Jessie and Benja

I had known Jessie for a few years when I went to see her in her room in Africa Hall that evening. She was reading her Bible when I entered, her roommate was watching TV. Jessie’s spirituality was one of the reasons I was convinced she was the one for me. I entered timidly, shaking underneath but putting on a brave exterior; I had things to get off my chest before they would kill me.

“Hey,” I said, and smiled at her.

“Hey,” she smiled back. “You are no longer a stranger in here so make yourself comfortable.”

I sat on her bed and twiddled my thumbs. I was sweating in my armpits. I was so nervous I couldn’t think straight. I felt like I was in a surreal dream. Is this what happened every time a guy came to declare his feelings to his friend of 3 years?

“So…” she said, closing her Bible. “What brings you to the great hall, and the great room, poor peasant boy of Livingstone Hall?” She laughed with mirth at her own joke. I loved her sense of humour, it was just one of a thousand reasons I was in love with her.

“Well,” I fumbled. “I kinda wanted to speak with you…alone.”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Oh,” she said. She looked at her roommate Aggie, who stared back at her with a look that said “The Revenge of Angelo, my favourite telenovela, is on right now so I’d rather not go anywhere.”

“Sure,” she said, looking back at me. “Let me just put these things in place and then we can take a walk outside and you can tell me why you’re being weird.” She smiled again and I told myself that it would happen by hook or by crook. Jessie would be my girl. We would get married and have tons of kids and grow old and grey and wrinkled together. God would want it that way, why else would He have made us so close?

She put her Bible back on the little book rack she kept beside the table and grabbed her handbag. She looked inside it to make sure she had enough money. “I feel like a rolex…or chips and eggs…I don’t know! We’ll see!”

She pulled me by the arm and we left the room. I was already feeling exhilarated first by her touch and second by the imminence of what I had to do. Also, I was a nervous wreck.

We passed via the road below Livingstone and Africa Hall, in the light cast by the sporadic electric side-lamps. She thrust her bag at me, like she always did, and I carried it like the meek slave I always was.

“Jessie,” I finally said, gathering my faltering courage.

“Now I feel like a chocolate bar as well, did I bring enough money?” she pondered.

“Jessie…I…there’s something I have to tell you…”

She looked at me. “Are you okay?” she asked, genuinely concerned.

“Yes. It’s just that…well…we’ve known each other for a while now, right?”

“Since first year,” she said. “Congratulations to you, mister!”

“It’s just that I’ve felt, for a while now, actually, probably from the first day we met, that we could make a good couple…” I swallowed a huge rock in my throat.

“What do you mean ‘good couple’?” she squinted in seriousness.

“Well, look at us. We hang out almost every day. We tell each other everything. You know me inside out, I know most of your secrets. Surely that’s a sign that we shouldn’t just be friends?”

“Benja,” she said, her voice taking on a grave tone, “What exactly are you getting at?”

“Jessie,” I finally cut myself open, “I think we should be more than friends. I’d like for you to be my girlfriend.”

She kept quiet for an instant, looking straight ahead with a grave and darkened face. Finally, she opened her mouth and let out a loud, belly-deep laugh. She clung to my arm and laughed so hard tears rolled down her face. I thought she would stabilize soon and say “yes” – it’s how deluded I was – but when she was done laughing herself silly she looked into my eyes and said, “Benja, please don’t pull such tricks on me again. Is it April Fools even?”

I was so shattered I felt my knees grow weak. I wanted to throw her bag at her and run back to my room. But I swallowed that stone in my throat and pushed her to Wandegeya to get that rolex and chocolate she wanted. Credit to her, she noticed my mood had changed and realized I had been serious. She tried to lighten me up by cracking joke after joke but I was beyond salvation. She later said, as we were approaching Africa Hall again, “Benja, don’t be such a buzzkill. Look, I know you will find a nice girl soon. I promise you. Besides, you know I love Richard.”

Ah, Richard. I sighed in misery and despair.

“I hope this won’t affect our friendship?” she added.

I shook my head.

“Promise?” she pressed.

“I promise,” I said, my heart floating in a sea of tar.

“There’s my Benja,” she said and pinched my cheeks. “Thanks for pushing me. Will you come with me tomorrow to Melissa’s room in Akamwesi? It’s Bible study Thursday.”

“Don’t I always?”

She smiled and hugged me good night. She ripped her handbag from my arm and entered the gate just as the warden was closing it.

I rushed back to Livingstone and entered my room. My roommate Bob was already asleep. “Good,” I thought, because for what I was about to do I needed the whole world to be asleep. I fell on my bed, buried my face in the pillow and cried. I cried so hard my lungs hurt. I cried and coughed and snorted and sobbed. When I was done I washed my face, switched off the lights and closed my eyes. I hoped beyond hope that I would never see Jessie again. If only I could be spared that humiliation forever.

The next day, at 5pm, I was at her door again, as promised. She smiled brightly when she saw me – a victorious smile, a self-satisfied smile, a smile that seemed to say she had won, a smile that compounded my shame. She was looking more fresh and beautiful than ever. She closed the door, leaving Aggie on last night’s rerun of “The Revenge of Angelo”, and thrust her handbag at me like she always did and, with her arm in mine and her bag on my other arm, we made our way to Akamwesi for Bible study as though nothing had ever happened, as though last night had been just a minor disturbance in the constancy of her rule over me.

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Written by John Barigye

Lover of good books. Lover of good music. Lover of good movies. Lover of God. Lover of Christ. Lover of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Lover of good, deep topics. Lover of deep connections. Lover of writing. Lover of human beings.

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If I was a candle