The traffic was definitely from hell. Horns blaring from all corners; still, no car was moving. Ihuoma did not flinch; the Ojuelegba traffic had sadly become a norm. The traffic light installed to regulate traffic was ironically the one causing it. It was well past 7:00 am but she was yet to get to the hospital. There were some things she would never understand: why the traffic lights had to be such a nuisance even with so many cars on the road and why the roads would just not clear up so she could get to work on time.
The clinic must be overflowing with patients knowing how busy Ripple Hospital is on Wednesdays. She wanted to park her car and walk; better still, jump on one okada- as motorcycles were popularly called in Nigeria- to the hospital, but the odds were against her. Her phone rang; these network providers and their wahala, sending countless messages to advertise caller tunes and many other services that do little or no good at all. In the past, that would have been Johnson calling. Grinning from ear to ear, she would pick the call saying, “Hey, you…”
“Hey sweets, have you gotten to the hospital?” He would ask.
“Nah, stuck up in this hellish traffic”. She always replied.
“Awww…don’t worry you’ll get there in time. Love ya.” and the call would drop. That was Johnson for you, always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel even if the tunnel was as dark as the colour black. His soothing, encouraging words were always on time and they healed even the weariest of hearts. That was what attracted him to her. She remembered when she first met him. He was one of those guys in class that you would vow never to have anything to do with. He was so engrossed in his books that she wondered if he had a life outside the four walls of the classroom. She was smart too, a tad too much for her own liking but she had a life outside school. She partied with friends on weekends attending weddings and other frivolities. She also had a knack for baking. All these qualities and yet she still thrived at school. It was during one of her bad days as a part 2 medical student that she met Johnson.
She was on the queue for the ATM at GTBank on a Friday and the queue was a disaster. There were two machines stationed at the entrance of the bank but one decided to stop working on that fateful day. She was in a pensive mood and her patience was thinning out by the second, just then, a man came to stand in front of her on the queue. He wore a pair of cylindrical spectacles, he had an afro that quite admirably added to his height and he had his ears plugged into the music realm because apparently, he did not hear when Ihuoma was trying to ask him to get to the back of the line.
“Hello!” Ihuoma said as she tapped his shoulder from behind.
“Is it that you are plain stupid or your glasses are just on your face for decoration?”
“Can’t you see that there’s a queue?” She kept straining her neck to look at his face as she shouted; this was certainly not one of the best times to be 5ft 5″. The young man was still trying to understand what the commotion was all about but Ihuoma couldn’t be bothered by that. It was like she had finally found the moment to release her bottled anger and she wouldn’t let it go like that.
“That’s how you all are, you can’t do things the right way. Self-righteous people! You bury your head in your books and still you have nothing upstairs. Common get out of this line,” she pushed him out of the line.
“Bloody waste of brain matter!” she hissed as she moved forward in the line. He was still looking at her with his mouth wide open and his palms opened upward as if he was saying, “what happened?” However, the words did not just come out. When somebody finally explained the scenario to him, he walked up to her and said, “I am very sorry for annoying you; it was never my intention to make you angry, please forgive me.”
It was the first time Ihuoma would hear him speak. They had been classmates all the while but it was from a distance. His baritone voice and ‘fo-ne’ accent was enough to make any young woman start smiling in a weird way. Ihuoma took one look at him and waved him away. He stood there and kept apologizing until she finally faked a smile and said, “It’s okay”.
She did not see him again until Monday after Clinical pathology class in the afternoon. She was trying to pack her books into her bag when she heard somebody saying, “Hey miss.”
Her name wasn’t “Miss” and she wasn’t about to find out who was bearing that name so she turned to leave and boom! He was in her face.
“Hi Ihuoma.” he greeted with a smile revealing his not so perfect dentition. He had a fractured canine that ironically added to his handsome frame.
“Hello…err…” She did not know his name yet.
“Johnson, my name is Johnson Madaki”, he said, stretching his arm out for a handshake. Ihuoma was not about to break the girl code by shaking his hand “GC#5: a girl is not allowed to shake a boy’s hand except it was first initiated by the girl” She acted as if she did not see his gesture and Johnson started laughing.
“Don’t tell me you are one of those GC chicks. What is the worst that would happen if you shake my hand? Leprosy or AIDS, which of them would be transmitted to you?” Ihuoma didn’t know when she started laughing. It was quite ridiculous living life by a set of rules drafted by someone who could have been depressed. She had not realised this until Johnson pointed it out.
Their friendship blossomed. They would hang out after class, take long walks in the evening and when they were not doing any of those, they were on the phone chatting with each other. It was on one of such evenings that he asked her to be his girlfriend. He was quite moody that day, he did not talk much. All efforts by Ihuoma to chat him up were abortive. It was not until she pressurized him and threatened to go back to the hostel that he opened up; “Ihuoma, I like you, I like you a lot. The way you laugh at me, the way you smile, the way you call my name, it all makes me happy.”
Starry-eyed, Ihuoma looked at him as he continued, “Your big eyes, the mole by the side of your nose, your beauty gives me life, Nkem(My own). I carry you in my heart every day. Whenever I am down or sad and I remember you, I cheer up immediately. I’m scared of loosing you Ihuoma, please would you be my girlfriend, officially? I love you and I wouldn’t want to be without you,” he rattled the words out like they were choking him.
He only called her Nkem when he was serious. She had been expecting this all along and now that it was official, her joy knew no bounds. Rolling her eyes at him and trying to play hard to get, she replied, “What took you so long eh? You wanted me to come and beg you abi.”
Johnson smiled heartily. He hugged her so tight that she almost thought he sucked life of her.
The day he met her mother, she kept singing praises of him. “Nkem, nke a wu jackpot! Chai o yiri nna gu. He’s as tall as your father.”
Ihuoma’s dad, Okafor Nwabuogaranya, was a handsome young engineer when she met him. His carriage, accent and poise took the word ‘Class’ to another realm. Mary, Ihuoma’s mother had bumped into his tall frame at her friend Ogechi’s wedding when she was trying to enter the church. He never stopped looking at her and had to beg the bride to give him her number. He called her up the next day and stammered for about 2 minutes on the phone as he was trying to explain who he was. Mary was a beauty to behold and so she was used to advances from men. She was expecting the call since Ogechi had confessed to her, what she did. She had heard all sorts from men but this was different. He was a renowned engineer but his shyness on the phone thrilled her. She laughed hard on the phone before she agreed to lunch with him at a restaurant in Ikeja. She told him she would meet him there but he would not allow it. He asked to pick her from work and then take her to the restaurant. In those days, such gestures were weird. Some men would ask you out to a restaurant, meet you there and drive off with their car (if they had one) and leave you to find your way home. He took care of her as if she was an egg. During the vote of thanks at their wedding reception, three years later, he made reference to how shy he was asking her out on a date and how she laughed at him. Twenty five years on and her daughter was introducing a similar man to her, how wonderful.
“Mummy, come and take picture, we have places to go.” Ihuoma had introduced Johnson to her family and now she had to go meet his. The graduation party would soon be over and this was the best day to meet them. Johnson’s parents were quite academic in dressing no wonder he had such attributes. They both wore glasses and did not talk much. They smiled at her when she greeted and that was it. It was not a rude or disgusted smile; it was more like a ‘We are happy, that’s just how we are’ smile. Johnson was all smiles while they were there and that was all she needed. They served in different states; Johnson was posted to Port Harcourt while she was in Lagos. The NYSC programme was just for one year so they could deal with it. It wasn’t supposed to be a problem because they were going to call and visit each other frequently.
After about four months, Johnson’s calls reduced from about six times a day to two times, in the mornings and evenings. Ihuoma did not have a problem calling him, but it looked like she was being a bother to him when she called. He would reply with single words and short phrases, she was basically forcing words out of his mouth. When she could not take it anymore, she made an unexpected weekend visit to Port Harcourt. He did not seem so happy to see her but he still managed to smile back when she greeted. It was no longer a feeling; she knew something was wrong. The first night they had dinner together, it was anything but normal. He received many calls that night and he was always smiling and laughing while at it. Ihuoma had seen that look before; that was the look he had whenever he was talking to her.
The next night, she decided to talk to him. “Johnson, what’s going on? You are not your usual self. Are they stressing you at work? Talk to me…. I need to understand”.
“It’s nothing really…”, he said looking away.
“Tell me what it is; remember we don’t hide things from each other. Tell me please”
“Ihuoma, I think I need a break.” He was still looking away. ‘Break’ to Ihuoma meant a lot of things at that point in time and she just couldn’t put her finger on a particular meaning. “I mean this relationship… between us… We need space.”
“Still I don’t understand, space for what? Am I encroaching your house? Don’t worry I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Woman you are not listening! We need to give each other space for a while!”
Ihuoma could see that he was talking but she was not hearing anything. They needed space. Since when? Space? Break? Who was teaching Johnson these new words? They were words she had always avoided. She always erased the tinniest thought of them the moment it crept into her head but here it was wielding the big stick over her relationship with Johnson. Ihuoma went to the room and picked her bag. She only brought her weekend bag that was as big as a ghana-must go bag. She threw her make up bag into it, forced her pair of jeans and high heeled shoes she had planned to wear to church the next day in and zipped it. She left the house that night and she never went back. He called her a number of times the next day and even sent a text message saying he didn‘t mean what he said and how it was all done in anger. Ihuoma would have returned his calls and replied the messages but it was all plain. It looked all superficial, nothing from the heart. Its been eight months now, why on earth would she think that Johnson would call her on a wednesday morning out of the blues? He didn’t call her then, why should he call her now? They say you never forget your first, maybe thats why she had hoped it was him.
Ihuoma smiled as she collected the ticket from the security man at the gate. She wasn‘t going to lose this one. She thought she had misplaced the one given to her two days back and it was not until about three hours later that she found it in her hand bag. She carefully tucked it into the CD compartment of her Toyota Corolla 2013 and drove to her usual parking spot. The patients kept trooping in. Between the complaints of headache, fever, cold, chest pain and other illnesses, each patient had a unique story to tell. It was well past 5 p.m and if she was going to beat traffic, she had to be on her way home. She was writing her report for the last patient of the day when he walked into her office.
She raised her head to see him standing in front of her…
To be continued…
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