Fiction · 04/29/2020

Nine Months Since Forever

The one thing marriage gives you is someone to blame. James was always late for work but, a week after his nuptials, he blamed his tardiness on his wife. The wife took extra long getting ready this morning. You know how that goes. Women, right? And I knew Des always wanted a way out of our social circle, so when she married Dean she blamed her slow distancing from us on him. I’m sorry I can’t meet up this weekend, Dean and I have a function with the in-laws. I’ve been telling the homies marriage takes a lot of my time whenever they say they haven’t seen me in a while. When they head off to a Sunday pickup game, I tell them Nicole and I have to do the week’s grocery shopping. Gotta do our meal prep, gents. When they meet up in the week to sweat at the gym from sundown to late evening, I tell them Nicole and I are spending time together after long days at work. We’re shattered, guys, just going to take it easy tonight. At every given opportunity, I tell them Nicole and I need to grow together. We need to figure each other out, you know, and we need to find our stride. Once, to avoid meeting them for Rinzlo’s birthday, I said Nicole and I were going through a rough patch and we needed to work things out.

Nigga, Rinzlo wrote in the group chat. It’s only been nine months since you said forever. How can things be going wrong already?

They weren’t. Things were just fine. More than fine. And based on his multiple Instagram stories, Rinzlo had a decent birthday: Chilling with my Day Ones! Real Gs pull through (and don’t pull out)! Four Os Forever!

When the guys invite me over to watch Champions League soccer I say, “Nah, not tonight. I have to put in quality time with the wife.”

I’ve never liked soccer. I don’t even particularly like playing basketball, but the homies and I have been jamming since high school so I stuck it out for the sake of the crew. Marriage, though, is the fire escape I never knew about. If I’d known saying “I do” could get me evacuated out of every situation I didn’t like the way UN workers are choppered out of civil war zones in countries about to boil, I’d have moved up the date of our “Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today” to many yesterdays.

I blame my wife for my absences but, really, she’s a better friend to me than my friends. I prefer her company. I can’t tell them that, though. They wouldn’t take it well. Rambo, my other friend, tried to leave the crew in high school. Not leave, per se. He was weary of fighting, tough-talking, and being a ride-or-die member of our cowboy posse. There’s only so much rolling into town you can do before you start wanting a welcome. Those hastily closed shutters can do a real number on any reasonable person and Rambo was more reasonable than most. Lindo and I would’ve defected with him but Franco and Rinzlo — our alphas — iced him hard, made him persona non grata and threatened to do the same to us. We were too dumb to do the maths and realize we were the majority. I guess cool has more voting rights. Franco and Rinzlo cut Rambo out of everything. They wouldn’t even talk to him in class or basketball practice. I didn’t have the balls to ride solo, without the crew for shelter, so I did my part in enforcing his banishment.

Eventually we made up. We needed each other to get through high school and university. We were alloyed together by a good sense of humour, proximity, poverty, and not wanting to be singled out by the privileged gaze. Together we were something, a crew of funny, self-deprecating guys; apart we were just another group of broke black boys. Now I understand what Rambo meant when he rode into the sunset back when we were younger: “You niggas need to find yourselves, and then see if you still find each other.” I found myself with Nicole, and now I’m not so sure if the squad and I are still down for life. I mean, I’ve already promised this life and the next to my wife.

I blame Nicole for the part-time vegetarian diet that exorcised the guys from my house even though I’m certain it saved me from a cholesterol-related heart attack in my soon-to-be thirties. I blame her for switching out the club nights for date nights which saved me money and rescued me from the shame of being the only dude who couldn’t pull ass at the end of a night. I blame my wife for giving my old comic books to the secondhand store in town even though I’ve been longing to do that for years. I kept them because the crew used to steal them from shops when we were younger and they reminded us of our young warthog days. She gave them away and I fumed to the guys: She’s just changing shit all over the place! Like, WTF?

I huffed and I puffed about all the modifications Nicole made to my life when we got married — the morning meditation routine (relaxing), the lunch-time meetings at our favourite café (so necessary), the evenings spent watching Grand Designs (dopest show ever) — but when the homies were out of sight, I breathed easy, found a telephone booth, and exited it looking forward to going home and putting vases on our now comic book-free floating shelves.

The other guys at work ask me if I want to go for drinks, and I tell them my wife is at home waiting for me. She isn’t. She’s either at pottery classes or yoga with her friends. Nicole keeps her own timetable. I could chill with my colleagues any day of the week if I wanted, but even her absence from home shoulders the blame for my inability to do the most basic of dude things.

“Ah,” Tapiwa says — he’s still reeling from his divorce — “the old ball and chain.” He chuckles a little. “I’m glad to be free of that.” (He isn’t. I see the reluctant crow’s feet crinkle around his eyes when he forces a laugh or a smile.)

“Yeah, you know how it is,” I say.

In the car, I’m glad when the engine coughs and slowly carries me to the solitude of my house. I shoot some things on my Playstation for a while and then cook, waiting for Nicole to come home so we can resume our life together. She finds me rapping along to Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” halfway through the risotto and effortlessly slides into the second verse like we’re a world-class wrecking crew.

It wasn’t easy being with Nicole at first. I was scared of how unorthodoxly beautiful she was. Tall, thin, almost no breasts to her, and just enough ass to harass with my eyes. I kept her a secret for a while. When the guys eventually met her, Franco said she was funny. Lindo said she was smart. Rinzlo, whose opinion I least looked forward to, said the kindest words to ever come out of his mouth: “Well, she looks human.” Rambo, the only one who could think beyond his tip, said he’d always been waiting for me to stop chasing the thirst traps I pursued for rep and be with someone who made me happy. I asked him why he didn’t tell me this sooner, and he said, “Cicero, a nigga has to find his own path. I’m just glad you found yours.”

That’s Rambo. Sage nigga numero uno.

Nicole says Rambo isn’t okay. She says he’s a nice guy, no lies, but he’s really hurting. I tell her he misses his mom. “She died on his birthday,” I tell her. We’re playing Boggle after supper, and she’s kicking my ass. “Even I’d be messed up if that happened to me.”

Nicole says it’s something else. “It’s a hollowness inside him.” I snort and say that’s abstract women talk. She rolls her eyes. “You should pay more attention to your friends. Especially him. He isn’t all the way here. Not all the time.”

I don’t know what she’s talking about. Rambo’s the toughest guy I know. I don’t think I’d survive half the shit he’s been through. That dude is a born soldier. I don’t know what they feed guys from the Great Lakes but they’re made of something else. Harder than a coffin nail and more resilient than a plague. First time I met Rambo was at the school athletics meeting. That’s the day I found out why track and field commentators always talk about any man who breaks the sprint record as the fastest recorded man. They’re making provision for some barefooted Flash from Rambo’s region who’s never heard of lactic acid or sweat. Rambo jogged his way to the finish line while we pushed our calcium deficient legs to pump harder and faster. When we finished, we were all awed by him, asking him where he was from and if there were others like him. He said he was the slowest at his school in the green tropics of Africa. Since then, Rambo’s always been a step or life lap ahead of us, experiencing things before us, ploughing through the hardships of his life and always willing to help us through our own shit. Despite his disappointments and setbacks, Rambo keeps showing up to serve in the trenches of our lives, throwing himself on grenades and carrying the wounded across mine-ridden marshes with bullets zipping past him. He’s a cold and cool dude. Once, I asked him what he thought about Nicole, and he said it didn’t matter. All that mattered was what she made me feel, the man I was around her, and how loved I felt. He used the word “love.” That’s why we call Rambo the Sage, he’s the only one brave enough to use cataclysmic words like love.

“My nigga,” he said. “All that matters is that you’re seen.” He dead-ass looked me in the face, like with eye contact and shit. “I see you, Cic, and now you’re seen. I’m really happy for you.”

I had to look away.

When I married Nicole, Rambo was my best man. I had to include the other guys to keep the peace.

I was so happy to become Nicole’s husband. I always felt like I was the sidekick in the crew, just some dude who was there for the lead character’s development. Nicole made me a headliner, a marquee player around whom she would build her whole franchise and future. Rinzlo, at the wedding, after grabbing the mic from Rambo at the end of his speech, said even I managed to get a ring. “There’s really no excuse for Carmelo Anthony.”

I remember how Rambo was that day, how silent he’d become when there was no one around him. I asked him how he was doing during a lull on the dance floor, and he said he was cool, fine, okay, and ait. When I told Nicole about it later, just after we’d tasted the first delights of our marriage (we’d been chaste the whole time we were dating — something only Rambo knew about), reviewing the wedding ceremony and the reception, she said he was lying. I was new to marriage. I hadn’t yet realized I’d acquired more than a wife, an equal partner, a crutch upon which to lean on whenever I needed an excuse. I hadn’t yet become acquainted with the unnerving quality wives have of sussing out poisonous weaknesses in their husbands’ friends.

Nicole has this weird ability to know what I’m thinking even before I tell her. Franco said it’s wife-vision: “They can see straight through you, fam. They can see the boy you were, the nigga you are, and the man you could be. They can see everything. That’s why I ain’t getting hitched. There’re certain truths I don’t need in my life.” I don’t know how Franco is able to say that around his girlfriend, but he does.

Lindo says it isn’t that hard to see through guys, all you have to do is look. Lindo, I think, is the closest to Rambo in terms of temperament. With Franco and Rinzlo on one end, Rambo and Lindo on the other, sometimes I feel like I’m the middle child who doesn’t have enough of either parent to proudly claim him. Which, I guess, is why I gravitate even more strongly towards Nicole.

Rinzlo doesn’t get along with Nicole because she’s the only person who doesn’t entertain his bullshit. She puts the lid on his guttermouth even before he opens it. That’s why he can’t stand her. I like having Nicole around when Rinzlo’s in the area. I feel exposed around him when she isn’t. The other day he said I was pussy-whipped. He said the wife had me on a leash like a broken slave. I think it’s the way he referred to her as the wife — in lowercase, like Nicole didn’t command the respect of the Caps Lock button, even in speech. He made her sound like a routine duty. I told him wife was a privilege she bestowed upon me by being married to me, for as long as she deemed me worthy. “Wife isn’t her job description. Same goes for me — hubby isn’t my name. It’s Cicero.”

“I didn’t say hubby, nigga,” Rinzlo replied. “I said guppy.”

Rambo, Franco, and Lindo had to pull us apart.

When Rambo drove me home, he asked me what had set me off. He’d never seen me like that, not in all of our years surviving this place that corroded our childhood and forced us to calcify armour around our soft characters. I’d never thrown down with Rinzlo before, the scrappiest of our crew. Rambo asked me why the heck I was prepared to be sent home bruised or broken.

I thought about how fed up I was with the guys, how duplicitous we were around each other. I was going to tell him I was tired of juggling my nigga consciousness around the homies, my work personality around the guys, and the husband I was when I was with Nicole. I wanted to tell him that I was, for the first time, being me and being appreciated for it. I wanted to tell Rambo that even though he was the coolest guy I knew he had nothing on Nicole and the truth of her. I would have told him there and then that I was bowing out of the sad, cyclical story. I wanted to tell him we were like the third season of a Netflix show — thin on substance, a tad heavy on hard humour, with characters who lost their shine a long time ago. We were still in the same place. None of us had moved away. We were probably never going to. I wanted to tell him that I really, really wanted to go and find myself, and then see if we found each other.

Instead, I looked at him sideways and blamed Nicole. “I couldn’t let him say that shit about my wife, man.”

Rambo looked at me long and hard and then said, “Okay.”

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Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S). He writes for brainwavez.org, a writing collective based in South Africa. He is the editor-in-chief of Doek!, Namibia’s first literary magazine. His short stories have appeared in Litro Magazine, AFREADA, The Johannesburg Review of Books, The Amistad, The Kalahari Review, American Chordata, Doek!, Azure, Sultan’s Seal, Columbia Journal, and New Contrast. He has been longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize and shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines in 2019. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com