Mustapha lies on the bed, calling me beautiful, and he expects me to smile. I am sucking in my belly fat to zip my trousers. He calls me beautiful like I should take him, unzip my trousers, and let him enter me again. There is a condom wrapper on the floor, and I pick it up to put it in the dust bin. I smile at him, but I say nothing. I do not respond to his compliment.
He reduces the volume on the television. Maybe I did not hear him. He says it again. This time: “You are so beautiful, you know that right?”
I push my breasts into the pink bra I got in Balogun market, where my best friend helped me slash the price. It holds my breasts up. I walk to get my shirt from the chair where I tossed it the night before.
Does he want me to feel proud he sees my beauty? Does he want me to feel good that I have been chosen by him? I say, “Thank you,” and I try to look for my shoes.
“Some of you ladies are so proud!”
I laugh the kind of laughter that I have learned itches the skin of men who think adoring me would make me feel their desire is more than what it is. To be desired is easy. I get the right body they want, I have the kind of youthfulness they want, and I am the most desirable woman at the moment for them. Why do men think being desired by them should make giggle and feel special? Boring.
“Of course, of course, I am beautiful. Actually, gorgeous,” I say as I fix my earrings.
I remember the first time I was desired. It made me understand that men desiring women is nothing more than a power struggle. Men sniff your insecurities out; they sniff your needing, your wanting, your lack of self-love out. That is what my mother used to always say. One man desired me even when I said no, pushing me back and muffling my voice. A man desiring me does not evoke any emotion now.
I do not tell the handsome man this. He is naked, his ass firm from his constant visits to the gym. His beard, his height, his entire body seems carved or sculpted. It took him desiring me to have me in this hotel room somewhere in Abuja.
The man walked into the bank that hot afternoon in Lagos when the air conditioner of the entire building had given out on us.
“It coughed, slumped, and died!” Nneka, my best friend and coworker, described it.
He walked in wearing a white kaftan and trousers with no wrinkles. He waited for me as if we had an appointment, winked at me, and slipped his business card to me when he was done with the transaction. He was a businessman with a domiciliary account with enough money to let me know he had friends in high places.
“I am visiting from Abuja,” he said, his accent slightly British, slightly Hausa. The man hovering around him was his personal bodyguard.
“You smell nice. I like women that smell nice.”
I replied with a polite smile as I typed away. He had been staring when I walked out to speak to a manager about his business. Mondays I wore my tight skirt and high heels. I usually get them for half the price somewhere close to the two-bedroom I shared with Nneka.
I stared at the business card and then put it to the side. I did put my number in his phone, then, after he demanded it with a smile. The rich men of Nigeria all smile.
The man called that evening. Nneka listened excitedly to the conversation.
“Are you free tonight?”
The phone was on speaker mode. Nneka nodded, signaling for me to say yes.
“No, I am not free.”
I said it casually, knowing he would push.
“I am leaving for Abuja tomorrow. I want to see you.”
“Okay. What should I do about that, then?”
He laughed a deep, loud, rich laugh. He knew I would say yes.
“If you do not see me, I will come to see you.”
Nneka cupped her hand over her mouth. She ran to the bathroom to laugh.
“Okay, I will come… But with my friend.”
“Okay. I want to see you come.”
Nneka picked a dress — the fake red satin I bought sometime under the bridge while waiting for the bus to take us home from the bank — but I went with trousers, a bright top, and heels instead. I wore the exact red lipstick I had on my lips when the man had seen me that morning. Right before we left, I added a pair of earrings I had also bought that day under the bridge. Nneka nodded approvingly.
We got into Nneka’s used car, which her boyfriend in Germany had bought for her. He was married with a child, but every December he returned to her, his soon-to-be Nigerian wife. Nneka knew he was married to a white woman in Germany. His answer — that he simply married for papers — was plenty of excuse for her.
The beat-up, yellow Volkswagen buses, stuffed with people sleeping, with a preacher who was screaming, with a medicine man who knew the cure for erectile dysfunction and promised, if only you buy his small pamphlet, you will make your woman climax — these buses filled the streets, moving passengers from one part of Lagos to another. At this time in Lagos, for all its hustling spirit, everyone was midway between tired and exhausted. Now, the buses seemed worse whenever I was in a private car. The conductors seemed worn, and the traffic, as usual, unbearable.
Nneka rolled up the windows and turned on the air conditioner. She turned the radio to her favorite station. The presenters had accents — a mix between American and British, everything but Nigerian. I hated the radio station; all the women sounded like airheads. Nneka loved it. She said I was too serious, too uptight.
“Loosen up a little!’ she said when she looked over and saw my scowl.
“This man, him get money, abi?” Nneka asked as we waited for the traffic to move an inch. She had the most predictably beautiful face — high cheekbones, full lips, deep-set eyes. With the help of bleaching cream, her skin had slowly gone from medium dark to light. Her boyfriend liked light-skinned women. She wore her favorite wig, a short pixie cut.
“Yes, him get money.” I replied as casually as I could.
Mustapha (I had checked his business card again for the name) was exciting, but I did not want to appear too excited to see him. He was like the others, all the ones who come into our banks — men who slip their cards and wink as we check their balances, men who know their money is key to the survival of us working-class women. They’re the ones who pretend they are not married, or the ones who display their rings and say, “So what? Who is talking about my wife here?”
These men know I will accept their cards, call them, and let them do things to me their wives have no desire to let them do, after having had their children. These men marry conservative women they publicly flaunt but still come to women like us who fuck them back to their senses. It was a game I learned early, as I said: Men desire, and their desire is power to them. They take what they lust after. Mustapha was not going to be any different.
The traffic seemed to be going more slowly. The driver in the car next to us winked at me, licking his lips while pointing at my chest and smiling. I stuck my middle finger up at him as Nneka laughed so loudly her body began to shake.
I rolled my window down to yell at him as the cars started moving.
“Mama! Fine Maaama!” the driver was laughing now, with the passengers in his car joining him.
At last: the hotel was beautiful and close to the Canadian embassy. We entered a lobby full of foreigners with young Nigerian women beside them. They probably had wives at home, these men with big bellies seated beside these women with bodies young enough to make them ejaculate prematurely. Such men — white men — are treated like kings here. Heads turned to look at us, the heads of girls barely out of secondary school, all wearing a lot of makeup to cover their young age.
Mustapaha was there in a booth by the bar, his security guard standing close as usual. He waved, and we walked towards him. Nneka walked behind me, admiring the hotel. I was just interested in a good meal and then getting it over with. I knew he was a very big man. “Money-pass money,” as Nneka would say.
“There is money and then, there is MONEY!” she whispered as we walked towards Mustapha. She kept staring at the hotel, the décor. I grabbed her hand.
Mustapha was dressed in his usual white kaftan, this time without the traditional hat. His security guard moved away to give us some privacy. He smelled good, Mustapha. His scent was musky yet flowery. His hug was unexpected but appreciated, and he shook Nneka’s hand.
“How are you? How was the traffic?” he said, sounding concerned. This voice slowed down the pace.
The waiter arrived, and Mustapha ordered drinks, then waved him off, dismissing him. Red wine was poured into my glass. Nneka smiled, motioning for me to smile as well. My face must have looked indifferent. I tried to break it open with a grin. He did not yet deserve a smile.