It was one of those nights when I had to drag myself out of bed, my body had a habit of petulantly becoming feverish when I did this. One foot after the other, I placed my foot on the ground, dreading the cold air about to hit my face, the unwelcome neighbours – whose names I did not remember – saying hello, and the two hours I would spend walking 10,000 steps.
On nights like that, I would recite all the reasons for my daily walks; to manage my anxiety, to keep a promise I made to myself, to learn to be consistent, to ensure I move daily since my work is sedentary, to help navigate my experience of the pandemic. A flat stomach is the cherry on top. So, I moved.
I was barely five minutes out when I saw her. Her hands were casually wrapped around her chest, her pace significantly slow compared to my brisk steps. I didn’t give her much thought. I reached for my AirPods to find the soundtrack for my walk and when I looked up, she was staring at me, like she was waiting for a cue to say something.
When our eyes met, she waved at me and said, “I have always seen you around, I don’t know a lot of people in this estate, I’ve been looking to make new friends ….?”
The statement felt like an invitation to something I wasn’t interested in, but I smiled, maybe because I admired her attempt at shooting a friendship shot.
“Can I join you?”, she asked.
“No”, I thought.
“Sure”, I said.
She talked about herself. She was going to spend the holidays with her mom, she lived with six other flatmates, she enjoyed her job and the perks that it came with. She also just got out of a relationship. Her hands tightened around herself as she vented about walking the thin line between doing too much and not being enough. When she got to the part about him being with someone new, her voice thinned out. Soon, she declared her resolve to withhold, but I recognized the look. This is what an open wound looked like.
And while I wanted to say all the things about being open while she waded through pain, her hurt spoke louder than her stoic pose, so I asked instead “Can I hug you?”.
She nodded and fell into the hug, we stayed that way for a bit and then as if suddenly realizing that she had overshared with a stranger, she leaned back and scrambled to throw some questions back at me.
“Are you still friends with him?” she asked.
There are many things I am open to calling my ex, a man isn’t one of them. While I am open to slowly letting people in, it is contingent on my safety, and the thought of living five minutes away from potential harm prompted my simple response “no”.
Three weeks later, I am splitting a cab with a woman I met at a clothing store. We had just exchanged the film-esque moment of her picking the right outfit for me, so I offered her a ride. During the ride, I learn that she lives in London but visits Nigeria four times a year because she is close to her family. She works in investment but is considering moving to the start-up space. She will move back to Nigeria if she finds a job that is worth her time, or a partner that is. Speaking of … men. Then came the rant about the long-suffering act dating in Lagos was. I would be smug about the “cishet” experience, but queer women will use your tears as their skincare routine and take their glowing skin to the next woman so, I empathized.
“So, what about you? What has your experience been like with Lagos men?”
“Ummmm, I don’t date men”
It was probably not a good idea, saying this in an Uber at 8 pm on Lekki-Epe expressway. It would be uncomfortable to get a different ride if anything went wrong. I moved closer to the door, if anything, to avoid letting her think I wanted to hit on her.
“So, what is that like?”
I thought about all the cliches of being best friends with your ex or dating an ex of an ex, et all. But none of that had been my experience. I wished I knew the collectively agreed-upon narrative in the queer space. The way all straight women sprouted the “Yoruba demon” trope even if they hadn’t ever dated one. But I wasn’t that involved in the community to know any, so I said “different”.
I scrambled out of the car when I got to my stop, thankful that that went well.
It’s my last therapy session for the day, my client is talking about her relationship, her sentences are careful. Her ability to turn pronouns into a protective cloak is skilful, almost admirable. While the work of therapy is contingent on the clients’ openness, most people have adapted to the cold shoulder they receive when they disclose same-gender relationships. For me, the work begins with letting them know that they can drop their guard here, that there is no need to be vigilant here, that all the pronouns used won’t be weaponized here, that they are safe here. I tell her this and she exhales, there is a readjustment, “Ok, when she …. “.
The hypervigilance that comes with living as a queer person seeps into everything. It’s in the passive sentences we use, “I was told” rather than “she told me”. Every day, we disappear those that we love or once loved to keep both them and us, alive. The assumption of harm affects just as gravely as the harm itself. Learning this either through personal experience or the stories we hear could drive us to adopt coping mechanisms that could be healthy or unhealthy. On the other hand, this knowledge about the lack of external support has also created the perfect petri dish to brew harm within the community.
One can only hope that the safety margins will be widened soon, but till then, I’ll do my bit to build a sense of security for me and mine, wherever and however I can.