On most evenings, right after dinner, my husband and I head out for a leisurely stroll around our subdivision. Walking has its cardio benefits of course; but we seek more than a heart healthy payback. Walking is our ‘alone time’ together, away from the children and a chance to reflect. We talk. We joke. We tease each other and make fun of other people, including our rug rats. Then, there’s this solemn moment of silence- a phase when we individually mull over stuff… the good, the bad, and the secrets that are not worth sharing. Occasionally, my mind switches to “replay” mode; churning out brilliant comebacks to that sarcastic remark a neighbor made earlier on which I chose to ignore. Other times, I find myself indulging in bittersweet moments gone by. As in, that split second when you had a chance to say something profound to someone but the words got in the way.
Years ago, I walked into my oldest daughter’s room to find her together with her siblings, sprawled on the floor looking at a bunch of photographs. “Hey Mom,” called my 5-year-old daughter, “Who’s this guy?” She held up a photo. I stared at a familiar face that I had not seen in almost two decades. “That’s an old friend of mine.” I replied. I remembered the inscription on the back like the date of my birth…
MY BETTER HALF-ALWAYS
I met him during my first year as a Theater arts student at Uniben. He was charismatic, considerate, fun, gentle, handsome and smart. Blessed with the build of a towering udara tree and a smile as contagious as the common cold, Richie was every girl’s dream. One afternoon, he and a group of his peers from our department decided it was a good day to head out to Ugbowo campus for a swim and I was invited to join the crew. The sun sparkled. The sky was pure azure. With no visible threat of an afternoon thunderstorm on the horizon, I thought, what could be more fun than lounging around in an Olympic size pool? So, I tagged along with the boys.
Later, while some were busy splashing others in the face, Richie swam stealthily in my direction, and stunned me with a pleasant lip lock.
“Why did you do that?” I asked timidly.
“Suffice it to say that I like you,” was good enough for me. After all, I’d already been smitten by his onscreen persona as (Emeka) in “Wrath of the Gods.” To have the real McCoy fall on my lap was like unwrapping a Christmas present and finding that techno gizmo you’ve been drooling about all year. Several of my peers openly shared their reservations and opinions. I didn’t care. He was interested in me! Some could not comprehend why an enchanting third-year stud (that could pretty much have any girl on campus) would want a 17-year-old unsophisticated small town girl. Once, some psycho babe with a secret crush on him corned me with “What the hell does he see in you?”
Richie and I hung out together; went places together. Any friend of his was a friend of mine. One weekend, he chartered a taxi. Destination? His hometown! My Warri Prince charming was ready to parade his new Princess before the Queen (his mother) – who by the way, did not hesitate to blurt, “I dey wait for the first pikin.”
Our friendship blossomed. Our relationship strengthened. I can clearly recall the day he returned from a last minute trip to Lagos and handed me the most perfect gift. A green apple! That thoughtful gesture may have very well sealed the deal. I fell for him and never looked back. In my mind, there were many scenarios. I heard the wedding bells. I watched the children-the boys a spitting image of him (with my sparkling eyes and lustrous eyebrows) running around in the backyard. I fantasized about our quaint home- nestled somewhere within the mountainous terrain- of the picturesque Jos Plateau. I daydreamed of us hiking the Shere Hills for some out doorsy, sight- seeing adventure during the harmattan season. I envisioned family picnics at Assop Falls on Sunday afternoons. Our future would parallel “Cinderella”, “Beauty and the Beast” or other infamous ‘happily ever after’ Disney fairy tale. I dreamed of moments that are too poignant to share. However, I had a dream- a real dream! One I’d been nursing as far back as I could remember. And I was not about to let love stand in the way…
As a child, I would often stare at the moonlight and visualize life abroad.I was a dreamer and a scribbler. While most kids my age were preoccupied with evening prep, I too was busy. Busy building castles in the air! Over and over again, I would scribble future career choices and out of the country travel plans on my notebook. And sometime during the summer of ’82, as serendipity would have it, my opportunity to high tale it out of Nigeria came knocking… but what about Love?
Richie and I promised we’d write each other come hell or high water. And for a while, we both held up our end of the bargain. Initially, Life in the U.S. did not turn out to be that bed of roses I had anticipated. Most of the pictures, painted by those who romanticized the west, the pictures that I had bought into-no questions asked, were far from reality. Often, I became entangled in a web of lies, delusions and sink or swim situations that left me kicking and screaming to stay afloat. As the years rolled by, the letters dwindled. Eventually, they stopped coming from either direction. We grew up.We grew apart. We moved on. So, I thought…
Years later, while I was in Nigeria to celebrate Christmas with my family, I swung by to see Richie. When our eyes met, my heart fluttered. My pulse raced. That evening, while we loafed around in my hotel room, right before the last fastener on my bra came undone, he dropped the bomb! There was someone else!!!
“For so many years” he said, “I dreamt about this moment…but, but, now…”
I understood. It was all over between us! My heart ached for him like a terrible migraine. The tears flooded my eyes. But I couldn’t let him see me sob like a helpless baby.
“I have to go,” he announced, MEE is waiting for me.”
As we hugged goodbye, he whispered, “Bennie, I still love you.”He said we should remain friends and stay in touch. But that was a tough pill for me to swallow. If I couldn’t have all of him, I didn’t want any of him…
Thanks to my daughter, I picked up the phone. I wanted to hear his voice. We chatted. We chuckled. We tried to play catch-up. “This is the most important call of my life,” he teased. We joked and laughed some more.
Finally, he asked, “Why did you stay away for so long?”
I could have told him I’ve been busy. I could have told him I misplaced his contact information. Heck, I could have told him an itsy bitsy white lie and said, “Because that was how long it took me to get over you.” I could have told him anything rather than, “I don’t know.” I should have told him the truth. I should have told him that I just could NOT BE HIS FRIEND!
Richie, I may not have turned out to be your better half. However, some of the moments we shared will always be treasured with fondness and tenderness. And on this very special day, you ought to know that I shall always remember you as, My First Love. Happy Valentine’s!!!