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Jul/Aug 2015 Fiction

Exfoliation

by Israel Okwuje

Photography by Lydia Selk

Photography by Lydia Selk


Yejide's back was scarred. Toyosi found out the day he almost slept with her. That sultry Thursday afternoon he'd groped—working his hands down the small of her back, moving sideways—and felt the ridges beneath her chiffon blouse.

"Yejide, your back?" he said, stopping the hand motion.

She scowled and brought down the blouse he had worked up halfway over her trunk. She seemed offended.

"I think I should be leaving now," she said, smoothing her disheveled hair.

She grabbed her bag from the rug floor. "I'm leaving," she announced again, glancing at him.

As she preened herself to leave, he imagined her being whipped by someone whose face he couldn't picture, whose gender he couldn't tell. He imagined the sight of the scars he hadn't seen but only felt: maybe one of the ridges was as thick as his pinkie. His vocal cord unfurled after she'd left.

He decided to call her later and apologize for what had happened. He'd say he hadn't meant to behave that way: stare at her as if she had the plague, even though he did not know the origin of her scars. Yet the possible image of her back remained etched in his mind. A disappointment of sorts, he thought. Hadn't it been long since he had imagined what the day he slept with her would be like—divine? Hadn't he considered her a perfect human being, her legs straight and spot-free, so he wondered if mosquitoes ever bit them, because his legs were riddled with dark spots like a blighted fruit and he just hadn't seen anyone with legs so smooth; and her face—that perfect oval, the nose not too aquiline and the latent dimples on her cheeks that appeared when she smiled, each time he poked her sides and she forced herself not to laugh because she wanted to convince him she was not ticklish.

Toyosi picked up his sketchpad and set his pencil on it. In the end, he hadn't called her. Instead she called him, while he was plunged into work, trying to remember the image of the popular Benin ivory mask. He answered the call, still sketching with his right hand.

"Yeji, sorry about today," he said, before she could speak.

"You just let me go, Toyo," she said. "You just let me go. Will the scars be a problem for you? Please say so if they will."

He laid his pencil down. Biting his lower lip, he held back words. All he knew was he felt let down and somewhat cheated, having coveted the possibly perfect accompaniments to her perfect face and legs.

"It's obviously a problem for you."

"I never said that," he protested. "You never allowed me to say anything before you walked out of my flat. You obviously have a problem with the scars, not me."

"You were staring at me for almost five minutes, gawking, not touching me. So what did you expect?"

"You should have asked me that," he said.

"Would there have been any point to that... asking?"

"See, Yejide, cut me some slack here, okay? Sorry I didn't stop you while you were leaving. Let's talk tomorrow. I'll come to Santos."

He ended the call. He set his pencil on his sketchpad again, trying to smudge a shade on the mask's left eye. His mind blanked. The image had muddled itself in his head. When such a thing happened, he slept over the image of what he was sketching and then the image came fresh the following day. So he stopped sketching.

Everything Toyosi sketched that year was either a bust portrait or a mask. His fascination with bust portraits and masks started the day Yejide gel-packed her hair into a bun. The bun sat atop her head like a crown, a bunched mass looking more like a coiled, artificial appendage than what it really was—an extension of hair growing from her scalp. Toyosi could ascertain the exact shape of her head. There were no long wisps of hair obscuring the outline of her visage. Her head was spherical, facial features symmetrically arranged on it like sculpture molded by an impeccable, deliberate artist.

So he began to sketch bust portraits—only bust portraits of people with remarkable heads. On excessively windy evenings, he'd be hunched over his sketchpad, sitting on a slab beside Santos field near 22 Road. Desiring interesting ideas for sketches, he'd remove his footwear and relish the feel of gritty sand grains against his bare feet. He'd scan the entire area, shifting his gaze from the local gym at the northwest wing to the platform riddled with mats and frequented by 22 Road Muslims every evening—all in hopes of glimpsing a remarkable face. He was seldom lucky.

Not all faces he sketched were beautiful. He'd once sketched the head of a Fulani beggar. The beggar was unlucky to be facially deformed, as opposed to having the amputated limbs or clubbed feet many beggars have. The beggar's face appeared to be almost whorled, his mouth bent clockwise. Toyosi had stared long at the beggar that day, more fascinated than disgusted by the grotesque deformity.

Later that evening, he tried to remember the image he'd seen. Like most artists, he had a photographic memory, even though problems lay in transposing the vivid images into sketches. Sometimes he would work on a particular sketch for days. He'd sketch and sketch, but what he produced on paper often was a far cry from what he pictured in his head. This happened while he sketched the beggar's head. He got major outlines right—the mouth bent clockwise, the resulting protruding buck teeth and bulging eyeballs—but he was certain that if the beggar materialized and were juxtaposed with the junk he'd produced on paper, there would be no apparent resemblance.

Because of how much he sweated that breezy evening beside Santos, battling with the beggar's head, one would think he had done something physical: say he'd cut a large patch of knee-length grass all by himself. He swallowed saliva. His ass hurt, so he stood up and impatiently thumped his left foot against the ground. All this wasn't helping. He was still stumped.

Yejide joined him a few minutes later and asked why he looked flummoxed on such a beautiful evening. "Calm down," she said, kneading his shoulder. "I think you need to sit still and remember the image as you saw it. Having done so, blot out the activity around you and concentrate on what you see." Her slender fingers flagellated in the air as she spoke, rather earnestly. He decided to do as she said, but no sooner had he tried than a shattering sound rang in his ears. A keke rider had, in a fit of rage, smashed the windshield of a car on the nearby main road.

"Aw!" Toyosi stuck his index fingers into his ears. Yejide kneaded his shoulder again.

"You need to learn to silence your mind to distractions like this. Better continue the drawing at home."

He closed his sketchpad. She continued kneading his shoulders. This was very exciting to him. His penis kept stirring, and he willed it to remain flaccid until she stopped and talked about a sketch she'd seen on the page behind the one on which he'd been sketching. He was barely listening; he desired her but couldn't ask. She'd refused the one time he'd asked her for sex. After that day she was very guarded about bodily contact with him. And he was patient because he thought he knew women and how fragile their resolve could be. He'd thought the only thing needed was the right spark, and she'd be the one begging for it.

On Saturday, around five in the evening, Toyosi sat on one of the slabs around Santos field as usual. He'd been there for over 30 minutes. While his pencil scraped his sketchpad, his muscles tensed. He was waiting for Yejide, who he'd left a voice note on the Whatsapp. She had yet to respond, so he assumed she wouldn't show up.

At 5:20, she approached him from 207 Road. She wore a turtleneck sweater and a maxi skirt, even though it wasn't cold, just slightly breezy. Toyosi smiled, wondering if she did this in response to the day before. Then he realized he'd never seen her wear anything that would reveal her back. He remembered when he bought her a spaghetti-strap gown last Valentine's and asked her to wear it for the dinner he'd planned. She said: "I'll have to give this one to my cousin. I don't wear show-backs." She'd not thanked him, and he'd regretted making such a grand effort, vowing never to again.

Still watching her amble along, he realized he had never visited her. Not once in the six months they had dated. She'd told him she lived in her father's twin duplex somewhere on 207 Road and nothing more. He'd not thought it material to probe for a specific address since she alone did the visiting, and it was convenient for him that way.

When she got to where he was, she didn't pull one of his ears as she often did. Instead she sat next to him and fixed her eyes to the front, watching the boys playing football on Santos field.

Toyosi had almost finished sketching the Benin ivory mask. "See what I just sketched. Started working on it after you left yesterday," he said.

She glanced at the drawing and nodded her head. "Not bad," she said and fixed her eyes frontward once more.

Of course Toyosi expected her to say more, but she didn't. He wondered if she liked the sketch or thought it any good. She had once told him that perhaps drawing wasn't for him. In that candid moment of hers, she'd said she thought he did it with too much effort. He had then scarcely cared about what she said or thought of his art. He had thought she knew next to nothing, until the day she showed him one of her sketches and he marveled at her brilliance with the pencil.

"Chinedu, Chinedu!" a boy shouted from the field, calling out to a co-player. "Pass am now," yet another said. Toyosi glanced at Yejide, who was watching them intently.

When a player scored, she jumped to her feet, startling him. Then she said, "It was a good goal. Hope I did not disturb."

"I was practically done with the sketch when I asked you to take a look."

"Let me see again," she said.

He thrust his sketchpad at her.

She narrowed her eyes, as if trying to properly see the large drawing of the ancient ivory mask, which, smudged by blurring shades, looked three-dimensional. "Not bad," she said again, nodding her head, making him wonder why she'd asked to see it again even though she didn't have any sensible contribution to make.

"Are you trying to offend me?" he asked, then wished he'd not said this.

She snorted. "Why would I want to offend you? You asked me what I thought, and I responded, didn't I?"

"'Not bad," isn't exactly a response in my books, especially when said twice."

"Well," she said, getting up, "in my own books it is." She sat back down and cast a sidelong glance at him. "You did a good job. Your shading is flawless, and this really looks like the Benin ivory mask, unlike the Azikiwe bust you did the other day."

He smiled. She wouldn't ever know how much her validation meant to him, he thought, looking at her pretty face. "It didn't take much from you to give an honest and detailed critique, did it?"

He awaited for a response, but she wouldn't indulge him.

"I want to draw something else," he said after a while.

"Go ahead."

He pinched her on the arm. She reacted, glared at him, then fixed her eyes front again. He licked his lips and said, "I want to sketch you."

For him the idea was bizarre. Yet, for some reason, he imagined it would help him deal with the fact that she wasn't as perfect as he'd thought she'd be.

"Go ahead," she said again, mockingly inflecting her voice.

"I mean you naked," he said.

She sighed. She peered into his eyes. Then she shifted her gaze back to the footballers. He reckoned he had annoyed her by making this demand. He rubbed her shoulder blade, feeling the bump thereon. "Are you angry?"

"No."

"I asked because you're my muse, and I do not know what to sketch anymore. And you know I need to sketch."

She ignored him.

He laced his fingers in hers. She squeezed. Then she wriggled her fingers free. "I need to leave now," she said.

"When will you come around—to my place?"

"Call me," she said and sauntered away. He watched her leave. She walked the way she almost always walked, her feet barely rising above the ground, as if she had the mandate of scraping everything on her path.

Because he procrastinated on almost everything, save for his sketches, Toyosi did not call her that evening. On a profound level, he resented her scars. After months of desiring and waiting, he deserved much better. The universe was simply wicked, he said to himself, controlling the urge to call her and end things, or even send a voice note on the Whatsapp to that same effect.

She called him the next morning, asking why he didn't call again. Toyosi thought about what sweet nothing to say to her. But she hung up before he could come up with anything.

He was almost set for his morning run. For weeks he'd taken a particular route, but he was going to change it today. He was going to cover the half of Festac—starting at 512 Road, going through 207 Road and winding up back home at 41 Road. Perhaps he might run into her en route.

At five that evening he sat on a slab by Santos field, this time no sketchpad in his hands. He hadn't run into Yejide in the morning as he'd expected to, but he'd left her a message on the Whatsapp, asking if she could come over to their spot in the evening. She hadn't replied him, but he'd come anyway.

Rather unusual for a Friday, no football game was being played. A heavy gust of wind rose, hurling sand grains into his eyes. After a long wait, on his way back home, Toyosi received a reply from Yejide. She said he insulted her by asking to sketch her nude. She said she felt as if he wanted to objectify her. Her last line read: "It's overly presumptuous of you to demand such a thing from me." And, "Overly presumptuous!" again, for effect.

But Toyosi did not give much thought to this. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and proceeded to Opanachi Viewing Center, where a Bayern Munich football match was being aired. On his way he imagined Yejide, wherever she was, waiting for her phone to beep, anticipating a rebuttal from him. He wouldn't give her the luxury of a rebuttal, he decided. If she wanted to be upset with him, she could very well stay angry.

Hours later, when he returned home, he found Yejide waiting for him. Her left eye was red, clearly because she'd scratched it. Her fingers fondled the black leather bag slung on her right shoulder. She'd plaited her hair into tiny braids, which she let fall on her shoulders and cover her ears. A new hairdo.

"To what do I owe this gesture?" he asked smiling.

She stamped her left foot on the floor, as if trying to shake off a clinging insect. "Would you open the door and let's go in?"

He opened the door and entered into his flat after her. As soon as he shut the door behind them, she grabbed his face downward with her arms and forced her tongue into his mouth. Soon they were sprawled naked on the living room floor, breathing and sweating profusely. She was lying on her stomach, and now he could clearly see the scars on her back. The bumps were scattered all over like random biro strays on a plain piece of paper, not as thick as he'd imagined them to be. They were dark, so he could tell they weren't recent.

"I can feel your eyes on them," she said after a while. "Will you ask me or not?"

Toyosi said nothing. He'd by then stopped looking at her back. He'd deliberately focused on her fleshy buttocks, which were surreal in their smoothness, so that he wondered what her back could have looked like before the scarring. She turned to her side, now facing him, her large areolas staring at him. His penis stirred but went flaccid almost as quickly as it rose.

"The scars are obviously not a problem for me," he said, thinking this was what she wanted to hear.

She scowled. "That explains why you barely touched them," she said. "Who are you fooling?"

Toyosi smiled.

"It's ok. It really is now," she said and licked her lips.

Toyosi did not know what more to say. The truth was, her scars were even worse than he had imagined them. She should be grateful he'd touched her. Looking into her eyes, he wanted yell at her, scold her for questioning his motives, which he thought shouldn't matter at all.

Instead he grinned, yet grateful she wasn't telepathic. Noticing a mosquito buzzing between them, he heaved up his body and slapped it dead. Blood the mosquito had sucked stained his left palm. Still grinning, he showed her his palm and said, "This thing has been sucking me dry."

She cleared her throat.

He hoped she'd embrace this light mood and not talk about her scars again.

But no. "These scars... they're my worst nightmare," she said.

He snorted. He willed the rug they lay on to somehow roll her up and stash her anywhere away from him, at least for the moment. For days her scars had taken precedence in all their discussions, and his patience for them was now very thin.

She recounted what led to her scars, even though he didn't ask her to. It was at the girls-only boarding school she'd attended. She'd stolen from a senior student and was caught. "Before you start judging, everyone steals in boarding school. Just don't get caught," she said. "The girl beat me mercilessly. Her friends, too."

Toyosi listened, a little astounded by the sheer cruelty. He imagined a young Yejide tiptoeing in the dark and breathing profusely, intent on stealing whatever it was that she stole, which he didn't care to ask about. He cupped his mouth as if coughing, muffling his urge to laugh at the image in his head.

"So did you report to anyone? I mean... after that ordeal."

She nodded, saying no. "A thief doesn't get to complain if beaten like a thief. Anyway, that's how the scars came about. I didn't report to anyone. My mum was really upset when she noticed the scars, and later she laid a formal complaint to the school authorities. So the girls were punished, but here I am. Anyway, that's what happened, for your information."

"But... they couldn't have used their hands and scarred your back this way," he said. He was weirdly curious about what she'd been beaten with.

She nodded. She breathed in deeply. "Have you ever been whipped?" she said and averted her eyes from him.

He hadn't. He truly pitied her now. Still he craved a change of subject. "I can only imagine having something like this haunt you for the rest of your life. And people making all sorts of assumptions about what happened to you. Anyway it's now in the past. It's a good thing you've move on," he said and hoped they'd finally talk about something else.

Rather fortunately, it worked. She sat up and reached for her handbag on the dusty sofa. She rifled through it and brought out her sketchpad. "Just thought I should show you this," she said, handing it over to him.

Therein was a drawing of the Benin ivory mask he'd been sketching for days. Other than a pencil, she'd used black ink. Perhaps she'd penciled the outlines before tracing them with the ink. Toyosi flipped through her other sketches, the rest of which were landscape drawings. One looked so much like Santos field that he had to ask. She nodded affirmatively. "This is quite impressive," he said, ever recognizing she was more talented than he.

Then he noticed a crooked smile on her face. "I've been thinking deeply on your request from the other day at Santos," she said.

"Okay," he said, grinning. "But I'm not sure of the request you're talking about." He swore to himself to kick her out if she mentioned anything more about her scars.

She adjusted her sitting position. "Let me sketch you naked," she said.

He stared at her, a bit confused, trying to gauge her seriousness. "Maybe I can handle that," he said.

She retrieved her sketchpad from him and produced a no. 2 from her handbag. "Stand over there," she said, signaling him to move towards the right, to stand by a misplaced French garden chair in his living room. "You'd slightly lean on the chair. And... of course you'd want to cup your penis with your hands. I won't want that in my sketch."

He was still naked, so he took position. His legs were apart, and he slightly leaned against the wall.

"Funny since you were offended when I suggested this the other day," he said, trying to evoke a response from her as she sketched him. But she'd switched to an autistic-artistic mode, wearing a pensive look on her face, ignoring his comment.

Trying to be still in his stance, he watched her hands move deftly on her sketchpad. Something was rekindled by this very gesture of hers, the exact thing they'd lost that Thursday when he'd almost slept with her. He thought she'd transformed back to the girl he loved to spend time with—a true artist. Not the nag he'd had to deal with these past days. If she continued this way, maybe he'd work harder on managing her hideous scars.

Soon she gasped. "This is weirdly refreshing for me... I mean, drawing you naked."

He laughed. He couldn't exactly say the same for himself. It was weird not to be in control, not to be the one sketching. All he could do was pose—as a dummy—and wait to see what she would make of him. He was sure it would be great, since everything about her was great. Almost everything.

 

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