“Brush up on the English.”
The beady-eyed official at Durian Employment Services and I had been sitting in a sparse eighth-floor office, that smelt like bleach and photocopy ink, when he told me this.
Now, I speak perfectly good English, so you can imagine my surprise when I was told I needed to “brush up on the English”.
A whole me.
Tongue-tied, I enrolled at Beatrice K. Finley Adult Education Centre for a seven-week ESL course. In my class were new immigrants, like myself, who just wanted to get a damn job in this country. We were what they called “internationally trained professionals” – architects, programmers, engineers, academics – which meant we were trained alright, professional alright, but international, meaning domestic employers weren’t entirely sure about what we had in the head.
“Brush up on the English.”
Some of us were middle-aged, some already grandparents, with ten-plus years of experience in our various fields, reduced to re-structuring resumes, writing paragraphs about ourselves and our families in English, which an instructor, who spoke the language with a Tamil-drenched accent, would grade.
Yasin, Iraqi, youngest in the class, only twenty-two, but something about him felt much older, head of marketing at a small IT firm in Beirut before he immigrated. Yasin. He lived in Hamilton with his cousin, who owned a barber shop, which he helped manage, and he would show up to class red-eyed, sleepy, every day.
We flirted a lot, Yasin and I, and the class thought we were dating, but he had a girlfriend who was pregnant for him, and I was still seeing that stupid boy, Toba, sending him money, and instead of putting it towards his ACCA exams like he said he was, he was saving up for his own wedding (to another woman).
On the last day of the ESL course, a few of us went out to celebrate at a karaoke bar in Dundas, and Yasin and I drank too much cheap beer and ended up at my place. He told me he found out the baby wasn’t his and that his girlfriend was begging him to stay.
“I’m not a fool.” We were in one of the three booths our class occupied at the bar, sitting between Ahmed with the foul mouth and Himesh with the raucous laughter. I could barely hear Yasin.
“It’s her ex’s, for God’s sake.”
The night progressed and Yasin’s eyes grew redder as he drank and drank. After I had a bout at the mics with Ahmed, singing Whitney’s I Will Always Love You, I asked Yasin if he wanted to leave. We were not supposed to go to mine. In fact, I had no idea where we were going as we waited at the bus stop, him smoking possibly his twentieth cigarette of the night. But the 23E came first, and it was headed my way, so we hopped on.
In the bus, Yasin mumbled on about how much he loved her, how he hadn’t even been excited about the child at first because he was just trying to get on his feet and make ends meet but she had been so excited and promised that they would be fine together, how he hadn’t escaped war only to be killed by heat break, subhanallah.
At my stop, we got off the bus, and we lingered outside my apartment building. Yasin lit another cigarette, talked about not knowing what to do; he was cool with her sister, should he tell her, did she already know the baby wasn’t his?
I asked if he wanted to come in and he quickly put the cigarette out, adjusted his collar.
It’s fragmented details now, here and there, but I do remember deep pleasure. Soft, steady palms against my skin, the taste of tobacco and alcohol on my tongue, lips on my neck.
He was gone in the morning, and I remember waking up alone in the bedroom, the curtains pulled shut, the lingering smell of cigarettes and his perfume in the air, feeling so alone.
I was lonely. I had been lonely for a long time, and it wasn’t the whiteness of the country, or the finger-freezing cold, or the distance between me and the average person in colour of skin or manner of speaking or characteristics of employability. I had been lonely long before I left Nigeria. It was the kind of loneliness that lingers at the junctions of your life, waiting for you at every turn. It was difficult to explain, impossible to shake off.
It was there after graduation, when I started as a contract staff at Chevron, the envy of my class. It was there when I went to the University of Sheffield for my master’s degree. It was there when I moved on to Mobil. It was there when I was robbed at gunpoint in Oshodi. It was there when I counted on my fingers all the pros of leaving Nigeria. It was there when I compared the progression of my career to that of my counterparts abroad. It was there when I wrote the English language exam required for immigration, and was crammed into an aristocratic secondary school hall in Ikeja with three hundred other candidates. It was here now, sitting on my sofa eating Special K with me. Always been lucky, but never content. Slept with an attractive man half my age, but it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t save me. Nothing could.
I didn’t hear from Yasin for days. And when I did, it was a hasty hey I had fun see you soon? text message. The foolishness.
I started working at an insurance company’s call centre a few weeks after “brushing up on the English”, and it was at work that I saw Facebook pictures of Toba’s wedding. My heart fell into my stomach. It felt like a dream. A nightmare. There he was in Efik attire, dancing next to his bride. The cake was gigantic and the gazebo they sat under was decorated with flowers and low, swaying drapes. I wanted to die.
I couldn’t call him until after work, and when I did, of course he did not pick up. The asshole was honeymooning. With my money!
I called Monica, a former colleague at Mobil, who sounded as gobsmacked as I was. “Toba do wetin? So that boy na bastard?” Her shouting put me on edge, so I got off the phone, lay in bed, and cried.
The next few days were a blur. I deactivated my Facebook account. I deleted Toba’s number, which was of no use because I had it etched into my memory. I shuffled through the day, came back from work, got into bed and cried until I fell asleep. Waking up in the mornings, I was pinned down by the guilt of sleeping with Yasin, and by the betrayal that Toba had used my hard-earned money to plan his own wedding. This bitch of a life.
One evening, the buzzer woke me up and when I heard Yasin’s voice over the intercom, he felt like a distant dream.
I waited with my foot in the door until he came up.
“Shit.” He looked at my face from the hallway. “You look terrible. What happened?”
“How is your girlfriend?” I asked.
He shrugged, followed me into the living room and sat on the sofa, looking out of the window. A fresh wave of melancholy washed over me and I knew I was about to cry, so I walked into the bathroom, locked the door and sat on the toilet seat. I don’t know how long I was in there for. I wanted the world to end. I wanted to kill Toba.
“Grace.” Yasin rapped on the door. “Is everything okay?”
“What do you want, Yasin?”
The silence stretched.
“Open up.” He said.
“I want to tell you something.”
“Come on. Open up.”
When I opened the door, he looked disconcerted.
“Why are you crying?”
“What did you want to tell me?”
Before I could close the door, he had his arms wrapped around me and pulled me out of the bathroom. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t in the mood for all this, but I had no strength to fight, no strength to even speak. We walked into the bedroom, sat at the foot of my bed, and I told him about Toba and his new wife.
“He’s a fool.” Yasin said. “He’s a fool. He’ll come back. You’ll see.”
He sounded so confident talking about someone he didn’t know.
“You find a job yet?” I asked.
“And I’m a fool too,” Yasin sighed.
“I shouldn’t have left like that.” He shook his head. “The other day.”
“No, no, I won’t forget.” He knuckled an eyeball. “I don’t know why I acted that way. I guess… a lot was going on, you know?”
“It doesn’t ma—”
“It matters. Don’t say it doesn’t matter. It matters. You matter. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said, even though I didn’t believe it.
I expected he wanted sex, which was why he was talking through his ass, but instead he ordered a pizza and we watched old reruns of The Bold & The Beautiful, and when I talked about watching that same character, Brooke Logan, played by Katherine Kelly Lang, on TV since I was in secondary school in Methodist Girls’, Yaba, I could tell the age gap between Yasin and I was very wide.
We talked about the war and his cousin, an Al-Qaeda militant who lost a leg and killed himself a few years later, talked about living in Mar Elias for nearly a decade before the government could settle his family in Beirut, talked about thinking immigration was the best thing that could happen to him until he found out that even in the west, a different breed of demons haunt you. I asked about his girlfriend. He sighed, said, “I’ll survive, mashallah.”
When he left, the empty pizza carton on the centre table and the smell of cigarettes and his perfume in the air, I remembered Toba and my persistent loneliness and thought, I’ll survive, mashallah.