. That was something she could not afford — not after four years of trial.
She held on to the biker's shoulder as he sped down the highway, her chest leaning to his back. His lips raised in a smile and he increased the speed.
By the time she got to the hotel where the interview was being held, her hair was a mess from the ride. Brown petals from masquerade trees that straddled Lolade Abbey fell from her afro as she cushioned it into place. The interview room was on the fourth floor, in a coolly conditioned hallway with homely art and soft-skinned furniture.
“Here for the interview?” A bald woman wearing retro-styled round glasses and a dress that looked more like an apron than an English-styled pinafore asked her. She halted, breathless in front of a number of girls like her, sharing the same smug look. Like her, they were pretty. Like her, they were here for a spot at Maiden Voyage. And while she had troubles in selecting the perfect dress for the interview, the other candidates were barely clad, flaunting long, shapely legs.
“You’re late. What’s your number?”
She scrolled down a tablet, then paused. “Past. You’ll be back next year.”
“W-what?” Irene stuttered. Her knees weakened beneath her. The woman walked away.
There were collective snickers from the girls; one lousy northerner—she could tell from her tribal indents—popped a bubble gum so loud and the girls laughed as it splattered across her face.
“Candidate 052!” the woman called. A slender, light-skinned girl with large eyes strutted forward. She winked at Irene, who now was one less competition to worry about.
The scale read 180.
“You should throw away that damn board if it’s going to give you a heart attack someday.”
Irene didn’t hear Gomezga come in and was startled by her entrance.
“I think you’re obsessing over your body, anyone would love and accept you the way you are!” She was shouting.
“Anyone but Maiden Voyage.” It’d been three weeks since the interview and she still had not gotten over it. “For five years! Five fucking years!”
Gomezga sighed and pulled off her heels, looking at her curves through the mirror. She had recently started to work out. “I left Malawi because it just wasn’t working for me. If modelling isn’t working for you, let it damned be.”
She had come too far to quit. Years before she met Gomezga, she watched a video of a local girl who blew up to become an international model. The program was inspiring.
She thought herself qualifiedly beautiful—spotless milky skin and tall height. Her stomach remained flat regardless of how much she ate. Her figure was effortless, curved in all the right places, in right proportions. The envy of girls her age as she grew and the attraction of men old enough to be fathers.
At fifteen, she came across a modelling agency that was hiring. The manager was a middle-aged westerner, whose picture of his wife and daughter was the first thing you saw when you stepped into his office. It came as a shock when he politely asked her to pull off her bra when he was alone with her. Of course, she hadn’t. So he spread rumours of her coming into his office to bribe him, and upon his stern disapproval, seduce him.
Mr. Gordon was the director of Sherry’s Palace. She met him when she was nineteen. He was handsome and richly exotic, so it had felt right. Late-night driving through the streets of the city, the ones with flashy colourful lights; visiting his mansion on the island and cooking for him, wearing nothing but his t-shirt; getting drunk and giving in to his touch. He was the first man she had ever allowed to own her so completely. They warned her that he was a playboy and would break her heart—every girl, no matter how beautiful she was, was only a passing phase in his life. She hadn't listened. Last Christmas Eve, he threw her things out on the subway over a small stupid fight. The next day, he renovated her room for his Sierra Leonean mistress. She had not been able to forgive him yet, nor had she been able to stop loving him.
She stared at the scale angrily as though it was fabricating the number, then she went out to smoke. She burnt a full pack of Benson & Hedges before Gomezga’s red Peugeot 308 pulled up in the driveway.
Gomezga walked her in and gave her a hug. “You’ll be good,” she said. “You’re a very pretty woman.” Her accent was really cute when she said words like, “pretty” and “calm.” She held Gomezga’s cheeks and she flinched a bit. Then Gomezga pulled her in and kissed her on her lips. Irene’s lips were cracked from smoking, but Gomezga’s felt so soft and nice. How was she so soft? She opened her eyes and they were on Gomezga’s favourite couch, hands searching each other’s body.
“How long have you known?” Gomezga found the pregnancy tube test in the backyard where Irene had carelessly disposed of it.
Irene was frying potatoes, turning the pan from side to side, making sure the heat was balanced.
“A few weeks.” She didn’t turn away from the pan.
“Why didn’t you do anything about it earlier?”
Irene stopped. “You mean abort the baby?” She looked away. “I didn’t know I was pregnant. I bought the test tube sometime ago, but the result was negative, so I thought my period was just late.”
“Hm. Do you know who the father is?”
Irene felt heat around her arm and looked to see the edge of her blouse catching flame. She put off the fire hastily with water, which irritated the hot oil.
“You know who the father is?” Gomezga asked again, dispassionately, her face lacking the warmth it had these previous nights.
Irene let out a sigh that slouched her shoulders. She had sent him thirty-two mails with different addresses, applying for a place at Sherry’s Palace. She missed him. And once she found out she was pregnant, she knew she had to see him. He had to have known it was her, somehow. Why else hadn’t he responded to any?
“Men,” Gomezga hissed, reading her mind. There was anger in her voice and the heat of betrayal. “If you knew about the pregnancy on time, would you have aborted it?”
“No.” It was absurd. The child was his; was him. And just maybe, if it turned out to be a boy—who knew the possibilities?
“Mr. Gordon was sick. Passed away two months ago,” a stoic employee said to her the day she finally plucked the courage to visit his office on Femi-Davis street.
Irene shrunk, held on to the desk for support.
“Ms. Hussain? He knew you would come. He asked me to give you this.”
She didn’t need to open the brown envelope to know what lay beneath its sealed lips. “He p-passed away-away?”
The lady placed her small, soft palm over hers and pushed the envelope towards her. Irene felt a small chuckle rise from her throat and the secretary stared at her oddly, pulling back her hands.
“He wanted you to have it.”
“No, no, thanks,” she said, struggling to control her breathing, which landed in short, quick, irregular spurts. Hyperventilation was next. “I just wanted to see him.”
She ran out of the reception. But later, only a few minutes later, she was back, snot-covered nose, but clearer head. The envelope was waiting on the desk for her, almost like it knew she’d be back.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.