She left a summer in New York. The pungent smell of fermented urine, streets reeking of stale trash mixed with sweat and perfume on the subways. Yellow ducks floating on dark waters in central park, lilac haired girls toting black sheer clothing in Brooklyn, stomping doc martens and white sneakers on broken sidewalks. She left all of it, and sat on a lonely flight from JFK International Airport to Lagos. When the plane took off, she thought about the people she left behind. Ian waiting on the stairs reading a book, when she came back from work. The bar on Franklin Avenue where she ate al fresco as soon as the summer began, the bodega on her block with one dollar “loosies” a term Americans used to describe single cigarettes, black trash bags on the ground in front of well painted brownstones, waiting to be picked up on Tuesdays. Paper lanterns and candle dinners on the rooftops in South Williamsburg, broken furniture on the streets carried away as trash in the evenings; neighborhood children riding on bicycles; the smell of steak being grilled at 4am. It was there, and then it was all gone. Her New York, all in her palm at one moment, slipping through like silt and sand in the next. There was no G train to miss, no A train to connect to, no street harassment to hiss at. She tried to hold on as long as she could, to the dream, the feeling of being in the city she wanted to be in for the rest of her life. But with time waning, and the doors closing at every opportunity for work, real work at that; she resigned to herself much to the disbelief of everyone around her, that she would move back to Lagos.
Here in Lagos, crouched in a cramped toilet in Murtala Mohammed International airport, she smoked a cigarette slowly, sucking lightly on the last stick of menthols she had. She heard the cleaning lady hiss and mutter under her breath, she supposed that she could smell it too, the faint smell of burning tobacco and desperation. Like a ritual, she waves her hands in the air, pushing the scent away from her person, reaches into her purse for some perfume, sprays it all over her neck, hands, cleavage (she laughs at this) and then her wrists. She pops a mint in her mouth and flushes the cigarette butt down the toilet. She feels in her handbag for some sunscreen and foundation, finding those, she gently applies it to her bare shoulder, slathering the brown liquid on the part of her tattoo that was visible. The process was exhausting. “Becoming someone else” was exhausting, “cleaning up her act” to return to Lagos was exhausting. Yet she was here, her entire life in Brooklyn contained in four suitcases and one measly cigarette butt that floated buoyantly in a toilet bowl.
She waited for him to snore, her wide eyes searching the dark room for where all her things lay. Tip toeing lightly, she picks up pieces of her false life, garters, stockings, whip, handcuffs, bra, panties. The room is dark, so she grazes her hands across the bureau, her hands feel a watch, which she abandons, her hands feel a wad of cash, which she grasps. Wearing only a robe, she stuffs her props into a leather tote bag, opens the door lightly, and shuts it, bolting down the lobby. The robe flutters behind her, silk material outlining her small frame. A red door with “Exit” on the top, she opens and makes her descent down the stairwell. Four floors down, and away from security cameras she adorns her regular clothing, jeans, white t-shirt and sneakers, brushes her hair, sets the tote on the floor and lights a cigarette. “One more of this and I am done”, she thought counting the hundred dollar bills. She splits the amount into two and seals the first batch in an envelope. The second, she stuffs in her pocket, patting it occasionally as she cross the street , walking as fast as she could away from the hotel. A pit stop at Western Union money transfer, she sends the first half home and takes the long route to her apartment. It didn’t matter how she got here, working in a glorified version of the world’s oldest profession, what mattered was what she was able to do with it. In her mind, this did not define who she was, it did not take away from her sense of self. Yet after every job, every phone call from her “employer” she ran a really hot bath, and went straight in, her body raw and keeling from the heat. She shed her skin like this after every job. It was easy to do it after the first time. She decided she would not beg anyone for money or work a regular school job that paid $10 an hour, this was much quicker, and she did not have to beg anyone to pay her school fees. It had always been this way. Jumping into cars as a teenager in Enugu city, with men old enough to be her father, and somehow making them part with their money without having to do much. At that age, she knew she had a certain power, an appeal, and she decided that it would be useful to get her out of a situation she had no say in from the onset of her life: poverty. In a cramped dorm in secondary school, she crafted a careful plan to leave Nigeria and come to America to study. Opening the window to her fire escape, a bottle of wine in hand, a cigarette in the other, Ijeoma thought that it hadn’t been easy at all. There were the little things in between, pieces of sadness wedged in the cracks: unplanned pregnancies, rape, violence. Yet she was here, in Brooklyn a masters degree and bachelors in hand, and a full wallet in the other. Her mother and sister were taken care of as much as she could, she had worked her way up to having special clients in New York City. Men she ran into on the subways or at pretentious networking events.
Her friends in New York knew she was an escort. They “oohed” and “aahed” at sunday brunches, laughing at stories of clients who could not get it up, or who had misshaped penises or emotional problems. She encouraged it too, with her stories, “his dick was so misshapen, I could feel the vomit rising in my throat” she would offer, throwing even her harmless clients under the proverbial brunch conversation bus and they would laugh. It was easy for her to do this, to make light of something they did not understand, it provided an entry for them in her life, however small, and it helped her ease the burden of carrying such a heavy secret. Her friends in Nigeria responded differently “Ijeoma, you can’t be serious, you went to America to be a runz girl? You should have just stayed here and finished, and you could have found some rich man to buy you a house or range rover.” It was never enough for the Nigerians in her life. There was always more to acquire, more status to gain, more to be had. They were ambitious, even with the poisonous things. Still, both parties idolized it. They knew about the fancy hotels in the Upper East Side, being carried off to the Hamptons in the summer to “entertain” clients, regular car services picking her up from the airport and to and from work. She had stitched together a false identity with this part of her life, glamorizing a business that had it’s dark pieces. She had not told them about the beatings, the missing tooth she had to replace in January, the sexually transmitted diseases, being handcuffed to a bed in a small hotel in the Upper West Side and being unwillingly choked, an experience she was now sure was similar to drowning, the feeling of life flickering on and off like a light bulb. They were happy to learn about the tricks of the trade, lessons they could carry back to their significant partners, she was happy to be a receptacle for their ideas on men. But she noticed also, their reluctance to invite her to outings where everyone arrived with their partners, and when she did show up after scourging indirectly for an invitation, the energy was dissociated, cautious, her own friends thought that she might pull the trick on them, lift up her skirts and cart their partners off. She spent a lot more time at home, poring over books on sexuality, death and loneliness. Still, for the six years Ijeoma worked as an escort in New York, she did not hate herself. She did not hate herself running out of that loft in Williamsburg hailing a taxi cab at 3am in her underwear, with a broken jaw and a missing tooth, blood bee lining from her mouth to her chest. Even in that moment she scowled and barked at the driver “ New York University Medical Center” applying pressure to her jaw with a towel she took from the hotel. She did not hate herself at the doctor’s office, listening to the physician’s assistant mouth “Chlamydia” slowly to her as though she were tone deaf, she did not feel a disassociation with herself or her body, in fact, she felt more in love with it. There was more clarity when you came from the bottom. At the top, there was so much shit to crawl through, with people and their falsities, the lies, the pretension. She was not a victim of circumstance. Her phone vibrated, and she stared at the screen at what would be her last job in the “business”.
New Client: The Whyte Hotel, Williamsburg, seeking domination. Driver will pick up in 20 minutes.
She downs the glass of wine, makes her way through the window, crouching through the small space to leave the fire escape. “Thank God” she muttered, rolling her eyes.
to be continued.