She rarely makes eye contact, this strange girl in a beer parlour. Instead, she looks down at the ground. Because the ground is safer. Because unlike people, it expects nothing in return. She doesn’t have to feel ashamed about her past. The ground just accepts her for who she is right now.
She sits at the chair next to mine, staring down at her emptied bottles of Dubic, and then the ground, and then her Dubic.
“Most people don’t get me,” she finally says in reply to my question. I have swallowed many bullets, moved my chair over and asked her why she is out here on the rowdy streets of Ibadan, a girl as fine as she is. She continues speaking; her voice is a little too loud, too wet, her words drawling out. “They ask me questions like, ‘What’s your problem?’ or ‘Were you beaten as a child?’ But I don’t respond. Because I don’t feel like explaining myself. And I don’t think they really care anyway.”
I peer at her, speechless. Her English should not be surprising, she is probably a stray student (there has been a handful of those lately, from the university, students either with academic problems or family issues or broken hearts or all of it) but her choice of answering my simple question with such a complex response made words fail me.
A young man walks up and sits down at the table opposite us. He’s a little drunk; he shouts across, “You’re pretty. May I buy you a drink?”
She stays silent and looks back down at the ground. After an awkward moment, he accepts the rejection, shifts aside and faces his cup.
“Would you prefer that I leave too?” I ask the girl.
“No,” she says without even glancing upward. “But I could use some fresh air. You don’t have to come, but you can if you want to.”
“I want to,” I say. My moustache itch; eyes dance; and my sweatshirt feels too tight for a walk. Caro will have closed from work and will soon be here. But I want to. I follow her outside and we sit on a street curb in front of the bar.
“Brrr… it’s a really chilly night!” I say, to punctuate the heaviness the conversation is obviously taking on.
“Tell me about it,” she says, obviously humouring me while maintaining her usual downward gaze. The warm vapor from her breath cuts through the cold air and bounces off of the ground in front of her. I think I must have imagined it, because we are not in America. Things like that only happen in the American films my little cousins watch in my room at Bodija when they come for holiday.
The girl is tracing a line in the sand with the toe of her flat shoes. “So why are you out here with me? I mean, wouldn’t you rather be inside in the warmth, talking to normal people about normal things?”
There is something in her tone that makes irritation crawl up my spine. “I’m out here because I want to be. Because I’m not normal.” I suddenly feel ashamed of my snappish response. I continue, apologetically. “Look, I can see my breath as I speak, and we’re in Ibadan in the month of April. That’s not normal either. Oh, and you’re wearing court shoes, and I am wearing Wellington boots—which may have been normal in 1994, but not anymore.”
She glances up at me and smirks, this time exhaling her breath upward into the moonlight. I am joyed by the sight of her teeth; they were perfect. She says, “I see you’re wearing a ring. You’re married, right?”
“No,” I reply. “But I’m engaged. My fiancée, Caro, is just leaving her office work and heading here to meet me for Thank God It’s Friday.”
She nods her head and then looks back at the ground. “Well, you’re off the market…and safe, I guess. So… can I tell you a story?”
As she speaks, her gaze shifts from the ground, to my eyes, to the moonlit sky, to the ground, and back to my eyes again. This rotation continues in a loop for the duration of her story. And every time her eyes meet mine she holds them there for a few seconds longer than she did on the previous rotation.
She has large, beautiful, sad eyes.
I don’t interject once. I listen to every word. And I assimilate the raw emotion present in the tone of her voice and in the depth of her eyes.
When she finished, she said, “Well, now you know my story. You think I’m a freak, don’t you?”
I let the breath from her mouth nose into the ground before I swallow my spit.
“Place your right hand on your chest,” I tell her. She does. “Do you feel something?”
“Yeah, I feel my heartbeat.”
“Now close your eyes, place both your hands on your face, and move them around slowly.” She does.
“What do you feel now?”
“Well, I feel my eyes, my nose, my mouth… I feel my face.”
“That’s right,” I reply. “But unlike you, stories don’t have heartbeats, and they don’t have faces. Because stories are not alive—they’re not people. They’re just stories.”
She stares into my eyes for a prolonged moment, smiles sincerely and says, “Just stories we live through.”
“Yeah… And stories we learn from.”
A car honks and we watch it park behind an Indomie truck. I know the car. Caro waves at us from behind the wheel. And I wave back.