Grown-Ups

Short Story by Chiedozie Dike

Grown-Ups

Most nights, Izie sheds her clothes as soon as she comes home. She’d shut the door behind her, toss her handbag to a corner of the selfcon apartment and unbutton her suit while kicking off her shoes. Tonight she glances at me instead and marches towards the bathroom, swinging her handbag.

“Welcome home,” I say, stretched out on the bed and following her with my gaze, the wall-mounted flatscreen blaring with football commentary and stadium noises.

She flicks the light switch on the wall by the bathroom door, on and off, on and off, but the bathroom remains dark.

“Shit,” I say under my breath and turn down the volume of the TV.

Izie turns to me, her eyes closed for a second, her lower lip clamped between her teeth. “You didn’t change the light bulb. Again.”

“It skipped my mind.” Same as yesterday and the day before.

She lets her breath out in a whoosh and tilts her face to the ceiling. Off comes her shoes and her handbag sails across the room, landing on the bed next to me. She could have hit me with it if she wanted.

“I’ll do it now,” I say, getting up. But she is already ransacking the wooden cabinet hanging off the east wall, tossing around Sellotape, blocks of air freshener, knots of copper wire and other household supplies. She pulls out a lightbulb, puts the electrical contact in her mouth, and tosses the cardboard packet in the bin. She grabs a torch from its perch on the headboard and drags the bedside drawer across the tiles as though pulling a crippled animal to safety.

From the door, I watch her set the drawer at the centre of the bathroom, halfway between the sink and toilet but next to the bathtub. She props the torch on the floor and mounts the drawer, the torch’s LED beam trained on the ceiling, a fluorescent target catching the light fixture at bullseye.

I retreat from the doorway to wait by the bed, turn the television off for good measure.

When upset, Izie walks around me as if I’m an anthill so familiar I blend in with the landscape. Half the time her anger is about something else from work and I’m her Everlast bag. I let her vent, give her time—anywhere from a few minutes to a day —then I press into her from behind and knead her shoulders until she groans and her muscles relax. Sometimes I take her wrist in bed and put her hand in between the folds of my thighs, so she can feel how wet she makes me.

Izie flicks the light switch on and leans against the jamb of the bathroom door, her legs crossed calf over shin, her hand on her waist with the thumb facing outward. Her lipstick is faded and bits of hair stick out of her bun, but her charcoal suit is buttoned to the neck and she’s still in heels. She might have just logged off her computer at work.

I step towards her, my fingers laced in front of me, my lips pursed, an act of contrition in flesh.

She stares at me in the level way she does when she’s about to beat me at chess or outrun me on the beach, no hint of clock-out fatigue in her eyes.

“I want you out of my apartment,” she says, her tone flat, conversational, a serrated knife on a puffer fish, cutting around the poisoned silence of the last few minutes. “I don’t expect you to clear out right away. You can leave your belongings here as long as you need.”

It’s past six in the evening, minutes before nightfall. She’d kissed me on the forehead before she left for work this morning, left me money on the nightstand to get myself breakfast.

“Is this about the lightbulb?”

She tucks a tuft of stray hair behind an ear. “You know it’s not.” She looks serene, Madonna in repose, as though she’s not turning me out on my arse.

“Why?” My head is swimming and I’m unsure what to do with my hands.

“None of this”—she gestures to take in the space between—“makes sense. You’ve lived with me the whole time we’ve dated. We match on Tinder and you’re here with a bag four days later. It just—I’m tired.”

“You said I could stay.” I cringe at the crack in my voice.

“For a week. It’s been six months, and I don’t know you anymore than I did back then. You know all my friends, but I haven’t met any of yours.”

“I don’t have a lot of friends.”

“You have some.” Her eyes bulge and she punctuates each word with a knife-edge chop against her left palm. “You’re off to see a friend every time you leave the house, you come back whenever, and I don’t even know where you’ve been or who you’ve been with.”

“I’ll stay home if you want.”

“That’s not it.”

“I have nowhere else to go.”

‘Go home to your parents.”

My nose tingles and burns. “You know I can’t.”

“I only know the things you told me, and they don’t add up. How do I even know your parents are real?”

“You’ve seen pictures on my phone. On Facebook.”

“I don’t know what I’ve seen. I mean, there’s hardly any activity on your blog.” She covers her face, exhales into her hands. “Do you even like me, or am I just a roof over your head?”

“Of course, I like you. We are in a relationship.”

“What kind? I feed you, pay for your internet—”

“That’s not fair.”

“I have to wonder what’ll happen when Daddy and Mummy say you can move back in.”

“Let me stay the night at least. Please.”

“I don’t want to lose my nerve,” she says. “Can I have my key back?”

“It’s on the dresser.”

My Samsonite carryall is by the extension lead next to the tabletop fridge, the same place it has been since I moved in. I’d been here two weeks when Izie cleared out one side of her two-door wardrobe to make room for me. That side remained empty until she hung her clothes back up.

“I’ll come back for my things.” I rub my nose to mask a sniffle.

She nods and crosses her arms.

I pause at the door and look back at her, waiting for her to say something, anything.

My body trembles as I trudge down the stairs, ear cocked for the sound of door hinges yawning.

The evening air is cool with a hint of the sea but I’m coming down with a fever, or at least it feels that way.

Outside, I look from one end of the road to the other. A bank balance of 9,584.73 Naira will get me shelter for the night. Beyond that, all bets are off.

I sit on a culvert cover and twist my thumbs.

A little boy walks by me, gawking, his tunic torn around the armpit. If he’s a panhandler, he’s read me as unworthy of his time, which is the instinct of someone who’ll sleep somewhere warm and dry tonight. I must look desperate in my boyfriend jeans and flint-covered sweatshirt, no bra underneath.

Bisola Durotimi Drive lies forty metres to my right and I count speeding cars until the tiny bird stops fluttering where my heart should be.

I take out my phone and call my brother.

Dapo picks on the first ring. “What can I do for you?” He sounds bored, or tired. Perhaps he’s in traffic heading to the mainland.

“You haven’t checked on your only sister.”

“I figured I’d wait and see how long before you run out of money.”

“That’s not fair.”

“You’re not calling me for money?”

“Doesn’t mean it’s the only reason I’m calling.” Tears are falling down my face but my voice sounds level.

“This is ridiculous, you know. It’s been six months.”

“How are Mum and Dad?”

“They are fine. They miss you.”

“If you say so.”

“Look, I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove, but it’s stupid. Go to the damn rehab.”

“I don’t need rehab any more than you do.”

“Except I’ve got my shit together and you don’t.”

“It was just a little coke. Everybody indulges. It’s no big deal.”

“Not everyone gets caught by their parents.”

“You know I could have told on you.”

“I was wondering when you’d resort to blackmail.”

“Did I hold out long enough?”

“Enough to lose all credibility, yes. No one will believe you.”

“Your wife might.”

“Have you met Jolade?”

“Right. I caught her sneaking some gin while she was pregnant with your son, you know.”

“Are you serious?”

“You’re likely raising a dullard.”

“Don’t talk about my son like that.”

“Calm down.” I force a laugh and wipe my face with the back of my free hand. “He’s my nephew and I love him.”

“He probably doesn’t remember you.”

“Fuck off.”

“How much do you need?”

“How much can you spare?”

“I’ll send you a hundred K, but this is the last time. Fix with Mum and Dad and go to fucking rehab.”

“Okay.”

“I’m really not joking this time.”

“Whatever. Thank you, love you.” I click off the line and exhale, exhausted.

I need a drink.

Izie and I had our first date at Baylor’s Lounge on Admiralty Way. I drank G&Ts, she sipped a mojito, and we ate mandarin chicken salads with fried calamari. I may have picked up the tab, but a lot of that night mists over in recall. I should feel something coming here, sitting at the outdoor terrace overlooking the lake, at the same table where Izie and I laughed like old pals on that first date. But I don’t.

The Lekki skyline, its lights playing across the lake, conjures images of Lagos boys with stilted accents and knock-off Pateks. Under a moonless sky, the view disappoints. The pergola roof of the terrace is lit by string lights that trail down to adorn a wooden container garden of lucky bamboos. The lights glint like fireflies when you look at them a certain way. To see how they reflect in the lake, I’ll have to stand at the edge of the terrace and watch my face in the dark sheet of water.

Four feet below, the lake laps and gargles during lulls in the racket of canned music, cutlery and chinaware.

“Is this seat taken?”

The man standing at my elbow is tall, at least six-three, dressed in a white caftan with silver embroidery around the neck. I glance at the empty tables around, the Lebanese man sitting alone at a nearby table, smoking a cigarette and thumbing his phone. Two tables away, a giggling couple huddle and whisper while the lady on the table next to theirs makes a video call—or records a live.

“I could go sit somewhere else,” he says.

“I would never suggest something so obvious.” Only a daft person could miss the barb in my tone or mistake its meaning.

“Great.” He pulls the chair to my right. “Thank you.”

“My name’s Effa.” He holds out his hand and I stare at it.

“Anon.” He has soft hands and a firm grip.

“That’s an unusual name.”

“Wouldn’t you say?”

The waiter arrives with my drink. “What would you like, sir?”

Effa turns to me. ‘What will you recommend?”

“Tap water. Great reviews.”

He chuckles but the look in his eyes is the tip of a knife. “You’re funny,” he says, then turns to the waiter. “I’ll have a Heineken. Get me your food menu, too.” When the waiter leaves, he asks, “Are you always this caustic?”

“Depends.”

“On?”

“The side of the bed, the day of the week.”

“Or month?” He grins.

“Yes, I’ll love to discuss my periods with a random man at the bar.”

“That’s not what I—"

“I gave you too much credit, then.”

“I’m sorry, that was tasteless.”

“Nursery school etiquette finally kicks in.”

He puts both his hands up as though I’ve pulled a gun on him. “I should go,” he says and stands. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“I’m already bothered, so you might as well stay.”

He gives me a pointed look.

“Go on, sit.”

He sits down with a sigh. “You must’ve had quite the day.”

“I don’t need a reason to be unimpressed by you.”

The waiter brings his beer and the food menu.

“But you’re right. I’ve had quite the day.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“Not really.” I sip my drink. “I’m recently homeless.”

He leaned in on the table. “How recent?”

“Two hours, maybe.”

“Boyfriend?”

“Roommate.”

“That’s rough. What’d you do?”

“Not even getting my day in court?”

He laughs but watches me like a daredevil poking a bear. “With that mouth on you?”

He bares even teeth when he laughs, his lips pulled back and coloured the red of a fruit stain, unusual for someone so dark.

“I don’t know that it was anything I said. She just wanted me gone.”

“Did you pay rent?”

“No.”

“And your family? Where are they?”

“My older brother lives in Maryland with his wife and son. My parents live in Ikoyi.”

“That doesn’t sound homeless to me.”

“Except I haven’t spoken to my parents in six months and my brother’s wife and I don’t get along.”

“What happened with your parents?” His eyes linger on the front of my sweatshirt.

“Long story.”

“In that case, let’s order.” He waves the waiter over. “What will you have?”

“A mandarin chicken salad.”

“I’ll have the same.”

“And some fried calamari.”

“That, too.”

“Did you want to place your order or piggyback off mine?” I laugh.

“Consider it a compliment.” He rubs his hands together like a villain in a children’s movie. “So, long story. What happened?”

“I wrote a blog about losing faith and God as placebo. Over a hundred thousand views in the first two weeks.”

“That’s a ton of eyeballs.”

I mime a curtsy.

“You don’t believe in God?”

“Do you?”

“I pray.”

“And he answers?”

“I think so, but what’s this got to do with your parents?”

“Dad’s a knight of Saint Mulumba and my Mum’s a CWO exco. My blog told on them as bad Catholic parents and they wanted it deleted. When I refused, they gave me an ultimatum. Take down the post or leave the house.”

“You’re stubborn.”

“So I’m told. What about you? Tell me about yourself.”

“I’m single. An auditor.”

“My roomie —ex roomie —works in financial services.”

“Great. So where do you work?”

“I’m a writer. I have my blog.”

“Oh right, you said. Cashing out on that ad money, yes?”

“Um, not really.”

“You make money, though?”

“Not yet, but soon.” I gulp my watered-down drink, the ice half dissolved.

“You should be rolling in it with the traction on your website.”

“It’s not about the money for me. I just love what I do.” I wave at the waiter and tap the rim of my tumbler.

“What’d you study? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Physics. Sorbonne University.”

He narrows his eyes, a look I’m used to. “I never would have guessed.”

“Guessing’s not your shtick.”

He laughs. “Where’s Sorbonne?”

“Paris.”

“Comment ça-va?”

“Don’t be daft.”

“You can work in any number of places with a degree in Physics, you know.”

“Mm-hmm.” I sip from my fresh glass.

“The writing can be a side gig till it pays.”

“You sound like my roommate.”

“Then she’s smart.”

“Has a stick up her arse, too.”

“Any other friends you can bunk with?”

I shrug. “Fellow crackheads.”

“What?” His face becomes a gathering storm and I burst out laughing.

He laughs, too. “Phew!”

Our food arrives and I start with my salad.

He nods after his first taste. “Really good.”

“You’re welcome.”

I dip my calamari into the mini-oval sauce dish of garlic-lemon mayonnaise and he does the same.

“We should go out again.”

“Again? I don’t know that we’re out right now.”

“True.”

I dip another calamari and pop it into my mouth.

“What are your plans for the rest of the night?” he asks when we finish eating.

“I’ll get a room, see what tomorrow brings.”

“My hotel suite is booked through to next week. You can take the couch if you want.” He holds his hands out on either side, palms outward.

“Ha-fucking-ha! Not a chance.”

“I’m only being nice.”

“Is what the serpent said to Eve, but I can take care of myself.”

“Nothing will happen that you don’t want. I promise. I like our conversation and I’m not ready for the night to end.”

“They’ll close here in another hour or so.”

“What will it be, then?”

Effa helps me out of my seat when it’s time to leave. I feel his hand on my shoulder and shrug it off. “Chivalry is dead by popular vote.”

“You could have said so before I picked the tab.” Laughter oozes out of his belly, thick as honey and smooth.

He put his hand on the small of my back as I head out of the door, and a tremor goes through my body.

“Are you cold?”

“I’m fine.” I step out of his way. “After you.”

His Uber waits out front. “Parsson’s,” he says to the driver and lets himself into the first-passenger side while I get in the back.

My parents used to take my brother and me to Parsson’s for lunch after Sunday mass and we’d ride the elevator up and down, pointing out our house and those of our neighbours through the glass facade of the ten-storey hotel.

Effa gives me a tour of his suite, although there’s not much to see. A large living area with a sofa bed and a wide flatscreen. Another flatscreen in the bedroom with a six-by-six bed, a regular-sized bathroom and a stacked minibar.

He leaves me in the living area and seconds later I hear the patter of the shower. I switch between channels and settle on a Katherine Heigl movie.

“Do you want anything? I can order room service.” The fresh bergamot, citrus and herbal notes of his soap fill the room. He dabs the dew off his skin and dries his ears with a white towel, the sash of his hotel-issue bathrobe unravelling with every motion to reveal the striped boxer shorts underneath.

“You’re not naked,” I say.

“You sound disappointed.” He tosses the towel in a corner.

“Relieved. Can I use your phone?”

“Sure, go ahead.” He points at his mobile on the coffee table.

I head out to the balcony and dial Izie.

“Hello?”

“It’s me.”

“Whose number is this?”

“A friend’s.”

“Right.”

I clear my throat. “Look, I just want you to know that I wasn’t cheating.”

“Never said you were.”

“You implied it.”

Izie sighs. “Where do you disappear to? Who are these friends of yours?”

“I don't think you want to know.”

“Try me.”

I exhale down the line.

“We’re never getting back together. There’s no reason to lie.”

“I use. Drugs. Coke, sometimes. My friends? Well, you can guess who they are.”

The line is silent for twenty-three seconds. I count. “Coke? Like in a can?”

“You wanted the truth, Izie.”

“Yes, but not this. Jesus! How’s this even possible? I see you every day.”

“You work all week.”

“Did you —did you do it in my apartment? Are there drugs here?”

“The apartment is clean. I made sure.”

“Christ in heaven.”

“I lied about the blog, all of it. My parents tossed me out because I wouldn’t go to rehab.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“I’m not an addict.”

“Sounds like denial.”

I lean over the railing and look down five storeys to the hard ground. “You know, something happened last year.”

“What?”

“I don’t want to talk about it on the phone.”

“I met someone,” she says and my breath catches in my throat. “Are you there?”

“That makes sense,” I say. “You went straight for the light switch, hoping I’d forget.”

“It was going to be that or something else.” Her tone is matter of fact.

“I see.”

“You need to go back home. And go to rehab.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“And this friend of yours?”

“A guy I met at the bar. I’m at his hotel.”

“Sounds like another roof over your head.”

I laugh despite myself, dab at the sides of my eyes.

“Grab something sharp before bed and remember to go for the groin. Let me know when you’re ready to get your stuff.”

“I will. Goodbye.”

The line clicks and I stare at the phone in my hand. City lights spread out in front of me, a map of people alive to the outside.

Effa taps the glass door of the balcony and puts his head through the curtains. “You alright?”

I nod, take a deep breath. “I think so. I’ll be right there.”

He’s on the sofa in striped PJs, his legs crossed at the knees. “I paused your movie.” He hands me the remote.

I sit next to him, lean against his chest, and he puts his arm around me. “I don’t know anyone your age who wears PJs.”

“Now you do.”

I listen to his heart and we sit as though something in the world will fall out of place if we move.

“I should go to bed,” he says. “Long day tomorrow.”

“Okay.” I turn my face up to his.

“Are you sure?”

I kiss him, taste the mint toothpaste on his breath, inhale the citrus on his skin.

He reaches under my sweatshirt, eases me onto my back, and I hook my toes around the waistband of his pyjama bottoms, stretch my legs over his calves.

I try to concentrate on his face, mouth agape, eyes rolling back, but I keep seeing the ski mask.

I close my eyes and pace my breath, count backwards from ten.

“Are you alright?”

I open my eyes. “Did you come?”

“Yes. Did you?”

“I’m not on the pill.”

“Oh, I thought”—

“It’s fine. I need to shower.”

“Yes, of course.” He pulls himself off me and I make my way to the bathroom.

I turn the valve to hot and stand under the scalding stream, wincing as it washes over me and fogs up the glass walls of the stall. It stops burning after a while.

Effa lies in bed naked, his legs apart, the back of his left hand braced under his chin while his other hand drapes his chest. He looks childlike edging towards sleep.

“What took you so long?” He yawns.

I climb into bed, put my arm around him, and he sits up, wide-awake. “You’re shaking,” he says.

He pulls me close and yanks the cover over me, rubs my arm.

I lean into his warmth. “Something happened to me last year.”

“What?”

I’m letting myself into my building when he grips my shoulder and I feel something hard press into my lower back. “Sois tranquille ou je te tuerai.” His breath is on my neck, his body pressed into mine from behind. He’s not much taller than me but he is solid, stronger.

Marie, Fleur, and I had worked all day on a quantum super-conductor device, and it was my idea we go to Little Bastards in the Latin quarter to avoid the gaggle of university students on rue Mouffetard.

I left at midnight, walked four-minutes to the Censier-Daubenton terminus and got on the N02 bus. The five-minute walk home from the bus stop feels longer with the alcohol zinging in my veins.

I get out of bed, gather my sweatshirt off the floor and put it back on.

“What are you doing?” Effa asks.

I unlock my apartment door and he shoves me across the room. I send a side stool clattering as I fall, whip around in time to see him wear a ski mask. He kicks the door shut with his boot. He has a gun.

“Hold on a second, please.” Effa throws on his bathrobe and follows me to the door.

He leaves my apartment door ajar and flees, taking nothing else with him. I hear a door open down the hall and hurry to my feet, slam the door and bolt it.

“It’s almost midnight. Where are you going?”

I sit in the dark until sunrise, listening to the wall clock tick. I head to the bathroom, straddle the bidet, wash up, then pack a handful of clothes and some textbooks into a Samsonite bag.

I walk down the hall and call the elevator.

“I don’t even know your name,” Effa says as the doors shut and the car descends to the ground floor.

I take a taxi outside my building. “Aéroport de Roissy.”

Groggy with sleep, I make a withdrawal at an ATM in the airport and pay one-way for a business class ticket to Lagos.

My mobile rings. It’s Dr. Bernard, my supervisor. We are to meet at his office in an hour to discuss my research, due for publication before I graduate in the summer.

I toss the phone in the bin and buy a pack of gum.

Out on the road, the almond trees cast long shadows and when the odd car charges past, the streetlights pale in the full beam of their headlamps.

A crowd gathers around a mishai’s wooden cart for steamy tea, Indomie, bread and fried eggs. They sit on wooden benches, chat and await dinner.

I never would have noticed them a year ago, these people manning their kiosks, smoking with loose wrists and waving at strangers who hold their gaze. I’d grown up in this neighbourhood, rode my first bicycle and held hands with my first girlfriend up and down these roads. This zip code always meant well-tended front lawns and high walls, but others belong here too, with their carts and kiosks, vivid at night when the curtains close in the big houses and silent generators hum.

Now I’m on the outside looking in.

“Vol 265 à destination de Lagos, Nigeria.”

I grew up in an eight-bedroom postbellum house with palm trees in the front yard and a swimming pool outback. We used to have a pair of peacocks, noisy buggers, and our walls were so high my brother and I never worried about kicking our football into the neighbour’s yard.

I knock on the tall gate, twice, and the peep hole slides open. Dogs bark next door.

“Ah, small madam!” The gateman says from behind the gate, disengages the sliding bolt. “Welcome, ma.”

“Are my parents home?”

“Yes, ma. Dem dey house.”

I head for the front door. I’m home.

About the Author

Chiedozie Dike

Chiedozie Dike is a Nigerian scriptwriter and lawyer. His prize-winning short story “Diagnosis”, and his flash fiction “The Man of Her Dreams” – shortlisted for the Afreada Photo Story Competition in 2017 – appear in the anthologies A Feast for Memory and On Such Days and Other Stories. He is a Maison Baldwin fellow.