The children of the rich in Nigeria were not destined to sit in class with a boy like Itse. He could not afford that. They belonged to the heavens. He was somewhere remote, on the humbler rungs of this wretched earth.
But in America it happened. His girlfriend Cindy hailed from Chicago, the daughter of a top real estate maven who benefited from the hydra head of fortunes. He gained not only from market upswings but also when the cities reeled with foreclosures and price turbulence.
Cindy and Itse met on an afternoon in between classes at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They were in the lounge. He had not noticed her that afternoon but he had seen her around. He was struck not only by her tentative steps. Those steps fascinated him the most because they belied her aggressive visage and the sometimes regal fortitude of her carriage. But he noticed her the same way he noticed a few other girls. He never thought they could meet. He wanted a girlfriend fairly familiar with Tamika, an African American beauty, but one to whom he only said hello in the food court. He had not generated enough self-confidence to talk to her about “the next level”. Itse was never shy with women but, in the United States, he wanted to be cautious. He followed his father’s advice about the hen stepping through the door of a house for the first time. One foot on the floor, the other in the air.
But that afternoon, Itse went to the vending machine and, behind him, was the svelte vision. He acted as though he did not notice and tried to hurry up. But, as his Mr. Pibb can dropped out of the machine and he bent to pick it up, the shadow behind him congealed into a voice.
“You don’t have Mr. Pibb in Nigeria.” The accusatory quality of the voice yielded to the playfulness of his eyes. He knew at once that she might have listened to some of his conversations with friends and classmates in the lounge. How else would she know where he came from? Itse looked at her shyly, like one cornered. But instinctively, he countered.
“The taste is not much different from a local brew in my village.”
“Yeah, we call it burun. What do you want? I can help you,” offered Itse with a sense of chivalry.
Cindy declined, after introducing herself and saying that she was in the English department. She did not ask Itse to wait as she slid a dollar bill and coins into the machine and punched out a pretzel and a Sprite. But he waited and they walked together to available seats on the northwest corner of the lounge. Later, Itse said he lied about the Mr. Pibb equivalent in Nigeria, and there was no such brew as burun in his village. He did not know how he made that name up. The only brews were palm wine and burukutu, a heavily alcoholic brew that could knock her out of her seat. He added he made up the burun story because he was caught off guard by her remark.
“How am I sure you are not making up the bu…” Cindy fascinated him with her attempts to say the word as her lips curled into a near tremulous purse.
“Burukutu. Another variant is called apketeshi or push-me-I-push-you.”
She looked at Itse’s eyes light up.
“That certainly could kick one off her horse,” she said.
They met twice in the lounge over the next week, and she invited him to a hiking party around Estes Park. Itse told himself he could have amused her further by telling her about ogogoro, the other brew of giddy intoxication.
It was late October, the summer was beginning to yield its pride to autumnal forays. He enjoyed the company but he could not quite relate with the conversations. The hikers were about twelve in all. Most of the guys came with their girlfriends, and they were all white. From their conversations they came from wealthy homes, most of them. He also observed that they spoke about football, the guys and the girls flowed into the conversation. He heard the words, Broncos, Bengals, 49ers, Chiefs. But Scott, who hailed from Boston, was still gung-ho about baseball whose season had just ended. His team, the Red Sox, had won the World Series for the first time, in close to a century. Not many of them caught Scott’s triumphal joy. Later, Cindy said it was because most of the guys there were Yankee fans.
They also spoke about clubs and the latest rock bands in the country, especially the Dave Matthews’s Band.
He had so much to absorb, and all he could do was listen and smile. Most of them looked forward to the ski season. Itse did not know what it was about. He recalled that, back in Nigeria, when Jack Horne learned he had secured admission to the University of Colorado, he spoke about the cold of Denver and the thrill of skiing. He missed those, he said with a certain abandon, as though he did not mean it. Maybe because it was such a long time ago. Itse did not understand how someone could love a cold sport, as he described it.
“It was part of the fables of my youth,” he told Itse in his home in Warri. But Itse could not imagine a better sport for body and soul than soccer. In his thrill to leave for the university and his gratitude for opening the way for him, he acted the ski enthusiast.
The fellow students spoke about their new skis, and what areas of their skiing they wanted to work on in the winter. Cindy chipped in another puzzle for Itse.
“I didn’t do enough paragliding this summer,” she said, staring at a tuft of grass she had been struggling to unearth.
Before they asked him questions, Cindy had announced that Itse was from Nigeria; that he was on scholarship to study software engineering and that he was a genius. From their body language they wanted to know if he was Cindy’s boyfriend. They would not ask directly but they kept skirting the real questions as to how they had met and if he loved Cindy’s horse and whether he would go with her for cross country skiing in a few weeks around Loveland.
After they left, Cindy looked at him in the car, her new Ford Explorer:
“They wanted to know if we were an item.”
“Item?” That word usage was strange to Itse, but he quickly understood what it meant.
“Yes, aren’t we?” she asked.
“Maybe? Don’t you like me?”
“You are wonderful.” Itse did not know why he said that.
She said she wanted to be with him, and Itse did not have the chance to say no. He abided the tyranny. When he looked back, he described it as the glorious ambivalence of his life. Cindy denied it was ambivalence.
“You said yes, but you didn’t know it,” purred the tall, extroverted brunette with a pair of deceptive sad eyes. Anytime Itse recalled Cindy’s words, a pang of doubt troubled him. Maybe he knew. Maybe he told himself that. Maybe he was too timid to accept a girl over whom all the boys drooled, white guys from her world of money and fame. He was barely three months in the country then, barely aware of his foot in the system, let alone his foothold.