“If you’re calling to beg for some shit in general, press 4. If you’re calling to beg for some shit, but this is that pre-call before the actual begging, press 5.”

– Erykah Badu, Cel U Lar Device.

Kareem had understood very early on, with a frankness that settled in his chest the way the many other franknesses he’d resolutely come into at many stages of his life had, that this would be a relationship plagued by beauty. The vastness of it, but more importantly, the indiscriminate apportioning of it; his boyfriend, Bankole, tall enough to lift things off their top shelf and short enough to create the sense of an affecting level-headedness, his face lined with kindness, with gentleness and at times, when called for, a sexiness that had the ferociousness of a slinky cat; subconsciously disinterested, intentionally restrained, knowing, at the top of his heart that people often never know how to act around beauty.

And so, when Kareem learned that Bankole had cheated, he simply left a voice note asking Bankole what he should pick up for dinner. Bankole responded with a text, “Chickwizz please, thanks, babe.”

After he saw the text, Kareem sat up from his desk at the cafe where he had begun going to, at first for the view of the Lagos lagoon, that is if one sat on the top floor, next to the bar, and later because other people were actively participating in their lives here; they were in meetings and they talked loudly in them, they were here for dates and might reach across the table to hold their date’s hands, or give them a hug when they first arrived; they’d chat with the waiters and ask to see the manager or anyone in charge if an order was flunked, and this participation, was a behaviour that he, an active, singular observer, did not understand.

Kareem invites his friends for weekend trips without fanfare. Anyone down for Lakwe this weekend? he would write. And their group chat, having gone to sleep with pieces of the last tweet they’d laughed over, or the N.Y. Mag piece they debated over and finally agreed was wild as fuck, would come back alive. Responding in streams of yeses and sure, can I bring Steve? Who is bringing drinks? At this point, Kareem would somehow filter himself into the background, allowing his friends to take things up. It was on one of those trips that he’d met Bankole, who’d been accompanying one of Kareem’s friends, as a friend.

For the Lakwe trip that Bankole had come along, Kareem had arrived at the cabin a day early. The cabin was built on a large property overlooking a forest lined with boisterous palm and mango trees so tall that they looked objectively theatrical. An expressway took them to the road that led up to the gate of the cabin. Kareem had decided, as he sometimes did, to take a walk. At the time, he’d begun thinking a lot about beauty. 

Months later, when he considered the origins of this thought pattern, his mind would return to this walk. To the quiet road where cars sliced through the silence irregularly and birds chirped loudly before swallowing themselves into the trees nearby. And to the recurring idea of beauty—as a subject matter, as the thumping heart of things that seem to count, as perhaps the reason he sat alone till the end of the night at his friend Maduka’s 29th birthday—or his other friend Aminu’s Friday night dinner that turned into a party filled with sweat and urgent passion, as the beginning of many considerations and the end of protracted decisions, as the big divide between want and desire and love and the certainties one develop around those things, as danger but also as safety. 

His mind began at the point where he could remember first noticing his beauty (15) and how, in slow, debilitating notes, he realized how little of it he possessed (bathroom mirror, dressing room mirror shopping for Christmas clothes with his father in London, bathroom mirror watching his older brother shave a clean line across his fine-boned chin, dressing room mirror shopping for Christmas clothes with his father in Abuja, the face of his school friend with his bright, animated eyes and a face free of pimples, bathroom mirrors, even more bathroom mirrors, driver side mirrors, other people’s faces). On that walk, his mind slid itself slowly shut when the sun began to die and a car whizzed past him as he turned to make his way back to the cabin.

When they met, Kareem told Bankole that he didn’t think “Kiss From A Rose” was the best song from Seal’s self-titled album. “It might arguably be the most popular,” he had said. “But “Dancing in Metaphors” is hands down the best song on that project, plus a lot of people only like things because other people like them,” he concluded.

Bankole chuckled and called Kareem snobby. “And who even calls an album a project? You sound like those annoying writers who review for Pitchfork.” Bankole’s smile involved his whole face and he smiled often. As they talked, about how much they both liked early 2000s neo-soul (they bemoaned the separation of Lucy Pearl and wondered if Erykah Badu would release something soon), about how they both worked in tech, about how Bankole knew Kareem’s friend who’d invited him to the cabin, Kareem would find that Bankole’s earnestness seemed practiced, his joviality a well-oiled engine cranked up for regular use. Bankole had, it seemed to Kareem, the theatrical form of a beautiful person trying to shine past their beauty. And yet with these considerations, Kareem decided he liked Bankole.

They did not, as either might have imagined, sleep with each other the night they met, although, many weeks later, when they had become people who texted each other throughout the day and FaceTime-ed while the other took a walk, Bankole would tell Kareem that he’d wanted to lead him away from where they were gathered with their friends into a place where he could slip his hands down his buttocks while he kissed him. They were on FaceTime when Bankole said it, and Kareem responded, “I would have liked it if you had.” After the call, Kareem would consider how much of what Bankole had said felt like overcompensation, yet he couldn’t quite decide why or what Bankole would want to overcompensate for.

Bankole was the one who proposed the weekends together. He was the one who set up the first date and the one who bought Kareem his first plant. It died, the plant. But Kareem had tried to watch it; it was a rubber tree that went a sickly yellow when overfed with water. Bankole had sent, along with the plant, a short list of things not to do, ways to ensure the plant stayed alive. “Keep away from direct sunlight, you can put it on your record shelf, it’s not too close to the window. Water once or twice a week. When the leaves are yellowed, know it is time to lay off watering. Oh, and make sure the soil on top of it is dry before you begin watering. This plant is honestly low maintenance, I’d be surprised if it isn’t still with you in a year or two,” the instructions read.

At first, Kareem would water it and move it about the house when he felt the sun was too high. The plant sat on his tv shelf, on his bookshelf, on his bedside table, on the extended sill of his bathroom window, and then he returned it to the top of the record shelf, before deciding, on a Sunday when he felt as though he was in the middle of a trick, that he would no longer water it.

When he told his friends about this feeling of being tricked, Maduka told him he wasn’t being very kind to himself, and Toun simply said, “Nawa o, why can’t you just try and enjoy this mm? You know you deserve nice things, don’t you?”

When Bankole sent him the rubber plant, he’d asked Kareem to name it. “It’ll help you want to keep it alive,” he said. Kareem, however, had forgotten. A suitable name hadn’t occurred to him on the first try and he forgot to keep trying. So, when the plant finally died, after he chucked the dried soil and flabby, irredeemable leaves into a trash bag, he made a mental note to get a new one and name it Jade.

After Kareem left the cafe, he stopped at a Chicken Republic and stood at the counter until his Chickwizz was ready. He drove home slowly, waiting out the traffic without the irritability of the other drivers honking, yelling, and wondering why a truck was taking so long to turn into the next street. When he arrived, Bankole was seated at his desk, by the window, bespectacled, squinting gently at his screen. He turned to look at Kareem and offered a wry smile. When they began dating (Bankole had asked), Kareem often wondered what their ending would look like. He knew infidelity would be involved somehow. He also knew that it might come from him, as self-sabotage, as confirmation of a long-established unworthiness. He never mentioned this to anyone, but he considered it in passing, and sometimes in seriousness, as a concentrated, full-bodied concern. It happened often in the first few months when they were at parties, people thought they were friends, although they kissed often. A friend asked once, without a prompt, if they were still okay, as though there were signs that they weren’t. People would ask Kareem if they were still together, concerned and earnest in the way you might ask someone who once complained to you about a job they didn’t like and had considered leaving.

Later that evening, they ate the chickwizz in the comfortable silence they sometimes wrapped themselves in after spending a long weekend together at Lakwe; having run low on things to talk about, energy for sex, and capacity to tease any possible kind of newness out of each other. Afterwards, Bankole washed the dishes and turned off his monitor. Kareem took a cold bath, standing in the middle of the shower with his eyes shut tight, an unassuming tension snaking around his ankles, sliding itself into the taut joints of his lean back, before reaching across his chest and squeezing tightly, banishing air, invoking a self-devised discombobulation. It didn’t last long. Kareem stepped out with soap suds under his armpits. He cleaned his body without his full mind and slipped into long pajama pants, wearing nothing on top. He walked into the room and opened the curtains before laying down. When Bankole entered their room, he switched on the bluetooth speaker and began to play TLC’s Fanmail. Although he’d turned down the volume to close to a whisper, Fanmail, Kareem reasoned, didn’t feel like the right album for the moment. And when, later, with both of them in bed, Bankole drew Kareem closer, tracing a finger up and down Kareem’s nipple, Kareem returned to that feeling that had bobbed its head in their earlier days, the feeling that not many things felt right for the moment.

The person with whom Bankole cheated had sent Kareem a list of texts detailing the gradual progress of their affair. It had begun with non-committal what are you up tos, to firmly devised plans, my place sound good? The person who sent the screenshots, as Kareem thought of it, wanted him to see the ease with which Bankole had given in. The little resistance he’d put up, the nonexistent mention of his committed status. The person who sent the texts had sent them from his social media profile. Kareem could see who he was. He had a complicated social media handle; his bio said that he loved karaoke alongside the fact that he was a communications executive. The person, Kareem considered, was very beautiful. His lips were full and his bearded face gave them a sensualness. The person, Kareem would note, was friends with some of the people he knew, he looked like the sort of person who would know a lot of people, the sort of person a lot of people would want to know.

After their first year, Kareem broached Bankole with his theory on the mechanisms of beauty. “Beauty is fashioned out of samples,” he had begun. They were sharing a pizza and had just finished watching an eviction happen on Big Brother Naija, and like the saved housemates, they found themselves free of tension, temporarily aimless.        

“Replicable matches like the size of a chin, the colour of eyes, the tint and volume of hair; oversize or minute details that wouldn’t make sense when applied outside of a prescribed order. Say, eyes of different colours sitting on one face or a beautiful face sitting over a fat body. Certain alignments manage these things, and the line between how much we veer away from them or how close we are to the prescription counts as beauty or beastliness.”

 “But this is the standard way that beauty is understood, no?” Bankole said, eyebrows raised, arched to a sickening perfection.

“Yes, yes,” Kareem had agreed. “I’ve just been flipping it around in my head.” 

“I think you are leaning into something though,” Bankole said. “You are always leaning into something my fine and quasi-nerdy man.” 

Kareem did not understand any of this—the compulsive, internal study of the mechanisms around beauty—as self-pity. He had never considered himself capable of that.

The next morning, Kareem asked his friends if they were down for Lakwe. He wanted to go a day early before his friends filled the rooms, and when taking a walk on the expressway might require too many people to tell, too many people willing to go on the walk together, too little time to let his mind race and his body resume its analytical form. Bankole didn’t mind going a day early. They’d gone a day early a few times before, sometimes they went, just themselves, for the entire weekend. They would leave at 6 a.m., playing the playlist they had both curated carefully the day before.

That day, however, they left at noon. Bankole let the radio play and Kareem didn’t ask for something else. They got to Lakwe at half-past 3, but the day had begun to close in on itself. Bankole took their bags to their room and Kareem sat on the stairs, waiting for him to finish, so they could go on their walk.

Because they had silence, the walks, although they embarked on them together, often felt solitary. But good silence equaled good aloneness. Sometimes, they did talk, but mostly they held each other’s hands and watched the birds as they flew by and the trees as they draped their way around the expressway. Bankole would, when they first began to come here, take pictures and comment on the trees, explaining what kind of bird had flown by, often from what their chirping sounded like.

“That is a Tambourine Dove that just flew by,” he would say, “it is showing its underwings and it makes this du du du sound. And that is a Pallid, see how it turns gold when flying under the setting sun.”

That day, though, Bankole simply looked ahead and gripped Kareem’s hand a little tightly.

What does it take to become a beautiful person? Kareem considered to himself on that walk. There was the manufacturing of it, the overcorrection of a blemish inherited from a childhood accident, there was the focus and rigour dedicated to skin as clear as worry. There was the natural apportioning of it, the skin good, the smile correct, the praise those things attracted from childhood morphing into predatory and otherwise attention as one got older. And right in the middle of all of it, the maintenance. The grinding, the waiting, the patience, the hoping. The never knowing how much of all of it will be enough.

When they returned to the cabin, Kareem brought up Bankole. He’d tried for a casual, clinical voice and had landed instead a dead, mechanical one. He felt, at that moment, sure that he was watching someone else’s life unfolding. It was curious to note, as Bankole explained and apologized and offered to leave so as not to ruin the weekend for his friends, as Kareem told him it was fine if he wanted to stay, and then changed his mind, asking him to leave, that he felt very little. He wanted to feel much more. Why couldn’t he feel much more?

His friends, Kareem knew, should he end things, would approach him like he was broken glass. When he ended things with Nnamdi—the banker who didn’t have the grace of self-pity, Nnamdi who drank coffee before work and watched the news when he returned, Nnamdi who had, in most ways, reminded Kareem of his father—his friends sent him memes and funny Zikoko articles. They stopped by his house and dropped off food and snacks, and sometimes they dropped off themselves for an impromptu game night, many impromptu game nights. They rented a beach house and, although there were six of them and the house only had three rooms, they made sure he didn’t have to share a room with anyone. 

In those days, friends would peek in through his door to ask if he would like to go and swim, take a walk on the beach, watch other people swim, watch other people walk, pick up seashells while at it, or have another game night. Kareem always said no and would instead spend the day staring out of his bedroom window. He had one of the rooms on the top floor with a view of the lagoon, of the trees scattered feebly around the edge of the sand, of the caramel sand glistening under the sun where the beach waves had eaten into them, and it filled him with nothing. Absolutely nothing.

His friends, when he told them why Bankole left before they’d arrived at Lakwe, did approach him like he was broken glass. They muted their joy and spoke quietly. They made dinner and sat watching him as he ate, letting their food grow cold. Their warmth warmed him, although he didn’t need it. He didn’t need the energy pump they were giving him when he suggested they throw a mini dance party. He didn’t need the uncertain look their faces led with as he joined their games and helped them cook. Kareem could tell that they’d readied their bodies for a possible breaking, a likely upending, and he could see, as they said their goodbyes at the end of the week and they all got into their cars, and the cars of the people they were hitching a ride with, something like relief, something like fear.

Kareem would briefly consider, on his drive home, that perhaps this wasn’t a case of beauty. But he knew, so he agreed that he knew, that indeed, this was about beauty and its sometimes immutable consequences. He had always known this, and in the intimacy of that knowing, made himself difficult to splinter. If you swing a bat at a void, you will only hit air.

Kareem, having driven slowly, taking longer routes over the Lagos-Ibadan express roads, arrived home in the evening. The day was warm from the dying notes of a sun that had been unbothered by clouds. Bankole had decided to remain in the house, to extend his half-formed apology with dinner and candles. Kareem said yes. They fucked. Then they ate. They fucked again, then they ate the leftovers. It was in the middle of that, he wouldn’t be able to remember whether in the middle of a fuck or while biting into one of Bankole’s badly cooked shrimps, that Kareem finally felt something. It was lightness. Its origins were obscure, the intention unclear, but right in one of those moments, Kareem felt free. The declaration shook him; if he remembers this moment while Bankole grunted over him, Kareem can feel tears blurring his vision, and if he remembers this moment as being at the dinner table, biting into a shrimp, he can sense his throat attempting laughter. But when collecting the entire form of that memory back without investigation, his body ascended while maintaining its grounding, he felt impossible, impractical.

My god, he remembers thinking to himself, I feel so free I could die.

About the Author:

Nelson C.J is a Lagos-based writer. He writes “The Afrobeats Edit” column at Teen Vogue and has written for/regularly contributes to The New York Times, TIME Magazine, Rollingstone, Pitchfork, I-D, Dazed, Vice, Billboard, and other places. You can find him on Twitter @nelsoncj3

*Featured image by Goran Tomic