The Periwinkle List

​9.58am.

Victoria Garden City, Lagos.

It was an unusual time on a Monday morning to still maintain the affinity between my back and the multi-coloured bedsheet that I had been too lazy to wash over the weekend; I should be in my slave plantation of a workplace, dazed by the grueling traffic from a few hours before, responding to threatening office mails in servile fashion and flashing plastic smiles to customers with an unnecessarily huge sense of entitlement…..but today was different. The ones who worshipped on Fridays rather than Sundays had their version of December 25th going on, so the federal government pleased all 9-5ers as it rarely did, by announcing a two-day public holiday. Left to me, I would have loved that a search be conducted for another missing moon thereby causing an extension of my days away from the plantation, but no horses were going to have beggars riding them. I scrolled down my phonebook (in vain) for the phone numbers of friends who would have me partake in a binge on those juicy ram parts, and finding none, I opted for another outlet to search for company: my social media timeline.

Being a creative comes with the urge to express your art on social media, being active on social media while displaying expertise in your craft translates to a significantly huge following, and from that ultimately springs up a dedicated fan base. I did not necessarily rate my prowess by social media approval, but if the likes, comments, retweets and shares were anything to go by, I was pretty good with my pencil and paintbrush. Creativity attracts enthusiasts, and sometimes enthusiasm evolves into devotion, some of which would usually flow from the opposite sex…..which allows for flattery…..and flirting…..and the tendency to confuse curiosity with genuine admiration, and in extreme cases, a mix-up of art appreciation with emotional attachment. 

I was aware of the complicated procedure involved in creating new e-bonds; the witty lines, the comebacks, the need to avoid corny statements, the necessity of keeping out small talk, the continual steering of the conversational wheels so they remained in a particular direction (especially if your intentions were not exactly noble, though there was no real way to gauge that), the need to conduct due diligence on the timeline to get a clear picture of their views on issues (like ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and feminism), the rule of typing in full (relevant in this age of Grammar Nazis), carefully negotiating the line between straight talk and douchey behaviour, the silent prayer to avoid the ones who made every inbox conversation the subject of a status update…..so I opted to direct my sliding tackles to familiar terrain instead. There was no way I could get a new social media acquaintance comfortable enough to pay me a visit in hours. 

I figured that it would be futile convincing Temi to come over; she often complained that I replied her Whatsapp messages after three business days, and only chatted her up when I felt like having her around. Oge was eight hours away, and even a free flow of “extensive physical interaction” with her was not guaranteed. Somto’s crush on me had faded, her calls and texts no longer streaming in like they used to, my uploads of landscape drawings no longer “captivating” enough for her to publicise like she loved to do five to six months earlier, though I admittedly complicated things with my unresponsiveness and mental shut-outs which (coincidentally) began after that two-day visit. I was left with the option I felt would be the easiest, the tempo of our curiosity ride still good enough to secure a rendezvous…. 

********

Cathy was a graduate of Economics from the University of Lagos stuck in that limbo between the end of national service year and that first contract of employment, as well as an art enthusiast…..or at least that was what I could gather from her Facebook timeline. I slid into the fast-flowing river that was her inbox, just at the same time her situationship with Tunde, a writer famed for his cheesy poems often published on rainy nights, had hit the rocks. Being a creative gets you surrounded by similarly wild minds to the point that it feels like a cult, so the friend request was always a question of “when” rather than “if”, and if seeing that we had about four hundred e-friends in common was not going to get me comfortable, Lord knows what would. 

The popular story was that Tunde had got into a heated e-scuffle with online personality Hymar David over a post which the former had perceived as a subtle dig at his craft, and Cathy had unwittingly clicked the like button one of Hymar’s incisive comments. Tunde had gone ahead to unfriend Cathy, who responded with a post about “nursery rhyme scribblers who lacked depth”. Tunde, nursing a bruised ego, composed a long poem on “paper dolls and blondes clothed with dark skin”, and Cathy hit back by uploading screenshots of the many conversations they had, from the downright corny to the ones laced with smut. 

I was aware of all this, and from the first “hello” I knew I had to impress. A long chat history laced with wit and sass evolved into a back-and-forth texting marathon, then the likes on every single sketch I uploaded, then the Instagram mentions, then the 2am voice notes, then the exchange of photos involving mounds of flesh (though I was careful not to send out shots of my ‘German machine’ in sheer over-excitement, who knew where those could end up?) 

A request to stop by and check out some of my new furniture was met with some reluctance from her. Her words were:

“James, you live at VGC, and I in Ketu. See the distance? ”

“Geography means nothing where Desire is involved”, I replied. 

“All these mushy lines you artists use. By the way, I think we’re going too fast, we only started talking three weeks ago.”

“Cathy, I think it would be unfair of you to try dictating the pace of this thing between us, let’s go with the tempo, why interrupt the flow? ”

And when I slowly pencilled out her features on a white cardboard paper while she lay totally unclothed on my mattress, she inquired:

“James, you’d better make sure no portion of this sketch leaves this room. ”

“Baby, you want us to sign a non-disclosure agreement? ” I answered, making a derisive face. 

“Hmm…. you called me ‘baby’……how many of your female fans on social media have you addressed by that term? ”

And midway through our joint bath, before which she had tightly wrapped her legs around my hip, clutching my head as I nibbled at her breast and mouthing unintelligible statements as I ploughed the moist mangrove swamp with the German machine, deciphering the texture of her butt cheeks with my palms, she implored:

“Jamie, none of this makes your Facebook page, even in the most subtle of posts, ok? ”

“I am not a writer, Cathy, only writers kiss and tell….and by the way, it’s ‘James’. Let’s clean up, dress and sleep.”

We didn’t find our clothes, at least not until she left the following evening. We had no need of them anyway. 

*********

12:19pm.

Victoria Garden City, Lagos. 

According to the general “missed calls rule”, I made it a point of duty not to dial a number after two attempts without a response, but I had broken the code for Cathy’s sake, and even after the fifth attempt, all I got was the “no answer” notification, accompanied by that tone which meant that the human at the other end was unable (or unwilling) to pick up. Determined to not appear too “thirsty”, I refrained from dialling for the sixth time. I wouldn’t have lent much thought to all of it if the two text messages from my phone had been met with a reply. Cathy was usually the first to trigger the text-a-thon, so this was unusual. 

I swam through the waters of my newsfeed into her Facebook inbox to drop another chat message (I had sent out a random “hey miss” by 7.52am), and I found that not only was she online, she had seen the words from few hours earlier. She had also posted three updates within the past hour, shared a video, and commented on two short stories. Yea, i caught all the details in totally insecure fashion. 

Cathy was ignoring me. 

There was no need to make a fuss out of it, but I wanted the company.  Cathy’s company. I could feel her butt cheeks all over my palms, and with that flash of thought, I grabbed my phone, scrolled to my Facebook messenger and typed:

“Not quite good at multi-tasking, are you? ”

It was read within minutes, with no reply given, but shortly after lunch which comprised of bread and egg sauce (I couldn’t stress myself to conjure an actual recipe or visit Nigerian Lazy Chef’s Instagram page),  I scrolled down my newsfeed to find a recent status update from Cathy. It read:

“Ultimately, we’ve got the right to choose where we want to be, who we are comfortable with, and for how long.”

I got the message. The novelty had worn off.

 I ceased all communication with Cathy. It was not a conscious effort, but the texts dried up. She withdrew her likes from a few of my sketches, and pulled down the photos of us together taken at The Palms from her wall.

In the following weeks, the social media pages of a young man named Mickey felt the effect of Cathy’s keypads. I knew Mickey, affectionately known as Mickey Strings; he had shared the stage with promising Nigerian rock acts Johnny Drille, Phrance and Nathmac at a number of gigs, played the guitar as well as the harmonica, and the pseudo-elite girls who frequented Bogobiri Lounge couldn’t get enough of him. I stumbled on a video of him rendering a cover of Mumford and Sons’ “Believe”, and while I felt he was trying too hard, I couldn’t deny the talent. Cathy clicked the ‘love’ button on all his posts, shared his videos, reposted his practice sessions on Instagram, gave glowing reviews of his songs (I particularly liked the guitar solo on his hit track “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone”), and was quick to upload photos of them smiling together at Hard Rock Cafe. 

I shrugged inwardly whenever I saw those updates. If i had invested my emotions in the positive social media feedback, or expected anything meaningful to spring from soft-copy affections, then a short scroll down Cathy’s timeline would have got me clutching my chest in agony. It was not that deep, no, it never was. Everything ran its course, from high-octane crushes to weather-induced company, and this was no different. 

“Sometimes you are reluctant to translate e-acquaintance into real-life familiarity because of the difficulty in gauging the level of depth (or lack thereof), as well as the particulars of intent…..and other times your thoughts run in the lines of ‘oya coman feed your curiosity and be going to your house’ ”

*********

7.21pm.

Freedom Park, Lagos. 

“Dude, why aren’t you up there performing tonight? ”

It was the Lagos State International Poetry Festival, and while we were waiting for the headlining acts, we had to make do with a few performances from two “cold-weather poets” who had opted to sacrifice meaning in order to achieve rhyme schemes. Sure enough, there were no rules to poetry, but I just found the renditions abysmally poor. The atmosphere of the event was getting lost on me, causing me to take solace in a glass of Heineken, but I only just spotted Tunde, and I set about to teasing him. 

“Oh, you want me to perform, so that someone will run to her wall and do an editorial on nursery rhyme scribblers”, he cut back. 

I laughed. We both knew who he was talking about. 

“Oh, where is that one by the way.” I was eager for some gossip. 

“I should be asking you.”

“No, we should be asking Mickey Strings.”

No information. This meet-and-greet was getting boring. 

“Talk of the Devil! ”

Tunde had seen him first. I turned. It was Mickey alright, on one of those rare public appearances without a guitar. Dressed in a navy blue turtle-neck t-shirt, beige-coloured trousers and black sneakers, he walked up to us, leading to an exchange of “bro” hugs. 

“Why are you here alone? ” I inquired, wasting no time to put him on the spot. 

“What do you mean? ” Mickey asked, confusion finding home on his face. 

“Usually, you would be here with….”

“Oh!!!! ” Mickey exclaimed. He had finally got where I was driving at. “We don’t talk anymore. As a matter of fact, she blocked me on Twitter.”

“Wawu! ” I blurted, feigning shock. 

“Guy wetin happen? You guys were the IT social media couple.” Tunde was hungry for some gossip too. 

“Well, we had this argument. She wanted a song written for her, and she wanted it on her birthday. My muse deserted me at the time, and I couldn’t deliver, so…..one subliminal diss, then another, then one day I go to her Facebook timeline and see “Add Friend. ”

“Na wa o….. ”

“Oh well….. I hear she is crawling all over Femi Laniyan’s feeds nowadays.”

“Who’s that one? ” My ears were now more alert than ever. 

“He is one guy who recently joined the cast of Tinsel, same time as Falz”, Mickey responded generously. “He is tall, dark, team beard gang sef. Played ‘waka pass’ roles in Phone Swap and The CEO.”

“Cathy sha! ” Tunde cut in. “Should we tell him? ”

“Where’s the fun in that? ” I retorted. “Let the girl have her fill. I’m sure we were all just part of a long list.”

“Waking up next to very male creative on your timeline is a pretty tall ambition, but who says a woman cannot dream? ” Mickey was getting salty now. 

“The way they treat some of us creatives like periwinkle ehn….pick, suck and move ahead”, Tunde interjected. 

We giggled.

“The worst part is when they show up, seeming all genuine, and then you make the mistake of pouring your heart out to them. You are left with the feeling of being naked”, Mickey added. 

We slowly nodded in agreement. Poor Mickey, he probably thought he had found someone he could be honest and comfortably vulnerable with when he met Cathy. 

I poured some more Heineken into my glass from the bottle and dutifully observed the bubbles. It was amazing, really, how the foam would appear so thick for a few moments, and then settle back into the glass without warning…..just like social media relationships. I thought about the “hey James, I really like your drawings, they have so much soul” inbox message I received earlier in the day from a lady whose friend request I recently accepted, grinned and took a long sip. 

Your Place

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“J, I’ve got something important I want to tell you.”

“Funny, because there’s something I want to tell you too.”

“Ok, go on.”

“No, you first.”

“Nah, after you.”

“You first….I insist.”

Typical argument between Irene and I. We argued about everything, from who should pay the bus fare, to who should sit first on the church pew. I was always willing to be a gentleman for Irene, and though she was not always up for that, she eventually decided to dance to the “ladies first” script this time and choose to speak first. Our eyes shared the same level of brightness as our skins absorbed the Sunday evening breeze, and as I savoured the atmosphere around Nike Lake, a small resort located in the nation’s coal capital, I wondered what Irene had to say. Nevertheless, I knew it had to be something important. Irene never suggested Nike Lake unless there was a crucial decision she had to make. I was that familiar with her.

Yes, it had been over seven years, precisely seven years and ten months, since I first set eyes on Irene at the main auditorium of that federal university in the South-south where we had our university education. I had bumped into her as I struggled through the long queues and sticky bodies to process my clearance as a fresh undergraduate, and just as if she saw through my personality as a shy boy, she had walked up to me first. I had feebly and nervously replied “Joey” when she asked for my name, apparently awestruck by her light complexion and small but graceful frame, but there was this spark that greeted the stuffy auditorium at that moment, and from then on a wonderful friendship began. We read together (we were both admitted to study English and Literature), we went to church together, we ate at the same restaurant, we always found ourselves in the same class assignment groups, and after our graduation, I fought successfully to make sure that we did our service year in the same state.

I could do anything for Irene. She had a heart of gold, always tried to see the good in people, and she knew just how to encourage others. She it was who talked me out of dropping out when I became disillusioned with school in my second year following the death of my mother, and her soothing words came in handy again in my penultimate year when our department had to host a conference involving all English and Literature students nationwide, and I as the departmental president ran out of funds, ideas and faith. She was as intelligent as she was beautiful, earning the best result in our freshman year, and ultimately graduating with a Second Class Upper Division, many thanks to the miserly lecturers we had. She had pretty good culinary skills too, coming out tops in a number of cooking competitions in our undergraduate years. She was too trusting and a little indecisive though, and these flaws played a part in her experiencing three occasions of heartbreak, none of which derailed her firm belief in Love and Humanity.

We had seen our fair share of failed relationships and we had supported each other through all the hurt, but now I wanted more. I had finally realised that I actually loved Irene. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had involved myself in emotional debates through the years, but now it was clear. I wanted to wake up each morning next to her, her hair entangled in my face, her breath greeting my skin. She loved kids, and I definitely wasn’t going to mind future evenings together, sitting outside a small beautiful house with two little Joeys and one little Irene. Why couldn’t we? We usually said that each had all which the other wanted in the opposite sex, and then again we knew how to handle each other’s flaws. After all, relationship counsellors usually advised that we go for our friends when it came to the long term. This was why my eyes lit up that late afternoon. I wanted to make my feelings known, and I wondered how she would take it.

“J, you know how you always tell me to follow my heart?”, she began, jolting me back to reality.

I nodded at a fast pace. She was right. She usually came to me for advice whenever she was not so sure about entering a new relationship or helping someone out financially, and the words “follow your heart” usually served as my response, accompanied by a smile and a joining of my hands with hers.

“Joey, I am getting married…..to Fred”, she blurted out with an air of decision.

Fred? Fred? The same Fred, with whom she said she had called it quits because he smoked too much and had hit her in a fit of anger? The same Fred, whom she said spent more than half the time on Nairabet, and enjoyed forcing her to make love to him? Was this the Fred whose last she wanted to substitute hers with? If my eyes were light bulbs minutes earlier, they had blown out by the time she completed her statement.

“Is this the same…..?”

“Yes it is the very Fred”, she cut in, putting a stop to my attempt at a query. “During the three weeks when you had to attend that Writers’ Workshop at the nation’s capital, Fred and I had series of discussions. He apologised, I took him back, and after a lot of thought and prayer, I realise that I really love him. He is a great guy. He has his flaws, but that will change. I am sorry I didn’t bring this up earlier….and no, it’s not what you think. I am not pregnant for him. I am just following my heart, and I know that I’m right this time”.

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A lot of thought? Yea, right. Like the amount of thought she put in when she decided to date Femi during the second semester of our freshman year, barely a week after meeting him. We knew how that turned out; the party ended as soon as got access to the cake. It must have been the same amount of thought she put in when she got involved with Bankole during our service year, when even a little investigation earlier on would have helped her find out that he was actually a married man. Such a crucial step, a life-reaching decision, and she couldn’t afford me the courtesy of a discussion? The whole Writers’ Workshop thing was just a lame excuse. I could have sought permission to leave for a few days to discuss this matter with Irene. I cared for her that much.

“What do you think, Joey?”

“Well if it’s what makes you happy, why not? It’s your heart we are talking about here.”

That was the best reply I could muster from my head. I was too shocked to think about anything. I wasn’t being sincere and Irene knew it, but her announcement had probably caused her too much inner excitement to bother about my countenance.

“You said you wanted to tell me something, J.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I just wanted to say that I really value the friendship we have nurtured all these years, and that I will always be there to support you. Kind of like a re-affirmation of my commitment to this friendship.”

“Joseph!”

Yea, she got me there. My eyes, my face, even my imaginary juggling said it all. At least her euphoria had not blinded her from being able to detect when I was lying. I didn’t feel the need to let out my feelings any more, as it would have made no difference, but Irene still knew how to pull words out of me, and I let loose.

“I love you, Irene Ojiugo Udechukwu”, I said, with the pent up energy of four years. “I have been running from it all before, but I just can’t continue. I have fought myself hard enough to you. I feel my chest when I think of you. I am sick of standing in the way of my own happiness. I want the strands of your hair getting lost in my face. I want my fingers to always lie in the spaces between yours. I want your perfume to be all that my bedsheets reek of. I want to open my eyes to each new day, knowing that you are less than an inch away. I need nothing else in a lady that I don’t already find in you. It’s you Irene, you I want.”

On other days she would have burst out laughing, but she could sense the seriousness in my emotional confessions, and she just stood silent. After an interval of about five speechless minutes, she got closer, and holding my face between her palms, said:

“Joey, I know you mean all you’ve said. Truth be told, I love you too, I really do…..but not in the way you desire. You have been there for me all these years, and what we share is great. We don’t have to ruin it all by adding romance to it. You are a friend, the very best, a brother, even more. Let’s be friends forever, what you ask of me will only complicate things. I know you will always be there for me, and I promise to be around for you too, albeit in a different capacity from what you want. I love how bonded we are, and I want things to stay that way.”

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Disappointment. Deflation. Demoralization. These nouns put together would not have done justice to describe how I felt upon hearing her words, but she was not done.

“Because you area super friend, my best friend, I have chosen you to give a special toast for the wedding which we have fixed for next five Saturdays. Our engagement party is coming up next Friday, and I will need you to be at Ascot Hotel to organise the place and also help the drinks. Pleaaaase? Thank you”, she went on, looking at me with those eyes I could never say no to, and handing me a peck on the cheek. “If it were possible, I would have selected you to be my Maid of Honour, but guys are not allowed to do that…..hahaha. I need you around. I need your protection, you are one of the few good men left. You are a great guy, and I know that someday you’ll find a lady who’s just right for you.”

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Brother, Friend, potential Chief Bridesmaid but for my gender. That was all Irene saw when she thought of me…..after all this time! After seeing her through all the breakups and tears! After giving up some of my blood for her when she suffered a haemorrhage in her final year and no family member could be reached! After taking a bank loan so I could get her that N500,000 camera because she said she loved Photography, and going on to link her up to UK-based photographer Ade Okelarin! After all the nights in school where I risked ridicule by carrying her handbag because she felt really weak after studying on most evenings! After deciding to break up with Nonye and Abby (in penultimate year and service year respectively) simply because Irene did not like them! She apparently attached nothing to our long hours on the phone, to those poems we read to each other under the tree adjacent to the school library, to those times we held hands during fellowship Drama Night, to those rounds of serial texting three nights a week. For her, they were just expressions of friendship. My heart sank.

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so bad if I had obeyed my lusts and had my way with her that night. Yea, that night when she had too much to drink at last year’s End of Year dinner at our workplace, and got so horny, urging me to explore her moist regions. I declined her request, choosing to respect our friendship and refusing to take advantage. I couldn’t help but feel that keeping her clothes on was the worst mistake I had made. There was now no difference between me and a cashier who counted other people’s money, but couldn’t get access to any. It was too late now. Irene had made her decision, never mind the level of wisdom (or lack thereof) behind it.

“No qualms. I’ll take charge of the party. I always got your back. Congratulations”, I said in a solemn tone, while reaching out to hug her so tightly.

*********************************************************************************

All that had taken place eight days ago. I am all alone in my apartment, my phones are switched off, and I am sitting on the sofa beside two empty bottles of Jack Daniels. It’s my third consecutive day without a bath, and I don’t think I’ll be hitting the shower anytime soon. I know that Irene’s engagement party is slated for this Friday and there are arrangements to be discussed, but I’m in no mood for that. I have thought deeply, and I have concluded that makes no sense living with the fact that Irene will never be mine. There are lessons to be learnt from all this though: Spot out your place in people’s lives as soon as you can, and never fight too hard to earn one. Define your friendships and relationships with people early enough, and no matter how corny you may sound, make your intentions clear, or else you’ll find yourself deep in the Friend Zone before you know it, and once you are in there, it takes a miracle to climb out. I have posted these nuggets on my Facebook wall, I have written them down in this small piece of paper on the table, and I’m happy that I remembered to lodge my Will at the Probate Registry last week. I can’t get a gun, and dangling from a rope would be too painful, so these painkillers together with the liquor I just gulped down should numb my senses long enough to apply this knife to my wrists. No, it’s no use staying around. Irene will never be “nwunye Joseph”, I’ll be one Joseph whose dreams didn’t come true, and at best she’ll just shed a few tears and move on. I hope my younger brother avoids the same mistakes I made, and I hope he never comes across a lady who will subject him to this torture. They say that suicide is an automatic ticket to eternal damnation, but Hell would be no different from a life where I’ll be nothing more than just a friend to Irene.
Whatever you do, be careful not to get friend-zoned!

(Follow on Twitter @Le_Bouquineur)