Learning Gertrud
by Elnathan John

He stoodneck stretched, eyes narrowedon the thick, recently mowed grass behind the barbed wire fence without which the airport taxi drivers might have rushed onto the smooth tarmac all the way out to the planes to ask passengers if they wanted a ride to town. As the weary KLM passengers, just in from Amsterdam, descended from the plane, he moved closer, peering through the wire to see if any of the white women were Gertrud. She had left Lagos when her visa expired eight months ago, her slant green eyes full of tears that never rolled down her cheeks but waited to be dabbed and her mouth full of trembling promises to return as soon as she got the visa thing sorted out.


He found it hard to understand the crying. She cried after a movie. She cried when she spoke about seeing firewood everywhere because that meant that people were relentlessly cutting down trees, destroying forests. She cried when he told her that he lost two sessions in the state Polytechnic because he couldn’t get the complete tuition fees for the Diploma program and when he told her he didn’t know his father. Then to complicate matters, she cried when she was happy and when he did something good. He thought of asking her, how will I know if your tears are happy tears or sad tears, but decided that that was how these people behaved.


Strange behavior. Crying when happy, loving animals more than humans, saying words in normal conversation that belonged to gangster movies or Eminem songs and saying things that one would mean forever, like that woman did in the Titanic movie.


He had learnt a lot with Gertrud. That the people in real life who believe that there is no God and that the Bible is just a story book are not all raving lunatics. That there are normal healthy women in real life who choose not to marry or have children. He found that his fascination with her as a white woman who did white things ended when he was alone with her in a room. Then she became a woman with a name that he liked, who liked him too, in spite of the airport taxi he drove and his little room on Shipeolu Street in rowdy Somolu.


He had learnt that being sweet was as simple as giving her a flower stolen from the gardens outside Lekki mansions or calling his motorcyclist neighbor Ade to rescue her from Lagos traffic when she was going to be late for an appointment.


He learnt her color preferences the day he pointed to a certain dress on display in a store at the Silverbird Galleria, which he hated going to because he always met Yoruba film actors showing off and acting like real celebrities.


This dress will fit you well,” he said to her as they looked through the clear glass of a boutique after seeing a movie.


“Bloody hell! It’s a blue dress!”


He was confused.


“What’s wrong with a blue dress?”


“It’s bloody blue, that’s what’s wrong. Have you ever seen me wear any colors? And I particularly cannot wear blue.”


He tried to remember. All he could think of were black dresses with white edges. Sometimes he wished she didn’t leave him so clueless. The same way he felt when she told him she would never grow her hair. It was trimmed quite short, too short to pull lightly when they made outa thing he fantasized about after reading of it in a novel. What was the point of being white and having the straight silky hair that black women spent so much money to buy if she was not going to let it grow? Why cut it every weekend with scissors like it didn’t mean anything, like it was mere fingernails?

He started learning Gertrud the day he agreed to join her for lunch. His customers hardly ever asked him to join them for lunch and when they did, he could see in the half-hearted politeness of the offer, the weakness in the tone, that he was expected to refuse. He knew his place and always politely refused. That day however, the day he said a reluctant yes to a passenger’s firm offer, he was so hungry, he didn’t care about what was proper or not. He had been going around Lagos for eight hours with just a quick cup of tea without milk because what was left in the small tin was gone.


“Anything Ma,” he said when she asked what he wanted to have. He called her Ma because that was what he called all his female clients, even though he thought she could not be older than 30, older than him. She ordered two plates of fried rice and chicken.


“I only try the soups and stews on the weekends just in case I get a bad reaction. Normally I like to think that I have a really adaptable constitution. But one can never be too careful.”


He was nodding all the while, and when the food came he wished he had asked for a spoon.


“You come here a lot?” he asked when he noticed she was staring at him struggle with the fork and knife.

“You mean this restaurant?”

“No, Nigeria.”

“Ah, my second time only. I was here two years ago for three days only. And the entire time I spent at a hotel in Abuja.’


He smiled.


“What? Did I say it wrongly?”

“No, not wrongly per se. It just sounded like you added a ‘d’  before the ‘j’. It really doesn’t matter.”

“Well it does to me. I want to say it right. How is it said?”


He laughed as she repeated after him several times until he assured her that she had gotten it right. There was an unmistakeable glint of pride in her eye when she said she had lived in Africa for two yearsin Djibouti, she added, almost as an afterthought. He had forgotten there was a country like that in Africa. Occasionally he felt a surge of irritation when she used the word Africa. In Africa, she said when what she meant was in Djibouti. He wanted to say, Djibouti is Djibouti, and Africa is made up of 54 sovereign states, but it never left him that he was the taxi driver eating a free meal and she was the madam paying for the meal. She was entitled to call Djibouti Africa.


It was 5pm, too late to leave the island for one last meeting in Lagos. The conversation continued in the car and didn’t end when he dropped her off at the flat she was renting in Lekki Phase One.


Looking at her in the rear view mirror as he drove off, she didn’t look like a little goddess anymore, didn’t look like she had supernatural wisdom with her dark rimmed glasses. She even said some stupid things, he thought.


That day she told him her full name and that she had gotten a grant to do research for a book after the one she did about Djibouti, that even though she wasn’t sure how she felt about multiculturalism in Europe, she thought right wing extremists were all a pack of fucking wild dogs, that she loved the tan she got in Africa, that she was deeply uncomfortable about the obvious privileges that her color afforded her here. That day he changed her name in his phone contacts from ‘Oyibo’ to ‘Gertrud’.


As lunches became dinners, sodas became beers, and hugs became the tool to say goodnight. She suggested and he agreed that perhaps she needed to get another taxi to take her around. Being the paid driver made things awkward, or maybe it was hanging out that made things awkward, she wasn’t sure; she needed a week to make sense of things.


He didn’t count the days, expecting her to call. It seemed to him like a polite way of saying she didn’t want to get involved. His driver friends couldn’t know about ittheir response would be predictable. Especially Hakeem the young metrosexual who like him also had a polytechnic diploma but told people he had a law degree and was waiting to go to law school, earning himself the nickname ‘Acting Lawyer’. The story around the airport was that Hakeem scammed a Ukrainian woman who thought she had found love and used the money to buy the Peugeot 406 he was currently using as an airport taxi. Hakeem would have said the reason she was asking for a week was that he was being slow, acting like a JJC; Hakeem would ask, you don chop am? and say, you see? when the answer to whether sex had happened was no. He would not tell Hakeem, because he could not risk being teased, that he wrote her birthday down in the book where he hid all his Lagos state tax receipts, or that he knew exactly when she was getting upset, because her eyes slightly changed color, or that he knew little things like how she preferred drinking her Star straight from the bottle, or wrote with her left hand but ate with her right, or wished more black men grew their hair into dreadlocks, or that she chewed on her thumb when she was nervous, or was sensitive about being asked her age because she thought she looked much older than twenty-nine.  


The first time he felt something, something he could actually describe, apart from his increased heartbeat when she smiled, was the day she held his hand at a restaurant and called herself an idiot for saying something insensitive. It was the week after she told him she had made sense of it all but needed to move forward slowly, cautiously, because she did not want the kind of nasty experience she had with a man she thought was her friend in Djibouti. She was talking about noise pollution. He told her he wasn’t sure why it was called noise pollution and he thought the term was wrong.


“Water pollution is pollution of clean water right? And air pollution is pollution of air. Now, is noise pollution, pollution of noise? Or of sound? I think the term should be sound pollution or maybe aural pollution. Something like that.”


She squinted, thoughtfully, and after a moment said, “I must say I agree. Sometimes, you know, it surprises me how smart you are.”

He froze.


“What, taxi drivers aren’t usually smart? Or is it black men?”


She apologized profusely, her eyes glassy with gathering tears.


After that, he too, was careful not to say something insensitive. When he wasn’t sure if something would upset her, he just didn’t say anything at all. So he didn’t tell her that he thought she had the hips and backside of an endowed Yoruba woman, that unlike a white woman she had full lips, that even though like Ifunnanya, his ex-girlfriend, Gertrud was a radical feminist, she let him do it from behind. Ifunnanya said it made her feel like an object, and the posture was as demeaning to women as the name of the posture. “I am no dog,” she would say.


On days when he didn’t want to hear Gertrud talk about the scammer from Djibouti who made her distrust African men, he thought of telling her about the finicky feminist who made him distrust all women. Just to make her stop. He would amend the image he had of Ifunnanya in his head to make her perfect, give her bright eyes instead of eyes dulled by the prescription glasses she took off only in the bathroom, a nice ponytail instead of the ragged Mohawk that emphasized her forehead, and perhaps a sweet smile in place of the blank expression she wore even when she pushed him onto the bed and started taking her clothes off. Just to make Gertrud a bit jealous and see his point: he did not want to hear about another man. He didn’t need to say anything. Slowly she read the uninterested expression on his face whenever she started talking about her scammer ex-boyfriend and stopped talking about him altogether.


In the time Gertrud was away struggling to extend her grant, he had taken to reading everything that would make him understand her better. Under a bridge he found a second hand bookseller who sold him an old copy of Ebony magazine that had an article on interracial relationships and the book What Women Want: A Woman’s Perspective which he dumped in his rubbish bin when he realized the book was about lesbian relationships. He also found Feminism in 21st Century Europe and The Feminist Manifesto none of which he could read without dozing off or gave him any usable knowledge about the subject. He wished he could find something readable, with an encouraging title like A Beginners Guide to Feminism or The ABC of Feminism or Feminism for Dummies.


The last passenger had dropped and he did not see anyone who looked like Gertrud. He was still staring at the tarmac when he heard someone scream his name.


He gasped as he took in her new features.


Deep blue slacks sat timidly beneath a bright Orange T-shirt branded in front with a big blue G. Her hair was beige, long and all about her shoulders as she ran toward him with arms outstretched like a kid pretending to fly. Just before he reached to hug her, his eye caught a pendant dangling from a gold necklace. It was a little cross.


On the drive home, she spoke in rapid bursts about the most eventful eight months, about her therapist who suggested she add color to her life and about her brother who helped her find Jesus. If he wasn’t so damn flustered, he might have joked that he always found the term ‘finding Jesus’ funny because it sounded like it was Jesus who was lost. As he half listened to her excited chatter, wondering now if the G on her t-shirt stood for God instead of Gertrud, he felt like a student who had prepared sleeplessly for a physics exam, only to find that the questions were for history.      

Jackie Rhoades

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