- All Nzube wants is someone in whose presence she can take off her wig. Like most wig wearers, she pulls at hers once she shuts the door and kicks off her shoes, flings aside her bra, and plucks her faux lashes. Wigs are for the outside world and once you get home, you must let some fresh breeze touch your scalp. But Nzube woke one morning, looked at her hairline in the mirror and saw the onset of alopecia. She panicked. Her mother, Jachi, at fifty, still relaxed her full, jet-black hair without consequences. And here was Nzube, about to go bald at 31. So she went to Kene, the barber downstairs, and asked him to cut off the relaxed parts of her hair, leaving out the under-growth. She felt better after the cut, even cute, and on Sunday she went to visit her mother to show off her new hair. But Jachi took a look at her daughter and clicked her tongue. She grabbed Nzube by the chin to have a better look at the disaster. Why don’t you ever consult your mother before making these life-changing decisions, eh? So Nzube panicked a second time, and on her way back to her apartment, she opened her Instagram and ordered two wigs from TheHair_Merchant. Each month-end, as her modest salary hit her account from her HR manager job in a small consulting firm, Nzube grew her collection: three bone-straight wigs: one in black, one in maroon and the other in brown; two Anita Bakers in blonde and deep-chocolate, three Omotolas, in the same colors as the bone straight wigs, one very expensive Naomi Campbell, and one hard-to-comb Tracy Elliot Ross. Yet when she takes off the wigs at the end of the day, she remembers Jachi’s disappointment at her shorn head and wills her 4C hair to grow back in the empty patches of her temples. Relaxers are out of the question now, says the dermatologist who leaves a gaping hole in Nzube’s savings. When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, Nzube was #TeamWill, even though Dumebi her best friend was #TeamChris. It was such a harmless joke, Dumebi said as they ate popcorn and scrolled through Twitter, following the mayhem. She turned to Nzube and asked, Why are people so sensitive these days? Nzube endorsed the slap because she understood what it meant to touch your temples every morning, massaging castor oil+almond oil+jojoba oil+ori+coconut oil+avocado oil in vain, your mother on the other end of the Whatsapp video call trying to comfort you while masking the alarm in her eyes, telling you don’t worry Nzube, it will grow back, we don’t have baldness in our family. And now as she combs through her closet, debating between an Omotola or her very expensive Naomi Campbell, what wig would make a perfect statement for a first date, she wonders what she would do, when the time finally comes for her to take off her wig. She takes a picture of the two chosen wigs and sends them to Dumebi. The expensive Naomi Campbell is Dumebi’s pick because it’s good a man knows early that you like good things so he’s aware of the kind of babe he’s toasting.
- All Eloka wants is someone to play Wordle with. No one introduced him to the online word game. As an ardent reader of the New York Times, he caught the bug when he saw it on the newspaper’s Twitter page. He plays it every midnight, he plays it sitting on the toilet in the morning, he plays it when he’s anxious, even in traffic. One time, without cheating, he made the genius mark when he got the right word–PLOTS– on the very first try. But there was no one to show his feat. He wished he was the type to post on social media, the type to transmit every bit of his life to friends and followers. He only used Twitter to keep abreast with gossip and world politics. And even if he grew the courage to post his win, none of his 334 followers would have cared. A month ago, he replied to Nzube’s tweet on the Oscar incident as she vehemently supported the Smiths. He believes that women can be defended without the display of masculine bravura. He liked that Nzube engaged him without malice. Soon they were in the DMs and he enjoyed picking her mind. He is yet to ask if Nzube likes Wordle because he fears he’ll be disappointed by the answer. However, he takes screenshots of his wins just for archival purposes. When he tried to introduce the game to Kamso, his younger sister whom he shared a two-bedroom flat with, she played it once, ignoring the yellow and green clues, mindlessly filling the letters. No, Eloka said, taking her phone from her. You don’t use the letters with grey highlights. They are not part of the missing word. Kamso yawned and picked up her remote control and resumed watching Blood Sisters, a Nollywood hit on Netflix. Eloka knows she isn’t a rude girl. She was just tired. She loved her big brother and was fiercely devoted to him, but sometimes Eloka’s taste in entertainment was lost on the girl who made a living writing low-budget screenplays for Nollywood. And this evening, as Eloka opens his closet, searching for the right shirt and trousers that look relaxed but serious, he remembers he hasn’t played Wordle for the day, so he sits at the edge of his bed and completes the puzzle in three minutes. The right word is TEAMS.
- Nzube wants consistency. A heavy want, Dumebi points out to her, as they comb through Yaba Main market, looking for secondhand but solid electronics such as hand driers, hot combs and pressing irons. The brand new ones they bought from the Super Store Mall did not last longer than six months, and they learned the second-hand electronics were tested and tried. Nzube wants an iron that doesn’t blow up just because the voltage is too high, something with an insulator that works. And as she demands from the iron for her clothes, the hot combs for her wigs, she demands the same from love. Dumebi shakes her head at her friend. You’re setting yourself up for heartbreak. Manage whatever you see. The streets are wild. But Nzube wants what she wants. She has suffered at the hands of inconsistency and she will not go through that rough path again. Not on her watch. Even though Celestine has crawled back to her DM, singing the blues again, she only responds because she loves to see him grovel as he made her do in their three-year tumultuous relationship. Nzube loved Celestine, the kind of love where you can part with one of your kidneys with alacrity just because your lover demanded it. Celestine said I love you back to her, but when a man tells you, I’ll call you by five, and by five o’clock, six, seven, eight, he still hasn’t called, at first you’ll be worried and even call him to check if all is well with him. When he finally picks up his phone the following day and tells you he slept off, you’d be annoyed but forgive him. However, if this happens throughout the span of three years, same pattern, same excuses, same forgetfulness, you know you’re not rated and the I love yous are just another empty salutation at the end of a call. She’s re-talking to him after their breakup but she hasn’t told Dumebi, who thinks Celestine should be banished from the land of the living for all he did to her best friend. To Nzube, it’s not that deep, but she enjoys Celestine’s need. I heard Sia’s Fire Meets Gasoline and thoughts of you stopped me in the middle of work, Celestine texts. I miss you. Nzube doesn’t reciprocate the vulnerability. During those three years with him, she could hold a masterclass on Being Vulnerable and fill out a hall. It’s a pity he came to it after she left him. She replies, Dissect how much you miss me. And he goes, Your smell, your love, your food, your warmth, your kisses, your patience, your patience, your patience. Two nights ago, she dreamt of him and the dream was a vivid reenactment of their relationship: her groveling, the anxiety that lodged in her belly like undigested food, of waiting for a call to be returned, the cheap excuses, the flattening of her grievances to “drama and over-reaction”, her massive insecurity, him threatening to leave, his leaving, her running after him, her begging, his reluctant return, press replay. She woke up and her chest was heavy from reliving the events of three years in the span of thirty minutes. God must be showing me something, she said to herself, as she went to the bathroom. God must be reminding me why I left him. Leaving Celestine was no cheap accomplishment. It needed the intervention of an affair. As Nzube loves to narrate it, God sent Philip her way. Philip taught her that a man can say, Good morning, and you didn’t need to look out the window or at your watch to confirm if it was indeed morning. Good morning was Good morning with Philp, not Good afternoon, not Good evening. A man can call by five if he says he’d call by five, and if unforeseen circumstances withheld him from calling by five, he apologized quickly and made up for it. One day, high on Philip, she picked up the phone, rang Celestine and delivered herself from the three-year-old spiritual, emotional and psychological bondage of a relationship. Of course things didn’t last with Philip, he was just a forerunner to her liberation and she was fine with that. Tonight, standing before her dresser, Nzube grabs a bottle of Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous, two dashes behind the right ear, two dashes behind the left ear, two pumps in the air before walking into it. She hopes that this Eloka would be a Philip-incarnate and not another bloody Celestine.
- Eloka wants his person. His personal person. He is a good sharer,a good older sibling. When they were little, he shared his toy cars, his Batman and Superman collectibles with Kamso. His parents, The Chinwetelus, had little to worry about when they left their last baby with her big brother. Eloka gave up his Johnny Bravo for Kamso to watch Teletubbies, gave up his soccer for Keeping up with the Kardashians, his basketball matches for The Voice Nigeria. From his NYSC days till date, he gave her an allowance. He asked her to move in with him when their parents refused to see she was no longer their little baby but a twenty-five-year-old woman in need of privacy. Eloka shared clothes with his friends back then when they were all hustling and finding their feet in Lagos. When he resumed work as a product manager at UAC, making him the first among his pals to find a job, he still let them rummage through his wardrobe for what to wear for their own job interviews or what to wear when they needed to impress a girl on date nights. He believes in giving, in the love and bond that comes with sharing. But when it comes to love, and by love he means romance, Eloka does not want to share. He’s strictly monogamous and he doesn’t care about the aggressive connotation the word carries these days. He is a man who knows himself, and one man, one woman does it for him. That’s what he’s been trying to tell Jovita. If you want me, he wrote in his last text, you have to leave him. And she replied almost immediately, It’s not that simple, Elo. It’s not that simple. This problem, called Jovita, entered Eloka’s life on a sunny September afternoon last year as he watched Real Madrid vs. Chelsea. Jovita is one of Kamso’s friends and Eloka didn’t fancy himself as someone who would date his baby sister’s friends. In his mind, her friends were automatically his baby sisters. But there are only three years between the siblings and Kamso wanted her brother to consider Jovita. She likes you, Kamso said to him after Jovita left their house. She’s been begging me to hook you guys up after she saw the post I made on your birthday. At first Eloka would hide out in his room when Jovita came over—she was coming over too frequently these days. But the girls lured him out with the smell of okro soup, and Eloka doesn’t joke with his okro soup at all. Finally he began to relax around Jovita. She was a fine girl but he wasn’t convinced about dating Kamso’s friends. After waiting for three months, Jovita moved on. She still came around and the atmosphere between her and Eloka became more relaxed, void of the expectation to date or hook-up as Kamso called it. But one Sunday evening, months after the failed match-making plot, Jovita came around looking for her friend. She’s not home, Eloka said. She traveled to see our folks. Then he noticed that the girl had been crying. He pulled her in. What happened to you? Amidst hiccups and tears she said it was her new man. We fight alot. Small arguments escalate and in no time we are saying mean and unforgettable things to each other. Eloka microwaved some pepper soup for his guest and urged her to eat. She cried some more as he gave her a glass of water and painkillers for the migraine that came after one has cried their eyes out. He drew her close and shared his shoulders with her. But she wanted more than his shoulders, so she reached for his lips. He didn’t think it was a big deal but something in him shifted, that instinctive need to be kind, to protect a woman in distress, when she said it was him all along, it’s you I wanted all along. Why didn’t you see me? Why? Sorry, Eloka said, pulling her closer. I see you now and I would never unsee you. The plan was simple: she would leave the boyfriend and they could try. She typed the breakup text in his presence and when she hit send they sealed it with kisses. What followed was three months of peace and tranquility, of swaying to Celine Dion’s Right in front of you. Of asking, what took us so long? Three months of Kamso teasing them, calling them shameless lovebirds whenever she found them cuddled in front of the TV, three months of gifts, of failed attempts at teaching her Wordle. But old boyfriends are not things you shed like old skin. Jovita went back to her previous man. This hurt Eloka like it would any man who carefully curated his inner and outer life, a man who eschewed everything that bore the whiff of drama. Eloka grieved briefly, sweated out his pain at the gym and carried on with his life. UAC was testing a new snack bar and samples had to come out right and there were many long meetings with the quality control team. To cut a long story short, he got back to his pre-Jovita self . Then it got complicated. Jovita would call at night and beg. I need to see you. And because he felt a need to protect her, he met her in restaurants. The new man wanted them to relocate to Australia. It’s too far from home, Jovita said, her voice heavy with regret and sadness. But my parents want me to go, to establish the family line elsewhere, in a better country with constant power supply. In his car when she cried, he lent his shoulders, his lips, his hands. This rigmarole continued for another three months. Why don’t you leave him? He asked her in his car as they held each other. I can’t. My parents are now involved. Soon the Jovita problem became a distraction and Eloka reprimanded himself one morning as he brushed his teeth in front of the mirror. Guy this is rubbish, he said to his reflection. Get your act together. He picked up his phone and saved her name as DONTPICKJOVITA. He muted her on all social media. He couldn’t wait for her to leave the country with her man who she doesn’t love. Kamso is not aware of this new episode. There’s no point telling her and losing his respect in his younger sister’s eyes. One day while he ate his lunch at the office canteen, a +61 number called him. He was tempted to answer, to say, Jovita, how are you coping in a new country? But he watched the phone ring and ring, and with all his might, he blocked that number. And now to confirm that he is serious about new beginnings, he texts Nzube: Are you nervous? Her reply chimes in two seconds later: A little bit.
- Nzube wants affection. The tender, touchy-feely kind. The type that wears itself loudly like a coat of many colors. The kind that is unafraid to be looked at in public. Growing up, she didn’t see affection between her parents. Her father, Ejindu, who passed away four years ago, was a dutiful father and a kind husband but he rarely touched Jachi in Nzube’s presence. When Nzube saw people kiss on TV for the first time, she giggled and covered her face. Jaachi quickly changed the channel but the image never left Nzube’s mind. She loved how Uncle Ifeanyi and Aunty Franka, the neighbours downstairs, held hands and wore matching ankara to church. She loved how they called each other Mine. Mine, the baby is crying. Mine, come and scratch my back. Mine, what did you cook today? Mine, did you see my car keys? Nzube babysat for the neighbors where she got a front-row seat on their display of love. It was neither cloying nor obscene. Just tender. The love in the neighbors’ home was an aroma that permeated every crevice of their apartment. They were both teachers in a secondary school down the street, where Uncle Ifeanyi taught music and Aunty Franka taught home economics. Nzube’s father Ejindu smirked when he heard the neighbors call out to each other. Mine, Mine, Mine, Ejindu muttered. Why is that grown man allowing his wife to turn him into an object she can fit into her pockets? Even Jaachi agreed. They’re still doing young love, she said. Life would soon humble them. Nzube and her folks moved out of the apartment and years later, she saw Aunty Franka and Uncle Ifeanyi in the market. They hugged her. The couple wasn’t aging well. Teachers were no longer paid their salaries on time and the hardship told on their faces. Yet they were jolly. When Nzube told them of her job at the consulting firm, they said, We are so proud of you. Nzube asked about Baby, and she learnt she was now in boarding school, getting straight A’s. As they traded stories and consoled Nzube over the death of Ejindu, Nzube observed the way they still touched each other, completing the other’s sentence. The way they still looked at each other as if they were two toys that came together in the same carton and required the other to function. Nzube wants that, a love untouched by hard times. She hopes that this Eloka, who woke her up each morning with a well-crafted good morning text was the kind to not tuck away the ends of affection, was not the kind of man who believed a woman calling him by an endearment was an act of emasculation.
- Eloka needs rest, enough room to flex his shoulders. A day or two off from being “a responsible guy.” To lay down the burden of being the only son of Chief and Lolo Chinwetelu. You know, as the only son, Lolo Chinwetu tells her son, you have to set a good example for your sister. You cannot let my enemies laugh at me because I have a useless son. His mother has always said this, right from the moment he could remember himself as an older brother. As an only son of an Igbo household, Eloka ticked all the boxes. He was close to his parents, he was smart in school, he got a job right after youth service, a well-paying job at that. He footed the hospital bill when his father had a stroke, he puts money in their retirement account because, as former civil servants, they rarely received their gratuities because the current governor, who was still a boy when Lolo Chinwetelu was a headmistress, refused to pay pensioners. Eloka makes sure his parents never lack and also pays the woman who comes to clean their house. Eloka is also re-roofing the family house and when the rains stop, he‘ll repaint the building. He isn’t complaining about all the money he spends, he saves and plans his life well, but sometimes, being “responsible” was a log on his shoulders, a log he felt physically at night when the pain would not let him sleep. Eloka wants someone to look at him and say, Relax, it’s enough; someone to knead his shoulders softly like dough when another request comes from home. Eloka wants to occasionally take off that garb of first-sonship and be, just be. Lately, his blood pressure has increased and though Kamso has stopped cooking his meals with salt, he feels his heartbeat racing sometimes. He noticed this after the breakup with Jovita and he misses his hearty laughter, the idle afternoons without deadlines where he can enjoy the company of someone he truly likes. Now as he sees Nzube in that bandage dress and that beautiful hair, her smile looks like it holds the cure to his inordinate heart. He looks at her tiny lemon purse, sparkling with sequins and he wonders what can possibly fit into it. When he hugs her, her perfume hits his nose and he senses he’s with a woman assured of her place in this world, total in her demands from it. His heart flutters but not in the way that would alarm his doctor, but in a way that alerts him that he’s come in contact with a challenge he should take. After he pulls the chair for her to sit, after they say, It’s so good to see you in person and after he tells her she smells like magic, the waiter skitters towards them with practiced smiles, eager to jot their orders. He asks her, So what do you want? Wine, she responds smiling. White wine for now.
Ucheoma Onwutuebe is a Nigerian writer. She is the recipient of the Waasnode Fiction Prize and has received residencies from Yaddo, Art Omi, and The Anderson Center. Her works have appeared in and are forthcoming in Catapult, Bellevue Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, Off Assignment, Bakwa Magazine, and others. She is currently an MFA student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.