by Candy Ikwuwunna
You may as well unpack one box.
It is 4.37pm, and the day has folded itself away while you wilted on the bed, pressing yourself into the mattress. Suitcases and boxes are spread across the tiny studio you hastily moved into the weekend before. You have not done much more since then, than to trip over them on your way to the door to collect take out. The small fragrant grease stained bags full of barely touched food are filling up your bins.
Do just one thing you think, as you push yourself up into a sitting position. Just one thing, as you kneel onto the carpet and open the box labelled books.
You cough a little at the dust that rises, but your breath catches in your throat at what’s inside.
It’s full of his paperbacks – Lee Child, James Patterson, John Grisham, things you used to jokingly call his boy books. You must have taken them in your rush to go. You can’t believe you managed to snatch these but not your own romance novels or even your camera.
He would read them on holiday, his old man glasses on, brow furrowed in concentration, while you edited photos until you fell asleep beside him, lulled by his familiar warmth.
You tell yourself that it’s pathetic to fall apart at a box of mass market paperbacks. You tell yourself that there are so many things you need to do, that soon you will go back to work at the law firm. But despite the list that piles up in your head, you are glued to your spot. A little later your shaky legs carry you back to bed. You spend the rest of the evening watching reruns of Love Island, before switching over to Great British Bake Off, because even the happenings at Casa Amor thousands of miles away hit too close to home.
As a kid, your favourite video in your parent’s vast and clunky collection was the one of their wedding. You were mostly fascinated by the younger versions of your mum and dad; him with a generous afro, her with a faint, reserved smile, standing in front of a church in Lagos, nervous, young and less tired than you had ever seen them.
But for you, the main event would come later, at the ceremony. You would watch as your grandad poured palm wine into a tumbler, cheered on by a cluster of aunties, and your mum, decked in purple lace, a coral bead necklace and matching statement earrings, made her way across the room, wine sloshing out of the cup, until she reached your dad, and lifted it to his lips. Your mum danced across the room like the floor was her stage, a huge smile spread across her face as she moved. She pretended she couldn’t find your dad, went the wrong way at one point, lifted one hand to her eyes to look out into the crowd, as if he were hiding there, instead of across the hall, laughing and cheering along with everyone else. A tradition every bride took part in, you learned later.
The night you got engaged, your mum picked a sweating bottle of palm wine out of her wine cooler and popped it open, as loose and joyful as a summer night as she poured you all huge glasses. ‘You can use this wine – another bottle anyway – for the ceremony,’ she beamed. ‘Omerem obi utọ, my daughter.’ You have made me so happy.
That night you remembered yourself as a kid, watching their faces in that grainy footage again and again, so different to the stoic, spectacled twosome who raised you as a kid. Sometimes you think it’s the reason you picked up your dad’s old clunky camera, the only thing you had of him when he left. You wanted to capture some of what you saw in that video. That happiness, that weird fascinating time machine.
You used to wonder if you would do the same one day, whether you would pick a champagne or a wine, pour it into a cup and dance across your wedding venue, and into someone’s arms. Whether someone would love you like that. Even at that young age, you had begun to doubt it.
Amaka is the only one who penetrates your wall of silence, simply by stepping over it and turning up at your door. ‘You look terrible,’ she snaps, then shoves a pizza box at you.
She forces you to eat a couple of slices and turns on some domestic thriller, having the good sense to avoid anything romantic. Halfway through, you are crying at the unexpected love story, and Amaka presses the pause button. She looks a little wary, and who can blame her? Both of you are the type to hold someone’s hair as they puke into the toilet, to lend out tampons, to put drunk friends into cabs at the end of the night. Together, solid, dependable. You don’t fall apart.
She makes you a cup of tea. ‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘I’m here.’
She bookends the relationship, Amaka does. She was there at the beginning. You were 16, at the end of Year 11, lying down in Greenwich park, letting the exam induced stress seep out of you when you met him. In the distance, you heard a ball land and then you couldn’t see the sky anymore, just his face grinning down at you, as his friends ran to restart their game.
You were bowled over by the attention, by his smile, by his unexpected shyness. Before him, wanting boys felt like wanting a 25th hour. Like wanting to go to space. Something for women slimmer, more light skinned than you. For girls who didn’t have aunties whisper weight loss tips to them at parties. For girls who didn’t have to stutter through sentences in class presentations. Something for romance books. But here it was, right in front of you, proving you wrong.
And everyone loved him. Your friends loved him. Your mum loved him, when you got the courage to introduce him to her. The girls at church loved him. He was attentive enough, and you were grateful.
Grateful because you always thought being the type of girl you were meant making up for a margin of error, so you were always quiet, nice, undemanding. And look at that, it got you him. You were right.
So you got quieter, nicer, less demanding, to keep him. And that was that for ten years.
‘Sometimes I believed he was the best thing about me,’ you whisper, ashamed even as it comes out of your mouth.
The intensity of Amaka’s response surprises even her, it seems. ‘No. He wasn’t even in the top twenty.’
“We’re about to get married. All our friends and family are here. Don’t destroy everything we’ve built together.
You have been building, you wanted to scream. I have been downsizing.”
She was there at the end, too. A couple of days before your wedding, an email without a subject line came into your inbox and set off a quiet bomb in your life. Another woman, living in North London. Another woman, very pregnant. Another woman, betrayed, ashamed, scared, but very much in love.
You didn’t do anything.
Except on the day, when Amaka grabbed your hand on the way to the reception, and asked why your face had been longer than an English winter all morning, jeez girl, it’s your wedding, something in you broke. When your mum came to the makeshift dressing room to get you for the wine ceremony you had refused to come out. Not even when he came to the door, puzzled, panicked, angry, then entreating.
Come on baby, it was one time in ten years. We’re about to get married. All our friends and family are here. Don’t destroy everything we’ve built together.
You have been building, you wanted to scream. I have been downsizing.
You escaped, told your horrified mum and little brother the sordid sorry tale, and left, letting your wedding descend into Eastenders levels of drama.
You at least hoped that the buffet was good.
Before Amaka leaves, after a session of cussing out every single thing about him, she turns to face you, and starts saying something, then stops. Then starts again.
‘You’re so…I wish you could see what we all see,’ she says. ‘How lucky we feel that you’re our friend. Just for once.’
You nod, not trusting yourself to speak.
You wake up the next morning and think you could handle a walk.
It’s cold out. You take a few pictures in the park with your phone. When you get home, you take out your laptop, and spend an hour editing them, running them through different filters, balancing their colour and light.
You remember that day in sixth form when you looked up the salary of a photographer and the salary of a lawyer and laughed. You thought of the backbreaking double shifts your mum did at the hospital to keep you afloat. And he had wanted to study law too. Let’s secure our future. It had been no choice, really.
But it gets to dinner time, and you realize, sitting on your table editing your photos, that this is the longest you have spent out of bed since the day.
What was that Oprah meme pinged around your group chats? Let’s celebrate that.
You go back to work. You muster your dignity and answer questions about your wedding as until the office gossip latches onto something new. You unpack more boxes, a few at a time. You send him back his paperbacks and he sends your camera. You ditch your ridiculous pre-wedding diet and stop looking into getting a revenge body. You sign up to an intermediate photography class and ringfence the time from your managers.
You try to speak up now, when something bothers you. To be less cautious, to say something when you are hurting, or at least acknowledge it. Yes, your heart has been shattered, battered and bruised, but at least you can take your own name out of the roster of people and things that do and will keep doing the punching.
You visit your mum. You have been worried that tied her to another scandal – a husband that left, now a daughter that jilted her husband.
But when you arrive she gives you a bowl of pepper soup, so spicy it feels like you are fighting your food, just how you like it. She chats about her sisters, her annoyances with your little brother, the book club her church is starting.
‘I believe there is someone else out there for you,’ she says, adjusting her glasses.
You laugh even at the thought. ‘I think I’ll be on my own for a while. That will have to be enough.’ You meant to be light, but it comes out as a reproach.
But she nods, and smiles, wrapping her shawl around herself. ‘Yes, of course. It is.’
As you leave, she hands you the wine that was supposed to be used at your wine carrying ceremony.
‘Perhaps you can find something else to celebrate, sha.’
So you do. You send long apologetic texts to all your group chats and invite them round for a housewarming.
Abso-fucking-lutely Amaka writes back.
It forces you to unpack all your boxes and make the place yours. You chop up onions and Scott bonnet peppers for the ugba. You rub herbs in the chicken thighs and leave them to marinate. You stir the jollof and steam up your little kitchen so much that the windows sweat. You put out bowls of chocolates and chin chin.
When they’re all there, you open up the wedding wine your mum gave you and pour it out in the new glasses you bought, letting their chatter and their presence and everything you love about being around them soak into you, making your heart glow. You hope you do the same for them.
You suspect you do.
Candy Ikwuwunna |@candyikwu | www.wecanthearyoucandy.com/blog
Candy Ikwuwunna is a huge pop culture obsessive, with a fondness for romance, womens’ fiction and teen dramas. She works in the third sector.