Tomorrow, Salewa will be a year older, and the least thing she wants from the universe is to see another sunrise. It is 9am and she is on her way to class, pink short-sleeved shirt tucked into navy blue pencil skirt, flat shinny black shoes, her backpack sagged just enough to give off an hint of undergraduate swag, marley braids in a bun—they were over two months old but you wouldn’t notice if you were watching her all the way from her faculty building—Engineering—only a few feet away like Badewa was. He was standing by the entrance, studying her strides, thinking all along what he could possibly get her for her birthday.
“Birthday girl. Can’t believe you are about to be 18.”
“I am” she replied feigning excitement.
“Remember when you used to come to our house with your blue facecap and suspenders?” He was laughing, she joined in.
“Oh please.” She managed to say.
“You always wanted to be a boy eh, Sisi?”
Everyone called her Sisi because she was the only girl in the second year civil engineering class who still dressed and spoke like one. The other four were already totally converted to the male folk. The irony of it! She used to be a tomboy throughout primary and secondary school, but then the gap year between the latter and university had forced her into a love affair with makeup. Let’s not get into it, but it might interest you to know that she once got paid 250k naira for a magazine photoshoot a year back—She was a beast at the craft, no doubt.
Lectures faded. Salewa, Badewa, and Ope—the third musketeer—met at The Chill Zone, a small restaurant just on the other side of school. They were there to plan the dinner for the next day. It was their thing, anytime anyone of them had a birthday, there would be a dinner. Planning Sisi’s own was the most tedious because she was popular. Her room was always bombarded with cards, balloons, cakes etc. calls flooding her phone and let’s not get into all of the social media drama.
So they sat, ordered Coke and made plans. Salewa had already mastered the act of being her alter ego. The person she let the world see was upbeat, interesting, fashionable and always happy. She was not a fine girl, not in the instagram-slay sense. Her eyes were big, bigger than most and she had an asymmetric nose that led straight down to a small mouth and sharp jaw but she knew people’s fine-threshold was very flexible. If you were a jolly person, the light bulb in the room and everybody’s confidant, they don’t look at your big eyes or small mouth anymore, they look at what you do for them and how you do it and they see you that way. Asides that, her makeup game was always on point, so somehow she had been able to convince her entire department if not the whole faculty and school that she was a fine girl, so much so that she won the most recent Most-Beautiful award.
The meeting took longer than expected. Where. Check. When. Check. What to wear. Check. Cash. Check. They left Chill at aroung 7:30pm. Ope walked as though her body could not contain all her excitement, she hopped and skipped and jogged a bit. She just couldn’t keep still. She had the stature of a slightly taller-than-average 12-year-old so she found these kinds of gymnastical movements easy. Salewa laughed hearty laughs at their jokes. At her life. At the lie of it all.
It wasn’t until she got to her room, removing her clothes, standing there naked in the dark that she let the tears come. Easy. Slow. Like a gentle river, almost soothing. “Please”, she said, breathing shallow. It’s the prayer she’s been praying for about six months now. God should let something bad happen to her so she wouldn’t have to kill herself—an accident perhaps; some kind of death she couldn’t see coming. She couldn’t do it herself. She wasn’t strong enough for that. Just like she wasn’t strong enough for anything. She did it; she let her brother die. The image flashed before her again and she shut her eyes so hard they began to hurt.
“Please”, she said again.
After a while, she got into her bed, covered all of her body with her blanket and turned on her phone. The happy-birthdays had already began. It made her sick. Just as she let the phone drop from her hand, Badewa called.
A chuckle. “Hahan, what’s that? Don’t tell me you’re already sleeping o.”
“No… No I’m not.”
“I just thought I should call to see how you were, you were quiet at Chill, not like yourself.”
She wasn’t quiet at all, all day. She made it a point not to be.
“No not really. I don’t know, I just felt I should call.”
“L.O.L. Badewa are you catching feelings?”
She could slip from one persona to the other like this without effort.
“Hewww, oya goodnight o.”
She started laughing.
He started speaking. “Listen, I just wanted to tell you that I really appreciate your friendship and you being there for me all these years.”
“Epistle.” She mocked
Line dead. He wasn’t angry. This was the normal order of their dialogues. She sighed because speaking to him had exhausted her in some way.
Badewa was the guy next door. Not exactly best buddy though at first. Their parents were. They attended the same church, same school, same house fellowship. Pretty much same life. Badewa became a bad boy in secondary school and she told him about Jesus. For a long time he ignored her. Then one day, as though possessed, he came saying he wanted to hear, and she told him everything—Jesus died and rose for you, accept him as your Lord and savior and you’ll be saved—and he accepted and so since then, like two sides of the same coin, they have been inseparable.
She was still thinking about him when she fell asleep.
It was the heavy knock on the door that woke her. She knew who it was. Not who but what. She knew what it was. She grabbed her shorts and a tank top on the plastic chair by her table and yelled I’m coming. It was just 7am.
She opened the door to three cakes on her doorstep. She sighed. Thank you she whispered to the air. And carried the first and second, one after the other, in their cardboard boxes into the room. She was about picking up the last one when Ope arrived.
“Agbe” she replied calling her friend a farmer in Yoruba.
Ope roared in laughter and tooked the cake from her.
“They have already stated burying you in cakes ehn.”
They both laughed. As soon as the cake was out of her hands, Ope jumped on Salewa from behind and shouted—happy birthday my darling!!!—and started planting pesky kisses on her back. Sisi was giggling.
“No class for you today.” Ope added playfully
“L.O.L. you wish.”
Her mom and dad called together, soaking her in copious prayers, prophecies and advice. It lasted at least 30 minutes. After the call she decided to switch off her phone.
“But why? Who switches off their phone on their birthday?” Ope wanted to know and asked rather loudly.
Salewa just guffawed at Ope’s confusion as though it were their inside joke and they had been sharing it in public.
When Badewa saw her at the Gazzie Restaurant—a fancy place just opposite the school gate—his breathing became short and fast and for several minutes, words did not come to his head or mouth. In fact, he felt like all the blood in his brain had suddenly dried up and he needed to lay down a while. She was wearing a black sleek gown that stop just an inch above her knee and silver jewelry that made her eyes shinny, angelic. She looked like royalty and in many instances during the course of their little party, especially when she laughed she left him in unexpected awe.
They sang, they laughed—a lot—gave gifts and spoke highly of their friend. A cake was cut. A few tears were shed because Ope was one to cry without so much as a reason, according to Badewa. They ate and made merry. Anyone who saw them would account that they were the happiest bunch that night at Gazzie.
When they got back inside the university’s walls. Badewa offered to walk the birthday girl to the hostel. Ope said her goodbyes; she had someplace to be.
“Did you have a good day?”
“I can’t complain.”
“Ope said you switched off your phone for the day..”
“I just wanted some quiet.”
“Are you okay?”
She laughed. “I’m fine. I am eighteen. Finally legal!” She chanted with her arms in the air.
He laughed. “I am worried.”
She was starting to get worried herself that he was being this persistent.
“I am fine.”
“You’re always fine.”
“I am. It’s God.” She could feel the lie surround her like a dark cloud.
He stopped walking and watched her move along before she stopped too.
“I’m fine Badewa!” Her voice cracking.
“Please tell me what’s going on.”
She continued walking. He followed her. He didn’t say anything until they got to the front of the hostel.
He hugged her, short, tight, and told her, “Happy birthday Sisi. I know God will take care of you even if you won’t let me. Next year will be better.”
And that’s when she let her wall down, the tears followed and flowed easy. He let her go, not sure what to do. He held her hand, as if asking for permission to hug her again. She didn’t want it to get awkward so she sat down on one of the three steps that bordered the verander leading to the entrance of the building, and as if programmed, a couple of girls passed them by, mummurs and low hushes. Selewa got tissue out her bag and did the needful. Sniff, sniff. He didn’t say a word, he was watching her, guarding her with his gaze as if any moment she could be gone. He wasn’t a man of many words, Badewa. He just waited for her, he waited till she was ready.
“I have been obssessing about dying.” He tried to act like he wasn’t hurt by her words, his fear being fulfilled, but his eyes betrayed him. She saw it. She looked away. After a few minutes he decided to ask, “Is this about him?”
“He was my brother, my only brother, you don’t understand.”
The quiet was so heavy it fastened both their butts and feet to the platform beneath them though the two of them now wanted nothing more than to abandon the whole conversation. Her more than him.
“You don’t know what I did.”
“You didn’t do anything. It was an accident.” He didn’t intended to, but his voice rose. They hadn’t had this conversation before because she wouldn’t allow it. She would say she was fine. She didn’t need to talk. Everything was okay. He was wrong to have believed her, trusted her to keep it together. To have let her pretend she was strong enough to carry herself. He died in December, this was the following September. All this time he thought she was fine. He could feel the guilt lodge in his throat. He wanted to say he was sorry but she spoke first.
“You weren’t there. I was. He was missing for more than an hour and I didn’t notice my brother gone. I didn’t notice till it was too late.”
The tears were back, with a vengeance this time; unwelcomed, forceful and messy. Badewa was listening, words kept escaping his grasp. He hadn’t heard this part of the story before. He just knew Tayo die from drowning. It was only his second time at the beach with his sister and family friends over the weekend.
“He drowned because of me. I knew he couldn’t swim. I knew and I forgot about him. I forgot him. Why should I get to be here? Why should I get to get older and he doesn’t?” She wanted to get up but he held her back.
“Please…” He paused, searching for words “please, you can’t keep doing this. You need to forgive yourself. God has. Your parents have. Even Tayo has I’m sure… It wasn’t your fault Salewa”
“He was just 6. Do you know how long my parents wanted to have him? Do you know how much I wanted him. How I prayed and waited and hoped..”
Her voice trailed off.
“Yes. I do. I know. I was there. I’m sorry. But I need you around. Your mom and dad, they need you. Do you really want to hurt them like that?”
“No.” She answered breathlessly.
“Have you talked to God about this?”
“I don’t think God wants to hear about how I want to be dead.”
“I think He does, cause He kept bugging me to ask how you were.”
She laughed a coarse laugh. “And here I was thinking you had fallen in love with me.”
He smiled. “How do you do that?”
She looked at him, her eyes asking what?
“Switch like that, pretend everything is fine.”
“I’m not sure. Being doing it for way too long now; all the lines are blurred.”
They sat there a while. In total noiselessness, a few centimeters apart, staring, everything around them growing darker with time.
She spoke up when the stars started to grow so visible you could distinguish which was which. “You should go, it’s late. Do you want some more cake?”
He got up, pulled her to her feet, threw her one of his legendary smiles. “No, maybe tomorrow. Tell God about it… and when you’re done talking, listen for a reply. He cares about you, about this.” he made a face that said, please?
She nodded. “I will.” And smiled back.
“Is that real?” Referring to her smile.
She embraced him in a pretend rush. “It is, thank you…” And started walking away. “…for everything.” calling out to him from the gaint door that secured the hall.
He nodded and waved goodnight.