#5DaysToVals Contest Entry – Submitted by Iwundu Wisdom
When Uzoije saw Lagos again, draping an H. D. N. S bag over his shoulder, he thought he’d finally be able to find what he was looking for; a world absent of colony, irresistible girls and cluttered roads. He told his aunty when he returned that the people under whom he’d been sent to learn a trade in Aba never liked him and didn’t want him with them. He found it hard to tell his aunty the words, because even as they rolled out of his mouth, they sounded false and he felt he’d betrayed himself partly by lying about something he had so much conviction of. When he was in Aba, serving a man who said things like “I’d like you to taste my finger with your other lips, honey” when he helped his wife in the kitchen, Uzoije had so many restless nights and endless visions of the writer he wanted to be. For him, Aba was the last place he had to be, and he’d asked to leave.
When his aunty told him that he’d better looked for somewhere else to stay – that being an orphan wasn’t enough for him to think he could get whatever he wanted – Uzoije first fought the urge to laugh, the urge to scream and caper around and act like everyone was his friend. He never saw this as a sign of madness, and he never went mad. He only pleaded and spent the night lying on the raised curb outside his aunty’s compound, the frayed tendrils of an empty bag of rice playing down the harshness of the sandy ground. By noon the next day, he was on his way to his friend’s house, in a keke napep where he stared absently at the blur of city life. Looking at Lagos as it passed by – like he didn’t matter – he realized he was wrong in thinking that Lagos’ girls were less appealing than those in the East. That wasn’t his first disappointment. The keke navigated roads that made the potholes in Aba look like purposefully carved reliefs. These, to him, were little things but it made him wonder how much of all he believed in were true.
Sometimes, when the keke slowed down to manoeuvre a contour in the road, his gaze would meet one of the girls’ passing by and he’d hold the gaze, forcing a smile. Because, even though he wasn’t really sure why, he’d began to imagine how much time those girls had spent in front of the mirror and how much happy they’d be when someone called them “beautiful”, even if just with with one keen, prolonged gaze. He’d later make this one of his private philosophies: if you can’t be happy, don’t rid others of an opportunity to be. Although he saw that as a means to keep himself from thinking about his aunty’s refusal to let him stay – a way to sheathe the blunt side of his anger – he also believed the part of himself that seemed very alive genuinely felt these things for these people; the part of himself that wanted to turn everything into a story.
If Uzoije hadn’t been locking gazes with every beautiful girl who wore their hair into buns and used light make-up, he may never had courted a girl, nor may he have ever stop being skeptical about teenage boys like him who already had girlfriends. There was something about the gaze he shared with Chika, something not entirely coincidental about both of them looking back when they’d long gone past each other, something about her high cheekbones and the stray tendrils of brown hair that swept down her face. He’d watched her until she entered a store where a fair-complexioned boy couldn’t just stop smiling at her presence. He’d later know the boy to be called Jeffrey.
Johnbull, his friend, just sat still when Uzoije told him of how his aunty wouldn’t let him stay with her. This annoyed Uzoije. The silence grew awkward and he just had to say it.
“See, man, for this life wey we dey so, nobody owe you anything. The only people wey owe you na your mama and papa wey born you. Na only them you fit hole.”
Uzoije hadn’t expected that. Johnbull was always the guy who only drank and party, the guy who had nothing exactly intellectual to say, so Uzoije was stunned when he heard the words, knowing it was true even before he thought deeply about it. And for the ensuing silence that enveloped them this time, he had no complaints.
In the next few weeks, he’d learned that the girl’s name was Chika and that she worked in a local chemist where she mainly attended to patients with less serious complaints, so every weekend he always (untruthfully) had a migraine, so that when he entered the chemist store, she’d be assigned to look him out. Uzoije had little memories of either his parents or his childhood apart from him burying his heart in writing and music at his uncle’s place, but when he was alone at night, Johnbull already snoring beside him, he’d fight to repress the longing to recover the years of childhood he’d missed, to recover never tasting a girl’s lips at sixteen, which was why when, seven years later, he sat under a thatched roof sharing kola nuts with Chika’s parents, he felt the world finally at peace with him; he felt redeemed.
* * *
The street smelled of novelty and something else Chika hadn’t smelled in a long time – wet sand. She walked to the driver side of the car parked on one side of the street and threw her husband a mischievous look. “Let me ride you,” she said.
Uzoije raised a brow and gave a hoarse laughter. “After last night, you still want to ride me again?”
Chika threw her head back and laughed in that way she knew Uzoije liked. “You know that’s not how I mean it.”
“Whatever. Changed your mind about letting me go alone, I see.” Uzoije said absently, glancing at the car they’d both been using since they’d married three years ago, and also absently, he wished there was a little version of him – or Chika – to share their laughter with.
Chika shrugged and slipped into the driver seat, aware of Uzoije’s gaze trailing her as he sat on the passenger seat, and before she started the engine, he leaned over and kissed her.
Somewhere from the next compound, Jeffrey, their neighbor, hastily descended the staircase, hoping Chika hadn’t left yet. She’d told him Uzor would be going alone and he’d seen the right chance to finally be with his long-time crush, so he’d slipped into their compound at night and had tampered with their car’s brake system. But when he looked from the window and saw her take the driver’s seat, he’d panicked, as though if she left, a part of him would never return.
But he reached outside a little too late and as he watched their car drove past him, where he stood by his gate, all he could see – all he could comprehend – was Chika’s laughing face; a laughter so sincere, so selfless, yet so accusing.
* * *
Now, the crease, still fine and immaculate, started from the top of her lips – above her scar – yet there was something hapless about it, in the way it never fully reached her eyes – as if should she ever speak to anyone or smile again like she had the world in her grasp, her private world would crash and conform, becoming again the world she once conquered.
So Jeffrey made a habit of keeping away from the window, where he could see the moon coming out of the clouds, because it was from his window he saw her sitting alone in the seedy room of the next building, half-smiling as she stared at the broken portrait of the husband she lost in an accident three years ago.