Breakdown in Lagos

Breakdown in Lagos
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Lagos,_Nigeria_57991

Ikoyi had me overdosing on privilege. It proved too easy to fall in with cliques ten years too young for me. The early twenties demographic is perhaps the most egalitarian cohort on the planet. At that age everyone is single, thirsty for reinvention, eager to project popularity—their hierarchies not yet set in stone—and therefore hesitant to rule out any connection. So I fell in with a crowd who took me to the club. And when I lost them, I picked up another group. I got myself invited to house parties where people who adhered to color-coordinated dress codes misread my American-ness and my career and overestimated my social cachet. The sons and daughters of the elite would name-drop their Swiss boarding schools and then become flustered by my look of confusion, mistaking it for snobbery (never guessing at my working class background or that my education had been public all the way to PhD). They would work harder to impress me. I felt guilty watching them scramble for validation, so I practiced a response: “King’s College? Not bad. You’ll like it there.” This would be delivered with a nod of approval, but not awe, making me like a gatekeeper cracking the door for the right password when it should have been the other way around.

This partying phase lasted until the self-described “biggest star in Africa right now” kicked me out of his Lekki mansion. To be fair, I had no idea that it was his house or even who he was. Some guy in a nightclub invited me to a house party and it sounded like fun. At the house, we sat on an over-sized, leather couch talking with a group of people who seemed cool. Then a bland-looking man wearing a polo shirt with an upturned collar walked in, sipping from a wine glass as he surveyed the room. He made another guy get up from the seat across from us so he could sit there himself. As soon as he clocked my presence, he looked me over twice, not even hiding that he stared, but never saying anything. When a new song came on, he snapped his fingers at me and told me to dance for him.
“Wait. What?” I said.
“Dance for me.”
“What? No.”
“Why not?”
“Because I’m not a dog.”
“Are you laughing?” he said. “Do you even know who I am?”
I said, “Did you forget who you are? Because that can be a symptom of a serious issue.”
This did not go over well. He unleashed an epic rant in my direction while I backed slowly toward the door. My one regret afterwards was not recording the whole thing on my phone because there’s nothing funnier than a grown man throwing a tantrum, bellowing, “I’m the biggest star in Africa right now.” (A little Google detective work after this incident established that he was a washed-up Nollywood actor who peaked a decade ago.) At one point he said, “I took you in off the streets and now you disrespect me?” I had almost made it out of the room when he caught his breath to ask, “Who brought you here?”
“Relax, dude. I’m going.”
“I said, who brought you?”
“Your friend brought me,” I answered and motioned toward the guy from the nightclub.
The biggest star in Africa right now pointed to his friend and said, “Get her out of here!”
His friend followed me outside and explained, “He’s not really like that. He’s just having a bad day. He had too much to drink. Come. I’ll take you home.”
“I’ll get my own drive,” I said. “That guy is messed up and if you’re friends with him, you must be messed up, too.”
Yet being kicked out of that Nollywood bastard’s house didn’t even touch me. Already I saw the episode as something that would make a funny story for my friends back home. Constant partying had grown stale by that point anyway, especially as I had ostensibly come to Nigeria to get some work done. The next day I woke early, hung-over and sick of rich kids, wanting nothing more than the atmosphere of a humble local library to soothe me.
I set out on foot, breaking a promise made before the trip to go everywhere with a driver and not walk the streets. Now only the heat could come between me and work. The harmattan edged toward the coast, ushering dusty breaths of Saharan air through the city. Some people welcomed the dry season, despite higher temperatures, enjoying relief from the usual humidity. Others longed for the rains, which wouldn’t come until March. I had to drag myself from shadow to shadow to cope, veering in and out of hawkers and buyers while focusing on snatches of music blasting from passing cars. (All the current hits were love songs about money.)
Halfway to the library, the sight of a street stall stopped me in my tracks. Several people sat on stools or crates in front of it, basking in its shadow, making themselves into an oasis of calm in the chaos of Lagos. They had been talking, but paused when I walked over. “Can I buy a bottle of water?” I looked into each face in turn, unsure of whom I should be addressing this question to. A woman on a stool handed me a bottle. After paying, I decided to rest for a moment, not yet ready to leave the shade, saying, “This heat is crazy.”
“Hot,” said a guy. “Very hot.”
“I can’t even make it down the block without having to stop in a patch of shade,” I continued.
“Wooh,” said the woman, fanning herself in agreement. “It’s very bad today. Might cool off tonight.”
“Where are you from?” asked a man who sat on a barrel.
“New York.”
“Where are you walking to?”
“The library.”
“The library!”
The woman on the stool laughed like I was crazy. “That’s a funny destination for a tourist.”
“Am I going in the right direction?”
“It’s just down the road,” said another guy, who sat with his legs bent in front of him and his back against the wall. He looked up at me from under the brim of a baseball cap, met my eye in a way that quietly let me know he noticed me. That was my first look into those eyes and it struck me, made it difficult to continue on my way.
To stall for time, I said, “Is it any good?”
“Probably not what you’re used to in New York.”
“Are you American by any chance?”
“No,” he laughed.
“Or were you living there at some point?”
“No, I’ve been there but never lived there. Why do you ask?”
“Your accent. You sound like a New Yorker, but only for certain words.”
“Funny,” he said. He pushed himself up and added, “I’ll walk you to the library if you want. I’m going in that direction anyway.”

He was not good-looking in an obvious way. You might think him too skinny, his bit of facial hair a bit scraggly. If he hadn’t met my eye and talked to me, I might never have noticed him. Yet already, as he walked beside me, I saw that he was actually beautiful once you caught him at the right angle. He walked with a deliberate bearing and the sort of grace usually seen in dancers.

He was the reason I kept walking by that stall every day. If he was there, I’d stop for a chat. These talks grew longer until they took up the time it took me to drink a full bottle of water. My MO was to be friendly with all of the street regulars equally, listening to their banter about pop culture and local politics, but I’d find myself watching him more than the others. He spoke softly, calmly, holding himself so still. There was something deceptive about that stillness, though, an energy that came brimming out from eyes that rose from his high cheekbones like two moons.

As the days went on and my street stall ritual continued, there were more and more moments when I’d get drawn into conversation just with him. The other regulars called him Gidi and I wondered if that was short for Gideon or some other longer name. We established that we were the same age. He’d tell me what books he read. His taste in literature: completely random, endearingly random. He had the taste of someone who read for the love of it without having been taught what to like (or what to pretend to like). He had done a bit of traveling (which must explain his toned-down accent somewhat). He was a musician. I mentioned that I played guitar. He told me he had some guitars around and invited me to his house, saying that a few of his friends would be coming over that evening. He sourced a slip of paper and a pen from the regulars and scribbled his address for me. This small bit of his handwriting felt like a gift and made me momentarily wish he’d write me letters, which was admittedly a confusing wish to have about someone standing right there. It was only because of this slip of paper, where he had also written his full name, that I figured out that Gidi was just a pseudonym.

My nervousness before the party made it impossible to deny that my fascination with this guy went beyond idle curiosity. My body slipped shakily into the bath in my rented apartment. It should have been relaxing. It would have been better to remain calm and free of expectations than to feel so fatally on the verge of something. I dressed in slow motion, worried over my hair before tying it back, set off with the slip of paper in hand.
Here’s how the party went: First, we played music. Gidi had a recording studio set up in one room. I looked around and said, “When you said you’re a musician, you weren’t kidding.”
“Why? You didn’t believe me?”
“People in New York who say they’re musicians are mostly delusional stoners who know like three Nirvana songs on guitar.”
“Speaking of guitar.” He pulled a telecaster from the wall and handed it to me. I plugged into the nearest amp, checked that it was in tune, and—aware that his friends were watching skeptically—played a few bars of “Shout and Feel It,” skipping the middle and heading straight for the solo.
“Huh. She can play,” said one of the friends, nodding. Their apparent surprise at the fact that I could actually play did not come as a surprise at all. When you don’t project confidence, people struggle to believe that you can handle a guitar, especially if you’re a woman. I looked up at Gidi and asked, “What do you like? Do you know any Bob Marley?”
“I love Marley.”
“I’ll play. You sing.”
We settled on “Is This Love.” He sang (and god, he could sing) and his friends shouted along to the chorus. Despite my apparent doubt when he told me that he was a musician, Gidi kept his faith in me. When we finished the impromptu sing-along, he said, “Do you think you could lay down a guitar track on a song?”
“Play me the song and I’ll try to come up with something.”

He pulled up a file on the computer and handed me headphones. I fumbled around until I found the right chords. Before starting to play in earnest, I said, “It’s kind of embarrassing to come up with something with everyone watching.” So Gidi cleared all his friends from the room. By now the stone-still man from the street had gone completely. He bounced around on his heels as I played, folded his arms as if thinking before suddenly gesturing when I came up with the right arpeggio, saying, “Yes. That. Can you play that again?” I played it twice. “But a bit more like…” and he leapt to the keyboard and played a slightly different pattern. After a few tries, we had something he was happy with and he recorded it. For some reason it wasn’t embarrassing to play in front of him, even when starting out and floundering for the right notes, maybe because he carried himself like a conductor rather than a rock star. Unlike a lot of musicians, there was nothing competitive or judgmental about him when I struggled. It didn’t even seem to about him really; his entire demeanor was that of a priest urging a novice on to serve a higher purpose.
The song-in-progress had been an interesting mix of aesthetics that left me impressed and also curious. While hanging the guitar up, I noticed awards on the wall and thought, who is this guy? (This was also when I figured out that Gidi was only half of his stage name.)

We moved to the sitting room. Gidi started asking me what I listened to. His taste in music was more studied than his taste in literature while still being quite eclectic. My own taste in music was as erratic as his taste in books. We sat next to each other on the couch, bringing up songs for each other on a laptop, then, to make room for other people, ended up sharing a computer chair and a pair of headphones, one earpiece each. The party went on around us, but we might as well have been on our own. Our listening ranged over music from several continents, different periods, and was not confined by genre. He said he didn’t believe in being beholden to one genre, because “a good song is a good song.” As Gyptian sang “Hold Yuh” on Youtube, I thought about how close we were sitting, his leg against my leg, my arm against his arm, and how easy it would be to simply lean over and rest my head on his shoulder.

I said, “I think this is really a love song for his motorcycle. Like the woman in the song is just an excuse because people would think it was weird if he sang about his love for his bike. But really, he just wants to give his bike a hug. He wants to take the bike to bed and make love to it.”
He put a hand to his forehead in mock exasperation, shaking a bit when he laughed, smiling at me sideways to say, “Oh my god.” I would have said anything to keep him smiling and talking to me, especially since he had to bring his face right next to my lips in order to hear me above the other conversations in the room. Eventually we would have been talking right into each other’s mouths. And he had the best lips. You might wonder what that means. What did his lips look like? Full on the bottom, rising to two sharp peaks at the cupid’s bow—but that’s beside the point. They weren’t the best because of how they looked but because they were his, because I couldn’t stop watching them as he spoke, thinking about what they could do for me.
Then the power cut out. A chorus of annoyance rose from the other party-goers. Gidi said, “Don’t worry. This happens all the time.”
As if in confirmation, someone in the room said, “Never Expect Power Always.”
In the dark I took my chance, first finding Gidi’s ear with my lips, then, when he turned toward me, his mouth. He leaned into the kiss.
“Gidi, is there any diesel for the generator?”
He didn’t seem to hear, but kept kissing me until the question was asked a second time.
“Gidi. Gidi, man, is there any fuel?”
Gidi withdrew his head slightly and said, “I don’t know. Yeah. I think there might be some left.” Then he went back to kissing me.
“Well, are you going to check or what?”
A few people swept their phones around the room like flashlights. With a sigh, he patted my leg and got up.

To tune a guitar, play a harmonic on the fifth fret of the E-string and then on the seventh fret of the A. If the strings are out of tune with each other, the harmony will quiver. You can feel the sound waves rise and fall in the body of the guitar, feel the two waves part in disharmony. If the strings are in tune with each other, the harmony will ring clear, a ripple expanding forever on a dead calm sea. Two strings in tune can bridge the gap between your chest and the guitar, holding you suspended in sound, never wavering. Those two notes will seemingly ring forever, so imperceptibly will be their dying out, unless you dampen the strings.
You already know what happened next. There was no fuel. This was a season of shortages. The lights weren’t coming back any time soon. The party drained from the house in a new flurry of arrangements for lifts, partings exchanged, future plans alluded to. Gidi wove through his friends by the light of his phone until he arrived back to me. He bent down and whispered in my ear, “Stay.”
At first the word held me too suspended to speak. I wondered if I really could, mentally rehearsed what should have been my reservations though every sinew drew toward Gidi like a compass needle. Faced with my paralysis, he leaned over again and said, “Are you offended? Did I say the wrong thing?”
“No. No. I’m actually considering it. Just give me a minute to think.”
“Nothing needs to happen. We can just talk.”
We both knew damned well we weren’t going to talk. “If something happens,” I started. He held himself in suspense next to me as the moment stretched out before I found the courage to finish, “can I be on top?” Even with no lights I could feel him smile.

Actually, though, we did talk. That’s not all we did, of course. He let me do what I wanted. He let me have my way. And then, during lulls, we had those conversations that happen with someone you want to know, a kind of excavation of the stories you tell yourself, sifting through the facts of your life, fashioning them together into something the other person might understand.

Gidi, as he told it, came from a slum, a place that didn’t even exist anymore because it had been razed to make room for expensive housing. Yet he had the good fortune of being born to parents who were on their way up in the world and who valued education and would do anything to keep him supplied with books, even if he strayed from the path they chose for him, which was medicine. As a teenager, he sold odds and ends by the side of the road to save up for an eight-track and his parents worried that they had failed him. But he had a plan, he said, and faith. His parents didn’t understand really, but they had come around to being proud of him anyway.

Inspired by his candidness, I decided to try my hand at something like the truth. When he asked what brought me to Lagos, my standard answer came first: “Work.” In Lagos, that word is enough because work explains everything, but I didn’t stop there. “Work was my excuse anyway. And I am working, writing a book on Achebe. But I could have left a week ago and I decided to stay longer. Really I’m here reading novels, drinking coffee in Jazzhole, talking shit to random people, getting myself invited to house parties, sitting out in Freedom Park on balmy nights listening to jazz music. And, if I get my way, I’m going to The Shrine to hear Fela’s kid. That’s one of my life goals.”
“Why, though? Why did you stay if you were done with work? And you’re here on your own?”
“But I keep meeting lots of people. You probably think I’m having a nervous breakdown or something. If I am, it’s the best nervous breakdown ever. I just need to lie low for a while, keep my head down, so it might as well be Lagos. God. That must sound shady. I swear I didn’t commit a crime or anything.”
“Whatever it is, girlie-o, you can’t run away from your problems.”
“Ok,” I said. “But if you ever have a problem like my ex, run. Run and keep running. Run and don’t look back. Running from that man was the best thing I ever did.”
“So it’s like that, huh?”
“It is.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Never mind.”
“He hurt you?”
I made no reply. He pulled me onto his chest and stroked my hair.

I didn’t make it to The Shrine that week because of a sudden productive run that Gidi perhaps deserved some credit for. The morning after being with him, I returned to my apartment and typed as if possessed, feeling cured even if my tired brain left a trail of typos across the page. My body felt worn out, but in a good way, floating free. I only went to the street stall once that week, bought a bottle of water, greeted the regulars. Gidi wasn’t there, but he was probably working. Musicians keep weird hours.

Another excuse to stay in Lagos presented itself when a university contact emailed asking me to give a paper at a conference to fill in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to travel. I agreed because it was Ok to simply recycle a paper from another conference. Between panels, I socialized with other academics and managed to round up a suitable group of people for a trip to The Shrine, which meant not having to steel myself to go alone. Five of us set out the following Thursday.

The Shrine, seat of the Kuti clan, seemed aptly named when we entered, all of us hushed and looking around the airy spaces as if in a church or museum, craning our necks to take in the Fela artefacts covering the walls, the iconic sign that declared, “Welkom, Na De Shrine.” Two of our group were older Nigerian professors who seemed amused to be initiating us. One wore a tweed suit and bow tie and must have been satisfied to see his outfit come back into fashion yet again while the other professor decolonized her personal style for the evening in a green iro and matching gele. A bearded American of the baby boomer generation came along as well, but he was friends with the Nigerian professors and had been to The Shrine before. The American looked like your stereotypical jazz-lover. To look at him you could imagine that he also liked trains, good wine and collecting stamps. The last of our group to be recruited was a Canadian guy with mod curls who favored a uniform of jeans and a blazer.

As the venue filled up and we gathered around a table with food and palm wine, the dynamic of our group settled until our ages became a matter of relativity. The Canadian and I, both being the same age, seemed to play the teenage children of the Nigerian professors with the American as our crazy uncle. The Canadian struggled through his chops and with pronouncing words like “akara” and “asun,” which was funny because at the conference he presented a paper called “Eating History: Poetry after Biafra.” Despite our illusory family dynamic, or maybe because of it and certainly because of the palm wine, a feeling like being at home spread through my entire body. As the ideal children of the professors (who were old enough that they might have had grandchildren), we listened, rapt, to stories about Fela and other jazz musicians they had known. We drank in their wisdom about academia gratefully. Everything felt good. Palm wine felt really good. Over the New York winter, an anxiety set in that drained my personality, flattened my voice to a ragged monotone. The last few weeks thawed me out. Living felt so natural that when the band began to play and a man invited me to dance, it felt so easy to rise from my chair and follow him.
Dancing came like first nature, with that man, then another, with nobody in particular, with a group of people, but mostly each of us belonged to the crowd. The crowd took on a personality bigger than any individual. And then, out of nowhere, Gidi had his hands on my waist. “You!” I said, throwing my arms around his neck.
“You!” he answered.
He danced us over to a quiet corner. “I didn’t know if I’d see you again,” I said, then remembered that he knew about my plan to visit The Shrine and maybe he had been showing up, hoping to catch me.
“But,” he said, suddenly stern, “who was that you were dancing with?”
“Nobody. I was just dancing.”
He wagged a finger at me and said, “You shouldn’t be dancing with strange men.”
“Are you seriously going to pick a fight with me over dancing? Because I’d rather be dancing than arguing.” I turned away from him, making for the dance floor.
He pulled me back, tighter this time, and said, “Dance with me.”
It might sound problematic, but it was like a game. His jaw strained against a smile through his patriarchal posturing and his eyes squinted with merriment. If we inherited a script written generations ago, we took it up as pantomime. Soon we were too distracted to dance. When the band finished, I made my excuses to my colleagues and left with Gidi.
Whatever machismo he played on the dance floor, in bed Gidi always let me have my way. As we lay side by side, momentarily spent, he asked me how long I would stay in Lagos. “I have to go back to New York eventually,” I said. “Work and all that.”
“You don’t sound like you want to go back,” he said. “Are you going to miss me?”
Still under the influence of the palm wine, a story came out, essentially the story I had been telling myself about him: “You know, the first time I was with you, it was such a relief. You let me do what I wanted. You let me be in control of the situation. I was like, thank fuck. I’m not damaged. I’m not fucked up. I don’t hate men. I’m not afraid of men. I’m just a normal human being getting on with life. It was such a relief. I thought even if I didn’t see you again that I was lucky to have met you. I’m always going to be grateful to you for that.”
For three days we didn’t get out of bed. Power outages barely registered. It felt like the start of something instead of the end.

Back in New York, I kept telling myself the same story about Gidi. Grateful to have met him, Ok if we never met again, no expectations. The story buoyed me up through work, got me through that Achebe monograph. Every now and then, Gidi would come to mind and then my heart would wish for a text or a letter, an email, a call, something, but I’d tamp that feeling down with the story. Why start something that would drag on with both of us on different continents? Life must go on. Still, my imagination allowed for a proviso: If he came to New York that would be a different story. A sequel. I imagined picking him up at JFK, embracing him like no time at all had passed.
Only one of my friends knew. During a night of wine and Netflix, she asked outright what happened in Nigeria that made me come home so dreamy and calm. I said, “You know what? I’m going to answer this question. But only once. After tonight, we must never speak of this again.” I brought up one of Gidi’s videos on Youtube, chosen because the song would be the most-likely one to impress my friend. Furthermore, the director shot to capture the soulfulness of Gidi’s eyes, which was what I had first noticed about him. My friend looked at the video, at me, back at the video.
“What? What’s that look for?” I said.
“He’s a rapper? What.”
I thought of Gidi as a musician rather than a rapper, but it was true that rapping was one of his many talents. “So?”
“So falling in love with a rapper is something you do when you’re like nineteen! You’re thirty! How old is this dude?”
“Same age as me.”
“Girl, you need to pull yourself together. Did you go to Nigeria to have a midlife crisis or what?”
“Lagos is amazing, though. If you ever want to have a mental breakdown, I can’t recommend Lagos highly enough.”
“I hope you didn’t give that guy your bank info. Did he tell you he’s a prince, too?”
The trip had made me somewhat protective toward Nigeria and jokes like that made me want to slap people. I closed the video, cutting off Gidi mid-phrase, already regretting the attempt at confiding in someone.

The heat turned sick and heavy, humid even after dark, like summer would never end. One night I walked Broadway to Steinway (my excuse: milk and bread) without ever making it inside any shop, wanting to walk all night, wanting to belong to the flow of bodies on the street, but thinking all the while of Lagos. Lagos was all I felt. I cocked an ear east and toyed with the idea of riding the subway out to Jamaica just for the possibility of hearing a Nigerian accent. Once home I cracked and searched for Gidi on Google to find out what he had been up to.
He had released the song I played guitar on. Zooming in on the album artwork, my name could just be made out in the credits. The guitar track was there, sounding like it did that night except turned down in the mix and warped slightly by compression and modulation effects that must have been added afterwards. Hearing it really brought me back, made me want to keep hitting repeat until every detail of that night could be relived. Then I half-considered posting a link on Facebook with a nonchalant status update like, “So, about that time I played guitar on a rap song…” My friends would laugh. I didn’t do that, though, because next I came across a list of tour dates. Boston. Hartford. New York. Baltimore. Atlanta. Houston.
New York. The last concert happened a month ago. So Gidi had been to New York and back and said nothing. He had been walking through New York while my imagination invented that scenario in which I collected him from JFK. How stupid. He performed and probably slept within a few miles of my home despite my rationale about how geography was the only thing that kept us apart. How stupid. How delusional of me.
But of course Gidi had been in America. He told me that he travelled when we first met outside the stall, but I somehow never managed to put two and two together, had never stopped thinking of him as the salt-of-the-earth man who talked shit to strangers in the street.
Only Nina Simone could comfort me now. Sometimes in life, you just have to resign yourself to a mood, give yourself over to “Sinnerman” while you stew in your own bitterness. I went through every story about Gidi in my head with a red pen. That day when he first looked at me and his eyes were so soulful and calm: stoned. (My friend, if I had told her, would have said, “You saw what you wanted to see, showing up, looking for that water, all thirsty.”) When he paid me so much attention and I wanted to keep him talking for the night: narcissism. Of course he’d keep around a woman who hung on his every word. People who can put themselves out there and perform for a living have insatiable appetites for attention. When he turned up at The Shrine and acted possessive—I had explained away his behavior by calling it a game, but had he really been simply joking? It niggled at me and now I had to admit that I didn’t know him well enough to say for sure.

So this new story took root in my mind. Over the next few weeks, it nursed me through my return to teaching, carried me into the early stages of my next research project, sustained me through the first tentative dates of my new single life. And yet it never quite dislodged the first story about Gidi in which he restored me to myself by letting me do things to him that cancelled out what another man had done to me. The two conflicting stories sat side by side in my brain, sometimes overlapping, occasionally jostling each other for authority, neither ever winning completely.

Marcella O'Connor

About Marcella O'Connor

Marcella O’Connor is currently writing a dissertation on Elizabeth Bowen at University College Cork. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Zymbol, Ambit, Cyphers and Crannóg.

Marcella O’Connor is currently writing a dissertation on Elizabeth Bowen at University College Cork. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Zymbol, Ambit, Cyphers and Crannóg.

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