Three nights ago.
He sighs, and throws two pills of Ibuprofen tablets into his mouth with a gulp of water.
"The crusher was clogged," he begins to say. "Dusts, red and white, clouded the factory. We dug out lumps of mud earth before the machine started rolling again." He takes another gulp. "And it seems my body pains, especially the one residing in my belly, are becoming resistant to painkillers."
"Maybe it's time you see a doctor. The bellyache, especially," you say.
"Yes. But I have to travel all the way to Dubai, since our company's insurance card doesn't work here in Al Ain. We keep telling the foreman. He says he has reported to the management. Nothing else has been done."
"One has to save cost, you know. I will do with the drugs for now. I just need rest."
You are awake. The whining of the two-tier bed persists. You call out, "Kito! Kito!" You fling yourself out of the bed. He is doubled over, eyes closed, mouth open, but no words are coming out. They seem to be held down somewhere inside of him, beneath where his hands are clutching at his belly as if to stop something from erupting. "Do you need the drug?" "Have you taken them?" Your voice rings.
His voice comes out in a whisper as if he is telling a secret, "Hey, I'm better. Don't worry," he says in between the rising and falling of his shrinking chest. He blinks as the word 'worry' drops out of his mouth. Before your eyes meet his, they travel to the tube attached to a bag half-filled with tea colored liquid. The other end plunges between his legs, hidden under the white sheet. You try to hold his stare, but his eyes lie in their sockets as though they have become too small for them.
"I have used all my money for this treatment." His breath pauses and his belly sinks. "But the hospital has been nice. How is your job search? I wish I had a university degree like you."
"It's going on well. I'm hopeful."
This is the tenth school you have entered today. At the desk, a lady collects your CV and puts it on top a stash of other CVs. She turns away and continues her conversation with a male colleague. She is covered in black except her face. Her eyes flutter under the canopy of their lashes when she turns back to face you, as if she has just seen you. The wetness under your armpit is a story of walking about the schools. Your white shirt is a wet map of your trek. Summer is rearing its head. The air here in the Emirates blows hot like breath from hell. The sky is clear. Always. If only your head was clear too, you could think properly. Your legs want to curl under you. Your back is weeping. And your eyes are falling into your head because your stomach is grumbling.
"We will get back to you," she says.
But what you hear are voices: You may go. Go. Who told you we need you here?
You sit on one of the iron seats in the reception, collecting air from the air conditioner. If only you had a safe to store this chill.
A man strides in. His wife trails behind. The receptionist flies about in attending to them. Their Arabic dances in delight.
They leave. She remembers you.
"Did anyone recommend you here?" Her eyes stand before you for a millisecond.
"No." Your reply meets her turning away from you as though she has seen through you and found nothing of use. She goes back to conversing with her colleague, buried in laughter and concerned frowns.
Your mind is your only audience.
You don't know, really.
Horns hoot, engines buzz, lights flash—red, yellow, and green. You walk across to the other side into a cafeteria. Smells of frying and burning greet you. The eyes of people in white tunics look your way, except two fellows sitting face to face, sipping coffee. One burly, the other, thin and bald.
Your order is here: a piece of kubus and darl. You scoop enough darl with each pinch, and munch away. Your morning replays itself on every soft cracking of the dry puffs in your mouth. A glass of water pushes everything down. Your thought follows but refuses to stay there.
"We need laborers," says the burly one. His paunch is forcefully imprisoned by his white t-shirt. On it is boldly written: I am the Boss.
The thin one grimaces and scratches the hairless spot of his head as if to resurrect invisible hairs and ideas. "Then we go for Pakistanis or Bangladeshis." He pulls out a sheet of paper handkerchief from the pack on the table and makes notes. "But the agents are demanding more fees." He shows the other what he has written.
The burly one belches loudly. And after a slurp, "No. I don't want to lose this contract, you know." Then his voice drawls, "A-fri-ca-nos. They are stronger and can work longer hours under the sun." His face wears a lazy smile as he pours his eyes on what the other has written. "We can fix this."
Back to the roadside. You stand amidst bodies of white-robed Pakistanis, brown around their necks and cuffs, Bangladeshis, gruffly in their work-stained coveralls and dusty safety boots, and Indians wearing moustaches of calligraphed birds in flight. The smell of garlic and sweat pinch your nostrils. Eyes like balls in a scummy puddle smile at you with a flash above nicotine-stained teeth. Their owner spits out a ball of green which bounces off to the middle of the road and gets picked by tires until its trace is lost on the asphalt.
It will not fade out into nothingness. Your memory. Not now. Oh. These bits: factory—your body marrying dust, shovels, and sledgehammers; pickaxes, wheelbarrows, and bricks, giving birth to waist pain, chest pain. But your biceps have bulged to enviable proportions.
It is the bowels and shits. Brush. Scrub. Clean. Mop. And the perfume of smells: sour, rotten, sticky. They all gather on the doors of your nostrils. And stay there. Or they just hang on your skin.
You want to board the next flight home. Yes. Home is where the temperature is not an eternal high. Home is where the sky has the leisure of sucking up all the water in the land until she becomes drunk with heaviness, sparks across, and belches, then pours down, drumming on rooftops like excited fingers. Her breath is soft air that seeps through lush, green trees, swaing in praise. Home is where Mama's voice is pleading with you to be patient. No, you do not understand Mama. You want to catch Bob, peel off his skin of lies, and leave him bare and red with purity. You dial his number. He does not pick up. He calls you with another number and says he cannot hear you. He hangs up. You dial. It hums dead. Forever. You know you cannot catch him. You cannot. The money is gone. You are a finished business.
"My agent promised me a better job and salary. I paid a lot of money to come here too," Kito says.
"This one is even my friend."
"In my case, it was my cousin."
"Yes. Guy, na United Arab Emirates be this. Na so we see am. You don come be say you don come."
Bus arrives after an hour. You sit next to a black fellow with headphones on. He smiles a welcome note, nodding his dreadlocked head to the sounds banging in his ears. You shake hands. His palm is rough as sandpaper. Kito does not shake hands. "I just nod or wave my hand. I don't want to make the other person feel the displeasure of my work-hardened palms," he says. But this fellow does not care if his rough palms tell the kind of job he does. The ring on his left hand catches your eye. You want to ask him, How do you cope without your wife here? How is your wife fairing without you back home? You imagine him saying, like Kito, I left my manhood with my wife. I live as a Monk here.
It is 3 pm.
Large buses like big boxes on wheels are packed along the path adjacent to the entrance gate. Bodies alight, squint, and trudge to their rooms. It is prattling alive with voices prodding through the thicket of nonchalance in the room where you have a space.
"My people think say I dey earn better money. Always dem dey say make I send money."
"No be small thing. Me sef, I borrow money send to my people."
"Hmm. I dey find am hard to save sef. How much person wan save? How much you wan send? And you go feed."
"And my last month salary no complete sake of say I argue with supervisor. I tell am say I get chest pain and I wan rest. Him no gree. But me no send am. I just go rest my thing."
"Imagine oo. My own no go complete this month too. Tomorrow I wan stay for house. My waist pain dey disturb me."
You listen. You don't listen. You unbutton your shirt like an unwanted flesh that needs discarding and allow the unnatural air of the buzzing air conditioner to collapse on you.
You climb onto your bunk, enclosed in it by walls of wrappers. You try to sleep accompanied by the further talk of hungry penises crying for unavailable vaginas. In the folds of your sheets, a bug rests motionless. Your hand reaches and grasps it between the thumb and index fingers, smashing and rubbing it to shreds until the red stain disappears. The smell floats about for a while. Some roach is scurrying leisurely on the roof of your bunk. You let it be. You don't want to invite the other roaches to come out from their safe places around, and no less do you want to disturb the bunkie above. Hey, but Kito is not there. He is not here to tell you how he has not had sex since he left Nigeria. Two years now. "I miss my girlfriend. My wife to be. I am saving for our marriage."
Your bed quakes under you as if it is tired of your weight. This is music, and its rhythm, drives you to sleep. Sleep is the place to go to when your eyes close. You are happy. Kito is here. His head is thrown backwards. His eyes form thin lines on his laughing face. The laughter chokes you with pleasure. Then he says, "Guy, no worries." He stands close to you, tall like a silhouette. You hold hands and squeeze. A smile sparkles through your eyes and lights up the streets. No eyes stare at you like some translucent veil to be seen through, nor are eyebrows raised in disappointment for not being able to. No cursing lips wrap you up into a capsule of uselessness to be swallowed out of use. And no shade to mark you apart. Here, you are not a definition, a color of unrefined speck.
Thursday. Tomorrow is weekend. Break.
You stroll past fellows glued to the screen of their devices, chatting up concubines, wives and girlfriends in faraway places to fill the empty spaces of their absence. Others thrust their sex-starved penises into available anuses, groaning out suppressed angst and pleasure. Those who can afford it have left to abandon their bodies to the ladies of the night. Empty bottles lie like morsels of leftover meals, forgotten by their drinkers, who are floating in a glee of forgetfulness without the slightest feeling of guilt for transgressing the sign on the gate: ALCOHOL IS NOT ALLOWED HERE.
It is 11pm. 8 pm on Mama's side. You dial her number. "How is Dubai?" Her tired voice steadies to normal. Mama always forgets. You want to remind her it is United Arab Emirates. Dubai is one of the Seven Emirates. It is not a country. And you are in Al Ain, a city in Abu Dhabi. But you just say, "It's fine, Mama."
"The night has come earlier," she says. "It has been raining all day. Business is low key." She thanks you again for the money you sent last time. She has bought more goods and is hoping to expand her business. Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow will be better, she declares. Now her voice is sings in your ears and dances down your stomach. You have missed her fufu and bitterleaf soup dearly.
"Tomorrow will be better," you hear yourself say out loud. But you want to go home. No. You want Kito to be alright.