Against All Odds

By Michael Emeka

The first time I saw Chetachi after she moved into our house, she was in the backyard, brushing her teeth. Even through the toothpaste foam, I could tell she had a gleaming white set of teeth.

            ‘Hi,’ she mumbled, looking in my direction. My heart speeded up and my breath froze in my throat.

            ‘Hi-hello,’ I stammered like an imbecile. So uncomfortable was I couldn’t even meet her gaze. But while she busied herself, working her toothbrush this way and that and spitting out suds every once in a while, I stole secret glances at her from the corner of my eye. She was of average height, light-skinned, plump and round-faced. Her brown eyes had a friendly glint in them that drew one the way sugar draws ants. And her soft, red lips reminded me of overripe tomatoes.

Scooping water over her face, she glanced in my direction. Our eyes met, and I looked away. Holding the mug I’d come out to wash in a tight grip, I raced back inside, heart thudding in my chest. In my room now, I banged my head against the wall several times, cursing myself. ‘What manner of a fool are you?’ Each word was punctuated by my head hitting the wall. ‘What… sort… of… an… idiot… are… you?’

I can’t explain why that always happens to me. Each time I come across a girl I admire, my skin would grow warm, like grilled meat, and my heart would start beating erratically as if I was facing a firing squad. And before you knew what was happening, I’d either clam up or turn to a stammering wreck, words jerking out of me as if I was a cracked CD. Afterwards, I’d be so regretful I’d want to burst my skull against the nearest hard object.

As my heartbeat returned to normal, I turned and leaned my back against the wall. Shutting my eyes, I breathed a deep sigh. I couldn’t win her now. That much was clear to me. With several bolder and more confident young men around in the compound, and considering I just let myself down before her, it was now a tall order winning her love and friendship. Well, not getting her wouldn’t kill me, would it? I mused. And besides, who even cares? I don’t give a hoot. Another weary sigh. But deep down, a sore place within me ached and smarted. I cared.

#

The rays of the dying sun shot like lances through the scattering of the cirrus clouds hanging in tatters around it. The heat softened and shadows lengthened. Seated on the boulder beneath the Neem tree in our backyard, I watched as crimson bled into the firmament.

            While I was outside watching the sunset, my elder brother, Ekene, and Chisim and Gideon, our other neighbours, were in Chetachi’s room. According to them, they had gone to welcome her officially to the compound. But in truth, each of the young men had gone to mark out his territory, like a rampaging wolf. I didn’t bother going with them because after the blunders of my first contact with her, I didn’t seriously think I was still in contention for her heart. Nature, such as I was admiring now, put me at rest and didn’t make my heart race unnecessarily.

            A noise of displeasure arose suddenly in the neighbourhood: a power outage. Shortly after, everyone poured outside. Ekene emerged first into the backyard, swinging his blue T-shirt over his head to dispel the heat. What heat I couldn’t fathom because the weather had cooled. The only reason he had removed his shirt, according to my calculation, was to show Chetachi his muscled, well-toned body—the bastard! His extreme handsomeness coupled with that body made him a ladies’ magnet.

‘For all I care, they can have her,’ I told myself. ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass.’

            Chetachi appeared at that moment, flanked by Chisim and Gideon. Glancing in their direction, I smiled seeing that both men were equally shirtless. What a show they had put up for her in her room!

Gideon, like Ekene, had an impressive body. He was brawny without being too muscular. His considerable biceps looked like they were fashioned especially for intimate moments. Chisim’s body looked like any normal guy’s, but dark tufts of hair covered every inch of his chest and belly. The hairs ran down the length of his torso and vanished under the waistline of his boxer short, glimpsed above that of his trousers, leaving the rest to the imagination. All at once, I realized these guys were subtly or not so subtly advertising themselves. This was a parade of endowments and virility.

‘Old boy, how far?’ Gideon and Chisim called out simultaneously to me, beaming wide, contented smiles.

‘I’m all right,’ I replied.

Chetachi left them and drifted over to me. ‘Ke nke na-eme? What’s happening?’

I shrugged. ‘Nothing.’ My heart picked up speed, but it didn’t go into overdrive as it would have if I was thinking of saying something personal to her.  

‘What are you doing?’ She was standing on my right, gazing at me with shining, excited eyes. But my gaze was towards the heavens.

 ‘Watching the nightfall.’ I motioned with my jaw towards the sky.

‘Really?’ Her eyes grew brighter as fires of interest kindled in them. She came over, leaned against the narrow trunk of the tree and joined me in looking at the sky.

The orange-red sun was now an arc over the horizon. Its rays receded fast, giving way to the grey gossamer shadows spilling out into the world.

I turned and regarded her as she gazed with childlike interest at the celestial display before us. Feeling eyes on her, she glanced my way; but I quickly averted my face and fastened my eyes again on the dying sun.

‘So you like to watch the sunset too,’ I asked her.

‘Yes.’

Silence.

‘What more do you like to do?’

‘I enjoy reading and taking long strolls.’

I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded as if she was describing me. ‘Ezi okwu? Is that so?’

‘Yes. What about you?’

I shrugged. ‘I enjoy watching movies, listening to music, playing chess and doing a host of other things.’ I didn’t want to include the activities she had mentioned, so it wouldn’t look as if I was trying to wangle my way into being liked by her.

‘What about reading, watching the sunset and taking long walks? Don’t you like those too?’

I sighed. But before I could open my mouth to answer, Gideon called her.

‘Excuse me.’ When she got to the man, he took her aside and told her, ‘What are you doing with that worm?’

 ‘Worm?’ Chetachi’s eyes widened in surprise. ‘I don’t understand. O gini mere? What happened? Why are you calling him that?’

Gideon forced a smile. ‘You know he’s a bookworm. That’s why I called him a worm.’

The girl’s shocked eyes glared at him. His explanation little convinced her. ‘Can I go now?’

Gideon shrugged. ‘Err… just to clear things up. He’s a nice guy and I have nothing against him. It’s only his strangeness that sometimes bothers me. How could someone go loitering around the mountain or the bushes alone, doing absolutely nothing? And to make matters worse, he has these piles of books in his room that he buries his head in always. That is, of course, when he’s not sitting alone under that tree like a monument to a perennially unhappy man.’

‘Thanks for the information.’ Chetachi nodded. ‘I’ll bear it in mind. But just to clear something up for you, someone walking through the bushes, admiring nature, is doing something.’

‘What?’ he asked from one side of his mouth.

‘Something you may not understand.’

#

A few days later, walking out into the backyard, I found Chetachi seated alone on the boulder under the Neem tree.     I joined her and we fell into a long and rambling conversation that touched on everything. At a point, I stopped talking and just gazed at her. She felt me staring and turned in my direction. I didn’t avert my face this time, and we held eyes for a few seconds. There was so much wisdom, so much understanding in the brown depths of her eyes.

            ‘What?’ she asked.

             ‘Nothing.’ I shook my head. ‘You’re deep.’

            ‘You too.’ She didn’t need to ponder the words to grasp my meaning. We broke eye contact after a few emotionally charged seconds and looked away, lost in our thoughts. While we held eyes, I saw more than just wisdom and understanding in hers. There was tenderness in them, consideration, empathy, and what looked like a glimmer of affection for me. I don’t know, maybe it was a trick of the light. I couldn’t say. Though in some deep and innermost recess, I considered I might end up winning her. I liked her enough, my feelings for her having grown exponentially following this interaction and those of the past few days. And I thought she liked me too. But I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. The wolves were still on the prowl.

            ‘I’ll like to take you out sometime.’ The words came, unbidden, out of me. Before I could think to stop them, they were out.

            Chetachi glanced my way, eyes aglow.

            ‘No. It’s not like those types of outings,’ I rushed to clarify myself. ‘I’ll like us to take a stroll sometime, explore the mountains or some other place and then go somewhere else afterwards.’ My heart was palpitating in my chest and I could hear blood throbbing in my ears as I waited for her answer.

            The glow in the girl’s eyes didn’t dim as I’d feared. Instead, they grew brighter, spreading wider and wider until they reached down and tugged at her lips, stretching them in a wide and magnificent smile that reined in my racing heart.

            ‘Okay,’ she said, chuckling. ‘I’ll go…’ I didn’t know when my eyes shut. All I know is that I took a deep breath and found my eyes opening at the end of it. And then Chetachi finished her sentence: ‘… I’ll go anywhere with you.’ I froze, certain I’d misheard. But hadn’t. Looking at her, we locked eyes for what seemed an eternity. Soulful, love-filled eyes gazed back with tenderness at me. Only God knows what she saw in mine. But I’m sure it must have made nonsense of the look in her eyes.

            We fixed date as we parted that day.

#

Much later, as the night closed in on the world and with power restored, excited shouts of ‘Up NEPA!’ erupted suddenly in our neighbourhood and beyond. Everyone scurried back inside to get something done before the next blackout.

            In my room now, I looked out casually through my window that opened into the compound’s courtyard and received a monumental shock. Ekene’s, my elder brother’s, footwear, was in front of Chetachi’s door. And there were no other footwears there beside hers, standing by the side. Ekene was trying to be a killjoy.

            Standing by the window, I peeped out of the opened louvres. After a moment, suddenly feeling like peeing despite having done that just a while ago, I went to relieve myself again. As I walked across the courtyard, I looked towards Chetachi’s door. Yes, those were surely Ekene’s. Re-passing seconds later, to my greatest displeasure, the footwear was still in front of the door. I clenched my fists and sucked in the air sharply to calm my growing irritation.

‘What’s he playing at?’ I wondered.

 Back in my room, I couldn’t contain myself. I flew to my window once again and peeped out. The wretched slippers were still there. I straightened up and sighed. Glancing around the room, I tried to come up with a plan of action. But just then noises came from Chetachi’s door. I peered out of the window and saw Ekene putting on his slippers. He shared good nights with the girl and traipsed towards our flat. I heaved another sigh and felt my heart and pulse returning to normal.

The following day was a Saturday. Ekene went to the girl’s room and stayed until late. What they were discussing, I couldn’t fathom. He had gone to her room at about six pm; I could tell because since fixing a date with her, noises at her door now drew my undivided attention.

Thirty long minutes after Ekene went into Chetachi’s room, he had still not come out. My blood pressure went up and my heart turned to a piston, hammering away in my chest. The texts in the novel I was reading hopped around like crickets. They surged out of the book, looping and swirling about in the air right before my very eyes. Undaunted, I read on, struggling to piece together the sense of what I was reading. But things came to a head at a point. The texts dissolved suddenly into a dark viscous pool of letters from which I could no longer discern anything. Disgusted, I shut the book, pushed back the chair, rose, went to my window and looked out. Ekene’s slippers were still there. I considered what to do. Three options presented themselves to me: I could go knock on the door and join them in the room, or I could just barge into the room without knocking. Or still, I could give it a rest and wait for him to come out. I opted for the third option. Taking a steadying breath, I went to my bed, stretched out and shut my eyes, hoping that Ekene would in no further time be emerging from the girl’s apartment. But I was mistaken.

When I flinched awake a few hours later, having fallen into a light, restless sleep, I dashed to the window and looked out. Lo-and-behold, Ekene’s slippers were still in front of Chetachi’s door. I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists, and fought an overpowering urge to smash something. I strode to my door, opened it, poked my head out through the living room curtains and fastened my eyes on the square clock on the wall: the time was a quarter past nine.

‘NINE!’ I screamed in my head. I became positively restless. Drawing back into my room, I returned to the window. His slippers were still there, the door to the room carelessly shut. Taking great gulps of air, I went to my reading table, settled back down and tried to continue with the novel. But I couldn’t. My heart was doing a measured canter in my chest, struggling to get out of control.

‘But she has agreed to go out with me,’ I told myself mentally. ‘She can’t be doing anything intimate with him.’ I used that thought to keep my heart in check.

By eleven p.m., when I usually went to bed, Ekene had still not come out of the room. Though sleepy, I couldn’t sleep. Each time I shut my eyes I saw Ekene, rolling around with Chetachi on her bed, both of them fully naked, sweating. My eyes would snap open and I would lie there staring helplessly at the ceiling. It was that night I discovered my whitewashed ceiling had cracked in certain places. ‘What could have caused the cracks?’ I asked myself. Lying there, eyes wide open to avoid seeing those pesky mental images, they magically started to coalesce on the ceiling. There was Ekene, his sweat-streaked back muscles rippling. And here was Chetachi… No. I shook my head to clear the visions. Rising from the bed, I paced the room. It took monumental effort to block out the pictures.

Let down by the ceiling, I fastened my gaze on the walls. I saw no images here. Yet I spotted other things. There, just as the junction between the wall and the ceiling, were hairline cracks. Cracks! I followed them with my eyes and discovered more cracks. But they weren’t the only things I saw. There were house spiders and cobwebs too. My mind slipped from them and I started counting unconsciously the tiny dark perforations on my walls, to keep from going mad.

            At a point, I realized I just couldn’t take it any longer. I dashed to the window and looked out again. Ekene’s footwear, like permanent features in the yard, were still there.

‘What could they be doing, for God’s sake?’ I wondered aloud. ‘They couldn’t have been having a conversation all this time, could they? Mba. No.’ I shook my head. ‘He’s having her,’ I concluded. ‘Definitely.’ At this supposition, my shortness of breath worsened; my heart went from a canter to a full gallop. I drew in a long shuddering breath and exhaled audibly. My vision blurred, and I knew if I didn’t sit down and try to calm myself down, I might pass out at any moment. So I rushed to my bed and stretched out on it, telling myself that Ekene and Chetachi were probably discussing politics.

            Not long after, Chetachi’s door creaked open and Ekene emerged. I rushed to the living room and looked at the wall clock: midnight. TWELVE.

Though relieved he had come out of her room, I didn’t sleep a wink again the rest of the morning. I lay in the darkness of my room, unconsciously replaying in my mind the different ways in which he had had her. Anger, hatred, jealousy coursed red hot through my veins.

#

 I gave Chetachi the cold shoulder as the day broke. She had gone to the backyard to hang out a set of half-dried laundry and was walking back inside when our paths crossed. Eyes pointing straight ahead, I’d walked on by as if no one else existed beside me.

            ‘Uche,’ she called, halting, eyes blazing.

            ‘Yes.’ I stopped and turned casually as if I didn’t know what just happened.

            ‘What’s that?’

            I looked around me. ‘What’s what?’

            ‘That thing you did now.’

            ‘What did I just do?’

            ‘Ignoring me.’ Her eyes were orbs of fire. The look in them robbed me of words and immediately made me sorry for my action.

            ‘I-I thought… I doubted my words would still make any sense to you since other people’s now keep you awake till late.’

            An awkward moment of silence. Her fiery eyes bore holes in me. I didn’t think snubbing her would generate such an angry reaction.

            ‘Thank you. I didn’t know you had such a low opinion of me.’

            ‘Ke ihe i turu anya? What did you expect…?’ I took her by the hand and led her to the backyard. ‘A man stayed in your apartment till midnight, what opinion of you did you expect me to have?’

            ‘He’s your brother. I didn’t know how to tell him to leave.’

            I looked away, fuming, and telling her in my mind, ‘Tell that to the marines. You can’t deny you guys did nothing.’

            ‘You don’t believe me. You think I slept with him.’

            ‘Look, it’s your life, it’s your body, you can do whatever you like with it. I don’t…’ I stopped, seeing the hurt and disbelief in her eyes. Taking two slow steps forward, she stood face to face with me. We searched each other’s eyes.

‘Don’t you ever in your life say that to me, do you understand?’ 

‘Yes, ma.’

‘And besides,’ she went on, ‘you care, otherwise, you won’t be so angry.’

I shut my eyes as if they were betraying me.

She blew out an audible breath, and with it her displeasure. ‘I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have let him stay so long. What should I do when next he comes?’

            ‘Do what any lady who’s not interested in a man does.’

            ‘Okay. But don’t snub me again, ever!’

            ‘I’m sorry. I was angry.’

            ‘So how did you manage last night?’

            ‘I kept an unintended vigil.’

She chuckled. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Shoot.’

‘Why is it some guys can’t figure out when a girl isn’t interested in them?’

            I shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

            ‘Some of them think the saying: “Never Give Up” applies in all situations.’

            I replied with a chuckle as we went back inside.

The End

Michael Emeka is a writer, a teacher and lover of nature. He has been published in Volney Road Review. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria and can be found on Twitter @michael64639151.

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