I went to the market today.
I was to get a few things; Mom sent me.
Like 87% of us in the market, I went without a face mask, without gloves, without hand sanitizer and all that.
I went. I did not care for wisdom or caution.
I am an impatient, unprepared Nigerian.
And my hands were busy on my phone while I alternated between arguing/hahaing on Facebook and asking the ugu girl what exactly did she mean by a bundle of ugu was 200 naira. I was suggesting that she should kuku carry a gun and join “armed” to her name since she was already so good at robbing people in clear daylight, when a hand tapped me on the shoulder. Gentle, light taps.
I was surprised that I didn’t jump. Despite the times. I was surprised that I was too calm.
(I still am too calm as I write this. As if nothing is going on.)
I turned around and it was Simbiat. My schoolmate back in secondary school. She was two years senior—I was in JSS2 and she in SSS1—but our friendship pushed down many barriers and pitched itself firmly between us. She was wearing a face mask, but who wouldn’t recognize her? Who wouldn’t recognize those eyes? Eyes for which she got voted The Most Beautiful Girl twice in her set.
I screamed. I hugged her. Her eyes crinkled but I couldn’t see her mouth. I yanked at her face mask. “What is this?” I kept saying, teasing her. She fought to keep it on her face. She fought my hands off. I wanted to laugh so hard. It was comical, suddenly seeing Nigerians walking around with noseguards, their shoulders papiermached with an air of superior good sense. How easy, and how risible, for people to do normal, simple things against a raging virus and claim levels because of that.
As a routine, we lapsed into exclamations, sentences ending in “o”, our surprise exaggerated and our recalling of old school memories combative. She remembered that I used to walk around with a dictionary or a novel in JSS. She remembered that I dropped the dictionary when I got to SSS1. I remembered that she used to beat up boys. I also remembered that she used to give her Physics lesson teacher “tough time”. The man would sweat and sweat as she fired him with merciless questions, and she would wink at me where I stood by the window with my satchel, waiting for her so we could walk to the bus park together. “Don’t mind the man,” she would confide in me as we walked down to the park next to the laboratory building. “He doesn’t know what he is teaching; my parents are just wasting money.”
“What do you sell at the market?” I teased her.
She had come to buy some stuff; she was through with the buying but for the meat, she replied, her mask muffling the words. She lifted it and asked me what university I had gone to, and what course I had studied. I told her, and she howled and said she knew what I had come out with then. I confirmed her guess, and she laughed. I asked her how she was able to recognize me so easily and she said, “You are still dark and slender na. And your voice may have deepened but it is still sharp and abusive.” She added, her tone accusing, that my face had not changed at all. At all.
“Ahn! Ahn!” I said.
I caught the ugu girl’s glare. So I took Simbiat’s hand and we walked away, baskets bumping, to the far end of the market, where the meat sellers and their flies buzzed.
“You could not even look for somebody,” I said, as if that was exactly what I had tried to do, too.
“Gbenu dake! Shut up. Did you look for me?” she fired back.
“Heu!” I said. I had forgotten how she doesn’t waste time with retorts; she doles them out hot-hot. She laughed and I asked her how far. She got her WAEC once and went to Unilag where she studied Chemical Engineering. She now works at a big spare parts recycling industry in Lagos, but they are on lockdown and she has taken the highly sentimental risk to come down and check on her old grandmother here, whom she missed. She recently left yet another relationship; bobo was too toxic. She is single.
“I am single, too,” I said. And she cackled, the throaty sound people give when they are trying to say they don’t believe you.
We got to the meat tables, blood everywhere, the odor overwhelming, and my voice rose in haggling. The way it had risen with the ugu girl. I had understudied my mother long enough to know that prices must be incongruously cut below half, then slowly, stiffly, negotiated upwards until an affordable balance is struck. It was true consumerism. I found a balance for Simbiat, asking her a million times if she was comfortable with it, that we could still cut it a bit lower. She laughed and said yes, she was fine. The meat man gaped at me as he enclosed the chunky slabs in a cellophane wrapping. I avoided his eyes. Sorry, sir, blame Corona and panic buying. Simbiat and I left the place. I went with her. She had finished her business at the market and couldn’t wait because she wanted to catch her grandma, but I wanted to see her off to the market exit.
We talked about the hard implausibility of Stay at Home and social distancing in sweaty, hungry Nigeria. Soon, as we were wont to, we started gossiping about old schoolmates that we both knew, the one who wouldn’t share his textbook with anybody, the one eventually got impregnated by the Agric teacher, the one who was an olosho throughout her university, keeping late weekend nights inside hotels with rich, strange men off campu. We talked about the one who carried expo during WAEC exam and was caught because the breeze blew the paper from under her skirt.
We were laughing when I suddenly asked her about one of her boyfriends back then. The tall, doting one who used to write bad poems for her. The one who was never sure of himself.
That was when the sky changed color.
“Lolade?” she asked, as if she thought I needed to remember the name.
I said nothing. We walked a few more paces, then I stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“Simbiat, he’s dead?”
She gave me a wry smile. “AY, why do you suddenly look so ashen? He’s dead na. Recently sef. He died 2 weeks ago.”
“How!” My hands were quivering. My throat was tight. My head was reverberating with Corona-Corona-Corona!
She shrugged. “He was diagnosed with hepatitis C.”
“Jesus!” I raised my free hand to my head. Someone sneezed behind me, powerfully, and we quickly moved away. I stopped her again just as we got to the gate.
“And you are sure it was not…” I left the word hanging in the air above our heads.
She smiled again, wanly.
“Haaa, no,” shaking her head. “That was what everybody thought, too. But his parents said he was not sneezing or coughing or complaining of sore throat or doing anything of the sort. And that he had just come back from camp sef. You know they chased all the otondos out.”
“Well, that didn’t mean he couldn’t have contracted it at the camp. It is asymptomatic, too! At least
people could still enter the place. Plus was the doctor sure? Hepatitis C is a mad thing. Surely somebody must have known he was sick, he himself must have known, so why didn’t he go to the hospital on time, why did they let it reach such an irreversible stage—”
Simbiat was holding me. I was talking a little too fast. I held her back. Her strength surprised me.
“See you o,” she teased. “You are still like a woman.” She tried to laugh, but it was a broken sound. I stared into her eyes; they looked moist and reddish, the kind of coloration I hadn’t seen there when I hugged her in front of the ugu girl. Suddenly, my shoulders slumped. I didn’t feel like laughing along with her, to supplement her brokenness. It suddenly seemed altogether a great burden: to laugh and to be strong at the same time.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled. And stopped, because the lumps in my throat would betray me.
“Haba!” she said, with false airiness. “We were no longer dating, remember? We’d broken up even before he got scholarship to study Medicine in Holland. But we had remained friends. We used to chat on Badoo, Messenger, WhatsApp. This January gan, when he came home, we went out to eat lunch o. He told me many things. At first, I was afraid he was going to launch into one of his godawful recitations of mermaids and unicorns. He was just talking and talking about how badly paired we were even back then in Mayflower. He the shy introvert, me the lousy extrovert. How he had always thought I was too good for him and that I deserved more. And how much he tried—and failed—to find me in all the girls he had dated, until he met this special German girl he was dating. There were things I wanted to say, things I wanted to tell him.”
“But you didn’t tell him,” I finally said.
She nodded, folding her lower lip. “But I didn’t tell him.”
Her voice had thickened, the “t”s sounding like “z”s.
Newly cut old memories flared alive inside me, raging wounds I thought were already healed up. I hailed one of the okada at the gate for her.
This new anger would not have come about had she not said what she said next.
“That’s just it. Life is too short to let the chance to live and laugh slip by. When you tried to take off my mask, I felt a flash of anger at your childishness and indiscretion. But if I had snapped at you, you would have been forced to apologize in great guilt and your mood would have changed and mine would have changed, too. And we would have been stiff towards each other. You wouldn’t have taken my hand so joyfully and led me to the meat stalls. And, no matter how much you tried to hide it, you wouldn’t be able to hide it. And when I go back to my aunt in Lagos, that is the sharpest memory I would be leaving you with. Proper apologies and repairs would come, sure. But who knows when I will see you again, if I will see you again, if we can stand together and talk like this again?”
I bowed my head, too stumped for words.
“That was all that I thought of when you held my mask.” And she repeated those words, “Life is too short to let the chance to really live and laugh slip past you.”
We exchanged mobile and social media contacts. And as I watched her leave, climb the okada to her grandmother’s place, with a faint wave and a fainter promise to try and dare moving around once again to come and check on me before she went back to Lagos, I looked at her, hard, my friend Simbiat. I looked at her hard and long, because will I ever see her and touch her again?
by Enit’ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya
Enit’ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya is a young Nigerian writer. He was recently shortlisted for the French Embassy “The Green We Left Behind” Prize for Creative Nonfiction @ Arts Lounge Literary Magazine. He was also a finalist for the 2018 National GTB Dusty Manuscript Prize for Full-length Fiction. His short fictions and essays have appeared in Brittle Paper, The Shallow Tales Review, Livina Press, NollyRated, The Yellow House Library and Fiery Scribe Review. A graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University and an alumnus of the 2016 House of Levite “The Ready Writers” Fellowship, he was named An Important Writer to Watch. His interviews have appeared in various top blogs and newsrooms within Africa. He is the author of an electronic LGBTI+-themed short-story collection, “How to Catch a Story That Doesn’t Exist”, published in 2021. You can catch him on Twitter: @OsumareAyomi.