The first time, in SS2, Love was Corper Temitayo. It was exchanging shy glances with him and giggling in Biology class when he wrote the word ‘reproduction’ on the board. It was receiving little notes from him with hand-drawn hearts and horrible poetry that made your heart beat faster. Love was sneaking off to his quarters after school. You would stand awkwardly, your heart hammering at your chest, while he pressed his lips to yours, his wet tongue invading your mouth that had only ever been occupied by your own tongue. It felt like love the day you let him put his hand inside your blouse, his wide rough palms grabbing and pinching at your teenage breasts. But that day, in his bedroom, when he held you down and pushed himself into you with so much force that you felt as if he was splitting you in half, and you couldn’t scream because he clamped a hand over your mouth, it didn’t feel like love. He insisted it was love, “That’s what people who love each other do,” he said, “but you can’t tell anyone, love is a secret.” You believed him, Love was Corper Temitayo. He finished his NYSC and you never heard from him again.

Love was lying down with Akin in his whitewashed room all day, smoking weed, drinking beer and having sex. You met him in your final year at Unilag, and you felt a tug at your heart that you swore was love. You hadn’t felt that way about anyone in five years and you were eager to explore it, to follow it. Akin, with his afro that always had a comb stuck in it, eyes that gave him a permanent sleepy look, and his dashing smile that revealed his perfectly spaced teeth, stole your heart the first day you saw him. Even though he had been studying a four-year course for six years, and he was notorious for being everything your mother warned you about — unserious, irresponsible, useless, a heart-breaker — you moved out of your hostel to his apartment outside of campus. At first you were obsessed with the idea of changing the bad boy, fixing him, but then you started skipping classes to be with him more, you were afraid that if you stayed away for too long, he would wander into someone else’s arms. On some days you would follow him around while he visited friends or went to beer parlours, but most of the time, it was in the room with the white walls, which you both stayed in. He loved you, you were sure of that, even though he never really said the words. All the times you asked with great uncertainty, “You love me, right?” he would reply, “Of course, of course” and for a few days your doubts would be quelled and you would ignore all the chatter and gossip that he was asking some girl out or sleeping with some other girl. “As long as he comes home to me at night,” you often said. What you never said was that he didn’t come home every night. He stayed away for weeks sometimes.

You shaved your head bald when he fell in love with the bald woman from Rush Hour. “She’s so hot. I would follow her anywhere. Look at that head!” he had said, while you lay in his arms, sharing a blunt. The next day, all your hair was gone. Your friends were convinced that you were mad. You told your mother you were trying new things. You know she saw through your bullshit. When Akin saw your bald head, he had a hearty laugh, clutching his stomach. He said you looked like an egg. The next day, you bought three scarves.

Your final exams were approaching and you couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Unilag while Akin was still there, while all of the girls you were afraid would take your place were still there. He wasn’t going to pass his exams, you knew that. You volunteered to write his exams for him when the time came. He refused the first six times you brought it up, but he finally gave in and told you to be careful. You were so sure that you wouldn’t be caught. You were so wrong.One afternoon, while you were still reeling from the shock of being expelled a few days to your last exam, Akin looked you dead in the eyes and said to you, “I constantly feel choked by your presence.” You packed up all your stuff that night. The next day, you took a cab to your father’s house in Ibadan, with an expulsion letter where a degree was expected. Your excuse was love. “I love him,” you said to your mother, “I had to help him.” She looked at you with sadness in her eyes. “What happened to you?” she asked with tears running down her face. You shrugged. Your father said he must have been cursed to have you as an only child. You shrugged again.

Later that year, Love became a can of worms. Something you had to keep a lid on, something you had to keep inside. Nkem was forty-seven, and had a wife and two children when you met him. There was no tug at first. Just gratitude. He wanted to help you. He gave you capital to open a boutique at Dugbe. He was good to you, something you weren’t used to. The day your boutique officially opened, you felt the tug. You had to show him how grateful you were. You offered him the two things you had to give. He took your body, willingly, but your heart, he accepted on condition. He swore that he loved you too, but he couldn’t leave his wife just yet, so you had to keep it a secret, keep it quiet. You couldn’t tell anyone. He said he wished he had met you first, he wouldn’t have married her. You lapped up this lie like it was the very thing you needed to stay alive.

And you tried to keep it to yourself, didn’t you? You tried to keep it hidden. You never attended events with him, never went anywhere else with him except for the dingy hotel where you both met every other day. But the love festered like a wound left unattended until you could no longer ignore it. You had to do something. You went to his wife when he was away on business and told her. “We love each other.” She laughed in your face. “Love? No honey. You’re a phase. There were many before you and you won’t be the last. Wake up.”

You don’t remember how you got home, you were in a daze. When you got home, you thought about it for some minutes and finally decided that you didn’t believe her. Nkem, who would stay up stroking your hair just so you could sleep better, Nkem, who kissed your toes, one after the other, while looking into your eyes, he definitely loved you. You sent him a text, asking him to call you. When he finally called hours later, happiness surged through you even before you picked up. He was going to tell you that his wife was a liar and he was leaving her, you were sure. But when you answered the call, it was to a furious man. “How could you go to my home? Do you want to ruin my family? Are you stupid?”

Your world came crashing down that day. You don’t know how you survived it, how you didn’t break down and fall through the cracks. But you did it, you survived.

You willed yourself not to feel that tug any more, not to love. You poured yourself into your work and only communicated with your parents, a couple of friends and your customers. You avoided dates and ignored your mother’s attempts at hookups with family friends.

But on a February afternoon, two years after Nkem, a man walked into your boutique asking for size eight heels in light blue and you felt the tug, more violently than ever before, threatening to rip your heart out. His name was Tolu. He had very white teeth that he flashed ever so often with a dimpled smile. He swept you off your feet. Two months after you met him, he convinced you to move to Lagos to live with him. Without thinking about it too much, you announced a clearance sale, sold out your stock and told your parents you were leaving. Your father looked at you as if he was only just noticing your presence in his life, and told you to go, your presence had no meaning anyway. Your mother tried to stop you, she cried, she begged and she shouted, but you left anyway.

When you got to Lagos, You found out that Tolu didn’t live in a two-bedroom flat alone as he had made you believe. You moved into a three-bedroom flat that he shared with several other boys. He didn’t even have a room to himself. When you made love, it had to be quiet, in the dark, because there were two other people in the room. He promised you that this was only temporary and you believed him. Barely a week after you got to Lagos, Tolu asked you to give him the money from the clearance sale at your shop, he wanted to secure a place for you two, and for some reason, he couldn’t access his own money at the moment. You trusted him, gave him all the money. The last time you saw Tolu, he was flashing you a smile as he waved goodbye on his way to pay for the flat he had found. You never saw him again. When you asked his flatmates about him when after two days he hadn’t returned, they laughed at you and called you a mumu. You had been scammed. You had no choice but to return to Ibadan, empty-handed, once again.

Your mother welcomed you with open arms, she always did. She asked no questions, she just welcomed you. The next day, you got a phone call that broke what was left of you. It was Akin. When you heard his voice on the other side of the line, your legs bucked and you sank down to the floor. “I called to ask for your forgiveness,” he said, “I’m getting married in two months and I want to do so with a clear conscience. I’m a changed person now, you wouldn’t even recognise me.” You stopped breathing for some seconds. “Are you still there?” He asked. You whispered yes, barely audible. Your heart was hammering in your ears. “I know it may be hard to forgive me, but you really should forgive yourself,” he said when you remained quiet.

When he hung up, you lay on the floor and started to cry. This was it — rock bottom. You don’t know for sure, but it felt like several hours passed before your mother found you.She picked you up and held you for minutes. You don’t know why, but you started telling her about all the love there was. You told her about Temitayo and Akin, Nkem and Tolu. You’ll never forget what she said to you that day, in a firm yet gentle voice. She said, “When will you realise that love is none of these things, love is none of these people? Love is not twisting out of shape to fit people’s ideas of how you should be, love is being enough. Love is not changing who you are for someone else, sure, love can be bending sometimes, but it’s never breaking, you must never break yourself for love.”

Somewhere in her warm embrace and her soothing words that night, you found Love, you felt the tug, and you knew, this was the perfect time to rebuild. Everything would be okay. You felt it.

Originally published on Tush Magazine Issue 12 (2016) —