You are conscious of how insidious the city is, how its many parts can creep up on you, good and bad and ugly. You have not allowed the city to snatch questions from your lips, or at least you know how to pick your respondents. You make sure to carry about the words, ‘I am not sure’, in your front pocket. No one says they don’t know in Abuja. When you ask, they just make up the stuff they don’t know in the most assured tone they can manage, carried on the wings of the most distant accent they can conjure.
“Do you know what a life partner is?” you ask, reading from an article she just drew your attention to on the internet.
She doesn’t give you that I-can’t-believe-you-don’t-know-this look. She just pauses for the few seconds it takes her to turn her wisdom into English which is her third language.
“Well, I think it means people who live together but are not married. Not like just boyfriend. It means someone you share your life with.”
Suddenly you realize you should just have googled the thing. Your eyes pretend to continue reading but instead you are counting how many weeks you have spent together in the same house, sharing your lives and cooking and washing in turns. You would have advised anyone else to go slow, but in this matter you seem lost, almost impervious to your own natural instincts. You find ways to seek assurances that you are not choking her out of love. And she says to you in as many ways as you ask, there is nowhere else she would rather be.
On your way to the swimming pool you warn her that you will be wearing flip-flops, the kind some people refer to as bathroom slippers. You find the reference, especially by pretentious Abuja people who declare you a sinner for wearing them anywhere outside your bedroom, irritating. Growing up in Kaduna, everyone wore flip-flops, to walk around, to the shops, to the market. And no one called them bathroom slippers. Just slippers.
She smiles and slips her pretty miniature feet- the most proportionate feet you have ever seen- into her yellow flip-flops for the fifteen minute walk to the pool. You are used to being invisible by her side when you walk- she is the attractive pale-skinned one, and you are just the big black man by her side. The eyes today all follow the same sequence: they stare at her, then look at her clothes and when they get to her feet, they suddenly look at you. The horror in their eyes is so clear you can reduce it to words:
OK, maybe she is a foreigner and doesn’t know that in Abuja you don’t wear bathroom slippers to walk in the streets of posh Abuja, but you? What is your excuse? How could you do this to her, bring her into permanent disrepute? How could you, you miserable cretin!
You smile and explain why, for a change people are looking at both your feet instead of her face. It comes to you as odd that in a country with so much poverty, people are so unforgiving of ‘badly dressed’ people- people would rather drive themselves deeper into poverty than give off any sign that they are poor. Which you think, is probably why you find scores of expensive second-hand SUVs creeping in and out of every backwater slum in Abuja.
On your way back, the growing darkness gives your feet cover. Not that you need it but you can now return to being the invisible black man. You stop to buy some items at a busy pharmacy on Adetokunbo Ademola Way. A well dressed woman in a bright orange boubou, headtie and veil stops you. She looks like any of the posh shoppers trying to find her way to her car. You smile the half, tentative smile preceding a legitimate inquiry.
The woman leans in and whispers from her shiny lips: “Please can I get like N1, 000 from you, I need to…”
You lose the smile and walk off angrily, dragging your partner with you. This woman knows the script. Dress to kill, even when you’re a professional beggar outside a supermarket.