Though I get by, I’m not very good at making friends. In university, I only had two close friends. My girlfriend, Nkechi, left the country after her youth service and we lost contact. As the years went by, I remained close to Chudi, and after we had settled into our jobs, he ended up becoming my husband. Chudi was the gregarious one, and I was the quiet one. We complimented each other. He made the friends and I cooked when they came over. Because of him, I never lacked company, women I could natter with when I needed to, and men to debate politics and football with. I liked that my husband remained my true friend, but sometimes I missed having a close female confidant.
Several months after we had our first child, we moved into a new apartment and somehow I drifted away from the few single friends I had. Chudi’s bachelor buddies also stayed away. Around the same time, one of his colleagues at the office moved in not far from us. He had recently gotten married and he and his wife had moved into the new apartment block. Tade did not have a car and often walked over so he could ride to work with Chudi in the mornings. At first he was reserved, but with time we relaxed around each other and would talk as I waited for them to leave before locking up and taking my son to daycare on my way to work.
I met his wife for the first time during my son’s second birthday party. By then her husband Tade had become much closer to Chudi and they spent a lot of time together. However, he always came alone whenever he came around to our house, or to see any of our other friends, making excuses for his wife if it was a get together or a celebration of one thing or the other. The day of my son’s birthday, Bimbo – that was her name – showed up. She walked two paces behind her husband when they entered our flat, and once she sat down, she didn’t move from the spot even though all the other women fussed over the boy and me. I joked with Chudi that night after everyone had left that I had finally found someone even quieter than I was.
The second time I met her, I was in my dressing gown, with a wrapper round my chest. It was a Saturday and I had gone to get some ogi from Maami, the large woman who sold fresh wet corn starch and bean cakes just two apartment blocks from ours. My son had suddenly decided that pap was the only thing he would eat that morning, so off I went. Maami’s stall was in front of Tade and Bimbo’s building, but still I was surprised when I saw her waiting her turn to buy Maami’s delicious akara. The queue for that was long, but since I was only there for ogi, I could move ahead.
“Good morning,” I said to Bimbo as I passed her.
“Good morning,” she replied, but her eyes did not meet mine.
Something about her face made me stop and try to make conversation. I asked about her day and about Tade. She replied me well enough, in mumbles, and she did not ask anything in return. I bought my ogi after a loud teasing from Maami about how I had become a slave to my son’s caprices. She laughed as she boasted that her magic ogi, which was the talk of our entire area, would pacify him. When I got home, I told Chudi about the jokes, and also about Bimbo who had not cracked a smile even while all the other women and men were chuckling at my expense.
“I don’t think she likes me,” I concluded.
“I doubt that,” Chudi said, “you’ve only just met each other. I’ve spoken with her a few more times than you, she’s only quiet. You’ll see that if you get to know her better.”
At that point, my instinct was just to forget her and put the incident behind me. It was just that I felt a kindred spirit with her; I could understand what it was to be shy. But if she was pushing me away, what could I do?
Soon after that, Tade was promoted at their office and bought a car. To celebrate, he invited us over for drinks and a meal. It was my first time in their flat and I was wondering what kind of hostess Bimbo would be. It was a small gathering, just Chudi and I, and another couple. Their flat was smaller than ours, and I was struck by the simplicity of the living area.
Their parlor only had one two-seater couch and two armchairs, all covered in matching fabric. The only things that lightened up the room were the few pictures high on the cream-colored wall behind the large screen television. The centerpiece of the collection was a framed picture from their wedding day. Tade looked splendid in a blue suit and waistcoat and Bimbo stood next to him in a lovely lacy white gown. The smile that sparkled in her eyes and spread across her lips and cheeks turned her into a different person. I had to blink to be sure I was seeing clearly. The other pictures were also from the wedding, and she was smiling in all of them. There was one of Bimbo and the lady who must have been her chief bridesmaid, and their similar gap-toothed smiles made me think they were sisters. I hadn’t even realized Bimbo had a gap in her teeth.
As we all sat around the small dining table talking about work, the children, and politics, my eyes often went to Bimbo’s face. I felt uncomfortable sitting next to her; she barely added anything to the conversation, not even when I tried to talk to her directly. She either mumbled a reply, or whispered an excuse to escape to the kitchen. I knew it was over a year since they had gotten married and I wondered if it was lack of a child that was making her so withdrawn. Would Chudi know if they had fertility issues? I remembered some of my own anxiety in the first months of our marriage before I had found out I was pregnant. My heart again went out to her, and I wished she would open up to me so I could offer some kindness.
Tade laughed at something Chudi said and I studied him. His wife might be quiet in the extreme but while he was not loud by any means, he was a very humorous man, and would become garrulous after a few drinks. As Bimbo settled into her seat beside me again, her mask-like profile hiding all insight into her eyes, I worried that his drinking could be tearing them apart.
Later that night, Chudi assured me that Tade and Bimbo were OK; Tade was a good husband, and generous. He felt I should know better than to think the man was a drunk, as I had known him for nearly a year. I knew I should let it go, but I just couldn’t.
Earlier, Tade had mentioned that Bimbo was a fashion designer and seamstress, and after the dinner at their house, I decided to become her customer. The next time Tade came over, I asked for the address of her shop and some weeks later I took some Aso-ebi material to her for the dress I intended to wear to an upcoming wedding. I thought it would give me a chance to get to know her better, or at least, talk with her. When I walked into the shop, I was quite impressed. It was very neat, with mounds of Ankara, Aso-oke and other fabrics staked in a corner or hanging on the wall. One young man was ironing patterns on the tall, large table while two girls sat behind their manual sewing machines, rolling away. Bimbo had been working on a bigger machine but got up to greet me, pleasant if still aloof. She smiled as she handed over copies of Ovation and City People magazines. I smiled back and asked her to help me choose a style.
She showed me some finished designs hanging on the walls which she had designed and made, and we discussed sizes and adjustments. That was when I began to see the real Bimbo; she was still quiet but she gestured and flipped through pages. A small smile lit up her features one more time before I left. I was pleased with myself for taking the first step to know her.
Later I said to Chudi, “She’s a very good designer; I’m glad I went to her.”
“Do you still want to befriend her?” he asked.
I nodded in the darkness. He was surprised; it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough to occupy me. My son was in his terrible twos and I had just become pregnant again. He asked why I was so concerned about Bimbo, since I had a small circle of women who I would go to the cinema with when he looked after the children, or buy foodstuff in bulk to share with. I told him that though Bimbo tried to hide it, I saw the sad loneliness in her eyes and that she reminded me of a younger version of myself.
What I didn’t tell Chudi was that I was feeling a bit lonely too. Of adult company, that is. I had lost my job a few months before, and sometimes uncomfortable silences bloomed with my other friends, when we had nothing in common to talk about.
The next time Tade came around, my Aso-ebi had been completed, on time and to my satisfaction. I praised Bimbo’s work, saying that she now had a devoted customer and an evangelist of her business in me. He thanked me politely and said he was sure she would appreciate that. The truth was that in the course of Bimbo making the dress for me, I had visited her shop a couple of times. While she spoke easily on the designs she was making, she clammed up whenever I talked about my other friends or invited her to go out with us sometime.
So I asked Tade if she had any friends. He looked at me from the corner of his eyes.
“How many times did you visit her?” he asked.
“Didn’t she tell you?”
“What?” I asked.