Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gilbert - Part I

Author: Kombeh Jobe

As one friend's life accelerates, the other is left to watch. The sensual stranger Gilbert and the first taste of love push individual values away. But is the infatuation worth the moral sacrifice?

So Matty and I are sitting outside at one of those open sidewalk restaurants and she is trying to tell me how she might be in love with this guy she met at some party a couple of weeks ago; this Togolese guy, tall, dark, well-built, looks sort of like a football player, like one of those West African footballers playing in Europe. She says he reminds her of this guy who plays for Liverpool (or was it Chelsea or Manchester United?).

She is all giddy and nervous, gushing about Gilbert and grappling for the right words to describe how she is feeling.

"I mean… I feel like he and I have so much in common, like, you know when you feel that there's this one person who really understands you, who gets everything about you - all the little things in life, everything that bugs you about everything. It's so weird, you know. You go around thinking that you'll never actually find that person, being so cynical because of past experiences… But then you do. And it's just so amazing!

"He listens to me. He listens to exactly what I have to say. He nods and smiles and sometimes even holds my hand - oh! He once even kissed it. It was so surprising and weird and I didn’t know how to feel about it. But oh my God! Have you ever had that happen to you? Have you ever had a guy actually kiss your hand, and actually mean it?"

“No,” I smile, “it has never happened to me.” And neither has falling in love. The closest I came to that kind of romantic gesture is having a guy give me his jacket, and that was because I asked. 

But she doesn't hear my response or even care for what I have to say.

I become silent for a minute and look down to gaze at all the hip young people, looking so smart and confident and eager, impatient because they’re running out of time. And then I realize that Matty is self-conscious; she's aware of her own emotions and her unusually frenzied speech.

Matty is never this self-conscious; she never lets any thoughts impede her from whatever it is she wants to achieve. She smiles back at me -- a nervous, twitching smile -- and looks down at her hands, fingering her skinny knuckles, as if already expecting a ring.

Though I'm older than Matty by almost a year, everyone assumes she is much older than me. She definitely acts older, and speaks and dresses and lives much older than either Ade or myself.

She’s always had a plan for her life, charting each great event according to her age and educational and employment situation. She would work for a while after school, and then find a boyfriend, date for a few months, get engaged, and then get married. They’ll have two weddings: one here in America, for her friends and immediate family, and another one back home for her cousins and aunts and other distant relatives. She’d then have kids – three, two boys and one girl - and become a true, respected wife and mother like her mother and sister and aunts before her. She didn’t want to be thirty-five and single or dating some loser guy who will never marry her and would one day leave her for a younger, prettier girl. Love wasn’t a considerable factor in this scheme. “If it happens, then it happens,” was her motto throughout high school and college.

And that is why it's shocking to hear Matty espousing true love and the benefits of finding a soul mate. "Not really a soul mate, I don't know if that's possible but someone who just feels this instantaneous connection to and longing for you. It's a completion of the soul, like what Plato said."

Plato?! I didn't know Matty read Plato, or that she even knew who he was. She never really cared much for philosophy or literature, or anything too artsy or pretentious. She was a nursing major, and graduated with really good grades. And then went on to have a very good, very-well paying job, unlike Ade and I, toiling in menial jobs in pursuit of some elusive artistic career. She used to admonish us for choosing our majors; in my case, art history. Ade first went for English. She later switched to sociology, before deciding that it was too boring, declared anthropology as her major, and then, finally, dropped out of school altogether to pursue her modeling career. Lang was a history major but then he switched to computer science. His grades slipped but he didn't really care because he knew he'd get a job when he graduates, at least a much better job than either Ade or I had a chance at.

It's been almost two years since we all, except Ade, graduated from college and, so far, only Matty and Lang have good jobs. Matty is an RN at New York Presbyterian. And Lang does some IT thing for a new online company specializing in “hooking” people up. He gloats that it’s the best job anyone can have.

College was not as great as we'd imagined it would be. We definitely tried things, but most of them were tame or really lame and nothing serious; we were afraid of being caught or just guilty that our parents might find out, if not directly from one of us confessing in a moment of intense guilt and shame, then from one of our snooping distant relatives. We mostly talked about the things we would do and would like to do, even though we knew we would never dare to attempt them. But we did smoke Weed for a while, sometimes in our dorm rooms or in Lang's. He had this Asian roommate who was always so high and always had a surplus amount of weed with him, though he really hated to share. Ade and I had to sometimes literally beg for him to give us some, trying our best at being sexy and even promising him a kiss or maybe even going out with him, because he was actually kind of cute and insanely smart with computers. He and Lang would sometimes stay on campus for weeks, getting so high and playing video games or doing some nerdy computer stuff.

But not Matty -- she never even tried a cigarette. She was too busy studying, going to lab, and doing internships at almost every hospital in New York. And when she hung out with us she would admonish Ade and me for living or trying to live a certain lifestyle -- going to clubs and dating questionable-looking men, especially Ade, who always seemed to be with a new guy every week. Ade is one of those girls who had a preternatural way of finding and approaching men. She isn’t that pretty - wide apart eyes and a nose that was almost too big, which she’s been saying she’ll one day reduce . But she is lean and tall, and knows that almost every guy likes her for her unnaturally big chest. In college she used it to get away with everything. I was still too awkward to approach guys, usually ending up tagging along with Ade or having her set me up with some loser friend of her boyfriend’s.

Matty has had only one boyfriend since high school, Lassane -- a handsome, smart, and very awkward kid who ended up with a full scholarship to Georgia Tech. Rumor was that Matty gave him an ultimatum after high school: either come with her to Jersey and continue with their relationship -- he also got a scholarship to Rutgers -- or go to Atlanta and end the whole thing. The fact that Lassane chose to leave was even more surprising to all of us than their breakup.

“You will like Gilbert,” Matty tells me, as our very serious waiter empties our table. She takes out her wallet and pulls out her credit card. She always pays, but today she doesn’t say how this will be the last time she pays for me or that I owe her.

“He’s so funny, and really smart. His favorite author is some French guy that I think killed himself because he was so depressed. He wrote so many depressing poems. I bet you know him. I told him you read a lot and know a lot of these famous artists.”

“Well I don’t know everyone.”

“Yeah but this one’s really famous. He wrote this book about flowers and death…”

“You mean Baudelaire?”

“Yeah that’s his name. I read some of his poems but didn’t really get them. But Gilbert was impressed that you majored in art history. He wants to meet you. He wants us all to hang out.”

“We’re going to this museum in Harlem and you should come,” she says as she puts on her lipstick and brushes her hair, letting it fall over her shoulders. She took out her braids for long, thick extensions and a bang, which is parted. She even has on make-up, though very little - just mascara, and pink-and-blue eye shadow, gently brushed on her thick-lids. Her heels are too high and look too new shining under her dark feet.

She is just ebullient and doesn’t notice anything around her. The old Matty would have been really annoyed by the slowness of the service, and our waiter’s sourpuss face, and would leave without tipping.

A week later we meet Gilbert by the museum. There he was, tall, strongly built, and dressed to meet the world in a navy blue trouser with a black blazer over a white cotton shirt. He has on dark sunglasses in the fading evening sun, and looked as every bit as Matty had described him, but much older. He looks as if he is in his thirties, though he’s dressed like a twenty-five year-old.
He approaches us, taking off his glasses and giving Matty a hug and a kiss on the lips, a kiss that’s a bit too long and which to Matty seemed a bit embarrassing. Or maybe it just appeared that way to me.

She introduces us. He hugs me, and then takes my hand, shaking it gently. He has a slight smell of perfume and alcohol, and his breath is that of Winterfresh gum, peppermint and artificial.

In his thick French-inflected accent he asks me the usual questions: What do I do? Where do I work? What did I major in, and what did I plan to do later? He already knows the answer to most of these questions, Matty must have obviously told him. But I know he is trying, and so I politely, willingly, answer all of them.

He was born in Togo, in a not so bad suburb of Lomé. His father died when he was ten, and when he was a senior in high school he lost his mother too. As the oldest of five kids, he was mostly responsible for them, taking care of them till he left for Montreal on a scholarship. He wanted to be a doctor but it was too demanding and stressful and so he ended up in New York. He attended a community college where he got his associate's in business administration, and then went to a senior college and majored in software engineering. He said it wasn’t really hard, that it was not as difficult as it looked. He's been working for this start-up company that delivers pet food right to people’s doorsteps. (PetStar? PetRite? Something about pets and has pet in its name, but I couldn’t remember the exact name.) He liked it when he first started but is now sick of it; the hours at the office are pretty long and he doesn't particularly like the people he works with. He's looking for another job. He may quit very soon but wants to find another job before he does.

As he condenses his life, Matty looks at him with an unusual pride and, I notice, a nervous, tremulous smile.

Kombeh Jobe is a fiction writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from Gambia, Ms. Jobe is a naturalized American citizen. She is a graduate of Hunter College, where she received her Bachelors of Art degree in English Literature. She loves food, good movies, books, and speaking “GooMoo” with her three-month old nephew.

This is a serial, fictional narrative by Kombeh Jobe. This series will continue and a new, additional page will be posted Saturday, June 2nd, by the author.

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