Beside the wrought iron gate of the shelter, there is a small indistinct sign that reads Sister Circle, with the word Sister crossed out and replaced with Femme. You are out of breath, wheezing as you walk into the building. A cathedral in its previous life, now its sacred halls are lined with narrow bunk beds, for the desperate and weary. Not unlike a church.
At the welcome desk sits a plain-skinned middle-aged woman with locs like Lailai’s and a gold hoop encircling the septum of her large nose. She looks at you, smiles and says, “Welcome.”
You stare at her as you try to calm your breathing. You will your body to walk closer to the desk, you try to speak, but you only cry. Sniffling, hiccuping, coughing kind of cry. She waits patiently, hands you a napkin, and hums soothing acknowledgements, “You’re tired, aren’t you? It’s okay, take your time—take all the time you need.”
When you stop crying, she looks at you and says, “My name is Sun. You don’t have to tell me yours.” You nod and attempt a feeble smile.
“Welcome to Femme Circle—or Sister Circle, whichever name works. The rules: no cameras, no weapons, no questions. I’m going to have to check you for weapons, pat you down old school. Do you consent?”
You nod your head, and it suddenly feels incredibly heavy. Sun pats you down, front and back, gentle pressure on parts of you where weapons could be hidden. Afterwards, she returns behind the desk and explains, “We operate on trust here, it’s how we keep each other safe. If you’d like we can pair you with a caseworker to help you through whatever it is that has brought you here. I can put you on a waitlist. Wait times are between five to seven months, better to sign up now, it might be up to a year by tomorrow morning.”
You nod your head. Yes, you want a caseworker, although you cannot fathom how you will survive five to seven months without an identity. And Lailai—oh Lailai was right about Ọrun. Will you make it back to see her? Will you hug her and smell her tangerine smell again? Argue over cleaning the canoe again? These questions spins like a dust storm in your heavy head. It accompanies you to sleep after Sun has shown you to the bottom bed on a creaky bunk, with rows and rows of other occupied cots on either side of you, under a kaleidoscopic stained glass ceiling.
Six weeks at Femme Circle.
The first week you lived in a humid haze of sleep and weeping; you would wake from a dream of safety at home to find that you were still hiding in a decrepit cathedral, to find that your Chichi Girl and Ẹbun Mimọ were probably still working for nothing on Gaskiya tea plantation. It was all too crushing, so you went back to sleep, only to wake and face the same facts again each morning.
The second week Sun coaxed you out of bed to show you the dining hall, where a massive man with a tiny bleached blonde afro and marks flaring out from the corner of his lips served rice and beans, and bread and beans, and corn and beans, and beans and garri. You were ravenous and didn’t grow tired of beans until week four. By then you had made some acquaintances, fellow inhabitants of the shelter. You shared laughs over nonsense. They were deep belly laughs that stole your breath. You laughed about fat rats, about the drip by the altar that could be morse code, about the orchestra of flatulence that filled the rooms after dinners of beans.
You laughed into the fifth week, and you remembered your body. You hadn’t looked at your body properly since you left Jagajaga; you used to watch your reflection when you danced in the mirrored walls of Sun Bukkah, sometimes with a slow hip winding, a self-seduction that got you many tips.
You thought of your body most vividly when your bunkmate Zizzy, told you of her dating exploits on Ringer.
“I thought it was a networking app,” you’d said as she climbed into the bed above you late at night.
“It’s like a choose your own adventure for networking. You can set out to make professional contacts or personal contacts. I’m there for the personal evidently.” Zizzy yawned and said, “You should check it out if you’re keen.”
“Is it safe?” you asked.
“I mean, you’ve got to be smart. If I’m looking to sell, then I demand we meet at a public place; hotel or club with rules. If it’s just for fun, then I’m more flexible. But I always stay sober and never fall asleep.”
Zizzy seemed like an open book, but there was a deep sadness, a dark well, just beneath her dazzling surface. You rose from your bed to face Zizzy, gestured to your Siṣa and asked, “Zizzy, is it safe for me?”
Just then her bubbly surface receded and her sadness showed, she sighed and offered you a soft smile. “It’s never safe for you here baby girl, but give it go, don’t put up your face or geotag your location, but you already know that.”
By now you have played out every ugly scenario that your mind can conjure. You have imagined it all; still, you fish out the sleek phone from the pocket of Brother Fatai’s hooded jacket, you hold your thumb over the camera and switch it on. Within seconds, you log into the Ringer app that’s already installed on the device.
You swipe across the screen. People have geotagged their location, the time, coordinates—they give away everything. You cannot connect until you create a profile, so you make one using the name Amen, and you take a picture from your breasts up to your chin. In the photo, your body jewels glint, the two on your nipples the brightest. Within two minutes of posting it with your location, you have twenty-three messages, most of them insults:
ugh clean skin only, this app has gone to shit
you people are everywhere
disgusting, scrub up
nice tits, but I don’t fuck filthy slum sluts
shouldn’t you be cleaning a toilet somewhere slum slut
Shame creeps up your neck but halts a moment, when you read:
Your Siṣa is gorgeous; I adore your embellishments.
You swipe to open the attached profile. It belongs to a woman, plain skin, her profile name Nirvana. You chuckle to yourself because it’s absurd to claim to be a transcendent state, free of desire, while also trolling a free app for sex. But in the one picture on her profile, the woman has gorgeous lips and soft eyes, and you have a frantic longing to be touched. You reply.
It is gorgeous. But do your lips taste as good as they look?
Nirvana: I’d like to think so, you want to find out?
Nirvana: I’m at Affinity if you’re keen on a night out
You: too many eyes
Nirvana: Camera shy?
You : yes
Nirvana: Soto is a blind club, meet there?
Nirvana: I’ll list you as my guest
You do not join her at Soto; you cannot bring yourself to leave the haven of Femme Circle because, despite your desires, you are terrified of being caught by the Authorities or by Madame’s people. You don’t know which situation would end worse for you. You are host to a goulash of contradicting impulses, but your sense of self-preservation prevails over horniness this evening.
Petrified for nearly two hours, after which you thaw and write a message.
Sorry can’t make it out. Another time?
Nirvana: For sure
The stillness of the following morning is stirred by another message from Nirvana.
I assume you have a face?
You: Who’s to say?
Nirvana: That’s intriguing
You: Is it now?
Nirvana: Do you have a whole torso?
You: Let me check… it appears that I do
Nirvana: That’s very exciting
You: ? and you?
Nirvana: Oh I have a whole body, it’s a pretty nifty thing to have these days.
You: What do you use it for?
Nirvana: Mostly for work, sometimes for dancing. You?
You: You’re assuming I have a body… hehehe
Nirvana: Oh damn, I really hope you’re a person, and I haven’t been trying to flirt with a Bot
You: What if I’m a Bot who doesn’t know she’s a Bot?
Nirvana: That would be pretty sad, not that far off from what I do for work actually
You: What do you do for work?
Nirvana: I’m a programmer. Create code and whatnot
Nirvana: Hahaha! It’s not terribly interesting
You: How do you know about Siṣa?
Nirvana: Some friends from my previous job had the same
You: Coding job?
Nirvana: Yeah but for Open Borders, immigration justice stuff
You: Sounds noble
Nirvana: Is this very sexy conversation doing it for you?
You: ? yes
And so it goes, through week seven and into week eight; your conversations with Nirvana feel like an anchor of normalcy. A kind of normalcy that isn’t exactly normal to you, yet it feels good. And it feels good to feel good even if thoroughly coloured by guilt. So with a dab of red stain from Zizzy’s calloused finger; and your afro coaxed into braids that fall to the side of your face; and your rested body suited in the same black jumpsuit you wore on the boat from Jagajaga to Ọrun, you pull brother Fatai’s jacket on. Hood up, head down, you risk it and jog to Nirvana’s place.
Within fifteen minutes you are at Nirvana’s building.
She is waiting by the entrance so that you don’t have to scan your face to be let in. Leaning against the wall beside the door, she smiles when you walk up.
“Amen?” she asks, her voice gently sonorous, deeper than her lean frame would suggest.
You smile and nod but take your hood off only after you’ve entered the warmly lit space of her apartment. The savoury scent of stew welcomes you. Nirvana promised you dinner, and it appears that she’s following through. Hunger gnaws at your stomach. You had been too nervous to eat the shelter supper of beans and yam, and now you are famished.
Nirvana takes your coat, and her fingers run down your arm. When she serves and hands you a plate of golden brown fried plantain topped with tomato stew, her fingers graze yours. When she sits across from you at the small glass hexagonal dining table, her knees brush against yours. The whole time her eyes are fixed on your face. With a fork midway to her mouth, she asks what you do for work.
“Before I came here, I was a teacher and a dancer.”
“When did you come here?”
“About nine months ago…”
“You like it?”
You are silent for two mouthfuls of food and a long drink of sweet water, then you carefully respond, “It’s like a tomb with a beautiful mural on the outside wall.”
Nirvana’s eyebrows shoot up her forehead. She chokes on her plantain in laughter.
“That’s dark and deep,” she exclaims.
You do not laugh; instead, you ask, “Where are you from Nirvana?”
“Born and raised in this tomb.” She wrinkles her nose and bites a corner of her lower lip. And your face falls into your palms, you laugh, “Sorry to insult your home!”
“It’s all good. It’s definitely a fucked up place, but it’s the only home I know.”
Your knees brush against each other again, and this time neither of you move away. You lean into it. There are many reasons you shouldn’t be here, many reasons you should be under the scratchy covers at the shelter, shrivelled in fear, crying for Chichi Girl and Ẹbun Mimọ, praying to see Lailai again, praying that a caseworker will take particular interest in your situation sooner than seven months. But you want to be seen. You unzip the high collar of your jumpsuit, past your throat and midway down your sternum.
You are foolish, but you want to be seen, and touched, and to remember that you are alive, now, in this body of yours—before they come for you, because isn’t it inevitable? You trace the Siṣa on the back of your hands, up your arms; you look up and ask Nirvana, “You have a fetish?”
Her pale eyes widen, taken aback. A shy smile spreads across her angular face. “No. Maybe—no, I don’t know. I just find you incredibly beautiful. I mean, seeing your face now… yeah…”
You shrug and shake your head, “Its okay if you have a fetish; anyway, beauty isn’t good for anything—you can’t eat it.”
Nirvana smiles wide and it makes her eyes half moons. She touches your hands and traces your Siṣa.
She says, “I can try.”
She spends the night trying. You are eager lovers, and you cry from relief when she finally flexes her fingers inside you. She bites your jewelled breast, and you come quickly, a fierce rushing that makes you think of the ocean at home.
You don’t intend to, but you fall asleep entangled in the sheets of her plush bed. When you wake up, it is early morning. She brings you a cup of hot milky tea and shows you a picture on her screen. It is of you, curled into a tight ball, your dark skin, your Siṣa, stark against the pale gray of her bedding. She took it hours ago.You feel air dispel from your chest; the picture was automatically timed and geotagged. You look at her aghast, snatch the screen from her hands and try to delete it, but it doesn’t recognize your fingerprints, it won’t respond to you.
Your voice strains in a hoarse whisper as you ask, “What have you done?!”
Nirvana stutters, “I-I’m sorry, I should have asked, it’s analog, don’t worry, I just wanted to remember.”
“Nothing is analog, Nirvana! Memories are here,” you gesture to your temple, then the centre of your chest.
You hand her the phone demanding that she delete the picture, but you know it’s too late, it has been tagged for hours. They have already found you.
Before the Authorities cuff and lead you out of Nirvana’s apartment, you tell her, “You know from my Siṣa, I’m from Jagajaga. My name is Ife; it means love.”
You wouldn’t be able to tell how long you sat, naked, in that glass box; a box not unlike the body scanner at the Port, but much smaller. Too small to stretch your arms out to their full extent. And it might have been your mind fucking with you, but it seemed to shrink as time progressed. It grew smaller as you waited indefinitely at the detention centre that sat overlooking the ocean on the edge of the city. You had been processed quickly, scanned by a massive eye with its orange light and dinged as blank, unregistered, slum scum.
The Authority officer had asked how you got to Ọrun, and you’d told him everything except for your time at Femme Circle. If he’d believed you, he hadn’t show it. His features had stayed blank as he’d recorded your story. He’d asked if you were selling sex unregistered when they picked you up; “No,” you’d said, “I was on a date.” You thought his eyes had dimmed with sadness, but it might have been your mind fucking with you. Then he’d read you your rights, which were that you had none and that you would be held indefinitely until an arrangement to pay your fine was made, or until you were registered by an Ọrun citizen in good standing.
So you wouldn’t be able to tell how long you sat, naked, in that glass box, snug against another glass box that held another woman, on top of another glass box with another woman, a hive of glass boxes with blank people stuck between home and Ọrun. You don’t cry, you don’t pray, you just count your breath and surrender.
Then they release you. And you find out it’s been two weeks.
A different Authority officer tells you you’ve been registered by one Vana Maina, an Ọrun citizen in good standing. When he hands you your jumpsuit, Brother Fatai’s jacket, and phone, he adds under his breath, “Lucky slum slut, must’ve been a good fuck.”
You pretend not to hear. You are stunned.
Outside, Nirvana is waiting by a yellow bicycle, holding a gold helmet. She offers you a tentative smile, and you respond by saying, “You don’t own me now.”
“No, no, of course, I would never, I don’t want that… I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
Your body starts to tremble as though a fault line in the foundation of your core has shifted. You begin to collapse, and Nirvana catches you, but you push her off and stand on your own, still shaking. “You don’t own me,” you say again.
“I will you pay you back for the registration.”
“You can’t, I don’t want you to.”
“How much did it cost?”
“It doesn’t matter, I was stupid and fucked you up, it’s only right that I fix it.”
“You don’t own me.”
“I know. I’m sorry… I didn’t know.”
You cry into your palms, awash in relentless waves of grief, relief, gratitude, and guilt.
Nirvana stands close to you without touching you. She says, “You’re registered now, you’re free to come and go, the port is open to you.”
“Thank you,” you hiccup. You lift your face from your palms and look in her face. “Thank you.”
She shrugs and shakes her head. After you catch your breath and the tears start drying on your sunken cheeks, you both look towards the sea, water thrashing against the rocks. On this side, the ocean is harsh.
“What will you do now?” Nirvana asks.
You think. You see Lailai’s face before yours, you hear Chichi Girl crying, you remember Ẹbun Mimọ praying to Yemaya. You think of all those cameras scanning you now, imagine having your own profile: Ife Kobo. Registered Worker. You turn to face the detention building with your chin up, looking directly at as many cameras as you can spot.
Turning back to Nirvana, you tell her your decision.