‘Have you ever imagined a fairer version of you?’ he asked, staring softly at her.
They were on the bed, naked and exhausted, when he raised his chin on one hand and asked the question.
At first her eyes rolled up at him as if a little surprised, then her lips curved slightly in a tiny smile. ‘How do you mean?’ she said.
He shifted closer and rubbed the top of her arm. Her ebony skin appeared to shimmer in the bright light of the bulb above. ‘You are very pretty, Ada,’ he said, ‘I just wonder how gorgeous you’d have looked with a lighter skin.’
Now she burst out laughing.
He was surprised, and confused.
She stopped laughing and asked him, almost with teasing eyes, ‘Would you have liked me more if I was lighter?’
‘You are the first dark-skinned woman I ever developed feelings for,’ he answered.
‘But you think I’d be more beautiful if I wasn’t very dark-skinned?’
‘I know it,’ he said. ‘For you to be this pretty in a dark skin, I just imagine how gorgeous you’d look if you are a little fairer.’
She shook her head, almost sympathetically. ‘Ekene,’ she called him very quietly, ‘there are a couple of things in this world you can enhance, but sadly beauty is not one of them.’
He was still for a while, unable to understand. ‘I don’t understand,’ he finally said.
‘You can’t improve how beautiful you are, not by any cosmetic or surgery, or the likes.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ he said.
‘You don’t have to.’
‘So are you saying things like makeup and artificial hair and others don’t make a girl more beautiful?’
His brows rose higher. ‘No?’
‘A beautiful girl who doesn’t realize she is beautiful when finally on makeup believes it. And that’s just what makeups do—to make people believe they are now beautiful. There are still a whole lot of girls who don’t need to paint their faces or fix artificial lashes to achieve that state of mind.’
‘Wow,’ he said.
‘Yes, my boy.’
‘But you wear makeup.’
‘Of course I do. It’s just the same way I wear clothes. Or a fragrance. I do not think I’ve become more beautiful when I apply a little face powder or put on some lipstick. I just think I’m all dressed up and ready to go. If I can’t achieve beauty with my naked dark skin the way it is, no amount of powder or lipstick or lightening can make me achieve it.’
He drew in a very long and slow breath, his narrowed eyes fixed on her. Then he came nearer her and folded her up and for a brief moment felt the urge to eat her up.
Some days later, she walked in on him and two of his friends laughing out hard over the story of one other of their friends who had recently been ‘duped’ by a fake virgin girl.
‘Wait, so finally the gate is not intact after all,’ George had said, initiating another bout of laughter among the boys.
Someone knocked then and Ekene got up and walked to the door.
He opened it and she said ‘Hi’.
He bent and kissed her and said welcome.
The laughter was dying on the boys’ faces when they greeted her.
‘What’s the cause of the much amusement?’ she asked. ‘Heard your roaring from many yards away.’
Ekene had winked at George not to say, but he still did.
‘Na one of our guys wey just fall mugu like that o,’ George said.
Confusion glistened in Adaeze’s eyes. ‘I don’t get.’
Ekene stood aside, winking and signalling all he could, but George still went on.
‘Our friend carry his school fees give him girl wey tell am say she be virgin. Finally yesterday when show finally click, e come be say the girl sef na well.’
Ekene exhaled, shook his head and wondered why he’d remained friends with a nutcase like George.
But Adaeze only felt amused and chuckled. ‘Well, your friend acted very unwisely, I must say,’ she said.
‘It isn’t entirely his fault though,’ the other of the boys whose name was Ayo said. ‘You need to see the girl in question, she looked and acted every inch a virgin.’
‘I still insist your friend acted very stupidly,’ Adaeze said.
‘So you think the girl is not to blame?’ Ayo said.
‘Whatever for would you blame her?’
‘She lied with her virginity. She took advantage of a guy’s generosity.’
‘No. She merely played to circumstance. Your friend’s kindness would have been admired if not for the condition he based it upon.’
‘She told him she was a virgin,’ Ayo said. ‘What if he had wanted to marry her?’
‘And he can’t marry her now again that he’s discovered that she is not a virgin?’
Ayo didn’t respond quickly enough.
‘See, we own our sexuality. Anybody whether man or woman should have sex when and anytime they feel like it. Sex is not something to be sold or bought or sacrificed. It’s not something to determine the value of a woman with.’
The boys were now quiet, just staring.
‘Ekene, please, inside,’ she said and started toward the kitchen.
Ekene stood up from the chair and followed her immediately, almost giving the impression of obedience.
Inside the kitchen she said to him, ‘Dad is having a little occasion, I’d like for you to come.’
‘Yes. I want you to meet him and Nnanna.’
‘Oh-ok,’ Ekene drawled.
‘Are you alright?’
‘You don’t want to come, do you?’
‘It’s going to be a big men’s thing, I may not fit in.’
She slapped his shoulder. ‘Don’t say that, I invited you. Personally.’
‘Have you ever mentioned me to your father?’
‘Is that it?’
‘Is that why you are refusing to come?’
He took her hand and gripped it tight. ‘It’s your dad’s party, Adaeze. You invited me not your dad.’
She left that evening only come back two days after and tell him, ‘I told my dad about you and he’s asked you to join us for a private dinner this Sunday. Time is 6 p.m. and please know that Daddy keeps to time.’
She kissed him and was gone before he could say anything.
The words of protest already forming in his mouth melted back into air and he exhaled out.
He prayed Sunday did not come fast, but it did.
That morning when he woke up, he prayed the day dragged.
Again it didn’t.
Standing in front of the tall black gate that opened to her house, his earlier resolve to come continued to fade, one strand after another.
He looked over himself and adjusted the collar of his shirt yet again.
And then his trousers too.
And again the collar.
He exhaled and raised his hand to knock again. And again, his fist froze in the air.
Finally he decided.
He is going to turn back. She can be mad with him all she likes, he doesn’t care now. Will not care.
Or maybe when she asks, he would lie to her that he’d suddenly developed a cold. He would sneeze into the phone and make his voice appear dry and croaky.
He nodded, sighed and bought the idea.
Bringing down his hand to turn away, his hand accidentally struck the gate.
He shivered, startled. Then, as if pushed by the emotion, he hammered the gate now. Really very hard.
‘Who is that?’ he heard.
He said nothing.
A small square hole opened on the gate and two eyes poked out from it. ‘Yes?’
‘Open the gate!’ he said, nearly a command.
He watched the eyes get withdrawn and then heard the sound of unbolting.
Soon the small part of the gate was pulled in and he saw the small man in a private security uniform that owned the eyes. ‘Yes?’ he said, looking nothing close to welcoming.
‘My name is Ekene, I’m here to see Adaeze.’
‘Oh.’ He saw something fly off from the gate man’s face then and he turned more friendly-looking. ‘Good afternoon, sir,’ he greeted him.
‘Please come in, sir.’
He held the gate open for him and he walked in. Then he thrust his head outside as if to check if he’d come alone.
Or perhaps he was looking out for his car.
He made his way straight down to the house. The double-storey building was nothing he’d not seen before. It appeared all the big men in the town patronized the same architect.
He passed a small garage and stood at the wide central door and knocked.
The door was painted dark-brown, very glossy in appearance, and he’d thought before he knocked that it was metal.
But it was wood.
At the third knock, a plump woman in a checked fabric uniform much like a boarding school day-wear opened the door.
‘Ekene,’ he said, before the lady could ask.
‘Come in,’ she said.
He followed her in through a narrow corridor and came into a wide living room.
Wide and impressive.
The couches were dull-green, arranged in two curves that faced each other so that there are two opposite open ends.
The floor was marble, cream-colored and sleek.
A thick glass coffee table stood at the centre, on a small, rectangular and paisley-patterned rug.
A young boy was on one of the couches, curled up on a cushion like a cat and holding a remote which he punched every so often.
He knew at once he was Nnanna and wondered if he had not seen him.
Rich kids and their appalling lack of manners, he thought to himself.
The maid that had let him in gestured without a word that he should go and sit.
He walked to one of the couches and sat, facing the boy.
He looked at him again; he still hasn’t behaved as though someone walked into their house.
‘Hi,’ he said to him.
Finally the boy glanced at him and said hi too. Then he turned his eyes back to the TV, changing the channels with inexplicable boredom.
‘Is your sister in?’ he asked him after a while.
If he was going to answer him, he couldn’t tell anymore because Deze appeared that instant from one of the adjacent rooms.
She was clad in a black top and white shorts that stopped at her thighs.
For once there was someone who appeared excited to see him.
With a large smile she walked to him and he stood and they hugged.
She turned and looked at the huge clock on the wall and then said, with her unique great large smile, ‘You are great!’
He smiled and nodded, even though he wished he’d come a little later.
Or not come at all.
She gestured at the boy. ‘That’s Nnanna, my kid brother. Nnanna, Ekene.’
‘Hi,’ Nnanna said again, barely with another glance at him.
‘Hi,’ Ekene returned to him in the same contemptuous low volume of voice.
Adaeze pulled an indifferent face with her cheeks depressed. ‘Don’t mind him, he is hardly ever in a good mood.’
Ekene nodded fully in agreement.
As if stirred by the statement, Nnanna stood up from the couch and walked inside the house.
Deze totally ignored him. ‘Sit, please, dear,’ she said.
He sat back down.
‘Should I get you something to drink while Ese finishes at the table?’
‘No, I’m fine,’ he said.
As if she didn’t hear him, she said, ‘I’ll be right back. Let me get you a glass of wine.’
Prof came down when the table has been set. Ese had gone up to call him.
He was a tall dark man wearing a casual shirt and long knickers.
Unlike on Nnanna, Ekene could easily place Adaeze’s kind of nose on him.
He appeared more welcoming than his son too. A whole lot more.
He responded to Ekene’s ‘Good evening, sir’, with a smile and a nod and then asked him, ‘How are you, my boy?’
He had a pleasant deep voice and slow manner of speech.
‘I’m fine, sir, thank you,’ Ekene said with a little bow of the head again.
‘Thank you too,’ Prof said. ‘Shall we now proceed to the table?’
As they walked to the table, Ekene thought of him as a very courteous man.
As if she’d read his mind, Adaeze looked at him and they shared a small smile.
As Ese dished out the rice and salad and roast chicken parts on white ceramic plates, he kept looking round the house.
The meal was rich and appetizing, but he felt not a shred of hunger.
‘So, young man,’ Prof started shortly after they began eating, ‘Deze told me you are still a student?’
‘Industrial Physics, sir.’
‘Physics,’ he echoed. ‘Great. Quite a relevant course.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘So what are your interests?’
‘Physics, obviously there must be a particular area you’d want to specialize in.’
‘Oh, that’d be Geophysics, sir.’
Prof smiled knowingly while he drank some water. ‘You know, I have a feeling you’d say that.’
He returned an uneasy smile. ‘Why, sir?’
‘Of course, you are young and Nigerian.’
He smiled yet again and pretended to have understood what Prof had meant.
A while passed with nothing but the sound of forks and knives and spoons clinking on ceramic plates been heard.
‘So where are you from, Ekene?’
‘I’m from this town, sir.’
‘Who are your parents?’
‘I grew up with my mum.’
‘So you do not have a father?’
‘Of course, I have a father, sir.’ He paused but Professor Ilonna’s eyes were now on him, eager for more detail. ‘He left,’ he said.
‘You father left?’
‘Packed his things and left?’
‘Dad?’ Adaeze called. ‘Could you please stop interrogating him?’
Prof turned to his daughter. ‘Deze, allow the young man,’ he said.
He sent his eyes back to Ekene, prodding still.
‘Yes, sir,’ Ekene said, ‘packed his things and left.’
‘And do you know why he did that?’ Prof asked.
‘I was a kid, sir. He and my mother quarrelled.’
‘What does your mother do?’
‘Used to work at the government hospital.’
‘The Teaching Hospital?’
‘So is she now retired?’
‘No, sir.’ He could have stopped there, but then Prof’s eyes. ‘She quit.’
‘And why did she?’
‘Dad?’ Adaeze called her father again.
Again Prof ignored his daughter and continued. ‘My boy, why did your mother leave her job?’
‘Something happened, sir.’
‘It’s a long story, sir.’
‘Ok.’ He sighed… both men actually.
Though Ekene’s was more in relief.
‘What is your mother’s name?’ Prof came again after a brief while.
‘Mrs Margaret Ozoemena, sir.’
Prof’s spoon of rice stopped halfway to his mouth.
His faced changed, straightened sort of.
Slowly, he lowered the food on the spoon back to his plate and stood. ‘Deze, please attend to your guest,’ he said, his voice taking on a different tone. ‘I will be in my room.’
Adaeze turned up her eyes to her father.
Ekene stood. ‘Thank you so much for having me, sir. It is indeed a great honour having met and dined with you.’
Prof nodded. ‘It’s okay, young man. I only wish I can say the same.’