You were aware of that puzzled look on your nephew, Kenechukwu's face when you snapped at him, threatening to slap him, because he playfully pulled a strand of white hair from your head, and told you, in between innocent laughter, that you were gradually becomming a granny. He stared at you for a while before he said he was sorry, and you knew he was not sure what he was being sorry for. He did not understand your swift agitation, but then how could he possibly be aware of this ache in your heart, this presence that hovered over you while you lay at night, aching for the feel of a warm skin against yours. How could he possibly know that this reminder, like an invinsible sceptre that hung around you, made you brace up for reality. He would never know that you needed, desperately needed to bask under the attentive gaze of a man, your man, and that you longed to partake in this aura of belonging.
The week before, you met Patricia; timorous, diffident Patricia who was nicknamed 'Chameleon' back then in secondary school because she turned red swiftly when she caught too much sun on her light skin, or when she was slapped. Patricia asked about your family, smiling an easy smile of the sated. You took a deep breath because that was what your answer required, -a deep breath. Your mother was fine, you told her, and you lost your dad a few years ago to diabetes. She shook her head vaguely, perhaps sad with your news, but then obviously uninterrested in your father or mother. Your husband? Your children? She asked. You told her -looking into her eyes, searching for signs of what you were not particularly sure of- that you were still not married. She gasped; ever so slightly, a gasp she quickly channeled to a cough. You imagined her choking while she coughed; if this news of yours could make her choke.
You are aware, too aware, of your status: unmarried. Most times, you leave the section inquiring marital status vacant, while filling forms, and you later wondered with slight irritation why marital status was even important for ordinary forms; for any form at all. You wonder why the status is relevant in determining your position in the society. Only once had you aired your discontent in public because a stupid, bush-haired banker had insisted you fill the form, a coy look in her eyes, dangling her diamond ring for you to see, and you imagined, perhaps until recently, she had been like you. Women that woke up at night to long for the impossible, women that suffocated on their beds, leaning on the wind ever so slightly for reassuring whispers.
When you were prevented from joining the good women fellowship in church because you were not 'up to the criteria', you told them you were well over thirty, and you could not see yourself joining the youth section. You were unmarried, they told you in the subtlest of all voices. You did not have a man, so you could not possibly understand or follow their discussion on marriage. You were 'inexperienced'. You stared at them for a while, quiet, and then you called them fools. They were stunned. You felt the heat surging through your brain threatning to explode, and you raised your voice above theirs, hauling insults. They told you to calm down. The leader appologised on their behalf, a sincere, surprised appology. The others watched you quietly. They did not understand your outburst, their expression said. You took a deep breath and told them, with a whimper, you were sorry, you simply lost your mind. It was fine, they said, and yet you knew it wasn't. It would never be. You took your bag and left them, and you never went back to that church again.
Josephine, your next door neigbour told the story of her boss, a 'useless old woman' who would not find a husband to settle down', and instead chose to carry boys young enough to be her sons. You stared at your hard wooden table that still smelled faintly of whatever spray that was used on it, and you wondered if this was some sort of message to you as well, if this light in Josephine's eyes was a subtle mockery. You did not want to imagine what the woman looked like; what her private life was like. You did not ask Josephine for details, as you always did with other gists. You could not possibly probe into other people's stories when you had yours. Josephine showed you her facebook pictures, and you almost did not know what you felt watching her, -a smiling woman with cat-like eyes and dimples-. She was stunning, in whatever context that was, and in one picture, she was
clad in bikini- much to your astonishment. It had not really occurred to you that someone as plumpy as she was would showcase her body, but then this drew from you- a reluctant admiration. Here was a woman bold enough to damn the society and be herself. But you did not want to be like her, no, you did not. You did not want to damn society and be yourself, and carry small boys. You wanted to carry a man. You wanted to own a man. Josephine went on and on about how annoying it was, watching those small boys call her 'baby', and how refulgent her skin was, and how stupid her smile was. But then, it wasn't really the smile or the skin you had noticed. It was the look in her eyes-beneath the smile, beneath the skin, beneath the sated air about her. It was a look you understood. A look you were familiar with.
You are older now, than you were before, and you feel more withdrawn, more alone. When men asked if you were married, you simply dangled the silver ring on your finger, a faraway look in your eyes, but you did not give them a reply, at least not directly. Maybe because both 'Yes' and 'No' seemed false, in a sense, at the same time, or because you wanted to leave them with the vague assumption of a thousand possibilities, wanted to allow them the chance to create, in their minds, versions of the life you simply wished existed. The lives of others, not meant for you.
But not Tony. You still remembered that day, at Chiemelu's party. You had not really noticed him, not at first, because it was so easy not to notice him. The quiet gentleman and gentle man who sat on the cushion, nodding vaguely to the loud beat of Tecno's 'Pana'. Maybe you still would not have noticed him, and you would have gone home after the party, and slipped perfectly into the life you were used to. But while you stood, moving slowly to the music, glass of wine in hand, he nugged you impatiently in his haste to get to somewhere and you dropped your glass. He stopped to appologise, glancing over you worriedly to make sure you weren't hurt, and when your eyes met, it held. You would later recall that a moment ago, you were struggling to manage this awkwardness that rose from staring into his eyes, and then you were laughing at his jokes, your hand in his, the wordings of 'Pana' filling the brief silence in between the both of you.
He loved you, you knew, and even though Josephine said this thing seemed too abrupt, too sudden, too unrealistic to be love, you knew he loved you and you loved him as well.
He took you out on exotic dinner dates and bought you expensive gowns with elaborate designer labels; called you frequently, even during working hours just to remind you his life was incomplete without you, his voice trailing on and on until you were tempted to weep. In bed, he was gentle, easy, focused on pleasing you than himself, and even after he left, his warmth stayed with you, protected you from this sceptre, this impending doom. This was love- This sweetness you could taste on your tongue.
And then it began to happen. It was too grotesque to be reality. Too sordid. His text became less frequent, and he took so long to reply yours. He missed your calls easily, and later called back with inept excuses- in a meeting, with friends, sick, his tone confidently terse, -you had a slight feeling you were wasting his time-. It was so unlike him, you knew, but then it was well. It had to be well. He was simply busy. Port Harcourt in this recession could drive somebody crazy. He still loved you. He was still the sweet boy you knew. You stared at the mirror, feeling so foolish and so vain, but then you hoped- It was all you could do anyway. Everything was fine.
You would still repeat this to yourself when you saw him one rainy afternoon in Everyday Supermarket, a sleek young girl in front of him, pointing at things and laughing too easily, reaching backwards to kiss him every now and then, as though worried he would recover from her spell if she didn't kiss him. He did not notice you, no, he did not. Not even when your eyes met, and his gaze lingered before he looked away, not even when you moved towards him, (not particularly sure what your intentions were), and he simply said, 'hi' before kissing the smiling girl again. He did not notice you as he entered his car and drove away. The cashier asked you what you wanted, and you smiled and walked out. Everything was just fine.
David was the next; Prurient Davis that ejaculated easily and demanded too much. It was not really a proper relationship, at least you did not consider it so, and yet when he called you that morning to say he was getting married, and he would love you to attend, you stared outside, through your window, at the hawker stooping gracefully to sell her cooked groundnuts, and you did not even realise when the call was disconnected.
You like to tell yourself, 'marriage is not meant for me, biko'. You think you are too old to find love again. Love 'sef' is one stupid thing, meant for others. Who needs love anyway? But on your way back from the market, or one cool sunday morning, in church, or when you will attend that book reading, you will find love again; and you will say, 'But, there's no harm in trying sha.' And then you will try, and it won't take so long before the news drops. The men think you're way too unsuitable for their taste. Their parents want someone younger. It wasn't really love- just a mild obsession. 'Ah! Are you new in Portharcourt? You should know one night does not mean you should be their partner na.'
Tommorrow, you will pick those broken pieces of your heart on the floor of Mile 3 round-about, and you will say, 'Ah, me I won't love again, biko. This pain in my heart is doing me something.' But the day after tommorrow, you will fall again, this time, deeper than before. Believe me.
Chukwuebuka Ibeh was born in Nigeria in 2000. His short stories have appeared in Dwartonline, Jotters United, PenEgg, Short Story Day Africa's website, and several blogs. He is also an editor at DwartOnline.