Gladys walks into the restaurant and heads straight to where I’m seated. Through the glass windows of the crowded dining hall, I had seen her alight from an okada. But as she walks towards me, I pretend not to notice her; I pretend to be busy with my phone. When she gets to where I’m seated, I look up and smile at her. She does not give me a brief side hug while I’m seated, like she usually does. She takes the chair across from me, the table between us.
“I am sorry for coming late,” she apologizes.
“It’s okay,” I say.
This isn’t the first time we’re meeting here – we’ve met here and elsewhere many times. Once, I had come late too. If she had felt slighted, she didn’t say it. All I did was apologize and explain why I had come late; an explanation she didn’t seem to care to understand its details.
“How are you?” I ask. And this time, it isn’t a perfunctory ‘how are you.’ I’m not asking her because it is part of a standard salutation; I really want to know how she is.
“I am fine,” she says.
I really want to know what’s going on in her mind. I want to know what she feels about leaving for Yobe – where she has gotten a job as a non-academic staff of a new university – within the week. I want to know whether or not she’ll miss me. It’s sad that she will be leaving just when our friendship is beginning to solidify.
The word leaving means many things to me. But now, sitting in this crowded restaurant on a Sunday evening, leaving is associated with Gladys, associated with the hairdo she had sent me a picture of when she made it the previous day. It is associated with her black T-shirt, and the white skirt that doesn’t cling to her skin enough to show any curve. It is her thin lips and dainty hands and feet, and the perfect dentition she reveals when she smiles. Leaving is Gladys’ voice on the phone when she calls, a voice you can only match to her ebony complexion after seeing her many times.
We had met in a rather odd way – on Facebook. For three years, we had chatted. I was in Jos at the time, she in Abuja. When I moved to Abuja, it took almost two years before we met. But we didn’t become friends after that. Rather, we took tentative steps towards each other, like chefs tasting their soup, gauging its saltiness and consistency. The tentative steps, like a novelty that wears off, gradually morphed into familiarity. And we became close, going out on dates once in a while.
She tells me what she did after she came back from church – washing, ironing, cleaning, and packing clothes into her box – preparatory to her impending departure, as people move in and out of the restaurant, others cluttering the counter while placing their orders.
“Congratulations once again,” I say. “I am happy for you.” And I truly. “Thank you”.
It’s really hard for someone to get their dream job in Nigeria, after all, so she deserves not just congratulatory messages but gifts. I do not tell her that, though.
“What are you going to do about the programming stuff you’re still working on?” I ask.
“I’ll finish it up before I leave,” she says. “I’ll try to.”
A graduate of computer science, she does some programing as a hobby. The many times she’d told me about the projects she was handling, she used words I didn’t understand – encrypt, decrypt, coding – as though she had taken them straight from a Dan Brown thriller.
“It’s cool. Good luck with that. So, tell me, you went to the town where your workplace is. How’s it like?”
“The people are promiscuous,” she says.
I expect that she’ll give a little description of the town’s level of development or insularity, not just the promiscuity of the people. And I do not think that the people of a small town in Yobe are promiscuous, anyway; I think they are conservative. But I do not tell her what I expect her to tell me, or what I think. She’s from Yobe, after all, and should be the right person to tell me about her people.
Rain clouds have started to gather, Gladys tells me. I do not doubt her, although I wonder how she’d seen it. She expresses a subtle wish not to be held up by the rain. We live in a satellite town in the Federal Capital Territory, where okada men scurry away like startled rodents whenever rain clouds show up. Her home is in the area I see as the center of the town, and it means that getting there will be such an ordeal for Gladys if the rain falls.
On our last date, I had promised to get her ice cream. I have to fulfill it now. Or never. I excuse myself and, leaving my phone with her, saunter to the counter to place my order. I stand there for close to ten minutes before a waitress attends to me. I do not buy for myself, because the POS isn’t working and I do not have much cash on me. I come back with the packed ice cream. She’s going through my phone when I pull back my chair to sit down, checking the odds and ends I have on Word 2016. She seems to like the fact that I write, even though I’m still scared of calling myself a writer.
I want us to talk some more; maybe it will make me miss her less. But we have to leave, no thanks to the rain clouds that have started gathering. We get out of the eatery, and she seems to be in a bit of hurry to get a bike. The other time we’d come to the restaurant, we had walked past the intersection ahead, close to the post office, before she bothered to stop a bike.
We stand where she can get an okada, at the next junction. When it comes to getting a bike, Gladys is very choosy. She has to scrutinize many okada men and be okay with one before she flags the bike down. She says she only jumps on okada driven by ‘decent’ okada men. I love that. As we stand there, a part of me is sad, because I’ll no longer wake up on a Sunday morning and fix a date with Gladys the next Sunday, and I’ll no longer enjoy calling and chatting to remind her of a date. I’ll no longer sit at a rendezvous and wait for her arrival, or imagine what she will wear to the date. Moving to Yobe and starting a new job means she will be buried in work, and may no longer care to read the things I write that she seems to be the only one who cares to read. She will certainly make new friends who will fill the void our distance will create. Maybe she will change, or maybe her new friends will change her. Maybe, with time, I’ll no longer occupy any space in her life. And maybe a time is coming when all I can do is write about the memories of the little dates we’ve had.
But a part of me is happy for Gladys. She’ll no longer tell me about all her attempts at getting a job, and how her IT skill is yet to fetch her any money. I’m happy that her job isn’t going to suffocate her, because she has passion for technology.
Usually, I help Gladys select a ‘decent’ okada man, but I do not bother now. My thoughts have strayed to the sad part of her leaving. A gravid silence settles between us.
As it turns out, I do not have to bother to help her scrutinize the okada men that drive past; there’s no time for any scrutiny. She flags down a motorcycle taxi. The motorcyclist stops. She tells the driver where she wants to go. She hugs me a little longer than she usually does. Then she gets onto the pillion, gently. I do not tell her I will miss her. Rather, I say: “I’ll keep in touch.”
“You should. Call me, chat me, anyhow. Please keep in touch.”
“Call me when you get home,” I say.
The okada man drives her away as I stand there, watching her retreating back.
Nicholas Leam is a graduate of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He loves to read. Sometimes, he writes out the little voices that cry out in his head. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Kalahari Review, New Ink Review and elsewhere. He lives in Abuja.