She thought it’d be nice if she made something ‘local’. Egwusi soup perhaps.
But she hasn’t seen him eat that before. She hasn’t even seen him eat anything. Before that Friday of last week she never could have imagined there was still a possibility for her to feel this way again.
Every heartbreak came with a different kind of torture, and its accompanying decision. Ujunwa has had them enough to be sure she was never going to feel anything for any man again.
The last one had been two years ago. It might as well be the worst. He had come with a refreshing sugariness at the start, a deep promise of hope. His name had been Ireti, something alike, something that had ‘hope’ in its meaning.
He told her that he was going to replenish all the love she has lost in the past. And she so believed him. So she had given it her all, as she always did.
She had always told herself, ‘Uju, you are not that tall or beautiful to be so choosy.’ And so she returned love with immense gratitude. She always obeyed, endured, whatever it required to make it last. Her dream was to finally one day become a wife. She would then know that she has finally won. She would call it her victory.
But Ujunwa was always defeated, sometimes even before the battle took off.
That day she discovered Ireti had been married, a beautiful wife and two lovely girls, she didn’t cry as she did a year earlier when Ikenna disappeared to Malaysia with all her money.
She gently pulled off the ring he had engaged her with and dropped it on the table before him, his wife and kids. The whole staff of Tantalizers was watching.
Without a word, to him or his wife, she walked back to the front and picked her order.
Inside her blue Corolla, she turned the player on and Beyonce’s Halo started where it had stopped when she parked the car. She quickly changed the song.
She turned the volume high and sang along to the chorus as led by Pink, ‘So, so what? I’m still a rock star, I got my rock moves…’
In her flat, she didn’t cry either. It has always been the ritual whenever it happened, but that day she was feeling different. An overwhelming sense of control engulfed her.
She poured herself a glass from the bottle she had bought earlier, the one she’d kept specially for their meeting that evening.
She poured a glassful into her mouth and poured out another which she drank up quickly again. She lifted the glass and hurled it at the wall above her TV. It shattered.
As she picked the tiny glass pieces, she envisioned them as the pieces of her heart so she picked them with delicate care.
That evening when she threw away the trash with the glass pieces inside, she was sure she had thrown away her heart. And she felt so good afterwards. The thought that ‘it’ would never happen again.
It had ever worked so because since the morning that followed that day, she saw men differently. The cuter they appear, the more nauseating they made her feel. And when they try to be nice, she only felt pity for them.
But the Friday of last week has changed something, if not everything. She was surprised. The harder she tried putting on the barricading thoughts, the more he crumbled them. Without effort.
‘I’m so sorry, my dear, I wasn’t looking,’ he’d said to her as he bent to pick her papers which he’d knocked off.
‘Please, don’t be so mad at me, you see–‘
She jerked the papers and cards from him. She raised a wary eye at him. ‘Thanks,’ she said, ever so grudgingly. She started to rearrange her file.
‘Can I help you with that?’
She gave him another look and walked off. She was already at the gate of her office building when he called, ‘Miss?’
She turned, doing nothing to mask her impatience.
‘Please can I get your card?’
Her brows came together. ‘What for?’
‘Well, you see, I just started with the Green–‘ He pointed at the next building. ‘…apparently we are neighbors. I mean since you work with Armac’s, we…we can…it’d just be nice if we connect.’
She noticed he was tense. His forehead had grown sweaty. It might have been this feeble show of vulnerability that got her interested. She wondered if men blush so visibly. But then she also noticed that he was good-looking. She ridded herself of the thought quickly.
She was surprised at herself that she didn’t feel nauseated.
‘Well, I don’t work here,’ she said.
‘Oh, you don’t?’
‘I work with Armac’s, yes, but not this branch. I’m only here to–‘ She remembered she doesn’t have much time. She opened her purse and handed him a white card.
He looked at it. Ujunwa Okolo. Head, Corporate Communications.
He nodded. He raised his face and saw that she was gone. He half smiled.
When he called that evening, she was quick to notice he’s got back his cool. He sounded so in control, so a man.
‘Helo.’ He had to say this a few times.
‘My name is Ayo. I’d like to speak to Miss O-ju-n-wa please.’ She felt slightly amused at the way he called her name.
She had guessed but she still asked, ‘May I know who Ayo is?’ She had put on her ‘edited’ voice, the one she used to talk to clients at work.
‘I was the guy that knocked off your papers in front of your Armac’s building.’
‘The blind guy, I see.’
She heard an appropriate chuckle. ‘I’d have to say that I’m sorry again.’
She hummed. ‘It’s ok. So why are you calling me?’
‘Oh, I’m just calling to say hi.’
She was surprised he replied so fast.
‘Okay. I’d say thanks then.’
‘You need not to.’
‘It’s a delight hearing from you.’
He ended the call before she could do it herself. She felt beaten.
He called her every day after that till finally they were laughing and arguing on the phone.
The last time they spent over an hour on the phone. She was cooking but she had had to turn off the gas and walk out to the sitting room.
After they shared a bout of laughter he made about his white boss, his voice turned serious as he told her he needed to see her, that he has something to tell her. She tried but he insisted it wasn’t something they’d talk about on the phone.
Finally the Saturday of their meeting had come. An unusual feeling had been with her all day. Something close to excitement, laced with apprehension.
She waited for the knock to come again.
She opened the door. As surprising as interesting as it is, he was dressed rather sporty, in a white and black striped Polo shirt and dark grey chinos. With his blue Vans trainers, he created the impression of a UNILAG student.
‘Good evening.’ They said this together.
She smiled and he chuckled, revealing sparkling, well-set teeth. ‘Can I come in?’ he said.
‘Of course.’ She showed him in.
He looked round the room. ‘Beautiful place.’
He moved close to a painting of her on the wall. ‘Your mum?’
Her eyes got wide. ‘That’s me.’
‘Oh. The painter should refund you then.’
Interest flickered in her eyes. ‘You think it’s not nice?’
He said nothing. Then he gave a tiny shrug. ‘Not done well.’
He turned back to her. ‘I see beauty not fully represented.’
She couldn’t help but pull down her eyes. She’d felt a discomforting rush of emotion. Something she hadn’t felt for so long a time, never knew she could still feel. She nearly became angry with herself.
Matters worsening, he took her hand. His palm was soft and warm, almost feminine. ‘I’ll paint you finer,’ he said.
‘If I let you.’ She took back her hand, hoping he hadn’t noticed they’d grown sweaty in his touch.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I will beg if need be.’
Change the topic now, a voice said in her head. ‘I made stew,’ she said
‘I made stew in case you are hungry.’
‘Oh I am.’
At the table, his eyes lingered on her all the while they ate.
She felt so weak under his stare. She couldn’t describe how she was feeling. There was just too many emotions whirling up inside her. She thought of herself stupid for allowing the situation in the first place.
‘So what is it that you have to tell me that can’t be said over the phone?’
He dropped his fork suddenly, as if startled. She guessed her voice had come out a little too harsh.
He stared at her.
She watched him. She could have sworn his eyes were growing watery.
Did he lose someone? She tried hard to make sure her face was soft enough.
He was taking so long to speak.
‘Alex? Are you okay?’ she asked. They had promised to refer to each other by their English names on the phone— he would call her Grace and she would call him Alex.
He blinked but not a word still.
‘Alex?’ She prayed his lips doesn’t burst open and he would begin to wail.
But he didn’t. He pushed his chair back and stood. He walked across the table and took her hand. He guided her up and took her other hand so that they now faced each other.
Her mind went blank.
‘I love you, Grace.’
She jerked her hands away from him in reflex. ‘Alex, what are you saying?’
‘Ever since that day at the garden, I’ve been in love with you.’
‘What are you talking about? Which garden?’
‘GV. Palm Estate.’
Her eyes went narrow. She was at GV Gardens two years ago or so. With Ireti. It was their usual hang-out place.
‘Alex, the last time I was at GV Gardens was two or so years ago, so what are you saying?’
‘Yes. May 12. You wore a purple gown.’
Her eyes ran wide.
‘You were there with my brother. I came to drop his dry cleaning. You called me the dark version of Lynx.’
Awareness hit her. ‘Yes, yes. You were the young graduate that was supposed to travel to London the next day for a training.’
He smiled. ‘Yes.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out his glasses. He wore it. ‘Remember me now?’ He touched his shaved head. ‘The hair is gone—I took your advice and got rid of it, but this is how I looked that day. Remember?’
She smiled. ‘You were so young then. And it was just two years, how come—’
He chuckled. ‘I was never that young. Dapo was only two years older than me.’
‘Oh. He told me his name was Ireti.’
His face dulled. ‘He did?’
‘Yes. Your brother is a crook.’
He quickly took her hand. ‘Forget my brother. I learnt everything but I’m here for you now.’ He leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.
The act was over before she could pull off a protest.
She had rehearsed her lines well. Once she entered she was going recite them all and leave immediately.
‘I’m so sorry, Alex, but this won’t work.’
‘You see, I had a very horrible experience with your brother and I’m not ready to go down that lane again.’
Of course she knew he will put up persuasion but she would be gone before he’d even start.
She had it all well planned.
She picked the phone and dialed his number. She told him she was on her way and he said ok.
She saw No. 12 and slowed the car. She waved at a lanky young man standing in front of a provisions’ kiosk. The tall boy raised a finger to mean ‘just a minute.’
She watched him dip his hand into his pocket and pay the store owner, a heavily-built middle-aged lady with the mean face of women who are experienced in beating their husbands.
The boy had leaned over to listen to her when the store owner called out. ‘Oga! This money wey gimme no good o.’
‘Madam I no get another one o.’ He turned back to Grace. ‘Ehe, Madam, ema binu, continue.’
‘Is this Iseyin Street? I’m looking for—’
Someone pulled the man from behind. Grace’s eyes ran up and she saw it was the fat store owner.
‘Take your torn money.’ She threw the note at him. ‘Pay me or give me back my detergent.’ Her Yoruba accent was thick. Grace understood little of Yoruba but she picked nothing from what the woman said.
The tall boy put the green sachet of detergent into his pocket. ‘Madam, I no get another fifty-naira. If I get I go give—’
He hadn’t finished when the woman grabbed him. ‘Give me back my A-li-al. I no sell again.’
‘Madam, take.’ Grace extended a clean N200 note to the woman. ‘Please leave him.’
The woman gave the man one last glare before releasing him. But it was the tall boy that got to the money first. He gave it to the woman. ‘Oya bring change.’
The woman scowled at him. She took the money and opened the purse hanging round her waist. She gave him N150.
The boy returned the change to Grace. ‘Thank you, ma.’
‘You can keep that,’ Grace said.
‘You can keep it. Please tell me how to get to No. 34.’
‘Thank you, ma. Eshe.’
‘No. 34, you said?’
‘Okay. Just follow me.’
Grace wanted to tell him to just show her the direction but the boy has walked off. She started the engine and followed him slowly.
The boy showed her No. 34 and helped her park the car. The street was narrow and lined at both sides with cars, some of them so dusty one needn’t think twice to know that they hadn’t been moved in years.
She stepped down and slammed the door shut. She saw her reflection in the car window glass and suddenly felt the urge to use a mirror.
She wasn’t one of those women that owned a mini make-up house at home. She only had the few very-needed ones. The second man she dated had said his reason for breaking up with her was because she didn’t take care of herself as a woman should.
After the ordeal, she spent a portion of her school fees on make-up items but she dumped them aside only after some weeks. She has once said to a girlfriend that covering her face in make-up after a bath made her feel dirty.
God’s blessing abound, she has smooth dark skin. She only wished she was taller and her nose longer.
She ran her hand down her hair and clutched her purse in her front. In her fitted, blue gown she looked every inch what she is. A thirty-two year old working class woman.
She passed the gate and headed toward the stairs. The house was considerably neat and from the cluster of big generators she’d seen at a corner of the compound, she’d reasoned it wasn’t a place so many could afford to live in.
It might as well have been the most expensive house on the street.
She got to the second floor and saw the door at once. It was just as he’d described it for him. She put back her phone which she had brought out to call him inside her bag.
She dithered a second before knocking.
She inhaled deeply and knocked. She looked around, there was no bell box.
She knocked again.
She has raised her hand to knock again when she heard the sound of unbolting. The door moved inwards to reveal a happy young man.
He revealed so many teeth while smiling and strangely, she found it attractive. He was wearing his glasses and a black stay-at-home shirt with white shorts.
Either he had large thighs or the shorts were too tight. Either way Grace wouldn’t want to look down at him again. Looking up at his muscular arms, square shoulders and well-cut lips wasn’t that easy either.
‘Please sit,’ he said.
‘Actually, I’ve not come to sit.’
Something leapt off his eyes.
She was not happy that her statement had taken away so much light from his face.
He stared at her. ‘What’s the matter? We had a deal, didn’t we? We were supposed to spend time together.’
She quietly dropped her purse on the couch. It was black, bound with loose shiny stones that sparkled in the dull blue light of the room.
She joined her two hands together, in her mind, searching for the perfect way to start.
He watched her with near pleading eyes.
‘Alex, this will not work.’
His lips came apart.
‘I mean I like you, really, but you are…you are…I’m 32.’ She moved her hand through the air in disorganized demonstration. ‘You are only 27. I…’ She looked at his face and the words sank further back.
She didn’t even know why she was talking about age now. Though she had thought about it during her deliberation but the decision was to base all reason on her past relationship with his elder brother.
He inhaled audibly. ‘So the issue now is my age?’
‘No, not just your age. You are younger than I am and your brother and I didn’t…Alex just…’ With over 10-years’ experience in communications she never knew that she would one day find speech so taxing.
‘Alex, please, you have to—’
He threw his arms around her and enclosed her. She was startled.
‘Please,’ he said. ‘Please don’t say that to me. Don’t leave me.’
He smelt chokingly of masculinity. He must have used one of those perfumes made by combining scents with marijuana.
She tried to pull herself out but he held on, tight enough to make sure she doesn’t slip away yet loose enough to ensure she was comfortable and getting air.
He made a sniffling sound and she wondered if he was crying. ‘Please stay with me,’ he said. ‘Tell me that you will stay.’
‘Please, Grace. Please. This is more than you can ever imagine. Please.’
She was curious.
He moved his hand and held her face up so that their eyes met and held. His eyes appeared cloudy.
She was able to perceive the intensity of whatever it was he felt for her in his eyes.
Slowly he lowered his face to hers and planted his lips between hers.
She hesitated but he was sweet. Everything about him.
In a moment they were kissing. He pulled her close and secured her to himself.
She felt loose, feathery. Sucking sounds of affection filled the air.
Slowly her subconscious felt him rising. She needed not see it to know how blessed he was. He was Dapo’s brother, after all.
Hot emotions whirled inside her.
Mechanically he drew her this way and that till they landed on the couch. He released her lips and held his shirt. As he pulled it off, she wished he hadn’t, that she had stopped him.
She became helpless.
The chest concealed under that shirt all the while was the perfect-built chest of male magazine models. She ran her fingers down the hard lumps on his belly. He let her.
A great feeling of ownership sprang up inside her.
He lowered down to her, kissed her lips for a while and then her neck, her ears. Anything he did made her shiver.
With chivalrous gentleness, he slipped one arm of her gown down and then the other.
She helped him unstrap her bra and her breasts came to view. They were of adequate size and strength so she had no reason to panic.
In her mind, she has decided go through with it to the end.
It was something close to that feeling of courage you have when standing in front of a big lump of delicious chocolate and you decide to eat it all and savor the sweetness and worry about the calories later.
They lay side by side on the lush rug.
Her eyes were fixed at the ceiling fan. In the speed, the brown blades had meshed into a consistent circle.
In her mind she tried not to think about what just happened some minutes ago.
But it proved hard. Very hard.
The images kept coming back. They were not ordinary pictures one could see, she felt them instead. The sweetness and all. She was nearly consumed in the pleasure.
Some of it still lingered, as if she could taste it on her tongue if she wanted to.
But a part of her was not very at home with the great feeling of pleasance. The part that blamed her for loosening it all up again.
She pondered on it for a while before she blew the thought away and rested her mind on the more pleasurable feelings.
She remembered how she had moaned, screamed, groaned under him. She resisted the urge to smile.
She turned to him.
She met his eyes suddenly and was nearly startled by them. He’d been staring at her all along.
She smiled at him and he returned it.
He was really cute. Way cuter than his brother. She inhaled deeply, as if to be sure it hadn’t all been a dream.
His stare deepened.
Her eyes went narrow.
He took her hand with his free hand. His other hand held his head up at an angle that set his eyes straight at her face.
He folded her hand inside his.
A peculiar feeling of security settled on her.
‘Marry me,’ he said in a tiny whisper
She pretended not to hear.
‘Will you?’ he said again, in same quiet, serious tone.
‘Will you like me to make something?’ she said instead. Cooking was like a passion to her.
‘I’m not hungry,’ he said. His hand tightened around hers. ‘Grace,’ he called.
She stared at him, not knowing what to feel.
‘I love you,’ he said.
‘I want you to marry me.’
A heavy feeling descended on her.
She got up quickly and straightened her gown. She ran her hand over her hair twice and picked her purse.
Without a word she walked out of the room, leaving him still, staring and lost.
He jerked when the door banged shut behind her.
In her apartment she dropped on the orange and black-colored couch and kicked off her shoes.
A big lump formed in her throat.
She felt insulted. It was the same tactic his brother had used. Quick, deceptive promise of marriage. It may be what they are experienced in.
She walked into her room and changed into a casual brown dress.
She so wanted to talk to someone. She had few friends, mostly colleagues from work. Her best friend, Bisola, has moved to Ibadan where she now stayed with her husband.
Her younger brother was far away in FUTO. She wanted to call her mother but thought better of it.
She was in the kitchen boiling water when she heard a knock on her door.
She opened the door at the same time she said ‘Who?’
‘Can I come in?’ he asked.
‘Come in,’ she said quietly.
He stepped in and she shut the door.
The room smelt heavily flower and fruits.
‘Why did you run off like that? Did I say anything to offend you?’
She stared at him.
He came a step closer. ‘Talk to me.’ He took her hand.
She felt the heavy lump of anger in her chest dissolve and flow away. His touch, his face, there was something so innocent about them.
‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘It’s just your mention of marriage, it got me…got me…annoyed.’
She signaled for them to sit.
They settled on the couch.
‘Tell me,’ he said.
‘Your brother gave me a ring.’
‘Dapo asked you to marry him?’
‘Yes. Barely a week we met.’
‘I didn’t know.’
He pulled out of the chair to stare at her. ‘I now understand your action. You see Dapo kept a lot of dishonest relationships way back. He yet still pays for it till this moment.’
‘Tell me more.’
He shifted nearer her and held her. ‘You see, Grace, I’m not Dapo. I will never hurt you.’
He stared down at her till she moved her head in a nod.
‘Thanks. If you can’t marry me, will you accept to date me?’ He extended an open palm. ‘At least?’
She smiled. ‘That I can manage for now,’ she said. She took his hand.
They hadn’t completed the act when his phone rang.
He reached into his pocket and brought out a Samsung phone.
‘One minute please.’
He tapped at somewhere on the phone’s screen and put the phone to his ear.
He spoke entirely in Yoruba. ‘I’m in my girlfriend’s house, why?’
‘Yes, I now do.’
‘Since…’ He looked briefly at her. ‘…today.’
‘Okay. Tell me.’
‘No. I can’t raise that in so short a time.’
‘It has to be till Monday…that’s what I’m saying.’
‘Please, Brother, I will call you back.’ He ended the call.
She noticed the lines on his face. ‘Who is that?’
‘Dapo? Your brother?’
‘Yes. He said he needed 50k urgently now.’
‘He is asking you for money? What happened to his Shell job?’
‘He lost it. It was a long story. But I don’t pity him. He is actually paying for his sins.’
She found some consolation in that. But she still would like him to help his brother, if he could. Grace may not be the softest of people but she is not stone.
She stood. ‘Let me fix you something to eat.’
‘Thanks,’ he said.
She laughed out loud and flashed a tongue at him.
In the screen facing them, she had just slaughtered him and he dropped to the ground with a near-human groan. Graphic blood stains splashed at the screen.
He looked at her and said nothing.
He couldn’t believe that barely thirty minutes of teaching her the game, she was now beating him to it.
He somehow found satisfaction in her victory. He knew he would win her if he put in more effort, but he somehow was happy with her winning, smiling, flashing a clean, red tongue at him.
He restarted the game and chose another player. He was now a samurai warrior and she a white-topped bad ass bitch still.
Her player had let out a shrill growl to mean the game has started when the knock landed on the door.
‘One minute.’ Alex paused the game and stood.
The knock came again, twice, before he could get to the door.
Grace could sense the impatience. She wondered who it might be.
Perhaps his landlord? Is he owing rent? She has her chequebook. She wouldn’t mind signing him a cheque if that was the case.
But it wasn’t.
The face that met her eyes sent tiny sharp sands flying all around her. She stilled for a second. But she recovered quickly and turned her face away.
‘Brother mi, ekabo,’ Alex said.
Dapo nodded, his eyes down on Grace.
She knew he was staring at her. She could feel it. She didn’t want to feel captured. She stood, threw out a flat hi at him and sat on the couch.
‘That’s my girlfriend, Dapo.’
‘Oh,’ Dapo said. ‘Meet me in the room.’
‘Actually, the money is downstairs in the car. Let’s—’
‘Ayodeji tele mi!’ Dapo led the way into the room.
‘Are you insane?’ Dapo did not wait for Alex to get through the door.
Alex wondered why he asked him into the room if his voice was going to be so loud. He could as well have thrown the tantrums in the sitting room. In her front. But whatever he did would not matter.
His brother has lost the right to mentor him many months back when he found out what he did. That he still talked to him was just for same blood’s sake.
‘What’s that woman doing in your house, Ayo?’
‘That woman is my girlfriend, Brother. I introduced her.’
‘You are very silly.’ He said this Yoruba. ‘Do you not know who she is? Do you not know her? That woman destroyed my life.’
‘Nobody destroyed your life, Brother!’
Dapo pulled back in surprise.
‘Yes, you set the fire that burned your feet yourself.’
‘Ayodeji, so you can now insult me? Over some cheap omo-Igbo girl?’
‘No no, Dapo, I will not have you insult her like that.’
‘What? Are you— ’
The door suddenly burst open. Grace came through. ‘This meeting is over. Alex, I will like to see you in the kitchen.’ She did something with her eyes. ‘Right now.’
The air stilled with tension.
Grace walked out.
Alex ignored Dapo’s eyes and followed her.
In the kitchen, Grace waved at Alex to save the apology. She asked him to go downstairs and get him the money.
He obeyed and left.
Dapo was standing in the sitting room when Alex came back with the money.
Grace walked out of the kitchen.
Fury has tightened Dapo’s features that he was now difficult to recognize.
‘Here is the money.’ Ayo extended the bundle of N500 notes to him.
Dapo jerked the money from him and threw it back at him at the same time. ‘I don’t need your filthy money!’
He turned to Grace. ‘As for you…’ He produced a small smile filled with malice. ‘…by the time I’m done with you, you will know what it means to meddle into family matters.’
‘The empty threats of a sinking man.’ Grace threw this out with great aplomb. She read English, speaking was the least of her problems.
Dapo swerved back to her. He scowled briefly, did something like a nod and left.
‘Let’s pick the money,’ Grace said.