The duvet swells over his body. He shivers, in spite of its warmth, and coughs so hard the hairs on his chin rise and fall. Air swirls out of the air-conditioner, spreads above him like a tent then collapses on his broad chest.
His arms fold behind him propping a pillow under his head. I sit beside him, toes curled up under the duvet, knees pulled into an oversized polo shirt; an attempt to hide my body. I can feel my heart running inside my chest. I try to straighten my shirt, creased from our struggles, hours ago. My eyes refuse sleep as they will on every other night I spend with him.
He sneezes again. I stand on the bed to reach for the remote control stuck high up on the wall. The air-conditioner whimpers and dies. He pulls the duvet over his body and stretches to touch my feet, his hairs caressing my skin.
‘Thank you,’ he whispers, closing his eyes.
‘Do you want something hot?’
On the other side of the room I empty a bag of cinnamon tea into a mug and pour boiling water over it. My hands are shaking. I carry the tea across the room to him, keeping my gaze down at my feet. My toes curl. And with every step, my sore legs part in pain.
‘Here, have some tea,’ I offer him.
He sits up against the wall and caresses the hair on his belly. ‘Thank you, my love. You are so kind to me,’ he says from between gritted teeth.
I plant a kiss on his forehead, holding myself to suppress the pounding in my chest. As he slurps the hot tea I lie on my side of the bed, staining the sparkling sheets with my tears. In that moment, my crying is muffled, and I’m overcome with shame.
On a bright day in October 2014, I was waiting in the blistering sun, sweat trickling down my face.
‘Hi Jennifer,’ a tall man said. He stood before me, hands in the pockets of his jeans. His fitted polo shirt bulging – for his stomach was fighting to hide inside his denim jacket. His dark glasses contrasted sharply with his light skin.
Social media has its benefits; strangers become friends, friends become family. Through it, I have had the privilege of learning from writers more established than myself while interacting with a network of literary enthusiasts from different parts of the world. Mr C was one of them. He’d sent me a friend request on Facebook months before our first meeting and tagged me, like many friends of his, to his poems which he shared almost daily on his wall. His timeline was like a class, where many gathered to praise and sometimes critique his work. On some days, he’d reach out to me via inbox with comments about my writing. So when he told me he was in Lagos to print his new book and asked that we meet over lunch, I didn’t think it would be a problem.
He took off his glasses. He wasn’t as young as I had first thought. The pigmentation around his eyes seemed to reprimand me. ‘Good afternoon, Sir,’ I repeated.
Mr C smiled and shook my hand. We walked to a car parked across the road and sat in the back. He took off his jacket and then uncurled my shirt when he saw that I was struggling with it.
‘You may take off your jacket too. Feel free, okay?’
I shook my head, mumbling that I was fine.
‘You are so shy. But I understand. Here, high five!’ he invited, and I clapped into his raised hand.
After lunch, Mr C spoke of the troubles he’d had as a young writer as though he was talking with an old friend. Every so often he would sigh and place his arms between his legs like a timid child. I could see the pain come alive on his face. He tugged playfully at my cheek. ‘It is a difficult path for the young writer,’ he said. ‘Let me read you a poem I wrote,’ he added. He picked up one of his books from the stack beside him. The lines fell from his mouth in deep whispers; musical, sad and imploring.
‘It gets tough, but we survive, don’t we?’ he said, rubbing his eyes. I reached for his palm, drawn in by the lines and troubles of his past. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, afraid he would cry.
‘I’m fine, my dear. It’s you that I’m worried about. How do you survive?’
I lit up when he turned the subject around, to me. I told him about the stories that I had never finished writing, and the poems I forgot, before finding the right words to commit them to the page. He laughed and rubbed his eyes, again, a curious gesture I came to associate with him because it made him seem vulnerable and open. I smiled, happy that I’d made him laugh.
‘I want to mentor you,’ he said.
The smile left my face.
‘Calm down, I have no ulterior motive,’ he said. ‘I could be your father and even if I wanted girls, I know where to get them,’ he added.
‘Trust me, please.’
‘You can call me father now, okay?’
The way he said ‘okay?’ reassured me. I could feel the sincerity in his tone. I looked into his teary eyes and I was filled with compassion. I saw purity. I saw kindness. I saw myself in him and I called him father.
He spread his arms and wrapped me up, gently, like a new-born. ‘Thank you for accepting to become my daughter, Jennifer. I feel so honoured.’
The first time he kissed me, it was on the forehead.
Mr C was leaving the city soon after that first meeting, so we arranged to get together again before he left. When he texted to cancel, saying he was unwell, I rushed out to buy a recharge card for my phone. I tried to call, but he didn’t pick up. I became worried about him.
Mr C called the following day, and told me that he was still ill and couldn’t leave his hotel.
‘It’s fine. I just want you to get well,’ I stuttered into the phone.
‘I’m leaving tomorrow. Won’t you come see your sick father?’ My mouth dropped open, I was too stunned to reply. ‘It’s okay if you don’t want to. I see you don’t trust me after all and that’s really sad. I’ll see you when I return. You just take care, okay?’
‘Wait!’ I blurted. ‘I’ll come.’
Shortly after I hung up my phone beeped with a text message bearing the address of his hotel.
‘Hello dear, tell them you are here to see your father,’ Mr C said when I called from the reception. At the door to his room he opened his arms and I hugged him. He kissed my forehead and then led me in. There were sachets of pills on the bedside table and books scattered all over the desk. His laptop was on the bed; he sat on the bed and drew it to him.
‘You should be resting,’ I said, looking through the books on the table.
He shut the laptop. ‘And you are going to keep standing?’
‘I’m just uhm…uncomfortable. I haven’t visited anyone in a hotel room before.’ I asked if he’d called home.
‘I just spoke to my wife,’ he said, patting the duvet next to him.
I sat on the edge of the bed and rested my legs gingerly on to it. He shook my body, laughing. ‘What are you scared of? Stop being naughty now, you little baby!’ I laughed then and he smiled. ‘Don’t you feel better now?’
We lay on the bed, talking. He spoke about his wife and kids and I told him about my parents and siblings.
‘It would be nice to meet them,’ he said, pulling me onto his bare chest. I stiffened and he smacked my bum like a teacher would do to a pre-schooler. When had he taken off his shirt?, I asked myself in mild panic. I hadn’t noticed.
‘Can you just be free with me? You this child!’ he said, kissing my cheek.
After he left Lagos, Mr C maintained a steady communication with me. He would call to find out how my day had gone. He wanted to know if I spoke to my parents regularly, if I had been writing. He wanted to read me his poetry or hear me read mine. He wanted to send money for my upkeep. He asked after my boyfriend. When I asked some friends if they knew Mr C, they all agreed he was an affectionate, kind and generous man. He had a bevy of young people for whom he was responsible. This knowledge expunged any ill thoughts I bore and I grew fond of Mr C. He could tell what was in my head before I spoke and he trusted me with the intimate details of his life; a colleague at work who pissed him off, his son’s preparations for an exam, his daughter snuggling up his wife when he wanted to make love to her.
‘My books are ready. I‘m coming to Lagos soon to pick them up,’ he announced one day. I screamed with excitement. ‘Why are you shouting? Do you miss me?’ he asked.
I counted the minutes until his arrival, then I bounced to the hotel, my eyes sparkling as I waved at the ladies in the reception. They let me in without question. ‘Dad!’ I shouted, jumping into his arms when he opened the door.
‘I missed you so much,’ he kissed my lips. We sat on the bed and talked about my writing. I’d sent him some of my work and we went through it together on his laptop. Hours later I looked up at the window and saw darkness had enveloped the sky.
‘I think I should leave,’ I said.
He pulled me closer to him. ‘It’s late dear, perhaps you spend the night?’ My eyes darted around for my phone. He cupped my face and tried to kiss me.
‘This is not right,’ I said, pushing him away.
‘Relax sweetheart. Be free with me.’ He took my hand and rubbed his nipples with it. ‘You see? Doesn’t mean anything.’
‘You’re supposed to be my father. Please. Stop it.’ I stood to leave and he blocked my way, saying he loved me and I imagined the horror that could happen. Then he forced his tongue into my mouth and I lost my balance. I fell back on the bed. He scrambled on top of me, groping my breasts. In that moment, I was livid and hit him repeatedly, kicking my legs at him, but he was much stronger than me. So he caught my hands and smacked them against the wall. I became frightened and subdued by the pain.
‘Calm down,’ he cautioned as he sunk his face between my thighs. ‘It’s nothing,’ he said, his mouth parting my vulva. I felt his tongue slide in, soiling a part of me.
When I left – Mr C, his poetry sessions and his love – I lived many months in a haze of shameful silence and guilt: I was the adulterer the street preacher spoke of; the girl responsible for that woman’s tears every time her husband was away. Mr C became the man complimenting me at work, the stranger sending me a friend request on Facebook, the nice woman giving me counsel.
Mr C became nameless musty air that choked me everywhere I went.
My memories of him swim in and out; the day he spoke to my sisters and the day he became friends with my friends. The first day he kissed me and the day he touched my breasts. The night he fell sick. Lunch at the restaurant. And all the days he wore sorrow on his face, apologising for touching me. And a while later, I remember walking back to the hotel with him, before anything had happened…
‘Have you ever thought of us making love?’ he had asked.
‘I’d be stupid to do that with you,’ I replied.
‘Why are you so mean? Don’t you love me?’
Then one day, a friend younger than I am called to confide in me. Her voice shook as she recounted:
‘I called him father. He spoke to my mother. She trusted him. He took care of me. He was nice. Then he wanted me to lie on top of him. He said I was a big girl and I was pretending. He tried to pull me. But I ran out. He stopped talking to me. He told my friends I was bad influence. They don’t talk to me anymore.’
On another day, I heard another girl cry out: ‘He shoved his tongue into my mouth.’ A third girl lamented: ‘I’m so ashamed. He sucked my vagina. It’s all my fault. I should have left.’
‘Why are you doing this to me? You have a wife,’ I said as he climbed up my body.
‘I just want you now. It doesn’t change anything. I love you, Jennifer. Please, relax.’
I remember the feeling of his fingers crawling over my skin. How he kissed me and I pushed his face. How he took off his shorts and stroked his penis, trapping me between his thighs. I shut my eyes and pleaded, every thrust fire burning my thighs.
‘Tell me you love it, baby. Tell me you love it.’
I peered at him through my eyelids, clouded with tears, and could not recognise the man on top of me. By the time the heat fizzled out, I knew I had gone to hell. I hugged my knees and hid my face in the pillow.
He caressed my bare legs and lifted the pillow off my face.
‘Don’t worry, it will be our little secret,’ he said.
‘How long will you keep doing this to me?’
‘As long as you remain unmarried,’ he answered, his eyes , wide and piercing; me, clutching the bed sheets, wondering how I had crossed the line.
Daughters Who Become Lovers is also published in the anthology of creative non fiction from Writivism.