When Eric gave me the warm, glass cup of water I was almost in tears. My thighs kept knocking each other and I was sweaty. He sat beside me on the long bed that was opposite the blank television. The brown-painted room was quite empty and had a stench of cigar-like fog in the morning. He tapped my back and I saw him smile. His black lip spread up to his big ear and his black face turned ugly. I knew he was mocking me for my confusion and I had nothing to say to him.
“James, you should have protected yourself?” Eric said, drinking a bottle of soda, “You aren’t the first person to have a girlfriend.”
“Mine is different.” I said, cleaning my moist eyes, “I love Rita.”
I was firm. I wouldn’t lie because he was my friend and Rita wasn’t there. That would be cowardice. I got better things to lie about than love. I knew he had had three girlfriends in two years and he had never loved any of them the way I love Rita. I felt he was jealous. He hadn’t experienced true love.
“Don’t be stupid.” He said in an angry tone, “None of us understand what love is. I mean, you got Rita pregnant and she’s just twenty years. Do you think she loves you or do you really love her? In five years she would have grown up to see the world properly and you would have realized that you’ve got to be a man–“
“My life is none of your business!” I said looking into his brown eyes. “Are you lending me the money or not?”
“I’m trying to help you before you get into more trouble,” Eric said in shock.
“And I don’t need your help if you won’t lend me the money.”
“I’m your best buddy, James.” He said drawing closer to me, “I hate to see you in this kind of a mess and that’s why I’m trying to talk sense into your head.” He was silent for a while and I didn’t reply to him. He continued, “You’ve got to wake up. This is real. If she goes to abort the baby with any amount of bribe, I promise you she would spend the next seven years in jail. And whoever performs the task would be in jail for fourteen years. No one has to risk his life for such a thing. That’s not going to help anyone. I know you love her but there comes a time when love is dangerous.”
Hot tears began to roll down my brown cheeks. I buried my head into my palms and I couldn’t restrain myself. “She won’t go to jail.”
“Then you have to find a quack doctor who knows nothing of this.” He said.
“Please, just give me the money.”
“All I’m trying to tell you is that I don’t have the money.” Eric said, “Four hundred and fifty thousand. That’s like paying for a ransom.”
I couldn’t hold the pain and regret. I didn’t know what came upon me but tears ran down my cheeks profusely. Soon I was on the bare tiles and I knew I had become a child. Like how I used to cry to my mother anytime I needed more money and she would tell me she won’t give me anymore. Was this real? Was this the danger I hadn’t seen coming? When Eric touched my shoulder I cried out. Maybe I began to scream. He wasn’t consoling me. His touch added more discomfort than I could hold. At least Rita wasn’t here to see how weak and cowardly I behaved. I left the house in hurry with no hope of getting money for the abortion bill.
I cleaned my eyes at the staircase and breathed heavily. No one has to see my destitution. If people see my destitution they get a piece of advice that defines my problem and yet they don’t know me. I was in this mess alone. I created it so I’ve got to face it that way. If no one would listen to me then I’ve got to believe in myself. I looked around to check if anyone was looking at me. Then, I stepped into the sunshine of the clear April afternoon and could see everything from the beginning of the red rocky mountain, all the way into the tower of Nsukka, splendid City Hall and the entrance gate of the University that had a molded black lion at the top. Every corner of the street had newsboys, cafeteria workers, shop dealers, jewel traders sweeping sidewalks, and the rest who went about their business. There was something about everything I saw that made me angry. Though they all had a symbol of nobility, struggle, and uniqueness they were lost in the void when it had the smell of spoiled cassava. It always had that scent. For me, it meant things had gotten rot under the beauty of nature.
Rita and I weren’t prepared to have any children yet. We were both in our second year reading Civil Engineering at the University of Nigeria. Of course, we met as most lovers met each other on campus, but the only difference was that we couldn’t do without each other. We had been living together for eight and half months at a lodge off-campus. I never had any thought about her getting pregnant. Though we made love almost every day we only had plans for what to do next after graduation. First, get a job, then rent a flat and save to buy a house two or three years later. What’s more than that from young adults like us? But Eric had warned me many times to not let myself slide into what he called “the murky pit of sweet love”. I never listened to him. He wasn’t my father to choose the kind of life I wanted. I just turned twenty-two. I needed to enjoy the little time I got on campus. After this was a real life of work and thinking and fear.
I remember that cool evening, we had just finished our lectures for the day and I was thinking we would walk down to our lodge, holding our hands together. But Rita said she had something urgent to tell me. I was somewhat excited so we sat under a pine tree, at the Achebe’s quadrangle, opposite the old industrial Chemistry department building. Her fair oily face turned to me when she said, “I’m one month pregnant.” I was shocked.
I looked up, searching the orange sun for a reply. “How? What do we do now?” I said.
“James, I guess you must have been ready for this all the while,” Rita said, “I can’t bear this child.”
“I’m confused. Are you sure this isn’t one of those monthly illnesses?”
“James, do I look like a girl to you?” she said, “You’ve got to think of something to do, we have no time.”
“I’m sorry, but what’s the best thing to do?”
“Anything that wouldn’t cause me to shame,” she said wistfully.
I became speechless. I understood what she meant, because six months ago a lady in her third year studying mathematics had walked miles away from the university gate into another village and secretly threw her baby onto a farm. But, unfortunately, the baby cried so much that an old woman—the owner of the farm—saw her and alerted the police quickly, and they arrested the student. The news of what she did spread like wildfire in harmattan season that even those who didn’t understand English, outside the school community, knew what happened.
“What chance do we have?” I asked.
“No chance,” Rita said, “You need to raise funds so that I can go to Lagos quickly, I’m afraid of quacks.”
I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t think of punishing my single mother by raising a fee worth three times her monthly salary for an illegal abortion. I told her I would look into it and since then we haven’t talked much. Even though we slept on the same bed we couldn’t touch each other. She wasn’t angry with me and she had the right to make me feel bad. She was with a child and I was supposed to bear part of the trouble. I thought of ways to get money. It wasn’t forthcoming. I didn’t have any part-time job,and if Eric had lent me the money he was sure not to get it back in two years.
I was a catholic by heart even though I hadn’t attended mass in eight months. So when I began to grow scared and hopeless I resorted to religion. I was too damn scared of what would happen next. I now began to understand that religion was always for those who got confused like me. Men whose last resort was calling on God to send help when other men have failed to answer their questions of life. Every morning before Rita would wake up I would go to St. Peter’s cathedral at the center of the campus. The white two-story building had a polished wooden altar. To kneel at the image of the Virgin Mary come to me. I struggled to say the litany. I struggled to convince myself that I would be forgiven and with each day that passed I knew that I’d got to sin one day or else…I hate to think of it. To think of myself for being foolish not to have seen it coming. Not to have known that I lived in a third-world country that would imprison one for such an act,and the law didn’t allow me to stand in for Rita, which I wholeheartedly would have done.
I loved her. I wanted to do everything not to allow her to suffer, but the love they say is a form of war, and even though it could fight against any foe, it sure had its unbeatable enemies. It sure would endure every bitterness and hate but not betrayal. I was never going to betray Rita. No matter the cost.
When I got home Rita was pretending to read a textbook. Each time I notice a line of veins on her forehead I know she must be deep in thought. Her brown glittering face was already swelling. The room was painted yellow and on the far right beside the wardrobe, she sat on her desk. I didn’t want to look at her twice. I knew she would be disappointed if I told her of the outcome. She greeted me and I didn’t reply because I knew that would lead to a conversation. I half lay on the bed and caressed the light blue bedspread.
She cleared her throat and turned to me, “James, I met a girl at the staircase in our department. She had used an abortion hanger to force a two months baby out of her womb. She was dripping blood. She fainted in my hands. I mean, I held her and saw her eyes turn blank.” She became quiet for a while, “She had lost a lot of blood. I followed her to the hospital and she died. So, we don’t have time, we need to go see the quack tomorrow.” I nodded. I couldn’t say anything.
For the remainder of the day, I kept asking myself whether she would meet the same fate. I was hungry but I didn’t have the strength to eat. That night was covered with propitious darkness. It was a long night. Longer than any other night I have experienced in my life. I couldn’t sleep. I don’t think Rita slept. For the first time in months, I felt lonely.
The next day in the evening as we walked slowly, I couldn’t adjust myself to look at Rita. Each step we made stirred a little cloud of dust, and on the rough and tortuous path, on both sides of the red road, was brown powdered elephant grass that never moved under the sizzling heat of the evening sun.
We never looked at each other. It was a long-distance walk. A quack doctor is always on the inside of Aku village. I had the thirty thousand Naira fee in my pocket, yet I felt ashamed. If I had more, Lagos would be better.
When we got into the blue-painted building, everywhere inside was also painted blue. I opened the door and the evening sunlight swept across the face of a bald old man who was writing on brown paper under a yellow lamp.
The old man had a stitched forehead like a kind of map, that when he gazed up you couldn’t point where he was looking at. The old man raised his head and said, “I believe you understand the cost.” He said it as though he knew why we were there.
I looked down and then turned to Rita. She nodded and looked into my moist eyes. “Don’t worry, I will be strong.” She said
The old man said, “Are you in the white clothes?”
The quack doctor told me to close the open door and he directed Rita into another room. He switched on the dangling torch hanging from the ceiling. I was trying to focus my gaze on Rita if she would look back at him. But she didn’t.
I waited for minutes walking from one wall to the other. I had heard many things about quacks killing women by making them bleed. At one time everywhere was too quiet and at another time I heard murmurs. I went close to the door trying to eavesdrop. I couldn’t hear what they whispered. Soon it stopped. I couldn’t think. At one time I knelt praying to Virgin Mary. I was sweating it out hopelessly.
Then, I heard the sound of the door opening. I stood; the doctor was removing his hand gloves that had blood all over them and dumped them in the waste bin. “You got to thank luck, son. She’s going to live but she has to rest. Maybe for two months,” the doctor said. The door to the surgery room was open but I couldn’t walk inside. I stood as though electrocuted, facing a wall. I was crying.
Victor Okechukwu is a writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He’s reading mass communication at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He loves writing and reading. His writing takes a deep setting in arresting issues of mental health that have been overlooked in his country. He loves reading writers like Sally Rooney, Jake Arnott, and John Irving. His work is published or forthcoming in Gordon Square Review, Mycelia, Door-is-a-jar, Rigorous Magazine, and elsewhere.