*We are hopeful this will be the first in a series of short stories exploring love and relationships, of any nature, set in any Nigerian town. To kick it off, and encourage more submissions (!) this piece- on young, frivolous, privileged and unwise love- is set in Abuja, Nigeria. Send in your submissions in the usual way- xx mf*
We are in a bar called Bamboo. I have not, in all the times I have come here, seen any bamboo anywhere at all. But the name seems to raise no one’s eyebrows but mine. It is the first place he has taken me to since I moved here.
We debate everything- music, politics, and the definition of bravery. Tonight we are arguing about Jay Z. I say “Of course he’s a social phenomenon! I once bonded with a 50 year old Russian man on a flight over 99 Problems! Could Ludacris do that?”
He says “Ludacris is a bad example. The man can’t even spell.”
He is wearing blue. So am I. Our knees touch occasionally. He beats his fingers in a restless tattoo against the arms of the chair he is sitting on- it is made of wicker. I wonder if the girl who runs this bar (a girl I know and dislike for the simple reason that I once saw her hold his hand), I wonder if she thinks wicker is a good enough substitute for bamboo and if that is why she has chosen the chair. I continue on in this petty vein until I realise I am becoming the thing I hate and stop myself. I cover my sudden indrawn breath with a laugh at something he has said. He always makes me laugh.
(My friend will later say that the man sitting next to her assumed he was my boyfriend and that every time he and I are together in a group, we ‘zone everyone else out’. I will not answer, instead I will sit there quietly as she says this, driving us home in the sort of deep-dark you can only get in countries that disdain street lights and constant electricity. I will look out of the window anyway, into the living night, and hold those words close to me. They light me up.)
We debate long and loudly, trying from time to time to be polite and bring a girl sitting on the other side of him into the conversation. But this attempt has no real chance of succeeding and we don’t really want it to. We have too many inside jokes and memories that we refer to in half sentences and loaded silences and tilts of the head. (This is one of my favourite things. I tell myself that our secret language means something. That it means everything. That it is impossible for people to laugh this way together, at nothing really, and not mean something. )
We are always laughing together. I tell myself that it is because we make each other ‘crazy happy’. Now, we are sitting poolside at the Hilton, making sly jokes about the bloated expats paddling about like slow-boiling lobsters. We are sipping gin and tonics and excellent Chapmans and sharing a plate of over priced, too-salty French fries. Gesticulating loftily with my ketchup tipped gavel, I say “It’s the only sort of happy two young people in love should ever have. Not quietly happy, that’s for people who found love halfway through their lives, or…in wartime…or when they’re public figures or something- God, look at him. How do you get to be that enormously fat? He is literally a floating tomato.”
“Do you think the plural of Chapman is Chapmen?” he asks.
I often wax lyrical to him about the concept of ‘crazyhappy’. I can be pompous when I think I’ve hit upon one of the world’s truths. I say to him, as we shop for coffee and croissants at Dunes on a Saturday morning, that it’s a sort of happy that ought to be so abundant that it is forced to seep out of your pores for lack of room. How it is so real, so tangible that other people will swear they can almost see it floating in the air around you. He indulges my ‘crazyhappy’ rants, and gently tucks a wisp of my badly-straightened natural hair behind my ear and asks “Should we risk the bacon?”
He seems tense, I think. I feel cheated and unanswered, as if there is something writhing on his tongue he wants to say, that I need him to say.
He does that a lot, keeps things to himself. At first I loved it. I loved poking and prodding and just digging to get to the bottom of him. Then, when (I thought) I had hit bottom, I loved knowing what he was thinking without him having to say anything. It felt like I had won a sort of special pass to the real him, a place where spoken words were unnecessary and vulgar. Then later, when doubt started to creep in, I began to get irritated by his reticence. And by his corollary habit of tossing incendiary comments into a conversation, then slamming the door shut and walking away.
It’s late when he picks me up. It’s a Wednesday, if that means anything. I had been sitting, listening to the rain outside and steadily getting more and more bored, so I summoned him to entertain me. I petulantly say no to every suggestion he makes (“…and definitely NOT Bamboo!”) so we decide to go wine shopping, then suya hunting. We buy two cigarettes off the morose all-seller standing sodden outside the suya spot, with the studied nonchalance of school children. Neither of us have smoked since university, which was also where we met.
I recall standing on a balcony with him, shivering on a sleety November evening, laughing at the way my boyfriend and his girlfriend were not getting on at all inside. He had helped me shield my cigarette from the wind and stayed patiently chatting with me while I smoked slower than him. We’d gone back inside to our significant others and I’d realised I’d been warmer outside in the cold with him that I was curled up on the lap of my earnest boyfriend. I don’t think of this now though, I am too busy studying the way his voice changes when he is speaking to the suya seller and the wine merchant, the way he softens his public-school bought accent and tosses in Nigerianisms like ‘ehen’ and ‘abeg’. He calls them all ‘bros’ and they respond to his charm, making sure we have the juiciest bits of meat and polishing up the wine bottle before handing it over. The windows are down and having won the battle for his iPod, we are listening to Adele as we speed down the highway towards Maitama. I laugh suddenly, so full of the moment, carefree and complete.
We decide to smoke right there in his car, en route to his house and I am too happy to notice the twin furls of our cigarette smoke disappearing into the wet sky.
When pressed, he will say “Nothing.” or “I was just joking.”– he does this when he has started down a path of honesty he later decides is too deep or unnecessary or potentially messy. He does not like mess. He does not like anything too loud or unnecessary or extra. One of our favourite pastimes is to mock excess. He will say “Abuja big girl!” to me, whenever I insist on paying or, worse, when I do so without scrutinising the bill. I will call him “Chief!” when he refuses to park his $100,000 car anywhere but right in front of the club we are going to. We make up imaginary lyrics to N*ggas in Paris, renaming it N*ggas in Lekki, waking up at 2am to send each other lines about going to the best suya spot in town, buying out their entire stock, then giving it to our dogs for supper. “I’m a winner/your night out is my dogs’ dinner”.
I am in a hotel for a couple of days while my flat is being fumigated. He has announced himself to the desk clerk as Chief, and I am a mess of giggles when I say into the phone “yes, I am expecting him. Tell Chief he can come up.”
My driver has a habit of saying “I remain loyal oh” which is his way of making sure I know that, for a healthy tip, he is quite happy to wait outside a club for me till 5am in the morning, then get up at 7am to pick up some croissants from my Aunt’s bakery. Loyalty, here, is quite easily bought. So sometimes, out of the blue, when I am getting too pensive or worried he will chuck me under the chin and say “I remain loyal!”, copying my driver’s accent perfectly, and I will of course, be amused. He does that now when I ask “Do you not think we should talk about this? About what we’re doing?”
I think I make him do more than he is comfortable with- never anything truly bad or harmful, but I like to enjoy as much of life as I can. I thought he did too but recently I have begun to wonder if this attitude is contrary to some new value system he has in place. Some list of acceptable behaviour he feels he must not now derogate from.
He has started to associate alcohol with me- this is not good. He always makes a point of asking me if I am drinking with a superior look in his eye or to say he is not drinking when he is with me. I tried to view this new move as a compliment- he does not trust himself with me when his inhibitions are down. I make him crazy happy and he knows it but he can pretend not to when sober. In vino veritas. But now I am thinking it is really a silent condemnation. You are something I can only have in moderation, he is saying. You are intrinsically a danger to me and to who I am, he is saying. You are an excess, he is saying.
“But it’s ridiculous! Who names a bar Bamboo when there is no bamboo anywhere? There aren’t even any bloody panda statues!”
“Are there vanilla trees at Vanilla?”
“No, but that’s different.”
“How is it different?”
“Okay, at Vanilla, there are white couches at least. That’s a sort of nod to the name, isn’t it?”
“Your face is reaching.”
“Mature. And stop changing my playlist!”
It’s a Sunday and we arguing again. We are driving around Abuja with no real destination. He likes driving. Abuja roads are some of the best in Nigeria- sweeping tarmac runways under grey-blue skies- and here, a man in a Mercedes will never be chastised for speeding. I like seeing the confidence in him as he pushes his engine to the limits, like feeling the artificial rush caused by precision engineering and skill, like cocooning ourselves from the world in this way, avoiding destinations and reality. He doesn’t engage me any further on the Bamboo argument and I feel frustrated; I can tell his reticence is out to play again. Instead, he changes the subject- I am fiddling with his iPhone when he tells me that it’s not that the girl we tried to invite along to our games night was a “bitch” as I’d thought but that she was just being cautious because she probably thought I was his girlfriend and didn’t want to intrude. He says this and looks at me out of the corner of his eye as I turn up the volume on Miguel’s Sure Thing. I do not reply because my insides are soaring and my mouth wants to smile and scream at the same time and it is all I can do not to say “Well, why aren’t I? You love me, I know you do so why are you now officially with her, and not with me?!”
Instead I nod and say calmly “Oh?”
I am proud of how casual and unconcerned I sound. I am good at this, I think. I am too good at this.
“Anyway” he says, switching from Miguel to Drake, “Why is the name of Bamboo such an issue for you? And it’s only you! Everyone else gets it. Let it go. It is what it is…”
I interrupt and play Florence + The Machine’s Cosmic Love, deliberately provoking him with a band he, inexplicably, cannot stand.
“What does that even mean?” I scoff. I feel like he is trying to say something. He is being cryptic. “’It is what it is’ is such a nonsense… as opposed to what? ‘it is what it’s not?’ I hate it when people don’t say what they mean.”
We bicker a bit more, then he calls a truce by suggesting a long lunch at Salamander’s Café. I have the excellent French toast whilst he systematically devours a full English. They are playing Jamiroquai. We both get coffee, but despite the caffeine hit, I soon fall asleep on the couch with my head on his shoulder while he watches the football on the large screen. When I wake up, it is to the feel of him taking deep breaths, so deep that my entire body, now mostly reclining on him, is being shifted up and down. I am confused for a second, not certain I’ve managed to break out of an uncomfortable dream in which I have fallen overboard a cruise ship, and I am bobbing in the water, unseen, gesturing frantically to the people still dancing and laughing on board.
I recall he likes the way my hair smells and realise that is what he is doing, smelling my hair. I sit up, now fully awake, and call him a weirdo. He grins, unrepentant. He has paid while I napped so we leave, holding hands and laughing.
Our bubble of happiness has been shrinking for a while and today it burst. Today he turned down my invitation for a drink (I sent him a text saying “Let’s go to the-place-that-ought-not-to-be-named-Bamboo. And don’t even try to tell me it makes sense or I swear I’ll…!”). It was an invitation I should not be offering but here I am, regressing.
“Can’t babe…. I’ve got to stay home and skype the missus.”
Everything seems to slow down. I feel as if I am standing alone on a slow-moving walkway in an airport, and everyone else is running at full speed, hurtling towards a final boarding call I can’t hear.
He never talks about her to me. Ever. We do not discuss her. Ever. So for him to slide her name in, like a hot knife into butter… it is a sign. He is saying: I’m choosing her, not you. You should know that now. You should start to prepare yourself.
I suppose I’ve always known I would not win. I was never brave enough to really fight for him anyway. Or was it that I was too proud, believing that I shouldn’t have to fight for someone who obviously belonged to me? Or was it that I was too naïve, believing that true love was destined and would always find its way? Or was that I have always been deluded and this special connection I think we have, this crazy happy, doesn’t exist, has never existed?
I lie on my bed, listening to the malignant hum of the air conditioner, and imagine my beliefs stacked up like dominoes, crashing down one by one. There goes the ability to trust my gut; there goes my belief that when I meet the one, I’ll know it; there goes the belief that I’d never covet another woman’s man; there goes, there goes, there goes.
There goes the part of me that had always believed that the reason my love life had disappointed so thoroughly up till now was because I was going to get the perfect happy ending. That somehow, I needed to earn it, that eventually I would be able to turn around and say “well you can see why now, can’t you? That stuff had to happen, just so I could deserve this.”
There goes the part of me that clung to the belief that, as with everything else, some sort of balance had to apply otherwise, my love life had just been shit for nothing. Little pygmy men have smeared their faces with the ashes of my dreams and are now dancing and chanting “SHIT FOR no-THING/ SHIT FOR no-THING”. I feel myself losing my grip on reality, which makes perfect sense to me because, without him, what is my reality? I let myself wallow, dramatically.
My phone beeps and it’s a message from him saying-
“You’re still up for a drink on Friday though, yeah? Boozehound! LOL.”
“Totes, dude! Xx TTYL”
and switch off my phone.
My sister walks into the room. I tell her it’s just some grit stuck behind my contact lenses. “So annoying when that happens!” she says. “I should take them out.” I say, and walk into my bathroom. She doesn’t leave, instead I emerge to find her rifling through my clothes and jewellery, chatting about nothing. I know I need to be alone but I don’t really want to deal with myself so I pretend to be engaged in her story of how her boss had made her fire 5 people by text. “Can you imagine?! And I’m going to have to see Asha and Felix at church on Sunday which will just be an explosion of awkward.”
After a while she wanders out of my room and I take a deep breath. I’m still deciding what I will let out on the exhale when she pops her head back in to say quietly “It’s the fence, you know. The fence that runs around the bar? It’s made of bamboo. Maybe you couldn’t see it, but it’s always been there.”
I stare at her. She gives me a scrupulously blank look, and repeats
“It’s the fence that’s made of bamboo. So the name does make sense. You just couldn’t see it, I guess.”