That first night Star entered the Upper Room, Divine had long black braids on, swinging behind her knees, and she was wearing combat boots. Star had just turned fifty that weekend, and funny, it was her sugarbaby F who told her to go upstairs, just to see what else was there. Star told F about the rejection stories she’d heard in whispers about this room in particular, how stunning women of all ages had been turned away by whoever was behind that door. But the babe was adamant. “The worst that can happen is that they’ll say no, abi?” she asked, nudging Star up the stairs. “That’s it. This is a building with endless rooms, the adventures go on for longer than time. If that room rejects us, we’ll find another. What’s there to lose?” Star shrugged, knowing F had a point. “Loosen up jare!” F teased. “You’re alive. Act like it. Life is for the living o!”
And so what choice did Star have? This was their deal after all; exactly what she’d signed up for—in exchange for that bright spontaneity F came to the table with, Star offered her financial stability and a seat above the law. “If you ever run into any trouble,” she promised F, “I’m just a phone call away.” She meant it. The only time F used that privilege, when some Lagos Big Boy slapped her friend outside Silverfox, a blue Hilux arrived on the scene within minutes with sirens blaring, MOPOLs hanging out of the sides, guns loaded on their shoulders. They lifted the man off his feet and treated his fuckup in less than five minutes. He limped off into the night with a bleeding, beating mouth. Star gave that instruction from the comfort of her bed, a number dialed calmly from her iPhone. It only cost her a few seconds. “You’re never going there again,” she told F afterwards. “Silverfox is for commoners anyway. You’re with me. Shey na naked babes you wan see? I know a place.”
Star and F had only been outside the door of the Upper Room for seconds when a pea-eyed camera winked at them. The photos went straight to a printer on Divine’s desk inside, which groaned softly before releasing them with a proud exhale. The bouncer pressed a finger against her right ear and nodded, receiving instruction. She turned to Star and F, her chest built like a safe. Star imagined jewels asleep inside it. “She say you shoul’ wait,” the bouncer said. Star tried not to fidget. None of her girls had ever seen her take No for an answer. Just a few nights ago, when Angela was praising her for paying her Masters’ tuition and getting her pregnant sister a three-year US visa in a few days, she’d said, “Mama di mama. What can’t you do? After you, no be you? You fa, you can only ever get two answers in this life: yes and yes, ma!” Angela’s excitement rushed straight into Star’s head. She loved the praise even more than the sex they had that night. Say yes, she found herself thinking now. Say yes.
Divine had always been able to tell who she could work and play well with just by looking at their photo once, so it didn’t take too long for a short voice message to come back through to the bouncer. “Just one,” the bouncer said, her voice a few octaves higher than they’d expected. “You, on the left.” Feeling flushed with confusion, Star held both her arms out to determine where her left and her right were, and immediately registered how stupid it was. It’s just: it’d been a long time since she felt chosen based on her looks alone. F fidgeted beside her, trying not to feel terrible. Star turned her head from F to the bouncer and back again, as if she might find permission on one of their faces. Star felt nothing like herself. “No, it’s okay,” F said finally—not to Star, but to the awkwardness in the air. “I’ll go find something else to do.” Star stumbled forward feebly, and the door clicked open.
Divine liked her women with age in their legs, with plotlines in their forehead and cheeks, and darkness behind the eyes. All the better, if like Star, they wore their hair short and barely used makeup. She wasn’t after beauty, really—which was what most of the women who sought her out got wrong—she was after women who already knew that pain could be a tunnel and that pleasure could be the warm light at its end. Women who could understand without too much hand-holding that life was neither flat nor straight, women who whimpered at the sight of leather and lace, who moaned at the lick of heat on skin. Women who were open to learning that sometimes shame locked in the body even for decades was not theirs to keep, that it could be submitted, regulated, rewritten into power with a safe word. Women who’d get that scenes like this were about freedom, about honesty, about transcending lockedness; scenes like this were about negotiating lust with full intention; about, as she had said to a friend once, “bringing the darkest of one’s desires to the surface of the skin.” She knew, just from looking at them, which women liked to be gagged or strapped or slapped or choked. Or all. She knew who didn’t mind crying if it meant getting there, getting there. She saw that something in Star—creased curiosity worn well between crow’s feet, a subtle exhaustion from carrying a weighty life alone, a low-humming desire to give it all to somebody else—and already, all of it was telling, all of it was story.
"There you are,” Divine said as Star entered. She was sorting through a black leather bag, her back to the door. Star noticed her bootlaces undone, her calves sweetly toned. “Wondered if you might leave with your little girlfriend. Sometimes, some people do that when I don’t pick them both.” Divine said little with the candid curtness of someone Star’s age, which made Star chuckle. “What?” Divine asked, turning around for the first time. “It’s true.” She was wearing lip tar, that black moody lipstick with a distracting nightness to it. Stretching her hand forward, eyes steady on Star’s, she said, “Divine.”
With Star’s name still stuck to the sky of her mouth in awe, Divine added, “You can introduce yourself after. Two minutes. Pick the props that’ll make you the wettest.” Star fell down some floors inside herself. Who had talked to her like this before? “You heard me,” Divine said. The room shuddered as she cocked her head towards the giant shelf.
Star got on her knees to look and thanked her chi that she came in alone. A whip. Hot wax and cold honey. A collar. Clamps. A blindfold made out of heavy black silk. “Greedy,” Divine said. “I like you already.” Star knew too, from that intimidatingly tall energy translating onto Divine’s body from the inside, from how at ease Divine was in herself, that she would have to make this a small religion. Divine squatted next to her, calling her close. “Now tell me. What do you really, really want?” she asked. “It’s your show now.”
Later that night when Star made the mistake of looking up at Divine from down where she was kneeling with a remote-controlled vibrator fitted into her, Divine leaned forward while upping the speed, and said, “don’t be looking at me like I owe you mercy or some shit. I’m not your fucking mummy.” Star landed so hard she cried. A hard cry. A belly-falling cry. A worry-drowning cry. An a-whole-me? cry. But there was something about the shape of the resulting shame that did something to Star’s eyes, that stretched them out sideways, that broke her sight open and gave her a new way to see herself.
Now, weekends and weekends later, Star asked for a scene. Stood in front of Divine in the dark room with her hands clasped in front of her crotch, she said the go word. The room collapsed outwards and puffed smoke into the air. A cool blue light went under Star’s weak defense and licked between her thighs. It had the coldest tongue she’d ever felt. Divine watched on. Not far behind Star, a woman yelped from where she was suspended in the air by ropes woven down from the ceiling. Her legs were spread-eagle, but it took a red light cutting through black smoke for Star to see slivers of her, limbs forming perfect planes. Star felt herself shudder. Divine swept her eyes around the new expanse and Star followed, watching the women who’d just appeared reaching for each other, skin against skin, hands swallowing space. She’d chosen this: a room with collapsible borders framed by women who could watch this entire thing openly with their eyes glassed and thirsty.
One of them, a stud standing alone, caught Star’s stare and pinned her there, then touched herself, two fingers gently sliding. Star would have been able to catch her breath if Divine’s palm hadn’t come from behind and wrapped itself around her neck all sweet like that. Her mind spun, time melted. It was a new now and she was sitting down, Divine’s knee was working against her. There was a playground-bully-meanness in Divine’s voice when she said, in front of all the watching eyes, “Ah ahn, you’re excited already? I thought I trained you better. Look at your mates. No. Look.” Star could hear small deaths stacking behind her, tumbling out of women’s mouths, and the thought of it alone: of being in the same room as other women meeting themselves again for the first time, tightened her skin.
So, her breath cutting quick, the whip against her thigh, the upside-down and inside-outing, hot wax leaking into her clavicle, a metal spoon resurrecting on a flame, honey drooling sideways, Divine’s tongue flashing and disappearing, Star’s mouth opening quick, her begging pouring out of it before she could reel it back in, the whole of her goosebumping, Divine levelling her to her knees, pushing the chair out of the way, Divine saying, “What? You want to come, you want to come, that’s why you’re crying? Aren’t you a big woman? Don’t you run shit out in the world?” Star felt her shame cartwheeling, shapeshifting, reintroducing itself wearing pleasure’s mad face, coming closer than close with the rudest mouth; a known beat forming between her legs, wet sliding down the inside of her thighs; Divine’s fingers slipping over her torso like an almost-there, then lower, to that soft flesh between hipbone and trouble. Divine kept her eyes open, focused, stayed on Star’s. Star blinked Divine gone. And then back. “Someone smells desperate,” Divine said, squatting between Star’s legs. She never missed this part: this teasing like she just might taste it, even knowing she’d never go there. But it didn’t stop Star from pleading, pleading. She was here for this pain, for the torture. With the blindfold knotted, a waterfall of black silk tumbling behind her head, Star is all tenses—future on past on present jamming hard, grinding in a stack.
"Please can I—” Star tries, but Divine shut her up with the flex of her jaw alone. Focus, Divine thinks to herself as her head attempts to floats off. Keep your mind here. Divine knows what this kind of sternness can do to Star; where exactly the rejection will flood her. Star shrieks and Divine lifts her by the chin. Seeing the fight on her face, that whole wide trying, Divine knows where Star is speeding towards, where she is trying to drop to—teetering on the edge, trying to stand on it, to wait on it, to listen for permission to free-dive all the way, because everything in the world feels wetter than wet, slipperier than sane.
"Don’t you dare,” Divine says. This time, her voice comes out sounding shaded, like a deftly darkened sketch of something sinister. She knows that when she talks like this, words sweetly wrapped in risk, it makes her subs want to sit on her voice. “Fine,” she says, turning a soft edge. “One for me then. And then one for whoever will be waiting for you at home.”
"Who… who… who do you… think you are?” Star managed, trying with everything as Divine undid the blindfold. It was that fucking smirk, grinding her gears.
Divine scoffed at the dead-end in the question. In any life she entered, she landed like a world. Even days into the week, with Star in her all-glass high-rise somewhere working, she knew Star would come back and back to this exact second where she let go and her body sang: Divine, Divine, Divine.
Daisy spread her palms over Divine’s back, slick with warm oil. “Ayanfe mi. Mm? Love of my life. Are we dom-dropping over here?” But she knew the answer already just from how Divine’s body was laying. Massages were one of the ways Daisy took care of Divine after a long weekend working. Though she almost always came away feeling exhausted herself, she knew that for Divine, the crash was different, that after work sometimes, on especially strenuous days, it took her hours to peel that storied world off her body. She needed to wait for it to cool, for the glue to shift so she could feel her own skin again. “Let me help you with that,” Daisy said.
Divine chuckled softly with both her eyes still closed, which usually meant that she was still inside-tired, past flesh, past blood and bone, past marrow. During play, when a scene was going the way it ought to, she saw herself the way the women saw her, like a towering force, larger than the building itself. After scenes, she was used to holding her subs’ faces and talking them back up, setting their feet back on reality. It was a scene, she’d say, you’re okay, here is some water, what do you need? It was part of her job, but it wasn’t easy either to grow that unstoppable—adrenaline doing a march parade through your veins as you try to stay attentive to cues. How many times had she reminded clients that they could say the safe word if they wanted to, knowing fully well that they’d swallowed it on purpose? Making it look easy was part of the job, but it was difficult work to stand as custodian and front-rider of someone else’s pleasure, to be the one in whose hands another person’s desire took form or woke up, only to have all that power crumbling back to flat inside her afterwards, to have to remember all the ways she was still unsafe in the world; to have to bring herself back down to herself.
Daisy’s fingers worked Divine’s back and then rested under her shoulder blade. Divine moaned and nodded in approval. “Here?” Daisy asked, leaning forward and kissing her neck, fingers pressing in.
"Mm. Yes please.”
In a matter of days, they’d have been together for three years, and it had always felt like this: soft hands and deliberate care, a love that flowered open and rivered both ways in equal measure—nothing they would have anticipated when they met at a private party in a New Money Honey’s beach house. Like any Lagos night in a private location, everyone there was wearing their nightlives on top of their real lives, and Divine was just walking to the bathroom when she got leashed by a scent.
"Bleu de Chanel?” she asked, walking in its direction. She’d know that scent anywhere, and part of knowing it was obeying it.
Daisy turned around, already smiling. “Correct,” she said. Being as visible as she was to anyone with good eyes, she was used to Lagos babes and their thirsty lines. Most of them bored her. But this person standing here, with her burgundy afro and her endless legs, made her want to listen.
"I’m good,” Divine said, sensing the invitation and moving closer.
"You are. I have to give it to you.” Daisy went up close as Divine was laughing. “Let me too guess. You’re wearing uh…” She pressed her nose against the curve of Divine’s neck. “Gorgeous, by God?” Stroking her invisible beard, she balanced against the wall. They both burst out laughing.
"Wow. So you’re really just… Jim Iyke? As you fine reach, you’re still dropping dead Nollywood lines on babes?”
"That was more like Tony Umez actually. At least Big Jim had some bars.”
It was easy from there. The rest of the party melted into an unreal. “I have a confession,” Divine said as the night grew. “I’ve seen you before.”
"For real, or is that another dead pick up line?”
"For real. It was at Afropolitan Vibes.”
"You were there?!” Daisy covered her face. The night was coming back. It was on brand for her to lose home training wherever there was good music. That night, her friend Rose had posted the video of her on stage dancing with three other women—sweat and joy dripping down their backs, crowd going insane—on her Instagram story. The next day she had twenty new follow requests. “Oh no,” she said.
"Yes.” Divine laughed. “And yes, I saw.”
When Daisy asked for it, ‘Divine’ told her her real name, not the one she wore at work or under the harsh sun outside, but the one her mother had named her with love; and ‘Daisy’ mentioned her true name in return. When a year from then, they decided to take Agbon’s offer, they chose each other’s names between touch and soft kisses, grip and sweat:
You’ll be Divine.
And you’ll be Daisy.
But all that was still a far future away. “Ok let me confess since we’re telling the truth,” Daisy said, drunk already. “I saw you too. You were wearing a Family Guy shirt with Stewie on it and you had locs still. You were at the back where they sell food and drinks at some point, abi? I saw you fighting the woman for your two hundred naira change.”
Divine’s eyes watered from how hard she was laughing. “I actually remember that outfit, and to be honest, a girl needs her two hundreds ok? They add up.”
"But wait,” Daisy said. “If you saw me, why didn’t you talk to me? What if you never saw me again?”
"I saw you right after they’d just stolen my phone. You know Nigerians. Plus, I wasn’t sure if you were… you know?” Daisy did know. Back then, she wasn’t visible like Divine. People always assumed she was straight. Even when she was in places with just women, the ones with eyes for just women still couldn’t see her. Was it invisibility? Was it opacity? She didn’t know but it broke her heart often. She was constantly editing herself to show more. But right now, it was both too late and too early to start processing that.
So, “sorry about your phone,” she said instead. “As for the other thing, how does that even matter? If I like you, I like you. And I like you.” She shrugged. “But I get sha.”
Divine backed down the rest of her drink. “Tell you something,” she started. “The first thing I thought was, She’s so beautiful. The second thing I thought was: she likes women, does she know she likes women?”
Daisy leaned forward and found Divine’s mouth. I know, she was telling Divine, I do know. Before Divine, Daisy had never dated a woman seriously before, even though she had kissed more than a few of them. But it didn’t take more than that night to know. It was easy from there: dates rolling over into dates, nights into mornings into nights, which wasn’t to say that it wasn’t difficult to work through—with Divine’s fear of commitment and Daisy’s fear of losing herself in love, they clashed at the heart in the way large lives do when they first meet—but for the first time in both their histories of running from love or withdrawing their faith in it, weeks in, they found themselves standing still and facing another someone who wanted to do the same.
"Are you sure?” friends used to ask all the time at the beginning. “So this is it? Last bus stop tings? You’re sure you’re not moving too fast?” And their answers were always the same, despite the fear and its mouth packed with chattering teeth: Yes. Yes. Always yes. Even now, they still bonded in the same ways: flooding the kitchen with groceries, spending a full day cooking and sharpening each other’s tastes. “All that work I grew up doing in the kitchen,” Divine said once, standing in between Daisy’s legs as she sat on the island, “wallahi, she didn’t know it then, but my mother was raising me to feed you.”
Every weekend now, they hosted friends and fed them food they’d made from scratch, new dishes they were trying, and the house swelled with a raucous, redeeming noise. The week just gone was a friend’s birthday, an Italian night at their request, and they made carbonara, lasagna, and drank Moscato into the morning. The coming week, Divine planned to make golden puff puffs tossed in brown sugar and the banga jollof with a recipe she’d gotten from Kitchen Butterfly’s blog. It was a joyful life they’d made, a life with real friends who knew their real given names and the meanings behind them, a circle and a community, a family and a fortress—a home far from old violences, wholly accepting, possible to lean into and rest.
When Divine started to feel the ground of her mind again, she rolled over and kissed Daisy thank you. And then her mouth started running—How are you feeling? What should we do today? What should I make us for brunch? How’s your back? It was a thing she did when she was worried she was taking too much space, when she was trying to hide something under her tongue.
"Shh,” Daisy said. “It’s okay, just stay here. What’s happening? Tell me. Something’s happened.”
Divine bit the inside of her cheeks until they stung. “It’s my baby brother’s birthday today. He turned fifteen. And well—”
"Oh no, baby. I’m so sorry.” Daisy understood the feeling too, of having a new and safe life where you were seen and still missing the one in which you were raised, where love and acceptance were contingent on how good a masquerade you were. With her own family, the rejection was ongoing and less overtly violent, but it was still there. She could still go home, sure, but only as long as she played along at the family dinners and agreed to go on dates with people’s sons who she never planned to see again. There was a tacit agreement under it all: you can keep being a part of this family, you can keep being your parents’ daughter and sister’s sister as long as you never name yourself. Do what you want, but never say it. Or else.
She knew the subtext: Love expires the day you say it. Already, she could approximate how much it would hurt to be cut off like that. Unsure that she could ever survive it, she rotated between her two faces, kept her two lives, even if one was all ash and tall smoke. “I’m here,” she told Divine, her voice warm with reassurance. “Ife mi, I’m here.”
Divine felt herself tear up. She shook her head and closed her eyes. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she said. Three years in and she still cried in surprise sometimes when she realized the solidity of this thing, how well and how often it could catch her weight, how horizonless the kindness was. She still found it hard to wrap her head around it: how she could find a person who wanted to dedicate herself to her in this same world where people had taken and taken and taken from her. This same world she’d tried to jump out of before. She laughed at herself, at the thoughts sliding through her mind. “Hard guy hard guy, ehn?” she said, teasing herself aloud. “But small love now and I’m crying.”
Daisy lay down next to her and closed her eyes. She was thinking it too: the sheer luck of it all. Divine being everything she never even dared to wish for: rest outside of work, a good home outside of an office, no barking, no manipulating, no hiding. Just her face, next to another person’s face. A normal life and an extraordinary love.
"Should we nap?” Daisy asked.
"I was going to ask. Feelings are a higi right now.”
"I know. Wanna meditate?”
Sure, they both knew all the things that hurt underneath a good life didn’t just disappear because you were now loved. But it helped to see each other. And they did. They saw each other so far past the pain that no matter how hard their families tried to unsee them, they could never be invisible again.
Daisy wound down the pole to Dawn Penn’s “No, No, No,” with her eyes on one of the new faces in the booth. There was something about the song that felt prophetic in the moment, like a word right on time. She was working the Blue Room as usual—a room set up with twenty private booths facing the stage so that none of the customers could see each other. Safety reasons for some, and for others, it was so they could feel special, like this was a show for them alone—VIP behavior. Six out of those twenty booths were wide enough to accommodate couples, and all of them were full. In each section, there were small card machines, a menu of drinks and drugs, and a digital album of strippers who could be requested to perform private dances as the women watched the stage. The woman shifted from Daisy’s gaze and blinked several times, like this was a dream she was trying not to forget, like that might convince what she’d seen to never dissipate.
In a sense, everything inside was a dream, the club itself a not-quite real. The Secret Place was built into a sixteen story neon-lit high-rise that went underground on Friday nights and didn’t come back up until Sunday evening. The club provided a place for every woman who needed it to feel good, to feel something, to suspend the hate outside and cave into pleasure instead, to be part of a world with its own working economy. To be in a building where even the buff bouncers—six of them, linked at the entrance; others inside—and the ‘mallams’ changing bundles of naira to dollar bills, were women. Every weekend, they gathered there by the sheer force of slow-cooked desire, a hefty membership fee and a long screening process.
Inside, there were glow-in-the-dark body painters, glow-in-the-dark toys and accessories on sale, music pounding through the air, bodies in latex, six-inch lethal heels, a nude silent disco, everything pointing sexward as if by Monday the club wouldn’t go back to acting like one of those random skyscraping apartment buildings with no tenants occupying them. In daylight, the building dulled itself by itself, moonlighting perfectly. But that was the point: these weekend nights were life-transforming, suns rising and setting at the same time in different lives, contrasting worlds eclipsing, a sweet escape. The club was where older, rich and powerful women came to relinquish the control they had in their daily lives, and younger women came to gather the power they were used to being stripped of. Money, pain and pleasure changed hands here—big names on all fours begging for bodies that weren’t theirs to have; their youthful fantasies standing at a height, overlooking them with calculated control. All of this done like time was running out, like time wouldn’t wait for anyone. Because it wouldn’t.
The working girls never deluded themselves into thinking the club was real. It only took stepping outside to remember that the club was pretty much a shiny hallucination, a what-could-be experiment. They knew better than to trust women whose real faces and names they’d never know. They knew to move with caution because the kind of women who could afford to pay for this service had to be women in top tier careers or women with old money. A good percentage of them were havoc-wreakers during the day who did or unlooked terrible things in high places. Some were even hellbent on making freedom like this impossible for others like them. They wanted it just for themselves, in the dark. Underground. And why not? Where’s the fun if everybody gets to have it? Where is the thrill? Being that untouchable could make you forget you’re human, could monster you out of you. So, one of the first things they were taught in training was: “You’re from the same country yes. But you’re not under the same law. This thing we do here is illegal for you. Not for them. Nothing is illegal for a rich Nigerian. Remember that when they make you promises. Remember: your client is not your friend.” Daisy always held that in her mind.
When she got on all fours, arched her back and swept her eyes across the room, she saw women crossing and uncrossing their legs, trying to resist the damp pooling between their legs. One of them locked eyes with her, stirring white powder into her whiskey; another was doing a thick line off a stripper’s breast with a £50 note. The one who’d looked away earlier was wolfing down the suya she ordered as fast as she could to avoid watching Daisy. Daisy ran her fingers down her front and watched the woman reach back for the menu. She never avoided their eyes; their faces were the most rewarding part. Her favorite kinds were women like this one who fenced their lust with remorse, who lined their desire with shame. This one, Daisy guessed, was probably thinking of her family, her precious children in their beds and the husband who ‘loved’ her at odd unfulfilling angles—always at a half-past no or a quarter-to-yes.
They were all looking for something anyway. Some of them came in so one of the girls could talk to their childselves and console them, some showed up for an hour of cuddling. Some queued outside the door for a room with The Priest and confessed all sorts of sins, crawling on small rocks, begging for forgiveness. The girl who worked that room had to sign an NDA—Daisy didn’t envy her. Some just wanted to talk. Sure, there was the wild sex one would expect from a place like this: in threes and nines and sixteens, bodies getting tangled in the mix. But the point was, everybody came in seeking something, hoping to go somewhere new. There was a room for everything. Daisy could give them what they wanted in this one. She knew how to do just enough to make them drool from their mouths and their pockets.
Later, by the bar, Daisy was smoking a cigarette, naked save for her latex boots, when someone spilled a drink on her. She turned and it was the woman with the shame-eyes. “Sorry, I’m so sorry!” Daisy, being in the mood she was in, speedthinking, too far back inside her own head for her own good—what with white lines and small trees and ecstasy talking to each other in her body, all of them making a cacophony, a giant audacity in her—responded by saying, “I only accept my apologies in cash.”
"Sure,” the woman said, leaning closer, searching her suit pocket.
"That’s your naira pocket,” Daisy said, straight-faced. “Put your hand in the dollar one.” The woman chuckled.
"My mistake,” she said, pressing dollar bills into Daisy’s hand. She watched as Daisy tucked the notes into her boots. Behind her jacket, the woman’s stomach was falling but what was the harm in asking? “Now can I please get some time to talk to you?”
Up close, when the woman’s mouth was still, Daisy could see that she had three faces overlapping. She wasn’t keen, just based on this, because she already knew how the script went. She didn’t show up at The Secret Place to earn anyone’s heart; she already had one in her care that she’d guard with her life. Still, most of the patrons couldn’t wrap their heads around pariahs with this much power and this little shame, pariahs who weren’t searching for a rescuer or a savior. Incorrigible vagabonds. “There is something bright in you,” they were fond of saying. “You’re not like the other girls. Let me take care of you. You will never have to worry again.” Daisy always refused. For months, she’d been dealing with a tough nut called Ruby who always showed up looking like she could be somebody’s husband. She could have most things, based on the landscape of her arms and back alone. She had a husband once, she explained, but it didn’t last for a reason. He could not satisfy me, not because he didn’t try oh, but because he’s a man. Ruby was clear what she was willing to give up for Daisy if Daisy would just give up this life; if she’d stop spinning lust. She made a different offer every weekend. I can pay you more than what you’re getting here! We can move to Canada and no one will ever find us. Fine, a car! Ok, a house! But for Daisy, all of this was work and business was business and money must be made and leaving this place on Sundays never made her stomach fall the way it did theirs, because there was love where she lived. The thick kind, the staying kind. They were the ones who hated the lives they were towing, and it showed, it wafted off them as they walked.
"May I?” the woman still asked, sensing Daisy’s hesitation. Daisy almost pitied her. No one, she thought, resists loneliness as aggressively as a person who’s ashamed of their own heart. But she was still in work mode, which meant she still had her work mouth on with the fangs and the biting wit built into it. Claws in place too, for the ones who liked to waste her time with small talk. Left to her, she’d be at home in bed with Divine already, watching reruns of Desperate Housewives or The L Word. But she looked at the money in her boot, at the mint notes winking and nodded her permission.
"Five minutes,” Daisy said.
The woman shifted on her feet before starting. She looked startled, like she couldn’t believe her luck. She was probably going to ask a silly question about nothing, Daisy thought. So, before the woman opened her mouth, she let her mind float back to the two IJGB babes she saw earlier. She was passing them on the stairs when one said, “My god I didn’t realise Nigeria was so gay. What the fuck?” And her friend, the one with the neck tattoo said in her American accent, “Oh no. This is all just acting. It’s all just work. We’re the only ones who get to see this…” She lowered her voice, “Because we’re like, rich rich. But dykes and like… queer folk in general aren’t allowed in the country. It’s against the law. Most of these women you see probably have husbands.” Daisy played out a different scene in her head that she wished had happened instead of walking past them. In this version, she walked up to them and told them that a thing being forbidden did not make it extinct; that in fact, ‘bans’ in general only tended to create black markets. Besides, desire was itself and could morph anyway. Being from a country where dykes were ghosts and shapeshifters for a living, for a life, meant that shit didn’t work like it did abroad, but that didn’t mean it didn’t work at all because people still found ways to love each other in nervous conditions. “I’m one of them,” she was saying to their stunned faces, lighting up in her mind’s eye. “I’m one of us. We’re ghosts because we have to be, because our lives depend on passing and being passed by. But we’re ghosts who see other ghosts often, who hold them and hug them and fuck them too in our bedrooms, doors closed. We love them too. Like you. Here, they call us mad. We go again. They strike us down. We choose again. They black off our lights. We learn the dark. We don’t die. We never die. We only love harder. We only see sharper. Three seconds, I can appear and disappear at will, I can look like a not-sin, a non-outcast. People like us don’t need a club full of women to find one who’ll go down if we look right. We know our signals. We know our codes. You’re not only real when everybody can see you.”
The woman in front of Daisy cleared her throat. “I guess my time is up,” she said. Daisy hadn’t even heard a word before that. “Anyway,” she continued, “this is my card. My church is always welcoming new members. Tomorrow, 10am.” Daisy looked at her watch as if time was a thing that worked in here. The watch stared back with its round face and frozen hands. Daisy smiled bitingly and said, “You better hurry to church then. You never know with places like this. Might even be Sunday already.”
The woman stood like ice. Daisy waited to see if this one might lunge at her like that one from two weekends ago who when Daisy said, “don’t touch me” had responded by yelling: “I’m old enough to be your mother! I’m not your mate! And I can do as I like. I’m a paying customer!” Daisy had replied to her calmly, “Ok ma, so why are you now touching me?” The woman lost it, threatening to relieve Daisy of her job. Rude little brat! she said. Rude little brat! She has no home training. But because power is never really by mouth, when the woman asked for a manager and Agbon showed up, she was the one who got escorted out. Agbon pulled up her details in a matter of minutes. “Mrs what?” she said to her assistant. “Ehehn. Mrs Kolawale. Whatever. Halima, take her off the system. That woman has issues.”
The Secret Place was Agbon’s brainchild and she made it clear who her priorities were. “You’re the prize,” she told the girls often. “They’re here to see you. They’re paying to see you. Anyone who disrespects you can leave.” But this woman seemed different, calmer. She stepped away from Daisy, walking back on herself, her palms in front of her in surrender.
It was this attitude that made Agbon hire both Daisy and Divine on the spot. She met them having drinks at the Eko hotel poolside and invited them in as guests for just one night. Agbon pitched her mission to them: something had to come full circle. So many rich women had the desire and the money, they just needed somewhere to spend it. The girls she hired had the bodies and the skill, they just needed somewhere to show it. So Agbon reasoned: demand, meet supply, meet Economics 101. Within a year of working in The Secret Place, most of them could afford apartments of their own.
"Why did you make this place? What is in it for you? How do we know we’re safe?” one of them asked Agbon once at dinner. She explained why she started the place with her partner—someone she had to fight to be with across time and realms, across rules and lifetimes, across fear and rules. And even though they existed in the world in a separate way from most people, everyone on the table knew how hard it was to choose something you were not allowed to. “To live freely in this life,” Agbon explained, “you need security. This is our way of making sure you’re also able to build the lives you all want. To choose a woman in this city and keep your life at the same time, you need to be able to afford rent in a safe place. Now, you’ll find that most of the women who pay for your services are angry and envious, because at certain levels, public scrutiny is a cage. People envy them at that stage, but they’re not free.” She emptied her glass of red wine. “No one is really looking at us that closely, so we can do what we want in our own homes. They don’t have that. You can’t after a certain point; it’s the price you pay. But they’re angry at the wrong people. Just face your work.” Someone asked a question about safety. “Don’t worry about safety, this land that we’re on is owned by an Untouchable. The name on the C of O alone will gag the police. But even if any of the women we ban from here for misbehaving want to go far enough to involve them, where will they find the owner to arraign? Can they arrest a spirit? This is Lagos, don’t forget.”
Divine filled the room with music and the thrum of the speakers rose from their feet to their chests, like a tall bath being drawn. They were standing chest to chest against the wall. Daisy’s eyes were closed, and she felt submerged in the sound as the beat wrapped them closer. “This is our club,” Divine said against her ear as she increased the volume. Her voice moved with such a sturdy assurance that Daisy could stand on it. Always, Divine’s voice was this for Daisy: a call back to shore, a safe walk on moody water. “This is the best club in the whole of Lagos. Even The Secret Place no fit. There is for work, here is for pleasure.”
They both knew they were going to end up here when Daisy came out in black Fenty lingerie. But the private dance in between—Divine tied to the chair and Daisy dancing to Janet Jackson’s “Would You Mind” and Beyonce’s “Dance For You”—still flabbergasted them both. When Daisy freed Divine’s hands, they unhinged the world from its axes, touch by touch, their bodies harmonizing in shock. Now, their hearts were still beating against each other, skin against skin, only seconds removed from that heaven. John Legend’s “Made to Love” started playing. Daisy let her hand rest safe inside Divine’s. Seconds in and they were a slow dance forming. “This feels so good,” Divine whispered, her core still tight from before.
"I know," Daisy said. “I know.”
To start the day, Divine had made a full English breakfast-in-bed. They exchanged presents and then took a long bath talking about what they were thankful for as they shaved each other’s legs. Divine helped Daisy wash her hair and condition it after. Daisy shaved Divine’s head. Now, it was early evening and raining outside like an angerstorm. They both loved the rain. Three years and still, every time they held each other, it felt like before the first word, before the first kiss; way, way before the first I love you, when neither had earned the other’s trust but wanted to, wanted to. Three years and here they were still, hope shining in their bodies. It was all a far cry from before they met, when they were each determined to stay removed from their own bodies, when they kept mistaking themselves for unhealable wounds, when they were each still living like one.
"Show me why I always go home with you,” Daisy said. They stole the line from the club, where women asked them the inverse of it often: Show me why I should take you home—as if it was on them to prove it; as if they would ever even agree. Daisy never corrected them, because what did their fantasies matter held up against this reality? The truth was, where it mattered, she never had to audition for anything. So they made a tradition of Show me why I always go home with you: Whenever one person said that at any time, they both had to hold each other in a hug, cheek against cheek, neither of them performing anything but hereness, but presence, but listening to the other’s body, moving in tune with their steps. “If they ever ask you why I go home with you,” Divine told her that first time they tried it, “I’ll tell them it’s because you’re you and you’re here, alive; because you’re mine, because you tether me to me. That’s all you’ll ever need to do, do you get? You have nothing to prove. All you need to do is breathe and I’ll choose you again. There, see? I choose you again.”
In her anniversary card, Daisy wrote: If they say we don’t exist, that they can’t see us anywhere except in rotten corners, in perverse bodies, how come I can see you and hold you and you’re holy; how come I can love you and home you and you’re there, in flesh, in my mind, in my blood; how come you’re the softest place I have ever relaxed in, how come I keep waking up in this love and feeling rested? What else to do now then, when a love like this finds you? What else but praise? What else but dance? And what else for them to do now, as rain beat hard against the window? What else but each placing a palm on a lover’s chest, saying thank you to her maker as she says thank you to your country; both thanking both for making them into these people with a bold faith in the unseen, for teaching them—by necessity, by difficulty—how to rebel with both faith and sight; how exactly to use their hearts and hands if one day they grew up to be women who risk their lives to stand on the horizon. Women mad enough to see and hold another woman; to love and touch another ghost.