By Emmanuel Onwe
The university campus is unusually quiet, even for a Sunday afternoon. Save for the random caws of crows that perched on the several trees that lined the streets and the shrill sound of a child's cry that came from one of the newly renovated bungalows at Margaret Cartwright Avenue--mostly reserved for Senior staff of the university, separated by neatly trimmed Ixora flowers, and the occasional hunks of passing cars, it was largely rid of sound. Nnamdi had never been in school this long after semester exams. At first, he'd found it a little strange; how this campus which usually thrummed with life and various activities, had suddenly transformed into this almost deserted place. Most students had gone home for the holidays. Even Pharmacy, renowned for always being the last faculty to round off their exams, had finished some weeks back.
Sometimes, he'd walk through PAA, usually cluttered with students making use of the free WIFI, and find only one or two persons there. But he is almost used to it now. He even enjoys it most times. This newfound solitude. The soothing calm it brought. On some days, he'd go for a walk around the campus, occasionally stopping to marvel at the many little wonders he'd usually overlook. Odim street, which he often passed on his way to classes, with its well-tended rows of trees and their entangling branches that made it difficult to differentiate one tree from the next, and had taken on a new picturesque quality that now appealed to him.
He'd imagine himself standing under the hollow of the countless trees on a hopeful sunny afternoon, his hands widely stretched, his eyes closed, and someone secretly capturing the moment with a camera. Abuja building--the tall, gigantic structure said to be one of the oldest buildings on campus, which housed the lecture theatres and laboratories of the faculty of the physical sciences, with its peeling paints and eerie basement (especially at night) recently made him think of the enduring finesse of ancient European coliseums. Vet Mountain made him think of God. He is not entirely sure why. He is not even sure if he still believes in a God. His once glimmering faith had dimmed like a torchlight covered by a thick blanket. He hardly went to church these days, and on the few occasions that he did, it was because Amarachi had managed to convince him.
"It's just for two hours. Surely even you can sit through that." She'd say with a teasing smile.
The only other time he had been to Vet Mountain was on a bright Saturday morning during his first year. He'd gone with some members of the campus Christian fellowship he'd briefly attended then to pray over their semester exams. They'd soaked their prayers in the blood of Jesus, willing God to make whoever was going to mark their scripts overlook whatever error they might have made, their prayers littered with extravagant tongues. He could remember watching them with a crippling detachment as they prayed. He'd wanted to feel the same passion they felt, to pray with the same vigour, to be transported to this ethereal place where exquisite tongues were lingua franca. He'd felt nothing then; for this, he felt deficient, lacking, as though locked out of grace.
He’d later narrate this experience to Amarachi in his small-room BQ at Alvin Loving Avenue on one of those lazy afternoons when they would lie next to each other talking about random things, the stark afternoon sunlight trickling in through the window. He'd also tell her about how as a teenager, he had shyly walked to the alter on a certain Sunday morning after the fervent sermon delivered by the Pastor of his local church to surrender his life to Christ, full of hope that after the prayers and laying of hands, a cosmic shift would occur, and he would return to his seat transformed. He didn't know exactly what would constitute this transformation, but he was so sure back then that he would know when he felt it. He’d felt nothing. No magical spark had travelled through his body.
“I wanted so badly to feel what everyone else seemed to be feeling, even If I didn’t fully understand it,” he told her.
"Maybe there is no uniformity to the way we experience God. Maybe God reveals himself to us in different ways." She'd said.
Yesterday evening, he'd climbed Vet Mountain again just for fun or maybe due to lack of anything better to do. The steep zig-zag paths had made it a slightly difficult climb, so much so that he was almost out of breath by the time he got to the top. The sun had turned a pale orange, and the sky was smeared with bits of pink and grey as though a bored artist had decided to mess around with his paintbrush on a white canvas. The cool, unrestricted evening breeze tickled his face. He felt light, full of air; as though if he lifted his feet a little, he might float. Looking down, the tall campus buildings appeared so tiny that they seemed like small mud houses with zinc roofs. The green-dotted hills spread endlessly before him, and at a faraway distance, they seemed to touch the sky. He could see all of Nsukka from where he stood--the slanting houses with their rusty roofs, the cars speeding by, the countless birds hovering above, and the many green trees. It had made sense to him at that very moment; the idea of a God, a divine architect who had somehow carved this vast beauty out of nothingness.
He is baffled by how much he has come to love Nsukka. He would miss this small, slow town. He wasn’t always sure he would. He hadn’t thought of it till recently. He’d been too busy with his final year project and exams to really think about it. It first occurred to him a month back, after he'd defended his project. He'd worn the blue suit with fancy side buttons that Amarachi said always made him look like ‘someone that had sense.’ He’d done well. His panel had been so impressed that they graded him an A on the spot. He had left the room feeling relief and then a sudden stab of various emotions he couldn't properly account for. It was finally over, and he was happy. He should be happy. He’d, after all, dreamt about this moment for so long. The day he'd finally be rid of the shackles of college and step into the real life that was waiting for him in the real world. Yet, he felt a kind of grief, a dull mourning for the things he was leaving behind, this old chapter that was about to be permanently shut. Nsukka had been his escape from the life he'd always known, from home. Nsukka was where he had really grown up. Nsukka was where he had met Amarachi. And here he was, on the verge of moving on. It’d felt surreal, as though all of a sudden, he now found himself in unexplored territory, confused and directionless.
Nnamdi was sitting on the pavement demarcating the faculty of Education from the tarred road that led to the school’s main gate. The sun blazed with an insidious viciousness, casting long, dark silhouettes on the ground. He'd initially set out on one of his routine aimless walks, but the intense heat had made him retreat under one of the flame trees shadowing the pavement. The sky is a clear azure, rid of birds as though they, too, having had enough of the excruciating heat, had decided to take cover on the tree branches from where they continued to register their presence with non-stop bickering. He often wondered these days if the ozone layer was still up there, shielding the rest of the world from the sun's blistering harshness. Mr. Paul, his biology teacher back in secondary school, had once said that the ozone layer was at risk of being destroyed due to persistent environmental pollution that weakened its resolve year after year. He'd think of Mr. Paul’s words each year during the aggressive humidity of the dry season when the sun burned without remorse, and he'd usually sweat so much that wet patches would appear all over his clothes, and his underwear would stubbornly stick to his buttocks. His mother often teased him about it.
“Your sweat can fill a bucket, Eziokwu,” she'd say while laughing her usual easy laugh, that laugh that often accompanied his memories of her. He missed hearing her laugh. The last time they'd spoken on the phone, she did not laugh. She sounded distraught.
“Your Father has started again. Today he said a prophet of one of these fake white garment churches told him that I was the reason his business was failing and that I had a spirit husband who followed him about making sure that whatever he did would never prosper. Did he have anything when I married him? Was it not a one-room apartment with a leaking roof that he lived in then? I don’t even want to talk about the yeye motorcycle he was riding.” While she spoke, it occurred to him that he couldn’t envision a time when his parent’s marriage hadn’t been fraught, at risk of falling apart, a time when they were truly, consistently happy.
“You know I regret marrying your Father sometimes.” She paused abruptly, as though her words had forcefully tumbled out before she had a chance to stop them.
Nnamdi listened without saying much, unsure of what the right words were. He wasn’t used to her calling to talk about him. It wasn’t like her to complain to him about his Father. She always acted as if she was handling everything well, always laughing her easy laugh. When he was a child, his mother would tell him that the reason her face was sometimes swollen was because she was tired. He would stare at her incredulously and wonder if she was trying to convince her own self. But he never pressed her for details. He was scared of knowing, scared of the responsibility that often came with knowledge, scared that he would never be able to measure up to that responsibility. Moreover, there was no point in telling her to leave his Father. She never would. The only other time Nnamdi suggested it to her, she’d shrugged and said divorce was a sin and marriage was for better or worse.
She mostly called to ask how he was doing and to fill him in on what was happening in church–the new firebrand pastor recently posted to their branch. The many miracles that took place during service–including the testimony of the woman whose husband returned home after seven years of abandoning her for his mistress.
"God has finally shamed that evil mistress," she'd said, snapping her fingers, and Nnamdi had found it absurd how the man had been absolved of any wrongdoing as though he was a child, free of responsibility and common sense, who had unconsciously fallen into the tempting hands of an "evil mistress." He often tried his best to sound interested in his mother’s stories even though he suspected that she knew that something had changed about him, that he was no longer that teenager that eagerly read the Bible and excitedly went with her during church outreaches, inviting people to church, praying for those who agreed to give their lives to Christ. On the Sundays when she would call to ask if he had been to church, he would say ‘yes' even though he mostly never went. He knew it made her happy to hear, and her happiness was something he felt responsible for, something he wanted to guard in the same way one would guard something fragile and easily breakable, like an egg.
Before she hung up that day, she asked him when he was coming home, and he told her he wasn’t sure, that he had some exams to write. For a while, she said nothing. She probably knew he was lying. His friend and course-mate, Chidi, who lived on the street after theirs, was already home for the holidays. But she said nothing. He thought of how his mother would secretly read his father’s text messages whenever he was sleeping or having a bath, the flirtatious texts he sent to the countless young women he was seeing, her face clouded in despair, and yet said nothing to his father, serving him food as if everything was the same.
“Okay then. It’s been months. Please come back. I miss you too much,” She'd said finally, and Nnamdi hummed something vague before hanging up.
The sun had tucked itself behind the clouds, offering a temporary respite. Behind Nnamdi, a woman was now sitting on a wooden stool with a tray full of bananas and fried groundnuts placed on another stool in front of her. Nnamdi hadn’t noticed her at first. Maybe because she wasn’t there when he first arrived. Fruit sellers usually came out in the evenings, so they didn’t have to contend with the harsh sunlight. A young woman, putting on a long black skirt and a lemon T-shirt with the words ‘I AM A CHOSEN. WHO ARE YOU?’ emblazoned on its front, stops to haggle with the fruit seller for a bunch of red, stubby bananas. After a brief back-and-forth negotiation, the woman puts the bunch along with some fried groundnuts in a black plastic bag, and the girl says, “Aunty, you suppose remove money for this thing oo,” before walking away.
In the middle of the Faculty of Education – opposite where Nnamdi sat – was a newly erected statue of a bespectacled man with a Hausa cap. The words “First Indigenous Dean of the Faculty of Education” alongside a Northern-sounding name carefully carved on its pedestal. Two girls stood in front of the statue, taking pictures of each other on an iPhone. It made him think of Amarachi. If she were there, she would have probably said something sarcastic like, “All this twisting and turning and wagging of tongues just to upload pictures on Instagram,” He would have replied, “See this one! As If you are not one of them.” He missed her terribly, so much that she punctuated his everyday thoughts. They had been walking hand in hand across campus only a few weeks back when she said, just after they arrived at Love Garden,
“Ada asked me to join her in America.” Maybe because Nnamdi stood still, too stunned to process her words and to come up with an appropriate reaction to them, she went on to add, “I know I told you I wasn’t sure I was going to go at first, and you must be a little surprised, but I want to now. I intend to leave for Lagos in a few days to see Mom and get a few things sorted out. I will probably leave before the year runs out.”
She'd mentioned her plans to him occasionally, about how she was considering joining her sister outside the country when she graduated and maybe applying for a master's program. He had listened half-heartedly, never taking it too seriously, perhaps because he had been too secure in their relationship that he'd unconsciously averted his mind from anything that attempted to breach its boundaries. It was too sudden. They were both sitting on one of the metal benches at Love Garden, shrouded by long, unweeded grass (“It’s really more like 'Love Bush' now,” Amarachi would usually say).
“What are you thinking?” she said finally after a long, awkward moment of silence.
“I don’t know.” And he really didn’t. There were multiple things juggling on his inside.
“I still love you, in case you are wondering that. And this could still work, you know. I know long-distance relationships can be off-putting and all, but we could make it work, right? And maybe you could join me when you can. We could apply for the same school.” He knew that what she was doing was necessary. Everyone who had the opportunity was leaving the country due to economic uncertainties. He knew he should be happy for her, but what he felt was nothing close to happiness. In that space inside him where happiness should be, something else occupied it, something he couldn’t name.
“You know it doesn’t always work out as it does in novels and films. I may not even get an American visa. My father once tried many times but couldn’t get it. In your case, you are technically an American citizen, so it’s easier for you, but it’s not the same for the rest of us.” He said, forcing himself to sound cheerful. He added, “I think it’s a good thing. You should go.” The lingering air of finality in his words stung him, and he wondered whether she felt it too.
“So what are you saying exactly?” she asked, her brows arched, but they lacked the usual playfulness that came with her teasing. It was more of an inquiring look.
“I don’t know. What do you think I am saying?”
“You are expecting me to say what you are afraid of saying yourself.” There was a hint of exasperation in her voice now. “You know you can’t always keep running. Life will catch up either way.” She was judging him, measuring him by some standard he was sure he had not met. It was the first time he looked into her eyes and saw something close to contempt. It filled him with an unfamiliar resentment that shook him.
“I thought we were running together, or are you suddenly tired of me, and you now want to run off somewhere else?” He surprised himself by how much venom had accompanied that question. For the first time, it occurs to him how thin the line that demarcated Love from Resentment was, how quickly affection could metamorphose into irritation. She stared at him, and he saw the horror that was spreading over her face. He hated himself for inspiring such a reaction.
“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I am so sorry.” It was strange. How did they get here? A few minutes ago, they had been laughing about a scene they'd watched earlier in ‘Sex Education,’ where Eric had called someone a "dirty pig" in his English-Nigerian accent. And now, here they were, having their first real argument since they met two years ago. The happiest two years of his entire life. How did they suddenly get here?
She said nothing for a while and then suddenly got up and said she wanted to leave. This was when he became afraid. It was unlike her to resort to silence. He walked her back to her hostel at Mary Slessor, trailing behind like a child about to be reprimanded. When she walked into the hostel without giving him the usual hug, he felt a staggering sensation of loss. It felt like a rushed ending, a premature goodbye.
On his way back, he stopped at the SUB quadrangle. He sat under the huge mango tree. He needed to collect his emotions, to put back in place the things that were scattered inside him. It was already late evening, and students were milling about, some buying Meshai or Suya from the Hausa vendors, others doing nothing of consequence. A couple was sitting beside him, giggling and laughing about something, the girl’s head gently resting on the shoulder of the guy. The girl’s laugh reminded him of Amarachi even though her gentle cackle sounded nothing like Amarachi's full, forceful laugh. She was never one to restrain her laughter, not even in public. When she laughed, everyone around her knew.
They first met on a cloudless Sunday evening at an open mic show at Freedom Square. Nnamdi hardly ever went for open mic events. He found them boring and the concept weird. The idea of opening up a stage for anyone with ‘talent’ was bound to be a disaster anyway since people were often delusional, convincing themselves they had God-given gifts that were--more often than not--simply non-existent. He’d only been passing by that day, alongside Chidi, heading towards Bello Hostel to meet one of the girls Chidi wanted him to meet when he saw her. A dark, small figure. Her kinky hair held up with a rubber band--Afro-like--a brown guitar strapped across her left shoulder. Someone was adjusting the mic stand in front of her, asking her if it was okay or if she still needed it to be lowered more. There was something arresting about her, something that demanded attention. He stood there and waited. He wanted to witness this stranger’s performance so desperately that he’d told Chidi to go on without him. Later, Chidi would tell him, “No wonder! So na because of woman you no gree commot?”
She didn’t introduce herself, as though she was so assured in her gifts that she didn’t need mere words to validate it. She simply stroked her guitar strings, gently at first and with a slight intensity later on. And then she opened her mouth and sang the first notes. ‘Every night in my dreams. I see you. I feel you.’ Her voice made him think of sparkling water gushing out of spring. Stark, forceful, and yet soothing. The full moon hung above her alongside its companion of stars, commemorating the moment. There was utter silence while she sang, as though the entire audience was under a spell, bound by her effortless grace. What was it Nnamdi had felt then? Awe? Goosebumps? Love? He would never know, never be able to wrap those feelings with words. He only knew that he wanted so badly to be near her, breathe the same air that passed through her nostrils, and feel its warmth move through him.
He walked up to her after she came off stage--to a standing ovation and rapturous applause, and said, “Hi. I am Nnamdi. Your performance was breathtaking. Like literally.” She smiled. It was the first time he noticed the smooth evenness of her teeth, the clean-cut dimple on her left cheek.
“I am glad you liked it. I am Amarachi.” Her warm brown eyes met his and lingered.
They talked for a bit. He told her that he was a 200-level political science student, and she told him she was also in her second year but studying English and Literary Studies. How strange it was that they’d shared this small academic space for over a year and encountered each other until now. He’d never been one given to superstitions, but it suddenly felt like an omen, an otherworldly sign. He was almost certain that the orchestrators of fate had predetermined that they would meet at this exact moment. After a while, she told him she had to leave to prepare for the G.S. seminar presentation she had the next day. Before she left, she asked if he wanted to exchange contacts, and he felt stupid. He felt bad for not asking her first, and then he felt grateful that she’d asked. It meant she must have found him interesting. He nodded. When he walked home by himself that night, he’d catch himself randomly giggling like an idiot. Was Love this bubbly thing he felt in his groins, this overwhelming happiness?
He added her on WhatsApp immediately after he got to his room. Her profile did not have any pictures on it. He felt slightly disappointed. He had wanted to see her face again, to memorize its features so it could appear in his dreams. He’d hoped she was the kind that regularly updated her status, but there was no update from her throughout that night. Maybe she had forgotten to save his number or was caught up with her seminar work.
Later that night, he had a dream, but she was not in it. Instead, he dreamt a familiar dream. He was his four-year-old self. His parents were arguing, shouting at each other in the parlour. He could hear them from his room, the cream-coloured room he had grown up in, with his childish paintings of Animals pasted on the wall. He was pressing his hands to his ears while singing a song he had once heard in a Disney cartoon.
I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid...
An attempt he hoped will keep out the visceral sounds that reverberated all over the walls of their 3-bedroom bungalow. But the sounds wouldn’t go away until he woke up drenched in his own sweat.
The next day, she posted a picture from the show. A picture of her singing while stroking her guitar, her face resplendent, bathed in the blue and yellow stage lights. He replied to the photo with a heart emoji and the words;
Still thinking of your performance. You absolutely killed it. I am your biggest fan.
A few minutes later, she replied
Hey, Nnamdi. It was so nice to meet you yesterday. Thank you for your kind words.
He reread the first words – Hey Nnamdi – over and over. He liked that she mentioned his name.
Over the next few days, they texted one another randomly, often replying to each other’s status updates until the day he half-expectantly asked her if she wanted them to meet in person. He’d done it impulsively, hoping she would say ‘yes’ but thinking she would most likely say ‘No.’ She hardly knew him, after all.
I would love to.
The words had flickered on his phone screen, and he stared at it in disbelief at first because he had already braced himself for rejection, and then moments later, he was enveloped by a ridiculous joy.
They met again at Lawn Tennis. The sun was beginning to set, and the cool evening breeze ruffled tree branches. He sat at one of the steps beside the barbed wire fence, waiting for her. Various people--mostly students--usually gathered at Lawn Tennis in the evenings for different activities. Some came to read, others played basketball at the adjoining basketball court that was dotted with patches of grass, music students rehearsed their pieces, Campus Christian Fellowship members aggressively walked around the fields blasting in tongues, sending the holy ghost fire to all the many unseen forces that hindered their academic progress.
Nnamdi was wondering why this Vast space that contained a lawn tennis court, basketball court, and even a volleyball court--mostly dilapidated and bushy--was referred to only as “Lawn Tennis” when he saw her wave from a distance. She was standing with a group of people near the basketball court. They were rehearsing a song. A lean, bearded man stood before them, stopping them whenever they sang the wrong note and instructing them to start over. She signalled him to wait. After a while, they prayed and dispersed. She said bye to a few people and then walked over to where he was. She was wearing a matching blue Jean Jacket and trousers, her hair hastily braided all back, a smile widening her face. She was beautiful, but not the unnerving kind, the kind so obsessed with its own prettiness that it shut the rest of the world out. There was a certain warmth to her.
“Hi. Sorry for keeping you waiting. I was in choir Rehearsals, and our MD has this weird policy of not allowing anyone to leave once the rehearsal has started.” She said and then sat beside him, their bodies demarcated by a very thin slice of space.
“It’s fine. I arrived not too long ago. Oh… so you sing in a church choir?”
“Yup. You seem surprised. Wait! It’s because you saw me at the open mic singing a secular song, right? Are you one of those people who think a person who sings in the church can’t sing secular songs as well?” she was looking at him, smiling, her brows comically raised. He would later learn that this was her way of teasing him.
“No oo! I guess I just imagined you as one of these campus celebrities who did only the big shows. I didn’t know you would have time for choir stuff.” He said, teasing back. “And moreover, I am not really a church person, so I don’t mind.”
“You must have a degree in whining people.” She said, and they laughed. It was the first time he noticed her boisterous, energetic laugh.
“So what happened to your faith? Crisis of faith? Or you never had to begin with?”
He usually avoided having this conversation with people. He was used to looking out for the self-righteous judgement lurking in the corner of their eyes. Chidi had once told him dismissively, with that pathetic look people usually reserved for hopeless derelicts, that it was simply a phase that would pass and that he was only temporarily lost. It'd annoyed him so much that he never spoke to him about it again. He was a person who never asked many questions of the world, a person who accepted things as they were and had no patience for people who couldn’t do the same. But with her, he'd found himself speaking freely, unafraid of judgement. Maybe it was because of the way she looked at him with earnest eyes, eyes that made him feel truly seen.
“I honestly don’t know. I used to actually be in one fellowship like that in the early months of my first year. Back then, I was so full of zeal and the fire of the holy ghost like you people like to say.” He stopped and laughed a nervous laugh, hoping she wasn’t offended by the joke, and then quickly said, “I still go to church when I am at home sometimes because my Mom likes it when I go. It’s just that I woke up one morning and realized that I had been lying to myself for too long. I no longer had Faith. And I didn’t want to continue lying to myself.” He looked at her, and there was no trace of judgement in her eyes, no condescension contorting the sides of her lips. He felt, in that instant, the relieved sensation of bottled things being unscrewed.
They sat there for hours talking, eager to know more about each other’s lives. Their conversations felt so natural, so unforced, as if they were old pals who had recently reunited after a long time apart. She told him about her childhood. She and her elder sister were born in America, but their parents had decided to move back home shortly after the completion of her father’s Ph.D. program. Her father had wanted them to be familiar with their culture and to grow up far away from America's ‘race issues.’ They relocated to Lagos when she was about two years old, so she barely remembered anything about that point in her life. Her father started a successful publishing house in Lagos after they got back. He made sure books were an important part of their lives growing up.
“He used to give my sister and me books to read, and later, he’d ask us questions about them. If we impressed him with our answers, he would buy us gifts or take us sightseeing. He did this till we didn’t need any motivation to read. It became a normal part of our lives.”
Then, her father died a few months before she finished secondary school. His death irrevocably changed them all, her mother even more so. Grief robbed her of something that she had not regained ever since. She became more rigid, obsessively planning Amarachi’s life with a brutal efficiency that didn’t leave room for any form of individual freedom.
“Mom said Dad spent too much time in his head and in his books that he couldn’t see the world for what it really was; evil. She said that he had been too soft on us when he was alive, so she needed to be stricter to prepare us for the real world. My sister was already in the US then for college. She only came back briefly for the funeral and returned as soon as it was over. So I was the only one who bore the brunt of her madness. She would always wake me up around six in the morning and force me to sweep or clean the house. She said she was preparing me for my husband’s house. She didn’t even ask if I wanted to even be in a husband’s house sef. She started taking me with her to different deliverance churches for protection against my Dad’s extended family, who she believed was responsible for his death. We never went back to our village after his funeral. I watched fear take over her life and turn her into someone I couldn’t recognize. I applied to Nsukka to get away from her but not too far away. I still feel this unexplainable need to be close by just in case she needs me.”
She paused and then suddenly said,
“I miss him, sha. I mean my Dad... He is the reason I still go to church in some ways. I like to think it’s my way of honouring his memory. He had such an inspiring faith, the kind that was not insecure about difference. He never believed in forcing his faith on others... He would always say that I had the voice of an angel. He drove me to the rehearsals of our church's children's choir every time he could. And on Sundays, whenever I would get to sing in the Adult church, he would watch me with so much pride.” At this point, her voice became a little shaky, overcome with a sudden strange texture. She was staring into the empty space in front of her. She looked so fragile. He gently placed his left hand on her shoulders and wished that he could shield her from grief’s onslaught. They stayed that way for a while. Perhaps, because he wanted to get her mind off her father, to make her feel less alone, he began to tell her about his lonely childhood, how he’d been an only child who didn’t have many friends because his parents had been too preoccupied with protecting him, shielding him from the world that they never let him out to play with the other children. He told her about their endless fights, how it hovered over him like a spiritual presence, suffocating him.
“The worst part is that they keep convincing themselves that the reason they are still together is because of me. And they never even ask me what I want. How could I possibly want them to be miserable for my own sake, especially since their misery affects my life? It’s almost as if they can’t make peace with the fact that they are bad for each other, so they keep making up stupid excuses for being together. It’s like being addicted to drugs.” He said this with a certain feigned aloofness, trying not to appear weak. He was yet to learn that a stubborn refusal to acknowledge pain doesn’t make it go away. She looked at him with fixed, incisive eyes as though not entirely convinced by his performance. She placed her hand on his.
“Well! Looks like we both came to Nsukka because we were running from our lives.”
He loved that she said ‘we.’ It meant he wasn’t the only one feeling the things he was feeling. We implied something, something that included them both. Together. It was at this moment he became certain that he loved her. It had to be Love, this restless winged thing that has finally found a place to perch, this concrete, tangible contentment that he could almost taste.
They quickly became good friends. They would meet up in the evenings after classes. It surprised him how loud his laughter could be when he was with her, as if he didn't have any cares or worries in the world. She told him about her dislike for rom-com, especially Indian rom-coms, with their over-dramatic plots and constant dancing and singing, and he told her about his love for music--especially traditional RnB and soul music – even though he could hardly sing to save his own life. She talked about fictional characters as though they were real human beings. She said Ifemelu in Americanah was the person she wanted to be; assured and confident. She told him about the simple but stunning poetry that ran through Adichie’s work, Teju Cole’s magisterial use of language, and Achebe’s timeless wisdom. He listened to her even though he didn’t quite understand her enthusiasm. It surprised him that anyone could love books so much, especially since he struggled to finish the torturous textbooks he had to read for his exams. On some days, he would come and watch her rehearse at Lawn Tennis. She played the guitar well, her slender fingers picking the cords with ease, but it was her voice that truly moved him. It stirred something in him, an airy, tingling sensation that spread all over his body and made the hair on his skin stand on end. He would come to like her easy confidence, the way she questioned the world and never seemed afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ Once, she told him,
“I don’t know if God exists. I cannot make a theoretical case for his existence, but I very strongly feel that he does. Does that even make any sense?” He liked that her faith was not the kind that didn’t give room for doubt, that masked its insecurities with the rigid cloak of religion. She told him that church did not always make sense, but she found a sense of community in it, which appealed to her.
Then, on a certain evening, after he’d walked her to her hostel and was about to leave reluctantly, she said,
“So when are we finally going to kiss?”
He stood there for a moment, not entirely sure if it was the usual playful flirting. She was staring at him, her face not betraying any distinct emotion, as though taunting him. He brought his head closer to hers and felt her warm breath on his face. He was suddenly unsure what to do, whether to kiss her upper or lower lip first. He felt like a novice, but he wasn’t (He had been kissing girls since he was fifteen). He had imagined this moment since they first met, rehearsed the different likely scenarios in his head, and here it finally was, on a platter, and he was paralyzed. As if she could sense his confusion, she wrapped her arms around his neck and gently pressed her lips to his. She tasted of lemon mint.
That night, he would dream a happy dream, his first happy dream in a while, and wake up feeling a strange peace.
The woman behind Nnamdi had now been joined by another fruit seller who sold sliced, crescent-shaped watermelons. A baby is strapped to her back with a dirty-looking yellow wrapper. Both women were talking about something, their thick Nsukka dialect mangling the words so that Nnamdi made meaning of them seconds after they’d spoken. They seemed to be having a reiteration of the same inconsequential conversation people often had these days—how the price of things was increasing every day in the market, how the President had died and had been replaced with a Sudanese doppelganger because they wanted to hold on to power, how young graduates could no longer find jobs. He wished they would shut up and stop stating what was already obvious.
They reminded him of a future he was not yet ready to confront. The baby turns and looks at Nnamdi. Something like calcified mucus is stuck on the ridge of his nose, his hair filled with sand and other things Nnamdi dared not inspect. He is irritated by his mother’s disregard for basic hygiene. Poverty was not an excuse for shabbiness, for goodness sake. He quickly brings out his phone from his Jeans pocket and taps the screen twice, trying to distract himself. It’s ten minutes to five. He taps on the WhatsApp icon and checks for her status updates. Still nothing. She had not updated it for over two weeks since their last argument. He rereads their most recent chat.
Nnamdi: What’s up? Can we meet up?
Amarachi: Left for Lagos yesterday.
Nnamdi: Oh! Okay. How was the trip?
Nnamdi: oh, okay.
The chat felt alien like two strangers trying to discover a shared interest upon which they could establish a conversation. Before, she would have filled Nnamdi in on her journey, telling him about the guy that sat next to her on the bus who tried toasting her--which would have made Nnamdi say, “You didn’t tell him you had a fine, capable man already?”--or the policemen who stopped buses on the road and went on to search the young men donning the latest Dior or Gucci or Balenciaga, hoping to find something incriminating they could use to blackmail and extort money from them. They’d never lacked anything to say. Even the most mundane things could make for them the most interesting subjects. They’d even once playfully argued over whose fart smelled worse. This new silence frightened him and filled him with exhausting anxiety, a terrifying sense that he’d let something precious slip from his hands.
Sometimes, his mind spewed random memories of her, editing them on its own accord as though preparing a highlight reel of their best moments. A tribute to an end. His mind is now replaying the scene of their first sex. They were in his room, lying side by side on his medium-sized bed. They were watching something on his laptop when suddenly they both exchanged a knowing glance – a glance that said, “Now is the moment.” Soon, he was on top, sliding in and out of her, their breathing hushed and unstable until he felt himself shiver and collapse next to her. She turned and looked at him, shaking her head left and right in quick succession--expressing disapproval or disappointment or both in playful protest--and said, “No way! I haven’t come yet. It’s not only you that will come.” She grabbed two of his fingers and put them inside herself, and minutes later, she let out an exquisite moan. The thought makes him nostalgic and hard. It was the scene he often thought of on the nights he’d touch himself.
He exits the chat and checks for new messages. He reads a text from Chidi;
How far Guy? You never wan come back? May woman not kill you. Anyway, I don’t miss you sha just so you know. Just that your mom keeps asking of you as if she wants me to reveal the real reason why you are still in Nsukka. Should I tell her that it’s because of woman?
He smiles at this. He suddenly missed Chidi. Chidi had a way of making you feel that your worries were not so bad, that it was you who took yourself too seriously. He was funny even though Nnamdi sometimes suspected that his excessive humour was a facade, a way of convincing himself and everyone else that he didn’t care much for anything so the world wouldn’t judge him too harshly when he failed at something. During exams, Chidi would always joke about how the exam questions sounded like Arabic to him, and it would be a miracle if he passed since he didn’t bother to read. He would say this with a jovial, matter-of-fact tone, but Nnamdi would often catch him in Night classes, seriously concentrating on the book in front of him, and he almost always passed his exams. The only time Nnamdi could remember him failing a course was in their first year, an introduction to sociology course that was handled by a stern-looking Reverend sister. For days, he had looked bereft and shaken, and Nnamdi was almost tempted to mockingly ask him, “But I thought you didn’t care?”
Their friendship lacked depth, and sometimes he wondered if they would be friends at all if they somehow didn’t live close to each other in Asaba and attended the same church. An artificial air always hung on their conversations. They talked about the things they were supposed to talk about--football, girls, the latest music--while neatly sidestepping any vulnerable detail about their lives. They hardly had anything in common. Chidi was popular in school, attending every departmental night he could and dating most of the cool girls. Nnamdi, on the other hand, was reserved, hated drawing unnecessary attention to himself, and even though he was quite popular in their department, his popularity was mostly derivative. He was only popular because he knew Chidi. Chidi often dragged him to the few campus parties and events he managed to attend, and while he often hated most of them, he was also grateful to him because it at least gave him a semblance of social life. It’d also been him who forced Nnamdi to come along and meet some ‘fine babes’ on the evening he had met Amarachi.
He wished now that Chidi was still around so he could distract him and tell him that he was being a pathetic lover boy. He would drag him to Fayrouz's stand, where they would grab some bottles of cold beer, and at least for a moment, he could forget this dizzying confusion he was feeling. Chidi would tell him to forget Amarachi, that he would find far hotter babes in his usual flippant way, which would have normally annoyed Nnamdi, but he would be too drunk to take it personally.
He replies to the text;
Lol! Fool! Instead of you to just say you are missing me and stop forming macho man. Anyway, I will be back soon.
Soon. He had been saying the same thing for over a month. He had nothing else to do on campus. All his friends had travelled home, Amarachi too. He had run out of cash and foodstuff, and yet he kept saying ‘soon.'
Nnamdi’s back felt a little stiff. He’d been sitting for too long. He stands, raising both hands to the sky while simultaneously bending himself towards his right side, stretching. A yawn escapes him. He begins to walk towards the tree-flanked wide road where there is a shuttle park. At Bello hostel, he perceives the familiar, pungent smell from the nearby gutters. In front of the hostel was a huge pile of garbage which the wind occasionally scattered about. He wonders why the school management couldn’t seem to dispose of the various garbage dumps that were now a regular sight on campus, even near administrative buildings. But then, there were also many things they couldn’t seem to get done.
There were so many abandoned building projects, including the University Stadium, which had remained stubbornly incomplete for so long, way before Nnamdi gained admission, and even more so now that he was about to graduate. There was the boys' hostel wallowing in a terrible state of disrepair with its leaking roofs and sickening smell and the reptile-infested bush that surrounded it, which often made Nnamdi grateful that he could afford not to live there. There were overpopulated classrooms that became excessively hot and stuffy whenever there was no electricity. It suddenly occurs to him how unremarkable the university campus would be without its colourful trees and flowers and its convoluting green hills, which gave it a serene air. It saddens him that some university staff were now felling most of the trees and selling their trunks to the locals who used them as firewood.
At Marlima, he sat on the elevated steps that led to the entrance of the fancy complex that contained the University Pharmaceutical store and a Restaurant. The day now wore a dull, pinkish look. There are two people--a boy and a girl--at the ATM behind. Normally, there would be a long queue of students making withdrawals. He checks his phone. It was almost 7. If Amarachi were here, they would sit and comment on whoever passed, imagining their lives. This one looks as if her boyfriend just broke up with her. This one is definitely a G-boy, but he is still upcoming sha. Awwn! This guy looks like someone that will be a good boyfriend oo... Look at his calm, sensitive face. So it’s me that does not have a calm, sensitive face abi?
They would laugh, and he would stop midway through his own laughter to listen to the rhythm of hers. On certain days, they laughed so hard that he worried the people they were gossiping about would hear. She never seemed to care that people would hear. He tries to imagine what she could be doing at the moment. She’d told him that her mother had been a handful the last time she travelled home. They had a huge fight because Amarachi refused to accept a marriage proposal from a rich, young businessman named IK. Her mother was scandalized. IK had inherited a successful chain of Fast Food eateries scattered all over the country. He was dripping in money. He was young and handsome, and he was from her mother’s hometown, Amechi Awkunanaw, in Enugu. Both their mothers had attended the same Awkunanaw girls' secondary school. She said Amarachi was ‘insane’ for turning down a well-trained wealthy man who would provide all her needs. Didn’t she know that most women would throw themselves at IK, that her mates were already getting married?
“I hate her most times. Sometimes I wish she was the one who died and my father was still here. And then I feel so terrible for being the kind of person who could wish that.” She’d told him.
He wonders now if she was reconsidering her decision and if perhaps she would give IK a chance. It seemed unlikely, ridiculous even. It was not like Amarachi to do what she had set her mind against. He sometimes hated himself for being so pathetically ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop his mind from wandering, from enforcing her on him. What if she finds someone better overseas? What if he never sees her again?
You can’t always run from life. Life would catch up either way. Those words had haunted him since she said them. Mostly because he suspected that she was right. He had been running like a spineless coward for too long, and now he felt that depressing exhaustion that was the consequence of running aimlessly with no clear destination in mind. He couldn’t afford to continue like this. He had to act, to at least try. He holds the small mic icon on their chat and begins to record a voice note.
“Hey Love.” He says and then stops. His voice sounded weird to him, and he wasn’t sure where they stood; if they were still lovers. He deletes it and starts typing instead. Writing would give him the time he needed to stop and reflect.
Hi Amarachi. You are right. I can’t always run. It’s the only solution I ever had for anything. It seemed easier than confrontation. But it’s also tiring. So damn tiring. I now feel certain I do not have the strength to do it anymore. When I first met you, It was the first time I ever felt that I could trap happiness in the palm of my hands. Some days I woke up and questioned if it was all real. It was too good. You were too good for me. I waited to see if something would happen, if you would discover how unremarkable I am, and then leave. You didn’t, and I slowly started to build my world around you. When you told me of your plans to leave, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that my life was about to crumble. I was afraid… The same way I am afraid of going home, of leaving behind this life I have known for the past four years, of facing the uncertainty that comes with an unpredictable future. But I can’t continue to let fear rob me of the rest of my life, of you. I want to try to make us work because I love you, because I am terrified to imagine life without you. I am sorry it took me this long to say anything sensible. I wasn’t always sure what to say. I am not even sure If I am saying the right things now...
He didn’t know what else to write. He doesn’t reread what he'd written because he knows it would sound too dramatic. The person he used to be would have laughed at the person that had written those words. Before now, he would cringe whenever he watched Romantic movies; he found them unrealistic. But there was a certain universal truth in those films. Love really did change people. He thinks of the line he had read in a book Amarachi once gave him.
‘How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled.’
He couldn’t remember the title of the book, but he could remember the book’s awkward cover, the image of a naked, old white man with pale skin slightly bent over a sink. The book had been mostly boring, but that line had stayed with him. He had found it moving and poetic, but now he understood it on a deeper level. Now, he could truly relate. He taps send and turns his mobile data off. He wanted to give himself time before checking for any reply; if indeed there would be any reply.
He plugs in his earpiece and plays a song from his Frank Sinatra playlist.
I tell you, I can’t deny it
I thought of quitting, baby
But my heart just ain’t gonna buy it…
What was it about Sinatra’s dreamy baritone that always soothed him and filled him with a certain equanimity? He is nodding his head, watching the world around him slowly drift by, in total sync with the rhythm of the music, when all of a sudden, the music stops, and his phone begins to vibrate. His heart skips for a while. Could she have read it already and was now calling to tell him what she thought? He checked, but it wasn’t her. It’s his mother. He had never felt so dampened by his mother’s call. He slides across his screen. Her voice sounded frantic, haggard. She is talking too fast.
“Mummy! Slow down. I can’t hear you.”
She seemed incapable of slowing down. It was as if the words were too hot, and her mouth wanted to push them out as quickly as possible. He tries catching her scrambling words, piecing them together to form something coherent, like gathering scattered beads and attempting to string them back to wholeness.
Your father. Heart attack. Collapsed. In the hospital.
These words dance around in his head for a while until he is able to make meaning out of them. The first thing he feels is a puzzling surprise. Heart attack? It seemed strange that his father could have a heart attack. Heart attack was something that happened to other people and definitely not to stubborn, difficult men like his father, who, up until now, he had considered an interminable part of his life. And then, he feels something close to horror. He should be altered by what he had just heard. He should be sounding different, as harried as his mother. He should not be this calm. He tries remembering a time when he liked his father and when they had anything close to a normal relationship. He wanted to make himself feel something, anything.
He remembers one time in secondary school when a teacher had flogged him so hard that his fingers bled. His father had seen the injury when he got home, anger reddening the whites of his eyes. The next day he drove Nnamdi to school and grabbed the teacher by the collar.
“Nobody touches my son.” He shouted at the teacher, who suddenly looked frail and crumpled next to his father’s towering build. “Do you hear me? I repeat, Nobody.”
My son. Mine… The words he had once heard in the church would come clearly to him at that moment.
Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.
This was long before Nnamdi would come to realize that his father was a man for whom love would always be synonymous with ownership. Long before their countless arguments, when he would try to assert his dreams and insecurities on Nnamdi. Long before Nnamdi would threaten to call the police the next time, he laid his filthy hands on his mother, which made his father stare at him with wounded eyes as though he couldn’t believe he had not chosen his side.
That day, however, he had simply been a proud son witnessing a father's glorious and defending rage.
“Nna m! Can you hear me? I said your father...”
“Yes, mummy. I have heard. I’ll be back first thing tomorrow.”
The night was cool like it usually was on the university campus, and the trees swayed to the wind’s tune. Night creatures held meetings. Nnamdi is walking on the lonely path that leads to his apartment. The sleeping bungalows looked like dwarfs next to the large compound bordered by red and purple hibiscuses known as the Presidential lodge, reserved for visiting dignitaries; with its collection of identical duplexes, a security building and a swimming pool that was always emptied of water. Everything was the same, still in place. His world was collapsing, and yet everything on the outside remained unchanged. He checks his WhatsApp. The read receipts had ticked blue. She had read his message, but there was no reply.
He enters Alvin Loving and begins to walk briskly to his BQ at the end of the narrow, bushy street. He unlocks the door and steps in. He turns on the light. For a while, he surveys the small room. A blue plastic chair stacked with unwashed clothes. Books scattered on a wooden table. An unmade bed. He lies down on the bed, facing the glowing white bulb and the whirring fan. For the first time in a long time, he wished he was a person who could still pray, who unquestioningly believed in the power of prayers to bring about calmness, even if for a fleeting moment. But he wasn’t that person anymore. He begins to cry.