It is usually at the end of a phase that we often reminisce, reenacting the best parts of the past and regretting the worst. Regrets however, never helped anyone live an extra second, and so it is a wasteful venture. Rather than regret and pine over things done wrong in the past, why not wear a brave smile, look to the future and determine to make good? That is the message Vincent Nzemeke preaches from The Lectern today with his piece titled, “Burger Kings”. In typical Veen-style, it is brusque, judgmental and cuts you no slack. But you quickly get the message, that a last month like December is a last chance to get rid of those regrets in advance. I hope it is for you.
It is the way Timi has turned making an omelet into an art that worries him. How he takes his time to set the chopping board on the kitchen slab, his firm grip of the stainless-steel knife and the surgical precision with which he slices a bulb of onion into tiny rings that baffles him on days like this when he spares a minute to reflect on what his life has become in this country.
On such days, he is like a drunk looking for his house keys after a binge. He lets his mind wander through the vistas of his life, dotting the milestones that defined each phase in a bid to unravel how and when exactly he got to this point. The point where he is just an ordinary man with a floundering career, three jobs that widen the gaps in his ends rather than making them meet, a monster for a wife and a daughter that has the collateral value of a visa extension paper.
These sudden moments of introspection come like waves whenever Timi is alone in the kitchen. He could be smashing eggs, cutting tomatoes and cabbages or packing a customer’s order but everything stops once this unnerving feeling begins to course through him. It grips him like a nightmare. It blurs his visions and ratchets up emotions that make him feel like he is living another person’s life. It is like a bag of guilt on his shoulders so he sits on the side stool in the kitchen, and buries his face in his palms as tears leak from the corner of his eyes.
To be buried in this kitchen with an apron tied to his waist, a white cap sitting like a gadfly on his head and serving quick lunches and dinners through an open window is not a career – at least not for him. But it is exactly what he has done for three years. And it is this helplessness, this cheap surrender and the willingness to accept and embrace this fate like a love child that breaks him like a sucker punch every time these thoughts invade his mind.
Nine years ago at White-sand bank in Lagos, he was a suit and tie account officer desperate for an escape. Nothing bored him more than counting and logging other people’s money and smiling at customers who were always in need of assistance. As he read the resignation he had written two weeks earlier for the last time at the close of work that day, he was certain his life and career would be better if he left the country.
Like a practiced cartographer, he had meticulously mapped out the course of his journey here. He was sure he would be able to navigate the slopes, curves and edges with his three-point master plan. It was simple and plausible: Finish the Master’s Degree program, find a job, settle down and live like the uncles he envied in his formative years.
But this nirvana is an illusion. It not as nice and gracious as Timi and thousands of others like him imagined. This heaven has a way of sucking dreams and swallowing ambitions. It is like a hungry beast. It waits patiently as you make plans, monitors your every move and then pounces on you at your most vulnerable moment. But it never kills you. It only steals your energy, passions, dreams and best years, then leaves you with a pocket full of memories and wasted years.
But some pains are just temporary feelings of discomfort and they leave no scars when they end. These tearful moments leave no scars in Timi’s heart. They come and go without drama like seasons in a year.
So when it ends, Timi is up and back to his jolly good fellow self. A smiling face and an-eager-to-please persona are required of workers here. He chops the red paprika into tiny pieces, pours a little oil in the pan and turns on the gas. They love him because he only takes three minutes to make an omelet and customers never complain when he is on duty.
By the day after tomorrow, it would be 12 long years since he made that decision to leave Lagos. Rolling his tongue to sound like a man speaking through his nose and being referred to as an American are his biggest achievements. He no longer dreams about being the first Nigerian to go to space. There are no more thoughts about what could have been if he stayed at White-sand. A green card is more than enough consolation.
These moments of introspection still come with a tinge of regret. But because those who work at Burger Kings must smile to keep the dollars coming, he tucks his pains in a corner of his heart and carries it about like a suitcase in God’s own country.
By Vincent Nzemeke
Vincent ‘Veen’ Nzemeke is a Nigerian currently studying in Germany.
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