When you got your cousin’s Facebook message, you’d been genuinely surprised because you couldn’t remember the last time she had sent you a message. Your relationship had been reduced to Facebook status likes, likes on instagram and the occasional all-emoji comment. You were now comfortable in your amnesia. This art you have perfected; this forgetting of things and people, almost rendering them only figments of your imagination.
Two days later, your phone rings you out of sleep. Your heart misses a beat when you see her name. This is your usual response to phone calls so you do not think too much of it. You are fresh from sleep, like a child just nursed; hence your usual trepidation associated with phone conversations is barely there.
“Heyy, how are you?”
This is your manuscript.
You know what she will say before she speaks. You know she will say she is fine and everything is great. You know you will both talk about your life and what you are doing and how medical school is going. You know you will leave knowing only that she is “fine”. You are exhausted from running into the wall that is her persistent reticence.
Resignedly, you start the proceedings after she says she is fine.
“How are you? School?” she asks
“Good. I’m doing okay. School is good. Not bad at all”.
You tell her about your white coat ceremony and what’s next and the exams you have to take. You recite it because you’ve told this same thing to nearly everyone who knows you. The only difference is in the telling. That is how you know who knows you. When you told your friend Esther about it, it was slow and agonized, your heart bled like a sliced vein; slow streams and now you say the words as quickly as you can let them out; children leaving school after the last bell. They mustn’t linger. She wants to know what you plan to do after school.
“Will you go home?”
“I’m not sure”
Too many people are asking what you want to do these days.
Then you ask her, breaking the unspoken rule
“How are you? How is life? School? What are you up to these days?”
Her laughter is uncertain; her voice hesitant, like when Segun asked you to go on that date and you didn’t know how to say no. She breathes deeply and says
“Same old, same old. I’m a grad student now” she swallows the words so that you can almost not hear them buried under her breath.
“oh yeah, when do you finish? How long is it, the program?”
You catch sight of your journal open on your bed. You’ve been tied to that thing the last couple of days. You wonder if, maybe this is a conversation you should write about.
“16 months. So I finish May next year”
“Oh okay. Do you plan to go home after?”
“No, I want to get my Ph.D first, but I think I’d have to work for a year. Take a break, for my own sanity”
You laugh a laugh that doesn’t sound like yours. Lately, laughter hasn’t come naturally.
“I don’t know when I’ll go home or if I even want to” she exhales.
“That place just stifles me. I didn’t exactly enjoy the last ten days I was there for in 2013”
Your heart leaps. This is the first time you have crossed the yellow line in maybe ten years.
She chuckles, then sighs.
“I don’t know. It just felt off”
You do not know whether to encourage or to give up. You never know what to do about these things. No one should have to say things they do not want to. This is something you’ve always believed. Besides, history has shown you never to force people to speak about things when they are unsure. You may not be able to handle the weight of their burdens; you might resent them for it.
“Yeah” you say, even though you are not sure that you understand.
You are twisting a loose thread in your sheets as words roll around in your head.
“It’s hard, Nigeria. A lot of people make things so difficult for you, especially when you’ve lived outside the country” you say after a few seconds.
“My worst experience was at the bank…” she has no words and expresses her frustrations only by her breathing. Sighing, grunting and then sighing again.
You tell her your experience at a Nigerian bank too, scrambling for bonding material.
“People are so hostile. They act like you’re fighting them. Even if you’re smiling and greeting, the customer care is still so terrible” you are saying.
“I know! I mean I understand that life is hard and especially so at home and there are so many struggles but…” she sighs again
You speak again about the resentment that is thick in the air between returnees and those who live in Nigeria.
“Yeah, and did you know that some companies actually say in their job ads that they want “graduates of foreign universities”?! I can’t even blame people who resent us sometimes. And then a lot of people who go back for this “change” form elitist groups…”
“I Just Got Back’s!” you both simultaneously exclaim and you laugh your first real laugh and the sound surprises you. You don’t laugh as much as you used to anymore. The laughter left, somewhere in the middle of growing up and living life. The air is lighter and you both let the laughter linger.
“I think it’s easy to look down on how things are run and how people act at home, but maybe we should cut them some slack. We can help without being condescending”
“Yeah” and now you sigh.
You talk about the other reasons why she isn’t ready to come home, about standing on one’s own feet and where to raise children.
You are laughing about Nigerian mothers and how the culmination of their daughters’ lives is marriage when she says
“We should take a trip together. Go somewhere”
You are thrown off guard by this. Where would you go? Portugal? Kenya?
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know, anywhere. You’re more adventurous than I am”
“Okay, I’ll look up places and let you know.”
You’re holding the compliment close to your chest like a toy won by a boyfriend at the arcade. Your soul is warmed and you are smiling even before you realize it.
“Okay… I’ve just had so much nostalgia lately. I was playing the Westlife album, the “Coast to Coast” one and then I watched “The Preacher’s Wife”” she says
You think about the things she is speaking of and you squeal a little. Then you remember everything. From the way she smelled to the time she slipped when you all had turned the newly tiled sitting room into a faux skating rink. You remember the morning she woke up with chewing gum from her mouth in her hair. You remember the day you both saw each other after your grandmother died; family tension, distrust and competition that turned two sisters into almost-rivals and then into strangers.
So when she says “we should talk soon so we don’t become just internet friends”, you say yes, and mean it.