I’m back in the gym. It’s hell, of course, because I hadn’t been for months before I went away and post-illness weakness is a real thing. But every day I run a little further than I ran before, and die a little less during my ab routine, so there’s hope that in about 6 months people will stop laughing at me.
I go with my cousin, usually, who’s irritatingly fit and good natured. I cannot understand being cheerful in a gym. What is there to be happy about?! Every day I have to endure his reckless happiness and exhortations, his effortlessly endless reps, his kindness. That’s the worst bit. I think I’d do better with someone who called me out on my weak inefficiency, who pinched my flab and insulted me. I feel like that’s the kind of attitude that builds warriors. But he just ambles over after doing 100 pull-ups or whatever, and gently corrects my form, then says “well done!” after I’ve managed one push-up. I hate him so much.
But being back in the gym, a part of my old routine, is the most tangible way to getting back to being myself. I feel a bit as if my life in Lagos ought to be split into two: before I got ill, and after I got ill. Truth is, I hated it here before. Really hated it. Traffic, bustle, noise, dirt- all these things are true of Lagos but don’t blind most people to the good underneath. I didn’t see any good, Before, but now…I have a good bunch of people around me- family with whom I live, clever people with whom I work, friends and sort-of-friends to ring up for late night chats or a quick drink, and, when she’s in Nigeria, one of my Necessaries living only a 10 minute drive away. I’ve found a church I like, that has zero prosperity preaching or blessing selling going on, and I can attend services in ripped jeans and a t-shirt. Even the domestic staff at home seem to me to be revealed as courteous and hardworking now, whereas Before I was convinced they held daily meetings to decide how best to frustrate me. Nothing magical happened when I was ill, of course, but I suppose I had more time to think about myself, and my interaction with the world, and came to the infantile but surprisingly hard-to-reach conclusion that life is what you make it.
I went on an almost-date with a guy I met here. It was a date in the sense that I and he called it a date, and I put on a pretty dress, and we went to a place at night that served us food and drink while we talked to each other. But the ‘almost’ comes in because there wasn’t anything there- we chatted and laughed and got quite deep, conversationally, but I didn’t feel any attraction and I don’t think I was alone in that. I can’t drink until December, another new feature of my After life, so my conversation felt heavier in my mouth. I sipped on water and worried I was being boring. We ended up splitting the bill, even though I didn’t eat anything and he did, and I don’t think there is a surer sign of mutual friend zoning than that. Guys don’t let girls they like pay for things, here, and I certainly wouldn’t have slapped my card down on the table if I felt like I was being courted. The bill at the end of a date is a gift we Nigerian girls give guys who are interested in us. Still, it was a good evening that confirmed our friendship and I didn’t go home unhappy. The me of Before wouldn’t even have gone, terrified of creating even tenuous roots in this city. I felt safer now, After.
A few days later, walking in the front door of my house, I was confronted by a passel of drinking men. My cousin had a few of ‘his boys’ over and they’d done some damage to a few bottles of Hennessy. The room was loud with the hum of conversation and those deep barrel laughs men only seem to laugh around each other, and I could smell the booze in the air. Before, I’d have said polite hellos and escaped to the upstairs living room where I could slip out of my heels, and my hair extensions, and watch tv or read in peace. But they’re a nice bunch, really, and this was After, so I stayed and chatted with them for a while. They drank more, and I rustled up the cook to feed them when I determined they needed something in their bellies. It was fun. We decided things: Paris was overrated but LA was first-world Lagos. Nigerians needed to figure out how to make our food look less disgusting- amala was delicious but looked like a terrible mistake. Politics everywhere was a grand play, staged by the “permanent political class” but what wasn’t, really? Cars may be depreciating assets everywhere else, but in Lagos they were essential social currency. Men who married women exactly like their mothers couldn’t possibly have good sex lives. Church could be as much of an addition as cocaine, and twice as harmful. Women dressed for the approval of other women, nowadays, and that wasn’t a bad thing.
They tried to get me to come clubbing with them, and I demurred. “I hate clubs”, I said flatly. One of them, a big guy with kind eyes and a filthy sense of humour, said “Then you’d better find a bed partner- what else is there to do in Lagos on the weekends?” Drunkenly, the boys then set themselves to hooking me up with someone, asking what kind of guy I was into, offering themselves up as suitors despite my cousin’s overprotective roars of protest. At first I was amused and flippant, but I soon found myself sincerely trying to answer them. I ended up quoting Rihanna in that New York Times interview with Miranda July – “‘‘I’m turned on by guys who are cultured. That’ll keep me intrigued. They don’t have to have a single degree, but they should speak other languages or know things about other parts of the world or history or certain artists or musicians. I like to be taught. I like to sit on that side of the table.’’
The guys were all quiet for a while, then my cousin said “Well, that’s going to be hard.” and I knew it was a compliment but it didn’t feel like one.