Hello there! Welcome to a brand new week! Today, I will be sharing another episode of Falling in Love With My Best Friend, our ongoing Nigerian Romance series with you. In this episode, Enitan and Tokunbo have to decide whether or not to take their friendship to the next level. Will they say yes to each other? Read on to find out.
If you are just joining us, welcome! Episodes 1 – 12 are waiting for you. 🙂
There are just 14 days left in February. Make them count. Have a fantastic week!
Episode 13: Say Yes to Us
I caught my breath, once my eyes fell on those words. I knew that once I opened that envelope, whether I was ready for it or not, our friendship would enter another realm.
Should I open this envelope? Will the contents keep me up all night?
But it was from Tokunbo, and for that reason alone, I tore the envelope open, my heart beating faster than before.
The envelope contained a card.
No surprises there.
It was one of those typical birthday cards sold in supermarkets all over Lagos, made of thick, hard paper, with the printed words inside, written on another softer, smaller leaf of paper, barely hanging onto the inside of the card. The face of the card bore the words “Birthday Wishes for a Special Person,” written in gold cursive letters.
No surprises there.
Inside the card, on the softer paper, were cookie-cutter type, impersonal words plastered on the right hand side in black ink:
A Special Person
Deserves a Special Birthday
May all your wishes come true
No surprises there either.
But on the left hand side, there were carefully picked words, written in fine-tipped blue ink, the dark blue of Eleganza biros, not the lighter blue of Bic biros. I assumed those were Tokunbo’s only choices being a student like me.
Now, those words came as a surprise to me, not just because they contrasted with the black, machine-printed words on the right hand side, or even because they were written in blue.
They stood out because despite the writer’s best intentions, they were not perfect.
At first glance, I noticed that a few words were crossed out and the replacement words were written right above them. I was interested in both: the words which had been hurriedly scribbled, and then erased, as well as the replacements, that is, the ones he wanted me to see.
Tokunbo had penned down a short poem, but it looked like a letter at the same time. I concluded that it was both because I didn’t know any poem that followed almost all the same rules of letter writing. It read:
My Dearest Enitan,
Birthdays come yearly, just once
But this year day, I want you to pause
Consider our friendship, you must
Truly see that I like love you very much
My passionate plea embedded in these sincere words
Is that you’ll give me a chance
And please SAY YES TO ME US.
The following words had been crossed out and replaced:
“Year” with “Day”
“Like” with “Love”
“Me” with “Us”
“Tokunbo, you’re definitely not Shakespeare–” I mused, after reading the poem-slash-letter, “–but this is so lovely.”
But the absolute icing on the cake, like he didn’t want me to miss the message he had so diligently put down in writing, was the sketch at the bottom of his verse.
Two stick figures, heads touching with a series of hearts floating in the space above their heads.
An arrow pointed from the person on the left at the word, “Me,” and another arrow pointed from the figure on the right to the word, “You.” I had no doubt that “you” referred to myself, not because the picture bore even the slightest resemblance to me (for one, I didn’t have blue skin), but because unlike the person on the left who was glaringly bald, the one on the right had several strands of hair on her head.
Judging from the pronounced indentation on the paper where each strand was painstakingly attached to the head, I could tell that this additional detail was deliberately included. So, I counted the strands: one, two, three, four, five.
Five strands of hair.
“Why five?” I wondered. “Shouldn’t there be fifteen?” I asked, wandering back to the cassette tape, which had fifteen songs in total recorded on it.
“Why five?” I asked myself over and over again. But no matter how many times I asked myself that question, I couldn’t arrive at a logical answer.
Is he going to give me ₦ 5 naira? Does he only have five fingers? Do we have five days of holiday left? Did he write this at 5:00 am? 5:00 pm maybe? Did the journey to Kaduna take five hours? Does he only have five real teeth? Am I over-thinking this?
I wondered and wondered. Finally, I decided I would ask him when I saw him the following day. Just thinking of meeting him after reading his heartfelt declaration of love, made me nervous. How would I react to him? How would he react to me? Would we just go back to being friends or would this change our friendship forever?
I didn’t know, but as I sprayed the perfume whose bottle was shaped like the body of a woman, first on my neck, then dabbed liberally behind my ears, and on my wrists, I thought of Tokunbo. I knew that we were creating strong memories.
That every time my nose smelt the alluring fragrance, Tokunbo’s image would come alive in my mind. That every time I heard any of those songs on that tape, I would remember Tokunbo, and that regardless of what happened to the card, the words written in it were forever imprinted in my heart.
I would never forget them.
Say Yes to Us …
That was the first time anyone had ever considered me special enough to lovingly craft beautiful words for my eyes only.
But as I set the bottle of perfume down, I began to worry about Tokunbo’s request.
Yes, he was asking me to be his girlfriend. That much was clear. But I also wondered at the timing.
I had just turned 15 and if that wasn’t a problem, my being in secondary school was.
By the end of that year, I would have completed the first term of SS2, but I was still in secondary school. I had made a promise to myself, not even to my parents that I would never go into any relationship with any man, or boy, until I was in the university. And even then, not when I was a Jambite (1st year).
Would I break this promise to myself, this self-imposed rule, and face the consequences?
Even as I thought of Tokunbo, I reached for the envelope and the card. I placed the card on the bed beside me as I lay my head on my pillow, facing the ceiling.
Holding the envelope above my head, I read those words again.
My Enitan …
At that moment, with the envelope above me, light streaming through, I saw a little dark rectangle in the right corner.
I sat up quickly.
“Kai! And I almost threw this envelope away. I didn’t even know there was something else inside.”
My fingers were busy as I spoke to myself, freeing the rectangle from the envelope.
It was a small picture of a younger-looking Tokunbo in a white studio. But he had the same calm expression on his face. The picture had a certain quality to it, very different from the ones we took in Nigeria.
My suspicions were confirmed when I flipped to the back, and saw the words, “Tokunbo Williams. San Antonio, Texas. 1998,” scribbled on the back.
I smiled as I looked at that picture. But that smile quickly vanished when I heard my mother calling me, followed by Yemi’s hurried footsteps coming towards my room. I knew it was him because he called out my name as he approached. True to habit, he didn’t knock before barging into my room.
“Mummy is calling you, Enitan!” he shouted, sounding rather irritated as he entered my room. Either he didn’t notice the items on my bed and on the nearby table, or else, he didn’t care, because as soon as I acknowledged his message, he left. But he returned almost immediately, full of questions.
“So, did he give you biscuits or anything to eat?” asked Yemi, eyeing the now empty gift bag lying on the table, as if it looked edible.
Once I responded in the negative, there was a shocked silence. But it was very brief. He promptly launched a follow-up question.
“No, Yemi,” I replied firmly, shaking my head.
“So, what did he bring then?”
“Perfume and music,” I said in summary.
Yemi squeezed his face the way babies do when bitter medicine is put in their mouths. Clearly, he wasn’t impressed by Tokunbo’s choice of gifts. I might as well have said Tokunbo gave me a ruler or an abacus for my birthday. The items I had mentioned were useless to Yemi, who was clearly expecting something edible, so he could demand a bribe for keeping my secret from our parents.
“Next time, tell him to bring Digestives or TUC, at least. Man must wack now! No be music we go chop!” he grumbled before leaving me in peace.
I chuckled at his comment.
“Thank God I didn’t even mention the card. He’d have said it belonged in the dustbin.”
And then, when I recalled that my mother wanted me to come downstairs, I quickly sprang into action, gathering the envelope, card and perfume into the gift bag. The cassette tape was a harmless gift, but the others were more incriminating. I had to find a safe place to hide them away, and I had to move fast.
I had learnt never to keep anything I didn’t want my mother to find, anywhere near, around, or under my bed. Not even underneath my mattress. Lifting up that mouka foam to see Tokunbo’s poem-slash-letter would be too easy for my mother, and I refused to play into her hands.
You see, after what happened almost three years earlier, I learnt that my bed was an easy target for my mother to find items that were forbidden.
I had borrowed a couple of Hearts and Hints magazines from a classmate, who always had the latest issues of each magazine. Because of the steamy, “definitely-not-PG-13” stories that filled these magazines, especially Hearts, my mother had explicitly banned them from our house.
But, I had foolishly hidden them under my pillow. My mother had come to my room while I was away at school, looking for a pair of scissors I had taken from her, but never returned.
Because she knew I never made my bed before rushing off to school, her suspicions must have been aroused when she saw a neatly-made bed, with the old Ankara wrapper that doubled as my “cover cloth” gently laid over my bed, tucked in around the edges.
That day, because I had a lot to hide, I had taken the extra precaution of extending this makeshift blanket to cover the pillow, which was the only thing hiding those magazines from view.
My mother must have seen this cozy scene, and following her trusty instincts, had pulled back the cover cloth and swiped the pillow aside to discover the contraband items, lying in all their glossy glory on my bed.
All of this must have happened before I got home, because as soon as I got back from school that day, my mother was waiting for me at the gate. Shaking the magazines in my face, she confronted me with my crime. Because I was unable to give her a good explanation for disobeying her, she dragged me by my left ear, until we were indoors.
As soon as we entered the house, she slapped me so hard that for a few seconds, I thought I was in an alternate universe, where the floor was the ceiling and vice versa.
When I arrived at school the next day, I explained what had happened to Patricia, the owner of the magazines. She was not interested in listening to my story. I had to pay her ₦ 20 naira almost every day out of my meagre allowance for three weeks, until I had repaid the cost of the magazines.
That was the last time I read Hearts and Hints, and it was also the last time I hid anything important close to my bed.
I looked around my room. It was sparsely furnished with just one wooden wardrobe, a table, and a plastic chair which stood beside my wooden bed.
Then, a thought flashed across my mind:
What if I hide it up, above my head?
My eyes looked up. No, I couldn’t hide the gift bag in the ceiling. Impossible.
But what is the next best thing?
Yes. I saw it and decided that was a good hiding place.
Each window in our house had two sets of curtains: a white net curtain, and a heavier green curtain made from a blend of cotton and polyester. The green was a dark shade that complimented the brown rug and cream-colored walls.
During the day, the green curtains were drawn back to let in natural sunlight, but at night, they were closed for privacy. However, the net curtains always stayed in place, unless of course, it was so hot that they also had to be drawn back to let in fresh air through the windows.
Above the wires with hooks on each end, which held the curtains in place, was a wooden panel. This served one important purpose: it hid all the back-end construction work that showed the nails in the wall attached to the hooked wires holding up the curtains.
In short, it hid all the ugly business out of sight.
However, because of the design of this wooden contraption, there was a fairly shallow recess at the very top, which was deep enough to hide small objects.
In some people’s homes, that recess was occupied by large, framed family portraits, pictures of the couple in that home, dressed in gaudy wedding attire with both husband and wife wearing white, lace gloves, graduation pictures displaying the acquisition of advanced academic degrees (only Master’s and PhDs counted, not SSCE), and occasionally, laminated and framed copies of the said degrees.
Visitors could see all these items in the living room from any angle.
But in our home, that recess was where Yemi and Tayo, in their younger days, frequently hid Lego bricks and other toys they did not want to share with others.
Tayo, at some point, used that spot to hide some of my mother’s canes, until she discovered them and gave him a generous serving of what he was missing: a thorough flogging.
But, that was such a long time ago, that I believed my mother would not think of searching that place for any reason.
I climbed onto the top of my table, and put the gift bag in the recess above my window. But, like I had already suspected, it was too big to fit there and remain hidden from sight.
So, I had to split up the goodies.
I hid the bottle of perfume above my window, and I stashed the card, which was back in the envelope, in an old, bulky Business Studies textbook I had used in junior secondary school.
The particular chapter where I hid it was an introduction to Shorthand. The symbols looked then, just as they did in junior school, like ancient Greek to me.
“–And they expected us to memorize all these things?” I said aloud, rolling my eyes. “They were just jones-ing!”
It was already hard enough trying to decode the gibberish that was some of my classmates’ handwriting when copying notes dictated in class. But asking us to learn shorthand was like telling us to learn a dead language.
Besides, some of the symbols looked like oversimplified picture depictions of popular swimming techniques.
Backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke …
As for the others, there was only one explanation that made sense: they were written solely to communicate with extraterrestrials.
“Only people on Mars can read this,” I concluded. There was no way it was intended for a human audience.
After hearing my name one more time, I quickly ditched the gift bag under a pile of dirty laundry, and went to answer my mother.
I came downstairs to find that my mother had baked a cake using the only baking tin she had, which was shaped like a Number 5.
For a moment, I wondered if this had anything to do with Tokunbo’s poem-slash-letter. But I quickly decided that it didn’t.
The cake was as spongy as could be expected, taking into consideration that the batter was mixed by hand for just a few minutes before it was thrown into the oven. Of course, it had no icing, but we didn’t mind. We enjoyed it with grateful hearts.
My father took a few pictures using the digital camera a friend who lived abroad had given him as a gift, and even Tayo called me on the phone from Ibadan to wish me a Happy Birthday.
I went to bed that night quite content, but also quite apprehensive, as each ticking of the clock brought me closer to my much anticipated meeting with Tokunbo. From his scribbled message, it was clear he wanted more than friendship.
Before I went to sleep that night, I pulled out Tokunbo’s wallet-sized picture from my brown leather purse where I had stored behind my school ID card. I looked at it again. There was Tokunbo grinning at me in a white studio, sitting on something that was completely hidden from view.
But I have said I won’t date anyone till I get to uni.
“This is the guy who can make me change my mind,” I said to myself as I stared at the picture in my hand.
And with that thought, I promptly fell asleep.
The next day, I woke up and was filled with fear when I discovered that I had fallen asleep clutching Tokunbo’s picture in my hand. What if my mother had seen it?
“There’s no way she could’ve entered my room without my knowledge,” I croaked and set my mind at ease.
Comforted by this reassuring thought, I sluggishly rose to my feet and started my day.
My mother left the house around 11:00am, to run a few errands, and I had no idea when she would return. But since we were on holiday, it didn’t matter if I stepped out for a while. I could claim I was visiting a friend down the road, which was technically correct, except that this friend was a boy.
The “I’m-visiting-a-friend-down-the-street” excuse was what I told Yemi who was in the early stages of a long afternoon nap. He lay on a couch in the sitting room, the only one long enough to accommodate his long limbs. He nodded, and turned over to make himself more comfortable before slipping into deeper sleep.
I knew he would ignore me if I asked him to come and lock the gate after me, so I took my key, padlocking the gate from the outside.
Then, after adjusting my skirt and blouse for perhaps the hundredth time that afternoon, I used an old toothbrush to tame the unruly strands of hair at my hairline. After applying an extra coat of Vaseline to my lips, I stepped out.
Although I was both nervous and excited at the same time, the over-arching thought in my mind was:
What will I say to Tokunbo?
I had not yet decided what my answer would be, but I knew that once I reached Mallam Audu’s stall, it was show-time.
So, I put one foot in front of the other and tried to calm myself. As I got closer, I could feel my heart pounding faster and faster.
Gbim, Gbim, Gbim!
And then my palms got sweaty. My legs turned to jelly, and I was surprised that they still moved in the direction of the Mallam’s stall.
I expected Tokunbo to be sitting down on the bench waiting for me, but as I got nearer, I saw him standing beside the stall, in the hot sun. In his right hand, he held a small black nylon bag. But what really startled me was the look of worry on his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked frowning. He nodded in the direction of the stall. I peeped inside and saw Mallam Audu first. I greeted him. Then, I saw that the bench where Tokunbo and I usually sat to have our heart-to-heart was occupied by a stranger.
It was a customer who was sitting there, a freshly lit cigarette balanced between two fingers. He was engrossed in reading a newspaper spread on his laps, and didn’t even notice me staring at him.
“We can’t talk here,” said Tokunbo in a matter-of-fact voice. And he was right. That man had no intention of leaving anytime soon.
I nodded in agreement.
We stood there for another five minutes deliberating on where we could sit down and talk privately without interruptions.
Tokunbo was the first to come up with the winning pick.
“How about Iya Kafilat’s place?” he asked.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I responded with a smile. “Let’s go there.”
And we did.
On our way, Tokunbo gisted me about his trip to Kaduna, the places he visited, including various markets, and one of his father’s relatives who lived in Kaduna.
“I saw somebody who looked like you,” said Tokunbo, rounding off his gist.
“Really?” I asked surprised. “You mean like my carbon copy or just the same shape of face?”
“Enitan, she could’ve passed for you. I even thought it was you. She was selling watermelons with her brothers at Railway Market. I had to go and ask her what her name was, just to be sure,” said Tokunbo.
“Her name was Mariam.”
I chuckled and said, “It was definitely not me you saw o! I’ve been here in Lagos this whole time. But maybe if I travel to Kogi, I might see your look alike there too.”
We both laughed, not really because what I said was funny, but to ease the tension and nervousness we could feel between us. Words we needed to say weighed heavy on our hearts.
“You know what they say: God makes people in twos,” said Tokunbo, chuckling nervously.
“I believe you.”
By now, we had arrived at Iya Kafilat’s shop, which was relatively busy for a Thursday afternoon. We selected the spot farthest from other chatting customers.
No sooner had we settled down, than Iya Kafilat herself just materialized in front of us.
“Na wetin you go buy today? Malt, Coke, Fanta, even pure water sef, we get am,” she said.
I turned a questioning gaze to Tokunbo. We had not planned to buy anything, and I was certainly not carrying any cash on me. I was just about to decline Iya Kafilat’s offer when Tokunbo quickly answered her.
“One bottle of Fanta for her, and a bottle of Limca for me, ma.”
Quite pleased, Iya Kafilat disappeared into her shop to fill our order. As soon as she left, Tokunbo said:
“You know she wasn’t going to just let us sit here without buying anything.”
He could tell I was about to start arguing about spending money unnecessarily, and he quelled the argument before it even started.
This guy knows me so well …
Within two minutes, a young girl arrived with two bottles of soft drinks. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old, but I knew she wasn’t Kafilat. Kafilat was in her early 20s and was a student in a university outside Lagos. This was public knowledge.
We saw her occasionally when she came home to visit.
This little girl was one of her three siblings. Her name was Kafayat.
As soon as she set the bottles on the table, she asked for payment. Only when Tokunbo handed her the money, did she open the bottles with an opener, which up until then, was tucked away in an oversized apron. Then, she disappeared into the shop to bring back Tokunbo’s change.
After giving him the change, Tokunbo detained her briefly to ask her where her older sister was.
Folding her hands behind her back, Kafayat chanted:
“Egbon mi, Sister Kafilat, won ti lo si ile-iwe giga (My big sister, Sister Kafilat, has gone to the university).”
“Alright, greet her for me when she comes back, okay?” said Tokunbo cheerfully.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, with a little curtsy before returning to the shop.
I waited for Kafayat to go before asking Tokunbo:
“Do you know her sister personally?”
“No. Not more than you probably do,” he replied, looking a little embarrassed.
“So, why the interrogation?”
“I was just being friendly,” said Tokunbo, smiling weakly.
Then, he handed the black nylon bag to me, and said:
“Sorry, there should have been more kilishi in there, but Yele ate her own, and started on this one too.”
“It means it’s really good. Thank you,” I said grinning.
Ordinarily, I would have opened the bag to take a few bites of the thinly-sliced, well-seasoned, sun-dried, roasted beef, but I knew that kilishi had a longer shelf life than its juicier, more succulent cousin, suya. So there was no rush.
“Jos Road isn’t round the corner, or else, I’d have bought you some more,” said Tokunbo apologetically.
“No qualms. This one will do,” I reassured him.
And then, an awkward silence followed during which time we each watched the bubbles form in the carbonated drinks that sat in front of us. Funny enough, neither of us took as much as a sip from the drinks. We had more than soft drinks on our minds.
Then, Tokunbo spoke up.
After pulling his chair close to mine, so that we were literally sitting side-by-side, rather than across from each other, he spoke in a soft, well-controlled voice.
“So, have you had a chance to … you know, read the card?” he asked, gazing steadily into my eyes.
I smiled and nodded before looking away shyly. The graveled ground suddenly held a mild fascination for me and I fixed my gaze on it.
Then, I felt Tokunbo hold my hand, and I was forced to look again into his eyes. Taking my right hand in both of his hands, he said:
“I know we’re friends, Enitan. But I want more than that. I’m sure of what my heart is telling me, but I want you to tell me if you feel the same way too.”
I withdrew my hand quietly and sighed deeply.
“I really like you too, Tokunbo–” I began.
“–And I love you, Enitan,” he said, with a certainty that rattled me. How could he be so sure? Love, to me was such a deep, heavy word, not the sort of thing teenagers like us were supposed to understand and profess to each other. But here was Tokunbo, in public, telling me he loved me. Sincerely. How could this be?
“Are you sure, Tokunbo?” I asked, uncertainly, “Because it takes a lifetime to love somebody.”
“I know it, Enitan,” he said genuinely. “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I think about you all the time.”
“Malaria will do that to you,” I said grinning mischievously. “Oh yes! Abi, are you saying I’m responsible for your insomnia?”
Tokunbo laughed. It was the careless laughter of a drunk man.
“See, this is why I love you,” he said.
“Because I can detect Malaria just by looking at a person?” I asked, the same wicked grin still on my face.
“No!” said Tokunbo laughing again. “Because you, Enitan, you know the value of laughter.”
“So, what do you say, Enitan? Will you say yes to us?” said Tokunbo, repeating the words he had penned down in the birthday card.
I swallowed hard, leaned towards him and spoke my mind.
“I’m scared Tokunbo. It’s not that you’re a bad person or I don’t want to go into a relationship with you. It’s just that I can’t shake this feeling that this is not the right time. I’m scared that if we do this now, we’ll destroy what we have, and honestly, I don’t want to lose you. Your friendship matters to me, but–”
“So what’s your answer?” said Tokunbo anxiously.
“My answer is … No,” I replied, and felt a part of my heart breaking as I saw Tokunbo’s face fall. Then, I added, “For now.”
He didn’t say anything, just kept looking straight ahead. So, I put my hand under his chin and raised his face towards me. I saw sadness there, unshrouded disappointment. And the worst part was I felt the sadness too.
“I said No for now,” I repeated, looking into his eyes. “Ask me again in uni.”
“You’re telling me to wait till we leave secondary school?” he asked incredulously, and then withdrew his chin from my hand. “What if we end up going to different schools?”
If you love me, you go wait for me …
“Does that matter if we truly love each other?” I asked. “If what we feel for each other is real, then distance won’t be a barrier. Love will build a bridge from me to you.”
“Hmm … I hear you,” he grunted.
I knew Tokunbo didn’t like being friend zoned, but I had to follow my heart. Ignoring my personal convictions was not something I wanted to trifle with, especially where relationships were concerned. And I was convinced that the timing of Tokunbo’s request was not right.
I nudged him playfully.
“Okay, if that is what you want, I’ll wait for you,” he finally agreed. “But promise me one thing.”
“Promise me that no matter what happens between us, we’ll always be friends.”
“I promise, with all my heart.”
Somehow, the promise I made to Tokunbo that afternoon left him satisfied. Slowly, as we talked, we almost forgot the heavy matter we had just discussed. After finishing our drinks, we went back home.
As we walked, I asked Tokunbo about the strands of hair.
“You noticed, huh?” he chuckled.
“Of course I did. I’d say you left out like 10 extra strands,” I replied jokingly.
“Nah! It’s complete. Only five. One for each year we’re supposed to spend in uni.”
“Really? Tokunbo, you are one weird guy!” I said incredulously.
“Different? Yes. Weird? No. You’re going to read Law, no be so?”
“And I’m going in for Engineering. Both courses take 5 years.”
I looked at him, amazed at the clarity of his thoughts, at how sure he was.
“Let’s pray JAMB doesn’t jamb us,” I said cautiously. “And you should have added one more strand of hair.”
“Because with all these strikes, you know it’s really 5 years plus X.”
“That’s true. Nobody knows tomorrow,” said Tokunbo thoughtfully.
“Tomorrow is Friday, Tokunbo,” I said, winking at him.
As I was about to open the gate and go inside, he grabbed my hand and said:
“We’re still friends, right?”
“Yes. Definitely friends,” I replied.
“I was hoping I’d be able to call you my girlfriend now, but friend will still work,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.
“Good things come to those who wait, ehn,” I said. “Bye-bye, friend.”
“Bye-bye, friend,” he echoed.
And we parted ways.
Perhaps, if I had known what was coming, I would have said “Yes” to Tokunbo that day.