STEP 1: LIKE AT FIRST SIGHT
On the day we met, I saw my life
In one sweep, I saw reason,
Wrapped in a 36 pounds, big eyed girl.
On the day we met, I saw our victories
I read the lines behind your eyes and felt my heartbeat soar,
Trapped and stuck in my emotions looking to find a fault.
Suddenly I leapt, starting my life as I would know it.
This is how it works.
You spend Monday to Sunday working over a hot stove giving marching orders to your staff,
‘too much salt, not enough spice, is it supposed to be this bland!?, do you even have taste buds!?’
throwing pans around, barking out requests coming in from the restaurant, tasting the food once again, chopping, dicing, sweating, feeling like you’re the freaking Master Chef, basking in the chaos and loving every minute of it, all the way from 10:00am to 9:00pm.
Then all of a sudden, it all goes quiet and you’re alone. Everyone else is gone.
You are left standing like the lone survivor of a zombie apocalypse in the kitchen you love like a wife, A hot wife. Hahahaha. See what I did there? Nah? Okay, forget it.
It’s perfect. She’s perfect. But then people have started to mention that you spend way too much time with her, the kitchen. Maybe they’re right, It is starting to get kind of awful quiet here in the dead of the night. Was that a noise coming from the pantry? Yes? No? Okay, time to go home.
This is how it works.
Referrals baby! Your one gypsy friend sees the pattern you painted on your room wall in school, it’s a cipher within a cipher; rich blues, greens and yellows that bring out the deep blue wall. The cipher is a math problem you saw somewhere. It’s supposed to be unsolvable. It’s kind of beautiful, the unsolvability, like art. Numbers that just remain there; stagnant, unchanging, immortalized, until one person comes along and sees through it and starts swishing figures: here, there, here, there and boom! It’s solved and pretty Not beautiful anymore, but still pretty.
Anyway, I digress. This friend of yours sees the pattern and wants you to do the same for her, which you do for free. And then her friend sees it and wants the same thing done for her, then another sees it and wants the same done for her. At some point, Gypsy suggests it’s time you start charging for it. It’s a good thing she does or it probably would never have occurred to you. It feels odd charging for something you love so much. But you do it anyway… your mother didn’t raise a fool.
While other people are applying for jobs, you’re painting. While they are partying, you’re painting. While they are going on dates, you’re painting. And the more you paint, you know what you realize? It’s lovely, this thing that you’re doing, but it isn’t what you really want.
Where’s the magic? Where’s the mysticism? Where are the fairies and dragons and Mary’s lamb? Where are the things that make people dream?
You have to stop talking like this. This is why people call you weird. Luckily, everyone and their brother is getting married these days. Opens up the market. You stop painting friends places and start offering to paint their children’s rooms instead. There it is, the humming in your blood is going again. It’s a fun transition. You stop meeting people you’ve known your whole life and start meeting new people, interesting people, terrible people, normal people, creative people… and sometimes, unexpected people.
My sister has one of those bourgeois houses in a bourgeois estate bought by her bourgeois husband. He’s rich, As in rich, rich. The kind of rich that makes the rest of us look bad. We live in the same city but she has to force me to come and visit. Don’t get me wrong, she’s fam, I love her. I would just prefer it if she came to see me in the kitchen and she talked while I cooked.
It feels strange doing nothing. It’s Sunday. I’m stretched out on one of those white lawn chairs you see by pools or the beach, but this one is laid out on the balcony upstairs, facing out at the ocean which is their backyard. Mtcheew. Too freaking rich. There’s a matching lawn chair beside me. My mind immediately pairs them as his and her chairs, and wonders:
A. Whose chair am I sitting on?
B. What on earth do they do on these chairs? the hell did I have to picture my sister in any romantic scenario?
As you can imagine, I find it hard to relax on them now.
It’s a nice cool day. Not hot, just sun-behind-the-clouds breezy. The air smells like ocean. You can hear the water. It is probably scary when there is a storm; water churning like the devil is stirring it. But right now it is lapping peacefully, in and out.
The glass sliding door behind me pulls open, I crane my neck around the side of the chair. My sister, Laura, pulls it shut behind her, carrying a red, fruity drink in a sweaty glass on a small tray. She appears at my side, liberates a coaster from the tray, places it on a dainty lawn table and sets the drink down on it smoothly. Our mother would be proud.
I pick it up. Ice cubes jiggle around inside, “Where is your servant?”
She sits in the other chair. Her chair? Shut up brain, “My house helps are downstairs.”
I laugh. “You can’t act high and mighty when you just said house helps, plural.”
Look at us. The Okaro children. Who would have thought? We’ve come far.
Laura and I look a lot alike. Both tall, both fair, both have lots of hair- for her it hangs to her collarbone in fat, natural twists girls like these days. For me, it is hair that is ruthlessly and frequently styled in a crew cut, and a full beard I’ve had long before beard gang became a thing.
“So Jerry, why are you here today?”, Usually I have to bribe you to come over.”
“It’s not my fault your house is a journey, and don’t call me Jerry. You know it sounds like that stupid MTN ad.”
“I love that ad,” she exclaims.
She changes her tone to mimic the love struck girl in the ad. “Oh, Jeeerry.”
She trills with laughter. I slide further down onto the chair. Laura chatters on about… about what? Our parents? Her friends who are all trying to sleep with her rich husband or her hot brother? Both? I know they just want a man. Her new dream to be a fashion designer?
Does it matter? She talks. I listen to the waves. They come in and out, in and out. I close my eyes. I feel the wind. My phone buzzes in my pocket. I ignore it. Probably my mum, Again. Now I’m languid, floating somewhere in my mind. So this is what rest and family feels like, It’s not bad.
I listen to Rihanna’s ‘Work’ as I sit in traffic on my way to work. Work for work. The symmetry; I love it.
“Sambianna work, work, work, work, work. Sambianna, work, work, work, work, work.”
I sing with the music loud and the windows down, conserving fuel in a crappy economy. As I bob to the music my singing catches the attention of the two young guys in the next car. They exchange amused glances. I ignore them and keep singing like it’s the last day on earth and this is the criteria for survival. Yes, guys, I don’t know the words.
They are in a Peugeot 407. One of them, front passenger seat, smiles at me. He winds down the window. He’s okay, not a head turner but your children wouldn’t be ugly either. His smile takes a turn. You know that leery look that comes over guys; the slow smile, the rubbing of the chin, the shifting of their eyes from your face to your body. Oh God! it looks like he’s about to make traffic conversation. Eww! I wind up quickly and pretend not to notice him waving at me.
Already my mind is forgetting and refocusing on work. I am mentally picturing unfinished patterns on baby Joshua’s wall. I hate unfinished drawings. They sit under my skin like a safety pin pushed just under the first layer, being moved from left to right. I am picturing an animal farm that covers one entire wall. All those colours. All those shapes to fill in. I cannot wait to be laboring over it again.
His mother is one of the good ones. She doesn’t micro-manage. I’ve been working on it for two weeks and she lets me come in, paint, put on my music and forget where I am until it’s time to leave. No rich-witch syndrome! But then her husband is like a million years old. I did hear a story about the rich old guy marrying the middle class pretty young thing. I believe there were memes about it. Like the twist on Iyanya’s Mr. Oreo lyrics that turned it from a love song to; She no come for the body, she come for the money. Hahahahahaha. I have to admit, it is a little funny.
Do I believe it? No! Do I care? No! I don’t see these people outside the commissions they give me. They are a means to an end. I get to paint and I don’t starve. See? The end.
My nephew, Joshua, is chubby and cute. He smells like powder and something you can’t put your finger on but it makes you want to smile. I lug him around, balanced on one arm, telling him what it is like being alive at this point in history.
“Now weird people can become President. When I was a child they used to tell us that if we worked hard we could be President- not in Nigeria, in some other country, but now anyone can be.”
Joshua laughs at that. Even he thinks it’s funny.
I walk down a long hallway in this bastardly big house. I am supposed to be walking him so he doesn’t cry, so far it has been forty-five minutes. We have seen the sea, the kitchen, the living room where my sister is lounging, enjoying her break, and now we are becoming brave, venturing into the innermost parts of the house. If the rumours are to be believed, my brother in law has a secret room where he keeps his secret money calabash. We might soon find it.
I am pretty sure I am lost. I refuse to call my sister for help. That would be too demeaning. I round a corner and hear music coming from one of the rooms further down. What is that? Taylor Swift? My sister’s servants listen to Taylor Swift now?
I follow the music to the room, the door is shut. Somehow it feels like I’m intruding. I stand outside it for a moment and decide, what do I care? If I see something I shouldn’t – like a secret mistress my brother-in-law keeps hidden in this ginormous house – I’m going home in an hour anyway.
Quietly and slowly, I push open the door. Joshua is quiet too. I think he’s as fascinated as I am. There, inside the room is a woman. She is standing on a long, low table, painting the top part of the wall at the far end of the room. She’s wearing faded blue jeans and the tightest white top in the world. It stretches across a small back.
I think Laura told me about this. A children’s scene painter for Joshua’s playroom. It sounded like one of those rich people’s thing, but looking at it now I have to admit, it’s pretty freaking cool. The wall looks like a scene lifted from an animated movie.
I walk further into the room. She still hasn’t noticed me. She is slightly bent, delicately painting a tiny detail I can’t see from behind her, paws maybe.
“Hello,” I say. I expect her to start, but she keeps on what she is doing for a moment then slowly uncurls. Yes, that’s what she does, uncurls, from her position and turns to me.
I kind of want to swear right now. She is that pretty and I was right. That is the tightest top in the world. It’s splattered with all kinds of paint, her jeans too.
She’s kind of chocolatey, like Twix. Slim face, big eyes, braids that are packed loosely. She’s wearing glasses, but she removes them as if in some strange reverse order, she can look at me better without them.
I want to hear her voice. You know how you have to hear someone talk to know whether or not they are the complete package. Speak, I mentally command.
“Hi,” she says.
Oh jah! She has one of those trembles in her voice, like Willow Smith. No, Willow Smith is a kid, that’s creepy. Like Rihanna when she sings. And she sounds smart. I am obligated to say that or I sound shallow.
We kind of stare at each other. I guess it’s my turn to speak.
Joshua cuts in before me. He spews a load of baby talk. I can’t blame him. I would chance my Uncle for her too.
He is cute. He’s taller than me. He has a nice voice. He is carrying Joshua. What is it about men with babies that goes straight to your ovaries?! It’s biological, definitely. Our animal instincts are too busy looking for potential fathers to shut up and let us be great.
We are kind of staring at each other. Me, because I genuinely do not know what to say. He looks a lot like Joshua’s mother, so I’m guessing this is her brother. Older? Younger? It might be my ovaries talking but I seriously hope he is older.
“Hi,” he says again. “I’m Jeremiah.”
Nice name. “Sarah.”
I smile. So does he. My my, he is really cute. He is one of those specimen God must be really proud of. Oh, yes, definitely a child of God.
He moves closer, looking at the wall behind me. I follow his gaze. “You’re the painter? My sister told me about you. You are really good.”
He sounds impressed. If someone thinking your art is amazing doesn’t endear you to them, I don’t know what will.
We talk for like thirty minutes. He tells me he is a chef. It sparks my interest. I ask all kinds of questions about it. His restaurant, where is it? I recognize the name. It’s really big. He looks kind of smug about it.
After about minute thirty, I start to itch to get back to work. My mind starts to wander. I can feel the dry paint on my palms, caking.
“You want to continue working?”
I jerk in surprise. I can’t believe he noticed. So few people do. I feel kind of warm now. On the inside. On the outside. Must be the humidity.
“Yes, I do,” I say honestly.
“Not a problem. Let me leave you. This child’s weight is scary.” He lingers a bit. Dramatic effect?
His gaze is on me. “Can I have your number?”
I eye him for a minute. Oh yeah.
STEP TWO: GOING BEYOND THE FRIENDZONE
The ever thumping sound of your heartbeat tump
Recognizes the moment you have tried to neglect
Your words are calculated, everything must be perfect
Your mind is in turmoil
Fixated on all your practiced sayings
Others disappear from your rear view
Because you just realized how to say it.
For the final slur of mismatches
For the final out breath from all in breath
Now you are sure
To gather all day’s work.
Make a way to your highlight
And make a path to your genesis
For, it’s finally time.
So I’m slicing an onion with the dexterity of a ninja, like Samurai X. It falls in perfect rings on the cutting board, like the knife is an extension of me. This should make me proud of myself, right? But I’m not. I’m boiling with anger. Slicing the onion had been the duty of one of my junior staff, Tamuno the thin one, but one look at the amoeba shaped slices and I’d had to drag the knife from her.
The Marigold Restaurant, where I’m the head chef, is oftentimes referred to as the Hilton of Nigeria. It’s not as well-known as Sheraton or as fancy as Intercontinental, but all the same it is fast rising. So you can imagine the pressure. I’m to nurse the taste buds of the high and mighty, making sure that as they saunter out of those revolving doors in their thousand dollar heels and custom made Italian shoes, they’re highly satisfied. Five years I have been doing it, and in five more years I’m pretty sure I’ll have people asking, ‘what is Sheraton?’
A loud clank rends the air, breaking into my reverie. I raise my head to meet the shaky eyes of the culprit – Jide the jittery one. All around him stainless trays wobble noisily on the tiled floor. See what I have to deal with? My scowl travels from the service boy to the other staff standing like contestants for a mannequin challenge, staring at me as if expecting me to shout. Aahhh! I scream inside, while gifting them with an angry eye roll. My face is red now I know, so I return to slicing the onion, allowing myself to be soothed by the soft sound of steel meeting wet vegetable. I’m trying to get lost in the sting of the onion, something that makes others teary eyed, but seems to have no effect on me. When last did I even cry while slicing an onion?
But it doesn’t distract me, and now my mind is going back to the lagging workers all around me. “Amateurs” I hiss before I can stop myself. My inner man is telling me to give them a break, “they are all beginners”, he’s says. But the perfectionist side of me, the dominant side, just can’t justify their incompetence. He doesn’t understand the word beginner. I don’t blame him though because I have never been one. I’d known exactly what to do with food the moment I was privy to the knowledge that food should be cooked and not eaten raw and I’d taken to cooking the first day I tried my hands at it. That tale is courtesy of my mom by the way.
“Sir, your phone is ringing”, I hear a tiny voice say beside me. They can’t allow someone soliloquize in peace in this place. I follow the direction of the voice to see one of the dish washers, Mary the slow one, holding my phone up and on it is a smiling picture of my mother as the iPhone ringtone plays. The tune immediately reminds me of a skit by CrazeClown and Ade. Hehehe!
My mother is not one to be ignored. Still I watch my phone ring till it stops and the screen changes to reveal 14 missed calls. I roll my eyes at it, dismissing the girl with a wave. Yeah, head chefs have the power to do that. Look it up.
My mother has been disturbing me with messages. She has systematically made her way through every social media, sending me messages. I blame myself. She joined them when I changed her phone from Nokia torchlight to a Techno Phantom 6. If I had just listened to my instincts then, none of this would be happening.
The thing is, I don’t even have to pick up to know what she wants to talk about. It’s another girl she has only just heard about but is convinced is my soul mate.
Without meaning to, the second I think soul mate, my mind starts to drift off to the lady I just met but is already taking up residence in my mind. Sarah.
Sarah, the pretty. Sarah, the artsy. Sarah the…
Okay no, this can’t happen. At least not now. I really need a distraction. Raising my head, I immediately find one in the person of Emeka the lazy one.
“Please tell me you have diced the Ugwu?” I demand, prompting him to cut short whatever he was discussing with two others. He nods and I continue, “Long thin vertical stripes?”
Okay, now Emeka looks unsure, although he says a yes.
“Did you cut it before washing, or wash it before cutting?”
Now Emeka looks guilty, and he starts to stammer.
Typical Emeka, I sigh, “Just go.”
Okay, so my mouth is pushing to break into a Sound of Music song. Please don’t be weird mouth. Hold it in until we get into the car and I promise to whip out the album for a sing along session.
It falls for it, so I watch in silence, as sublime joy transforms my client’s faces. The five year old boy is bouncing up and down in his tiny Timberlands yelling, “I love it I love it I love it” while his parents are smiling and nodding in approval.
This, this is why I love my job.
The parents on the bidding of their child had asked for a Ben10 meets FC Barcelona themed paint job. Although it had taken a lot of brain racking trying to fuse the Ben10 green with the blue, maroon and red of FC Barcelona, I cannot be more proud of myself. Even the Omnitrix symbol looks perfect in the middle of the 6×4 space. Okay so I’m not a tears of joy person, but it’s all so beautiful. Still I’m not a tears of joy person so… sniff.
If only my parents had been liberal enough to paint my room anything but white and pink maybe I wouldn’t have been so depressed as a kid. But that’s another story for another time.
Little Billy is too eager to cross the yellow tapes to touch the still wet wall – yes I’m that kind of painter who uses a yellow police-style tape to guard my opus. Parents give me the weird look for that. Hahaha! Wait till it’s all said and done and then that look will be replaced with contentment.
Mr. Onoja is super impressed, “This is a really great job, Sara.” One hand is over his wife’s shoulder, the other holding Billy back from crossing the yellow tape. Awww love. Okay did he just say Sara again?
“Um, it’s Sarah,” I hear myself correcting him for the seventeenth time, pronouncing it Say-rah and not Seh-ra. “But it’s okay.” I add, even though it’s a lie.
“Yes, this is great, wow.” His wife agrees.
“I want Ninjago on my bathroom wall.” His tiny voice rings in my ears as his tiny feet thuds the hard wood floor.
Everyone is laughing and I join in … but wait oh that’s five ninjas on the tiny bathroom tiles. Chai!!
Okay don’t change the topic, let’s talk about my money. “Erm…so I hope this would move you to pay the amount we agreed o,” I say and Mr. Onoja laughs. He must think I’m Basketmouth.
“Haba…Sarah, in this Buhari regime,” he says.
I can’t help but roll my eye, fast and unnoticed though. It is so annoying how clients can easily go from ‘wow, so great’ to ‘in this Buhari regime?’
“Mr. Onoja, me too I live in this Buhrai regime o,” and they both laugh. Anhanh!
“Oya we’ll see what we can do,” Mr.Onoja says, leading the family out.
That is never a good answer.
Whew! After eight hours of culinary marathon, I retreat to my office feeling fulfilled. The little space is at the far end of the busy kitchen, lavishly furnished. As cool as it is, the office is just a waste, another attempt to glorify my position as head chef. As if that was necessary – I’m head chef and that alone says something with a wink. I hardly ever even use the office, so most of the furniture still have their factory wraps on.
My reclining chair makes a nylony sound when I drop into it. I feast my eyes on the best thing about the office, the view outside the east window. The sun is setting behind the sea, casting an orange glow on the surface, rippled now and then by the subtle wind. I love how the view changes from time to time. While it isn’t a picturesque scenery worthy of a million dollar canvas, it is a scene of filthy rich men docking their yachts to throw the most extravagant party of all time, or – my personal favourite – lovely couples relishing their meal at the outdoor tables – my handiwork- as the light fades.
Okay, now stop stalling Jer, pick up your phone and answer your mother.
Chimo! 127 BBM messages, 5 text messages, 3 Facebook messages, 4 IMO missed calls, 16 missed phone calls, all from dearest Ma.
She definitely doesn’t understand the concept of an ignoring act. One tap and the BBM messenger opens. Arrgh! Over 30 photo-shopped pre-wedding pictures. Make ‘em stop! Oya time to read Ma’s messages.
Jeremiah answer your mother now!
That cough has come back.
I have a girl for you o.
She is your Uncle’s friend’s secretary’s cousin’s elder sister…She is so pretty. LOL… Let me send you a picture.
Sigh. My mother.
The picture downloads and …wow, she is actually pretty. The kind of face one wants to see every morning. But one look at her and I know that’s all she is— a pretty face. Still I can’t blame Ma. She is getting restless at her son’s snail-speed love life. She won’t understand where I am coming from and I don’t think I can explain it to her or anyone else really.
I have seen divorce and I know what it can do to a family. My mother always thought my father was handsome. She had been proud that other girls thought it too, until other girls started sharing him and then other girls convinced her handsome husband to get a lawyer to draft divorce papers. Now Ma is alone, lonely, picking a new hobby one day and discarding it the next. Her latest is me and I just want it to be over soon.
“Thanks, but no thanks mom.” I send it to her and the reply comes immediately. Her fingers are practically glued to her phone.
‘I’m trying to help Jerry. I want you to find someone.’
That annoying name again.
“I will find someone mom…” I start to type when… Sarah… she pops up in my mind again. I can’t help but smile foolishly now. Before I can stop myself, I hold down the backspace and type instead,
I’ve found her already.
Time to go.
I remove the yellow tape carefully and dump it in a basket with the rest of my things. I pause to take one more look. Wow…I’ve really become very good. No pride intended.
As a kid I didn’t instinctively know how to draw. I never thrived in fine art classes. I never drew amazing portraits that were hung in class. But my teacher, Miss Amina, had seen an untapped and gestating flair for painting that I didn’t even notice.
“Open up your mind and you can do a lot,” Miss Amina had said. It had sounded like gibberish then – even confirmed by my parents who concluded I should move from Fine Arts to Home Economics. Now I realize she was right and my parents were the opposite.
I head outside and look up. The moon is already high in the sky. I can’t believe I worked so late. I throw my work basket into the boot, and as I circle to the driver’s seat, my phone buzzes. OMG it has to be Jeremiah texting.
Sarah, get it together woman. Control them ovaries, and please stop smiling as you open the message.
Okay, so it’s not Jeremiah, but it’s on the same level of important. My best kinda message – 60,000 naira from Mr Onoja.
‘I don get alert, God huwin’ the song is reeling in my head now as I drive the next 5 miles to my house.
The Aniekan residence is a lavish duplex in Lekki Gardens. I frown at the car I’m parking behind, check the plates to be sure… LSD-67…. oh jeez my parents are home early.
Johnson and Petra Aniekan are both high priced lawyers. The Aneikan chambers is one of the top ten in the country, defending big names- even some politicians during the recent witch-hunting fiasco. Now imagine how it was when I told them I wasn’t going to be a part of the family’s law firm, even after five years in University and Law School. I’m still haunted by the disgust in my mother’s eyes when I mentioned painting kid’s rooms as my chosen profession. My dad had been colder, replying with a tsk and then completely ignoring me.
It didn’t sway me though. I have no intention of giving in to what they want. They have two other daughters to mould into their robots. I pity Sandra and Silvia though, just 19 and 15 yet their names are already printed on name plates waiting to be hung on office doors at Aniekan Chambers.
Getting out of the car, I take one look at my appearance- my usual work dungarees has numerous green, red, maroon and blue paint splatters. One button is undone leaving the front flapping and revealing an equally stained black short sleeved shirt. My black loafers though have just a few green stains, and they are even artistically arranged to look like a design of its own.
My appearance is actually very picturesque, worthy of Vogue, but knowing my parents it will not stand. I know the minute I walk through the front door, my mother will say something like, “You look like you robbed a crayon factory.” In some houses that might pass as a joke and even turn into an anecdote, but not in mine. Here, the statement will be made with a serious face and a tone of disgust, and it will be received just as sombrely. Although I trust my sister’s sha, we shall laugh about it in private.
Bottom line, I can’t let my parents see me like this.
Sandra is my best bet; Silvia is not a person to trust during emergencies.
Come and open the back door, I text Sandra.
Thirty minutes later, I’m in a faded pink shirt on blue denim trousers and seated between my sisters at the long dining table in the white washed dining room. Every time I look at these walls, my mind can’t help but go over all the colours it is missing. Our fancy Oakwood table can sit eight people so the three empty chairs on the other side makes the room even gloomier. I used to tell Sandra and Silvia that on the empty chairs sat our parent’s invincible best friends, Mr. Pride, Mrs. Snob and Miss Perfection.
Oh God, the room is too quiet. Even the sound of steel cutlery seems non-existent. Why am I even complaining? This is normal. No one talks at the table or makes any unnecessary sound. Even the chewing of crackers has to somehow be muffled. Breaking the rule was punishable by derogatory looks and captious remarks.
It is suffocating.
I can’t even touch my jollof rice or the salad, or even – my favourite – a piece of fried chicken wing. I don’t feel like eating, I feel like talking. I want to talk about work, about the colour fusion I managed to make an artwork out of, about the joy on my client’s faces, or the new equipment I plan to use my money to get, heck I even want to talk about Jeremiah.
But I can’t. Mr. and Mrs. Table Manners and their three friends are around.
Just then, my phone chimes on my lap. Thank God it’s not a China phone, I think, but the deed is already done. The looks have already started rolling in. One apologetic look coming right up. Whether they fall for it or not I can’t even tell. Stylishly, I look to see who pinged me. O MY GOD!! I know I’m breaking one rule by smiling right now but I can’t help it. Who cares, let them look!
Jeremiah just said hi.