If there was anything Toni knew well to do, it was to mask her emotions. It was one of her strong points. She knew how to laugh in the midst of a storm and carry on like the world was okay while dying inside. She had learned, quite early, after suffering a major heartbreak, that it was a dangerous thing to let people in on one’s weaknesses. Her collected manner, laced with pokerfaced bitchiness and painfully-candid approach to most issues made it hard for anyone to prey on her. Andre was the only one who had been allowed to dip into the waters of her heart and muddle it as he so desired. With friends and family, she was also open, but only as much as she was in the mood to let them in on the condition of her heart at any given moment. Her best friend, Leticia, just like Andre, had the knack of looking into her eyes and knowing immediately that something was wrong. Toni sometimes hated her for it, and hated the way she made it seem like she won a trophy anytime her predictions turned out right.
Today, however, Toni was not going to give her the pleasure. She kept a blank face as they sat to have lunch at Leticia’s favorite restaurant. Toni was sipping on a Chapman while Leticia, who had become a foodie overnight, did all the eating. She was a woman spoiled silly by her boyfriend, whose idea of loving a girlfriend meant fattening her. He was a typical Yoruba man; he wanted his woman voluptuous. But Leticia was slim and had never nursed a fat bone in her life. Still, he desired her to be chubbier, so as to reflect her age. According to him, women in their thirties had no business being slim. It was unhealthy for them. Leticia was older than he was by seven years. They swore that it was love but Toni knew her friend was with the young man only for the money.
“How is Dapo these days sef?” she asked after Leticia took a break from pestering her over her mood.
“He’s traveled again. Didn’t he tell you?”
“That he’s my younger brother doesn’t mean he tells me everything. I’m not the one he’s fucking.”
“Jeez! You’re in a mood today. You’ve just been throwing F-bombs up and down. Chill, lady.”
Toni’s phone rang. She had a peep at the screen and sighed. “Work.”
Leticia picked the phone. “It’s a Saturday. Work can take a piss.”
She turned off the phone.
“Why did you do that?” Toni questioned. “You do realize that I have a lot of clients on my hands ba?”
“There you are! Worked up again. What’s eating you, sweetie?” Leticia was sucking off soup from her thumb and flipping her flowing purple weave backwards at the same time. “Talk to mama. I want to take away the pain. I know it’s Dre. He’s the only one that can get you in a mood like this. Share your pain, ore mi.”
She put her hand on Toni’s but Toni snapped it away.
“O ga o! You dey vex.”
Of course, Toni was vexed – over everything around her. The pale pink walls, the wooden chairs they sat on, the annoying Nigerian music playing in the background, the couple on the table across them that were all lovey-dovey, the tasteless Chapman and of course, Leticia’s top which was worn without a bra, exposing the outline of her wild nipples.
“Whatever it is, it’s going to be fine.”
“It’s not,” Toni said out loud.
“Please, talk to me.” Leticia’s puppy expression almost broke her, but the smiling face of a fair-complexioned lady coming towards them stopped her.
Leticia made a turn and let out a full smile at the lady. “Khanyisile Musawenkosi!”
Toni rolled her eyes at her friend. Leticia had a bad case of ass-kissing that needed curing. She generally considered rich, white and foreign people’s butts worthy of her lips. And Khanyisile, fondly known as Khanyi, had a big behind which she generously kissed at any given chance.
“Hello sweetie!” Khanyi greeted Leticia. “Always calling out my full name. What’s up with that?”
Khanyi laughed. “I hear you.”
She bent to give Leticia a hug and did the same to Toni. Toni lingered a bit, not intentionally, but because Khanyi gave the coziest hugs. She just sort of stayed there between her breasts. Khanyi was curvy and full in all the right places. Sometimes Toni felt like she could hug her all day.
“Toni, how are you?”
Khanyi pulled out the extra chair and sat. “What are you eating, Tisha?”
“Oha soup. You should try it. Have some stock fish.”
Leticia fed Khanyi with a piece of fish which Khanyi chewed with relish. “This is soooo good. I’m having an orgasm here.”
The ladies laughed. Toni called over a waiter.
“I haven’t had oha soup in a while,” Khanyi said.
“We’re neighbors now. I can make some for you and teach you how to do it,” Leticia offered.
“That would be awesome.” Khanyi touched her chest. “Thank you.”
Toni found her too fruity. She was sweet and beautiful and sexy, but too courteous. Toni wasn’t into that sort of thing, hence her reason for keeping her at arms-length. But Leticia had gone all in for her from the first day she began working as the company’s organizational psychologist. No doubt, she was the hottest new thing at Covet advertising. The men, married and single alike were all over her. She was professional, however, and kept her communication with staff within the confines of her office during therapy or group sessions. Her services had been required when the agency began to have in-house crises and clashes between the original staff of Covet and the ones from DFL Creative who had come in after a merger the year before.
The problem started with unhealthy competitions between both groups over who could perform the best, and it didn’t matter that the management had done a fine job of ensuring they worked together as a team. There was a lot of backbiting, backstabbing, theft of ideas and a general hostile work environment. Two solutions were the proffered: to move Covet to a bigger office space and hire an organizational psychologist. This was where Khanyi came in. She had been there for almost two months, and so far, she was doing a great job. Following group sessions, team-building exercises and also individual therapy meetings, peace was finally restored to the work place.
Toni respected her as professional, but she wasn’t so sure about her as a person. Nonetheless, she was open to any sort of friendship with her outside the office, which was being made easier by Leticia who had helped secure the apartment next to theirs. A former serial baby mama had moved out of the place a month ago after she fell pregnant with her third child for a man other than the two fathers of her children.
“So, how are you finding the house?” Toni asked Khanyi after the waiter came and took her order.
“Moving is so hectic,” she complained in her South African way of pronouncing ‘eh’ as ‘ei’. The other day Toni had had a good laugh when Leticia tried to tell her that her name was pronounced as ‘Leh-ti-cia’ and not ‘Lay-ti-cia’. Khanyi had nodded several times, but would go back to saying it the way she knew best.
“I’m glad that phase is over,” Khanyi continue, in response to Toni. “I was meaning to ask, though…” She leaned more into the table, lowering her voice. “The lady that was there, was she into some voodoo stuff?”
“No,” Toni replied, at the same time Leticia went, “yes.”
Khanyi looked from me to Leticia. “Which?”
“Toni, Daisy was into jazz like mad,” Leticia revealed. “She was bragging to me that it was what she used on her latest baby daddy.”
“For real? I didn’t know she was diabolic o.”
“She used it on her pussy to hook every guy she slept with.”
“Sheesh!” Khanyi commented.
“Why did you think I didn’t want Dapo near her at all? She even had one eyeliner like that she used in attracting men.”
“Does that shit even work?” Toni asked.
“Like hell, it does!” Khanyi replied. “You don’t believe in it?”
“Not one bit.”
Leticia hissed. “Leave Toni abeg. So, why did you ask?”
“I saw some black plastic bag with feathers and stuff floating in the toilet tank. I then ransacked the house and saw more.”
“Typical Daisy.” Leticia shook her head. “I’m so glad she’s gone.”
“Eish.” Khanyi tossed a rogue braid over her shoulder. “I have to get my pastor to cleanse the house.”
Toni gave her a look. “You do pastors too?”
“Me? Not lately. I used to have this fine as heavenly fuck pastor from Jo’burg back then. I used to do him a lot.”
Leticia burst out laughing, but Toni merely smiled.
“Khanyi, she was asking if you were religious as well. She doesn’t do church and pastors and all that stuff.”
“Oh! My bad.” Khanyi laughed too. “Totally ignore that confession.”
“Here comes your food,” Leticia announced as the waiter returned with Khanyi’s meal.
Toni suddenly lost her desire to be at the table with them. She picked her handbag.
“Ladies, it’s almost 2pm. Don’t forget the gig at the Adedirans. I have to go get my gele tied.”
“I’ve done mine and Khanyi’s already.”
“And you didn’t do mine? Where’s the love?”
“In-between Andre’s legs obviously. You’ve abandoned me for man.”
Toni smacked Leticia’s nose with a finger.
“Khanyi, see you later.”
She stepped out to the sun. Her heavy mood returned. In the car, she picked a cigarette but had no desire to light it. She drove to her regular nail salon, did her weekly manicure and pedicure and then it was off to the lady who tied her headscarves. Toni hardly wore traditional outfits but for the right occasion she went all out.
After having her scarf tied, she headed home. Andre was waiting at the front steps.
“Last night ended badly,” he said when she approached him. The sun was beating on his face. It was March and the heat had been unkind in Lagos. But Andre’s face shone in its dark goodness as if the sun was merely caressing his skin. Toni desired to lean towards him and taste the soft fullness of his lips. And maybe she should have done so; it could have saved their relationship from the dark cloud hanging over it.
They went into the house together. Toni shut the door and leaned on it.
“Ten months, Fabrice,” she whispered. “You hide such a thing from me for ten months but you knew all my secrets.”
“Can I just continue with my story before you get on with your crucifixion? Because I just have this feeling that no matter what I say here, right now, I’ll never be forgiven for having a son.”
“It’s not that…”
“Just let me talk.”
“The boy, his name is Josiah. So named by his mother who passed away. She died ten months ago. That was when I found out about him. My former business partner called me and told me everything. She had been in her early forties when we hooked up. It happened over a couple of nights and I went my way. She was unmarried, had never been, and at that point, was menopausal. Josiah was a miracle and she feared that if she told me, I’d take him away from her. So, instead, she went far away and lived her life with him. Unfortunately, she visited Nigeria, contracted pneumonia and died. I was there for her burial, and that was when I first met Jozi.”
Andre’s face almost broke into a smile.
“He became everything to me, Toni. I love that boy with my life, but I’ve been scared of telling you about him because of your aversion to having kids.”
Toni vacated the door and rested her weight on a chair.
“I left him with his maternal grandmother but the poor woman has taken ill and I have to go and get him.”
“You’re bringing him here?”
“To Lagos? To stay with you?”
“Yes. Are we going to have a problem with that?”
Toni leaned backwards, relaxing her back fully on the chair. “What do you want from me, Andre? Tell me. I need to know what you expect from me as your woman in this relationship.”
Andre took a few steps towards her to. “I just want you to continue to be you, Ma Chatte. And of course, treat my son like he’s your own.”
“I am not ready to be a mother, Andre. Please, don’t force this on me.”
“Jozi is part of my life, now. Are you expecting me to keep him somewhere else just so that you and I can continue what we’re doing?”
“Can’t he stay with your sister?”
Andre looked at her like she had spat on him. “He’s my son.”
“Or your mom. She’s all alone in Abidjan, living in that large house with no family. She’ll be glad to have the boy there.”
“His name is Josiah!”
Toni stood up. “I have my life all planned out, Andre, and it’s too much for me to handle sometimes. I don’t need extra responsibility on my hands.”
“I am not asking you to pay his school fees or even cook his meals! Just a little maternal consideration is all that is needed.”
“And how long before you start to pressure me to make things permanent with you for his sake! Mm? How long before my life is no longer my own but his own?!”
“What are you talking about?! Dating a single father now robs you of your own life?!”
“Yes, Andre! Yes! I’m not ready to give up smoking or my night life! I don’t want to get up worrying about what a kid would eat or wear! You say you’re not asking that of me but you and I know that as much as that boy carries your DNA, he is my child as well! What about days when you have to travel or when you can’t pick him from school?! Or if he falls ill?! Or when he starts to call me mommy?! What do I do?!”
Andre shook his head. He was dazed. “I knew you’d be difficult, but not this badly. Are you so self-centered that all you think about is yourself day and night, Antonia?”
“Oh, I’m much worse than that! You knew that before you got involved with me! Now, you want to spring a surprise child on me from nowhere and expect me to give you kisses?!”
“He is not a surprise child, Tone. He is my son. My flesh and blood, and I will not push him aside just to keep enjoying what’s between your thighs–”
“That’s the problem! All you want from me is your chatte! I should lie on your bed, open my legs and take whatever you’re giving me! No complaints! And let’s not forget that you do it with a lot of reprimand! Tone, stop smoking. It’s unladylike! When will you start going to church?! When are you going to have babies?! Why do you emasculate men so much?! Don’t you want to wear my ring?! Why are you so principled! Ugh! You’re very difficult! Chill! Loosen up! I AM TIRED, ANDRE! Tired!”
She heaved, leaving painful silence between them.
“I love you,” she finally said. “Very much. And I love what we have, but sometimes it feels like I’m giving too much of myself to you. What happens when you decide you’re done with me?”
“I gave you my promise, Tone. I’m not that type of man.”
She shrugged. “Y’all the same.”
“Don’t use that dirty cliché on me.”
“Here’s the truth.” She rubbed her eyes. They had begun to itch because of the weight of unshed tears. “I hate marriage. I hate anything that is mildly related to it and to having a family. It freaks me out. Maybe it’s because of the kind of relationship I had in my past as High Mistress when I got involved with other people’s husbands. I don’t believe there’s sacredness in marriage and long term relationships. Humans are more complicated than that…”
“What are you saying, Toni?”
She lifted her shoulders and dropped them. “I don’t know. I love you enough to want to do and be anything for you. Enough to take care of your son. But to me, it feels like too much hard work. And when I have to put in that much effort to ensure that I make a man happy, I feel it’s all wrong. I’ve been there before and I lost terribly. I can’t do it again.”
Andre’s shoulders fell. Toni could hear the hurt in his sigh. She was deeply hurt as well; her heart felt like someone had stuck a pickaxe into it and was twisting it in all ways.
“You don’t expect me to choose between you and my son, Toni.”
“I don’t.” She fixed her eyes into Andre’s. “And I totally understand that this is your life from now on and you can’t change it…”
“So, we’re ending this?”
Toni took her eyes away. “Yes,” she replied in a hush.
“Have the decency to look at me and say it, at least.”
She took his eyes again. “Yes.”
His face was blank. It revealed nothing of his feelings. He was too much of a proud man to show that she was breaking him. Instead, he chose to pick at an old wound. He wanted to have the pleasure of seeing her in pain.
“I once told you that whatever Mark did to you messed you up.”
“Don’t go there.”
“And unfortunately, he still has that hold on you, even though he’s not in your life right now. Whoever this Antonia is that is standing here with me, she’s not the real person you are. I’ve had the privilege of meeting the real you a few times. Too bad she never lasts long enough for me to know her because this person in front of me always kills her when she comes to the surface. But I love you both. You, especially, because it is you I have been with and have loved, despite all the difficulty you gave me. And I want to give you another chance because if I leave this house, there will never be ‘us’ again.”
His voice was not threatening. It was laden with emotions. Andre’s heart was hidden in every space and line. Toni knew this, but she was in a spot that made it hard for her to move. She was scared to continue with him. And it was for the reasons she stated – her fear of giving everything and losing it all like she had done ten years ago to the man she loved and would have died for. Andre, as it were, already had the power to crush her heart. She didn’t want him to also have control of her mind and will.
Thus, she stepped back a little and showed him a brave face even though she could hear bits of her heart tearing away with every pulse she took.
“I’m fine with my decision, Andre. I hope we can keep being friends…”
“I hope you can go and fuck yourself,” he said with much control before turning around and leaving her house.
She did not call him back or fuck herself. Rather she sat on the armrest of one of the couches, lit a cigarette and smoked. Her eyes remained dry, her thoughts lucid. This was either the most civil breakup in history or she was soon going to break down and lose her mind.