“He walks away, the sun goes down, he takes the day but I’m grown”– Amy Winehouse
They met in the most unusual way. Him sitting on a cold subway chair in an E Train, bounding downtown. She was standing in front of him, with her long fingers curled around the handlebars, a battered copy of Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun lodged in her left hand hovering above his head. It was right there in his face.
She, was right there in his face. The only barrier between them—the black-and-white portrait of the author’s piercing almond eyes which shielded her face from him.
“You know when people say the person for you could be right in front of you? It was literal for us—she was right there in my face,” he said, his eyes lingering on her as she washed the dishes.
I nearly blurt out, Who? Chimamanda?
I didn’t know any couples who met on the subway, Nigerian couples for that matter. It just didn’t happen to or for us, as far as I was concerned. Intrigued by their instant attraction to one another, I suppressed the urge to ask where they found the time to dance in such a short amount of flirt time?
In the New York City subway love was a one stop shop, but love was still a dance. Some of us need this dance, that initial push and pull that comes with attraction. Theirs was a shotgun love, once it went off, they ran with it, their bodies disappearing in the smoke.
Everything that happens underground in New York is a race against time. You are literally dancing in the world’s epicenter of life goes on and shit happens. So you better say you love her before the train stops at Penn Station or you’ll never see her again. And because time is of the essence underground, sealing the deal with someone who you just shared breathing space with, whose butt probably grazed yours, whose natural body odours you are now firmly acquainted with by no volition of your own, but rather through the unfortunate forced intimacy that is public transport in one of the world’s oldest cities, meant that every second you had to interact before your prospect gets off—every second matters.
“Love makes time stop,” Udoka said with a deep resolution. A resolution which silenced me.
The story had been told to me differently from both parties. By Udoka’s account, he watched her read for a few minutes and then asked if she was igbo, to which she scowled and continued to read her book, pretending not to hear him speak.
“You Naija babes,” he said, linking his arms around her waist. “You women always think someone is trying to marry you. See how she squeezed her face after one question.”
She rolled her eyes and laughed.
“Well were you not trying to talk to me? He saw me annotating the name ‘Kainene’ and used it as an excuse to ask if I was Igbo.”
I watch them chuckling in the kitchen, slapping each other on the arms, still debating amongst themselves.
“Who asked you to crane your neck inside my book?”
“Sorry I couldn’t help it, you were just so—”
It was January in New York. An icy wind rattled the bare trees outside, and the streets were covered in snow, empty of the vibrant life that made it a dreadfully noisy block in the summer. I wondered what the months would be like, wishing the winter away as soon as possible.
By September, golden brown leaves sway lightly in the wind before they fall. From our living room window, I watch children playing in the street, creating mountains out of the leaves. They take a few steps back then run with their arms in the air, thrusting themselves into the giant batches, releasing a rustle of leaves and high pitched giggles.
Chioma calls out to me from our bathroom. I linger by the door, where I watch her part her hair in sections, slathering leave-in conditioner and oils, from the root to the tip. She combs hair out of a brush, sighs at the large amount she has gathered, chucks it into the toilet bowl and flushes.
“He’s moving back to Nigeria. I don’t know what else to say,” she said, slamming the seat down and sitting on top of it.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know” she replied. “I don’t know what else to do with this. We’ve tried everything, and it seems like he doesn’t want to be here, like he just wants to go back, who am I to stop him.”
“He thinks his life won’t start fully till he’s in Lagos. America isn’t for him,” she continued.
The next few months will prove that love, as Udoka believed, did not make time stop. The fights, which were barely visible to me or anyone in our group of friends, became overwhelming. The boiling pot of resentment which had been brewing between them spilled over into everything, in the form of arguments—on our stoop, outside cafes, in taxis, in the living room late at night. The push and pull was here, and the elephant in the room was waving a flag with the words who would be willing to sacrifice more? We all pretended that we couldn’t see it.
Unlike me, Chioma did not cower from love, hoping that somehow it would find her and she wouldn’t have to break a bit of her heart to get there. She understood its uncertainty from day one, and was willing to take a few beatings to get what she wanted. Bravely, she pulled her sleeves up and showed the garish lines of her heart to the world, and in this way, I originally thought her to be naive.
Mine was a world of illusions, where I created and lived in the complete pleasure of fighting off the fear of loneliness, sitting on top of my emotions with a stoic focus on career, money, and living life. Any Nigerian man I met who told me that he would one day like to “move back,” I crossed off the list. I had no intention of leaving New York, or America at that.
By late November, Udoka leaves the East Coast, a trail of visa papers and a broken heart behind him. He no longer leaves his shoes by the door, his grey coat on the kitchen chair, or picks her up with Afrobeat vibrating his entire car on a Saturday night. She returns from Laguardia Airport late that night, dropping his spare keys on the dining room table and disappearing into her room.
As cliché as this sounds, I just don’t know how I didn’t see it in the beginning. I mean I knew that this was a thing, I just did not think this could be the be all end all you know. I didn’t think it would happen so fast.
I knew what she meant by “it”—the pull, that sweet string of entrepreneurial success stories and Christmas visits he often brought back to the U.S. after Christmas vacations in Abuja. Her optimism in their relationship never wavered, until it was evident that he wanted to return, and she didn’t.
Hers was a case of love in the time of the Nigerian passport, the startling realization that even a love so compatible can be rendered apart by the formidable stamp on an I-20 or H1 visa. The uncomfortable knowing that love, even love, this thing we try so hard to deem unconditional, could be separated by a green book you wanted to be proud of, we’re proud of, but sometimes held you up in Charles de Gaulle, banned you from Dubai, had your breasts aggressively grazed in Schiphol, in the name of a “security search.”
The Nigerian passport had metamorphosed into a leaning dementor, kissing to a black death the budding seeds of many a young Nigerian relationships. It was the shadow leaning over your birthday cake, blowing the candles out before you opened your mouth to make a wish. It was shredding potentials, canceling out hopefuls, rendering hearts across the Atlantic, singeing to ash, the thin ties that bound—in America.
And where the romance died, out of its carcass bloomed fragile seeds of anxiety, fear, reluctance, and an eventual acceptance. It was the paralyzing anxiety, the daily commitment to forging through expiring Visa forms on the table, the emotionally exhausting race for time, trying to save hope for a job, friends, a shameful reluctance to return home and the inability to leave a lover you thought would probably move home with or for you.
Its presence manifested in the partner who got his or her master’s degree, moved to Lagos, and changed. It is the missed skype call, the unexpected hurdles often manifesting as excuses in the form of failing electricity, the national youth service, limited data plans, and slow internet.
It is the understanding that your partner may not be willing to wait for you, that you may forever experience the back and forth that comes with “moving back,” it is the sting of an overheating iphone pressed to sweaty ears under equatorial heat, the numerous whatsapp texts, the “who is that girl on your Instagram,” and the imprisoned life that is watching your partner through social media. It is the finality of the phrase, the resounding bell that “love is not enough.”
The Nigerian Literary Mixtape is a compilation of short stories and essays written and produced by Sheba Anyanwu to understand the push and pull of being a Nigerian woman in the Diaspora.