I have never been able to run. Even in secondary school, when I joined the boys to play football, there was always some relief when the ball went out for a throw-in or goal kick, so that I could catch my breath. I notice now how the older men clinging onto health and vitality, jogging furiously on the same route I follow, regard my walking with a level of contempt. It has grown on me now, and the urgency of becoming less obese has diminished any consequence these stares may have had. Most days, I listen to Adele. I know. A grown man like me, walking to heartbreak songs. If anything it is I who might have caused women heartbreak. Adele puts a spring in my step and gives me a rhythm that seems to imbue the whole exercise with some meaning deeper than mere reducing the fat along my waistline and thighs and stomach and neck. Something transcendental almost.
Especially when I start out very early, I have learned to look down, for mounds of feces deposited under the cover of darkness by people living in temporary shacks and uncompleted buildings and maybe even, policemen on night duty. The first time, I stepped right into it and had to cut short my morning walk cursing under my breath all the way home.
The first time I see her, she is wearing a flimsy, stretched-out t-shirt with the inscription “Papa Adieu 1949-2014”. The rest of the text is in a different, lighter colour – faded from washing. The t-shirt is skewed to the right, partly because of the sweat making it stick to the left part of her torso and partly because a bit of the t-shirt is stuck under the right strap of her bra. She is half running, half walking and I am wondering if her breasts jumping up and down with each step aren’t making her uncomfortable. Women should wear sports bras when jogging. There is an earnestness in her eyes and her creased forehead and her pursed lips that make me think she is preparing for something momentous. She must want to get into a wedding dress, or get her man back from the wild, sticky arms of a fit, sexy woman, or from many women. Her eyes are fixed on the ground and even though we pass each other twice, she does not raise her head. I giggle to myself when I realized I sucked in my belly when I got close.
There are things you cannot observe about a city unless you walk, things which will not manifest to anyone moving too quickly. Like all the man-holes without covers which have become rubbish dumps. Like the boarded up windows in one of the rooms of an uncompleted three-story building. Like the anthills that seem freshly made every morning. Like the fact that those who planted trees in the city did not foresee that the roots of the trees they chose would grow into fat horizontal veins and push up all the interlocking tiles on the sidewalks. Like the used condoms under trees in dark corners. Like the smashed up side windows of cars which broke down at night and had to be left by the roadside until morning.
Very early, there is a silver Mercedes on a quiet street – one of the few streets the other walkers and runners have not discovered. I am looking to see if the side windows are smashed or not – if the car stereo is missing or not. Then I see the hands, intertwined – one dark, one fair. I feel the muscles on my neck and face tighten and my teeth begin to grind.
I pick up a big stick and aim at their interlocked hands, hitting so hard that when they disengage, the flesh of the two men’s hands is all mashed up. So mashed up that neither of them can tell which bits of red falling flesh are his; so that the hands with which they prepare for their perversity are permanently put out of use.
When their eyes meet mine, they stop. I walk away quickly.
I am about to replay Adele’s ‘Fire To The Rain’ because my mind strayed and I caught only the end of the song. I like it loud and ignore the phone warning that setting the volume higher is unsafe for my ears.
“Psst Psst,” a small woman says from behind a short back fence with razor wire.
I look at her with the corner of my eye and see that she has dropped something over the fence. I do not turn. I hope she thinks that the earphones in my ear mean I cannot hear her. I do not want to help her. I do not know why I do not want to help her. She will have to go round the very long street to get it. Perhaps someone will have taken it by the time she gets here, whatever it is. A few houses away, I start to feel bad, then quickly kill the thought and focus on the lyrics of the song. I have just loaded phone credit. I debate in my head whether to throw the recharge card on the floor or tuck it in my pocket. Then I tell myself – more like another voice inside me really – that if everyone flung out trash, the city would be unbearable to live in. And I put the spent voucher in my back pocket.
Emma, the DFID consultant who always reminds me that she is a diplomat too, says that she goes to a therapist when she is at home in Essex. Her childhood was traumatic. Her step father beat her mother and made her do cocaine. Once he made cereal spiked with tequila because he wanted to have loud sex with her mother and didn’t want an audience. She was drunk and she saw it all, how he tied her up and made her do things that she says fucked her up and made her look for the same abusive type of men. That was why she did cocaine in University. That was why she slept with all the boys she knew. That was why she had many abortions. That is why she needs to go back home often, to see her therapist. I don’t know how my brother and sister turned out to be normal people, she says. I do not understand white people. Well, she is not white-white. More like a smoothie of different races. Like Tiger Woods. She never answers when I ask her, what really are you?
I am thinking of Emma because of this white man ahead of me who has just stopped jogging and is now smoking. Why jog when you are going to smoke right after?
The woman who wears the Papa Adieu t-shirts – I realize now she has more than one – is trying to fit into a wedding dress. I am sure of it. She looks dehydrated today. Or maybe she has lost weight from some extreme dieting. Like fat Lara, my last girlfriend in polytechnic, who was determined to become slim before she left school for NYSC, and started eating only carrots and water. One day she passed out and ended up in hospital for two weeks where she gained 10 kilos and became depressed. You have big bones, her father would say. You will always be fat. Accept it. She never accepted it.
These days when people who knew Lara in university meet her, they comment on how thin she is. Not nice and slim. Thin. And they all say to her, You looked much finer when you were fat. I wish now that I had lied to her when she asked the last time she called, Do I look sick? One woman said that I look sick.
I wish I hadn’t said yes.
Today Papa Adieu woman looks up. She does not nod or smile or anything but her eyes cast a glance of recognition, of acknowledgement. I want to tell her that she looks like a scarecrow with huge breasts. She looked better with the flesh on, like fat Lara. I want to tell her she is also starting to look like a shriveled potato and whatever diet she is on, she needs to be drinking more water and eating more fruits. But then, I also wish that my body was like hers – that in just two weeks of whatever she has been doing in addition to jogging, I could lose that much weight.
I am tired of my route. I begin my walk two streets away, east of my regular path. It is a street I have driven by before but never walked on. It is quiet and the sidewalks are dark even in daytime because of the huge umbrella trees that hang low. There is a woman who has made a home on one of the concrete slabs with what looks like a dozen flattened cartons. It has just rained and everything around her looks damp except the bold red wig she is wearing which I think she took off when it was raining. The wig looks worn out as I come closer but has a history of once being classy written all over it. She is staring across the road. When I reach within a few meters of her, I increase my pace and look down until I pass her. I am not sure why I do this. She does not turn or say anything and I feel shame instantly descend upon me. When I interrogate myself, I think I was afraid she might say something, or beg for money, or lunge at me in deranged excitement or rage.
There is a bearded man who always sits by the Bahama grass before the bridge closest to my house. If I pass by between 8 and 8.30, he is there pulling on his wiry beards and looking at nothing in particular. Once I was early enough to catch him emerge from beneath the bridge. I know his two pairs of trousers. There is the baggy, faded gabardine which used to be red that he wears only with the dirty red sneakers. There is the tighter, faded olive green jeans which he only wears with the grass green sneakers. He has one brown bucket hat which he wears so that it almost covers his eyes. I wonder if he is going bald. Sometimes I feel like saying hello because technically, he is a neighbor.
Today when I see him standing by the roadside in his green gabardine I wonder if they have ever met, these two homeless people in the poshest part of Abuja. I wonder what she would say if he took a liking to her, if she would consider it beneath her to desire a man who has comfortably settled into homelessness, a man who does not seem ambitious enough to want housing. Thinking of it again, the homeless woman looked to me like she was waiting for something. Her bags were always packed and her wig always kempt. She seemed to be at least working on a plan to leave this concrete slab. But the man – he had this settled look. Resignation. Contentment.
I try never to stop completely to rest. My muscles become weak when I do and it is hard to regain my momentum. But the earthworms make me stop. The sun is out and hot earlier than the past few days and it seems the earthworms calculated wrongly as they tried to make it across from the left of the concrete sidewalk to the other muddy side. Dozens of them were caught halfway and most were already dead. Some were still writhing. Others were struggling to crawl over the dead ones to save themselves from the sun. I want to pick them all up and take them to the other side but stop myself when I think I could be upsetting the balance of things. Sometimes nature does this. Natural selection. And perhaps some bird will swoop down and have a feast. Or some stray chicken.
The traffic police that sit by the junction closest to my house are here again today. I always feel their eyes when I walk past. Once, our eyes met and I felt accused of being privileged enough to undertake nonessential activities like just walking through the city on a Thursday morning with earphones in my ears. Today they do not notice me walking past. The smaller one, who looks like he was malnourished at least once in his life, is helping the other one burst a pimple on his face. The policeman with the pimple has his head arched back, his eyes shut tight, wincing in pain. The one doing the bursting has his lips bunched as he squeezes the pimple between the nails of his thumbs. I think of Saheed, my secondary school classmate who always offered to burst our pimples. I still don’t understand how anyone can enjoy doing this.
I do not hate thinking about my brother because I am ashamed of him. There are many things I feel but shame is not one of them. Sometimes I wonder if I would have felt the same way if the people who attacked him in the village where he went to do NYSC had killed him; if he wasn’t this silent sick man sitting in chains with one bad leg and a million scars on his face. There are questions I want to ask him which I think of now as I begin my walk. How could he take such risks in a village he did not know? When did he sit down and decide that it was ok to touch and let himself be touched by boys? Why did he wake up from the coma after he was beaten by dozens of villagers who caught him with a young boy from the village?
I pick up a small snail on my way. As kids we would always go into our small vegetable garden in the backyard and touch the slimy, shiny bodies, especially the eyes. We could never have enough of touching the snails’ eyes and watching it retract sometimes partially and sometimes completely into the shell. I can’t remember how many snails I smashed open to try to figure out which was male and which was female. They all looked the same on the inside.
I throw the snail into the grass to prevent someone from stepping on it.
Papa Adieu woman who I have not seen for a few days is jogging very fast toward me. She is wearing shorts for the first time and I notice she has very bad knock knees. It must hurt, to have the knees brushing against each other while jogging.
I stretch out my feet and trip her and she falls bouncing on her breasts as if they were balloons.
When she passes by, I inhale to smell her. She smells of lavender and sweat.
When is the wedding?
She cannot hear me.
Homeless Man is not wearing a shirt. But he has his brown bucket hat on. He is twirling the wiry hair on his chest and looking lost as he always does. Will he take a shirt if I offer him one? Or will he feel insulted?
I told Emma I walk every morning and she said, “Oh we must walk together!” But she was drunk when she said it. I am not surprised that she hasn’t called or responded to my messages about walking since she said it three weeks ago, even though she sends an email every Friday about drinks. I don’t mind going out with her on Fridays except for the times when she gets drunk and horny at the same time and tries to kiss me when we are dancing. We are good friends, but I don’t like her like that. She always apologizes after. I always say it is ok.
I make up for not walking on Saturday mornings by walking twice the distance on Sundays.
I hate gyms. Gym instructors deserve a place in hell.
Emma had an affair with her married gym instructor in Abuja. He often had sex with her in the sauna, not even any place decent, and he turned out to be doing the same with at least three other women at the gym. At first she said she thought it was sexy. She probably wouldn’t have told me all of this if we weren’t having shots of tequila. And of course after telling me the whole filthy story, she got drunk and still tried to kiss me.
I’d rather walk and feel the breeze than be indoors with the smell and bodily fluids of strangers.
I still don’t get sex in the sauna. That’s just nasty.
Homeless woman has vanished. There is no trace of her. No flattened cartons. No food wrappings. No empty water bottles. Her concrete slab and everything around it has been swept clean. I feel a bit betrayed. Then I feel pride when I think that perhaps she really is as ambitious as I imagined; that perhaps she has moved on and started living in a house. Perhaps it was a bad idea to connect the unambitious homeless man to the ambitious homeless woman. Then I look ahead and see a man crouching in the grass with wood and cartons burning right by his side. When I walk closer I see him gathering old cigarette butts into a pile. He puts one old butt into the fire and attempts to smoke it. I walk past quickly, angry that this mad man may have made Homeless Woman pack up and leave. I am angry that my theory of Homeless Woman moving on is shattered.
I have stopped seeing Papa Adieu Woman. Maybe she got married. Maybe she got too thin and died.
I still hope that Homeless Woman has found a home. She deserves it.
Walking is great. I see it all and I thank God. That I am not:
Papa Adieu Woman
Mad Man who drove Homeless Woman away
Perverted hand-holding men
A dirty, steamy gym with bodily fluids
Love with Emma
Person who likes bursting other people’s pimples
Person who lets his pimples be burst by others