MTN Nights: A Love Story
It all began with an MTN Cameroon deal, Free SMS Nights, which enticed customers to give up their sleep for seven hours of toll free messages. While the free messages might have provided the opportunity but it was an Indian film whose title she could no longer remember which provided the inspiration to tell Hans of the feelings she had for him with a guise of anonymity.
So it happened that Elizabeth borrowed her roommate’s phone, whose contacts Hans did not have to chat with him by night. The first night, 4 days into the Free SMS night promotion, Elizabeth wrote:
I’m using someone else’s phone to send this message. I don’t want you to know who I am but I DO need to let you know how I feel. Even if it means nothing after all.
I like you. A strong like. I like that you are welcoming, open and generous with friends. I like that your room in neater than those of most boys I know. And from past discussion I like the way you think and challenge me to think.
Oh, and you’re cute too in a laid back casual way J
Your secret admirer
That message was typed at 10:15pm. Then after 15 more minutes of deliberating over every word. After changing things written in short hand to their proper form (free messages after all). After thinking twice and assuring anonymity by determining that Manka, her roommate whose phone was to be used, had no mutual friends with Hans who could be linked to Elizabeth, after praying for the third time, then and only then did the message get sent at 10:42pm.
He took exactly 33 minutes to reply. By the time she heard the new message alert from Manka’s phone she had burrowed into her sheets convincing herself that she couldn’t feel regret if she was asleep. The hollowness of those convictions was however seen in how fast she turned, hands clashing with Manka’s to reach for the phone on the bedside table which stood between their student size beds.
Hearing Manka utter a “hummmph” sound Elizabeth dropped her hands, smiled as though to wave it off and waited. After seeing the number wasn’t one of hers, Manka stretched out her hand offering the phone to Elizabeth “It’s for you”.
She had to clench and unclench her hands from her sheets before taking the phone, suddenly understanding what the Harlequin novels meant by sweaty palms. She read the message:
Hey, I’ve never had a secret admirer b4. Am honoured. I can c why u can’t tell me who you are, but we can chat right? So I know a bit more about my secret admirer?
She read it twice. After the second reading, she wondered how long it had taken him to write the brief text. Did he agonize over it as she had? Based on the careless short hand he used she doubted it. And would he say ‘Am honoured’? Hans was smart adding an ‘I’ in front of ‘am’ shouldn’t be that difficult. She sighed, reminded herself that he was a science student and was thus more likely to write in short had without the guilt of poor grammar.
Mankaa had put off the lights to sleep and as Elizabeth now lay beneath the sheets, her head turned one way because of the braided pony-tail hair style she currently sported, her face glowed in the dark with the light of the phone’s screen as she nervously thought up a reply.
She decided not to write so much any longer, it might distinguish her from other friends who readily wrote short hand.
11: 25 pm
Are you still awake? Sure we can chat. Though of course the chat is limited to nights only. By day I won’t have access to this number. Deal? So what will you like to know about me?
Yes, I’m awake & sure it’s a deal. I’m guessing you’re a UB student because you seem to know me well. What do you study and what year are you in?
I can’t tell you that, you’d be able to trace who I am. Here’s the thing. We can chat and you ask about who I am as a person, not my identity. If you can guess which of your female friends I am from our chatting then it’s up to you to meet me and ask me- if at all you would like to reciprocate the feelings.
She agonized over ‘reciprocate’. That word was sure to sell her out. It was a bookworm word. Would he wonder at it? And who among his friends would use it? She hoped he might think it was a friend with English or Literature major not her political science studying self. Or would he hone in one her because she was known as an avid reader never without a novel?
He didn’t think about it much though
Okay I’m cool with that. How old are you?
She told him she would soon be twenty though the birthday passed last week and he had been one of the recipients of the cupcakes she’d shared to friends in the hostel. They chatted till 2:30am. He asked about her family, how many siblings she had, what were her hobbies, favorite music, movies and more. They clicked like twin souls with music taste and she felt it was fate. Sh could always tell good people by their good taste in music.
As he asked questions she answered and turned them on him, learning just as much about him as he about her. He forwarded some of the funny, long chain messages currently going around with the opportunity of free SMS. She laughed like she hadn’t read that one before. She sent him the trivia message currently making rounds:
"If the beauty of a woman lies in her character, where does the beauty of a man lay?"
She appreciated the simplicity of his answer "Isn't it in his character too?"
When he said they should both get some sleep, adding "let’s talk more tomorrow?", she typed ‘of course’ her smile beaming in the darkness of their room as she put Manka’s phone on charge and went to sleep.
The following evening Manka told Elizabeth of a strange call she had received during the day which she suspected came from Hans.
“I marked his number with your name so if he called or sent a message I would not react. But then this other number called, and the after greeting me they began asking what my name is and where I was at that time. I think it was Hans using another number. It was a very close call.”
Elizabeth agreed. It was a close call. But it said something of him. He was smart to play a similar trick using another number. It also said he was interested. Was it just curiosity or genuine interest in her arising from their conversation?
That night he was the first to send an SMS. Elizabeth had just finished wiping down her face with cotton puffs and her preferred astringent when she heard Manka’s alert sound. Manka was seated at the small plastic table which served as their study desk and released a sigh when she saw the message sender
“You go surely start pay me as you di rent my phone for night” she said and stretched the phone out to Elizabeth.
Hey, how are you? I think I can guess who you are J
Can we chat?
Sure. But first thing first, you broke a rule. You tried to reach me on this number out of agreed upon hours :P
Don’t you know curiosity killed the cat?
I’m not a cat. I’m a lion- Indomitable Lion :D
But 2 be honest, I couldn’t concentrate 2day. Kept trying to guess who u could be & I think I’ve got it now.
Elizabeth fidgeted,she was anxious enough not to fret over the shorthand he's used, what if he had guessed who she was? What would he do with the knowledge? Tell his friends, call her desperate? But if he had guessed and was still chatting with her, didn't it mean he liked her too?
She thought of his eyes, bulging a bit too much to be handsome but filled with honesty and kindness when he smiled. She thought of how they would look together, fit together. What would their first kiss be like? Hopefully it’ll be on one of the days when his chin was a bit rough from the stubble of his budding beard. Hope of reciprocity spurred her on and kept her daydreaming till she saw another message from him.
You’re silent. Are you sleepy?
No. Just a bit nervous at the possibility of you knowing who I am. What makes you think you know who I am?
Is that all? Did you think I wouldn’t try my best to find out? It isn’t every day that a guy gets told by a pretty girl that she likes him.
You think I’m pretty?
She hoped the question didn’t betray her low self- esteem, but she had typed and sent it reflexively. Just as she would have said the words with shock had they been talking face to face. She wasn’t ugly, but she knew she had the misfortune to look more like her father than her mother. She had broad shoulders for a girl and a sportive build that called for the the boyish attire she chose to wear. It was a fact that boys saw her as one of them given her dressing (how many times had one of them admired her shoes?), her aptitude for sports, and the fact that she would always side with them and watch the sports channel as opposed to whatever telenovela the majority of girls were into….
In fact that was how she had met Hans. She and her classmate Joelle, both in year one and both new to the hostel had been directed to him after voting to watch football rather than the telenovela everyone was watching at another girls room. Joelle wasn’t that interested in football, but for that night she preferred it over an Indian telenovela with English subtitles given that she was already struggling with English at the University.
Had Elizabeth lacked the courage to follow the directions to Hans’ room, Joelle would have called it an early night and gone to sleep. But Elizabeth saw nothing wrong with introducing themselves to a neighbor and asking to watch a football match. So she and Joelle, whose friendship had begun when they met each other on a bus from Yaoundé to Buea discovering in the course of conversation that they would both be studying political science at UB, visited Hans’ room together that night.
Joelle sat silent, looking lady-like as she avoided any conversation which may betray her poor English, while Elizabeth bantered with the boys, cursing along with them when a foul shot was called and wowing them with her knowledge on the sport and its players.
Another message interrupted her stream of thought
Sorry I had to take a call.
But you are pretty na. And I’ll tell you to your face tomorrow when I ask you out J
Really? You are that certain you know my identity?
I have a strong suspicion. There’s only one girl who has been to my room whom I do not know well. She is slightly fair in complexion and would most likely have the courage to express herself as you have because she comes from a francophone town. You already confirmed you live in Yaounde and have been to my room to watch tv? I think you study Political Science?
Have I guessed correctly?
Elizabeth read and re-read the message. He actually guessed it was her. Equal portions of fear, awe, anxiety and excitement filled her. She replied simply;
J We’ll see tomorrow.
The next day was a Saturday Elizabeth would never forget. She got up early though she had no class. Rather than dress in her usual, tracksuit pants and t-shirt, she donned the chic Women’s Day kaba’a her mom had made for her.
Her body was a tightly held spring ready to bounce. She decided to cook. Perhaps he would want to eat when he came over, to ease conversation, and she needed something to do to get her mind off things. She hurried to the gate of the hostel to buy tomatoes and a few spices they lacked in the room from the petty traders that hawked there.
Her mind was busy calculating how long it would take to prepare ‘Hotpot potatoes’ when she bumped into Hans.
“Sorry”. They both spoke at once.
Elizabeth looked about her, marking the precise location, making sure no one was around to see her make a fool of herself as the guy she liked told her she was pretty. Deciding if a kiss to mark the moment would be proper.
“Uh? Yes Hans. How are you? Do you want to see me? Let’s go to my room” One word tripped over the other with speed.
“Are you okay?” he asked “You looked confused for a while. Na only as we jam so?
“No, no problems. I’m okay. Let’s go this way.” She continued.
“Well I am actually looking for Joelle’s room. I was told you two are close so I thought to ask you for the room number.”
“Oh okay" Elizabeth hesitated then slowly turned to point at the balcony of the room in question. "There it is, B19”.
“Thank you!” He threw the words over his shoulder as he hurried off.
Settled on the veranda of her room, sitting on a stool as she peeled the potatoes for a meal she was no longer sure she would have the appetite to eat.
She was nearly done cooking, adding ground white pepper as a finishing touch when Joelle and Manka entered.
“Roomie thank God sey you don cook ooo! I’m starving.” Manka was always starving. That’s why she usually did the cooking.
Joelle had yet to say a thing, but Elizabeth felt her agitating, waiting on Manka to get done talking.
“Liz,” she finally said with a look of tempered excitement “I think I am dating”
Elizabeth focused on the pot though she was done, fighting for control over her features.
“Ah ah, you too" she faked a laugh "What do you mean by ‘you think’?”
“Well, you know my English is not good na, he was saying something about SMS which I didn’t understand but when he asked me to go out with him on 20th May, I said yes. I like him but was surprised that he came to ask me out. We barely talked that evening I followed you to his room? It’s Hans”
Elizabeth tried her hand at acting. “Wow, okay that’s good” She heard the hollowness as she voiced the words and decided acting was more difficult than she thought.
“He’s nice right?” Joelle asked. “Yes he’s okay” Elizabeth responded.
At Manka’s knowing cough, Elizabeth announced “food is ready!”
They sat down to eat as Joelle asked “did you know Hans liked me? You are friends with he and the other boys na?”
Elizabeth smiled “No. But you’re pretty so any boy would like you”.
Manka coughed again and Elizabeth smiled. Her acting was suddenly improving.