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STORIES: The Short and the Long of It


Okay, wait, here’s your chance: you can have the short of it, or, you can have the long of it. If you want the short version, take this email quote, “Not different enough from many other stories of single women looking without much success for Mr. Right,” which fits comfortably within the 140-character world we now live in. It’s not meant to be flippant or unkind. It’s just what it is. And if it works for you, well, you can be on your merry way. But if you don’t mind getting the long of it, by all means hang around.

The man complains of a severe, single spot headache. He looks like a dark-shadowed stickman drawn by an impish kid—all long limbs and pointy jaw. The night nurse who should have relieved me an hour earlier called to say she’d be late because of a twisted ankle. No doubt the silly cow just lied to stay home and get some when her husband got off work. But now I’m grateful to her. I get to take the stickman’s vitals, get to know his name: Louis.

He’s forty-four. I think forty-fuckable. I check his height and it occurs to me that I’ve finally grown. Or maybe I’m just getting it now, the whole life thing. What’s certain is at thirty-sexy I’m getting on. I want someone to go home to. It’s why I’ve been craving an opportunity to scold my parents for jinxing me by exiting in a way that will never be partner-hooking-friendly.

When I bring this up earlier at lunch, my friend Didi rotates her fork in midair, says I have OOCS—Orphaned Only Child Syndrome. I think how life just isn’t fair. I’m the nurse, but it’s Didi, an artist who’s not even the starving kind, who invents a disorder to justify the convoluted thoughts I’m having about my parents. So I tell her OOCS is an example of people making up phantom illnesses to rationalize plain crazy. Didi shakes her dreadlocks, says just because OOCS is not getting the budget of a small country thrown at it by the usual suspects doesn’t mean it’s not real; that if I were American, I’d be in therapy paying hourly to ask myself why I’m obsessed with my dead parents.

Well, now I’m no longer thinking of my parents. There’s a breathing man to think of and I’m checking his blood pressure. Louis is squeezing his thighs together like a mouse is about to jump out from between them. I realize he didn’t slink into the clinic because of a headache. I cock my head and turn on my gentle nurse smile. I can be nice if I want to. I just don’t usually want to.

“Would you like to lie down?” I ask.

He seems embarrassed, like he’s been caught sneaking a peek, shakes his head.

“Do you want an ice pack?”

He hesitates, as if finding his voice. “I tried that. Didn’t work.”

“Okay. In order for me to help, you need to tell me what you did for it to get that way.”

Louis flinches, becomes a frightened child facing a phantom. I put on my reassuring nurse smile. I’ve seen countless adults become kids in hospitals when something goes wrong. It takes some mothering before Louis mumbles that he took a Viagra knockoff. After getting laid twice and jerking off once, the boner still won’t subside.

I examine him, acting all professional. Still, his gloriously swollen penis triggers images I’ve been thinking a lot about because I’ve abstained for way too long. In a moment of weakness or recklessness, I lead Louis into the dark store room.

Satisfied that his erection is receding at last, I wipe the come off my leg.

When the relieve nurse limps in, I gives Louis an Advil for his imaginary headache and sign out. One glance at his Kia Picanto and I’m wondering why a cool guy like him would chug around in such a scruffy, tiny car. I caution against driving, implying it’s medically unwise.

We leave the clinic, stroll along the sidewalk of the bridge straddling the Sani Abacha Expressway near Wuse Market. Lights sparkle across the Abuja skyline—little stars witnessing things people would rather do in the dark.

I worry that having sex on what isn’t even a proper first date might make me seem cheap. Should I say something? Would it make it worse? What would I say in any case?

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” I say.

Louis grunts. Clearly he doesn’t believe me.

A car crossing the bridge slows down. My heart palpitates. Boko Haram has detonated several bombs in the city. They even had a suicide-bomber bring down part of the UN building in the Diplomatic Quarter. The thought that I might get blown up crosses my mind. But the car speeds away.

“I honestly have never done anything like that.”

Louis burrows his hands in his jeans and frowns. Perhaps he’s ferreting inside himself for a response that won’t hurt me. I think, how kind.

“Are you married?” I ask and instantly regret it.

Questions of this type are in the category of things that poison the air. Nothing can dilute their toxin once they’re out. Nonetheless, I make an effort to joke it off.

“I mean like married to your business? My parents were married—my dad to a particular ideal of feminine beauty and my mom to her cooking.”

“It’s okay, Sarah.” His tone implies my gaffe is no big deal. “I’m in the music business but I’m not married to it. I’m staying single till I answer the big questions.”

Sah-rah. Odd the way he says my name. But, now that he’s regained some of that male ego-fed confidence, his voice is so husky I wouldn’t mind if he calls me Susan.

“Honey, nobody answers the big questions,” I say.

“Well, I thought I knew the answers. But now I see only potentials.”

“How’s that?” I wonder what his big questions are.

“Just about anything can make me lean either way.”

I turn to him with a practiced quizzical look in place though I doubt if he can see that. Although I had cousins nearby when I was growing up, I was an only child so I understand people who create private worlds and populate them with whatever catches their fancy.

“Got an example?” I ask.

The lights of a passing car show his hands working the air, gathering up whatever’s there to form the big questions that he’s so concerned about. Perhaps these questions are connected to the whole of human existence. Perhaps we’re all on the verge of catastrophe.

He says, “My producer floated into the studio today, flashing pictures of himself and his pregnant girlfriend practicing giving birth. They both had these crazy grins that just filled me with a kind of envy I couldn’t understand.”

I exhale. Humankind is in no immediate danger.

“So you’d like to be a father.”

“Seems the way to go.”

I nod as we get off the bridge hand in hand and head to my bus stop. I visualize how well this will work out. So what if my parents blew it? After all, though they never openly said so, I grew up just knowing that they got married only because I was coming along.

*     *     *

The next day, after I model for another one of Didi’s bestselling nude woman’s back view paintings, we both wolf down chocolate ice cream and compare future butt sizes.

“You’ll be a fat fourteen,” Didi says, straight-faced. “I’ll stay a sexy size ten.”

I nod and let her win, choosing to ignore that she is already bigger than a size ten. What are friends for if they can’t mess with you a little? Life is tough enough without having to fight every pinprick.

Later, I’m driving with Louis through his upscale Maitama neighborhood. He says it’s usually a quiet quarter. But today a fuming woman with a long wooden pestle barricades the path of a matchbox-sized car. She threatens to Boko Haram her househusband—who’s inside the matchbox—if he doesn’t back up and return home. I make eye contact with the woman for a few seconds. Her gaze is so intense I’m afraid the woman might burn a hole through my skull. I’m grateful as we meander past the woman, through a group of laughing kids. When Louis parks the car and we come down, I realize Louis’ car is the same model as the matchbox. I shake my head and say he should go trade in the matchbox for an SUV.

Louis gives me a surprised look. “You don’t even have a car.”

“I had a car. A Corolla. Some stupid guy in an SUV ran into me. I’m lucky to be alive.”

“Tough break,” Louis says.

I want to ask him if he’s lived in America. Typically, he should have said either “Sorry” or the pidgin variant, “Eh yaa.” I forgo the question.

“My point is small cars are no good for safety or marriages.”

It’s out before I can stop myself. I cringe and curse my hormones for their treachery. But this time I make no effort to joke it off.

Minutes later in his bedroom, Louis says, “I’ve got to save myself from such anguish,” and I don’t know if he’s talking about small cars or marriages.

“Don’t you ever get lonely?” This is what I want to know.

“There were times in the past when I missed the company of a woman so much…” Louis trails off. His tone is conspiratorial so I think he’s about to confess that he’s a bigamist. Then he adds, “I acquired temporary female companionship by the age-long commercial means only to feel like”— his hands work the air again —“at the expiration of the contract.”

Only Louis can say something so weird. Maybe it comes from hanging around perpetually stoned musicians. Still, I’m concerned.

“Honey, how past is this past?”

Louis is a dog with a bone, chewing his theme.

“I pay for so many other things,” he says. “I think it’s okay to pay for that.”

I cringe. I want to smash his stickman-head with the arm that served me well in volleyball back in school. But I rein in the arm.

“You were swimming with creatures who’d sold their souls to the devil,” I say.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Maybe you became the devil.”

I slam the door of his flat as I leave.

*     *     *

Weeks go by. After several episodes of I’m-sorry-it-won’t-happen-again and heaps of chocolate that’s only making my ass bigger, it’s evident he doesn’t come as quickly or as often as he used to when we first met. I can’t help wondering if he’s still dipping in those past waters. If he is, either those soulless creatures are going to get him for good or he’ll finally figure out the answers to his big questions. The time for one or the other is close. As for me, not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether potentials can become reality, however fluid. But this depends on Louis answering his big questions for himself first.

God knows it shouldn’t be that hard. Does he want to get married or not? Does he want to have children or not? He’ll have to answer those first before he moves on to whom and when, right? I’m not so silly as to assume I’d be the automatic choice. I slept with him the first night I met him. He’ll have to be a living saint for that not to count against me.

What I can’t stop thinking about, what sneaks up on me even when I think I’ve forgotten, is why I’m over thirty and still single. Didi says I’m oh-so-lovable but she knows I’m going paranoid—there has to be something wrong with me. Maybe she’s right about the OOCS. My platonic male friends carry on about how I’m such a great girl. If I’m so great and it’s going this way, what would I have done if I were any less great, go into a convent?

My mum, probably feeling just as unlovable, did go into a convent. The nuns let her go though. They said her fondness for extreme culinary experiments leant itself to a different calling. She started a restaurant. Her food became so popular that another restaurateur spread a rumor about her trading her soul to the devil for recipes to seduce taste buds. My dad, himself a patron of the restaurant who stayed for one too many entrées, loved the jibe so much he lashed Mum with it whenever they quarrelled. In the end, he didn’t have to eat his words. Long before that bizarre end, I used to tongue-lash Mum for staying and taking Dad’s crap, and tongue-lash him for being a lousy jerk. Our three-way quarrels were epic. If all that had happened today, we’d have our own TV show.

*     *     *

Two days before my next birthday, my married younger cousin pops out another baby. This newborn looks so much like me it sets me thinking. Maybe I should steal the child. No stranger would suspect a thing. This is how I’ve become baby-hungry. I’m considering single parenthood. And it’s nice that the three strips I peed on in as many days all turned pink. Of course, it’ll be even nicer if I had a partner with whom I could share my joy. But where’s the hope of that happening when my so-called boyfriend doesn’t know what he wants from one day to the next?

At my party, I smile at friends and nod to inanities I barely hear. So Louis has had his share of this dysfunctional, supposedly post-modern life. How does that account for his being forty-four and still uncertain of what he wants or doesn’t want?

That’s when it all comes together. There really are no “big questions.” The unknowns of life—the unknowables, present and future—can be opportunities, avenues to seek happiness, not necessarily wells of despair into which one has to fall. His uncertainty is a choice. I’m mad at myself that it’s taken me so long to catch on. Does Louis really hate being single at forty-fuckable? I imagine, on his behalf, the limitless opportunities to sleep with as many single girls as Abuja can throw up. I consider, too, how he comes and goes as he pleases with no ball and chain to curtail his movement. Clearly, quite a few boners remain to work off before he’s done popping Viagra knockoffs.

I put this to Didi, praying she’ll counter. Faithless chance.

“He has ELS—Emotional Leper Syndrome,” she says. “He’ll never commit. Dump him.”

*     *     *

I huff over to Louis’ place and point a finger at him.

“You’re an emotional leper who wants the eternal freedom to fuck any girl you like.”

Louis squirms and shakes his head. Then he grabs his car keys and bolts. I hear the matchbox straining to start without success.

I wonder why he couldn’t just nod and let me win. Maybe I should barricade him in his irritating matchbox and threaten to Boko Haram him if he doesn’t stop making me a dishonest woman. Or, maybe I should just walk away because between OOCS and ELS, I don’t need another Didi acronym to remind me how things played out for my folks.

Whether my parents got married because I was coming along is irrelevant. My father never stopped lamenting about ending up with a woman he didn’t really dig, let alone love. My mother hadn’t the height he craved. She hadn’t the hourglass figure he worshipped. Blah fucking blah.

The day after I left home for nursing school, my mother cooked a meal for two. Plantain with pumpkin leaves. No doubt it would have been delicious. Well-sauced pieces of croakers? Check. Goat meat and peppered snails? Check. All of it stir-fried in tasty palm oil? Of course. My father’s favorite meal. My parents died soon afterwards. Four days passed before their corpses raised enough of a stink for discovery. My mother left a lethal condiment instead of a note.

Given Louis’ I-can’t-be-bothered lifestyle and the life that’s growing in me now, what are the odds history isn’t on a repeat cycle if I pull any barricade moves? But then again when has that ever been reason enough to walk away when the highways of life are paths of open destinies both trampled by hordes and yet lacking a single footprint?

With my braids tied up, I stomp over to the door of the woman with the pestle.

“I want to borrow something,” I say. I’m the one with the laser glare now.

A couple of laughing kids dash past me as I hurry back with the pestle. Looking around for Louis, I pay them no mind. Louis is nowhere to be seen. The matchbox is still in place, though. On one dusty window is a message in wobbly capitals: WASH ME, FOOL!

I raise the pestle and wonder if I’ve ever been lovable, if I’ll ever be lovable. Whatever the answers, I know it’s not in this moment, not in the downward swing.

And you; now that you know the long of it—assuming you didn’t just scroll down here to see how it ends—would you still hang around if you had your chance all over again? Or would you just take the 140-character quote—the source of which you must have guessed to be a blasé editor—and move on to the next?


Davina Owombre’s fiction appears in Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction(MaThoko’s Books, 2013), See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming (Better Non Sequitur, 2008) and at Litro Magazine. A finalist in Narrative’s Spring 2012 Story Contest and Glimmer Train’s December 2011 Fiction Open, she’s a believer in late-night laundry and also the sometimes pseudonym of an African writer who tweets insouciantly from the handle @dowombre.

Published by: The Burrow Press

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