Ehi and I had been friends since our first year at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri. With each passing day, we made memories together. Now we were at the end of our fifth and final year. Graduates in the making.
On this fateful windy February evening, as we strolled to one of the eating joints beside female hostel C, I tried to make small talk which was of no consequence because we had spent a better part of our lunch time ignoring the food we both ordered and instead conversed to no end.
“Am I getting a yes to the date?”
“Hmmmm… What do you think? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow. Won’t we? Let’s decide after the faculty students meeting.”
“So it’s a date?” I almost smiled. I didn’t know if I was asking her a question or pleading. I almost did sound insistent. This girl did crazy things to me.
“It’ll be very weird, Paul. Why should we agree on it now only to find out that one of us has an important appointment elsewhere?”
“Doesn’t matter, Ehi. If you look half as pretty as you look today, any other meeting I have will not matter.” I said it with so much grace whilst looking slightly away to avoid the buffeting wind that was now threatening to spoil the mood.
“I must go now, dear. Sleep well. See you tomorrow. Good night.”
“Good night, Ehi. See you tomorrow.”
The conversation ended. But everyone knows that saying good night doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep and this was the case with Ehi and me. It was a sleepless night for me. I could also say the same for her. So much was going on in our minds. To me, Ehi had always appeared to be uninterested or she was not sure of what she wanted or just being plain scared. But I was already excited about this meeting or date or whatever it was going to be. As she would later admit, her insides banged against the walls of her stomach as she changed into her sleepwear that night. She said she didn’t know what she felt at the time. She said she tried to feel something. But there was nothing. To be happy? To be excited? To be nervous?
As it turned out, the date didn’t hold.
The era of internet-enabled phones had only recently arrived and everyone was rapidly becoming a mobile freak. Gaming on the go. Music on the go. Texting and real-time chatting on the go. The buzz was crazy. It was the trend then. And rightly so too.
Ehi had accepted my friend request on Facebook after a highly charged departmental students’ meeting that left everyone conversing in groups as they made their way to their various hostels. For a first year student, my intellect and erudition had shone as I made valid contributions to the discourse. And what an impression it was! I gleaned her name from the attendance register when the meeting ended and I was in luck when I did a search on Facebook and got a positive match.
Fate, Luck, Kismet, Chance, Destiny – whatever anyone called it – had certainly played its part. We hit it off immediately. Chatting. Exchanging lots of messages. Nothing was spared in this textual commingling. Everything under the sky was discussed. School. Hobbies. Interests. Favourites. Food. Music. Everything. And it became a routine. Then we started calling and it became a routine too.
But when you are a few years below twenty one, life is like a flight of fancy for you, your interests keep on changing and you get fed up with things a tad too easily. Somehow, we lost touch as we tried to get through the second semester of our freshman year. And with the end of this phase came the beginning of another. So many other things.
Sophomore year in the University came with a lot of new things: books, teachers, friends and sources of excitement. Ehi and I had totally forgotten about each other until the day she heard my name from one of her classmates who was the department’s grapevine for hot and fresh rumours. News was spreading that I was in the race to become the Secretary General of the Students’ Union Government. An election I eventually won. The same day, she called me up and it started again. The messages. The calls. Life was spicy again.
We spent the remainder of our years in school building friendship and nurturing something that was beginning to bud in our individual hearts. But no one knew what it was. They say that at a certain age, old spices can’t attract your taste buds for long but we painted a picture of two people who seemed to have defied this ageless piece of wisdom.
The years ran by. Graduation and the mandatory one year National Youth Service Corps Scheme had left its trail of abandonment, apathy and lack of zest in the hearts of most of our mutual friends. But not for us. Every new phase seemed to us like new profiles on another emerging social network. And with a new profile comes new excitement. Like new life.
I kept in touch with her. Thank heavens for the digital revolution. All along, the question of romance never came up formally. It was either we were playing the “best friends” game with characters suiting our profiles just perfectly, or she had locked me in her friend zone or like me, the drive for accomplishment was just too over-powering to surrender to romance, however true or real it would turn out to be. And in the years that followed, wherever life took us, Ehi and I left a trail of “could haves” and “would haves”. With her trail being the longer.
And that’s what it was like for us. The years had finally set in. We both needed some answers to the questions that had plagued us. We’d known each other for eight years but that was just on a different level entirely. On another level, we had started finding something common in our lives. We started having these sessions of philosophical discourse, finding peace in these discussions, started sharing our problems, and actually started understanding each other. Something was different. Something was changing.
She would tell me everything there was to tell. The silly, stupid and serious stuff. And I would listen. The addiction was evident. Ehi had become addicted to me and she knew it was now more than just a simple friendship. Though she still wasn’t sure about her feelings. Which lady ever was? How could she be gut-sure when I hadn’t even told her about mine?
Deep down, she was sure I liked her but when she eventually aired her feelings, my response was not like anything she wanted to hear. I said I didn’t feel anything for her. Not entirely though. I said I valued her more than ninety-five percent of all the things I owned. I said life still stretched ahead of us. I said there were still distant shores and islands to conquer. I said she would make an excellent wife someday. I said so many things. So much nonsense.
Life opened another chapter. Ehi had to travel to the US for further studies. I was holding on to a good job managing donor-funded programs for an international non-profit organization based in Lagos. Dad had passed away a few years earlier. She was there to see me weep. I recall us having a good laugh when she managed to explain that she couldn’t resist pulling me into her embrace after the coffin had been lowered. The mix of grief and romance was a funny cocktail. I’d been able to relax in her arms. A feeling I couldn’t describe. That open display of affection had seen all my late father’s kinsmen raise eyebrows. Damn them, we laughed harder. Those old folks didn’t know the ABC of showing affection.
I hate to say that her departure was akin to us parting ways. Since she was out of the country, distance took its toll and I began to try to love the things around me. Everything and everyone seemed stale. Too old. Like old clothes. Like old cars. The smell of newness had left with Ehi. We kept in touch occasionally. On her part, everything seemed new and she couldn’t help loving the things around her. Unlike me back in Nigeria, she didn’t need to search for excitement. It stared her in the face. It lived with her. Her host family in Atlanta made sure of that. It was really the American Dream. She had a much stable and peaceful life. Or so it seemed. It looked like it anyway.
Ehi got busy with her life. New friends entered. New opportunities. Nigeria was like a distant cloud in the horizon when she looked back. In our messages, she always said she thought of me very often. That she cried on some nights.
Ehi’s happiness and contentment couldn’t travel through fibre optic. As much as we kept in touch, there was a certain emptiness in the communication channel. Something thick seemed to hang in the air whenever there was a short silent spell during our lengthy conversations. She sent me pictures. I sent her poems. I loved to write. My language was flowery. She said it reminded her of spring.
In all, I felt differently. Something was missing in my life. I won over more donors at work. I worked hard. But the sinking feeling kept persisting. I had this vague feeling that I’d lost something that was always there – like an elixir. The part of Lagos in which I lived didn’t offer a lot of excitement. My life was becoming predictable. I tried the movies and visited friends occasionally. I volunteered for non-profit organizations, joined a unit in church and reconnected with old schoolmates. But one factor kept up the dominance – work.
Then I met Sophie. She was one of those people you met in church, thought a lot about them during church, psyched yourself up so you’d reach out to them later but couldn’t do so for whatever reason you’d later tell yourself. But she handed me the golden opportunity a few weeks later when she joined the unit I belonged to.
We talked a lot during unit meetings. I made her laugh a lot. She reminded me of Ehi. Except for the faraway, smoky look in her eyes. She worked for one of the most respected companies in the technology space – IMSV Tech. She said it meant “in medio stat virtus” – Latin for “virtue lies in the middle.”
In an age where it is so difficult to stay elusive if you belong to the category of people that made things happen, finding Sophie on the internet seemed an easy thing. And it was. Her résumé was quite intimidating. She’d published two books on Branding and worked on the Federal Government’s Rebranding Nigeria Project as Lead Strategist for her firm. She disliked intellectual laziness, being kept waiting and loneliness. She adored intangible things such as a soft kiss, a good bear hug, sunlight streaming into a room. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I surfed and got acquainted with my recent muse. Ladies like Sophie were fodder for my dreams. Dreams that I had the power to make real. The only blip on this widescreen of life was that she was five years older.
Sophie helped me discover myself anew. A side that was latent. A part that longed for Ehi, a part that missed Ehi, a part that loved Ehi. But there was another part too – a part that kept asking me if I was really in love with Sophie. Was it love or something like it that I felt for her? Would she be my greatest undoing if I gave in to this desire that was threatening to keep me captive?
The difference in our ages was like a passive volcano. Lying silent for ten, twenty years only to spill its froth someday.
Today was the Valentine’s Day Dance that the church had organized for members of the Singles Fellowship. She had earlier declined my offer to pick her from home in a most gracious manner. She wouldn’t even give me her address but I managed to get it through my contacts at the Data Management Unit and went there so we’d both go in her car. Hers was better. I had a decent Toyota Camry while she powered a BMW 5 Series. Talk about super girl and super car! Feeling good with myself, I opened the door for her and she replied in a disarming way with her usual smile, “I open my doors, Paul”. What a woman!
The evening was eventful. The speaker’s exposé on love had been particularly touching. I offered her a white handkerchief when I noticed her misty eyes. Later, we headed to Panache, an upscale lounge on the Island for drinks before heading to her home. The best part of the night was when I held her beautiful waist as we swayed to Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me.
“What’s happening to us, Paul?” she whispered huskily, resting her head on my shoulder as we moved to the cadence of the soft tunes emanating from the speakers. I managed to find my voice, hands still on her waist, and slowly roving, and said “Don’t think of anything. Just enjoy the evening”. A little later, still in my arms, she raised her head to look at me. I planted a light fleeting kiss on her forehead. With an appreciative smile, she muttered a sincere “thank you”.
On the way home, she tried unsuccessfully to say something to melt the icy silence in the car. She opted for music instead and Enya’s “Caribbean Blue” began to play. The sweet solemn tune only made matters worse. I smiled knowingly. This scene played out a lot in most of the Hollywood movies I watched.
“Why don’t you both find a middle ground and give love a chance?” Sophie interrupted my thoughts. I was trying so hard to focus on the road. It was all I could do in order to avoid asking her to pull over to the side of the road so I could kiss her. She was obviously referring to what Ehi and I had going. We talked about her quite often.
“I don’t know. Really, it’s a tricky situation here. Nothing else has been so obvious and within reach but so hard to get. She’d probably feel I was doing her a favour”.
“Are you serious? How? Doing your best friend a favour? Men! I don’t understand you people sometimes. Come on, Paul. You said it yourself. You love her. She loves you. What else is there to wait for?”
Shaking my head and smiling, “Is love ever really enough? What if I told you I loved you, Sophie? Would that be enough to get you to…? What are you doing?!” I almost screamed as she pressed hard on the brakes.
She looked at me surprised, long enough and smiled. Her smile had shades to it. I couldn’t immediately decipher its meaning. “Are you sure, Paul? Love? Maybe it’s true. You never can tell. But this I know, what we have is a moment, an instant, a dream. You’re not really sure, you know. I know the feeling too. It’s a heady one and it’s so easy to be lost in it. But you’ve got the power to handle it. I know.”
I sighed. We’d been down this road before. She always had the upper hand. She just wasn’t into younger men. This I knew for a fact. She had been gracious enough not to let this fact hurt me too much. I opened the glove compartment of her car for want of what to do to diffuse the awkward silence. My hands needed to hold something or she’d notice that they were shaking. Something that always happened when I tried to maintain composure.
Quite uncharacteristic of me, I read a letter I found in an open envelope. In retrospect, I didn’t think I was ready for the shock. Sophie had been offered a position that would require her to oversee the entire Africa region of IMSV Tech. Her office would be in Johannesburg, South Africa and her resumption date was, wait for it, next week!
“I’m sorry, Paul. I should have told you before now. It skipped my mind. It’s an offer too good to refuse.” Her tone was detached. For the umpteenth time, I wondered how emotionally numb one could get.
“Well, well, what do we know? Congratulations are in order then.” How I managed to find the words, I would never know. Sophie! She had made a life-long pact with the jet-set lifestyle. A sworn career woman. Forever untamed. Yet I knew that behind that façade was a woman who yearned for her own custom-made love. Bespoke romance. Strangely enough, I wasn’t angry. Just sad. Sad that I’d probably never see her again. Sad that a momentous evening would have such a twisted ending.
I kissed her on the cheek as we got to her house.
We stood beside my car and I said “Good night, Sophie. Good luck to you.” I stalled. Then I added, the emotions weighing on my voice. “Maybe I don’t know what I feel. But I love you”.
“I’m sorry, Paul. I hope that you’re always happy. I love you too.”
Oh the feeling! If I died now, I was sure I’d make heaven. This was pure bliss. Sophie finally said the words. It didn’t matter if they were real or not. I didn’t care.
Another wave. Another smile. Power windows up. She walked home and I drove towards the estate gate, greeting the tactful guards as I returned the entry card that had been given to me earlier that day.
There are some who believe that part of the purpose of human life is to experience the most we can, and those experiences can be negative or positive.
It is December 31, 2016, the sixth anniversary of Ehi’s funeral. Ehi died before we could make concrete sense of what we had between us. Her death was a sort of coup de grâce in her protracted battle with leukemia.
“Marry me” or something like it. That’s all I should have said to her all these years. So effortless. So simple. Did love have to be so difficult to figure out? What were we doing? Didn’t someone say “if you know, you know….?”
When Ehi died, I asked God why. I begged Him (on my trip from Lagos to Ehi’s hometown) to bring her back and take someone else. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. No, quite the opposite.
I have been hollow each day. I hardly write again. My creative juices don’t flow anymore. Guilt eats me up every time I think of her. What was I waiting for? What sick game were we both playing? I spend each day in so much pain.
Our notes to each other remain evergreen and dredge up nostalgia. They remain an enduring testament to the perfection of love and the power of memory. It is also a reminder, that sometimes life can be filled with moments of heart-stopping and breathtaking grace.
In the years after Ehi’s death, I have felt older and never quite the same. I have realized how fragile life is and I have also learnt to love deeply and become more selfless each day.
At the funeral on December 31, 2010, I seemed to believe that we were, in a way, closing the year like a book. I scanned the crowd and casually observed there was quite the evidence that she was loved. At the lying in state, looking at her still form was a rare intimate moment.
“Why don’t you both find a middle ground and give love a chance?” Sophie had said. Was death the middle ground? The leveler? In my tribute to Ehi, I wrote that “all of God’s children will return to him someday.”
Today, eight years after, living a life of many unanswered questions, reflecting on missed opportunities, and still grateful for the memories, I can’t help but wonder how life with Ehi would have turned out.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learnt from her death is that in the middle of everything, life can always begin again.