A short story by Akwaeke Emezi

Last winter I insisted that he tile the floors, all of them, the week before I moved back in. It had been carpet before so it had to be ripped up, all of it. But he didn’t complain and I didn’t care; they both appreciate the tile now, the way it stays cool under their soles in these boiling summers. The suns had mellowed into a deep broken orange as I lay with my head on her stomach and my hand on her hip, flicking the recalcitrant lighter until it spat out a grudging blue flame.

“Adaafo,” she murmured, without opening her eyes. “You are going to give us all a slow cancer with those things.” I lifted my lips back from my teeth and inhaled the cigarette smoke hungrily, flaring my nostrils as I blew it out like a dragon. I didn’t have anything to say to her so I kept quiet and tapped my fingers on her hip bones. She knows me, so she took breaths instead of waiting for a reply while the fan whirred in the background, blowing curly wisps of my hair over my face.

“I like this part,” she said, propping her feet on the headboard of the bed. Her toenails were painted a bright blue, like the oceans before they all died.

“You can’t like it more than me,” I replied, stretching my arm to flick ash onto the floor. Footsteps bounced off the tile as he walked back into the room and smacked my thigh reproachfully.

“I just swept there, girl. What’s your problem?”

I rolled my eyes and squinted at him through smoke rings.

“Oh, good!” I said. “You didn’t put your clothes back on. I hate when you do that first. Come back to bed, lie with us for a little longer.”

“You know we need to leave before the curfew, Adaafo,” he scolded, as he arranged himself on the large mattress, dropping a kiss on her mouth and taking my cigarette. We shifted and slid over each other, rearranging limbs to accommodate each other. There used to be one more of us. “Which part are you saying you like?”

“This part,” she answered. “The afterwards part. Where we all smell like each other.”

“Oh, that part.” He smiled and blew smoke into my face. “I like that part, too. I like tasting you inside my cheek, you know?”

“I know.” She smiled privately, rubbing my scalp with strong fingers and flexing her toes. “Sometimes when I get home, I smell my skin to make sure this was not all a dream, you know. A heat-driven, mad dream.” He ran a hand over my leg with a smirk on his face and wagged his red tongue suggestively at her.

“Girl...if you’re dreaming, I can wake you up, trust me!”

She giggled and blushed a little, dropping her lashes over sharpened eyes. I love that it’s been two years and we can still make her blush. I just love that it’s been two years. I wish we had all made it here together.

Pavat!” she scolded, and he doffed an imaginary cap.

“At your service, madam. Both me and my little friend.”

I let out a bark of laughter and shoved at him.

“Little?! Mehn, get off this mattress! When lightning strikes you, me, I don’t want to be involved in it.” He thrust his hips against me suggestively in response and I rolled off the bed to head for the kitchen.

“Don’t start nonsense you can’t finish, love,” I warned, cutting my eyes at him.

“Fine, fine, I’ll behave.” He made a face and leant over the edge of the bed to put out the cigarette on the floor, then bit her thigh gently. “Come on, let’s get dressed. I’ll walk you to the shuttle.” She yawned and stretched her arms out over her head, lifting her ribs up. He watched her breasts levitate with amusement and brushed his fingers over her nipples as she replied him.

“Thanks, love. Where are my clothes again?”

“Why are you asking me? Adaafo is the one who took them off; with her teeth, at that. Quite impressive, but I think your tights are fucked.”

I gave a mock evil laugh from the next room as I started watering the plants lined up against the wall. The ceramic pots fill up all my shelves and there are so many leaves, my kitchen is perpetually cast in emerald light. He picked his way through them, lifting and setting down his bare feet carefully, then held me tightly and whispered in my ear.

“You should put clothes on before you do that...”

“Why?” I love the way he rubs the stubble of his cheek against my neck. “It’s my kitchen and I don’t think the plants mind.”

“I don’t think anyone minds, love, but it’s just a terrible distraction.” He kissed the small raised circles that pattern my back and traced his hands around my sides to where the scars section off my stomach. “I’m just a decent hard-working man trying to get home to my family before the curfew teams start prowling, and you’re really fucking with my intentions.” I turned my head to kiss him before twisting away.

“There’s other parts of you I’d rather fuck with, but we don’t have time for that again. Go put your clothes on, she’s already dressed in there.” He growled for show and grabbed handfuls of me before wandering into the bathroom. She walked out of the bedroom, pulling her locs back into a tight bun, dark alligator leather covering her arms and torso.

“Will you be okay?” she asked, with a little frown. When I didn’t live alone, she didn’t have to ask questions like that. So many things have changed since the last winter.

“I’m okay now, silly. I love having the both of you over, it’s all heartwarming and shit.” I smiled at her, paused to really look at her face. “You’re both so beautiful, you know.”

“Flatterer.” She kissed me anyway, cupped my cheek with her glove, leant her scarred forehead against mine with the raised lines heated against my skin. “I wish I could spend the night, Adaafo...”

I sighed. “You have a home to get back to. Both of you have people waiting; it’s fine, really. You don’t have to keep worrying.”

“I just don’t like you staying here, alone. I can’t help but worry about you.”

“I’m not any less safe here than you are in your house, woman. Stop stressing!” I kissed her again, harder, to make her stop talking. I hate when they start feeling guilty. It spoils things and sometimes it smells too much like pity. She smiled uncertainly but let it go and started putting on thick socks, sliding her blue toes into them. The bathroom door slammed loudly as he walked out, dressed and with his boots already on.

“Could you stop taking off your shoes in the bathroom, please?” I asked. “I don’t want you tracking the street in there.” He scoffed at me as he put on his jacket and buckled it up.

“What do you even know about the street, Ada? When was the last time you left this building?” He didn’t want me to feel attacked, so he said it more gently than he could have, as his fingers fastened soft leather under his neck. She shot him a warning glance anyway, and he softened his tone even more.

“You can’t stay in here, naked and with the plants and all this goddamn tile forever. You have to move on. Maybe to another place, even- a house instead of this tiny apartment.”

Maybe I would have done that, if this was not afterwards.

“I don’t want what you have.” I didn’t bother to add, not anymore, because I knew they could hear that bit loudest when it was left unsaid. “I don’t want the yard and the dogs you can’t even trust, and the family you can lose any day. I don’t want the street. I like being in here and growing things, and not having to wear fucking body armor to visit the bodega, if there’s even a bodega left in this city.”

“I hear there’s still one on the corner of Ocean and Empire,” she interjected, knotting her laces.

“Really? That’s not going to last long.” He shook his head and looked at me, then shrugged. “Fine. Maybe you do have it better in here. But it wasn’t the street that killed him, Adaafo.” He paused for a moment. “Okay, maybe it was, but my point is that he didn’t die out there. He died right in here, right on the carpet, and no amount of tile is going to change that.”

I mirrored his shrug and smiled at him, ignoring the sound of squelching memories oozing between my toes. He has tried to shock me into a response before. It never works.

“I know. I still like it better in here.”

He raised his hands in defeat and mild exasperation.

“Okay oh. Stubborn woman. We have to hurry, it’s almost curfew. Come and kiss me.” We pressed mouths and he wrapped his arms so tight around me that my rib cage creaked. “I love you. Be safe. I’ll video in once I get home.” I nodded, and turned to hug her fiercely.

“Don’t die tonight,” I whispered against her neck. She rubbed my back and promised to get home alive. I watched them both strap on their masks, thick black plastic taking over their faces, turning their breaths into harsh hisses. He slid on his gloves and I coded the door open, waving to them as they walk out. After I locked the door behind them, I stood with my hands on the knobs and panels for a little bit. Gradually, I exhaled and walked to refill the watering can, placing it on the table, counting slowly in my head. I know exactly how long it takes them to reach the bottom of the building, code the main door open, and step out into the street. From my living room, I opened the shutters and leaned my face against the bulletproof glass. I had him put it in with the tile last winter. That’s another thing; it’s much easier to clean up broken glass from tile than from carpet. Tile also isn’t traitor flooring that soaks up pieces of someone you loved.

I watched them step on the sidewalk; two black gloves were raised in my direction and I blew them a kiss. They avoided the holes in the ground, walked around the wreck of a car in the building next to mine, and ignored the people-shaped bundles in the street before the gray smog that covers everything swallowed them up too. I bolted the shutters closed and walked back into the kitchen, picking up condom wrappers and an empty cigarette box on the way. For a moment, I was walking on carpet that was spreading red and there was a person-shaped bundle on my floor, but then the image flickered away and there was nothing but cold tile spilling from wall to wall. 


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