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Adédoyin Àjàyí | Nneka

You can predict how this will end.

You will call her. She will pick up, even though it’s past midnight. 12:18 am, to be exact. She will take her time putting the phone to her ear. She’ll curse you for calling at that time. You won’t bother asking how she knows it’s you – because you both know you’re the only lovesick idiot who calls her at that time. In her croaky voice, she’ll ask you what you want again. Then you’ll tell her to stop forming for you. And she’ll laugh and call you an idiot. By now, her voice will be much clearer, the hoarseness brought on by sleep gradually falling away. When you say you just wanted to hear her voice, she’ll hiss and tell you to stop wasting her time. Then you’ll sing Banky W’s “Made for You” to her. If you can call it singing. It sounds like a four-year-old scraping a stone on a steel plate in your kitchen.

You both know your voice is horrible. You won’t stop, because you know she’s smiling at the other end of the phone. She won’t tell you to stop too, because you’re the only guy who sings to her. Then she’ll laugh again, call you an ewu, curse you again, and ask how your day went. You’ll tell her how Fisayo, your colleague at work, told you about how he fucked the new receptionist. She’ll tell you not to try any iranu with any of the ashawos that populate your office, and especially not Sandra, who lives just opposite you, and always comes knocking on your door to borrow matches, or salt, or sometimes both, wearing a tight blouse that showed her pendulous breasts that are three times the size of your head. You’ll reply and tell her you won’t because you love only her. She’ll make a sound that sounds like she’s getting angry, curse your mother and ask you to say it louder. You both know you can’t because you have a girl right next to you, asleep. You’ll turn to stare at the girl, look away, run your hand over your forehead and keep mute. Then she’ll curse you yet again, curse your mother once more, and hang up on you.

This is what your life was reduced to. You’d become a sorry okunrin ti o ni iwulo who called girls at crazy hours, even if they didn’t want to hear his voice. It wasn’t just any girl. You were hooked since the day you met Nneka at Wale and Sade’s wedding. You were Wale’s best man. She was a friend of Sade, one of her bridesmaids. You didn’t notice anything striking about her until you had to snap pictures together. You faced each other, your hands on her waist while you looked into each other’s eyes. Her gaze didn’t flinch, nor did it waver. Her lashes curved expertly, opening up large, brown pools of unadulterated honey. You snapped lots of photos with her with the sun beating down on you both. Tall, confident, and holding a stylish walking stick, you looked regal in your cream-coloured agbada. Its voluminous folds soaked up the sun’s rays, the price you paid for your majestic look. At the reception, she glided across the dance floor with the slickness of a predator on the hunt and with a grace that reminded you of Zinedine Zidane in France ’98. Her hips were full, and they tapered beautifully. Had she leaned to one side, she could have effortlessly balanced a basket of tomatoes on her other side. Those hips winked at you when they swayed to local Nigerian hits and also didn’t look out of place when slow dancing with Wale’s uncle to hits from Major and Marvin Gaye. Nneka moved with an assuredness in her steps, both when she danced and when she walked. She looked like a woman with enough fire in her belly to take on the devil himself.

You had never had an Igbo girlfriend before. Nneka was your type of girl. She liked a glass of mortuary-standard beer just as much as she liked her novels. She loved fiercely, an unblinking kind of love. You were her man, and she wanted you to know that. You were the first Yoruba boyfriend she had. When you asked her the difference between Yoruba and Igbo men, she smiled and said nothing. You liked the way she held your shoulders from behind when you cooked. When you spiced the food, she would complain that you added too much pepper to it. Then she would say that was the difference between Igbo and Yoruba men. You were both born in May, your birthdays only three days apart. You bought matching silver bracelets with dolphin charms for you both. When touts robbed you in the dark, dingy streets of Ojuelegba on your way back from work, and your bracelet was yanked off your wrist, she worried for you and tried getting you to change your work to somewhere safer. You laughed, because you knew nowhere was safe in Lagos. That was why you left your sideburns heavy. It gave you a tough look. She liked your heavy sideburns, but not your beard. She said it made you look rugged. You thought women liked the rugged look. Nneka didn’t. She’d seen enough rugged bodies which had rubbed her the wrong way, both inside and outside.

Abeg o,” she’d say, “me I want a soft guy o. Be soft like tomorrow’s bread.”

With a body like hers, you initially thought she’d be a tireless sex fiend, who rumbled in the jungle for twelve rounds like Ali. She laughed when you told her that.

Ahn ahn, twelve rounds kwa? You wan kill me?” she said, laughing.

She’d nearly given up on love before she met you. She told you how her last boyfriend pushed her into a mirror when he was drunk and showed you where she got stitches. You listened to her. She told you how her mother remarked on the smile she now always seemed to wear. The smile you put on her face. You were exotic species to one another. It was like magic. Hand-in-hand, you both navigated the differences that sprung from your diverse ways of living. When she came over to your apartment, you always wanted her to stay over even if she didn’t bring along a stitch of clothing for the next day. She had ended up adjusting so many of your shirts just so she’d have something to wear at your place.

It didn’t matter to her that her family lived in Ikeja, with so much surrounding land enough for a small game reserve; she loved staying in your cramped apartment in Ojota that was so close to the highway, where the sound of bustling Lagosians was your daily alarm clock. Nneka was beautiful. The red lipstick she liked to wear set off her fair skin. She cut her hair short, Mohican style, because you preferred it that way. Not even the birth mark that was on the inside of her left thigh could diminish her beauty. She was lovely, and she was all yours. She liked listening to Flavour. Whenever you got her upset, you would sing Flavour’s “Oyi” to her. When you saw her trying to hide her smile, you would launch into “Shake” for your orekelewa till she began shaking it at you, yet not allowing you touch. And omo, she knew how to shake it.

Nneka invited you to meet her parents. You were skeptical. Only your closest friends knew of your relationship. She had no such concerns. You were her ugo m, yet you worried like an old housewife. It turned out you had no cause for alarm. Her father kept you laughing with his practical jokes. He was a down-to-earth man. The only hint of his wealth was his wristwatch that could have paid off the entirety of your education, right from primary school to your days in the University of Lagos. When Nneka mentioned how you fell for her after you danced together at Sade’s wedding, her mother insisted on dancing with you in the middle of their living room. She was a woman whose mood reminded you of a stream, always happy and living in the moment; a person who would never hold on to a slight. She shrieked happily while you twirled her around the sitting room, and Nneka winked at you every time her mother’s bosom brushed against you. Her father only laughed and slapped his knees every now and then. You came away that night with a warm glow inside you.

Her father warmed up to you quickly. He was retired, and he liked discussing daily issues with you every time you came by. You laughed when he recounted his days struggling to get into a danfo to you. His face was smooth, free of the strain Lagosians seemed to perpetually wear. It made it hard to imagine him among the teeming numbers of danfo strugglers in Lagos. It didn’t matter that he was as close to the upper crust of the society as you were as far from it. Nor did it matter when his friends came by one evening, discussing a game of cricket between South Africa and Jamaica, over several glasses of brandy. They included you in their discussion, even though the only thing you knew about cricket was from the mini tournament St. Gregory’s held every year with King’s College and Igbobi College, which you never played in because you scratched your head all through in confusion. They all spoke with different accents which you tried deciphering with your knowledge of accents from your mind’s repertoire of Hollywood movies. The class of Nneka’s family ought to have scared you away, warded you off like an evil presence, rather, it comforted you, swaddled you like a baby.

You had long moved out of your family house. However, when you visited your mother one Tuesday evening, carrying a box of clothes for your younger sisters, your mother placed her hands on her chest, her jaw nearly hitting the floor. It didn’t matter that the clothes were hand-me-downs, she didn’t care. Your younger sisters put on a show, turning the sitting room into a runway, bouncing around while you yelled at them every time they blocked your view of the TV. Your mother was delighted you had finally found an omo daadaa, an angel from her darling Jesus. When you bought fake drugs in Idumota for your mother’s osteomyelitis, Nneka simply got her cousin in Kansas to buy the drug and send it over. Your mother instantly elevated Nneka’s angelic status to the same as Jesus himself. Your heart flip-flopped happily in your chest.

You decided to take her home to meet your family. It went horribly wrong. If you had poured petrol on fire, the result couldn’t have been surer. Your mother treated Nneka like she came to steal the wig off her head. She didn’t bother hiding the glare on her face, and made sure to specifically ask you if you wanted to eat anything. She only grunted when Nneka spoke to her. Nneka wasn’t so easily cowed. She spoke flawless Yoruba to your sisters and surprised them even more when she reeled out two or three proverbs. She leaned closer to you every time your mother walked past her while your sisters watched, wide-eyed, waiting for hell to spill into the living room. When she said goodbye to your sisters, your mother had locked herself in her room, and you knew knocking her door would have made Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like child’s play. You didn’t know what to say. You tried to comfort Nneka after. Comfort was the wrong word. She needed no comforting. More like pacifying.

“Your mother treated me like I came to steal her food,” she later said. You both reclined on your bed. She had come straight to your place after work.

You didn’t know what to say.

“Look, my mother can be difficult sometimes-”

She huffed in anger. Her eyes, those sweet pools of honey that drowned you each time she smiled widely at you, slowly congealed into something that resembled gravel. You tried to change your tactic.

“At least, my sisters liked you,” you said.

It wasn’t enough.

“Did you tell her I sent her the drugs?”

Later, after Nneka had gone, not even during her nightly prayers had your mother’s voice been so loud. The drugs didn’t come from Jesus, she thundered, they were from the devil. He came in the form of a girl with long legs and wide hips which almost broke her furniture. It didn’t matter that your mother was now well. Nneka’s god-like status quickly plummeted to that of a fallen angel. Not even in the cheapest Nollywood movies had you seen Jesus swap his brown, flowing, shoulder-length locks for the black, curved, hooked horns of the devil so fast.

“She knows,” you said bitterly. You looked away. You didn’t want to go there, not yet.

If Nneka was annoyed before, she was furious now. “Why she come do me like that? Ehn?”

She was getting there. You couldn’t look at her. She sensed you were hiding something from her. You could feel her eyes on you. The silence was loud. It was uncomfortable. The inside of your room seemed choking.

Then she dropped the bomb.

“Is it because I’m–I’m?” Her voice cracked.

You gritted your teeth. There. She had said it. She had gone down that road that you so reviled. You looked up to see her eyes boring holes in you. A sour look was on her face, as if she had just drank red wine with your garri Ijebu.

You remembered your mother’s forced chuckles and her patented hmm-hmms whenever Emeka came home during your days at St. Gregory’s. It didn’t matter to her that bullies oppressed you throughout your nightmarish first three years in St. Gregory’s, and he was the friend who warded them off. When you were much younger, and you and your sisters played with the children of a particular neighbour, the smile on her face usually vanished in a manner that would do the producers of Fast and Furious proud. You also recalled how, with the speed of a bullet, she swapped the church you all attended for another one because according to her, there was “something” about the new pastor. Only with Nneka had you realised the direction of your mother’s eccentric behaviour over the years, the horror hitting you in the face like a stench.

Those strained smiles, quick exits, and head shakes you couldn’t comprehend all those years were not accidental. You saw the apparent randomness of her actions for what it was, nothingness based on petty prejudice. But now, it affected you, and there would be hell to pay if she stood in the way of your chance at happiness.

You had no answer to Nneka’s question. She wanted to leave. You begged her to stay. That only made her angrier. She pushed you away and got up. She was wearing just the purple lace panties you bought her for Christmas. She hastily strapped on her bra while she screamed curses on your mother, while you tried to calm her down. You watched her large buttocks furiously jiggle from side to side as she struggled into her skirt. She stormed out of your room.

That changed the dynamic of your relationship with Nneka. Your mother’s intolerance buffeted your love-boat till it drifted out into stormy seas. You always believed your love with Nneka would last. She had more faith in your bond than you. Cross-tribal marriages happened every day. Things have changed, you told your mother. Over her dead body would you marry that girl, she told you.

“Then go and die,” you yelled, “and leave us alone.”

“Deolu, emi?” She said, her hand on her heaving chest.

You walked out on her.

You both never recovered from that day. Your mother’s petty prejudice tired you. When you mentioned it to Fisayo that such things shouldn’t exist anymore in twenty-first century Nigeria, he laughed at you and shook his head at your simplistic thinking. Nneka wouldn’t receive your calls anymore. No matter what you did. You even bought her flowers. Only later did you remember that Nigerian girls didn’t care much for them. They didn’t ooh and ahh the way girls in movies did.

You had two choices – break both you and Nneka’s hearts, or push your mother out of the picture permanently. She called you weak. You had no balls, you were no man. You didn’t think you were the victim. You were simply thrust into an unfortunate position. You exploded. You lost your head. You began seeing other girls. Nneka caught you once. It wasn’t pretty. She beat the girl out of your room with a frying pan, threw it down, crumpled to the ground and sobbed till you wrapped your arms around her. You both didn’t know how it descended into this. You weren’t speaking to your mother anymore. But Nneka still blamed you for being weak. But she didn’t know the whole story. You just couldn’t leave your mother, not when she toiled running three shops in Balogun Market; keeping you and your sisters, clothed, fed, and in school after your father died and his wolf-pack of a family sunk their canines into his wealth. They didn’t stop because his riches filled them; they stopped because there was nothing left to feast on. You simply couldn’t abandon her, not when her osteomyelitis was the result of your stupidity, from being wounded while pleading for your life after you fought agberos on the street yet again.

It was unfortunate that guilt, obligation, and love made for a terrible menage a trois. They swung you in every which direction and messed with your head. There, sat on the ground of your room, you – naked, with only your bedspread tossed around you – and her, in a black crop top and boyfriend jeans you liked so much, you held on to each other while you told her everything. The hurt on her tear-streaked face didn’t go away; rather, a hint of understanding only tinged her look. She would never fully grasp it, nor accept it, but she’d met you somewhere in the middle. But you saw something else that scared you. Resignation. She was downing tools. She couldn’t fight with the looming spectre of your mother, nor did she desire to anymore. If a mirror had been in front of your face, you would have seen the same look etched on your face. You simply hugged each other tighter and touched your foreheads together till the setting sun cast shadows of your window across your faces. When she walked out of your room that evening, you felt like she had kissed you for the last time. You both didn’t say it. There was nothing to say. You felt numb. You thought the full horror had hit you, but it only hid under your bed and Freddy Kruegered you in your dreams.

When you thought of her with another guy, you bit your lower lip till it almost bled. Would she get him matching bracelets, just like you did for you both? The torment embraced you in the dark. Would she begin plaiting her hair if he didn’t like her Mohican? When you imagined him seeing the birth mark on the inside of her left thigh, you felt like someone made kilishi of your heart – ripped it open, shredded and skewered it over an open fire. Last month, your sister showed you her picture on Facebook. She looked happy. But she wasn’t alone. A guy was with her, his arm clutched around her waist like he never wanted to let her go. You cried. You hadn’t called her since then. Yet you knew she would pick, would never tell you off. At least, not yet. You often logged on Facebook to look at the picture again. Something struck you about it. She kept her Mohawk. It made you smile, even though she would never admit it to you. Interred beneath the gloomy darkness of your pain, a tiny glint of happiness shone through, like a coin radiating the early morning sun.

You’re still not on talking terms with your mother. You’ll never forgive her for ruining your happiness. You realise that prejudice is such crap. You learn that there are no winners. It’s a rigged game that leaves everyone on the canvas. It’s a diseased seed, yielding fruits that sour the mouth.

It’s 12:04 am. When you call Nneka in a few minutes, you’ll remind her of the time she chased that girl out of your room with a frying pan, and you wonder if she’ll laugh about it. Or maybe you’ll ask her if her new guy likes her birth mark. You probably won’t. Thinking of that still hurts too much. Time made everything softer, didn’t it? The murky, sunless waters of time swallowed our wounds in its remedial depths, and washed them up bandaged. Its roaring tides made people recall painful memories with wistful smiles, and in some cases, coughed up embarrassing incidents with laughter. That’s what they say, but you’re still waiting to find out. Maybe you never will. Like your bracelet forever ripped from your wrist, Nneka would remain a dolphin you once swam with, till you both were powerless against the harsh waves that ripped you apart. Maybe that’s what’s left of your relationship with her.

You pick up your phone to call her.

It rings.

She picks.

Ewu, I know it’s you Deolu.”

———–

Image: Alexa via Pixabay (remixed)

Adédoyin Àjàyí
Adédoyin Àjàyí
Adédoyin Àjàyí is a young Nigerian writer. He writes from Lagos, the city that never sleeps. He loves the feeling of taking hold of a reader's mind and taking them to a world of his creation. Nature is the biggest influence on his writing. His work has appeared in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Afrocritik, Livina Press, Nantygreens, Literary Yard, Fiction Niche, Literally Stories, and forthcoming in Maudlin House. When he's not writing, he's reading, daydreaming about being a sniper, or listening to The Weeknd. He self-published his collection of short stories, "Too Short a Tale," last year. He tweets @AjayiAdedoyin14.

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