“J, I’ve got something important I want to tell you.”
“Funny, because there’s something I want to tell you too.”
“Ok, go on.”
“No, you first.”
“Nah, after you.”
“You first….I insist.”
Typical argument between Irene and I. We argued about everything, from who should pay the bus fare, to who should sit first on the church pew. I was always willing to be a gentleman for Irene, and though she was not always up for that, she eventually decided to dance to the “ladies first” script this time and choose to speak first. Our eyes shared the same level of brightness as our skins absorbed the Sunday evening breeze, and as I savoured the atmosphere around Nike Lake, a small resort located in the nation’s coal capital, I wondered what Irene had to say. Nevertheless, I knew it had to be something important. Irene never suggested Nike Lake unless there was a crucial decision she had to make. I was that familiar with her.
Yes, it had been over seven years, precisely seven years and ten months, since I first set eyes on Irene at the main auditorium of that federal university in the South-south where we had our university education. I had bumped into her as I struggled through the long queues and sticky bodies to process my clearance as a fresh undergraduate, and just as if she saw through my personality as a shy boy, she had walked up to me first. I had feebly and nervously replied “Joey” when she asked for my name, apparently awestruck by her light complexion and small but graceful frame, but there was this spark that greeted the stuffy auditorium at that moment, and from then on a wonderful friendship began. We read together (we were both admitted to study English and Literature), we went to church together, we ate at the same restaurant, we always found ourselves in the same class assignment groups, and after our graduation, I fought successfully to make sure that we did our service year in the same state.
I could do anything for Irene. She had a heart of gold, always tried to see the good in people, and she knew just how to encourage others. She it was who talked me out of dropping out when I became disillusioned with school in my second year following the death of my mother, and her soothing words came in handy again in my penultimate year when our department had to host a conference involving all English and Literature students nationwide, and I as the departmental president ran out of funds, ideas and faith. She was as intelligent as she was beautiful, earning the best result in our freshman year, and ultimately graduating with a Second Class Upper Division, many thanks to the miserly lecturers we had. She had pretty good culinary skills too, coming out tops in a number of cooking competitions in our undergraduate years. She was too trusting and a little indecisive though, and these flaws played a part in her experiencing three occasions of heartbreak, none of which derailed her firm belief in Love and Humanity.
We had seen our fair share of failed relationships and we had supported each other through all the hurt, but now I wanted more. I had finally realised that I actually loved Irene. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had involved myself in emotional debates through the years, but now it was clear. I wanted to wake up each morning next to her, her hair entangled in my face, her breath greeting my skin. She loved kids, and I definitely wasn’t going to mind future evenings together, sitting outside a small beautiful house with two little Joeys and one little Irene. Why couldn’t we? We usually said that each had all which the other wanted in the opposite sex, and then again we knew how to handle each other’s flaws. After all, relationship counsellors usually advised that we go for our friends when it came to the long term. This was why my eyes lit up that late afternoon. I wanted to make my feelings known, and I wondered how she would take it.
“J, you know how you always tell me to follow my heart?”, she began, jolting me back to reality.
I nodded at a fast pace. She was right. She usually came to me for advice whenever she was not so sure about entering a new relationship or helping someone out financially, and the words “follow your heart” usually served as my response, accompanied by a smile and a joining of my hands with hers.
“Joey, I am getting married…..to Fred”, she blurted out with an air of decision.
Fred? Fred? The same Fred, with whom she said she had called it quits because he smoked too much and had hit her in a fit of anger? The same Fred, whom she said spent more than half the time on Nairabet, and enjoyed forcing her to make love to him? Was this the Fred whose last name she wanted to substitute hers with? If my eyes were light bulbs minutes earlier, they had blown out by the time she completed her statement.
“Is this the same…..?”
“Yes it is the very Fred”, she cut in, putting a stop to my attempt at a query. “During the three weeks when you had to attend that Writers’ Workshop at the nation’s capital, Fred and I had series of discussions. He apologised, I took him back, and after a lot of thought and prayer, I realise that I really love him. He is a great guy. He has his flaws, but that will change. I am sorry I didn’t bring this up earlier….and no, it’s not what you think. I am not pregnant for him. I am just following my heart, and I know that I’m right this time”.
A lot of thought? Yea, right. Like the amount of thought she put in when she decided to date Femi during the second semester of our freshman year, barely a week after meeting him. We knew how that turned out; the party ended as soon as got access to the cake. It must have been the same amount of thought she put in when she got involved with Bankole during our service year, when even a little investigation earlier on would have helped her find out that he was actually a married man. Such a crucial step, a life-reaching decision, and she couldn’t afford me the courtesy of a discussion? The whole Writers’ Workshop thing was just a lame excuse. I could have sought permission to leave for a few days to discuss this matter with Irene. I cared for her that much.
“What do you think, Joey?”
“Well if it’s what makes you happy, why not? It’s your heart we are talking about here.”
That was the best reply I could muster from my head. I was too shocked to think about anything. I wasn’t being sincere and Irene knew it, but her announcement had probably caused her too much inner excitement to bother about my countenance.
“You said you wanted to tell me something, J.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just wanted to say that I really value the friendship we have nurtured all these years, and that I will always be there to support you. Kind of like a re-affirmation of my commitment to this friendship.”
Yea, she got me there. My eyes, my face, even my imaginary juggling said it all. At least her euphoria had not blinded her from being able to detect when I was lying. I didn’t feel the need to let out my feelings any more, as it would have made no difference, but Irene still knew how to pull words out of me, and I let loose.
“I love you, Irene Ojiugo Udechukwu”, I said, with the pent up energy of four years. “I have been running from it all before, but I just can’t continue. I have fought myself hard enough to know. I feel my chest when I think of you. I am sick of standing in the way of my own happiness. I want the strands of your hair getting lost in my face. I want my fingers to always lie in the spaces between yours. I want your perfume to be all that my bedsheets reek of. I want to open my eyes to each new day, knowing that you are less than an inch away. I need nothing else in a lady that I don’t already find in you. It’s you Irene, you I want.”
On other days she would have burst out laughing, but she could sense the seriousness in my emotional confessions, and she just stood silent. After an interval of about five speechless minutes, she got closer, and holding my face between her palms, said:
“Joey, I know you mean all you’ve said. Truth be told, I love you too, I really do…..but not in the way you desire. You have been there for me all these years, and what we share is great. We don’t have to ruin it all by adding romance to it. You are a friend, the very best, a brother, even more. Let’s be friends forever, what you ask of me will only complicate things. I know you will always be there for me, and I promise to be around for you too, albeit in a different capacity from what you want. I love how bonded we are, and I want things to stay that way.”
Disappointment. Deflation. Demoralization. These nouns put together would not have done justice to describe how I felt upon hearing her words, but she was not done.
“Because you area super friend, my best friend, I have chosen you to give a special toast for the wedding which we have fixed for next five Saturdays. Our engagement party is coming up next Friday, and I will need you to be at Ascot Hotel to organise the place and also help the drinks. Pleaaaase? Thank you”, she went on, looking at me with those eyes I could never say no to, and handing me a peck on the cheek. “If it were possible, I would have selected you to be my Maid of Honour, but guys are not allowed to do that…..hahaha. I need you around. I need your protection, you are one of the few good men left. You are a great guy, and I know that someday you’ll find a lady who’s just right for you.”
Brother, Friend, potential Chief Bridesmaid but for my gender. That was all Irene saw when she thought of me…..after all this time! After seeing her through all the breakups and tears! After giving up some of my blood for her when she suffered a haemorrhage in her final year and no family member could be reached! After taking a bank loan so I could get her that N500,000 camera because she said she loved Photography, and going on to link her up to UK-based photographer Ade Okelarin! After all the nights in school where I risked ridicule by carrying her handbag because she felt really weak after studying on most evenings! After deciding to break up with Nonye and Abby (in penultimate year and service year respectively) simply because Irene did not like them! She apparently attached nothing to our long hours on the phone, to those poems we read to each other under the tree adjacent to the school library, to those times we held hands during fellowship Drama Night, to those rounds of serial texting three nights a week. For her, they were just expressions of friendship. My heart sank.
Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so bad if I had obeyed my lusts and had my way with her that night. Yea, that night when she had too much to drink at last year’s End of Year dinner at our workplace, and got so horny, urging me to explore her moist regions. I declined her request, choosing to respect our friendship and refusing to take advantage. I couldn’t help but feel that keeping her clothes on was the worst mistake I had made. There was now no difference between me and a cashier who counted other people’s money, but couldn’t get access to any. It was too late now. Irene had made her decision, never mind the level of wisdom (or lack thereof) behind it.
“No qualms. I’ll take charge of the party. I always got your back. Congratulations”, I said in a solemn tone, while reaching out to hug her so tightly.
All that had taken place eight days ago. I am all alone in my apartment, my phones are switched off, and I am sitting on the sofa beside two empty bottles of Jack Daniels. It’s my third consecutive day without a bath, and I don’t think I’ll be hitting the shower anytime soon. I know that Irene’s engagement party is slated for this Friday and there are arrangements to be discussed, but I’m in no mood for that. I have thought deeply, and I have concluded that it makes no sense living with the fact that Irene will never be mine. There are lessons to be learnt from all this though: Spot out your place in people’s lives as soon as you can, and never fight too hard to earn one. Define your friendships and relationships with people early enough, and no matter how corny you may sound, make your intentions clear, or else you’ll find yourself deep in the Friend Zone before you know it, and once you are in there, it takes a miracle to climb out. I have posted these nuggets on my Facebook wall, I have written them down in this small piece of paper on the table, and I’m happy that I remembered to lodge my Will at the Probate Registry last week. I can’t get a gun, and dangling from a rope would be too painful, so these painkillers together with the liquor I just gulped down should numb my senses long enough to apply this knife to my wrists. No, it’s no use staying around. Irene will never be “nwunye Joseph”, I’ll be one Joseph whose dreams didn’t come true, and at best she’ll just shed a few tears and move on. I hope my younger brother avoids the same mistakes I made, and I hope he never comes across a lady who will subject him to this torture. They say that suicide is an automatic ticket to eternal damnation, but Hell would be no different from a life where I’ll be nothing more than just a friend to Irene.
Whatever you do, be careful not to get friend-zoned!