It began yesterday at the government office, which was saturated with immigrants whose anxious stares alternated between the digital display boards and their tickets, a square piece of paper with a number printed on it. At the sound of the beep, everyone looked at their ticket, and then the display boards. Some sighed. Some continued talking. Others continued sleeping. One person rose to meet an official walled in by glass on the other side of the counter.
My wait was shortened by an acquaintance with whom I chatted until our conversation lulled to a comfortable stop.
“Excuse me, it seems you are from Nigeria.” A tall man sitting a few spaces away from my acquaintance smiled at her.
“No, I am not.”
“Ah, but I thought—”
“I am from Democratic Republic of Congo.”
With her thick Igbo accent, she delivered her last words with a finality that inspired no argument from the man. He fanned himself, and then pretended to read his letter from the belastingdienst.
Because I am slow to change the expression on my face, she saw it. The disbelief. The wonder. The perplexity.
“Don’t mind the idiot. If not for dis yeye tax people, where e for come see me? See as e dey talk as if e be my mate. E nor see im type?” she whispered for my benefit and his.
I nodded like her co-conspirator, as though I had been dissing guys for the last ten years. What else could I do?
Determined to be a better person, this incident is hovering at the back of my mind when a young man approaches me today as I wait for my tram.
“Hello, are you from Nigeria?”
Surely there must be a better opening line? I give nothing away as I nod and he introduces himself. I tell him my name.
“Ah, Timi. Timilehin? You are Yoruba?”
“I am Nigerian.”
“I know, from whose part?”
“We have left Nigeria. Let’s pretend ethnicity does not matter. I am a Nigerian; that is enough.”
He looks at me as though the sky has descended on my head and I am unaware. Undeterred, he forges on in pidgin English. I respond in proper English.
He ditches Pidgin in favour of a kind of English that is interspersed with incorrect tenses and Dutch words. This is a cross some of us bear. The effect of speaking Dutch with non-native proficiency is the tendency to forget English words and to adjust our tenses automatically to match the wrong grammar of English-speaking Dutch people.
I am aware of every mistake he makes. Like the freckles on my neighbour’s face, they are many.
“I saw you at this tramhalte iedere dag, I mean, every day. Are you going to work?”
I tell him. And then I help him because he seems lost, “I haven’t seen you before?”
“I know, but I am seeing you. You are very mooi, beautiful.”
I take in his overalls. He does not look like Idris Elba in Tyler Perry’s Daddy Loves His Girls, but this is real life.
“Thank you, where do you work?”
He talks about his work, links that conversation to how long he has been in The Netherlands—fifteen years, and then ties it to his goals and dreams like a neat bow at the end of a string.
My eyes do not wander from his face while he speaks. But my mind does. I wonder if he can read, understand, discuss, and comment on my blog intelligently.
Then there is silence. The wind dies. The leaves sleep. The seagulls take their leave. It is just me and him. And the silence. Without my help, he stews in it for a while—scratching his chin, brushing dirt from his overalls, staring at something behind me—before he says, “I must goes to my work place. Can I have your number?”
“For what?” Honest words spill out before I can reel them in. What else do we have to say to each other?
“I wan know you.”
I do not know why I did what I did next. Guilt—over what? My resolution to be a better person? Pity? Maybe, my thoughts had roamed to how he must have been eyeing me, calculating his approach. Religious fervour? Hardly.
“I would like to invite you to my church.” I fumble in my bag for the flyers the preacher says we should carry around for opportune moments, moments like this one I suppose.
He looks at me as though The Rapture has occurred and I am unaware.
“Ah, ah! Won’t you know me first before inviting me to your church? I already goes to church.”
It is as if he knows. That I am not very good at this. That church is a cop-out. That it is too late to tell him I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That I do not have the heart to tell him he will not understand my blog, and therefore not understand me. He pounces on me like a wounded lion, as if to say, “This is for every man you ever dissed!”
“That’s the problem with you Nigerian girls! Church, church, church! Your mates don marry, you still dey here! Oya go and marry your God!”
He jumps on his bicycle in one swift motion and pedals away.
It is rare that I cannot express myself with words. But I am not writing a dissertation. This is life. This does not call for intellectual prowess.
I imagine that in a few moments, his bicycle chain would jam, forcing him to stop. I imagine him kneeling on the earth, humiliated, rattling the chains, while I watch from the elevated platform of my tram stop. Then the words that abandoned me would force their way out of my mouth, “I am not looking for love, I am going to work!”’
Nothing I imagine happens. He continues to ride and does not look back. But a curious thing happens. As I look, it is not him getting smaller in the distance, it is me!
© Timi Yeseibo 2013
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