It’s the first night of our honeymoon but I hardly thought of my wife and me as I spent the hours thinking of another man, Chike, kissing Victoria and soulfully telling her: “When I look into your eyes I see the Statue of Liberty.”
Chike cannot be counted among my friends although we had been classmates at the University of Ife.
We naturally drifted apart after our university studies, and it was such a surprise when I got to the office one Friday morning late last year and saw a note that simply said: “Bala, I’m around.” – Chike Ofoedu.
The Chike I met later that day looked emaciated with his head somewhat larger than normal and his worn body hiding inside a red jumper some sizes too big.
“I’ve been down, my brother,” he had said, as though reading my mind. “But now that I’ve found you I shall be up again.”
Chike regaled me with stories of what he called his misadventures since graduation from the university.
A frustrating job as a teacher in a rural secondary school ended on a “quit or be fired” note. During the long period of unemployment that followed, he made do with creative writing, churning out a rash of manuscripts that only fetched rejection slips that usually said, “Fine writing, but what are you saying?”
Abandoning writing and the rural haunts, he travelled to the city of Onitsha to do a bit of trading with an uncle.
The business became sour when Chike was conned off of a substantial amount of money by a man in a money-doubling racket.
Chike thus left his uncle’s business in disgrace and soon joined up with an itinerant Zen Buddhist who took him to Ghana.
“It was a sad day,” Chike narrated, “when I suddenly found myself back on the streets of Onitsha naked as Adam.”
It was while undergoing psychiatric treatment in an Onitsha hospital that Chike chanced on an article I wrote in the Daily Times.
“Boy, you looked heavy,” Chike said. “Like Ernest Hemingway.”
“Let’s go to the canteen and get some food,” I said, expecting Chike to jump at the offer.
“We can eat in your house, can’t we?” Chike asked and laughed a throaty laugh.
In retrospect, I cannot now say that I regret taking Chike to my one-bedroom apartment in Surulere, the crowded suburb of Lagos.
What I initially thought would at most be a one-weekend affair turned out to be a yearlong wedlock of bizarre bedfellows.
“I feel I should make it to the United States,” Chike suggested to me, looking very serious.
“Forget the thought of a jobless pauper securing a visa to USA!” I screamed, walking away.
Chike on one sunny Sunday brought into the house a hirsute magician who chanted throughout the night, invoking the many gods of the Far East.
I could not enjoy a wink of sleep, but after a week of complaining, I hired a bald-headed fetish priest to help me chase the magician away.
The crazy confrontation led to the magician running away for good while Chike saw it all as “Good theatre.”
On the morning after the celebrated confrontation, Chike dragged me out of sleep and pointed through the window at the statuesque lady opening the door of a posh Mercedes Benz car.
“Do you know that girl?” Chike hollered.
“She lives there,” I said with a weary shrug of the shoulders.
I got back from work at about 10 in the night and found a note was waiting for me on the table.
I am at that girl’s house.
I decided against going to look for him there. Just as well, for he came home with the girl within a handful of minutes of my return.
“Bala, meet Queen Victoria!” Chike yelled as though introducing the girl to the gods in the sky.
Chike and Victoria put me in ungainly contortions of speechlessness.
“We make statues of one another when we fail to communicate.” I cannot now make out whether Victoria said the words or Chike did.
Chike now spent as much time in Victoria’s burnt-brick duplex as he did in my place.
I was preparing for work on Friday afternoon when Chike burst in on me, smack in this dark and trendy double-breasted suit.
“The American dream is real,” Chike said, presenting me with his passport. “Victoria fixed it.”
Victoria put up a splendid send-off party for Chike on the Sunday, and he kissed-and-called Victoria “the Statue of Liberty.”
Chike travelled out of Nigeria on Wednesday night and Victoria and I were the only ones at the airport to see him off.
“Bala, take care of Victoria…” Heart-rending parting words delivered as only Chike could. Driving me back from the airport in her Mercedes Benz, Victoria pulsated with distressing sobs, and smack in the middle of Isolo expressway she collapsed against my lap, unable to drive further.
The car managed to slowly stop on the kerb of the service lane. It became my duty to drive her home, but I had to own up to the crushing shame that I had never learnt how to drive.
She would later recover and drive us home. She passed the night in my place – and several nights thereafter.
She was too afraid to return to the emptiness out of which Chike has so sweepingly drawn her. She was the most vulnerable I had seen a human being.
She laid open the book of her heart before my eyes: her unhappy childhood after her Nigerian father left her English mother in London; the tragic death of her mother when she was barely 10; the unpleasantness of a foster home; her training as a lawyer; her return to Nigeria and to a wealthy runaway father…
I didn’t need to propose to her. It stood as a given. Some lives are much too dramatic in the living to bear a rehearsal.
Our marriage was a foregone conclusion. Even so, Chike beat us to the hallowed institution. His first message from the United States, a month after his departure, talked of his recent marriage to an African-American.
“I entered into this marriage simply to secure the American Green Card,” Chike wrote. “I can only pretend to love the woman and she somehow knows it. I’ve been reduced to a grinning statue. I write her love poems to patch up the rough and tough bits.”
“Honey, no love poems please,” Victoria said, grinning.
I smiled. “I’m not tough enough.”