The afternoon sun burned a seal on the floor, the single hung window casting a parallelogram shadow onto the cream vinyl sheets near the foot of Laifa’s hospital bed. A crosshatch of metal bars and the grid pattern of the mosquito net framed the window’s outline, an otherworldly manhole Laifa could fall through into an eternity of light where she’d float weightless in the air as if in space. At peace.
She sighed and got out of her bed where she’d knelt, gazing at the sketch of heat on the floor. The bedsprings whined and the bed rocked as though it would fall apart any day. She would not be here when that happened. She’d be long gone, back to her job and her flat.
It seemed ridiculous now how often she’d complained about working the counter, her manager who delighted in scolding her, feeling suffocated in the bulk room, the rudeness of bank customers and how some of them would watch her as though she’d hide a naira note in her bra if they blinked. She got along with some of the regulars, had a few laughs with fellow tellers, but she might as well have worked in a pit somewhere underground and near hell.
She’d drag herself out of bed at four each morning, rub her forefinger and thumb together to wear down the paper cuts from counting other people’s money, her stomach knotted with dread for the Lagos traffic she had yet to sit in and the day that awaited her. She’d taken so much for granted then. Her freedom. Her vanity.
When she got out of here, she’d smile at people more often―rude customers, too. Hell, she’d do a moonwalk if anyone asked. To have all that space, all that open air to do with the weight of your body as you willed. What a gift!
She had seen the light. Down through that imaginary hole in the floor.
Laifa shook her head. It had to be the pills the nurses made her swallow. She’d felt boneless, like a gummy bear, the first time she took them. She could feel her brain shrink to the size of a pea.
“What are these?” She’d asked the nurse the next day.
“Take,” the nurse replied and held out the cocktail of green and blue pills in a small plastic cup until Laifa opened her palm. She handed Laifa a sachet of pure water. “Oya drink. Ahhhh. Open your mouth, lemme see.”
Laifa did as the nurse asked. Arguing would have made her seem difficult and she needed the all-clear to leave as soon as the first twenty-one days of observation passed. If nothing else, years sitting behind a counter in the bank had taught her how to make people feel important, like they mattered.
She stood to a side of the window, looking down into the yard below. A security man walked by, his uniform and beret like a prison warder’s. She’d have spat down to see his reaction, but the mosquito net stood in the way.
She missed looking in the mirror, the casual sanity of it. The lower half of the window opened inward and had a wooden board where the upper half held a glass pane. The hospital management may have boarded the window as a measure to protect volatile patients from harming themselves, but what if the wooden pane existed because someone had broken the glass? The culprit could have been assigned the same bed Laifa now occupied.
To break glass like that, about an inch thick, Laifa would use her elbow. But if she were as loopy as some of the other patients, she’d run headfirst into the window. Oh, the gore! Patterns and streaks of blood slopped across the walls and floor―the ceiling too, maybe. And the glass shards, if somehow she managed not to sever her carotid. What would she do with them?
She reached for the bandage around her left wrist. Last week, she’d had the dressing removed for the first time since her transfer from LUTH. She’d gasped at the yawning slash on her wrist while the nurse dabbed the dark purple lips of the cut with a cotton ball she’d soaked in antiseptic and held deftly by a pair of forceps.
“You’re wondering what possessed you, abi?” the nurse asked.
“It was an accident,” Laifa said. “I didn’t―it was an accident.”
“Hold still,” the nurse said as though speaking to a child who never started fights but always got embroiled in them. Her tone zapped Laifa back to her childhood, explaining to her mother that, yet again, she had been on her own and hadn’t been looking for trouble.
Ridges appeared on the nurse’s forehead while she dressed Laifa’s wound with a fresh bandage. She wound the bandage around Laifa’s wrist with great care, squinting, eyebrows arched, her ears pulled back, and Laifa bit back the giggle bubbling behind her throat.
The nurse had no clue the face she made while fixated on a task. It made Laifa wonder what her own tics were, the mindless way she arranged her face when amused.
At bath time, her bandaged wrist wrapped two times over with nylon, Laifa had bent over the pail, staring at the shifting shape on the surface of the water, unable to make out any distinct features. A twenty-watt bulb hung down a string from the bathroom’s corkboard ceiling, dust-glazed and adorned with spider web streamers. A pair of plywood bars nailed in an equals sign across the face of the wooden windows made them immoveable, shut to the light outside.
Laifa scratched under her collarbone. She’d been itching a lot of late. The light blue cotton gown she wore―house clothes they called them―must have been a vibrant colour at some point, now it had prickly hairs and stretch marks. For all she knew, the last patient to have worn the gown may have had ringworm.
She’d been given a pair of house clothes when space finally opened for her in the ward. Before that, she’d been confined to a stretcher in intake for two days, calling on the nurses whenever she had to pee, going on herself a few times because they took too long to come undo the leather straps binding her hand and feet.
Laifa turned her attention to the glass pane on the upper half of the window. If only she could boost herself high enough on something to level with it and catch her reflection.
The theme for the ward’s layout, were there such a thing, would have been ‘bare, without the necessities’. A four-by-four room painted the washed-out blue of blackcurrant lolly after the dye’s been sucked off the ice; four wobbly beds with space underneath to stash personal effects, arranged two across from each other, with leg room on either side and a centre aisle wide enough to squat but not stretch. No table, chair, or appearance that patients had any recreational interests or needs beyond a place to lay their heads.
The other three occupants of the ward slept deep, the girl in the opposite bed from Laifa letting off the light whistle of a kettle coming to boil. They either got different meds from Laifa, or she had a tolerance for sedatives that had never been tested. But that was doubtful.
It made sense that the doctors would deem it unnecessary to feed her sleeping pills. Like any other person of sound judgment, she posed no threat to others and didn’t need to be put down in lieu of constant supervision. Which served her best, because each time she dozed off, she woke up panting, reaching for her bandaged wrist.
She had the same vision, over and over, where she lay sidelong on her living room floor and stared at the face of her health and fitness smart watch. The watch had been a gift to herself last Christmas after Kunle proposed and they fixed a date. She’d gone from her size fifteen waist to a twelve in six months, doing twenty minutes of an intense guided workout before work every morning. She’d planned to be snatched when she said her vows.
But Kunle texted, with the wedding only a month away. “Am reali sorry,” he’d written.
Not only did he use text abbreviation, he’d ditched the personal pronoun like all his pretences at decency. What kind of man broke off a six-month engagement with chatroom grammar?
She’d dated him for three years and never once saw him being cruel, but out on a romantic dinner date for his birthday in the second year of their relationship, he’d hustled her out of the restaurant before she’d started on her chocolat mou, because he’d spotted someone who owed him money and didn’t want the awkwardness.
Laifa had made frantic phone calls to him that rang out every time, slept overnight at his apartment door, and showed up at his workplace to be told he’d taken his annual leave. The more she tried to get ahold of him the more it seemed as if he’d fallen through a rip in the space-time continuum. They’d used a service that allowed them to track each other’s locations via GPS, but he’d revoked her access before she’d even thought to use it.
Kunle had a habit of ignoring IMs till they piled on his home screen, the visual equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard, which left her with an itch to clear his notifications tab. He always read his emails though, so she sent him one:
I’ll kill myself. And it will be your fault.
When she got the razor from his shaving kit in her bathroom, it had been to take a picture and send to him. He knew of the keloids on the insides of her thighs and on other parts of her body he’d discovered during sex. She never lied about what they were, not to him.
She’d taken the razor blade with her to the parlour after emailing him a picture of her hand above the wash basin, holding the blade on edge between her index finger and thumb. She never cut anywhere she couldn’t tuck out of sight, but she’d held that sharp-edged strip of steel and pictured the svelte silk and lace gown she’d lost weight to fit, the heap of invites sent out, her coworkers and the whispers that would die out when she entered a room, the ten months’ worth of pay she’d put down as deposit on the banquet hall.
Laifa had handled the blade with a steady grip, same way she’d cut strips of paper back in primary school to make paper chain decorations, unsure how this affected the climate or the point of the notices at the back of those Christmas cards her mother bought from the supermarket down the road. How else were card makers to maintain the cycle from sapling to pulp if they didn’t plant new trees?
She couldn’t tell how straight a line she drew, what with the bubble of blood that swelled into a stream, forcing her to get off her cream suede sofa and kneel on the floor. Although her parlour looked as though it’d been done with acacia hardwood, the effect had been achieved with wood-look tiles and she didn’t fret about leaving a permanent stain. It would take a mop, or several. She had never seen so much blood in her life, flowing, spreading across the floor as if painted by an invisible hand. The peak of a mountain here, the outline of a shaggy dog there. Her deep sigh and the sense of release, a knot unspooling in the pit of her stomach, until her head spun in a violent circle and she swooned, crumpling sideways onto the cool tiles, her arm stretched in front of her, leaking red at the wrist.
She’d closed her eyes for a second, exhaled, then it hit her that she’d promised to babysit her nephew Pere the next day while his mother had a spa date with both her best friends. Ebi, her younger sister, knew where to find the flat’s spare key at the base of the potted alocacia by the front door, and Laifa could picture Pere skipping into her flat ahead of his mother, finding her on the floor and freezing until Ebi shut the door and screamed.
Panic fluttered in her ribcage like butterflies in a jar. She tried to sit up but her bones outweighed her will, her consciousness a flighty little thing held down by the paperweight of her desperation. To move, to call for help, anything so Pere didn’t remember her as a blood-drained corpse in full rigor.
She glanced at her smart watch, inches from her on the floor where she’d tossed it after taking it off to expose her wrist. Lying on its side, the display glared at her: bold square numerals telling the time in lime-green, the colon blinking nonstop while the minutes changed. She’d relived those moments every night since, watching time get away from her, trapped in that tortuous loop until she could take no more and willed herself awake.
In reality, she’d mustered what energy she had left and activated the AI personal assistant on her smart watch, “Hey —hey Ally.”
Rhythmic squares bloomed on the face of her watch and Ally’s light automated voice replied, “I’m listening.”
“Okay. Calling Coonlay.” A green two-dimensional receiver appeared on the screen, jiggly, emitting graphical waves while the phone rang, unanswered.
She’d wheezed when she heard a dial tone, a sob that started in her gut but petered out. Her body had gone into low power mode.
“Ally, Mother... Call mother.”
“Did you mean Mother 1 or Mother 2?”
“Now calling Mother 1.”
Her mother picked up on the third ring. “Laifa, tobaroa? How are you? Laifa?”
The watch face blurred as her eyes welled with tears. “I’m sorry, Mummy.” She sounded as though her voice had been pared down with a sharp, spiky instrument. “Please forgive me.”
“Forgive you, why? What have you done, Laifa?”
Laifa took a sharp breath and shook her head. She looked down from the window again, ready to shout “hey” if the security man walked past, but he didn’t. She covered her face with her palms, sighed, and felt her features up with the patting motion beauty vloggers recommended for applying astringent. Eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.
Although she could conjure an image of what she looked like when she gave herself a once-over before heading to work, the lines and contours of her own face mystified her in recall. She couldn’t finger the rash of beauty spots on her face without a mirror. And now she didn’t have one, it seemed unbearable how much of her own face she couldn’t remember.
Laifa looked up at the glass pane on the uppermost part of the window, then over at her bed. If she dragged her bed forward a few inches, she could climb and watch her face in the glass.
She hadn’t expected the bed’s steel legs to cause such a racket scraping across the vinyl floor. One of her roommates turned in her sleep and the girl in the bed opposite progressed from her soft whistle to the grating sound of an overworked Tiger gen. Laifa grabbed the foot end of the bed and pulled, digging in her heels and wincing the whole time. The rectangular peephole clattered behind her.
“What are you doing?” Someone shouted from behind the door, her voice high and shrill. Had to be Nurse Agatha.
Laifa had moved the bed halfway across the room, far enough for her end. She climbed onto the quivering bed, hands stretched out like the wings of a plane to steady herself. The lock turned and the metal door clanged open. “Get me the orderly!” Nurse Agatha shouted. “Miss Abrakassa, get down from there right now.”
Laifa smiled at the clear glass, felt across her cheekbones, her lips, and around her eyes. She had the equine features for a catwalk now. Shame she couldn’t see it with the sun so bright outside.
The noise had woken all but her snoring roommate. “Kilon sele?” asked the girl nearest the door, sounding as though she had cobwebs in her throat.
Laifa kept the smile on her face even after the orderly had grabbed her from behind and pinned her to the bed. She didn’t resist as Nurse Agatha stuck a needle into her arm and injected numbness into her veins.
Laifa only had visitors on Saturdays when her mother had a day off between work and church and Ebi’s husband could look after Pere. She woke up before the dark rolled into morning, lay in bed and stared at the ceiling or paced the ward until the other girls roused from their beds. She spent more time scrubbing at her cracked heels and pits during her morning baths, exfoliated her face by going in small circles with a mesh sponge.
These Saturday visits dredged up memories of visiting days at FGGC Sagamu, when her mother would go through her notebooks and compare them with those of the best student in her class, something she never did with Ebi. Laifa used to look forward to her mother’s jollof, the boxes of cereal, cabin biscuits, Bournvita and Nido, but her intestines tangled up on themselves when visiting day came around on the last Saturday of every month.
When she’d gotten her first period on a visiting day in JSS2, the pain at the base of her stomach felt regular—sharper than the usual constipated clutch that eased once she and Ebi bid their mother farewell at the school gate, but not alarming. She’d gone to the toilet to ease herself and found spots of blood on her white cotton pant. They had been taught all about menstruation the previous year in Inter Science and most of the girls in her class resumed school with their stash of sanitary towels.
Laifa had rolled up her pant and put it in her pocket, went up to her dorm to change into black underwear, then returned to the dining hall to join her mother and Ebi, laughing and tickling each other.
The first time her mother visited her at the hospital, they’d faced each other, fidgeting, then settled on a sideway hug. Ebi had turned for a second to watch a patient leap into the arms of a man who could have been his brother or boyfriend, and she’d missed the hug.
They sat on a bench in the quadrangle, under the shade of an almond tree, and her mother had stared straight ahead, her mouth pressed into a hyphen as though she didn’t trust herself to speak. Ebi talked about the four-year-old shenanigans Pere got up to and laughed all by herself while Laifa fought the urge to vomit. It helped to picture herself throw up an anthill of green and blue pills.
Her mother hadn’t said goodbye when visiting hours ended. She made a waving motion with her hand, head bowed, turned and marched for the exit. Ebi hugged Laifa and whispered in her ear, “She’ll come around, don’t worry.” And she did, first with a few words, then a sentence or two.
She’d slapped Laifa on her fourth visit, a swipe so brisk it might never have happened but for Laifa’s stinging cheek. Ebi had watched with her mouth open while their mother carried on about a friend of hers who’d spread vicious gossip about her in church. Neither Laifa nor Ebi asked what about.
Her mother’s hesitancy to hug had passed after a few Saturdays. She laughed and talked more, without Ebi filling the silence like a middle child between two feuding siblings at dinner. Regardless, Laifa caught herself chewing her tongue the closer it got to the weekend.
Whatever ground she’d gained with her mother would be lost, one way or the other, she’d said to Dr. Bolu, the resident psychiatrist. Her relationship with her mother, as far back as she could remember, summed up to the gain and loss of ground on her part.
Dr. Bolu said it might help to confront her mother with her feelings, get the answers she’d need to resolve her own confusion of love and resentment.
At the risk of losing all ground forever, Laifa believed Dr. Bolu. Perhaps if she came clean about the tightness in her stomach, she could be free from it.
She stood at the window in her new ward, in her house cloth, skin gleaming with Vaseline, her hair held up in a stern bun with rubber band. The new room had three beds and the same faded blue on the walls, but it also had three chairs and the wooden door remained unlocked throughout the night. The single hung window had glass panes and she could see herself when darkness fell outside. It felt like a promotion to be placed in a less restrictive setting two months after she’d been brought to the hospital on a stretcher with leather straps.
Laifa watched the quadrangle until the sun came up, chewing at her cuticles and stopping when beads of blood appeared. “Mummy, I feel like you resent me for looking like him,” she said under her breath, over and over.
Her stomach churned with acid when she spotted her mother arrive with Ebi and take a seat in the quadrangle. She bit into her lower lip until it broke and filled her mouth with the taste of fifty kobo coins from when she used to swallow them as a child. She ran her tongue over her upper teeth, took a deep breath and went downstairs to meet her guests.
It should have been the liveliest visit yet. Her mother laughed a lot, her eyes turned towards Ebi who shared anecdotes about Pere’s first day at school. They leaned towards each other while they laughed, each a flower turning to her sun. If either noticed Laifa hadn’t said much since they arrived, neither showed it.
Her mother wore a floral chiffon dress, eyeshadow and bright red lipstick. She’d gotten the Anita Baker chop she’d threatened for years and the haircut suited her better than Laifa could have imagined. She looked like she’d spent considerable time in front of a mirror and Laifa became certain the more she watched her and Ebi that the edgeless band of their jolliness had the shape of a secret.
“Are you seeing someone, Mummy?”
Her mother froze mid-laugh, her gaze drained of its softness from a moment ago. “As a matter of fact, I am.”
“You didn’t tell me.” Her voice sounded petulant to her ears.
Her mother shrugged. “I didn’t want to upset you.”
“Why would that upset me?”
“Look where we are, Laifa. If there are any reasons, I don’t see them.”
“You always do this.”
“Turn everything around and make it my fault.”
“Alright, I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to.”
Laifa turned to Ebi. “You knew.”
Ebi bit on her lower lip and wiggled her brows. “It wasn’t my news to share.”
Laifa closed her eyes and exhaled. “I’ve been working up the nerve to tell you something, Mummy. My psychiatrist thinks it’s necessary for my healing.”
“How you make me feel. How you’ve always made me feel.”
Her mother took a deep breath and pointed her chin in the air. “And how’s that?”
“Unloved, unworthy, anxious. Every time you look at me I feel like I’ve done something wrong.”
“What’s this nonsense, Laifa?”
“You despise me because I look like him.”
Her mother stopped. “You ungrateful child. Of course, it’s about him. He abandoned you. I’m the parent who stayed but you won’t stop punishing me for it, will you?”
“That’s not what’s happening.”
“Your daddy moved on, found himself another woman—"
“And stayed with her!” Laifa yelled, startling a laughing dove from its nest in the branches of the almond tree above them. “He stayed with her, Mummy. And their children have their daddy.”
Sitting in a nearby bench, another patient and her greying male guest paused their conversation to stare.
“I’m not doing this with you.” Her mother stood and walked past the curious couple towards the exit. Laifa expected she would leave and never return, but she stopped short of the pavilion that led out to the reception area and the parking lot beyond that, leaned against a pillar and tapped her palm against her thigh as though marking time.
“Oh Laifa,” Ebi sighed.
“Don’t act like you’re not a part of this.” Laifa crossed her arms on her chest, looked off to a side, and chewed her tongue.
“How did it go with your mother?” Dr Bolu asked. Behind his steel desk, he looked tall and imposing, the sort of person she’d hide behind if things ever got violent at a nightclub. He sat in this half-relaxed half-bureaucratic pose, his elbows on the arm rest of his swivel chair and his big hands pressed flat on the black leather cushion that topped his desk. The pile of patient files to his left, positioned over a rent in the cushion, completed the bureaucratic patina.
“It was awful.”
“Care to elaborate?”
Laifa glanced at the line of photographs on the wall behind him. Of a boy and girl, fraternal twins by the looks of it, leaning into each other at the beach, smiling as though they’d been bribed with sweets, the girl missing a few teeth. She stood a full head above her brother at their secondary school graduation, the combination of a teenage growth spurt and heels. They occupied separate frames from that point out and looked happy in all: university matriculation, convocation, NYSC.
“She said I was ungrateful, that I hated her for being the parent who stayed.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“Stressed. Although in hindsight, I feel sort of relieved.”
“She wasn’t surprised. Defensive, yes. But not surprised.”
“Why do you think that is?” Dr. Bolu drummed the fingers of his left hand on the table top. Laifa could see him wipe the tears off his daughter’s face with his knuckles, carry her on his shoulders and spin her around till she cried from laughing.
“She knew I was right. She treats me differently from my sister, and I can’t think of any other reason why.”
“Your sister was there?”
“How did she react?”
“She didn’t. She just...shrunk.”
“You know, like she wanted no part of it. And then she tried to change the subject. Apparently my ex recovered the safety deposit we’d made on the banquet hall, including my half.”
“Will you try to get it back?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to see him first, wouldn’t I?”
“What do you feel towards him now, your ex?”
“Nothing, except maybe disgust. He’s a wimp and I don’t think I liked him much.”
“You were going to marry him.”
“I know. It seemed like a good idea.”
“Why, could you say?”
“You’d think he was the sort of guy who’d be steady, you know. An accountant—I mean, people trust him with their money.”
“You said he avoided confrontation.”
“Like a plague, yes.”
“Didn’t your father leave in the middle of the night?”
“What’s this got to do with him?”
“You would have married a man you didn’t like. Because you liked his job.”
“That’s not how I’d put it.”
“Your mother linked your father’s abandonment to his musician’s temperament. The fickleness of an artist, not so?”
Laifa shifted in her seat. “Yes, but in fewer words.”
“So your father’s choice of profession functioned as a definitive personality trait in the same manner your ex’s did. The flighty saxophonist versus the grounded accountant.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“I think you were trying to recreate your father with your ex, Laifa. The same kind of man, but different in the most crucial way: his job. You recognised the same patterns with him: conflict avoidance, duplicity—”
“It must have occurred to you at that restaurant that he was lying, that he was probably the one who owed money.”
“I believed him.”
“Because you wanted to. And unlike your father, he didn’t leave you and scram. He scampered but he took you along. Do you wish your Daddy had taken you along?”
Laifa inhaled sharply, bunched her shoulders and looked off to a side. “He didn’t want me.”
Dr. Bolu drummed his fingers on the table again. “Let’s leave things here today, shall we?”
He leaned forward in his chair. “I signed your release form this morning. I think you’re ready to progress to outpatient treatment.”
“You don’t seem pleased.”
The door burst open and a nurse barged in before Laifa could respond. “You have to hurry, doctor. Nurse Agatha’s been attacked.”
“Excuse me one moment.” Dr. Bolu rose from his seat and dashed off, leaving the door ajar and Laifa there to pinch at her sore cuticles. Her knees shook.
She took several deep breaths, leaned across the desk and picked up the topmost file, her name written on it in black marker. Nothing to see besides records of her vitals and her medication. Topamax, Lamictal, Depakote, and Paxil.
She returned the file and grabbed Dr. Bolu’s leather-bound notepad, which he’d left next to the heap of medical files. She flipped through the pages, full of names and notes. A bookmark tagged the page that bore her name, set out in Dr. Bolu’s well-spaced handwriting with bubble-dotted “i’s” and exuberant “s’s” curled at their tails like piglets:
Daddy hunger. In endless pursuit of father ideals. Deems herself unlovable, resents her mother. Constantly seeks validation from others.
Laifa grimaced at the page, the fingers of her right hand clutching the base of her throat. She brought the notepad up to her nose to read the rest of Dr. Bolu’s notes, words jumping out at her: Inconsistent sense of identity. Seeks out dysfunction. Thinks in extremes. Low self-esteem. Affective instability.
Laifa let off her breath and flung the notepad across the room. She clapped the heels of her palms over her ears and groaned. She could hear the commotion downstairs, some screaming and Dr. Bolu saying what must have been pacifying words in a strident voice. He’d sat in his chair across from her once every week, listened to her as if he cared but he’d thought the worst of her the whole time.
She stood up and walked out of the office into the corridor. The walls were the same dreary institutional blue, slopped in a thin layer that saved paint and damned aesthetics. Office doors lined the corridor on either side, facing each other, except for the last office opposite the staircase landing.
The afternoon sun streamed in through a single-hung window at the end of the corridor, illuminating the passage where a pair of twenty-watt bulbs failed. The noise from downstairs had died down. Whoever attacked Nurse Agatha had been sedated, which meant Dr. Bolu would return to his office soon.
Laifa bent at the waist till her head levelled with her chest. She took a deep breath, cried out, and ran towards the light.