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BN Prose: What It Means to Want by Chukwuebuka Ibeh



You are aware of the curious furtive glances thrown at you; the curious suppressed whisper, hidden in a way that only made it more obvious. You are aware of the long looks in the direction of your your vacant ring finger; the tilting of heads and shrugging of shoulders to suggest, perhaps you felt comfortable without your ring.

You are aware of the slight doubt in their heart that trailed the assumption they formulated. You are aware of the cheerful look on the faces of strangers when they address you as Mrs; a look which quickly turns sour when you correct them: Miss.

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 becoming a granny. He stared at you for a while before he said he was sorry. You knew he was not sure what he was being sorry for. He did not understand your swift agitation; how you had suddenly switched from playing with him to being malevolent. But 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 invisible 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, awkward 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 angry, or hit. 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;  you lost your dad a few years ago to diabetes. She shook her head vaguely, perhaps sad with your news, but then obviously uninterested 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. 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. 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 re-assuring 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;  then you called them fools. They were stunned. You felt the heat surging through your brain threatening to explode, and you raised your voice above theirs, hauling insults. They told you to calm down. The leader apologized on their behalf, a sincere, surprised apology. 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 neighbor 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 gist. 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. In one picture, she was clad in bikini, much to your astonishment. It had not really occurred to you that someone as plump 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; 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
multiple 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 a friend’s house-warming 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 Teckno’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 nudged you impatiently in his haste to get to somewhere and you dropped your glass. He stopped to apologize, 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, brushing off his profuse apologies with stuttered reassurances that you were alright. And then moments later, 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 much, maybe more.

He took you out on exotic dinner dates and bought you expensive dresses with elaborate designer labels; called you at 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 scepter, this impending doom. This was love- This wholeness that sometimes made as if to snuff away your breath.

It started out of the blue. It seemed as though you had gone to bed one night with him as gentle and loving as always and had woken up on the other side to meet a total stranger. His texts became less and less frequent, and he took so long to reply yours, single worded messages that you imagined took him excruciating inconvenience to type. He missed your calls easily, and later called back with lame excuses- in a meeting, with friends, sick-, his tone ever so curt, you had a feeling you were wasting his time.

It was so unlike him, your sweet, gentle Tony who could barely survive a few hours without hearing your voice over the phone, reassuring him that you loved him and would never leave him. 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 while you said these, feeling so foolish and so vain, but then you hoped- It was all you could do anyway.

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 on the sales counter and laughing too easily. She reached backwards to kiss him every now and then, as though worried he would recover from her spell if she didn’t. He did not notice you, no, he did not. Not even when your eyes met from across a low shelf, 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 hello and nudged the laughing girl slightly, an indication that it was time to leave. You knew he did not notice you as he paid for his shopping and drove off afterwards with the girl. The cashier asked you what you wanted, and you smiled and shook your head. You wanted nothing at all.

Obiefuna was the next; brawny, cool-headed Obiefuna who ejaculated quickly 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 with a tray of cooked groundnuts balanced on her head, laughing at something your gateman, Mohammed, was whispering into her ears, and you did not even realize when the call was disconnected.

Nowadays, you like to carry on an air of aloofness, a forced indifference that you do not truly feel. You like to tell yourself, ‘Love is not meant for everybody, biko’. You know your friends find it odd that you roll your eyes theatrically when the subject of dating comes up in between conversations. You think, always, Who needs love anyway? But on a pleasant Tuesday morning, in a public taxi, on your way back from the market, or one Sunday morning in church, or when you will attend that book reading at the library next to Pleasure Park, you will find love again, and you will say, But, there’s no harm in trying, really. And then you will try, and it won’t take so long before the news drops. The men think –no offence please- you’re way too unsuitable for their taste. They like you, but their parents would rather prefer someone younger. It wasn’t really love- just a mild obsession. Ah! Are you new in Port Harcourt? You should know one night of pleasure doesn’t automatically translate to a life commitment.

Tomorrow, you will pick those broken pieces of your heart on the floor Mile 3 round-about, and you will say, Ah, me I won’t love again, abeg. This pain in my heart is doing me somehow. But the day after
tomorrow, you will fall again, this time, deeper than before. Believe me.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Chukwuebuka Ibeh was born in Nigeria. His short stories have appeared in New England Review of Books, New African Writing Anthology, Dwartonline and other publications. He lives and writes from Port Harcourt.

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