The Time Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Matt bumped into her at the Amish market. He had almost not gone to the market, had decided not to cook because his air conditioner was acting up and his kitchen was stuffy now that it was so humid. But, while walking on the treadmill in the gym, he read a Time magazine cover story about AIDS in Africa and suddenly all those orphaned children, those dying men, made him want to try the recipe with vine-ripened tomatoes, to live each day to the full.
The market smelled liked hay. It was busy for a Saturday mid-morning, people milling around the tables of fruits and vegetables and meat and seafood and nuts. He bumped into her near the tomato stand because he was veering to avoid a man racing down the cramped aisle with a cart full of yellow squashes. Her plastic shopping basket fell and they both bent down for it. He touched it first, picked it up. Her shoulder almost grazed his. Her hair, a mass of tiny braids, fell across her face and she pushed it back as she straightened up.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said and reached out for the basket. He held it out, hoping their hands would brush against each other as she took it. She took the basket, their hands didn’t touch, and she nodded in a polite way, before turning to select tomatoes. She had such seamless dark skin. She was looking at tomato after tomato with an intense interest. He reached out to select some too, even though he had a bag of tomatoes in his hand and had been on his way out.
“I’m Matt,” he said.
He mumbled something in an attempt to repeat her name.
“Oo-juu-ah-kuh,” she said, her face expressionless.
“Ujuaku,” he repeated, nodding to show how pretty he thought it was. But she had turned away and he feared that time was slipping away. “Is it African?”
He thought about AIDS then. The Time piece had the number of Nigerians living with AIDS. A large number. But because Nigeria was so densely populated, it was not listed in the epidemic column, colored an ominous red, alongside South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“The tomatoes are pretty good today,” he said. What was wrong with him? He never just started talking to women, particularly not at the Amish market for God’s sake.
“Are they? This is my first time here.” Her accent was a blend of British and something else, and she had the hoarse voice of someone just getting a voice back after a cold, or after prolonged crying.
He stood behind her at the counter. She rummaged in her leather purse and he hoped that she had forgotten her money, or lost her money, or didn’t have the $5.77 for the tomatoes. So he could say, “Its okay, I got it.” But she had money and he watched her pay, watched her tiny-braids hair swinging, and he had the urge to lift the braids from her shoulder and touch her skin, press his lips to her neck. It had to be the heat making him crazy. She turned to him and smiled slightly before walking away. His change was three cents and the cashier with fake eyelashes asked if he had two pennies because she only had a nickel. He told her not to worry about it and hurried after Ujuaku.
“Hey,” he said, behind her. “It’s so hot in here.”
She turned. She was tall, her liquid-black eyes met his levelly. “Yes.”
He nodded. He wished she would flirt with him, do something. They walked out of the market. “So when did you move to the States?”
She was silent for so long he wondered if she’d heard him, if perhaps he’d spoken too fast.
“I didn’t move to the States,” she said finally. “I am here to visit.”
“How do you like it so far?” He was walking beside her now.
She smiled. It was disconcerting, the swift change from nothing to a smile. Her teeth were so white, like the printer paper that his former boss hoarded. It contrasted with her dark skin. Made her skin darker, or maybe it was the other way around and her dark skin made her teeth so much whiter.
“It’s interesting.” She paused. “Are you following me?
“If you are going to the café up on Chestnut Street then yes, I am following you,” he said.
She said nothing, just kept walking.
“We could get a drink at the café, they have great iced tea,” he said.
“Yes. Yes, that would be nice.”
He placed the word then: distracted. That was it; she seemed distracted. The walk up to Chestnut and 12th was short and the sound of cars driving past softened the silence between them. They were near the door when he asked how long she had been in the States and she said, “One week. I got off the plane at Philadelphia International exactly one week ago.”
Inside the dim café interior, she ordered a lemon iced tea.
“Do you like it?” he asked, wondering how the water droplets clinging to her glass felt, what it was like to have her hand nestle on them.
“I just read a story in Time, about AIDS in Africa. It seems pretty bad.”
“It’s worse in South Africa and Zimbabwe than in Nigeria,” he said, because he wanted to impress her with his knowledge, because he wanted to make her feel better; at least Nigeria didn’t have half its population orphaned from AIDS.
“Some countries get more publicity than others,” she said.
He nodded, almost sorry that he had said something because he did not like the even more distant look in her eyes.
“We are doing a little, our own bit,” she added.
“I’m a journalist. We run sex education campaigns in rural areas.”
“What kind of journalism do you do?”
She sipped her drink, ran the tip of her tongue round her lips. “I co-host a TV program.”
“Really? Are you in the States to cover a story?”
“No. It’s a personal visit.” She stressed ‘personal,’ and with her accent, the R sounded like a H.
“It must be hard getting people to talk about AIDS.”
“We try to humanize it. We use Fela, he died of AIDS, you know.”
“Fela?” He desperately wished he knew Fela, she sounded as though she expected him to.
“A musician. A Nigerian legend.”
“Oh.” He paused. “He didn’t get to play a lot outside Nigeria, did he?”
She sipped her drink slowly, very slowly, watching him. He imagined the liquid sliding down her throat, all the way to her stomach.
“I don’t really know any African musicians,” he said, when she still hadn’t said anything.
“Does Africa have musicians?” she asked.
“You’re making fun of me.”
“No,” she said and for the first time, there was a sparkle in her eyes. “I should play Fela’s music for you.”
“I’d love that,” he said, worried that he sounded too eager. He knew he should not, but he thought about her nipples then, hypothetically, since they were not straining across her crisp white shirt or anything. He imagined them pert, brown, between his fingers, in his mouth. He wondered if she liked condoms. The Time piece had said many Africans loathed condoms. Condoms, an African with a vowel-rich name whose picture showed a sun-blackened man with patchy hair said, were not for real men.
“Your eyes are the color of crayons,” she said.
“Yes. Blue crayons. They are lovely.”
He was sure he was blushing. It was the way she said it, the matter-of-factness, the absolute lack of coyness, and it was also that it was what he least expected to hear.
She wrote a number down on the napkin and pushed it across. She did not attempt to pay half of the bill and he liked that. Ashley would have insisted on paying exactly half. He was not sure if he liked it because it was just different or because it was different from Ashley. They walked out together, Ujuaku walked as though she was floating, as though her preppy loafers did not touch the floor, and he felt a rush of unreasonable pride that two men at a table turned to stare at her.
She hailed a taxi.
“Call me,” she said and disappeared into the taxi.
Matt decided not to tell Chad and Dave that Friday at happy hour after work but somehow it slipped out, even before he had finished his first tequila shot. He had had a drink with someone. A hot someone.
Chad whooped. “Great. I didn’t think you’d date again.”
“It wasn’t a date, just a drink.”
“Of course he would date again. He was just taking his time, any man would take his time after Ashley,” Dave said.
“So where’d you meet her?” Chad shouted. The bar was getting noisy.
“At the Amish market.”
“The Amish market?”
“Yes. She’s from Nigeria.”
“A black chick?” Chad asked. His voice rose even higher.
“African-American , Chad, not black,” Dave said.
“She’s not African-American, she’s African,” Matt said.
“Aren’t they all the same?” Chad asked.
“Chad!” Dave said.
“No, I mean they’re all the same race.”
“That’s the point,” Dave said. “What is race anyway?”
Matt looked away, nursing his drink. He was not entertained by Dave and Chad today; he was bored. “I’ll be right back,” he said. Oustide, he brought out his cell phone and called Ujuaku’s number. The phone rang to the end. Then, just to be sure he had not memorized the wrong number, he looked in his wallet for the napkin and dialed again. No answer.
Matt called the next morning and felt a mix of relief and gratitude when she answered.
“How are you,” she said, vaguely, and for a moment he wondered if she had forgotten who he was.
“Hi,” he said, too loudly. “What are you doing?”
A pause. “Nothing really.”
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t even know why he had asked, something about her voice, the hoarseness of it. He imagined her wiping warm tears.
“Would you like to go out tonight? Maybe dinner or something?” he asked.
“Why don’t you come over instead?” She asked and gave him the address in Rittenhouse Square.
* * *
The apartment was spacious and artsy. Stretches of gleaming hard wood, angular paintings, a couch that looked too chic to be comfortable until he sat on it. Ujuaku’s skin looked darker than he remembered. It contrasted with the clingy white tank top she wore. Made her look like a penguin. Black and white. Her hair was in two fat cornrows that ran down the length of her head.
“Would you like to try an African drink instead?” she asked, when he gave her the bottle of wine he’d brought. “I have some bottled palm wine.”
“Sure,” he said and watched her pour the faded-white liquid in two glass mugs. She told him palm wine was drunk in mugs and that many men fell to their deaths from the top of palm trees, while tapping the wine, when the raffia ropes that supported them snapped. Palm wine had an uncertain taste at first, then it was so sour it made him want to scrunch his mouth up. Ujuaku sat cross-legged on the stool opposite him, and he stared at her feet, at the grace in its arch, and he wanted to run his hands all over her sleek, midnight-colored body.
“So how long are you here for?” he asked.
“A week or a month. I don’t know.”
“It depends on how I feel.” She got up. “Let’s dance, Matt.”
She turned the music on, something energetic. He wanted to tell her he was not a good dancer, that he sat and watched at clubs, but she was pulling him by the hand and the music, the smell of palm wine, the coolness of the wood floors, made him let go. They danced until they were sweating, until he felt like his pupils were swimming in his eyes.
“That was African music,” she said. “Femi Kuti. It wasn’t that scary, was it?”
He laughed. “No.”
She came back and handed him a drink and sat opposite him and they drank more palm wine and she talked about Fela Kuti and Femi Kuti. She was animated, she broke into bursts of singing occasionally, and he tried to keep his eyes on her face, tried not to think of the sleekness of her body, tried not to think of how weird and normal he felt. The only thing he remembered was that the musicians were father and son, he didn’t know who was father and who was son.
She showed him photos on her laptop. “This is where I live,” she said, of a sprawling blue house in a cemented yard; “my cousin’s wedding in Abuja, our capital city,” she said of a photo of three women in chic hats standing in front of a sleek Mercedes; ‘a friend of mine just opened a café,’ she said of a photo of her, wearing pearls, laughing and holding a croissant. The photos surprised him. He had not expected her pictures of home to be so familiar.
“Is this in Nigeria too?” he asked. In the photo background, he saw a white person.
“Yes, of course. It was a reception at the British Council.” She paused and looked at him. “The pictures aren’t exotic enough for you.”
“What? No, I just wondered…”
She was staring at him, as though calculating something in her mind. “Let’s dance again,” she said.
He sensed that she was upset with him. This time, the dancing did not have an abandon; this time, he did not forget himself. He was aware that they were dancing and that something about his reaction had offended her.
“There’s so much sweat on my back,” she said. She took her top off, one swift pull over her head and the white top was lying on the couch. She wasn’t wearing a bra and he was right about her nipples, there were firm and pointy and the color of bitter chocolate. She walked over to pour more drinks, as though it was normal to bare her breasts. He stared at her. She drank from her glass, placed it back on the table and wiped her back with a paper towel before she pulled her top back on.
“I should get some reading done,” she said, abruptly.
He got up, confused. “Okay. I’ll go.”
At the door, she asked, “Is that what you expected? Me to take my top off?”
He looked at her. “What are you talking about?”
“I thought I would give you something more exotic,” she said before she shut the door.
He did not sleep well. He thought about how he would apologize, all the while not entirely certain of what he had done wrong. He called her in the afternoon, during his lunch break, and when she asked if he would like to come over, he wanted to thank her and laugh at the same time.
* * *
She would invite him over after work. He loved the dinners she cooked – fried plantains, sauces and rice drenched in coconut milk and spicy sauces. It was only pepper soup, chunks of hot peppers and chunks of meat floating in broth, that he could not handle. But even that made him think about sex, made him wonder if she would be as fiery as the soup.
He watched her watch him as they talked. He told her how he’d bawled and punched his apartment walls after Ashley, how sometimes he thought about jumping onto the subway tracks while he waited for the R5 all the time knowing he’d never actually jump, how he had started cooking after Ashley left because she had hated cooking and he had needed to do something she hated. And afterwards, he would realize he had never told anyone these things. Her presence calmed him. Talking to her made him lighter, nothing like the feeling he’d had in the support group he’d joined after Ashley left, where strangers held each other too tight in sweaty hugs, and said over and over that everything was all right, okay, until he wanted to scream, then what the fuck are we all doing here?
She told him about her childhood, about the father she dryly described as a British-trained elitist, about longing for the fried crickets their maid snacked on while she had shortbread biscuits. They sat opposite each other. He had never felt anyone so attentive to him as she was. Yet, often, there was that look in her eyes, a distracted look. And her voice didn’t clear, it remained hoarse.
When Chad and Matt asked him what was going on, he said he didn’t know.
* * *
They were drinking a lot of palm wine. Something was playing on the stereo, something loud and slow. They were sitting on the floor.
“How do you have so much palm wine?” he asked.
“Don’t. I mean, do you buy it here?”
“African voodoo,” she said again, mocking, and then she laughed and he laughed. Everything was funny. The room was spinning and he told himself that he would pull her to him and she would crush her body to his, her breathing would be noisy, her skin warm, her nipples hard.
“Matt?” she said. “I’m drunk.”
“Me too,” he said. Was it an invitation in her voice? That sing-song tone?
“I’m going to drink some water,” she said.
He pulled her to him. Her arm felt warm. She leaned against him for the slightest of moments, and he smelled her vanilla-scented moisturizer, before she eased out of his embrace in a slow, almost undecided way. She poured them both glasses of water.
“I should leave,” he said. His voice sounded hollow.
“You can’t drive like this.”
He laughed loudly. He had been rejected and he could laugh as loud as he wanted for God’s sake. “Sure I can. I can drive anywhere.”
“No.” She came back and held his arms, as though debating if to do more. He watched her. The room was still spinning, the hard wood floors moving up to his face.
“No,” she said again.
She slept on the couch and gave him her bed.
* * *
When he woke up, the sun was making gold patterns across the oriental vase on the window ledge. His tongue was clammy and bitter. He opened the door, and she was standing there, tousled from sleep, white crusts in her right eye. He wondered how long she’d been standing there.
“I’m sorry about last night,” he said. She pressed a finger to his lips and he felt the moist warmth of her breath.
“I have a spare toothbrush,” she said. “I’m making breakfast.”
He watched her walk away, her robe stretched across her rounded backside.
“Why are you so sad?” he asked.
She turned startled eyes to him and said, “sad? Who’s sad?” Then she walked to the living room and put on some vibrant music.
* * *
It slipped out of her a few days later – or maybe she intended to say it and just make it seem as though it had slipped out – as she was serving moi-moi, the spicy steamed pie of black eyed peas and tomatoes, on the wooden table that smelled of lavender cleaning liquid.
“My husband hates moi-moi, so I - ” she stopped then. If it had really just slipped out, this was where she had realized her mistake. If not, this was her calculated stop.
“You’re married?” He wished he hadn’t blurted out. He wished that he had acted calm, as though he was not shocked that she was married, as though he was sophisticated enough, or whatever it was you needed to be to know that beautiful African women with empty eyes and ring-free fingers were usually married.
“I’ve been married for five years and we’ve been trying to have a baby since,” she said and brought a piece of moi-moi to her mouth. “ I discovered last month that my husband has a mistress and that she is seven months pregnant.” She was looking down as she spoke, as though tracing the patterns on the wood floor. “I thought I had it all. Our house is beautiful and spotless. How houseboys and stewards wear uniforms.”
She laughed and he thought about AIDS because he had to think about something. He thought how little he knew about AIDS, how little he knew about Africa, how little he knew about feelings growing from nothing.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. He wanted to hold her. Not in the way he’d wanted to hold her all the other times.
“Don’t say anything.”
Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Because for little bits of time I could be somebody else,” she said and added, with a gently mocking smile, “Because I liked being exotic,”
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes. On Monday.”
Matt was surprised at the anger that tore through him, anger for her, anger for a man he would probably never know. If the bastard hadn’t screwed around, he would never have met Ujuaku, he would never have drunk palm wine or eaten moi-moi. He would still know nothing about Africa except that the people were dying of AIDS. He would still be cooking to get over Ashley.“We’d better drink up all your palm wine then,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.