Umuahia, Abia State is cold and wet this time of the year but not in a way that matters. There is no conspiracy of icy winds forcing me to leave my polos for sweatshirts or cardigans. When it rains, which is almost every day, the cold does not sink through my skin and settle on my bones. I do not really think Umuahia is cold, I think it isn’t hot. And I’m comfortable with the lack of heat. Being born in the northern part of Nigeria, and loving the harmattan with its dryness and readiness to assault you with dust, has made me intimate with a certain level of cold that this place hasn’t attained.
I am also intimate with a different kind of cold.
In my first year at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a girl told me in soft words that I was cold, and I believed her. I hesitate to think myself gullible or naive then. I think that I needed to believe her. I also think we sink quicker into lies if we dig them ourselves. To be cold meant I was in control and that where others could afford spontaneity, I would be deliberate.
Was it even a lie? Do I think myself cold because I am cold, or am I cold because I think the term aptly defines me? It was not that I didn’t feel – I could even argue that I felt too much – it was that there was a lack of a need to express or even process those feelings when they bothered to appear. Over time, I would assure myself that I had perfected this distancing.
This was why I was unprepared for her.
I remember her walking in. She was wearing a Jellabiya, black with white embroideries on it.
I was at the National Youth Service Corps secretariat in Umuahia, helping the Public Relations office there sort out over four thousand passports of the Batch B corps members. It was dull and stressful and if anyone thought I was doing it out of kindness, they were mistaken. It simply gave me something to do until I resumed at my Place of Primary Assignment.
The office with its seven or so desks was large enough for movements between desks but small enough to induce the sense of a space that gave you no room to really breathe. This discomfort was compounded by the fact that one of the three windows was useless since it faced a corridor, itself so tiny that it held only enough air for breathing and none to ventilate the office.
About twenty or so minutes before she walked into that office, Maximus – a Batch B corps member who was so active, most people thought he was an employee – told me he would call someone to assist me. I shrugged at this. Partly because I was indifferent to what he was doing and mostly because I doubted this person would show up.
She did show up.
She showed up and she did one of the several things I disliked. She walked right up to me, and after Maximus fumbled through an introduction, she invaded my private space and took a long look at the ID card around my neck. What I felt was a rather confusing mix of fascination and mild irritation. I was, however, amused, moments later, when she tried to guess my state and failed.
When Maximus left to help at another office (because helping out was what Maximus did even when it seemed particularly foolish to do so – and Maximus, although a lot of things, was never foolish) she asked how the NYSC camp, with its military-like drills and parades had been for me and several other questions. On my part, I discovered that although her music taste was less restrained than mine, she liked the genres I liked. She told me black was her favourite colour. It was mine too.
I realised, in the few moments we spent together and even with the few words I allowed myself to say, that she was certain of her opinions and unafraid to voice them.
Her hair was done in braids and each braid was a bold thing and the result was less than the hairstyles I was familiar with and more like a crown of hair framing her face. A face with no angles, only curves. (Weeks later, I would learn they were called crochet braids). When her mouth curved into a smile, it was one of those smiles which showed off teeth – a direct opposite of mine.
Weeks later, when someone asked me to describe her, the word I settled for was “self-aware”.
When I told my friend, Nicole, about her, her unsurprising response was, “Ask her out”.
There are many differences between Nic and I, but the top one, I think, is her capacity for action. Something I am very certain I will never rival. To Nic, this response was a reflection of how she did things – and thus, normal and sensible. While I might sit within a choice and ponder implications to an unhealthy extent, she would have walked with that choice and if, for some reason, said choice couldn’t walk, there was always the option of carrying it.
I do not wish to imply that Nic was impulsive. She just wasn’t me when it came to choices. So when she said, “Ask her out”, and followed it with reasons why she suspected I wouldn’t – chief among them being how I was a general mumu and could be very slow with things – I ignored her.
How many gems can you find in a laugh? I found them all.
“What does a boyfriend do?” I asked.
Adanna, who had a strong tendency to exhibit random bouts of weirdness, had told me, “You can be a boyfriend”. But everything about her reply was lacking and it frustrated me. And even her attempts at expanding her reply – something Oma, another friend, helped with – made everything worse.
Nic, staying true to her reputation for bluntness, told me, “Be forming ‘To My Coy Mistress’”.
My question was not born out of curiosity or anything close. Or even ignorance. I knew the various roles a boyfriend could play but I had this need to have them spell it out to me. Perhaps it was a form of self assurance. A month or so later, a question similar to mine in its own way would come up.
“Why are you dating me?” she asked. And although I understood her and could guess why she was asking this, I couldn’t help but think that it was I, not her, who should ask this. But I answered. I told her the truth because truth silenced is truth dead. And I hoped what I told her meant something. I hoped she believed them.
The same thing happened when I said to myself, nights after I told her how I felt, “I have a girlfriend. I have a girlfriend”. The words hold me together. I am doing something good.
She calls airtime “call units”.
“You have to say it out. I knew you were annoyed but I was just watching you. I expected you to say something. We have to talk about stuff. If not, it’ll pile up. We can’t do things like this. We will think we have let it go but a bit of it will remain and one day, it’ll start changing things. Trust me, dear, if you annoy me, I’ll tell you. I hope you understand me?”
How do you unlearn yourself?
When we told ourselves “I love you” for the first time, it wasn’t a big moment. The stars didn’t move closer to shower us with cosmic brilliance and the wind didn’t assure us we had loads of sense and if I was expecting a Hans Zimmer score to punctuate the moment, I didn’t get one. But the thing was, I wasn’t expecting anything. While I’m given to placing myself in future moments and evaluating my reactions in them, this moment was one I had never considered.
And I was grateful for this. We cannot predict how we will feel in such moments. To predict would be to limit and to limit would be to rob ourselves of the chance to truly live in a small and beautiful moment.
The moment and several after it – each independent of the rest and beautiful in its own way – all led me to one thought: To love someone, anyone, is to realize that they now have the capacity to hurt you in a way no one else can. It’s a frightening realization. It’s in no way liberating but it’s beautiful. Beautiful. And that, I think, is the point.
Michael E. Umoh is a graduate of Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A lover of rock music and most things written, his works have appeared on BrittlePaper, Afridiaspora, Afreada and in several anthologies.