The first time I saw her was on the playing field in one fairly elite nursery school in Lagos state. Her shins were skinned, her braids were out of place, and a purple trail ran down the length of her blouse. She had a handful of sand in one of her little hands, and she tossed it at me, right into my eyes.
“Mmeh. You cannot catch me!” she yelled.
I stood there stupefied. Then I cried.
It took hours to calm me, and our teacher punished her by knocking her on her little head with a ruler.
She did not flinch. Instead, she looked me straight in the eye and stuck out her tongue.
“Cry, cry,” she mocked.
I avoided her after that. We were in different classes, but I never again went out to the playing field, for fear that she would be waiting with more sand to toss into my face.
The second time I saw her–really saw her–I was seven years old. Our old neighbour, Mr Ahmed had moved out of the flat beside us, and it had remained vacant for a time.
That afternoon, I was playing football with my brother Peter, when a rickety truck pulled up to the yard beside us. A girl immediately hopped up on our gate, small arms grabbing the bars to keep from slipping.
“Football!” she crowed. Then she saw me and her eyes narrowed. “I know you. We go to the same school.”
I ran to my mother after that, telling her about the wicked girl from school who just moved in next door. Mom simply laughed and took us over to theirs the next week to say hi.
I shielded my eyes all throughout. The adults thought it funny.
I was in Primary Six when I finally learned her name. We had never been placed in the same class up until then; but as we stood lined up on the playing field, in the first assembly of the new semester, our headmistress walked up to the podium with a mic.
“The Assistant Senior Prefect,” she rattled, “is Nnenna Obodoechi. While the position of Senior Prefect goes to Nuvie Anozie.”
As we stood amidst the cheers, waiting to receive our badges, Nnenna sneered, muttering under her breath. “I am better than you. Why do I have to be Assistant just because I am a girl?”
We never got along after that. I had grown a backbone in all the time that had passed, and I was gaining the beginnings of a short temper. I was sure she hated me, because I kept beating her at tests. But there was a fire in her eyes everytime we argued, and sometimes I annoyed her just so I could see it again.
My father passed away shortly before I finished Primary Six, and my mother could not afford the rent all on her own. She sent us all off to boarding school, and moved out of the estate to a shoddy apartment in a less-respectable area of Lagos.
I noticed Nnenna watching from a window the morning I was to leave for my first day of school. She had not said anything about the death of my father. And I did not have any words to give her in turn.
Boarding school was hell.
I was just leaving the examination hall at my JAMB centre when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned.
Behind me stood a girl, tall for her age, with eyes like fire and a smile like sunlight on dew. She wore a moderate dress, which only drew my attention to her flat chest; but her arms were toned with a vague hint of muscle, and her legs were even more chiseled than mine.
“Nuvie?!” she beamed.
I did not remember her name. But I had never forgotten the face.
“It’s me Nnenna!” she said. “It has been so long! How have you been? What have you been up to? Are your mom and brother doing okay? Can I get your number?”
We parted on a good note. It was only upon returning home that I realized just how much better than I she looked. Her dress had been of incredible quality, while I had been draped in my brother’s hand-me-downs.
She scored a 312 on her JAMB. Me, a 247.
By some stroke of luck, we got admitted to the same university, UNILAG, under the same course, Architecture. While Nnenna was easily loved by her peers and lecturers, I struggled to be more than a painting on the wall.
We had kept in touch in the days following our exams, and even up until the first few weeks of Uni; but a distance appeared and gradually widened between us, as we mingled with other classmates and friends.
Nnenna was beautiful, brilliant, outgoing. She could afford to attend all the parties and still score highly on all the quizzes. In contrast, I did not have much time to socialize, as I had to undertake menial jobs in order to make enough to eat and reduce the burden on my mother who was already paying my fees.
She joined a Christian fellowship on campus.
I joined a cult.
It was one rainy evening in my final year of school that my OG called me to his apartment outside campus and asked me some questions.
“Do you know any girl called Nnenna? In your year?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Help me deal with her,” he said. “I would give you ten thousand.”
I was embittered by her flamboyant lifestyle, and I knew they could not really harm her. So, I lured her into the trap the OG had set. Nnenna had never once been cold to me–not even after four years–even though we rarely spoke. So, when I sought her out of the blue after a lecture, it was with a demure smile that she agreed to meet with me that evening.
When the cultists emerged from their hiding places–as if unplanned–and surrounded us, she threatened them with fire and death. But the OG slapped her thrice across the face, and fiery Nnenna was stunned into silence.
“Come with us, my friend,” he commanded her, and to make it seem more genuine, he added, “I no like how that boy dey look me. Give am two black eye.”
But Nnenna screamed and struggled at that moment, because she would rather they kill her than let harm befall me.
I almost died that very night. Because I remembered whose son I was. I lunged at the cultists to allow her escape. After receiving the two black eyes as promised, and a battered face to boot; someone slammed a 2×4 against my head.
Nnenna was a constant at my side all through my stay at the hospital.
I tried to explain that I had been complicit to the cultists’ plans, but she shushed me; and during the nights when I lay, delirious with meds, I would hear her on the phone, assuring my mother that I was recovering fine.
She invited me to her Fellowship, and I took her up on the offer. The cultists were not willing to let up so I had to spend my final year in campus’ hostels, where they could not get to me.
The damage had been done to my grades over the years, but Nnenna was confident it could still be salvaged. She had me work towards graduating with a 2’1.
Once, I asked her why she was going out of her way to help me these days, and she replied:
“You dummy! I have always been trying to talk to you.”
I said nothing after that. And she didn’t either. But she kept sneaking glances at me. And I pretended not to notice how her fingers kept brushing mistakenly against mine.
As expected, she was the best graduating student of our deparment.
It was that morning, on the day of our convocation, that I saw Nnenna for the last time. She had taken my suit (which she had bought me) to the drycleaners, and I had gone to her apartment to pick it up.
We had started dating shortly after our final exams. And although she would not let me go beyond a kiss, and the occasional squeeze, I had caught myself fantasizing multiple times about the kind of life we could build together.
That day, as we left her apartment together, me in my crisp suit, her in a dress; I remember my mum calling to inform me that she was close to the school. Nnenna offered to go pick the woman herself, in order to give me the chance to mingle with friends before the ceremony began proper.
She had kissed me lightly on the cheek, only to tell me to close my eyes when I angled for more. I did not see her pick a handful of sand off the ground, neither was I ready to get hit in the face.
I chased her around for a while until we were forced to stop, embarassed, by the hoots and calls of her flatmates.
We parted ways at the gates, promising to reunite at the hall, my mother in tow.
But Nnenna never made it back.
Now, I sit holding the hand of my blind, aged mother, recalling memories of my youth.
I have three grown kids, and a fair share of grey hair on my head.
Mum is ill. She does not have much longer to live.
Outside, the happy cries of my brother’s grandkids ring into the house.
Nnenna has become nothing more than a memory. One my mother could no longer remember many years before even going senile.
However, as I wait for her hands to grow cold, and the light to leave her eyes; I recall that fateful day, in full clarity, when my mother had called to inform me that a car had run Nnenna over, as she had been on her way to her.
I could not utter anything for a long time after the doctors at the medical centre pronounced Nnenna dead.
And then, I died.
For I have not been living ever since.