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Ifeoma Nnewuihe – “A Friend In Time”

The “simple” act of getting out of bed and heading to the bathroom in the morning became a thing worthy of contemplation. Sometimes, she just stood under the shower without scrubbing and hoped that it washed her clean.

It was her parent’s 30th anniversary and the night was nothing but beautiful. The restaurant glowed with warmth and almost everyone Olaedo loved was present. The tinkling of her mother’s laugh called to her and she glanced at her gap-toothed smile. The soft yellow light transformed her father’s cloud of hair and agreeable face into something ethereal. She looked at her boyfriend Eloka, at his dimpled smile and afro and her happiness felt perfect in the way that well-rehearsed performances were perfect. She had spent three years loving him with her actions and words, past arguments and anniversaries. And though she was sure that she loved him, lately she feared that she was convincing herself of it. If she stayed without speaking to him for days, she felt an unnatural longing to be validated by him, by his deep reassuring voice and when she hugged him, his body felt like the promise of a strength he did not have. She looked at her sister, Nneka, bright and all that she was. Her smile, gap-toothed and eager, just like their mother’s and for the first time, she felt a fit of silly jealousy. It seemed like she had been left out of something profound by not having a gap-toothed smile like them. She wondered if the thing that had taken flight and left her starkly empty would never have left if she did.

 

From the corner of her eye, she saw one of the waitresses approaching with a candled cake on the flat of her palms. When she got to their table, she quickly moved Olaedo’s empty drinking glass from the left side of her plate to the front of it and dropped the cake. This action, done with neither care nor malice infuriated Olaedo and she pressed her lips together as if to keep herself from speaking. It frustrated her that she should be so infuriated by this and then it saddened her. Olaedo felt confined in this sadness for she could not share it. The flippancy of it would make her seem crazy, even to the people she loved most and she didn’t want that. If she was in the character of being pedantic, it would have been a different thing altogether. She stood up and excused herself to the bathroom and there, she checked her ovulation calendar on her phone to see if her period was near, hoping PMS was the reason for her sudden moodiness but her period was still two weeks away.

 

She washed her hands with liquid soap and proceeded to dry them with the heat machine. Welcoming her, it sang noisily. She spread her fingers under it and after a few seconds, it went off with what sounded to her like a mocking sigh. She drew her fingers away from the machine and hissed at it. Stubbornly, she placed them back under, widening her fingers so that the wet bits between them would dry. It stopped again and she looked at her still damp fingers and wondered if this machine had always been this way. She wondered if it was this way with other people or if it was only her that suffered its mischief. She challenged it again, widening her fingers till the skin between them stung and threatened to give. Still, it stopped when it wanted. A ball of emotions logged her throat and the tears forming in her eyes were a rude surprise. “Why are you crying?” She quietly asked herself.

 

Her sister appeared at the door of the restroom a few seconds later, her forehead wrinkled in search. As Nneka’s eyes found her standing in front of the mirror, the wrinkles disappeared. Her eyes softened and her lips made way for that gaptoothed smile. Luckily, Olaedo had wiped her eyes and was now washing her hands again. “Madam, are you giving birth?” her sister asked, tapping her shoulder and suddenly, she felt awake. Like every erstwhile emotion she had felt that evening had not been real, or hers or anyone else’s. She thought back on them as they walked back to the table and found the crying, the moodiness, all of it— to be rather ridiculous.

 

…………

 

Eloka had bought the ring two months ago. Still, he could not bring himself to propose. He often imagined her walking down the aisle to him and feared that he was the main character in a drama he had rehearsed for but had now forgotten his lines. And every time he reached for the ring and readied to profess his love the words felt like a laugh should come after them. While getting ready for tonight, he had wrestled between taking the ring box or not. As he put on his cufflinks, the burgundy suede box caught his eye from its place at the edge of the drawer and finally, he put it in the pocket of his coat. He consoled himself that this feeling was normal, necessary even. Who goes into an unknown life without any apprehension except those who do not care or love as they should? He thought.

 

He watched her as the waitress dropped the cake and saw the momentary tightening of her lips. He saw that the action had irked her but he did not know why or if it was worth asking her about. They knew these things about each other, these “little things” that kept them from being truly content but they never spoke about it. They also quarrelled in a civilised manner— never raising their voices or gesticulating with their arms. They said, “what I meant was…” or “I think we should talk about…” and in the beginning, he glowed in his maturity. He prided himself on being the bigger person and in his foresight for choosing her because like him, she was amiable.

 

While she was in the bathroom, her mother turned to him and smiled as if she knew the ring was in his pocket. It reassured him that he had done well to bring it along. Then she turned to Nneka and said, “nnem, go and check for your sister.” He reached for the ring, his heart a wild thing now and as he saw her coming with her sister, he stood up and walked three steps to the middle of the restaurant and knelt, left knee down, right feet firmly planted. Her sister kept walking towards him but she stopped and squinted at him. She seemed confused and disoriented by everything and everyone and after a few seconds, she turned left, walked stiffly out of the restaurant and got into her car.

 

Eloka stayed kneeling. “Binie, binie, everything will be alright,” her father placed his palm on Eloka’s shoulder and urged him to stand. Nneka was frantically dialling her number and their mother was theatrically mute. “Olaedo’s phone is switched off,” Nneka said, her eyes wrought with fear.  “Ngwa ngwa,” her father said, loudly and they hurried outside, leaving the cake there untouched, with the thirty candles forlorn and unlit.

 

…………………

 

It was their routine to run together on Saturday mornings and though they hadn’t run yet, Olaedo felt like a dishrag wrung and spread out to dry in harmattan. Walking here had felt unnecessary, sitting here now, not knowing what to say to Eloka also felt unnecessary. When she got home the night before, she called her family and told them that she was okay, that she just needed time to be alone and would see them on Sunday. Her father wanted them to still go to her apartment, but her mother convinced him that they should go home and let her be. Then, she texted Eloka that she would see him at the stadium tomorrow. Her makeup and clothes felt like a disturbance but she could not bring herself to take them off. She laid down, tired and expecting sleep but it eluded her. For about an hour she refreshed her YouTube and skipped from one video to the next. It seemed to her like she was searching for something she knew did not exist.

 

She stood up and went to the sitting room to watch TV. Maybe staring at the screen would help her sleep, she thought. As she picked up the remote, the comforting buzz of the fan stopped. Stunned, she looked around in the darkness. A tangible sadness crushed her and she wept. The stupidity of crying because NEPA had taken the light was not foreign to her and knowing this did not stop her tears. Instead, she sobbed harder. Her head pulsed with too much emotion. It seemed like her heart had travelled and now resided there and she wondered what she could do to call it home.

 

“Idikwa mma?” He asked her after a few minutes spent not looking at each other.

“Yes,” she replied. She would normally respond in Igbo but she wanted to say as few words as possible. Not out of spite but because of this weariness she could not explain.

“Can we talk about what happened last night?” He asked, reaching for her hands. She let him hold them but she did not squeeze his fingers to reassure him.

“Eloka you know that I love you,” she began but could not say more.

“Are you afraid of getting married? Is that what this is?” He asked and she pulled her fingers from his.

“I- I don’t know, I love you but I really don’t know.” She looked like a child now and he pitied her.

“Did anything happen? You know you can always talk to me about anything.”

“Can I?” she asked quickly like it was an accusation.

“Yes,” he said, unsure.

“I am so tired,” she gasped.

“We don’t have to run today, let’s get smoothies and go to your place. We can sit on the couch and watch Netflix all afternoon.”

“I don’t think it is that kind of tired. I am just tired, like exhausted inside. You know?” But he did not know.

………………………

 

As they were waiting for their smoothies, she said, “I think I should just go home and sleep. I didn’t really sleep last night. Maybe that is what is affecting me.”

“Do you want me to come and stay with you?”

“No, don’t worry, I will be fine.”

“Are you sure,”

“Yes, I am. About last night, I am- I am sorry. I just was not expecting it and I freaked out,”

He compared her words to the look on her face. He saw no remorse there, just indifference and so he said, “Are you? Are you really sorry? Do you know how humiliating that was for me? All you keep saying is that you are tired…” He could hear his raised voice but it seemed like it wasn’t coming out of his mouth. It seemed like he was watching himself act out this role of scorned boyfriend on a bad telenovela and he wanted to say, “guy calm down, it is not that serious,” but he went on.

 

Olaedo was surprised and intrigued by his anger. She wished she had the strength to indulge it because she had never seen this shouting, petulant side of him. Whether real or fake, she envied his passion because he cared enough to step out of character. When he stood up and walked out on her, she felt relief, sadness and that persisting exhaustion. She could not bring herself to follow him outside, so she remained seated and texted him, “I love you.”

 

“Are you okay ma?” one of the workers mopping leaned in and whispered to her and as she turned around, she realised that all the customers were suspiciously focused on their meals and conversations.

 

…………………..

 

Later that evening, her best and oldest friend Oby came by. Oby was a travel blogger and had just gotten back from Kigali that morning. Nneka had told her what happened at the restaurant and she did not know what to think. She called Olaedo immediately but her phone was switched off. She called Eloka and when he said, “I don’t even know if we are together anymore,” alarm bells went off in her head. She knew how earnestly Olaedo tended to and curated their relationship and though she had always mocked her for the way she and Eloka “quarrelled,” she never saw it coming to this. She texted Olaedo on Whatsapp, Instagram and Twitter saying, “I am coming over this evening and you better open the door when I get there.” When Olaedo saw the message, she felt backed into a corner and wished Oby would not come over. She loved Oby and their friendship was a place she could be honest but she was really not in the mood for company. Even Oby’s.

 

At 6;30- something, Oby showed up with KFC bucket chicken and as Olaedo opened the door for her and saw the nylon in her hands, she remembered that she had not eaten anything all day. The smoothies were in her fridge, uneaten and after she came back in the morning, she put her phone on aeroplane mode, kicked off her trainers and fell into a restless, sweaty sleep on the floor of her living room.

 

“Fine girl, how you dey?” Oby said loudly, her bubbly personality a comfort and a threat to Olaedo’s state of mind.

“I dey o,” She replied unenthusiastically.

Oby wrestled with how or whether to bring up what she knew. For weeks now, she noticed that whenever she was telling Olaedo something about travel or blogging, her eyes dimmed and she would say, “hmm,” absentmindedly. She never took offence because she knew that her excitement with travelling could be overwhelming sometimes.

 

“How was Kigali?” Olaedo asked, smiling but failing to get it right.

“Ah let me gist you about my Rwandan boyfrienddd!” She said clapping.

As Olaedo heard boyfriend in that overly excited manner, she felt that breathless urge to cry. She felt immensely sad and it was not because of Eloka exactly. She was scared that she no longer cared about the things that mattered to her. To have given so much to that relationship and suddenly have it not matter to her was a frightening thing. She also realised that she did not care if Oby stayed or left, she really did not feel like seeing her parents tomorrow and hoped for some reason, there would be no work on Monday. The tears came now and she sat and curled herself on the couch.

 

For weeks, she had been feeling this restlessness, this exhaustion and she thought it would pass after a few days. She tried to go to bed earlier than she normally would but when she woke up, it felt like she had not slept at all. The “simple” act of getting out of bed and heading to the bathroom in the morning became a thing worthy of contemplation. Sometimes, she just stood under the shower without scrubbing and hoped that it washed her clean.

 

Oby had never seen her friend so distraught and she did not know what to do. She went into the room to get Olaedo’s wrapper to cover her and on second thought, she laid the bed and opened the windows. Then, she led Olaedo to the bedroom. She took off her socks and running clothes. She brought out her nightshirt and hair bonnet and dressed her. Olaedo laid down and curled in a foetal position and Oby took off her wig and laid down with her. Holding her, they cried together.

 

Olaedo eventually slept and Oby stood up and went into the kitchen. The kitchen was not untidy but she could tell that Olaedo had not cooked anything in days. She opened her fridge and saw the remaining cake from their last hangout three weeks ago. A half-eaten cucumber was in the top compartment and two plates of soup sat frozen and untouched in the freezer compartment. Two cups of smoothies sat in a shallow circle of water on the counter. She quickly put them in the fridge and looked around for what she could do. She washed the cup and plate that was in the sink and glanced the pots on the cooker. As she opened one of them, the smell of spoilt Indomie soured the kitchen. She quickly scooped the mush into a nylon bag and threw it into the bin. She swept the kitchen and walking into the sitting room, she tidied the things that were in disarray.

 

She wondered at all this, at how the roles in their friendship had reversed. She was usually the mess, the one in need of tidying up and Olaedo did so without complaint or condescension. Olaedo always listened and had something comforting to say whenever Oby cried over something, however big or small. When Oby was travelling to Dubai last year, she forgot her passport at home and even though it was a Wednesday, Olaedo left work, went to her house to get it and took a bike to the airport to get it to her in time.

 

Suddenly, she remembered their friend Raimat from uni who had begun shutting them out in final year. She remembered how she and Olaedo had interpreted it as pride— “what is doing her sef? Every time she is carrying face, is she the only one that is suffering in the school?” they had said. She remembered being impatient and frustrated with her one night. They had planned to go out and all dressed up, Oby, Olaedo and the other girls went to Raimat’s room. Seeing her undressed, Oby exploded, “if you don’t want to be friends with us anymore, let us know, ahn ahn. What is this nonsense sef? You should have said you didn’t want to go out instead of wasting our time” and then she hissed and walked out. After that night, she barely spoke to Raimat again.

 

Olaedo was the only one that told her what she had done was unfair and even though she hated hearing it the moment, she knew it too. Still, pride kept her from apologising. On impulse, she googled Raimat. She saw that she had a YouTube channel and her most popular video was “10 Signs Someone You Love Might Be Depressed.” She watched it and though she was not a doctor and could not correctly diagnose Olaedo, some things began to make sense. Her eyes welled up in tears at the end when Raimat said, “In my final year when my depression started, I lost a lot of friendships because my friends didn’t know what was going on with me. I don’t blame them because I did not know either. So if you think your friend is showing most of the signs I have mentioned, please be there for them, share this with their other friends. When we are informed, we know how to be there for our loved ones. If you are the one experiencing these things, I want you to know that you are not alone. I love you and you can always reach out to me via email. As always, there are Helplines in the description below. Please don’t hesitate to use them…”

 

Immediately after, she shared it with Nneka and Eloka. Knowing how Nigerian parents could be about these kinds of things, she wondered if she should share it with Olaedo’s parents or not. A few minutes later, a text from Eloka came in saying, “I see.” Then he replied Olaedo saying, “I love you too.” Oby wiped her eyes and stood up. Armed with information, she walked into the bedroom and tapping Olaedo’s shoulder, she said: “I want us to watch something…”

 

…………

 

On Thursday night, Olaedo and Eloka dined at his apartment. A candle burnt fragrantly in the corner of the room and her favourite doo-wop, “Little Did I Dream” by The Twilighters played softly. After watching Raimat’s video with Oby, she felt something close to relief because she knew that there was a name for this thing, that something could be done about it and best of all, that she was not alone. She knew none of these things would allay her turbulent emotions on the mornings she felt too tired to get out of bed still, it was comforting to know that she did not have to suffer in silence.

 

“I hope this pasta is not too peppery o because…” Eloka said, coming out of the kitchen with a steaming bowl in his hands.

“Don’t worry, I can take the heat,” she said smiling.

As he sat, she thought about how to start, about what to say and her mouth failed her. She held his hands and said, “Can you follow me to the hospital tomorrow? I have an appointment and I don’t want to go alone.”

“Of course.” He paused. “By the way, that night of the dinner, I saw the way you did your face when the waitress dropped the cake. You were so angry.”

“And I don’t know why. God, it made me so mad!”

He laughed and then she laughed and they held on to each other’s hands tightly and she said, “I am so sorry about what I did-”

“I understand, I know you are. I can tell when something is up with you, so don’t feel like you can’t talk to me. I am not promising that I would always know what to say or do, but I will always listen. Always.”

 

Tears rimmed her eyes. She looked at him, at their hands clasped together and she loved him.

 

Photo by Tania Mousinho on Unsplash

4 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Soniareply
May 16, 2020 at 9:35 am

This is so beautiful Ifeoma! I love how relatable Olaedo’s experience is. Sometimes, people dont know what it is they feel until they find people with similar experiences.

The Oyegoke!reply
May 17, 2020 at 9:14 am

Wow! Olaedo is us. I can relate to this and feel every fiber of pain and the helplessness of trying to ‘logicalise’ all that is going on and hating that even that is failing. Mental health is so serious, and yet so swept under the rug. The lethargy, the helplessness, the loneliness and the anger at not being ‘grateful’ enough plus the people that want to help but dunno how. You truly brought this to life and I have a wide gap toothed smile at this. Well done darling!

Maryamreply
May 17, 2020 at 12:06 pm

I am close to tears reading this. I’m glad it turned out well for Olaedo and that she has a great support system. I have had someone tell me point blank that my feelings were not valid, at a point I didn’t understand them myself, so I’m glad for this story of hope. Thank you for writing this.

Eiphieereply
May 17, 2020 at 12:43 pm

Ifeoma you were called to write

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