The Blankness I Wouldn’t Let You See
“Baby, are you ok?”
The question seeps out of his lips earnestly, but the words barely get past your ears, failing to qualify for processing at the back of your large forehead, so he adjusts his blue bowtie and repeats his inquiry, this time with a little more endearment.
“Yetunde honey, you’re good? Talk to me.”
“I am alright, Suyi, or so I like to think,” you reply casually. “I just want to get this over with and move on to the next phase of things.”
“Sweetie, I know, I wish life had a fast-forward button of sorts. We’ll be done soon, and then officially start our life together.” He always made it a point of duty not to use the same pet name in quick succession, love-struck, eager-to-please Suyi.
“I am patient, big guy. I mean, it’s only going to be a few fast-flying hours,” you say breathily, tapping his shoulders lightly.
“I love you, Yeti.”
“I know, Suyi.”
It is all you can do not to condemn his words of affirmation to floating around the church pews. You are in no mood for any sappy exchanges this sunny Saturday morning, and if you had your way, you would request to have the impending wedding conducted by proxy. Your heart is not by any means in that chapel, but the truth is that it is nowhere, really, at least not this moment. You think you have an idea of where it could be, but when have you ever been absolutely sure of what, or who you actually wanted? If Suyi could take one searching look into your eyes, one look not laced with movie-like emotions, he would probably catch a glimpse of the void, the emptiness that has plagued you and of which you have been aware since you saw your mother use a marker on the bedroom wall in memory of the day your father struck her right cheek with the back of his right palm, and dragged her by the hair across two-thirds of the living room, barely two weeks after your sixth birthday.
Your father was seldom ever around, and you never knew if it was because of the rigors of his job as an environmental health officer at the mercy of a regime unsure of its status as either military or civilian, or if the real reason for the low ratio of family time was because he preferred the company of the ladies resident in the riverine area that served as his work station. But your mother held her own; for what it was worth, you never had cause to worry about being on the list of school fees defaulters, and you always had a complete set of textbooks, even if you would lose them before half the term ran its course.
Folake, your elder sister by seven years, had to get bigger bra slips early enough. Boys from senior classes were eager to walk her home after school hours and lurk around during holidays, and you didn’t get it, you just could not grasp that “thing” that made boys give up their snack money for cornrows and a knee-length skirt. You abhorred playing any games that would require “mum and dad” roles, you cringed at the school plays where your classmates had to fit into parts where they would play husband and wife, and when in Primary Five, Dotun offered to buy you chocolate ice cream one long break period, you reveled in splashing the cold brown contents on his white shirt, causing him to walk back dejectedly to his classroom.
Your mother was fed up with replacing broken plates month after month, and she was finding it harder to cope with your muteness during morning devotions, so she shipped you off to St. Agnes’ Memorial High School, where she hoped that you would “learn the ways of the Lord” (and possibly his mother Mary, if any of that stuff was to be believed). Away from the monotonous mantras and sleep-inducing homilies at Mass, you still found yourself wondering what the fuss was about when your peers received letters from the boys at St. Gregory’s, which lay three local government areas away, or why nearly every student bothered to turn out in their most fitting housewear whenever the boys from Immaculate Conception College hit town. Your panties soon started getting stained, and the urges crept in, but you wasted no time in getting that sorted; Catherine had shown you, amidst love bites, that there was a reason bananas were in high demand on visiting days, and that the candles you found littered around the dormitory were not necessarily because the students loved prayer so much.
By the time you gained admission to study Pharmacy in the University of Calabar (a choice influenced by the desire to be as distant from home as possible), you still had not figured out how your emotions flowed, but you were pretty sure of what (and who) you didn’t want. Daniel’s fumbling with your lips one evening behind the lecture theatre made you almost loathe kissing, and when you tried to “get the hang of it.” you had to restrain yourself from strangling Etim for making you fake those moans. Your eyes brightened whenever you watched your roommate Beatrice undress in those second-year days, and her body fragrance got you scribbling a short poem at the last page of one of your notebooks, even though you knew that nothing could spring up from that attraction; it was too early to become gossip fodder for the whole of Block C. But at the same time, you showed no form of enthusiasm when Enajite, the school’s unofficial tomboy, told you how she loved the graceful way you swayed your hips at the school’s basketball court while the boys were preparing for the following year’s NUGA games. You reasoned that if you were going to have anything to do with Enajite, it would be because you wanted her; it would be because you wanted to fiddle with her braids while twirling your tongue around her nipples, and not because she was the most accessible. You had your tastes, and you would not get involved with anyone by default.
All that changed the following session when you found yourself queuing up one afternoon to get boiled yam and egg sauce at the school’s largest canteen. You were way behind, and from the look of things, the yam would definitely finish before it got to your turn, meaning that you would probably have to settle for rice and hours-old stew, or fufu and some tepid Afang soup. Someone in front quickly turned, and your eyes caught hers, in a moment quite brief, but enough for you to take it all in. She had that trending Victoria Beckham weave on, her loose green blouse did little to divert attention from her perky breasts, and her blue jeans were pretty wide at the ankles. She faced the food seller taking her order, mouthed out the “rice and Abak soup with one meat,” then turned to face you again, and smiling to reveal a chipped tooth, said, “What should I tell her to get for you?”
“Same as what you ordered,” you sighed gratefully, your taste buds apparently changing their minds.
There was no gainsaying where you chose to sit. You watched her lips as she blessed her food, choosing not to eat until she had lifted the first spoonful into her mouth, and in a bid to break the ice, she cleared her throat after sipping from her sachet of pure water and in a voice that just fell short of a whisper, she said, “call me Nmesoma.”
The meal-time conversation was enough for you to gather that she was a second-year student of Microbiology, and that she was the only child of a widowed banker. You now lived off campus, so it wasn’t too hard inviting her over; she had never liked the hostels anyway, and had only settled for a bunk space because of her overprotective mother. You both had Mel B as your favourite Spice Girl, neither of you could get enough of the movie “Thelma and Louise,” she liked Britney while you preferred Christina’s vocals, and you both agreed that N’Sync would not last for much longer.
“Nme, don’t you leave me, don’t you dare leave me!”
Those were your words less than a month later, digging your nails into Nmesoma’s hair as she clutched your breasts with her palms, while flicking across your labia majora with her tongue and then digging into your core with it, before slowly kissing the insides of your thighs and slowly bringing her head up to savour the taste of your own vagina on your lips. You soon got lost as she strummed your clitoris with her middle and index fingers, and when you both got busy clearing the lather from each other’s bodies under a slowly-running shower, you could only muster a few words for all that your eyes were saying.
“Nmesoma, go out with me.”
“That wasn’t so hard, was it? I have been waiting for weeks,” she replied.
The next couple of months reeked of bliss. Nmesoma went to class almost everyday from your room, you attended parties together, you both cried when Ellen DeGeneres broke things off with Ann Heche, and whenever Diana King came on the stereo, both of you had no choice but to dance. There were still arguments as to who interpreted their roles better in “Set It Off” between Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith, but at least you both agreed that Ricky Martin had something to hide, All Saints was a trashy girl band, Brenda Fassie was an electrifying performer, and Africans had no business listening to techno.
And then Nmesoma got a boyfriend. You remember the day she broke the news to you, her eyes playing the role of halogen bulbs, and your futile struggle to mask the anger.
“Femi is a great guy. He plays tennis, he is a fourth-year engineering student, cute beard, and he hates All Saints too.”
You wondered what the relevance of Nmesoma’s statement about his music choices was, as if that was supposed to make you feel better.
“And what happens to us, Nme?”
“Nothing, I’m still with you Yets, it’s not like he knows his way around my neck or the dimples on my lower back like you do. I’m just putting up a show with him, you know, to deflect pressure from us, the gossip is getting louder about how we buy almost all the cucumbers from the mallam at our junction.”
Yets. The pet name she resorted to whenever she wanted your attention, or whenever she wanted to emotionally blackmail you into seeing things from her perspective. You didn’t have a good feeling about any of this, but you let her pull your braids with one hand as she slipped the fingers of her other hand under your gown, taking deep breaths as she nibbled at your chin slowly.
The visits reduced drastically. She always found an excuse to stand you up at events or avoid going to read with you at night, and by the fifth week of her new relationship, she had moved all her things out of your room. You could not make sense of what was going on, and your heart was breaking into pieces tinier than communion bread.
“Nme, I am not a phase, do you hear me? I am not just a phase!” you screamed, slapping her repeatedly that fateful evening she reluctantly agreed to see you for crunch talks.
“Are you done, Yetunde?” she had simply asked derisively, before scoffing, grabbing her handbag and storming out into the rainy Sunday night.
It was not so much the parting that hurt you as you clutched your teddy bear on the large mattress positioned under the pink wallpaper, it was more of the manner in which she left. You had expected a tirade, a retaliatory slap, or a resentful stare at the very least, something that suggested a fight, something that hinted even remotely at emotion. You had got none of that, and as your tears dampened the pillows, you asked yourself how Nmesoma grew so distant.
You had sworn never to contact her again, tearing all the photos you had of the two of you posing together. You would go back on that resolve five years later, sending her a friend request on Facebook. “A whole lot has happened,” you typed in that first inbox message. You were absolutely right about that; your relationship with Tracy had ended after eight months because she accepted the marriage proposal of a car dealer before the end of your national youth service year, and you soon got tired of how Adaugo was so possessive even when you knew the hotel waitress she was cheating on you with.
“Yetunde, ki lon so?”
“Ko si problem, Iya mi.”
Your mother’s firm voice jolts you back to reality, as the guests slowly trickle in. For a moment, you toy with the idea of replicating what John Mayer did in the video of his track “Half Of My Heart,” but you scrap the thought of bailing out on Suyi because your presence in church has already rendered the plot ineffectual; John was in actual fact a no-show in that video. In any case, Suyi has done absolutely nothing wrong to you, nothing remotely off-colour since the evening you bumped into him a few months ago at an end-of-year dinner organised by the hospital you currently work in. He has been a great guy, respecting your space whenever you need it, and while he was not quite Nmesoma, he was pretty good with his tongue. Saying yes to him was pretty convenient, just as it felt convenient to have a son for him. No, you really do not want the uncertainty that would probably come with raising a daughter; you could do without thinking too much about her future choices, and preferences.
“We are gathered here today to celebrate . . .”
You zone out for a few seconds, but it is soon time to spell out the vows, and you have to be mentally present, at least for Suyi’s heart and your mother’s ego. He is too drunk in love to notice the void and the blankness in your eyes as you push your face forward to respond to his eager palms, barely stifling a sigh as he takes your lips into his. It is the same blankness that he again fails to notice years later, when the judge issues a Decree Absolute in response to the divorce petition filed against you after he sees the maid nibbling at your navel for the second time, culminating into your moving in with Nmesoma, who has called off engagements on three occasions. It is the blankness you save her the torture of seeing when you bolt out with your belongings that late morning nearly ten months later and leave just a note on the table, the very blankness you try to hide from the lady at the Dutch embassy while awaiting the fate of your visa application.
But today, you have to put up the appearance, and you pull off an Oscar-worthy performance, if you say so yourself. You flash well-rehearsed smiles that bankers would be proud of as you exchange rings, you execute a successful detachment of soul from body as you dance with the bridal train, you successfully feign a blush as he reads out his cheesy poem at the reception, you resist the urge to sneer repeatedly as your mother makes it clear with her “Hallelujahs” that her joy outweighs that of all the guests on the scale of happiness, and you manage to not get your tongue dry from mouthing insincere thank you’s as you and Suyi receive gifts from overfed relatives.