“On Her Own Terms” by Muyiwa Obichebendu

A week to their fifteenth anniversary, Ebunife finds her husband, Cosmos, in bed with another woman.

She is home early because she is convinced that frequent sex is a harness to any husband’s wandering penis, and surprise sex, once or twice every month, will shorten the leash. It is midday, so Cosmos will be home, probably lounging with his laptop. Their son, Dayo, will be in school for three more hours, and the maid will be at the neighbourhood tailor’s, completing an apprenticeship. The thought of the empty house fills her with a giddiness she didn’t realize she missed.

She lets herself in and heads towards the staircase. As she traipses lightly up the stairs, soft voices—Cosmos’ and someone else she can’t quite place—float down to welcome her. The warm excitement she came home with fades away, replaced by a nuclear fury. A part of her wants to turn around and leave, then, when she returns later, long after the woman will have left, ask him if he has cheated since the last time. She wants to look into his eyes as he answers, unaware that she knows the truth, and explode when he lies. But a sick curiosity propels her forward with balled fists; she needs to know who Cosmos is with. She tiptoes gingerly, taking great care to avoid the parts in the floorboard that creak the loudest. When she reaches the bedroom door, the soft voices have melted into heavy moans and, forgetting all prior desire for stealth, she barges in.

She finds him tangled under the covers with Eucharia, his sister, and is speechless. Disgust floods all the crevices within her, leaving room for nothing else. Anger gives way to confusion, and in the heart of her confusion lies a pain she has never experienced before. She clutches her chest as they spring apart. She wants to say something but the words get wedged in her throat and her tongue is too lame to drag them out. Eucharia pulls the covers over her nakedness. Cosmos steps out of bed towards his wife. Their familiar dance, which always starts with it’s not what it looks like and ends days or weeks later with let this be the last time, please looms over her but before it can begin she turns on her heels, carries herself out with the crumbs of her dignity trailing at her heels and exits equally the house and the marriage.

She is gobsmacked, totally out of her depth, trying to understand how he can be with his sister like that. When did it start? How long has it been going on for? He is a sick man. A sick man with sick cravings she has dug herself into holes to appease. Each time she caught him before, she would spend days and weeks wondering what she lacked and how she could compensate.  But seeing him with his own sister brought the chilling realization that she has never and will never be enough; that he is the problem, and that, despite the fact that she still loves him deeply – and because of it – she needed to leave.

Hot tears hug the edge of her eyes as she sprints to her car. She sits, fastens her seatbelt, and the dam bursts. Like a sand castle struck by the waves, she crumbles. She screams and thrashes against the steering wheel. The car silently accepts responsibility for her husband’s transgressions and takes the beating as atonement.

She doesn’t trust herself to drive but she knows she has to get away from there. Through her blurred vision, she can barely see but when she hears the pedestrian gate open behind her followed by quick footsteps and Cosmos calling after her, she turns the key in the ignition and drives off. She starts to head to her son’s school but changes her mind halfway there. She’s a sorry mess and it would be horrible to let him see her like this.

She goes to an ATM, withdraws  money from their joint account and checks herself into a nearby hotel. When she pays, the front clerk nods imperceptibly as he confirms she paid the correct amount, then hands her a key card and directs her to her room

Once there, Ebunife allows herself to fall apart completely. She pities herself deeply when she thinks of all she has endured. Pain, her familiar friend, welcomes her onto its bosom as she remembers every time her husband cheated on her. Regret strokes her head as she weeps into the pillows. She orders a bottle of wine through room service, downs it in minutes, and orders something stronger. In her drunkenness, she falls further into the profoundly melancholic comfort of self-pity. When she hits rock bottom, she, for a moment, contemplates killing herself, but she remembers she has to pick her son from school. The thought buoys her up enough to decide against the act.

If at that point she knew she would die, she may have gone through with it, so for once something could happen to her on her own terms.

*

The swirls of purples and oranges celebrating the sun’s wake are drowning in a field of darkness. The night is just being born. Ebunife, holding herself together like spilt water, stumbles her way out of the hotel. Despite the darkness, the light filtering into her eyes is harsh and she squints as she begins to walk over to where she parked her car.

She has a plan now. She will stay with her parents for a while, until she can stand on her feet, even though the last time she tried to, the first time Cosmos cheated, they didn’t speak to her until she went back to his house because a man cheating is an issue but not big enough to leave him. “You’re a beautiful woman,” her mother explained, “Maybe you’re not doing enough to remind him. You still haven’t lost weight after you gave birth to Dayo” “Exactly,” her father added, “No man cheats unless you give him reason to.”

She will take her son, her precious Dayo, from Cosmos today. She is annoyed at herself. She should have picked him up once school ended but she overslept. She is sure Cosmos will not stop her if she threatens to spill his secret, first to their families, and then, if he still disagrees and they don’t manage to convince him, to a much wider audience. She smiles as the roads in her head spill into each other to form one coherent path.

“I will win this war,” she says to herself, and she very well means to. The only hiccup will be explaining to Dayo why he has to leave tonight. He has always been very attached to his father, even more since he lost his job and started spending entire days at home, but she cannot afford to leave him exposed to incestuous spirits.

She stops walking when she reaches the main road. Her car is in the parking lot across from her. She hears the deep hum of an engine. Checking quickly, she spots a pair of headlights approaching and estimates she has enough time to make it across. She doesn’t.

The car scorches down the road and into her. She bounces off the bonnet, flies forward. The headlights beam down on her, seemingly sympathetic. The driver, stops, sticks his head out to examine the damage, then drives off and unrepentantly at full speed. The car’s wheels bounce up and roll over Ebunife’s body, crushing her into the ground. Left behind with broken bones, collapsed lungs, and dismembered bits from top to bottom, her death is certain.

The hotel’s night watchman rushes over to her body. Before he calls for help, a voice in his head wonders what valuables she has on her. It’s not as if they will follow her to heaven, it says. He looks around quickly, sees no one, and proceeds to turn her pockets out. As if aware of his thievery, Ebunife’s spirit peels itself from her body and stands tall. The guard, accustomed to his fair share of hallucinations, assumes she is one of his mind’s tricks and continues his plundering. She looks down and, realizing what she is, what she has become, her first instinct, an urge so shocking in its ferocity that it troubles her for weeks thereafter, is to find her husband and kill him or haunt him till he kills himself. But as she begins to plot, she realizes she neither remembers what he looks like nor where they live. In fact, her memories, though intact, are faceless bodies, fully formed but lacking the finer details that make them distinct and recognizable.

Infinitely more troubling than the loss of her husband is that of her son. A panic buds and blooms within her. She leafs through memories, hoping to find one that’s not blurred. She tries to conjure him at the back of shut eyelids but what materializes is a brown head with no features chiselled on. The lost memories, as if behind a fogged window, taunt her in their inaccessibility. She closes her eyes and shakes her head violently, as if to dislodge the glass pane.

Eventually, she comes to terms with her loss. Her distress wanes and when acceptance spreads far enough within her, she tucks her grief at the back of her mind. In the weeks that follow, she finds herself increasingly untethered from the physics and chemistries that rule humanity. She also learns that she is not alone, that the city is filled with spirits of all kinds—dead spirits, like her, unborn spirits, spirits that will never be born—all scouring the city, drifting through skies, strolling through streets, little more than wisps of air and visible to only each other during the day. They solidified at night into opaque imprints of energy, thin enough to slip through walls yet thick enough to hold and be held.

Sometimes they float over and introduce themselves, like Gbemiga, who after jumping off a bridge to escape a debt to a loan shark, was always wet and claimed it was as a result of ten years of servitude to the Queen of the Seas; or Iniedo, the twenty-year-old girl with her whole life planned out but, after contracting HIV from a married federal justice, killed herself before the disease could; and Comfort, a hefty woman that floated around in tattered clothes, who, after losing everything when her husband died, saw him positively alive in a car kissing another woman and got run over as she crossed the road to confront him. They all have their stories.

The day she meets Anjola, he notices her before she realizes he is even there. She is staring wistfully at the rows of snacks arranged neatly on the walls of a wooden kiosk when she realizes she hasn’t been hungry since she died. Anjola sidles slyly up to the kiosk and floats beside her. He speaks, piercing her daze: “I would give my right arm to be able to smoke again.” He points at a yellow pack of Benson & Hedges with Smoking Kills emblazoned across its face.

Without turning to him, she replies, “You’re dead, so you can’t give your arm, can you?”

He chuckles. “That won’t stop me from wishing I can.”

“I never smoked when I was alive but now that I don’t use my lungs…” She shrugs. “I would if I could.”

This brings out a throaty guffaw from him.

He faces her and introduces himself. They try to shake hands but their palms pass through each other. They laugh it off and float away together.

*

“How long have you been dead for?”

They are perched on a low-hanging cloud watching the sun arc towards the horizon. Rays of light refract off their skin giving them the appearance of having ghostly rainbow bodies. Thinking about it, she can almost feel the heat on her skin.

“That’s the wrong question. You mean to ask how long have I’ve been alive for.” He turns to her and smiles.

Ebunife rolls her eyes. “Just answer, joor. You know what I mean.”

“I’ve been alive,” he says, with emphasis placed on the last word, “for five years.”

Concern flutters across her face. “How come you haven’t gone to heaven?”

The question sounds dumb but she needs it answered, to know whether this period of stasis had any possible end in sight. He isn’t surprised by the question, nor does he seem to think it’s dumb. In a calm, almost-rehearsed tone, he replies, “There is no heaven or hell, at least not in the sense you’re used to. Hell is when you’re alive in Lagos and heaven is when death frees you.”

Ebunife stops for a second, then bursts out laughing. “So, you mean I spent my whole life worrying about sinning and all those things don’t matter?” She doubles over, accidentally falling off the cloud. Anjola dives after her.

They land softly, hand in hand, at a busy bus stop and blend in with the crowd. In front of them, a creaky yellow bus arrives and as soon the passengers alight, the crowd converges on the bus in a frantic fight to get onboard. In the rush, people are slapped, kicked and pushed aside. A stocky woman with her infant tied to her back is thrust to the back of the pile. She tumbles and lands squarely on the child, who, woken up from his slumber, promptly begins to cry out. Ebunife watches as the woman pulls the child to her front and, cooing him to stop his tears, rocks him steadily in her arms. A part of her wants to glide over and scoop the boy from his mother and cradle him in her own. Her memory of her son is especially painful watching this scene.

A few silent moments pass. “Do you ever miss the family you had when you were al-,” she catches herself. “When you were dead?”

He smiles morosely. “I hardly ever think of them, if I’m being honest.”

Ebunife is surprised. Her memories, however vague, are relentless, popping up endlessly, reminding her of her unremembrance at every opportunity.

“Don’t you have the memories that follow you everywhere? I always do.” Her voice breaks a little. “I don’t remember what my son looks like but he follows me everywhere.”

“Not anymore.”

She shoots him a quizzical glance. “What do you mean?”

“It’s a form of compartmentalization. I have them locked in a box somewhere up here.” He taps the side of his head. “If I could I would get rid of them.”

“But why would you do that?”

“To escape them. They made me feel suicidal, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than being dead and suicidal.” She looks at him cynically, so he decides to show her. “I haven’t ever done this before, but do you want to see?”

He palms her forehead and unleashes his memories. She sees Anjola standing in a tiny self-contained room with a small stained mattress the only furniture there. The room smells of sweat and stale food, and the heat is sweltering. He is cornered by his faceless wife, dressed in an aged blouse and skirt, holding their faceless baby to her tit, shouting at him. “This Lagos hasn’t tired you yet? Let’s go back, now. Life is not sweet here.”

He tries to calm her down but she’s having none of it.

“If you you’re okay with living like this, me I’m not. I’m leaving this place tomorrow. It’s better to be poor in the village than in this place.” He falls to his knees, begs, makes new promises to bolsters old ones, but she doesn’t budge. Eventually, he gives up and walks out of the room.

The scene changes.

He is on the sidewalk, perched like a lonely bird, holding a cigarette. A few days have passed since his wife left. He is a fucking mess. He stares forward emptily, takes a long drag and exhales. Ebunife thinks about how much of a failure he is; she thinks it because, at that point, he was thinking it. It’s like she’s watching him through a window but everything in his head enters hers as well. The silhouette of old unfulfilled promises float around her mind: I’ll build a new house here for you, to his mother; I’ll buy you a tractor for your farm and plenty fertilizer, to an obscure uncle that came to bestow blessings in the hope of receiving future blessings; I’ll bring you to Lagos and make you my queen, to his, then, pregnant wife; and to his unborn son, through whispers spoken against his wife’s belly, I’ll give you what my father could never give me.

Scores of claxoning cars surround him. He is at the center of the madness, the entropic rush for survival, and survival is the last thing on his mind. The war which started ever since he came to this city has been lost; hope, the cheap drug he shot up on in his technicolour dreams, did not survive the brutal chaos on offer. The city he once thought was beautiful until it dawned on him that it would break him has chewed him up and shat him out.

He takes one last puff, long and hearty, savors the taste of nicotine as he exhales and crushes the stub beneath his feet. His heart beats hard but he is ready. A lorry is speeding down the expressway. Just before it reaches him, he steps onto the road. The driver brakes but too late to avoid collision. A scrum of faceless pedestrians, either concerned or angry he tried to escape the suffering they subject themselves to, gathers around. He is rushed to the hospital but bleeds out on the way and the memory fades away.

“That week, my suicide was in the newspapers, not front page though. That’s the most fame I ever got in my life,” he quips.

*

“I almost didn’t tell you.”

The moon is at its highest and Ebunife and Anjola are on their backs watching clouds and their silver linings float by. They have been doing this every night for months now; they find a different roof top and lay there till the sun stretches awake across the horizon. His head is tilted towards her as he speaks and he watches her with measured glances.

“Why not?”

He laughs nervously and angles towards her. “Isn’t it obvious?”

Their eyes cross and, all at once, she understands – and the knowledge unsettles her – what he means.

She eyes him skeptically, goading him to say more, hoping he proves her wrong but he says nothing.

Ebunife sighs. “So why did you tell me?”

She is asking about the rumour he heard earlier that day, a fifth-person account of how human- contact—sexual contact—can revitalize the parts death atrophies. On hearing it, she thought of the glass window in her head, of the intricacies behind them. She thought of her son.

“Because if I didn’t, I would be doing my love for you a disservice.”

The word shakes her because, though she hasn’t considered it, it dawns on her that she might feel the same. Guilt forms in her heart, a consequence of the last morsels of loyalty to her husband, and a strong resolve to overcome it arises but metabolizes quickly. She chastises herself mentally: You can’t still be faithful to that man. He didn’t deserve you then and doesn’t now. You’re dead sef, those vows have ended.

Reading her inertia, he says, “I just wanted you to know before you make your decision. You don’t have to say or do anything.” He makes to pull away from her but she holds him back. She leans in and kisses him. Maybe, she hopes, in the moments their lips make contact, she will be calibrated appropriately, so that when she looks back on Anjola’s face, stares into the black of his eyes, she will drown in the hues of the future they can have together and forget her past. But love, true love, even when the recipient is entirely undeserving, is difficult to discard. Anjola responds tentatively, at first, and then, as it deepens, more intensely, but all the while Ebunife settles the storm in her belly by projecting her husband on his body.

Later, she cries as he leaves. He misinterprets her tears and offers to spend the day with her but she shakes her head and waves him off.

In his absence, the guilt assuages and she considers the choice weighing down on her. In the silence that accompanies solitude, a tendril of remorse shoots up her body towards her son, for hesitating over the decision to remember him and, Anjola, for wanting to leave him even though she might love him. She almost flew when she heard the rumor, but there was a catch. Even in death, there still was. If she chose to regain the memories from before she died, she would lose the ones from after. She would lose Anjola.

Torn between two loves, between the past and the future, knowing she must choose only one, she unravels.

The choice eats her from the inside, pitting her insides against each other. Her head is a talking drum speaking in furious tongues and her stomach is an angry maelstrom. She searches for sanity at the center of the storm and all she finds is uncertainty. The conflict escalates, rising to a full blown civil war. She loses herself, swirls helplessly in her cauldron of conflicting thoughts that rage and roar until Anjola returns. Seeing her in a heap, he scoops her in his arms and plasters his lips against hers. She doesn’t think, just kisses him back. Sparks ignite between them and kindle into a flame. The flame flickers, flares, licks their skin hungrily. She throws her arms around him, urging him to push the fire into her. He does and the feeling is indescribable. She feels herself stretched taut like rubber and when she orgasms, she snaps. She dies there, gets sliced into a million galaxies as stars from him spill into her and she is reborn.

As soon as they pull apart, Anjola turns to her. He asks, “Do you love me?” She stares in his glassy eyes and a consolidated consciousness falls upon her. A loud silence rings out in her head and she realizes something, that the presence of absence will always be greater if she chooses him, the unattainable memories will remain, taunting her from behind the window. But if she chooses Dayo, the hole she carries will be invisible to her; Anjola will be scrubbed clean from her mind.

“I do.” The words come easily and she smiles like she really means them, then she continues, responding to the part of his question he didn’t vocalize: “How did you get rid of your memories? I’ve finally made up my mind.”

They stay there the rest of the night, not saying or doing anything, just lying still with their bodies pressed together. The way they are, if her decision was different, you would look at this moment and say they were at peace. What the moment deserves however is a requiem for Anjola because they will never be more than what they currently are and he doesn’t know. Yet.

As he leaves her, a cloud breaks above them. He drifts further away, over trees and houses, eventually getting swallowed by the cityscape and it occurs to her as the rain drops fall through and around her that the world will continue to work as normal, that Lagos will continue to breathe long after she leaves him. Different thoughts run through her mind as she considers their last moments together. No lightness comes with knowing she is acting on her own terms, only a fluvial melancholy borne from a love not ready to die.