Say nothing, Calm - British slang; 'okay/cool'
Fit- British slang; 'attractive’
Isi ewu- ‘Goat head’ in Igbo.
The silence during the car ride back was suffocating. Never mind that I’d turned up the radio to a volume slightly above a comfortable level, the repetitive tune of a nondescript pop song playing through the speakers. Otis still stared soundlessly at the road ahead, hands clasped so tightly together, his knuckles were white. I glanced in my rear-view mirror. Jemimah shared a similar blank expression, gazing out of the window, streetlamps offering short, periodic illumination to her face in the darkness.
I made the final turn into the road of their apartment complex and parked the car. As the three of us made our way out of the vehicle, Otis speed-walked ahead of the group to use his key and open the door. He didn’t hold it for us, so as the door auto locked behind him, Jemimah sighed and pulled out her own key from her small handbag to let us in also.
The lift Otis called arrived just as we joined him, so all of us entered and Jemimah pressed the circular '13' button on the wall. When spirits are high, I love to pull out my phone and snap a few fun pictures in the lift’s mirror, after allowing the obligatory joke about why I still have an iPhone with a button in 2022. But tonight, I solemnly assessed myself in the mirror instead, avoiding eye contact with the others.
What a night. I looked disheveled in that typical post-party way, my face shiny from a combination of oil and sweat, grey polo shirt not quite as clean as it was when the night started.
I casually flicked a dreadlock out of my face. At least I was sober. I felt that would be useful soon. Jemimah, tipsily swaying on her feet, stood in the furthest corner of the lift, away from Otis, whose face was flushed pink from a few drinks.
The lift door opened, we all stepped off, and soon entered Otis and Jemimah’s apartment. I’ve always admired this place. The door opens to a modern foyer, with wooden floors. They’ve done well at making a rented space their own, plants in corners and paintings hung on the white walls. After slipping off my trainers, I shuffled to the living area and flopped down into my unofficial-official seat in the corner of their leather sofa. I love sitting there and watching the hues of the London sky change as the day progresses. Down the corridor is their bedroom, and right before it is their bathroom- home to a ‘His and Hers’ sink unit underneath a strip of yellow light. The perfect lover’s pad.
Otis bypassed the sofa to sit at the dining table, facing the kitchen area, which Jemimah had just entered. She filled the kettle with water and flicked on the switch.
“Want some green tea, Darius? I’m making some for myself anyway,” she offered, quickly throwing me a glance over their small island while taking out a mug from the cupboard.
“Nah, I’m alright, thanks.”
“No prob. Otis?”
He only grunted in response, to which Jemimah rolled her eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t want any.”
The kettle boiled, and I began feeling restless. I’d initially planned to come back here and then spend the night. But if this awkward tension persisted, I could just start making my way home while I still had the energy.
But suddenly, Jemimah cleared her throat, placed her mug on the counter and glared at Otis.
“So, am I going to have to beg you to tell me what’s up your arse or will you spit it out?”
Otis' head snapped towards her- he seemed to have been waiting for this call out.
“This is the method you’re using today, huh? Acting oblivious?”
“What are you talking about?” Jemimah sounded exasperated. “You’ve been weird all night, with no explanation. Unless he’s said something to you, Darius?”
I groaned internally- this always happened, me getting roped into their tiffs. And surprisingly enough, having someone taking sides (whether by coercion or otherwise) doesn’t help with conflict resolution.
“I mean… you have been kind of moody tonight, bro,” I began to mutter, before Otis shot me a dirty look, shutting me up, sharpish. My couples counselling would be accepted when asked for by him, got it.
“I can’t believe you. So you’re really going to pretend you don’t know why I’m upset. Say nothin’,” Otis scoffed.
“Don’t start tonight. Either be a man and address the issue, or keep sulking. I really don’t care.” Jemimah turned her attention back to the kettle. The water had fully boiled.
“Okay- want me to say it like it is? Fine. You’re a cheater.”
That final word hissed out hung in the air for a few beats. Otis leaned forward in his chair and placed his elbows on his knees, all while never breaking eye contact with Jemimah, who only looked mildly annoyed.
“Maybe I should go…?” I offered.
“No. Stay,” Jemimah ordered.
Against my better judgement, I did as I was told. While retreating into my corner, deja vu hit me like a truck. I quickly shook my head to relieve myself of the memories of what occurred after a similar accusation was made by Otis before. Now wasn’t the time for that.
Jemimah’s eyes narrowed as she observed her boyfriend.
“Why, Otis? What are you doing? We’ve talked about you just throwing around harmful statements like that. It’s not fair.”
“And yet, you keep giving me reasons to ‘throw them around’, as you say.”
“No I don’t, I never do! You’re just always projecting your insecurities onto me. I don’t ever act in a way that should make you question my loyalty-"
“That’s a lie.”
“Stop it. You never have any reasons to suspect me, you just do.”
“Oh? So I didn’t see you leave Jamie’s bathroom with another guy at one point tonight?”
My stomach dropped. With widened eyes, I glanced over at Jemimah to gage her reaction.
Back in secondary school, the three of us would play poker with other friends often at lunchtimes, using sweets or random 20p coins as collateral. I always admired Jemimah’s poker face, the way her brown eyes could stare directly at someone without giving anything away.
She had that same expression on her face now, and I had no idea what she was thinking.
“When was this?” I asked.
“Right before you got there,” Otis drawled.
Our mutual friend, Jamie, threw a birthday party for his girlfriend tonight, hosted at his house. I came about an hour after the party started, where everything was in full swing. The hoards of people around, all talking and laughing together, couldn’t distract from the tension being built up between the two of them. And I guess this was why.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Otis. Literally, just go to bed, you clearly drank more than I thought-“
“Nah, do you think I’m stupid or something? I’m not drunk- I know what I’m saying.” Otis had stood up now, and stalked over to the kitchen island, opposite Jemimah. Being 6’2 with a rugby player build, he towered over the girl. But Jemimah refused to be cowed, and flicked her braids over her shoulder defiantly.
“Look at you, isi ewu. I told you-"
“Don’t insult me.”
“You don’t even know what I said. Plus-"
“I don’t need to.”
“Plus, you’ve insulted me by calling me a cheater for no reason. I’ve just told you I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Okay,” Otis chuckled humourlessly, “I’m bored with this back and forth, so I’ll just say what I saw, since you seem to have such difficulties remembering.”
At this point, my friend turned from the island so he could observe both of us, and took a deep breath before beginning to speak, almost like he was giving a presentation.
“We were just in Jamie’s garden, chilling with others. Then suddenly, she says, ‘I want to find his girl to wish her a happy birthday’-"
“Her name is Danica, not ‘his girl’,” Jemimah quipped.
Otis barely batted an eyelid. “So I’m like, ‘Calm’. No big deal. She goes, I stay. But after a while, she’s not back, and I know this place is crowded, but I’m thinking, 'She can’t be lost,’ right? Still, I go to look for her.”
Otis began to saunter around the room, like a performer re-enacting the whole scenario in front of us.
“So I’m in the house now, and I enter that room- you know the one where all the gift bags or whatever were being put? I go in there because I know that’s where I last saw Danica.” Otis quickly gave Jemimah a pointed look.
“And sure enough, Danica was still there, talking with a bunch of people. But who wasn’t with that bunch? My lovely girlfriend here.”
Jemimah was no longer looking at Otis, her eyes trained on a space somewhere beside me. I followed her gaze, and noticed she was looking at the decorations on the side table next to the sofa- a small pot of fake flowers, and a framed image of a quote that I believe she told me was from the Bible: “Love never fails.”
Otis continued. “So now I’m confused. I’m about to call her, but I notice that the bathroom door at the very end of the corridor opens. And I look and see a figure that looks suspiciously like you,” Otis turned his focus back to Jemimah, “and there was some random guy who came out a few seconds after you. Darius?”
I started at Otis’ direct addressal. “Yeah…?”
“Tell me,” my friend folded his arms, “what reasonable explanation could you give for seeing a girl leave a bathroom with a random guy?”
I stayed quiet, so the ticking of the clock was what responded to him instead. Otis didn’t seem fazed, however, seemingly taking my silence as an answer. He smirked triumphantly at Jemimah.
“So, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“That you’re rid-icu-lous,” Jemimah replied bitterly, elongating the last word, “that’s what had you acting up all night? A possibility that I’m the girl you saw, in that corridor that was crowded basically all night.”
“I’m pretty sure it was you.”
“I recognised the hair.”
“You mean the same hair that so many other black girls had at that house? In the same style? Come off it.”
Otis’ fists balled; he started moving back over to the island, and I shifted in my seat.
“And tell me, since you’re so certain about everything,” Jemimah continued, “who was the guy I was supposedly with?”
“I was hoping you’d fill in that gap.”
“Well, stop hoping, because that wasn’t me you saw. You look dumb, and I’m done with this conversation.” With that, Jemimah picked up her mug and reached for the kettle again.
“That’s bull!” roared Otis, finally losing his temper. He snatched the mug from her hand and dashed it onto the floor, Jemimah squealing as she jumped away to avoid the shattered ceramic flying around her feet.
I jumped up immediately and rushed to the pair, inserting myself between them. I faced Otis, scowling.
“Enough! We’re not doing this any more, before someone does something they’ll regret.”
“You’ve got that right,” sniffed Jemimah, stepping over the mess, “I’m out. I’ll stay with a friend tonight.”
“You do that,” Otis spat.
I made no effort to stop her as she snatched up her things and marched away. But I made sure to call out, “Please text one of us to say you got there safe.” No response.
Otis and I stayed standing quietly until we heard the door open and shut not long after. I looked at him then, and gestured to the floor.
“You know you need to clean this up, right?”
The next few minutes, I kept my friend company while he swept up the shards of the mug. He calmed down considerably while doing so, and began to try and explain his actions to me. I stayed quiet, maintaining my role of the impartial third party, but secretly, I was finding it increasingly difficult to empathise with Otis when he acted like this. It was getting exhausting, playing mediator in the same fight.
I wondered, for what felt like the hundredth time, why he didn’t just end things with Jemimah if he didn’t seem to trust her at all. Everyone would benefit.
I thought back to the last time Otis had lost control while accusing his girlfriend of lying to him, at my place. How, when he stormed out, I was left with a weeping Jemimah, still trying to speak between sobs.
“I swear, Darius. I haven’t been unfaithful…”
I decided to still spend the night with Otis, since I was getting tired, and he offered Jemimah’s side of the bed instead of the couch. Her unique bakery smell clung to the sheets, strangely relaxing me.
As Otis slipped under the duvet beside me, his eyes were already half closed.
“I feel like it’s over.”
“I don’t see me and her lasting much longer,” he slurred, “I just know she’s doing something, man. I saw her with another guy. I just wish I could’ve properly seen who he was.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that.
“Whatever,” Otis rolled onto his side, “goodnight, bro.”
I picked up my phone. The notification centre showed a text from Jemimah: i’m with my friend now. x
good, I replied, sleep well.
Before I put my phone down, I scrolled up a little to see our exchange some hours prior.
Me: almost at jamie’s
Jemimah: i was worried you weren’t coming anymore
Me: nope, just running on black people timing lol
Jemimah: lmk when you’re here. let’s meet before you find otis ;)
Me: oh? say less
I flopped back onto my pillow, thinking of how Jemimah’s face lit up when we first saw each other this evening. She looked so pretty tonight; her makeup was paired with some eyeliner that really made her eyes stand out. The same eyes that creased at the corners when she smiled as I pulled her into a hug.
“Took you long enough.”
“Better late than never.”
“Yeah, whatever,” she giggled. Then, with more sincerity, “I’m glad you’re here.”
I couldn’t suppress the smile that creeped onto my face then.
“So,” I looked around the packed house, “where should we go?”
Jemimah’s head nodded over to a door.
“I’ll go in there. Come meet me after a few minutes.”
So, after a little while of saying hi to the few people I knew, I slipped over to the end of the corridor and into the bathroom.
Thank goodness for crowds.
I didn’t know Otis saw us, and I wonder whether I would’ve cared at that point if he recognised me. With Otis and Jemimah being my closest friends, I saw first hand how dysfunctional they’d been for a while. And it always pained me, seeing Otis berate and mistreat a girl that I’d give the world if I had half the chance.
I knew my feelings for Jemimah stopped being platonic all the way back in secondary school, but I was too shy to act on them. Then, a while later, when Otis told me how ‘Jemimah’s been looking really fit recently’, I knew I didn’t have a chance anymore. I felt Otis was better than me in so many ways, so I stepped back and stuck a grin on my face when they became an official couple, and stayed together all through the rest of school, and uni, and moved in together, despite the fact that Otis had already started to become overbearing.
I never would’ve dreamed Jemimah felt any type of way about me.
I once more cast my thoughts back to that day at my apartment a few months ago, sitting on the floor with Jemimah as she cried- my heart fluttering despite itself as she leaned on my shoulder.
“I swear, Darius. I haven’t been unfaithful…”
“I believe you, Jem.”
“… but I’ve wanted to.”
“Not with any of these guys that idiot accuses me of.” Jemimah sat up then, and we faced each other. There was no guardedness around her, like she was with Otis. No poker face. She looked so vulnerable, and I couldn't break eye contact, even though she made me feel nervous.
“If Otis is going to accuse me of cheating no matter what I do, then I might as well do what I want. Follow how I’ve felt for a while.”
I could barely breathe. My eyes travelled down to her plump lips and then back up to her beautiful face, and at that point, something overcame me. But I didn’t even have the chance to do anything before Jemimah held my face and drew me towards her, kissing me.
I never pulled away.
I wish I could say I feel some remorse, or embarrassment, for falling into that ‘cheating with the best friend’ trope. Honestly, being a homewrecker was never part of my plan, but quite frankly, I can’t wreck a home that was falling apart anyway. And I can’t bring myself to feel bad when I, personally, have never been happier.
I’m sure a time will come, probably soon, when Otis finds about what’s been going on. But for now, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, I think, as I settle down into the bed.
I hope that, after some introspection, he realises that he made his worries true with his own behaviour, and that Jem didn’t just leave, he drove her away.
Luckily for me, it was right into my arms.