Coup de Grâce
On most nights, weaving through late-night traffic doesn’t feel this audacious; tonight though, the Bajaj boda-boda wobbles and bucks so hard it feels like I’m bull riding. My thighs are cramped and nausea beckons. By the time we get to Kabalagala, Kampala’s official red-light district, I’m completely done for. This is already a bad idea, but I might as well follow through. I’ve been drinking since noon, hoping by nightfall I’d be completely inebriated, and no longer vulnerable to the husky-toned susurrations of my Backseat Driver. So far so good. My Backseat Driver won’t make it easy on me. I can count on that. Like a Minotaur, he’ll soon bang at the gates of my fort of will, braying for release. It’s been three weeks since I let the poor bugger out. And although I’m not necessarily winning, I’m enjoying doing the steps – fighting my addiction.
That was the plan anyway. How we’ve ended up here – drunk, horny, crouched on the grimy sidewalk – is, to be honest, well, I don’t know.
The muffled bass and the cars trailing down to the roundabout is all I have for bearings. This je ne sais quoi kind of appeal isn’t sobering, but I can’t help yielding to it.
About my Backseat Driver, it’s totally a case of what you’d call ‘scape-goatism.’ I’ve created this object upon whose head I can hang the guilt and shame of my dependence without suffering any of the consequences myself. That should tell you how far into my addiction I have gone. I’ve stopped taking responsibility for my bad choices; I merely blame my Backseat Driver. I’m not a bad person, I’m just a sex addict. There, I said it.
But I’m trying to be better – that should count for something. It’s why I’m still here. Still trying to convince myself coming to Kabalagala was a good idea. In any case, I’m here to rewrite my mythology. To prove to myself I can go 21 days without sex and continue functioning. 20days is usually my threshold. I never go beyond that. It’s my ‘four-minute mile.’ Until I can break this threshold I’ll never truly recover from my addiction. To do that I need to cast myself as a hero, even though this isn’t fiction; my life, I mean. You see, in fiction, the hero’s journey truly begins only after the point of irrevocability. Whereas in real life – my life – there’s no point of irrevocability; things are in a constant state of getting worse. You should be able to look back at the wreckage of a life, any life, and say this is where things went offside. I’m the exception. Until I can prove otherwise, my point of irrevocability will always begin with my birth. That’s how screwed I am. But that can all change tonight. It must.
I light a cigarette and slope down to Fanny Park, the Gomorrah of Kabalagala. I stagger past clinking slot-machines and muffled bass, past half-naked girls lurking in leafy shadows. I stumble past cab drivers and hawkers displaying their wares alongside the pavilion. Past K.I.U Sudanese students with their Land Cruiser doors open; the hip-hop they blast threatens to crumble the pavement. I linger and bonga with them.
The bouncer frisks me, and I pay the 3000 shillings entry fee. The music from Fanny Park is only halfway bearable now. At least it’s no longer Koffi Olomide or Oliver N’Goma – not that that’d stop these Fanny Park girls. Given the chance, they would twerk to Youssou N’Dour, and as stupid as that would look, I’d be the last person to complain. Just saying!
Crammed and feverish as always, Fanny Park never disappoints. I shoulder my way to the counter. I immediately regret wearing a t-shirt instead of a light sweater, the cigarette burns mottled on my left elbow lie exposed. I have raw blisters, open wounds. God knows what I could pick up just rubbing against the wrong person.
I order a beer and find a seat in the main lounge. I watch heavily made-up girls swarm chain-smoking Indians, wispy-haired Habeshas, and whip-lean expats. Lurking in the background are spectral and anonymous pimps. Tooth-picks dangle from their lips. Their girls’ bags weigh their shoulders. The girls will introduce them as ‘my brother’, but beware, they’ll snatch your wallet in a heartbeat! I need not worry though. I don’t think I’ll need their services after all. Not tonight at least.
After the beer, I get up and cross to the dancefloor. I join the throng of gyrating girls, kangaroo-hopping Indians and ratty-looking pickpockets. The dancefloor has an open roof section, but there’s no helping the musty funk. That unholy alchemy of hairspray and cheap perfume. Still, a moment is all I need to recover from the assailed sense of smell.
I grind. I grope. I grind. I grope.
After six songs, I cut to the counter and slot myself between two ladies perched on creaking barstools. Beside them, two other birds are seated drinking their beer through straws. Others babysit mineral water cocktails with lots of ice. I keep my eyes averted. Here, eye-contact can easily be misread as interest. I pull from my wallet a crisp 50 shillings note and order another beer. I toast myself and proceed to set up meeting reminders on my phone calendar.
The pretty Rwandese on my left goads me for eye contact. She looks très coûteux: Samsung Galaxy-whatever, Black Label, shisha pot beside her. She most likely charges in dollars. I don’t give in. She rubs her knees against my jeans, I notice that beyond those knees there is some prime thigh on her, but I’m not game. Remember, I’m only testing myself; skirting the threshold, so to speak.
I sip my drink and finger my phone as I steal glances at some of the girls. I’m trolling for someone more, hmmm, someone more relatable. Miss Kigali will be too fussy anyway. They always are. In any case she crosses her legs, left to right, right to left, kicking my calf with every turn. With anyone else, someone like the old me, she wouldn’t have to try so hard. Usually, my ‘arousal template’ is flexible enough to accommodate any girl. The longer legged the better. I’m a leg man through and through. Talk about big butts all you want, nothing beats the sight of firm, well-defined calves. I ignore Miss Kigali. I’m deaf to whatever she’s saying over the eight million decibels of reggae.
After a while, she bundles up her shisha, hops off the stool and leaves.
Another replaces her. These Fanny Park girls never miss a beat.
I stare up at the strobe lights. I can feel the replacement girl’s gaze grate over my cheekbones. Curious, I look over.
She smiles, sticking her chest out. Her smile is the way toothpaste models smile. The smile is not all white, it’s plastic, too rehearsed. She leans over to say something. I have to take the ‘toothpaste-model’ remark back. Her breath smells of egg-extract for dreadlocks.
I cross to the pool tables, with all the ruckus and gambling going on, no one will bother me there. The problem is, pool, for me, is as interesting as sorting rice. Besides, I despise the overweight jamaas and their ass-cracks showing whenever they bend. I linger, nonetheless.
A decent erection still evades me. I’m not getting any drunker either. So far so good.
I’ve proved my point: I’ve come, I’ve seen and I’ve conquered. I should bounce now. Three weeks, eh? Back-patting is in order, right? Perhaps even a grilled chicken to mazel tov. But I’m not hungry. Not for chicken anyway.
The pool tables are much busier now. The fat jamaas have been replaced by weary-faced ladies in high-waist jeans and men’s sneakers. There’s plenty to leer at, and I do just that.
I linger. Not yet, I tell myself. Not yet.
Thing is, with proving stuff to yourself, there’s always something more to prove – some other hurdle to jump, some other thresholds to break. I find this kind of circular logic attractive. I finish another beer and light another cigarette. Beyond the next row of pool tables, I see someone I absolutely need to hide from. In panic, I ditch my cigarette and bring my empty beer to my face, but Jackie is too busy swiping her phone to recognise me either way. I watch her reflection recede through the many mirrors flanking the pool-tables. Once she climbs the stairs to the upper section, I turn to leave.
In my clumsiness, I bump into some girl’s Pepsi and it drops to the floor.
A ‘sorry’ should suffice but chivalry isn’t dead, I offer her a replacement soda.
Smiling, the girl asks for a beer instead.
Two beers later, we stand next to the counter – close, a little too close. The bloody bird won’t stop smiling, any harder and she’ll ruin that lovesick moon-gazey look that’s trademark around here.
She’s the cutest thing in here by far. Blue blazer over black crepe blouse. Faded jeans, spiked wedges and a tinted Mohawk.
Sheba’s her name. Or Sheila. I can’t be sure. It’s too loud in here.
“I’m Marvin…but call me Marv.”
We don’t say much after the “nice to meet you.” Instead, we trade furtive glances and sip our beers nervously. She dances the way she talks, self-consciously. Like an idiot, I stand there like my shoes weigh a tonne. Everything else is a blur.
Nervous minutes tick away like this. Mafikizolo comes on and her face lights up.
Sheba/Sheila: “I love this song.”
She pulls me closer.
She grinds. I grope. She grinds. I grope.
Sheba/Sheila looks young. Too young. I presume she hasn’t whored long. I could be wrong. You can never tell with these Fanny Park girls. Anyway, it’s a dead giveaway how she’s trying too hard. I mean, who else would lip-sync to the unintelligible garble that’s Mafikizolo’s Khona. Besides, she doesn’t seem to get the concept of catch and release. She won’t let me drop my hands off her body. Basically, all vulgarity and no sex-appeal.
I should mosey out of here because I don’t intend to sully what’s left of her innocence. I couldn’t bear to look at myself if my Backseat Driver ever made me do such a thing. Hmmm, on second thought, that’d be the abysmal rock-bottom I’ve been searching for. My moment of irrevocability. A final coup de grâce to miserable old me.
Sheba/Sheila has the time of her life. I could too if she’d just stop smiling. Her smile is infectious, disarming. I can feel my mouth stretch to match.
Stop it, bastard-mouth, stop smiling, I telepath myself.
I close my eyes, but her mouth is all I can picture. Luscious, glistening, candy-red. My Backseat Driver’s clamouring for the steering wheel. But I deny him. Not yet. I tell him. Not yet.
She winks, cups my face and draws hers near mine. Beyond the apple-cider aftertaste, her lips are cold. Fever cold. I pull away before I can taste her malarial tongue. Wheeling away, I mouth a ‘sorry.’ Her lips quiver, confused. She’s too inexperienced not to take this personally. I’ve clearly hurt her feelings. I could stay and soothe her bruised pride, but I leave on principle.
Screw ‘rewriting my mythology’, I need to get out of here. Like now!
I wipe my mouth and head towards the upper exit. I am almost self-satisfied that I’ve made it through this. Or this far, at least.
Walking towards the exit, I see Jackie. She’s right in my path. She’s inescapable. I don’t turn back. I carry on. Stumbling along – wobbly, disoriented, my face going for an I’ve-just-lost-all-my-rent-money rictus scowl. I sidestep her like I haven’t seen her. She pulls me back and doesn’t take it to heart when I say I hadn’t seen her. She just hugs me and pinches my bum.
Jackie – bronze-skinned, curvaceous frame and nicest legs in Fanny Park – is my sort-of girlfriend. As in, I’ve been with her more times than anyone should be with anyone here. She’s my true test. Breaking my threshold won’t count unless I overcome her wiles.
Sharing Jackie’s table is Natasha, her on-and-off bestie. (Full disclosure, I’ve been with Natasha as well.) They both know it. They sometimes tease. Sometimes they ask who I liked better, ha! The Backseat Driver always dangles the idea of the three of us – no, no, no – I see what he’s doing there. The bastard is trying to grab the wheel. I push that thought away and sit on the stool opposite Jackie and Natasha. They scald me for snubbing them too long. This is how they extort drinks. I hand over my wallet. Jackie buys Natasha a tall glass of wine. For her, it’s tequila shots and vodka with ice. I ask her to get me one of those mineral water cocktails with tonnes of ice.
Jackie returns with the drinks and proceeds to plant herself on my lap.
“Girlfriend, you’ve put on weight!” I say, squirming beneath her.
Rubbing her belly, she says, “I’m pregnant. It’s yours.”
She holds my gaze for a full five seconds before slapping my chest. “I’m joking! Don’t have a heart attack.”
I finally work up the courage to mumble:
“I’m tired, I need to go.”
“Just one dance. Please.” She drags me to our spot, a secluded nook bordering the ladies’ toilet.
I say dragged, but you know, no woman leads a man where he doesn’t want to go.
One dance turns into a raunchy lap-dance, the raunchy lap-dance into quicksilver. The harder I fight, the more I drown in her sexiness.
When her hands snake down my fly, I pull away and repeat: “I’m tired.”
Jackie pouts. She makes like sex with me isn’t an act of will, but a physical necessity. She doesn’t mind if I’ve just been with eight other girls in the same night. Uh-uh. She needs to have the last one. Like six weeks ago, I was flush, money-wise, so I negotiated a threesome. One girl would just watch. Or they’d take turns watching. I really don’t have the stamina for anything more vigorous. Anyway, when I stumbled back into Fanny Park an hour later, I found Jackie entertaining my boy, Deno. Jackie walked up to me holding a pool cue. I remember she said something about how she’d seen me leave with her friends, Tina and Brenda. She wasn’t mad.
Sometimes her vicious streak is a major turn-on. At 5ft 6in, she’s a bundling 80 or so kilos of fierceness. I might be 5ft 11in, but I can’t guarantee she wouldn’t harm me. I cowered then, as I cower now. She traps me against the grubby wall. She reminds me of that night, says, “You don’t look half as tired as you did then.”
I tell her I’m growing up. I want to be different. Faithful.
She doesn’t ask faithful to whom, she smiles and kisses me.
I tell her I can’t see her anymore.
Her: “Then who are you being faithful for?”
I shrug, “To myself?”
She twitters a deprecating little laugh and then excuses herself to the bathroom.
I should make an escape right now, but I want to restore what little dignity I have left. She won that exchange with her infuriating little laugh. I’ll dwell on that for days, wrack my head trying to come up with a devastating esprit de l’escalier. In any case, I stay. Remember what I said about proving stuff to yourself, this is what I meant. I know she’s touching up her make-up and will return with some irresistible gimmick to get me. I must stay on my course. Yield then resist. There’s no testimony without the test.
Whilst I’m debating this, Sheba/Sheila resurfaces. She extorts another beer and programs her number into my phone. She then scurries away when she sees a frowning Jackie approach; Jackie’s street-cred is not one to be messed with. She throws her arms around my neck, swoons and kisses me.
“I can’t,” I plead.
Jackie sits me down and crawls under the table. I try to stop her. She smiles from under the table, “It won’t cost extra.” She unbuttons my jeans and takes me in her mouth.
I lean into the table just in case someone’s watching. Jackie emerges a few moments later, plants a wet, briny kiss on my lips then she asks for a cigarette. She pauses and regards me, all Kasparov-like in the edge of her eyes. All my instincts grow primal, surging, fiery. I grab her arm and lead her out of Fanny Park. On her face, a sly smirk. Checkmate.
These are the lodge’s busiest hours. We wait in line for a room. This is more torture than my Backseat Driver bargained for. He and I are embroiled in this back and forth about me leaving Jackie right here and running away. I’m convinced this is the only way I can salvage what little is left of my attempt to rewrite my mythology. We both know I’ve already lost this, but what little pride I have I misuse in debating my Backseat Driver. It doesn’t help that the universe conspires to aid him. For one, the music from Fanny Park is way louder than it usually is. The music drowns out all my counter arguments.
In any case, the music is terrible if you want to forget where you are, but heaven if you’re big on timing yourself. Each song played is, say, two minutes tops. Most girls will climax you at the second song. Anything longer than two songs and you’re costing them money. Jackie doesn’t do this with me. As long as I don’t fake my climax we can pretend the music isn’t there and this isn’t a transaction. Enough of those and this will turn into something else. Something like a genuine connection. The Backseat Driver pushes this narrative quite eloquently and I can’t help but buy in. Maybe that’s the real mythology I need to rewrite; not about breaking my threshold, but about unearthing something beautiful out of a dim place like Fanny Park.
Just then, when I look over at Jackie, I catch her eyeing me and she’s the Girl Next Door I’ve always thought she was. There’s solace here.
The Lodge Manager shows us the only available room. The girl who has just evacuated it, hugs Jackie and winks at me.
“Hi, Mahhhvin,” she says.
I wince. The way she says my name doesn’t come out right. It’s like she’s gagging. Oh, right, that was her thing. I smile back, remembering her now. “Hi, Brenda,” I say.
“No, Shoshanah” she says.
Oh, right, this again. Why do I even bother remembering their names if they have a new one every hour?
Jackie, aka Nisha, aka Leila, play-smacks Brenda/Shoshanah’s perky ass and pulls me into our room. The room’s agreeable – sturdy-looking bed, quaint-looking bathroom. The locks on the door seem to be in working order. The lavender air-freshener doesn’t do much to veil the last couple’s funk, but who’s complaining.
I pay the manager. Ten thousand shillings should buy us ten songs at least.
“Boss,” he says, “a condom?”
I shake my head and show him my rubbers. I lock the door behind me.
Jackie snatches my condoms,
“Why did you carry these if you say you want to change? Were you planning to do someone else?”
I take off my vest and lie on the bed as she goes into the dingy bathroom. I look away; nothing sexy in watching a woman pee standing up. These lodges being what they are, you can’t risk dangling your genitals too close to the stained porcelain.
Jackie flushes and comes out smiling then crawls towards me and flounders around my nakedness. She then rips the condom with her teeth. She rolls about an inch and places it in her mouth. She proceeds to sheath me with her mouth, slow and attentive to detail.
She straddles me. She wants this to be piecemeal, it’s sensual, almost like we’re making love. Lots of eye-contact, French-kissing, and meddlesome emotions.
Between heavy breaths, she tells me she loves me.
I tell her she’s the most beautiful thing.
She gawks at me as if I’ve worn my face on backwards. I can’t see if that’s a frown or a smirk on her face. The glare from the low-hanging bulb pushes against my eyes like a pair of thumbs.
Jackie: “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
She pecks my eyes, nose, brow, lips.
This is the only time we can say such guff and not feel self-conscious about being so full of it. As soon as we climax, we’ll have to go back to pretending. It will become a transaction again.
I grind. I thrust. I groan.
I fake enjoying this as much as she doesn’t have to. She knows I won’t trigger until she climaxes. I’m selfless that way. Well, I say selfless, but you know, the first time you make someone cum, you think you invented orgasms. You always want to repeat that miracle.
Six songs later, Jackie bites me on that depressed spot between collarbone and shoulder. She’s orgasming. I grind. I thrust. I groan. We climax together.
The room shudders. I am sure now that Jackie has burst my eardrum. That last scream! I didn’t know a human body to be capable of that much noise. She lies on top of me, breathing moist air onto my neck while whispering how much she loves me. She loves me. She loves me. Man!
I’m winded, my stomach feels imploded.
I roll to the foot of the bed and fish through my jean pockets to pull out my cigarettes and the lighter.
“Marvin, can I ask you something?”
I look over my shoulder and nod.
“How come you never tell me anything real?”
“What is real?”
“You never tell me how you feel. You never tell me what’s wrong with you even when I can see that something is. And Marv, you’re the only man I know who says ‘good, good’ every time someone asks you how you are.”
In my mind, I go, yeah, I should stop saying that; it’s a false positive.
O, Jackie, I wish you weren’t so smart, you shouldn’t be reminding me of my ex, Nambi, right now.
In retrospect, I was using Nambi, like I’m using Jackie now. My only dependence is the chemistry of constant sex. I mean, who doesn’t love the flood of endorphins tranquilising all your existential dread? If there was a way to get those endorphins without needing sex, I’d have no use for women, or their jabbering, their petty attachments and addiction to emotional reciprocity.
Relationships, for me, are only a delivery system for this fix.
Tell Jackie something real? I wouldn’t know where to begin. I know where to end though – in tears. Tough luck, Jackie doesn’t deserve that much power. Her seeing me cry would like totally unbalance our power dynamic. I learnt my lesson with Nambi. The only time Nambi ever saw me cry, really cry, was when she found used rubbers in my wastebasket. She just couldn’t believe I would cheat on her.
Rather vain of her. Yes, I might never do better than Nambi, but when has that ever stopped a man? No matter, I told her I could explain.
“I’m ashamed to say this, but I masturbated.”
“You’re lying, you don’t even like hand-jobs.”
True. I really can’t stand them. I don’t know where the tears came from, but I started crying. I told her I masturbated to distract myself from thinking about suicide. I’ve always been emotionally unstable, so this wasn’t much of a stretch.
Nambi: “You had to masturbate twice, with rubbers?”
I curled up under her chin and cried my soul empty.
The thought of suicide doesn’t water my eyes but the thought of losing Nambi, then, was scarier than death.
My tears got her wetter, though.
It became our thing, me crying – she’d make me talk about my existential angst, but she never actually listened. She’d just coax my woes long enough for her pants to wet. Then we’d cry and screw. Then screw and cry. Then just screw. Then just cry.
I’m romanticising our affair. Nambi’s the only good thing that ever happened to me.
Truth is, without sex, I don’t know who I am. Without it I don’t know who I ever was. I should opt out, kill myself. Maybe. Camus was right, suicide is the only philosophical question worth pondering. I don’t have the stomach for either philosophy or suicide so the only question worth pondering right now is how hard I should pity myself. Whether I should begin afresh with the threshold business or go ahead and ask Jackie if I can see her tomorrow. And the day after and the one after that also?
My bed now. Sleep evades me so I open my curtains to watch the sunrise. This, however, is much more despairing than my failed sleep. The tranquillity it aspires to dampens my mood. I get up, shuffle to the kitchen and search for the bottle of vodka I stashed earlier. I get it and make my way to the living room. I can’t stand the bedroom right now.
I hesitate to drink. I’m still at ‘saturation point’ – one sip could tip the balance into oblivion, or nausea. I put the vodka away. I dwell on these sinking feelings: apathy, angst, self-loathing. I wonder if my essential self is past its best before date?
My own contradictions asphyxiate me. When I am not chasing sex, my hours are crumbling, my existence is insubstantial. I am one big premature ejaculation.
I’m overthinking things.
I get up and walk to the bathroom mirror. I slap my cheeks a few times to jar my senses awake.
I stare at my reflection long enough to feel like the Backseat Driver’s staring back at me. He looks just as dejected as I feel, but I know it’s only a put-on. He doesn’t want to be put back in his cage; I can’t let him run free either. I need to phone Jackie and cancel all our eighteen or so appointments. I have to try again. I’m not better than this, but I’m not like totally powerless over sex. My life’s not yet that unmanageable. But then again, what’s the use if I can’t break a simple 20-day threshold.
This search for a tangible moment of irrevocability won’t help me if I keep shifting the goal-posts. But if that won’t work, I don’t know what else will. Yet try I must. I know my rationalisation sounds no more convincing than the Backseat Driver’s husky-toned susurrations, but at least I know I have my best interests at heart. I think I do at least.
I’ve spent the first half of my life looking for some disaster, now I’m becoming it. I can’t stress this enough, but I’m so tired of living like something catastrophic has to happen first before I’m eligible for redemption. I’m at the saturation point of my dependence. I’m no longer getting anything out of it, if ever I was.
It’s morning already, and today is the first day of the rest of my life. Again.
Derek Lubangakene is a writer and screenwriter from Kampala, Uganda. His fiction has appeared in Jalada, Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Omenana, Enkare Review, Prairie Schooner, River River Lit. Journal, the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology, and the Brittle Paper AfricanFuturism anthology among others. In 2016 he received the Short Story Day Africa/All About Writing Development Prize. He was also shortlisted for the 2019 Nommo Short Story Award, and longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Award and the 2013 Golden Baobab Early Chapter Books Award. Find him online at www.dereklubangakene.com
*Image by Mòje Ikpeme