“You could return to New York or Los Angeles,” Nneka was saying, “you know, veg out for a bit, relax and then –”

“No, absolutely not,” Benjamin countered heatedly. “We can’t have her taking a break. It’d look like the scandal sent her running.”

“Perhaps if you’d let me finish,” Nneka said coldly to the Highland Records underling, “then you would have heard me say that after some relaxation, she can go back to the studio –”

“She just had an album out,” Benjamin said with a scoff. “Why would she be going back to the studio? Demoniker is no Rihanna. Even Rihanna got tired of releasing an album every consecutive year.”

“You do realize I’m right here, right Benjamin?” Demoniker interjected then from the depth of the divan she was ensconced in, a drinking glass in her hand as she observed the two attendants wrangle over what her next move would be.

“Of course, I do, Demoniker,” Benjamin said as he turned an apologetic look to her. His brows were raised above his eyes, lending his expression some earnestness as he continued, “I’m just trying to point out that the obvious thing to do now is to carry on with further promotions of your album –”

“Like what – going on another tour?” Nneka cut in caustically.

“I was going to say getting booked for a string of shows, but another tour sounds nice. We can set up a tour across some parts of Africa like Kenya, South Africa –”

“I can’t go on another tour so soon after this one,” Demoniker demurred, with a shake of her head. “Maybe in about six months, we can revisit that.”

“The studio idea I was proposing,” Nneka intoned, “is not much of an effort. Just to record a remix album of your greatest hits. I know I’ve been getting offers from several rap artistes who would like to collaborate with you in jazzing up some of your tracks.”

“Are you saying my hits are somehow so bad they need jazzing up?” Demoniker arched a brow at her assistant.

“No – no, I would never… I just… What I’m saying is…” Nneka stammered.

“Look, guys,” Demoniker cut her off with a wave of her hand, “tours, studios – I don’t feel like doing music right now – or at least, focusing on music solely.”

“What about being a part of a movie?” Nneka suggested.

“Yes, yes,” Benjamin pounced. “That’s a bright idea. You’re big right now –”

“I’m always big, Ben,” Demoniker interrupted sardonically.

“Of course, of course, you are” the Highland employee amended hastily. “What I meant is I’m pretty sure lots of directors would love to work with you, even though you haven’t acted before –”

“I have done some acting,” the songstress interrupted him again. “I did some plays back when I was in school –”

“Then how about revisiting those roots,” a voice interjected.

The three people already in the room turned their heads around to behold Josh standing at the doorway of the parlour.

The moment Demoniker saw him, her breath caught. His eyes were on her, staring at her out of a face that was so carefully neutral, she knew it had to be a mask for some turbulence within. He had kissed her after all – her, his father’s former mistress. Nobody brushed such a thing off like it didn’t matter.

“Hello, Joshua,” she called softly.

“Hello,” he responded before advancing into the room.

The few moments of silence that stretched as he made his way slowly toward them were taut with undercurrents of unspoken words and unexplored emotions. The current must have been tangible enough for the other two to pick on, because Benjamin blurted, “Uh, what’s going on with you two?”

“What do you mean?” Josh instantly flashed at him.

“Nothing, boss,” Benjamin said, lifting his hands in mock surrender as he backed away a step. “I’m just saying you look weird. And you” – he turned a finger at Demoniker – “also look weird.”

“Well, maybe it’s in your head,” Nneka snapped at him.

Before Benjamin could bristle at her rejoinder, Demoniker said to Josh, “You were saying something about revisiting my roots?”

“Yes. I overheard you talk about doing some school plays back in the day. And you were pretty good in them. I saw some youtube videos someone uploaded of your acting past around the time you came into limelight. On my way here, I knew you’d be brainstorming over what project to sink your teeth into next. Well, short of signing up for a stint as some talent show judge, this is it.”

“What is it?” Demoniker queried.

“A play.” He had had his hands clasped behind his back since he got into the room. Now, he brought them forward, and in his right hand was a long, slender, rolled-up piece of paper.

“What is that?” Demoniker asked.

“It’s a play,” Josh said as he unrolled the paper, spreading it out for the others to see it was a colourful poster.

Benjamin and Nneka moved to his side to peer at the depictions on the poster as Demoniker sat up on the divan, setting the drinking glass down on the stool beside her.

“Let me see,” she said.

“Broadway Meets Naija,” Nneka said with a lilt of amusement in her voice. “This director is ambitious.”

“And yet, ambition is everything,” Benjamin riposted as he turned the poster toward him to get a better look.

“Let me see please,” Demoniker said in a sharper tone.

Josh moved to her and handed over the poster. She glanced down at the splash of colours, bold prints and images on the sheet. There was a stage, people, musical instruments and the beam of a spotlight. Below the images were stenciled bolder than the rest of the print: Broadway Meets Naija.; and underneath followed a roll of all the establishments that were involved in the production.

“I don’t know, Josh…”

“It’s perfect,” Josh said. He was smiling at her as he hunkered down on his haunches before her. “Not as pedestrian as another musical venture, nor as involving as a foray in the movies. It’s light-hearted and looks to be fun. Plus it’s the first of its kind in Nigeria. It would look very good on your resume for you to be a part of such an innovation.”

“But I don’t really have any acting experience to speak of that’d put me in anybody’s consideration for a production such as this.”

“I know the director. I spoke to him and surprisingly, he was open to the idea of casting you in a lead role.”

Demoniker’s brows arched. “He was.”

“Yes, he was.”

“Bearing in mind that not only would there be actual actresses better qualified to be in the lead roles, but this woman right here is riding the waves of a cheating scandal?”

Josh chuckled. “That’s the more reason he wants you.”

Demoniker rolled her eyes as Nneka said with a small laugh, “Of course, the publicity that comes from notoriety.”

Demoniker looked up at the two underlings and said, “Could you guys give us the room please?”

They nodded and moments later, had exited from the parlour. Demoniker turned to Josh and had opened her mouth to speak when he said, “Look, I know it feels like something that’s way out of your ballpark, but you are Demoniker Dawson. You have never been really known for playing it safe.”

A small smile tilted the singer’s lips. “Keep saying stuff like that and you might actually have me sold on this.”

A throaty laugh came from Josh, and Demoniker was startled by how good it felt to hear the sound, to feel it wash over her. She rose from her seat, suddenly feeling uncomfortable with the shift in her emotions.

“This will be good for you, Demoniker,” Josh said behind her.

She turned back to him. “What if it turns out not to be the right fit and I realize that too late?”

“It will be the right fit,” Josh said with robust assurance. “I have a feeling about it. You’ve got to trust me on this. Remember I trusted you when you said I shouldn’t quit from Highland. Now, I’m asking you to do the same.”

Demoniker stared at him for awhile, before exhaling. “Alright then.”

“Awesome!” Josh burst out. “I’ll call the director now and set up a meet.” He was picking his phone out of his pocket.

“Um, Josh…” Demoniker began softly as his thumb raced over the phone’s keypad. “About yesterday –”

“I’m really very sorry about that,” Josh interjected, his expression turning contrite as he took the phone to his ear.

“Oh no need to apologize,” Demoniker said airily. “We were both caught in a moment, I guess.”

“Still, I shouldn’t have kissed you. I should have known better. And to think I’d been chewing you out about lacking self control.” He was speaking fast now. “Plus it’s complicated enough already without me adding my wahala to the mix. You and my father, and now, I’m kissing you – that’s just… Urgh!” He made a face intended to amuse Demoniker.

She obliged him with a polite laugh, even though she was trying not to feel let down by the direction of the conversation. She had intended it to go a different way. “Yes, I know. Urgh.”

“Why don’t we just forget it never happened,” Josh suggested. “And just focus on getting our relationship back on track.”

“Our relationship?” Demoniker felt something hover just beneath her chest cavity.

“You know, as friends,” Josh said with a tentative smile.

The something crashed all the way down to her stomach. The answering smile on her face stayed up with a struggle. “Sure. As friends.”

Just then, a tinny voice crackled from the speaker of Josh’s phone. “Hello?”

“Oh hey, Bruno, it’s Joshua.” And he moved away from Demoniker.

She stood there, watching him and not understanding why she felt so disappointed.

***

Deidre Balogun sat in her open-spaced office; her long slender legs were crossed on her desk, and she sat back on her swivel chair. Her attention was rapt on her laptop screen, from which played a Netflix show she’d just subscribed for. In the nest provided by her groin was a small bag of chocolate chip cookies, which she munched as she watched.

A knock sounded on her door. She didn’t respond, so reluctant was she to drag her attention from the movie. The knock sounded again, this time more insistent, warning Deidre of an unannounced intrusion if she didn’t answer.

Deidre tapped the keyboard of the laptop and the action on the screen froze.

“What is it, James?” she called out.

The door jerked open and a young male face with a beard bristling from his chin peeked in. “Your eleven o’clock is here.”

Deidre looked at her watch. It was leather and masculine; Deidre thought the thin-strapped feminine variety too simpering for her taste. The time was a few minutes past eleven.

“Okay,” she said as she brought her legs down from the desk. “Give me two minutes and send her in.”

As the door shut behind her secretary, Deidre shut her laptop, threw the bag of cookies under her desk and dusted out the crumbs from her laps. She was arranging the papers on her desk, pulling back her professionalism, when the door opened again to admit a young woman. She was beautiful, even though she was dressed to understate that fact.

“Good morning,” Deidre said as she stood from her chair.

The woman’s eyes went to Deidre’s skirt. Deidre followed her gaze and felt a small ball of mortification bounce around inside when she saw a lot more cookie crumbs clinging to the fabric.

“Don’t apologise,” the woman interjected. “We all need to unwind once in a while, don’t we?”

Deidre felt a smile spring involuntarily to her mouth in response to the small beam the woman turned her way. There was something appealing about her new patient.

You’re not allowed to find them likable until you’ve met whatever demons they’re carrying around with them, remember?

Deidre straightened and wiped off her smile, replacing it with an expression of courteous professionalism. She gestured to a section of the office that had two sofas and a stool in between. The two women moved over there and got seated. Deidre crossed her legs at the ankles, took another good look of her patient and said, “Would you like to tell me why you’re here?”

“Yes,” Amara Peters said in a low tone. “I would very much like to do that.”

***

“I don’t know why they call it rainy season if we’re still going to get hot suns like this roasting us from up in heaven,” I said with a heavy sigh as Kuddus and I walked into the hotel lobby.

He chuckled as we made our way to the reception. “Well, look at the bright side, the heat outside will make you appreciate all the more the air conditioned room and nice, cool bath you’ll be taking soon. And this would be you, with no responsibilities, while your family is slaving away in preparation of this dedication at your family house.”

I gave him an arch look. “All that is the bright side?”

Kuddus laughed again, choosing not to say anything in response.

Minutes later, we were checked in and pulling our bags into the hotel room that my sister, Esther, had reserved for us. We were in Ibadan for the dedication of my baby brother. I’d earlier maintained my adamance in not returning to stay in the old house; I certainly had no interest in sleeping in my old room during the duration of this festivity. Plus my parents were working at getting back together, and I had no wish to be anywhere close to that catastrophe.

I dropped my luggage to one side of the room and flopped into the bed with a heavy sigh. Kuddus did the same, but not before taking off his shoes, a habit I found rather pretentious.

I moved to his side and murmured, “Kiss me.”

He looked into my eyes for a moment before bringing his face to mine. Our lips connected and moved over each other. I tasted him, the slightly fruity breath of one who hadn’t eaten anything all day, tinged with the sweetness of the Fanta he’d drank at the start of our trip from Lagos. I tasted him and took him all in, pulling my body closer still, as though burrowing myself into him.

He broke the kiss and gave a breathless laugh before saying, “Someone’s clearly horny.” His hand had slid down to cup the erection behind my jeans.

I smiled demurely. “Well, now you know.”

“Well, I’m hungry as fuck right now.”

“I told you to take breakfast before we left,” I chided.

“And I’ve told you eating before traveling upsets my stomach.”

I groaned as he sat up on the bed and began moving away from me.

He chuckled and said, “What? You don’t expect me to shag you on an empty stomach, do you? I’d just die on top of you.”

“That wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.”

“Don’t be so morbid,” he said with another laugh. He stood up. “I’m going outside to get something to eat. Do you want anything?”

“Can’t you just order in?” I whined.

“I’ll take that as a no.” He leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the lips. “I’ll be back soon.”

As he walked out of the room, my phone began ringing. I looked at the screen; it was my sister. She probably wanted to know if I was in Ibadan.

“Hey,” I answered.

***

Esther could be very garrulous on the phone. She was the sister who would call you and proceed to have a lengthy conversation with you as though you two were in a room together, not hampered by the constraints of airtime.

And so, when she eventually hung up, my right ear felt warm and slightly damp, and I came into the worrying awareness that Kuddus wasn’t back. A quick glance at my watch told me that he’d been gone for about fifty minutes.

“How long does it take to find a restaurant and eat eba and egusi soup in this place sef?” I grumbled as I got up from the bed.

I was soon out of the room, with half a mind to look for him. Downstairs at the lobby, I got directed to the hotel’s restaurant. As I walked into the small, wood-paneled space, I observed that there were only two people in the room. One of them was Kuddus, and he had just thrown back his head with laughter at something his companion had said. I felt an unbidden sting of jealousy, as I tried to remember if he had ever laughed like that, so robustly, at any of my jokes.

You’re not much of a joker, are you?

I tightened my face in a small frown as I made my way to their table. I cleared my throat, and Kuddus, whose back was to me, turned. The other young man gave me a fleeting smile that made me startled, as I suddenly realized he looked familiar.

“Oh hey, babe, I’m so sorry,” Kuddus said as he rose and embraced me briefly, before turning to gesture at his companion. “I met a friend of mine when I came down for lunch, and I’ve been so consumed by our gist that I forgot I left you high and dry upstairs.”

He was smirking, and I swatted his arm, feeling my face heat up under the scrutiny of the other man.

“Stop talking nonsense,” I admonished.

“So you’ve noticed that too, how full of nonsense he is?” the young man said as he stood up. His eyes were twinkling with infectious merriment as he stuck out his hand. “Hi, I’m Declan Odum. And you must be Kevin.”

“Yes, I’m Kevin Achike,” I said as I took his hand in a handshake.

He was a bit taller than I am, slenderly-built and light-skinned, with eyes that crinkled at the corners with his smile. Once again, I felt like we’d met before. But my memory was a mess with placing faces, especially when they belonged with people I’d had brief contacts with in the far past.

“I can’t help but think about how familiar you look,” I said as we sat down.

Kuddus laughed. “He gets that a lot.” He waved at a waiter to get us drinks.

“I do,” Declan said, flashing me his smile. “I must have one of those faces because I’ve had too many people tell me I look like somebody they know.”

“It’s just…I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like a resemblance.”

“Well, maybe it’ll come to you soon enough. As a matter of fact, you also do look like someone I might have met before.”

“Okay, am I going to regret introducing you two?” Kuddus said, squeezing his face into an exaggerated frown.

Declan laughed. “Don’t be such a baby.”

“I’m allowed to pout, or at least practice being a diva. As a published author, I have to work on my celebrity.”

“Oh that’s right,” Declan said, beaming at him. “I heard you got published.”

“Yes, it’s titled Those Awkward Moments. It was a tough process but it was worth it.”

“Is it in bookshops? I’d like to get it to read when I return to Lagos.”

“Check Konga. I’m still working on getting it into the bookshops. But for now, you can only purchase it on Konga.”

“How do you two know each other?” I interjected then, feeling slightly left out of their banter. I was guiding my glass of Coke to my mouth.

“Well, Kuddus and I went to the same university, ran around in the same circles. He was an interesting fellow back then, this boyfriend of yours.”

I choked on my drink, spluttering and gasping as I brought the glass down. Kuddus shifted close to pound my back comfortingly. The stare I turned to Declan was bleary.

“My boyfriend?” I said. “Uh…”

“Relax, Kevin. I’m gay too.” He grinned. “And I have a boyfriend too. So see? I’m your fellow Frenchman.”

I gave an awkward chuckle. “Nice to know,” I mumbled, and buried my heated face in my glass again.

***

“So, Kevin,” Declan said, “Kuddus says you’re into songwriting.”

“Yes,” I said around a mouthful of meat.

We had ordered some small chops in addition to the drinks, and the past few minutes had been interesting, the more I got acquainted with this Kuddus’s friend.

“Any big clients I’ve heard of?”

Kuddus said with some pride, “Demoniker Dawson!”

Declan’s eyes goggled. “Wow, that’s a big one!”

“I know, right?” Kuddus turned to beam at me. “My baby rolls with the big guns in the industry.”

“Please stop,” I said in a low tone, feeling self conscious under the collective admiring gazes of the two men.

“But that scandal, mehn,” Declan said, “I wonder how she’s going to come back from that.”

“What scandal?” I said, remembering yesterday at Mad House Records, when the guy who’d shown me around had mentioned something about a scandal when Demoniker’s name came up. I stared with incomprehension at him.

Declan seemed taken aback. He turned to Kuddus. “You sef, you don’t know?”

Kuddus shook his head.

“Ah, are you guys even on this planet at all? Or tucked away somewhere under Donald Trump’s toupee?”

Kuddus and I laughed.

“The news broke out about a week ago that she had an affair with her record boss while he was still married.”

I schooled my face into an appropriate expression of shock, made genuine because I hadn’t thought they adulterous pair would be exposed.

“Wow!” Kuddus exclaimed.

“You seriously had no idea?” Declan turned to me.

I shook my head.

“The internet was not at all kind to her when the news broke. I sha hope she’s okay. I for one love her music.”

“Me too,” I said. I really did.

“All these straight people that’ll just be cheating upandan sef,” Kuddus said.

***

“Are you fucking kidding me!” Declan exclaimed at Kuddus. “So after all that mouth they made, Chike and Ebenezer didn’t end up together – married with two dogs and an adopted child?” He let out a scoff.

“Yes o,” Kuddus said. “Chike said it was because Bryan cheated, and I was like, that’s why you threw away one year of good loving?”

“Excuse me!” Declan interjected, oscillating a disbelieving stare onto Kuddus.

“What? I’m just saying.”

“Well, it sounded to me like you were endorsing cheating.”

“No o,” Kuddus denied. “I’m just saying one mistake should not end a great relationship.”

“So, you are endorsing cheating then!” Declan insisted before turning to me. “Kevin, see your man o!”

I grinned.

Kuddus began earnestly, “Look, Declan, I’m not saying cheating is right. But let’s be realistic; in the Nigerian gaybourhood, monogamy is a rarity. Impossible, in fact! You should just be happy you have someone who loves you. But someone who’ll have sex with only you? That’s very nearly impossible!”

“Are you listening to your boyfriend be so cynical?” Declan said to me again, with an exaggerated sigh of exasperation. “Kevin, please don’t tell me you agree with what your boyfriend is saying right now.”

I didn’t say anything for a quick moment, as I felt guilt simmer inside me as it had been doing ever since we segued from the talk of Ryan Bassey cheating on his wife with Demoniker to gay men cheating in their relationships. I felt like a poster child for this topic, as pinpricks of shame needled my insides at the thought of Jude and all the ways I’d wronged Kuddus.

I’d cheated on my boyfriend. But would I feel right about him cheating on me?

“I don’t agree with you, honey,” I said, dredging up an apologetic smile for him.

He groaned. “Oh you guys sef!”

“I believe love is a commitment, and commitment is love,” I said. “If you’re not willing to commit, then I don’t think you can call it love.”

Does that mean you don’t love Kuddus? And if you don’t, why waste his time? My conscience accused me.

I ignored it.

“Tenkiu!” Declan exclaimed, raising a hand over the table for a high five. “Your head is there, Kevin! This odé doesn’t deserve you joor.”

I ducked my head as I thought about how it was I who didn’t deserve him.

Kuddus laughed as Declan continued, “Kuddus, just because life and everything that can kill you in Nigeria is making things hard for us gays in Nigeria, it doesn’t mean we should condone what’s wrong. We shouldn’t make excuses for bad behaviour abeg.”

I was nodding when he posed a question that had me stiffening.

“I mean, if you found out Kevin had cheated on you, would you be this understanding?”

Every fiber of my being tautened as I sat there, woodenly waiting for my boyfriend’s response.

Kuddus looked at Declan for a moment, and then turned to me with the most trusting expression I’d ever seen on a human being. He placed a hand over mine on the table and said with some emphaticness, “No way, mehn. Kevin would never do that to me. We’re too in love with each other.”

His words sent a ripple of shock and guilt down my spine. I looked away from his stare, unable to bear the purity of his expression.

“Mumu!” Declan exclaimed. “So you can understand someone else’s mess up, but not your own, abi?”

The three of us burst out laughing. The sound I made was forced, but mercifully, my companions weren’t paying much attention.

Soon, our conversation with Declan wound down when Declan gasped at his watch. He had to meet up with an appointment. I was tired and was starting to feel my vim slowly ebb, and Kuddus talked about wanting to get a shuteye. I exchanged numbers with Declan before we dispersed in the lobby, and I just knew that this wouldn’t be the last I’d see of the young man.

Written by The Reverend

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