Fiction

Gone with the Night: A Short Story by Isaac Attah Ogezi

Dearest Chinyere,

You must forgive my belated reply to your last email. I believe you know how things work in our beloved country, don’t you? Please don’t tell me that your four-year sojourn in the US has made you forget the quagmire which our fatherland wallows in. It’s always a tug of war to reply your mails online, what with the endless queue at the cyber café! This is not to mention the two taxi drops I have to take to get to the place. I understand that in the US over there, almost every house is linked to the Internet and one doesn’t have to go to any cyber café to check or send mails. How I envy you! Only God will help our country. Anyway, I trust you’ve forgiven me.

Thanks for sending me the pictures of your Mr. Right as email attachments. When I saw them, I couldn’t restrain myself from celebrating aloud at the cyber café.  I guess my neighbours who stopped momentarily to look at me must be wondering what had got into this girl. You don’t have to blame me. I was simply beside myself with joy. If I couldn’t do it, my friend has done it for me. She’s demystified the white man lover for me! Before I give my candid advice to your many questions, permit me to ask you one or two questions too. Ssshh! Now let me do the asking. How do they taste, Chichi? I mean how does it feel like to sleep with a white man? I understand they are so weak that their women prefer our men! Not that I blame them, the poor dears! Our men here are so rough and ungentlemanly to the extent that they want to do it sotay dem go touch bone! You laugh. Life is so ironic that even in the face of the greatest tragedy, somehow we laugh. I believe that in the drama of life, comic relief cannot be done without.

It is sad to inform you that I‘m no longer with Andy. The only time I can remember to be this sad was when the list eventually came out four years ago and I couldn’t make it. I’m recalling this chapter of my life just to let you know how much I miss you here. Until the list came and put a knife in-between what held us together, we were like Siamese twins that some envious neighbours were wondering if we were not lesbians! How evil are the thoughts of men! But we never gave them any serious thought.
The secret behind our long-lasting friendship is the common history we share. Went to the same secondary school together, proceeded to the same School of Nursing together, studied the same course, graduated the same year, and what’s more, we were employed at the same time by the Federal Medical Centre, Udi. The only thing we haven’t done together was to share the same boyfriend! I think we were smarter than that otherwise what would have become of our friendship? Haven’t we heard strange tales how mothers were pitted against their daughters because of that? What about fathers? The day a man condescends to befriend his son’s girlfriend, he’s asking the son to assume the role of the father. Tufia kwa!

I cannot believe that four whole years has just gone past since we parted. Oh, how time flies! No wonder a writer once said that as the day breaks daily, so do our mortal lives grind gradually to our graves. You must forgive my romance with morbid topics. I cannot help thinking of death since my relationship with Andy hit the rocks and we fell apart. At one point, I contemplated slicing a rib in my vein and then dipping myself slowly into hot, salt water in the bath! I wanted to end it all in the grand old style as in the movies or in a James Hadley Chase thriller.

Yes, it was just like yesterday when the Medical Director, Consultant Pathologist Amos Waya, called all the nurses to his office to break the news that was to change the lives of only a lucky few like you. It was the golden opportunity we were all dreaming of. The quickest Green Card to live and work in America as nurses. They were coming, yes, they were coming, a US Health Agency, to screen us nurses interested in working in the US. And there we were, waiting with bated breaths.

That night, I was at your one-bedroom apartment to dream dreams. We outlined our plans for the future and how we would work in several hospitals in a day when we got there in order to send dollars to our poor parents and relations at home. We would build mansions in our villages, acquire shares in major companies in our country and so on and so forth. It’s amazing how dreams can keep one going. It’s the life-wire of  existence. In your own case, going to the US would mean more to you than our mere dreams. You needed it as a rehabilitation home to recuperate from the injuries inflicted on you by love. For who would have believed that Tayo of all people would dare do what  he did to you? Imagine after all those sacrifices from you! Indeed some men can be so shameless. A friend of mine told me the other day that he is no longer together with her. What I failed to tell that friend was that it was nemesis that had at last caught up with him. Life will never allow you to eat your cake and have it. No, that would be injustice. Today, he may be regretting his action. With your money, you can buy ten of his kind any day in any city of our country! Men? No, my sister, I’ve long ceased to believe in any of them. I mean it. I doubt if I was created from any man’s crooked rib. They cannot be the helpmeets God meant in the Bible. Now, before you accuse me of blasphemy, let me explain. You see, what we misconstrue as love is nothing but the ageless war of the sexes, to dominate the other, to oppress the will of the other, to outwit and what have you. Love is a battle between two unequal parties with the woman from time immemorial playing the role of the underdog. Smart women who have understood this secret have given up on man-woman love and are now full-fledged lesbians!

Despite everything, you have my unreserved admiration. Your ability to make a comeback on love after all that you had passed through in the hands of that scum still amazes me. How did you do it, Chichi? Or is it the age-long triumph of the human spirit against all odds? I can still remember vividly the day you came back from Abuja looking so distraught. The journey that was to be a soul-lifting one for you turned out to be a horrible nightmare. How I wept along with you when you finally pulled yourself together and narrated your ordeal in the hands of that devil incarnate!

Tayo was a young man who was lucky to receive the blessing of your love much against my advice. I never failed to table my reservations against your picking on him.  One, he was about four years younger than you. I kept reminding you that we were in Nigeria and not in America where anything could go in the name of love, but alas, Cupid had blinded you to that fact. Two, he was from another tribe, Yoruba, while you were Igbo. Lastly and most importantly, I pointed out that he was still an undergraduate, in fact, in his first year at the university and not a working-class guy. But I was in for another shocker when you declared to me two months after your affair with him that the two of you were engaged to be married! Wonder of wonders! I kept my cool. What I didn’t tell you as a friend  was that you were too naïve to fall for that kind of cheap  bait of men, after the word ‘marriage’, there you were ready to spend the last kobo in your bank account for that smooth-talking trickster. And how did he repay you?  Didn’t he send his much younger woman to pull the clothes off your body?

He was doing his National Youth Service when you went to visit him. The swine was not even ashamed to show you the wedding invitation cards of his forthcoming marriage to a Sister-in-the-Lord in his church. He had suddenly become a born-again Christian who must not be of equally yoked with an unbeliever like you. I could imagine the agonized look on your face as you calmly asked him: ‘Is this how you have decided to repay me after all these years, Tayo?’  He kept quiet, looking penitent. ‘Was that your plan all this while to make me a laughing-stock before my fellow girls, eh Tayo?’ In reply, he went down on his knees, all apologetic. The hypocrite! It was then that he remembered that you and him were not compatible – your ‘advanced’ age, different ethnic groups, and his new born-again status. He had forgotten your hard-earned money which saw him through the university and your body that kept him warm in the coldest nights. Anytime he was home on semester or sessional break, he always put up in your place. You not only fed him but gave him the sex of his life. Free sex, Chichi.

Great lady, I admire your guts. Tragedy does either of two things to a man – it either breaks his spirit completely or brings out the best in him. It did the latter to you.  For after absorbing the shock from Tayo, you refused to pass the night in his place and checked into a not-too-cheap hotel at Gwaimpa Estate. The fool had thought all was well. The next day, you were in the pastorage of his church to see the resident pastor with a copy of the wedding invitation card. After the usual exchange of pleasantries and the subtle  prodding into your private life by the man of God, you opened up to him about Brother Tayo in his church,  much to the greatest shock of the priest. When the priest sent for Brother Tayo and he couldn’t deny any of your allegations, the wedding was stopped right away, with three days to the D-day! That was what brought his fiery intended into the scene, screeching like a witch to come and fight you. A much younger girl, she tore the clothes on you but your aim was more than achieved. As if that was not enough, Tayo  said he would see how you would stop the marriage from going on at the court. Yes, the church had expelled him but the court was there to wed him and her, he told you to your face. He even threatened to kill you! That was when you returned, crestfallen, to Udi but his death threats and hate mails never stopped pouring in in torrents. You had wanted to institute a civil action against him at the High Court for breach of promise to marriage which I passionately dissuaded you. It would definitely do more harm to your name than good, what with the negative publicity that would go with it.  Was he worth the trouble? No, you would only scare away more eligible men away from you, I argued. I’m still grateful to you for heeding my advice. Today, you’re better off without Tayo.

A few months after this ugly incident in your life, the much-awaited US Health Agency arrived to screen nurses interested in living and working in America. That changed the menu of our discussions by relegating your disheartening story to the background. We plunged ourselves into our new dreams, body and soul. Besides, we knew the type of people that we were dealing with and had to arm ourselves with the academic wherewithal to pass the various stages of the screening. If we slept around with our lecturers during our school days to pass our exams, these people were different. They were no-nonsense Americans out to fish the best brains among us for their country. Talk about the perennial issue of brain drain that is gradually crippling our national life. For the first time in years, we dusted our lesson notes from our nursing school and burnt the midnight oil like final-year medical students.

How didn’t we celebrate our victory when we scaled through the first stage of the screening? Thanks to our intensive preparations, the aptitude test was a walk-over for us. This gave us the leverage for the next stage which was the oral interview. It was another beehive of intense preparations. We mortgaged our personal lives for the diamond-bright future that lay ahead and anytime we met, we contemplated the likely questions they would ask us. Why do you want to live and work in America?  To trade in hard drugs like cocaine and heroin? What is your take on the September 11 attack in the US? Who is Florence Nightingale? How would you react to the assertion that there are countless churches and mosques in Nigeria yet the level of bribery and corruption is fast on the  increase? What is osmosis and diffusion? et cetera, et cetera.  We racked our brains to guess the likely questions we would be asked and never underrated any questions, as my father would say, no one knows the woman that will give birth to Jesus Christ. It could be the wife the husband least expected. In any case, we were so obsessed with our dreams of going to live in America that we daily pelted questions at each other like hailstones in lieu of greetings. Happily enough, the interview was much simpler than we had anticipated and we came out celebrating in advance our flight to America, the Promised Land of our dreams, the land flowing with milk and honey!

When the list of successful candidates came out, our names were conspicuously there. Suddenly, we became celebrities at the hospital and to neighbours and were treated with kid gloves. We didn’t have to bother ourselves with the requirement of the final stage. We were as good as living in the US. The gaiety of our movements said it all. Yes, we were medically fit to live and work in America. So confident were we that the ultra-modern mobile lab of the Agency would acquit us that we presented ourselves for the general tests.

Alas, what happened next was not what the world would believe would ever happen to a nurse. But there it was, so solid like the stethoscope one would use on a patient’s chest. Termites fed on my head. I guess you must be wondering why I‘m recounting this sad episode of my life.  I believe in the purgative power of tragedies, especially those of yesterdays, to heal the wounds of today. That is what the dramatists call catharsis. It’s only by reliving the past that I can be able to grapple with the tragedies of the present. Andy‘s exit from my life is as painful as the jolt I received when I couldn’t make the final list to the US. If it had stopped at that, that wouldn’t have worried me so much like the questions it raised concerning my health. Why was I not selected? Was anything wrong with me? When their silence was too diplomatic for my liking, I embarked on a quest of self-discovery.

Dearest Chichi, you know the rest of the story. The guinea fowl had pecked on the numbered grains of my life. I was tested positive to the deadly virus. That fact stung me like the acidic tongue of a wicked mother-in-law. A tsunami that overturned my world. I, Clara Nwokocha positive? No, life has never known a worse tragedy. I was simply devastated; I saw my small world crumbling down like the sand-houses we used to build as little children by the riverbank when the rain would come with the wind to destroy. My life was cut down when the dew was still fresh on the morning grass. The question that kept bothering my mind was:  where or from whom could I have contracted this death from? I felt like a prostitute who could not finger the man responsible for the life kicking inside of her.

Could it be at the school? As you would agree with me, we cannot pride ourselves to say that we led a chaste life. Not at all. We really ‘rocked’ life there with careless abandon as if there was no tomorrow. We set the whole town ablaze with our vaginas. It was always from one party to another in town with strange, strange men. While we pretended to be studying on campus, our numerous agents or pimps, if I may use a more crude word, were out in the daytime with our pictures to cajole prospective rich customers into patronizing us. In the night when the deals must have been settled, their posh cars would crawl to the hostels under the cloak of darkness to pick us up. Some were Ministers, Governors, Commissioners, Chairmen, down to even the common bricklayers who could afford our high prices. Indeed, prostitution had a new name when we were still nursing students. Can you still remember the night when you and I were invited to attend to one Alhaji Maikudi in his plush villa?  Not that I think you will ever forget. I find this particular outing more memorable and quixotic because that was the only time we attended to the libido of a single man together on the bed. Even co-wives never had it this exciting. It was like an erotic scene in a pornographic film. What about the highly exclusive parties where we ladies always outnumbered the men? I can imagine you laughing yourself silly at the recollection of those bad, bad days of our life. We were students yet lived better than many working-class ladies. We ate full fried chickens when  our school mates could barely make both ends meet from the lean pocket money their parents were magnanimous enough to give them. Life was indeed in our pockets.

Didn’t we extend our training from school to the real, dog-eat-dog world outside? While our mates were busy roaming the streets with their lifeless certificates, there we were gainfully employed by the federal government. We simply used what we had to get what we wanted, as the expression which has of late gained currency in our socio-political milieu, goes. We were smart enough to understand the language of our times and spoke it very fluently. But why is my case different?  Why is it only me that is saddled with this deadly virus while you’re free like the bird of the air to roam the earth, unfettered? Is there anything called justice in this life?

Now before you accuse me of being envious of you, I want you to know that these are the musings, nay, the outpourings of a soul at the extremity of life who could clutch at any straw to maintain sanity. What’s more, Andy’s rejection has finally severed my last tether on life. I feel dead in the midst of the living. So, you must learn to forgive me if I rant off course a little every now and then.

It’s really amazing how relationships that have lasted for more than four years could hit the rocks without any warning or foreboding in just one day, with, of course, the female partners being the worse for it because in their lives, time is of the essence like perishable goods. I cannot still believe that Andy could just walk out of my life when I needed him most. Where is the love that he so proclaimed for me? Or is it what love is all about to our men? Come to think of it now, what didn’t he do in order to win my love? I remember you had to put in a word for him before I shrugged off my pretence. I did love him from the very first day that he made the overtures to me but I had to be sure by making him pass through several mind-boggling tests. You may call it we women’s wiles, if you like! You know, men have a way of not valuing the love they got on a platter of silver and believe rather erroneously that the more pains they undergo in winning a woman’s  love, the sweeter the conquests! Can anything be more ludicrous? Until he showed his true colours, I had always thought Andy was different from the stereotypical male image in our hearts.

In the heyday of our affairs, he was an embodiment of perfection. So kind, altruistic, caring and passionate for me and this is not to mention his faithfulness. Throughout our affairs, he had never given me cause to suspect that he had another girl besides me. If you know what commitment entails, he was so committed to our  relationship that I’m still shocked out of my wits that he could call it quits after five good years, Chichi. Where have I erred, eh?

On that eventful night, we had driven in his Mercedes Benz to Me and You Guest Inn at the capital. As he drove, I noticed his hands were unsteady on the steering wheel.  After several years with him, I knew these were symptoms of nervousness which always heralded great confessions from him. What was on his mind tonight? I held my breath tremulously. The suspense was choking the life out of me. The dinner we had this night never settled down well in me.

He had begun by telling me so many things about himself which I had never known before:  his family background, life and work. I sat on one of the chairs, enraptured by his enchanting monologue, punctuated occasionally with a question or two from me. Finally, he dropped the bombshell. Would I mind to be his wife and co-traveller in this journey of life? It was my turn to blush coyly as if that was my first time with him. Anyway, you could guess my answer. I was touched by his earnestness and moved to tell him the other side of my life which he had never known. Great revelations beget great revelations. You know that I‘m not the churchwoman type but my favourite quotation from the Bible is: ‘the deep calleth unto the deep’. Unfortunately, that turned out to be my undoing. Dear Chichi, I was naïve enough to tell him that I had been tested positive to the deadly virus before he met me. There was a dead silence after this ear-tingling revelation from me.  His face was expressionless but I knew his mind was working very fast. What would be my fate now? I held my breath like a man under water.  Suddenly, he cast a glance at his Rolex wristwatch, got rather hurriedly to his feet and said it was high time we left for home. The drive back was funereal and we never exchanged a word until I alighted at my place while he drove away into the night without as much as bidding me goodnight. Gone with the night, l mumbled a likely epitaph for our love.

That night he refused to answer my calls for the very first time in our relationship. I tried and tried times without number, all to no avail. His cell phone would ring and ring many times and it’d go off, switched off by him, Chichi! I knew within myself that I had lost him. But where was I wrong, Chinyere? Was I wrong in telling him the true state of  my health? Or was it not expected of me to reveal such sordid truth to him? Was it not out of true love that whenever he wanted to come into me, I’d always insist he use condoms because of his safety? If I was that selfish and vengeful as you know many of our fellow girls are, wouldn’t I have shared it with him and other men instead of dying or suffering alone?

Was I too selfish to ask him to still love me in spite of making such a great confession to him? Would that be asking too much of a man I had loved for more than four years of my life? The simple explanation for his action is that he had never loved me enough to take the risk of marrying and living with a woman living positively. And mind you, that would not be something new under heaven if he had done that. As a nurse, I’ve read that in the Western world and even tiny Third World countries like the Zambia, Gambia and Kenya in Africa, discordant couples are on the increase. They always use condoms except during the women’s ovulation periods, the only safe period to indulge in flesh-to-flesh sex for the purposes of procreation and to hinder the transmission to the other negative partners. And, of course, when the positive women are pregnant, they go on special anti-retroviral drugs and even during breast-feeding for three months’ periods or more. Why was my own case different?

Enough of my heart-rending autobiography. Let’s now talk about you. I guess by now you know my stand as regards your plan to go ahead with the marriage to your Mr. Right. If you insist I must put it down in black and white, I say go ahead and marry your white man, sister! You’ve my blessings. At least over there, they still understand the true meaning of real love. Here in Africa, it’s a strange word imported to us like democracy. Efforts made to transplant it have always proved abortive. A dismal failure, wouldn’t you say? That’s why our so-called love cannot withstand the vagaries of life such as objections from family relations, harsh economy, barrenness, you name them. Go ahead  and marry your white man with the colour of pork! You laugh. In my own case, here I sit in the coldest corner of the world, chewing the cud of regret. Those who are living positively with the virus like myself are daily being discriminated against like lepers in Biblical times. We suffer worse fate than the osu in our culture. And as if all these are not  enough, we’re condemned to a life of swallowing drugs like pebbles for ever. The fact that until a new discovery in science puts an end to this pandemic or if Christ comes as the Christians believe, we’ll be living the lives of invalids till thy  Kingdom come, makes one want to end it all by committing suicide.

Take my honest advice, my sister, and marry your white man and enjoy your life over there cool. You do deserve it because you’ve passed through so many ordeals in the hands of our selfish men and sexist society. Our world has no right to judge you harshly because it is equally guilty.

I’m afraid I cannot go further than this. I’m feeling rather drowsy because of the anti-malarial drugs I’ve taken in the morning.  The anti-retroviral drugs can only prolong the life of a victim but can never prevent the attack of opportunistic diseases that will assail the fragile body every now and then.

Always remember me in your prayers. Please give my warm regards to your Mr. Right. Erm … what’s that his strange name again? Dwight,  right? What a name! Anyway, give my love to him. I wish the two of you all the best in life as he walks down the aisle with you. It’s goodbye for now. Cheers.

Ever yours,

Clara

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