Claire couldn’t help the long, low moan as Luke scratched her scalp. She was bent over the bathroom sink and he was massaging her suds-soaked dreadlocks.
“What did we say about those sounds?” he asked playfully, grinding on her to the beat of the music that was blasting from her phone.
“You’re so good I can’t help it?” She moaned encouragingly, enjoying his continued ministrations.
He laughed. “Can we start the rinsing now? It’s been more than 30 minutes.”
“That’s on you for being so damn good.”
He sighed then kissed her exposed shoulder, fingers still moving over her scalp.
“Fine, we can rinse, in honour of you bagging that huge project.” She conceded.
He smiled and, like she could see him, she added, “Have I told you how proud I am of you?”
“You have.” He kissed her shoulder again.
She sighed, exaggerating her unhappiness that that part was over.
“You know I’m still going to massage you when I oil your hair. It’s not like it’s over. You are way too dramatic,” he said, pouring warm water over her hair.
“Whatever, you love me.”
He laughed and kept pouring. “Done,” Luke said, wringing her hair like one would a shirt before wrapping a towel around her hair.
This was their bi-weekly ritual. She’d spend the weekend at his place, or he’d go to hers, and then he’d wash her hair, oil it, and massage it. It was an unmatched aphrodisiac that nine out of ten times ended with them showering together and then getting dirty again.
Claire grabbed her oils, and phone then followed him to the living room. They always mixed it up, trying different oils. Today, it was Jojoba oil, Argan oil and some rose water.
Luke’s phone started ringing just as he walked into the living room. His brother, Jesse.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Hey,” Jesse responded, sounding uncharacteristically withdrawn.
“What’s up? What’s wrong?” Luke asked, heart racing so fast he thought he’d collapse. This had all the makings of those phone calls you didn’t want to get but would inevitably be on the wrong side of at one point.
“Have you seen the stuff on WhatsApp?”
“What stuff?” He dragged the words out.
“There’s some stuff on WhatsApp… about you,” Jesse replied, almost whispering.
“Okay,” he answered, feeling calmer as confusion replaced fear.
“Yeah, you need to check it out. I guess we can talk after.”
His brother hung up almost like he was in a rush to get out of that conversation. Luke immediately pulled up WhatsApp and had to sit down.
The first picture was of him kissing a man. The rest were in the same vein, him kissing the man, fondling his full salt and pepper beard, straddling his thighs. He slapped his phone face down on the coffee table when he got to that one.
“Here’s to part two,” Claire said, walking into the room, phone on one hand, oils in the other. His head fell to his chest, like holding it up was too much for him.
“What’s wrong?” She asked, dumping her wares on the coffee table.
He picked up his phone and handed it to her. “That’s not me,” he muttered under his breath.
He didn’t look at her as she scrolled. She knelt on the sofa next to him and wrapped him in a hug. She held the position until he pulled away.
“Where did they come from?” She asked, scrolling through his phone again. “Where did Jesse get them?”
“I don’t know, but it’s not me.” He insisted.
Claire zoomed into the pictures and then perked up, raising his face with her index finger to look into his eyes. “It’s AI, you zoom in and it falls apart.”
She illustrated, zooming and he could see all the details crumble.
“Who would do this to you?” She asked.
“I don’t know.” Jesse was a total nobody, a no-name general contractor. This kind of thing was supposed to happen to celebrities, not him. Not people like him.
They spent the afternoon trying to figure out where the picture had originated, even though they knew going in it was a futile endeavour. All they knew by evening was it had first been spotted in the local Telegram groups that were famous for leaking women’s nudes. They tried reaching out to the person who’d shared it, but they were not answering their phone or any of the numerous anxiety-ridden messages they’d left.
By the time Monday was rolling around, all he felt between the numbness and rage was relief that he didn’t have to go into an office. If he had a job like Claire’s, an administrator at a major university, he’d have lost his goddamn mind.
He did not want to see a single person. Claire had left that morning and he’d been so relieved he felt guilty. He didn’t want to see anyone, not even her, and she was his favourite person in the world. All he wanted to do was rail at the world and sleep until this was over. He wanted to wake up and find that it was a terrible nightmare. He’d never been one to hide away, squarely facing the world had been his thing, his brand. Turns out all he needed was the right kind of adversity to curl up in a corner and cry. Life was humbling him with an aggressiveness that had his head spinning. What had he done to deserve this? He wondered. Not that anyone did anything to deserve it, he immediately thought. Still… Shit.
He’d avoided his phone and the internet altogether the entire weekend. More accurately, Claire had kept him away from them, afraid he’d go down an impossible to come back from the rabbit hole. She’d been right, but she was gone and so he was going online. No more hiding, or cowering.
In the name of baby steps, he began with his email, hoping the company that had just given his crew a huge contract to transform office space into low-cost apartments had not seen any of this. The chances were slim, but the contractor community was connected enough for it not to be outside the realm of possibility. This was the safest place to start, then he’d jump to the rest of the dangerous sites.
He sucked in a deep breath when he saw an email from the company. With a shaking finger, he clicked it open.
We regret to inform you….
He sat looking at the laptop, unable to read anything beyond that, going over that phrase over and over.
So much for starting small. They’d lost the biggest project they’d ever successfully bid for. God, he’d have to tell everyone on his team. It had been a difficult year with few jobs to tide them. This was the big break they’d all been waiting for, and now it was gone. If the next few months were anywhere near as dry as the last ones, they were all in serious trouble.
Luke and his brother were part of a workers’ co-op that Luke had started when he’d gotten into the contractor game. He’d wanted to work with a group of people he could trust to do a good job and the Marxist in him wouldn’t let him set up a company where he exploited other people’s labour. Instead, he’d organized a co-operative with the people he most enjoyed working with, they sought projects together and transparently shared the profits.
Now he had to explain to his friends, and his colleagues that they were still caught up in the long project drought that had been occasioned by several factors including the country’s wicked political leadership, a global pandemic, and what looked like a global recession. They’d been so close to escaping…
They’d blame him. They were decent people, but he knew in their frustration they’d likely turn on him. There would be serious fallout from this at the co-op. He didn’t even want to think about his family yet. First the co-op, he decided, pulling up their group chat.
There were dozens of posts, most from four or five people. There was grumbling about how this would affect the co-op with other people urging calm, and advising against jumping the gun. At least the pictures had not been posted there but it was obvious everyone in the group of about 40 people had seen the pictures.
The pictures were not real, yet the shame he felt was as real as his trembling hand. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything. He closed the group chat and then scrolled through his other groups, his family group, old boys from high school, and random friends. All of them had a strange weirdness that indicated everyone had seen them.
Another flood of shame washed through him as he scrolled through the groups. He shook his head, disgusted with himself. Why was he ashamed? What did he have to be ashamed of? He’d done nothing wrong. Those pictures were fake.
Claire knocked on the door just to alert Luke of her presence as she slid her key into the lock. The entire house was engulfed in darkness, the windows were open and she could already tell the mosquitoes would give them hell that night.
“Luke? she called, switching on the lights as she went.
He was seated on the couch, staring at the walls. He turned as if in slow motion when she turned on the lights. She closed the windows and the curtains.
She sat on the sofa facing him. She took his hand in hers. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you serious?” He bit out pulling away from her touch.
“Yeah, you were okay when I left.” She answered hesitantly.
“Was I? Why are you here? You’re supposed to be at your place.” He leaned back on the seat as if trying to introduce as much distance as possible between them.
He was in pain, she reasoned, telling herself not to take it personally. “I was worried about you. Listen, all this will pass. No one will even remember it in a few months, maybe even weeks.”
“Is that the forecast from the magical place you inhabit? Here on earth, we lost the project and I’m not you, Claire. I can’t just waste my life knowing family money will come through.”
She got up and moved away from him. His words cut deep, so deep it was a physical pain. She looked around in a daze, unsure what she was looking for until she spotted the backpack she’d come in with.
She walked back to him. “I get that you’re hurt going through something, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be some loser’s punching bag. So you can go to hell and fucking rot there.” She said, slamming the door as hard as she could behind her.
Claire sat in her cubicle, lost in thought, as she mechanically scrolled through Twitter. Her three colleagues had stepped out for lunch, and she was left manning the office. Luke was currently trending along with homophobia. The images had found their way to Twitter, and someone had linked him to his construction company and also to Titan Solutions which had just withdrawn their big project. Screenshots of the Titan previously announcing the deal were placed side to side with their latest tweet announcing they were going in a different direction with another company they announced.
It was a full-out war. One side passionately condemned his alleged homosexuality, decrying it as unAfrican and defending the company’s right to work with people whose values matched theirs. This was true freedom, they insisted.
The other side rightly pointed out that the images were AI-generated. They pointed accusing fingers at the company that had gotten the tender after Luke was booted. Others in this camp maintained that it didn’t matter if the images were AI-generated, rescinding an offer on the basis of his alleged sexuality was discrimination. Then there were tweets about the dangers of AI, the realities of revenge porn, and numerous posts expressing disgust at two black men being kissing. There were calls encouraging everyone to tweet at the company and call them out. She scrolled through all these in a haze.
Her heart stopped when she came to an obscure tweet that had a picture of her and Luke next to the AI-generated image of Luke kissing the unknown man. It was captioned with a comment about how manly she was and how Luke had settled for the next best thing to a man. The replies were full of people dissecting everything about her. She was tall and she and Luke were the same height. She was also lean and toned whereas Luke was not. In the picture, they both had slim-fit jeans and loose t-shirts, hiding her small breasts. They debated whether she was in actual fact a man, adding that in these days of the LGBTQIA+ agenda, it was difficult to tell.
They talked about how her cheeks were not round and feminine, how her jaw was angular, how her breasts were tiny, how she didn’t even stand like a woman, and how he was leaning towards her in the picture like she was the one with masculine energy in the relationship.
They found other pictures of them from their social media pages and were aggressively dissecting them. It was concluded that he was a simp, and she was a man pretending to be a woman and she wasn’t even trying to pass or even make herself beautiful. The audacity, they insisted. Several people called her “objectively ugly if we’re being honest” with some charitable few calling her “not conventionally attractive.” At least she wasn’t the type that could trick and ensnare an unsuspecting man, they concluded.
“Claire,” her colleague, Diana whispered, concerned, standing at the entrance to her cubicle.
Claire turned, which was when she realized her face and shirt were drenched in tears. She quickly turned away and dried herself with the tissue she always had on her desk.
Diana walked into the room and glanced at the screen before turning to her, sympathy and understanding in her eyes. She didn’t look surprised though.
“You should go, I’ll tell the boss you were unwell,” Diana said.
“You’d already seen it?” Claire asked, knowing the answer but stupidly hoping she’d be proven wrong.
“Yeah, it’s kind of spread on campus. I’m sorry.”
Claire felt the ground crumble underneath her, her head was spinning, and her heart was racing. Diana stepped closer and started rubbing her back in circles like one would with a baby, which made sense because she was the mother of two children under three. Claire leaned into the comfort.
“I’ll call you a ride and have it pick you up here, so you don’t have to go to the gate,” she said, already clicking on the app.
Claire nodded, mechanically stuffing things into her backpack. The tears kept coming and she couldn’t make sense of why. Why did she care what some random, faceless people on the internet thought of her?
Diana shut down the machine by pulling out the power cable from the wall like she couldn’t stand to touch the machine like she was reigning in the violence pent up in her.
“Thanks,” Claire mumbled, not looking up, unable to meet her eyes now that she knew.
She glanced at her phone before slipping it into her bag, 23 missed calls from Luke, her sister, and some friends. Her mother. Oh God! She’d put it on silent to avoid Luke’s calls and was suddenly glad she’d missed everyone’s call, not just his.
Claire untied her hair as she slipped into the rideshare, hoping the dreads covering her face would render her unrecognizable on the off chance the driver had seen the tweets.
He picked up on her body language and kept his eyes on the road. She was just about to pay him when she got a text from her friend saying she’d paid.
She slipped out of the car, head down, and rushed to her house afraid to be outside any longer than she had to be.
She dropped her bag by the door, stripped her clothes as she went then buried herself in bed, covered from head to toe. She lay still, eyes tightly closed, hoping she was dreaming and would soon jack awake from this nightmare.
Luke pulled his cap lower over his face as he greeted the university gate guards. They were as enthusiastic as they always were, which meant they hadn’t seen the pictures yet.
He hustled to the building that housed the offices, trying to be as nondescript as possible. He knocked on the door, walked in and immediately cast his eyes at her cubicle. Empty. He walked to her cubicle. It was cleared, and her daily backpack was missing. Not good.
He looked around for Diana, but she was equally absent. Damn. He spotted a woman who was vaguely familiar. He walked up to her.
“Hey,” he started, she looked up, and then recognition quickly followed. She wasn’t one of theirs. She looked like someone had just forced her to bite into a rotten lemon.
“Sorry to bother you. I’m looking for Claire. Is she around?”
“No,” she made no attempt to explain.
“Did she come in today?”
He could feel his temperature rising. “Does that mean she’s left for the day?”
He looked away to control his raging emotions and came face to face with Diana. He walked to her without a word to the queen of monosyllabic responses.
“She just went home,” Diana said before he even had to ask. “About ten minutes ago.”
Claire knew. Diana knew. They all knew.
“Thanks,” he said, rushing out of the office.
Luke pounded her door louder. He’d knocked several times without an answer. She was still not answering her phone. He’d done this to her. He’d made her the subject of hateful online mobs. He felt his heart shrivel in his chest as rage and hate filled it, he could only imagine what she’d felt.
He felt the energy drain out of him as he slid against the wall and sat by the door. He’d wait for her. He’d wait as long as she needed. He knocked in ten-minute intervals, so she’d know he hadn’t left.
About an hour later, she pulled the door open and said nothing to him before walking into the house, the gaping door behind her. He pulled himself up, his knees protesting noisily.
“I’m sorry,” he said voice hoarse. “I’m so sorry.”
She was sprawled on the couch, face down. He sat on the floor near her head. “I’m so sorry. I swear if I could fix it I would, which I know sounds like empty words. I’m just… Claire, I’m so sorry.”
She said nothing.
“You’re beautiful, you know that, right? I love you so damn much.”
“Stop talking,” she dragged out, the hoarseness of her voice giving his a run for its money.
He nodded and kept sitting beside her as his ass clenched and long after his knees had started throbbing. His phone had been steadily vibrating as he took a leaf from Claire’s radio silence. He texted his brother and told him they were together; they were okay and told him to spread the word should anyone ask. Then he’d gone offline.
The sun set. He got up and closed the curtains and the windows. He looked through her fridge and pantry and was glad the ingredients for her favourite comfort food were present. He pattered about the kitchen trying to make sure it was the best he’d ever made.
When it was ready, he took a jug of warm water and basin with him to the living room.
“Hey,” he bent before her, “wash your hands.”
To his surprise, she sat up, and let him wash her hands. His heart jerked at the sight of her swollen eyes.
He served two plates and took them with him to the living room along with two glasses of water.
She nibbled at her food, then gave up after a few bites. “Sorry,” she muttered.
“It’s okay,” he answered, tears filling his eyes.
She got up and walked to her room, closing the door behind her. He spent the night on the couch, trying and failing to get more than a few minutes of sleep at a time. He couldn’t be sure whether those were sniffles he heard coming from her door or his overactive imagination.
His mind couldn’t stop wondering how it was possible for people to be so wicked, so brutal, so needlessly vicious.
Claire got up at the ass crack of dawn, as was her custom, then was hit like a freight train by the memory of what her life had become. Her next thought was how ravenous she was. She hadn’t eaten anything from breakfast the previous day. She’d skipped lunch and had only nibbled at dinner.
Dinner. Luke was here. He’d come to check up on her, and had taken care of her.
She walked to the living room. He lay on the couch, shirt and pants off. It had been an uncharacteristically warm night. She tiptoed to the kitchen, turned on the oven, and waited a few minutes before putting the pot of food in.
She heard his knees protesting as he sat up and turned to him with a tiny smile. He smiled back, shaking his head ruefully. He got up and walked to her. She met him halfway, wrapping him in a hug. He held her tight, and they stood there comforting each other, loving each other. When they pulled away, he leaned in and kissed her gently.
They had leftovers for breakfast in relative silence until they were done.
“Thanks for coming,” she said. “I was a mess.”
“I’ll always come. I was a mess too.” He sighed.
“I’m really sorry about everything. I shouldn’t have taken out my issues on you and I can’t tell you how sorry I am you got dragged into my mess.”
“I forgive you for the first thing, the rest of it is not your fault. Don’t blame yourself for that. I’m sorry I called you a loser, you’re not.”
He nodded. “What are we going to do?”
“Hide until everything passes. Set social media to private.” She started looking for her phone. “Can you call my phone?”
He dialled her number, then she remembered she was on silent. He walked to her bag as she searched in her room and pulled it from the inner pocket. “Found it.” He hollered.
“Thanks, baby,” she said, kissing his cheek.
She sighed when she saw all the missed calls.
“I told Jesse to put out word that we’re okay, for everyone calling.”
“Did he talk to my mom?” She asked, angling her phone to him. 8 missed calls from her mom.
He exhaled like someone had punched him in the gut. “If it’s any consolation, I haven’t spoken to my mom either.”
He took her hand and pulled her to the couch. He sat back, so she was leaning on him.
“I don’t even know why it got to me, why I was so hurt. Like I don’t care if people think I’m manly or whatever. I don’t have a problem with trans people. I didn’t think I’d have a problem with people thinking I’m trans, like I don’t care. I shouldn’t care. I care about the discrimination and the targeting but not the fact of being considered trans or masculine or whatever. I shouldn’t care that some random assholes think I’m ugly yet… I don’t know. You know I don’t remember one person calling me beautiful when I was a kid? Maybe I just had that pain all bottled up and when a bunch of people agreed that I’m masculine and ugly, it somehow got to me. You know what I hate the most? That I let them get to me. They’re literally faceless dicks and I let them make me cry.”
He tightened his hold on her. “I get that. You know what I hate? First, the fact that they brought you into it. Then the overwhelming impulse I suddenly had to distance myself from the gay accusations. Like, why? I’m an ally. I tell everyone I’m an ally, and pride myself on it. Hell, I…” He stopped, his free hand flying to cover his mouth like he’d said too much and was trying to keep the rest in.
She pulled out of his embrace and turned to face him, sitting on her folded leg, her eyebrows raised in question.
He closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. “In high school, I kissed a boy,” he said, his words rushing out as if he wanted to get it out as fast as possible. “And again in campus. Many, many times in campus with this one guy who was in my dorm.”
He leaned forward and buried his face in her neck and hair.
She felt herself smile, then she burst out laughing. “Sorry, I’m not laughing at you. You’re just so cute is all.” She rubbed his back gently to show him she meant it.
He started shaking as he laughed.
They gave themselves up to it, laughing so hard, that they were both teary-eyed when they stopped.
“You got any more confessing to do?” She asked, leaning on him.
“Nope, that’s pretty much the full extent of my exploration,”
Residual giggles spluttered out.
“I love you so much,” he said, pulling her in a tight hug.
“I love you.”
They swore off social media and spent the day lazing in the house. Claire called in sick, even though everyone knew she wasn’t sick.
Later that evening, he got a call from his contact person at the company that had just rescinded their offer. It was way past office hours, and he debated answering it, but curiosity won.
“Hello, Luke, this is Chris from Titan Solutions.”
“Okay,” he replied, refusing to meet the guy’s false bravado and energy.
Contact Person took a breath, the bravado persona faltering. “Do you have a minute to talk about the conversion project?”
“It was my understanding that you were going a different way,” Luke said, fighting the hope buds that began blossoming.
Claire leaned in closer, and he put the phone on loudspeaker.
“The board has decided to stick with the initial plan.”
“Does that mean you’re ready to resume our previous partnership?” Chris clarified.
Her eyebrows were at the risk of disappearing into her hair, her mouth ajar. He rolled his eyes at her antics.
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” he said, tempering the impulse to immediately shout yes. “Let’s talk on Monday when I’m back in the office.”
“Um… What do I tell the board?” he stuttered.
“That I’m away from the office and need to speak to my team before I make any decision. Once we’ve made that decision, we’ll let you know by close of business on Monday.”
He crossed his fingers, hoping the guy wouldn’t call his bluff and push his hand.
Luke hung up and turned to Claire. “Damn.”
She was already scrolling through her phone. “Something had to have happened. No way they just come back to you – tail tucked between their legs.”
She hovered her finger over the Twitter app, then decided she wasn’t ready to jump in and handed him the phone. He took it, looked at the app then squeezed her hand before opening it. Sure enough, the company was getting cooked with people dragging their name through the mad. Reaching out was a PR move to save their embattled brand. The company that took the deal after Luke’s company was booted was also catching a lot of heat.
He read out the tweets he knew she’d agree with, then some creative ones that had them laughing out loud.
“What are you going to do?” she finally asked.
“I don’t know. I think I have to take it for the team and for me. We all need the work.”
He leaned over her, kissing her as he helped her stretch out on the couch before stretching out next to her. He lay on his side on the inside, his arm firmly around her middle, her back plastered to his front.
“Does that make me a hypocrite? A bad bisexual?” He whispered.
“No, come on.” She said, kissing his biceps. “One, you need the work. Two, all those people online did not make all that noise calling out the discrimination so you’d let it go. They pressured that company so they’d give you back the job. What does it say if you reject it? What are you saying about all their efforts on your behalf and all discriminated people?”
He nodded, leaned in, and kissed her neck. “You’re right.”
“You know that’s the first time I ever called myself bi?” Luke said, a slight tremor f both fear and elation in his voice.
“I know,” she said with a smile.
4 months later
Claire looked into Luke’s eyes, then winked as he fastened the safety helmet over her bountiful hair.
“Stop looking at me like that.” He admonished before quickly kissing her and clasping her hand in his.
He took her around, showing her all the progress they’d made so far. The first apartment which would serve as the showroom was almost done. Claire knew most of his team and greetings were shouted out from the many construction workers hard at work. When Luke left to answer his phone, Claire got an extra personalized tour from the architect and foreman, both of whom were women and longtime friends. Luke had been deliberate about the co-op not being a boy’s only club and had personally headhunted women in construction. It was part of what made their team so special.
He came back and resumed the tour. “I’m trying to impress her. Can I finish the tour?” He asked the three women.
“Go impress your woman,” the architect said, immediately walking away.
The foreman followed her, calling behind her back, “Make him earn it.”
“You know I will,” Claire replied.
He took her round, explaining what they were still yet to do, painting a picture of how it would look. Transforming vacant offices to residential apartments it turned out, was so much more than installing partitions. She finally understood why he was so absorbed in his work these days, and why he was still so excited and energized.
They’d spent the last four weeks trying to regain some semblance of balance and normalcy.
The company posted a public apology for retracting their earlier decision and announcing that they were back to working with Luke’s company.
She’d taken a month of unpaid leave, unable to face the hoard of students who she was certain had seen all those tweets about her and her boyfriend. She’d just needed a break. Going back to work had been harrowing, but things had eventually tapered out and people had stopped giving her the look that said they knew her dirty business.
They had explained to their parents that the pictures were fake and nothing more. Luke had come out to his brother and team. His brother was mostly okay with it. Two of their crew had opted to leave the company, majority were neutral, insisting it wasn’t their business and two, the architect and foreman were enthusiastic supporters, letting him know they were allies. Claire’s sister, Christine, was also among the allies.
They had made it out alive, Claire thought, lying in Luke’s arms as they listened to the rain batter their windows. They were falling asleep in front of her TV. Again. She tapped him and grabbed his arm, dragging him behind her. He followed, climbing into bed and immediately scooting over to her side, so they were touching.
“Good night,” he kissed her cheek before flopping down on his stomach.
She closed her eyes and let sleep take her, contentment like a cloud of warmth enveloping her, a smile on her face.
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