The parcel came in very early. He was still asleep when Nmachi knocked once on his door and poked her head in.
“You got mail!”
He peeked out from his blanket and stared at her through sleepy eyes. Nmachi, unlike him, took the fake relationship they shared seriously. They had successfully deceived the world that he wasn’t gay and that they were an item but behind closed doors, Guru barely managed her. Beauty and sexiness aside, she was the most annoying female he ever met. She didn’t understand the concept of personal space and acted as though there was some romantic attachment they shared. So far, she had seen him naked a couple of times, had ended up in his bed after drunken nights with friends and had forced hugs on him. He was now nursing regrets over the non-disclosure agreement he signed to remain glued to her for six months. They were not yet halfway and he was losing his mind.
“Can I see what’s inside?” Nmachi slumped on his bed with the parcel. “Plizzzz!”
“Pretty please?” She made a cute face.
“Stop making that face. It doesn’t fit you.”
“Whatever.” She stood up. “I’m going out.”
He saw that his words had hurt her. Of late, he enjoyed poking at her. She was easy to irk.
She turned to the door just as Urena appeared.
“Hi Guru. Good morning, Nmachi.”
Nmachi gave Urena a nasty glare. “You don’t know how to knock before you enter somebody’s room again?”
“I’m sorry,” Urena apologized.
“Please, shift abeg. Guru you have to do something about this chick, for real. She needs to know her place around here.”
Guru was silent and watched both girls with concentration. When Nmachi left, he looked at Urena.
“Why do you keep letting her do that to you?”
“Well, you’re my boss. She’s your girlfriend…”
“ccc;;;She’s not. And seriously, I don’t understand. The Urena I know won’t take crap from another chick. What happened to you? It started after the Smush party. You suddenly became…miserable. Are you sure nothing happened that night?”
She shook her head.
“You’re not sure?”
“No, I am. Nothing happened, Roy.”
“You’re lying, Ure.”
He knew she was lying. What he didn’t know was why she was doing it. He was worried about her, having watched how mousy she had become over the weeks, especially around Madu and Nmachi. Something was definitely going on behind his back but he couldn’t fit the pieces together.
“Ure, you were my girlfriend, and even best friend at a point. I knew you in and out. And I still know you. You’re hiding something.”
“I’m not. Just doing my job. Anyways, I came to tell you I was leaving and to remind you that your mom wants you home today. She called me; said she couldn’t reach your phone.”
Nobody could reach his phone these days. From the moment his fake relationship with Nmachi became public, everyone wanted a piece of him. He started getting phone calls from people he didn’t know at a constant basis. Ultimately, he did away with the line and relied totally on Urena to reach his contacts.
“You should call her. She misses you.”
“I’ll call her,” Guru replied.
“See you later.”
Urena walked out. When the door shut behind her, Guru faced his parcel. He tore it open and uncovered the contents within. The first thing he saw was a note stuck to a football, handwritten by Monet.
I finally got the Blues to sign your ball. Don’t ask how I did it.
Guru smiled as he took the ball out and admired the signatures of football gods he worshipped. He wondered why the parcel was coming eleven months after Monet’s passing. He carried the ball like it was rare treasure, and set it on his work table in a corner of the room where his sewing machine was. He stopped to admire the ball once more before returning to see what was left in the parcel. A smile visited his lips when he picked up a bulky black book at the bottom of the box. Another note from Monet was stuck on its cover.
Genius is like an unending fountain. I have merely scratched the pages of this book. I’m returning it to the source. DON’T THROW IT AWAY.
Guru put the book down. It contained his first designs, gifted to Monet in 2008 on a night he ran from home. Both of them had been in her bedroom suite at the Federal Palace Hotel when he turned it over to her after a lean Chinese dinner which he hardly ate.
“This hotel holds some national importance to Nigerians.”
Monet was staring out a large window, holding the curtains apart with upraised arms. “It’s the country’s premier international hotel. This was where the declaration of independence was signed.”
Guru was not interested in what she was saying.
“Sadly, it’s now owned by South Africans who want to turn it into a casino.” She puffed. “The nerve on them! After the xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in May! I just don’t understand!”
Guru was still unconcerned about the topic of discussion.
“If I’d known the hotel was up for sale, I’d have bought it…”
“Monet, I have HIV,” he cut her off in a low tone. She stopped and turned sharply. There was a long stare from her before she marched to him and lifted his chin for a clearer look into his eyes.
“Don’t play with me, baby boy.”
He put her hand down. “I’m not. I have HIV. I’ve had it since I was five years old.”
Monet gathered her brows and sat on an ottoman in front of him. “How?”
He saw in her eyes she wanted details. Details that were still sketchy to him after seventeen years. Nonetheless, he tried to put the pictures together.
“I was on a trip with my dad. We got in an accident and I almost died. I was rushed to a local hospital in the middle of nowhere and my dad donated blood.”
“Holy shit! Your old man gave you HIV?”
“What sort of doctor allowed that happen?”
“Like I said, middle of nowhere. Local hospital. My dad was all I had. There was a choice to either let me die or give me HIV. He couldn’t let me die.”
“Your mom, does she know? Is she infected too?”
“No. She thinks the doctor was careless.” Guru looked up. “Monet, I didn’t even know my dad infected me until today.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“He called me out to his car this evening and confessed. Told me some bullshit about keeping his viral load low and doing well not to infect my mom all these years. I wanted to slam his head on the dashboard.”
“So, your mom is HIV negative.”
“According to him. He begged me not to tell her.”
“So, wait… when they got married he wasn’t infected?”
“Where then did he get it?”
“I don’t give a shit. I just want him to go away. I told him to leave our lives.”
“Baby boy…” Monet left the ottoman and sat beside him on the bed. She gave him a comforting hug. Thirteen years older, she had always been a big sister to him. Asides that, she seemed to be the only one that understood him and his weirdness.
“Are you going to tell your mom?”
Guru released himself from Monet’s hold. “No.”
“She has to know, Guru. What if somehow there’s a chance that she’s infected too?”
The thought of that had given Guru the chills all evening. “I don’t want to think about that.”
He stood from the bed and ambled around.
“So what’s it been like, living with HIV?”
He stopped and looked at her.
“Normal. Some days are good and some days…you just want to be like everyone else.”
“And girls? What’s the name of that one you dated?”
“You’re going to do more of that? Date them and dump them when you start getting attached or horny?”
Guru merely smiled.
“You’re going to fall in love one day, you know, like really hard. Then all that zapping out of reality you do when you enter your head and see things will stop because the world will start to make a lot of sense when you fall in love.”
“Yeah right. Tell me how that worked out for you.”
Monet smiled. “Touché. But seriously, baby boy, HIV is not a death sentence. Enjoy the world. Open up to people. Love a little. And maybe… try sex.”
“Ha!” Guru scoffed.
“It’s not that bad, you know. One of life’s tragedies would have to be a guy dying as a virgin.”
“Can we not talk about my non-existent sex life? Thank you.”
“You’ll have to pop the cherry someday.”
She raised her hands in surrender and lay back on the bed, propped up by pillows. He noticed her eyes on him as he withdrew to a chair by one of the windows and sat looking out.
“Spend the night here,” she said. “I’ll call reception and have them get a room for you. You can stay as long as you want to until you get over the shock of tonight.”
“I hate my dad.”
“You used to adore him…”
“Now, I hate him. He’s trying to bribe me with paying for me to go to fashion school, something he didn’t support initially.”
“Baby boy, you should go to fashion school.”
“No, I’m going for my post-graduate.”
“Roy…” Monet disapproved with a slow shake of her head. “Don’t fuck up your dreams because of what happened this night.”
“I don’t want to go to fashion school.” He got up, picked a plastic bag he had come with from the floor and pulled out his design book. “I want you to have this, Monet,” he said, handing the book to her.
“I’m not taking it.”
“You’re crazy about the designs here. You called them timeless. You’ll need them for your label.”
“I am not taking it, Guru. No.”
“Then I’ll throw it away or burn it or something.”
“Baby boy,” she sat up, “you’re going to be the best fashion designer in Africa. I’m sure of that. And I’ll do everything to see that happen. But before then, get some experience…”
“Monet, I’ve made up my mind.”
She began to speak again. He knew she was about to convince him, so he placed the book on her bed and gave her a quick hug before turning to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
He was out the door in a flash. He kept a fast pace as he headed towards an elevator at the end of a long hallway. He could hear Monet come out of her suite. She was calling out his name. He didn’t turn back.
He saw her a few times after that over the years. She never mentioned she was ill or dying. She looked her usual bubbly self, although he noticed she got tired easily. She had blamed her fatigue on growing responsibilities.
The news of her death came to him as a nasty shock, one he hadn’t quite been able to get over. The video she left for him didn’t explain much but it didn’t need to. He understood her, even in death, because she still lived in him. Until every one of her desires for him was fulfilled, she was going to remain in his subliminal.
Guru placed the design book back in the box just as Nmachi burst into his bedroom again. She was dressed this time, in a pair of white jeans and a bra. She had come with an array of tops and t-shirts and dumped them all on his bed.
“I don’t know what to wear with the white pants. Help.”
He wanted to protest about the intrusion but knowing Nmachi, it was going to be useless. He eyed the clothes on the bed.
“What’s the occasion?”
“A boring art show.” She rolled her eyes. “If my director didn’t invite me, nothing will see me in such dead places. We’re supposed to be on set but no, he wants everyone at the art show. Says actorsalways need inspiration.” She hissed and tossed long braids behind. Her bangles jingled noisily with each movement she made.
“First of all you may want to do away with the bangles. Art galleries are quiet places.”
“Boring! If I need a quiet place, I’ll go to a cemetery or a library. To me, art is rubbish if it cannot capture you once. Example, Beyonce’s dress to the MET Gala. Now, that’s art! Or even Cynthia Morgan’s nose ring.” She rubbed the tip of her nose. “I want to get one too. You think it’d fit me?”
“No. Your nose is flat.”
She glared at him open-mouthed. “And your complexion’s too dark. You’ll look like a slave.”
This time he heard her gasp and he almost laughed out. He was intentionally being mean and he wasn’t sorry.
He handed her a black t-shirt with a batik design.
“This?” she frowned. “A boyfriend tee?”
“Does this look like a boyfriend tee to you, Nma?”
“I don’t like it. No cleavage, no fitting…nothing!” She crossed her arms and he dumped the t-shirt on the bed.
“Pair it with the jeans and simple accessories. You’re going to an art gallery not a party.”
He didn’t give her any room to protest as he walked to the door and held it open. She fumed for a while before she packed her clothes and made it to the door.
“Change the bra too. It makes you look like you’re lactating.”
He saw her eyes turn red before she stormed away. He smiled in pleasure.
Bankole didn’t know what got into him when he woke up early, dialed her number and asked to take her out on a date later that evening. He had literally heard the sleep vacate her voice and the surprise that took its place. He wished he shared her excitement but all he felt was a grey emotion that came from his gut. He told himself it would pass with time. She would heal him; she had enough happiness for both of them, maybe even too much of it. That was what he needed to make it through. He was tired of holding on to what he was too afraid to fully grasp.
She once told him she wasn’t looking for love. He wasn’t either. He just wanted to do away with the loneliness. He wasn’t making the same mistake he made the first time where he withdrew from the world and any chance of companionship just because he was searching for something better than he had before. This time, he was moving on and not giving his heart another reason to be broken.
“Wait, is this a date, date? Or just friends hanging out?” she asked.
“Ruky, it’s 5am. If a guy calls you up at this time, I doubt he wants to be just friends.”
There was momentary silence from her end.
“Are you there, Ruk?”
Ruky was there, two doors away from him. They had been housemates for almost a month, enough time in which she had thrown herself at him and he had spurned her advances without even as little as acknowledging she existed in the same space. Five weeks ago, providence threw her a card when he listened in on a conversation she had with her landlord that didn’t end well. It resulted in her being kicked out of her apartment without prior notice. Bankole, without hesitation, offered her stay at his place. Every morning they drove to work together. Sometimes they came back together; other times, she took the bus just to give him his privacy. But they spent most of their evenings with each other, eating junk food and watching TV. She was now used to his peculiarities, like how he liked to twist his scarcely-existent beard when in thought or the way his toes were always restless in any given occasion or how he sniffled constantly even without a cold, or his blind generosity to beggars. She was used to his scent too and had stolen into his room once just to see what fragrance he was using but had ended up snooping through his entire personal belongings.
She worried that he thought nothing of her, that Beatrice still took the central place in his heart even though her name had not been heard on his lips since the breakup. Ruky suspected that the sad look she sometimes saw passing through his eyes was regret over his decision to end their relationship. However she was consoled by the fact that he had stubbornly refused calls from Beatrice in those early days and cut off communication from her on all social media platforms. In theory, Beatrice was history, but Ruky wasn’t so sure it was so in reality. Even so, she threw herself in and risked the outcome.
This was the outcome…he calling her at an ungodly hour to ask her out on a date when he could have done that in person. She found it a romantic gesture.
“I’ll think about it,” she replied.
“You’re fronting now. After giving me all that green light.”
She laughed but said in seriousness, “you know it’s against company’s rules for management staff to date junior staff. People will start talking.”
“People are already talking. We live together, Ruk. Let’s just make it official.”
Bankole thought his voice sounded odd in his own ears. The idea of being with someone just for mere companionship was strange to him. He used to be a firm believer in love. Now, all he wanted was a woman to pass the time with. It was either that or meaningless flings.
“So you’re toasting me.”
He hissed. She laughed. “Can we just go out, Rukayat?”
“And after that, what?”
Ruky had no more questions or wisecracks. He ended the call and lay back in bed. He felt no ounce of excitement over his decision but he didn’t feel bad either.
It was time to let Beatrice go.
The restaurant was empty today. Business was slow. Beatrice and her elder sister, Sharon sat in silence, listening to the radio as warm breeze blew through the thin curtain at the entrance door but didn’t quite make it in. Sharon was sweating as she always did, leaving a thin sheen of perspiration over her expensively-bleached skin. She held a plastic fan in one hand and a bottle of yoghurt in the other. She was overweight, chubbier that Beatrice was, and possessed that look certain Lagos ladies were associated with—heavy makeup, fair complexion and a generally bitchy air.
“Na wa o. This idiot has not sent in the money,” she muttered in annoyance. Beatrice looked up from picking her nails.
“That guy,” Sharon replied in distraction. Beatrice didn’t want to get into the conversation. Sharon was in a bad mood. Her makeshift restaurant was ready to have a better structure. Some idiot had promised to help financially. Sharon paid him in kind; he was yet to reciprocate. Silence on his end was affecting the mood between both sisters. In Beatrice’s opinion, the restaurant was manageable. She didn’t mind that it was put together with wood, it drew a string of customers every evening, especially the ones that came for Beatrice’s mouth-watering peppersoups and point-and-kill grilled fish.
Beatrice had refused any type of payment for her services at Sharon’s. After all, Sharon was housing her without complaint for free. Helping in the restaurant was her way of showing gratitude. But the problem was, Sharon always complained about being broke and sought unsavory means to get her next pocket change. Beatrice was done with that particular way of living, having tortured herself on nights without end for the way she treated Bankole in the past. She was now a poster girl for contentment but Sharon wasn’t buying it. She was certain the old Beatrice was hidden beneath her new persona and she was doing everything possible to restore her. She had a lot to gain from her. Almost every guy that visited the restaurant, married and single, wanted a taste of her sister.
“Finally!” Sharon dropped her fan and attended to an incoming call. She waddled her fat behind to the back of the restaurant while Beatrice sat, staring at her phone forlornly. She wasn’t holding on to hope but there remained that little part of her that still waited for Bankole’s call.
She feared he had moved on. He belonged in a world where men like him were never left untaken. She stalked him online and was happy to see that he was gaining a name for himself in the fashion and photography world, even though he did all he could to remain private. She missed him terribly. Time hadn’t taken away the pain. If anything, it made it worse. His voice was still clear as crystal in her head; sometimes she could swear she still felt his touch while she slept. She cried if she as much as saw or heard anything that remotely reminded her of their past together. This often infuriated Sharon.
“Abeg!” she would swipe, “he’s not the only guy in the world! Love kor! Heartbreak ni! Forget that nigga, biko! Guys dey wey wan upgrade you, you dey here dey die for person wey no even send you!”
She would hiss and Beatrice would wonder why on earth, out of everyone, she came to live with Sharon. Sharon was the major bad egg that influenced her decision to cheat on Bankole with Paul Savior. Although she didn’t live in Calabar, her sway on Beatrice’s choices had been enough to push her to the dark side. It was always this way from childhood and things didn’t look like they were going to change. Sharon was already poisoning her way into Beatrice’s mind. She was now thrusting her into another relationship. Beatrice, despite her change of lifestyle, feared she would eventually cave in.
“Babes,” Sharon returned, “Seriki is coming this afternoon o! I just finished talking to him after I cut the call on that idiot who is trying to show himself.” She hissed. “I’ll have his time later on.”
She sat in her chair and made quite a loud noise with it. “So how far nau?”
Beatrice looked in her direction and saw expectant eyes on her. “How far with what?”
Beatrice took her stare away and sighed in silence.
“That guy is dying for you, Bea. See all the things he bought for you.”
All of which you’re using, Beatrice wanted to say, but held her tongue. Sharon had been kind to her.
“He’s from a royal family, fa. Fine boy for that matter.”
At that statement, Beatrice scoffed. The Seriki guy paled in comparison to Bankole.
“Haba! Just say yes to a date. Just a date. Not that he wants muff.”
“Who will even give him?”
“Aah!” Sharon crowed. “See this babe! Who will give him? All the girls in Lagos!”
“Fine. Go and give him so that he’ll stop disturbing me.”
“Baby, he wants your muff not mine.”
“Well, it’s for Banky alone.”
Sharon lost her humor as an ugly scowl marred her face. “I think you need deliverance, Bea.”
“Don’t even start.”
“That boy has jazzed you badly. Badly!”
“What’s your own sef?! What’s with all of you?!” Beatrice lost her cool. “You guys will not let me drink water! When he was broke, it was that he was broke! Now, he has money, you can’t just let him be! Haba!”
“You’re defending a guy that has probably banged nothing less than five girls by now, Bea. A guy that almost destroyed your youth with his poverty. Now, he has money and you can’t think straight, even after he banged you into miscarriage and then dumped you. Abi you need a prophet to tell you that he has a voodoo doll of you in his village in Ogbomoso? You no go open your eyes, Beatrice?”
Beatrice felt like weeping. She kept a miserable face resting on her hands.
“You sef…” Sharon let down her tone. “You just dey fall my hand, walai.” She pulled her chair close to Beatrice’s and went into a conspiratorial mode as if they had company. Her voice reduced to a whisper.
“You know wetin dey now? The deal is that Seriki will give me 100k if you go out with him this evening.”
Beatrice cocked her face away. Sharon placed her hand on her lap. “I’ll now come and give you 10k out of it.”
“I don’t want.”
“And that my Paul Smith shirt I bought last week.”
Beatrice lowered her head in slow movement. She considered the offer.
“To just go out with him,” she asked.
“And I can bone his side after today.”
“You can even push him off a cliff.”
Beatrice considered the offer a second time. It wasn’t about the money, she told herself; it was about getting Sharon off her back.
Sharon broke into an excited yell. “That’s my girl! Muah!” She stood. “Let me call him. He’ll be so happy.”
“Happy keh. That one that changes girlfriends like boxers.”
“But you go like am, Bea. I promise you.” Sharon winked and put her phone to her ear. Beatrice endured the phone call, her thoughts on what to wear. She hadn’t been out in a while and she was not yet in the mood to leave her solitude. Her hair was a mess, her brows bushy, her legs unshaved and her nails undone.
“You better go and do your hair and clean up before four o’clock. That’s when he’s coming. Just go to Iya Debo. Fix yourself up on my tab.”
Beatrice knew Seriki had probably paid for the makeover, either that or Sharon was going to deduct it from the ten percent she promised her.
“Oya, oya! Be going, madam.” Sharon knocked on the table before her. “Time don dey go.”
Beatrice shuffled to her feet. She hated that she had to look good for someone other than Bankole. She hated Seriki already.
It was good to see him smile. Really smile. It had been a while. The wine she ordered did something good to his soul and in a short while, got him loose. The food was great as well. She ordered the restaurant’s special called Raphsody’s Platter, which was a mix of different delights and sauces. Bankole was contented, and in one moment of weakness, allowed Ruky push a chicken strip into his mouth. Soft lips harmlessly caressed her finger and she silently gushed on how they would feel when he eventually kissed her.
“I’m glad we came here,” he said. “I’m tired of the Island.”
“Me too. As a matter of fact, Ikeja Mall is more fun than The Palms.”
“You actually go to the mall to have fun? Are you ten years old or something?”
Ruky smacked him playfully.
“Agbaya,” he added and got another smack.
After the bantering, they talked about work for a while, gossiping about the goings-on in the office front. There was a rumor spreading that Khalid’s wife was in jail for murder; Ruky wanted to know if it was true. Bankole denied the rumor. Khalid had told him nothing about it. Ruky switched the topic to Hope.
“Is she really Monet’s daughter?” she asked.
“And who’s her dad?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you spend a lot of time with her.”
“Doesn’t mean I know her father. Monet was a friend…Um, Ruk?”
“I want to use the ATM. Give me a minute.”
Bankole wiped the corners of his lips and left the table. Earlier he encountered some network disruption and wasn’t able to withdrew cash. He hoped the problem was over now.
He stepped out of the restaurant and followed a flight of stairs down to the ground floor. As anticipated, every ATM machine available had a crowd about it. He made a quick phone call to Ruky, informing her that he would take some time and then picked a machine with the shortest queue of individuals.
Not far from him, Beatrice and Seriki arrived at the mall. It was Beatrice’s idea to have their date there. Seriki at first chose somewhere private and exclusive but she declined. She wanted a crowd around them; she needed the distraction.
Seriki seemed to be a cool, chivalrous guy, far from what rumor mill made him out to be. But Beatrice believed it was all a façade. She was neither moved by his airs nor wealth. She just wanted to get through with the date.
“You’re so beautiful…” he sang in her ear, making her squirm away from him. His popular face was getting attention from people around them. He liked it.
“You know the song I just sang to you?”
“From Empire. You watched the first season?”
“Well, you’re my Cookie,” he whispered into her ear, pulling her close with an arm around her waist. She was just realizing that he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. She was irritated. As politely as she could, she tried to push away from him with a gentle hand placed on his chest but the action only made him draw closer. Without forewarning, he kissed her cheek and left a wet spot. In annoyance, she threw her face away from him. A glance in the wrong direction and she was caught in the eyes of the one person she least expected to see.
Bankole was staring at her. He couldn’t extract his eyes. She looked breathtaking. She was wearing a white and blue striped dress that stopped above her knees. It was belted at the waist and accessorized with slightly-colored naked flats. She was beautiful, so much that it hurt him, and filled him with hate straightaway. Hate for Seriki, whom he recognized as an acquaintance of Madu.
What right had the guy to hold Beatrice the way he did? And what was she even doing with him? Didn’t she know he only wanted to have sex with her?
“Bros, it’s your turn,” Bankole heard someone say. He held Beatrice’s eyes a second longer before he turned to the ATM machine. As he made his transaction, he felt his pain deepen. He still loved her. It was agonizing to admit; his chest literally throbbed.
He wanted her back…
He was going to damn the consequences, pick his phone and dial her number.