All you have to do is make them laugh.
There wasn’t an iota of doubt in his voice as he said those words. They just came; soft and easy. Perhaps that was the way he had it with the ladies; soft and easy. Like the grace of an angel. Ife turned to me, his eyes fixed on mine.
″Do you think you don’t like girls?″ Ife asked.
I thought about the question for a while. I had always asked myself this, but now that it was being asked by someone other than myself, it felt somewhat new. I looked at my wristwatch; it was a few minutes past six.
″I better hurry home. My parents will be worried.″ I said.
″Why did you avoid the question?″
I hated how I was an open book to Ife. How he saw me without even trying. I remembered once in secondary school when the Principal caught me smoking with some other boys. An investigation began, and Ife was called to answer some questions. He stood alert in the principal’s office in his blue and black uniform, fitted to his skin like that of a military officer. The principal shifted in his chair, adjusted his glasses and began, ″I know you must have heard what your friend, Gbolahan was caught doing.″
Ife remained unfazed, his dark, large eyes staring down at the principal’s table. I remembered I had never seen Ife that serious. It bugged me, and made me feel like I had put him in a bad position. Ife nodded his head, in reply to the Principal’s question.
″Since you are his closest friend, I have cause to believe you are an accomplice.″ The principal’s baritone voice enthralled and threatened anyone that heard it. He was a dark, bald man, in his early fifties. There were rumors that he had been a police officer before he retired. When he hurled those words, naturally, I expected Ife to cringe, show signs of shock at least.
But he simply smiled, ″No, sir. I believe he was forced to do it.″
″He called me last night, but I was unable to pick the phone…″
″Gbolahan never calls, sir,″ Ife smiled. I thought of where he was going with that. It was true I called the night before. ″I just knew something was wrong.″ It was also true something was wrong. Ife still had his eyes on the table, unwavering. ″So when I heard of the incident this afternoon, I understood immediately sir.″
The principal was not impressed. I could see it in the fake smile he mustered, and the way he told Ife to leave the office.
For months, I had been bullied, threatened to be killed if I breathed a word to anyone. The day before saw Sparrow, the gang leader holding me by the collar, telling me I would be initiated the next day by smoking some ′sticks′ with them. Like every other time, me telling anybody would result in my death. Now that I thought of it, I couldn’t understand how death could have scared me that young. I even hated myself for the fact that I couldn’t stand up for myself. I was 12. But how could I believe that a bunch of 12 and 13-year olds were capable of murder? It was fear that fueled my belief.
So when we walked home and I asked Ife how he knew I was in trouble, his reply formed the basis of our friendship for years to come.
″You were always afraid. I knew you were hiding something. So when you called, I knew something was going to happen. But I didn’t know what.″
I knew. I knew. He was right; he had always been right. He knew me, just like a hacker knew codes. I adjusted on his bed, and turned over to face the wall.
I started, ″I just think…I think I am not ready for the girls now.″
″Or you are scared?″
I turned and stoned him with a pillow, ″Guy, I’m not!″
″You know it’s okay to be scared,″ his voice was a calm river now. ″I am too…″
″No, of course not. You have all these girls at your beck and call.″
″Is that even correct?″
″Beck and call, that phrase. Sounds funny.″
″Oh, I heard Dr. Charles use it once or twice,″ I said. It sounded like a nice phrase to me, and that was all it mattered. ″But you really have the girls, don’t you?″ I drove the conversation back to him.
″Maybe. But you know I’m not happy.″ Ife raised his hand as if to catch something then stopped midway. His overdramatic attitude. ″And everyone deserves to be happy.″
″Do you know why you aren’t happy?″ I didn’t know what else to ask.
″Yes, I do!″ His eyes glistened like a star in a dark night. ″I need love to be happy.″
Ife, always making everything sound easy. Why would someone think happiness was something that easy? I really wanted to ask about his relationships, why he thought love is what he needed to be happy. He had love, I believed. He had these girls who showed him their breasts and allowed him caress them. He had girls who wanted him to have the whole world.
″But why are you scared?″ I asked instead. He stayed silent for a while, brooding. It looked like he was carefully searching for the right words. For the right reaction to the question.
″The problem is, guy, I don’t know. But I think fear is like this thing we all deal with. Maybe sometimes there shouldn’t be a WHY. Maybe it’s all inside us, you know, so we can overcome them and feel alive for a while, until another one comes.″
I smiled, not at him, not at his words, but at how Ife was able to conjure an answer for the things that bothered him. It was a superpower I wasn’t blessed with. I jumped off the bed abruptly, ″I really have to go!″
After greeting his parents, I and Ife walked down to street to my house, which was just a few blocks from his. It was dark already, and we walked in silence. I found myself thinking about what was going on in his head. As we shook hands at the front of my house, I told him, hoping it helped, ″I’m afraid too.″
I am sitting at Love Garden, waiting for Ife to show up. Ever since I resumed at the university, we do not have the time to see each other as we used to. But we try all the same. He arrives, wearing a faded Man of Steel shirt. His hair is beautifully combed, and his dark skin shines under the afternoon sun. Ife is a fine young man, and will pass for a model any day.
″How was the exam?″ I ask him immediately he settles beside me.
″It’s my third POST-UTME. Do you want a dishonest answer or none at all?″
I shake my head, ″I will go for none.″ Ife laughs and hits me with his shoulder playfully. We make jokes, laugh like children and reminisce about the old days.
He tells me of Mary. She studies here. He says he has never felt like this with anyone else.
″It has always been give and take for me. All I had to do was yansh these girls. It always felt like I was looking for something. Something I didn’t even know. And now that I feel like I have found it, I feel like I am not good enough.″ It is scary not to see Ife all collected and calm. Ife used to be the sort of person that had everything under control. But here he is, wounded by a woman, a species he once claimed he had completely mastered.
″I really don’t understand,″ even though I do.
He continues, ″She’s a good girl. But the University isn’t a good place.″
″Scared you are going to lose her?″
″I’m scared of a lot of things… You know, I told her I didn’t want her going out with someone else?″
″Of course. What did she say?″
Ife smiles, ″She promised she wasn’t going to.″ He pauses.
″Isn’t that a good thing?″
″It is…for me. But then it is one-sided and unfair. She should have a chance to explore her youth… You know, live and all…″
I didn’t know. I think it is beautiful what he wants to protect. This is the happiness he wanted three years ago while we sat in his room. The happiness from love.
His words cut into my line of thoughts, ″Do you have a girl now?″
I heave heavily, ″No…I guess I’m still searching for that woman.″
″I want you to go out with Mary.″ His voice is firm. For some reason, the voice becomes a memory in my head. Unfolding as my principal in secondary school, sitting behind his large office table and adjusting his glasses on his nose. I feel like a child, helpless.
″What? Why?″ My helplessness, shock and fear is hidden by the indifference on my face. Talk about hiding emotions.
″I know you. You are a good guy, if she’s to go out with anybody… I have to know it’s someone I trust.″ Ife speaks like he has everything planned in his head, which for some reason angers me.
″Are you even listening to yourself?″
″Yes, I am, and I know what I am saying…″ There is a long, overdrawn silence hovering above us like a cloudy sky. I turn my head and run my eyes through the garden. Lovers. Course mates doing assignments. Friends who are clearly in love but acting like they aren’t. Boys hoping to find a catch. Girls making small talk.
It is on a Friday I meet with Mary, a beautiful, light-skinned lady. She tells me she is glad to meet me, and has heard a lot about me from Ife. Don’t you think Ife is crazy, she asks, asking us to do such thing? I love him so much, I don’t know why he isn’t ready to make this work out. I tell her he has his reasons. We laugh and make fun of the way he talks, like a philosopher. We talk about how crazy he is, yet so scared. She says it’s like he hides who he really is by being somebody else. She asks about my relationship and I tell her there is really nothing to know about it. She tells me of this guy she has a crush on, but it’s nothing. It’s just a stupid crush. She tells me about the dreams she have. Don’t mind me, she smiles, I’m just a hopeless romantic.
″Tell me about it,″ I say.
″Oh no,″ she blushes, ″you know, girls and these dreams.″
″I don’t know. You tell me.″ Seeing my seriousness, she turns her face down, smiling childishly.
″It’s always a weekend getaway and we are in this big fancy hotel. We’d lie naked on the bed all day, talking about random stuffs, kissing and having sex. Then he’d sing to me the Silence by Before You Exit. That’s my favorite song…″
She smiles, and it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
″I have never seen anyone as beautiful as you are.″
Her whole face gushes in delight, ″You are a flatterer just like Ife.″ She turns her face away from mine.
I really am saying the truth. She is more than beautiful than any woman I have set my eyes on. The way her lips curves into a smile. The beam in her eyes when she blushes. Her soft and graceful way of carrying herself. Her gentle voice, and occasional high pitched laughter.
I walk her to her hostel, and tell her I will inform Ife of our meeting.
″Did you kiss her?″ is the first question Ife throws at me when I call him.
″No!″ is my reply, tinged with laughter, anger and surprise, ″but she really is a nice girl.″ We talk long into the night about Mary, and then some other unrelated things. However, I do not tell him of her dreams, or the guy she has a crush on. I simply tell him, ″I know we will get along just fine.″
Ife’s voice drops. He tells me he saw his POST-UTME results a few hours ago; he failed again.
″I can’t do it, Gbolahan. That university is not where I want to be. I just want to paint…″
″You still paint?″
″Every time,″ his voice breaks, ″I have been doing it more than usual…″
″Then do it. If that’s what you want, do it!″
″It’s not that easy, guy…″
″Everything is easy with you, Ife. I don’t know how you do it, but man, if anyone can pursue their dreams in spite of whatever, it’s you.″ I hate the way I sounded. Like some sort of motivational speaker. I do not like the fact that I am sounding like the voice of reason Ife always says I am.
His voice comes on, ″You know what? I’m going to do just that. Exactly that!″ He ends the call.
For the next couple of years, I won’t hear anything from Ife. Even when I go home, his parents will simply tell me he said he didn’t want to be in touch with anyone. I was angry; how could my childhood friend just ghost out on me? I began thinking it was something I said when we spoke last. Whatever pursuing he did only becomes clear when I run into Mary one day at the bank in Abuja. She is taller, and even more beautiful.. Ten years have gone, but the childish look and innocence still lives on that face. We are both surprised, but I do a good job hiding mine.
She hugs me, and asks why she never saw me after that night in school. I lie, ″You know how busy University of Ibadan could be,″ and laughed it off. I didn’t tell her of how I avoided her, how I could not continue seeing her after how Ife disappeared.
″Are you still in touch with Ife?″ The question surprises me after I asked, and it feels relieving to mention his name out loud after all those years.
She gives me that charming smile. ″Yes, I get postcards from him once in a while… ″
″Oh, that’s great,″ I lie again.
″He’s based in New York now, and he has an Art Gallery.″
Pursue your dream. He did pursue his dream.
″Do you still have that dream?″ Being a writer comes with a perk: asking stupid questions.
She stops for a moment. ″That was a long time ago, Gbolahan… How do you still remember?″
I also don’t know how I still did.
″I don’t… I no longer dream about it. But you know, I think about it sometimes… It happens that I just miss him once in a while…″ There is this gloom I can’t explain that has enveloped her face.
″So you,″ Mary changes the topic, her face brightening again, ″what are you doing now?″
″Hmmm, a lot. Writing most of the time actually.″
″That’s great! I never knew you write.″ Nobody knew I write.
Accepting that as a compliment, I bow my head slightly. We are out of the bank now. ″So what do you do? Are you married?″ I quickly interject.
″Well, in the advertising sector. I just keep forgetting to get married, there’s a lot on my plate.″ That smile again. ″Oh what about you?″
″Unmarried. Well, I found myself someone; you could say a lover.″
″Aw. That’s beautiful! I’m glad you finally found a woman who’s treating you right. See how fresh she has made you.″
I smile. We exchange contacts and get into our separate cars. I sit in my car, smile and wonder why I didn’t tell her that the name of my lover is John, and of course he isn’t a woman.
I hope Ife is happy wherever he is. I hope he at least found love, one that is enough to make him think love is the only path to happiness.
Everybody’s looking for love to start a riot
But every time I look into your eyes, the world gets quiet
So let it go…