Toni desired to cry. She wanted it as badly as she needed Andre. The emotions were piling in a heap and she had little power over them. They weighed her down like she was carrying an invisible entity on her back that was her weight in stones. The night before had been spent in torture, with her eyes wide awake as the world around her fitfully snoozed. She had lain in bed for a long time, going through memories of Andre and cussing herself for what she did to their relationship. She was beginning to regret her decision, scared of the avalanche of heartache that was to follow.
Andre had been at the Adediran baby naming ceremony, looking like a bag of money. He had betrayed nothing of their breakup to their mutual friends present at the party. When Leticia suggested to Toni to pick a seat beside him so as to ward off a certain lady that was buzzing in his radar, Toni mumbled something about having a little spat with him. She didn’t want Leticia having knowledge of their breakup. Her friend sometimes seemed more invested in their relationship than Toni was.
And thus the evening had passed with Toni managing the pain in her heart and hurting more over how Andre had snubbed her. Not even a casual glance was spared. It was as if she no longer was in his existence.
She returned home and locked herself in, giving the excuse that she was managing a headache. The night passed; she stayed awake all through. Andre was fresh in her thoughts. His scent lingered on her pillows. He was present in her room like multiple shadows haunting her. She sought for tears but couldn’t find any. A raw pain gnawed at the broken pieces of her heart, aiming to finish her.
This morning, she stood in the kitchen, staring out through the backdoor. There wasn’t much to see outside, except a small coconut tree she had planted a year ago and a couple of water drums that were no longer in use. There was also a park bench on which she and Andre loved to sit and talk into the night. She recalled the last time they were there. He had told her about his desire to buy some shares at Covet Advertising which had just gone public.
“I’ve made a lot of money this past year and I think I should invest in something worthwhile,” he had said. “Covet has expanded beyond advertising and gone full time into marketing and is making huge, fast strides. Highly impressive. I should buy into that. What do you think?”
“I think that’d be great.”
“I commend you and your team of partners for having the balls to expand in the heat of this recession.”
“It was either that or lose out, so we took the plunge. Going public wasn’t an easy decision.”
“Well, it’s paying off. Marketing huge companies is big business around here. I’m impressed. I’m proud of you too, Arinola.” He had kissed her cheek while saying that. No man was as proud of his woman’s achievements as Andre was. Toni had bagged a PhD in media and communication after five years of study while working hard at her job and being the best at it. Andre was known to often brag to his friends about her feats, and when he was with her, he would remind her of them every chance he got.
Toni followed the sound of Leticia’s voice. She had just walked into the kitchen. She was in some lacy traditional outfit which meant she was returning from church, and probably the market, judging from the bags of food items in her hands.
“Okay, bae, you’re really scaring me. Can you tell me what is going on between you and Andre?”
She placed the bags on the kitchen counter.
“I just called him now and he says you guys are over. I don’t want to believe him. No, I refuse to believe him.”
Toni kept her eyes, not on Leticia, but on her shoes. They looked like a pair she was going to borrow soon.
Toni looked up.
“Look at your eyes. Did you sleep at all?”
Toni shook her head.
“I’ll go and change and come back here and we’ll talk.”
“I don’t want to talk.”
“We must talk.”
Leticia left the kitchen. Toni aimed for a bottle of wine that had been stewing in the fridge for a while. She opened it and filled a glass with blood-red wine. Leticia returned in a couple of minutes, wearing a long t-shirt without a bra.
“Oya, start talking. The whole breakup thing is not entering my head well. I reject it in Jesus’ name!”
On another day, in another circumstance, Toni would have laughed.
“Toni nau! Tell me what’s happening!”
Toni pulled a wrought-iron chair which stood beside her and sat. She then proceeded to give Leticia details of her breakup with Andre. As she did so, Leticia wept. Toni found the tears superfluous, but being that she didn’t have any of hers, she let her friend do all the crying for both of them.
Toni pulled an extra chair for Leticia to sit on.
“You want him to throw away his son?” Leticia asked, sitting down. “Ah! Antonia!”
“We want different things, Tish,” Toni said quietly. “We won’t work–”
“You were working! You were perfect for each other! He loves you like mad! Where will you find that type of man in this world again?! Ah! God! Somebody wake me from this nightmare!”
Toni stayed silent all through Leticia’s hysterics. When she was done, she endured a lecture from her that went on for quite a while. In the end, she asked, “Don’t you still love him?”
“Ehen! That’s all that matters nau. Go back to him and work things out, Arinola.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Toni, you do. You want Andre. You need him and all the sweetness and knacks he offers. You will not go back to the Toni you used to be. God forbid! Wickedness in high places will not succeed! And every strongman responsible for this breakup is bound to the abyss!”
Toni smiled. “Tish, stop.” She rose up.
“Go back to him.”
“You’ll be alright, Tish. Maybe not now, but soon. You’ll be fine.”
Leticia stared at her, mouth agape, as she walked out of the kitchen. In the silence of her room, with the drapes blocking daylight, Toni buried herself beneath the blanket and begged for the tears to come.
Pascal was late for work. A long night spent drinking with friends had seen him sleeping until 8am. He had woken up to the sound of a buzzing phone. Being that he had his personal phone and another that belonged to his boss, he became confused as to which was vibrating. After groping around, he found the device, which was his, after all, and peered into the screen. When he picked out the name of the caller through blurry eyes, he jumped off his bed and saw himself on the floor, his phone crashing along with him.
“Where are you?” his boss demanded in an angry tone.
“I’m…I’m on my way.”
“Did I not tell you to be here by eight?”
“You did. I’m on my way.”
The line went dead.
“Shit!” Pascal dashed into his bathroom, brushed his teeth, returned to his bedroom and slipped into clean clothes after soaking himself in a good dose of deodorant spray. Flinging his laptop bag across his shoulder, he hurried out of the house.
But there was some traffic on the way. He arrived at the office a few minutes before ten, readying himself for his boss’ wrath. When he got into the PR department of Covet Advertising, the first thing that met his eyes was the front desk girl in tears.
“Kudirat?” he called. The girl looked up.
“She’ll kill you,” Kudirat blubbered, holding a tissue to her nose. “I came in only five minutes late and she gave me my life history. And you, you’re coming now. She’ll kill you, that’s if she doesn’t fire you first.”
“She fired someone?”
Kudirat nodded. “She’s on a murderous rampage.”
Pascal swallowed. In his short time of working for Toni as her assistant, he had seen her lose her cool only a couple of times. The woman was always composed. Bitchy sometimes, but composed and stern. However, this week, she had turned into a monster. Monday through Wednesday had seen the PR department in a war zone, with Toni on one side and the rest of the team on the other. Not that anyone had the boldness to fight her. She did all the fighting, swinging her axe at the comfort of everyone’s job. Until today, Pascal had considered himself in a safe zone. But with his tardiness and the news from Kudirat, he wasn’t sure the swinging axe won’t hit him.
He secured his tie and made the brave journey to her office. But he had scarcely moved a few paces when another weepy employee walked past him, clutching personal items in her hands that looked like they belonged on an office desk.
Pascal swallowed again. He came into a larger space that held cubicles. People were gathered in clusters, speaking in hushed tones. The air was tense. Some of them looked at him as he walked past as if he was heading to a guillotine. But he trudged on and pushed in the glass door that flaunted in silver writing, ‘Head Public Relations’.
He walked into an anteroom that was his personal office, which held a simple glass desk, a water dispenser and two visitor couches.
Pascal lingered there for a minute, wondering what lie to tell Toni. Traffic was the easiest excuse but there had to be a better lie to tell. He cleared his throat and aimed for the door handle, but her voice from within stopped him.
“You think we’re here to play?! You think Covet throws money into your salary and gives you bonuses so that you can give excuses?! You must be fucking mad! If you don’t fix your client’s issues and she calls me again to complain, I will have your ass out of here faster than you can breathe! Get out!”
A subdued male voice from within the office muttered something but Toni shouted louder, “Get the fuck out of my office!”
Pascal held a cringe. He swallowed the third time and moved away from the door as a guy about his age stumbled out. The door was left open, and there stood Toni, dressed in all white, as she had done all week.
“I just called HR to find your replacement, Pascal.”
Pascal released the cringe he had held and dashed into the office. “I’m so sorry, Toni. I’m really sorry. I went out last night and had too much to drink and overslept. These past three days have been hectic for me. For all of us. I just wanted to chill yesterday… I am deeply sorry. It will never happen again. Please, don’t replace me.”
Toni pushed her hands into the pockets of the jumpsuit she was wearing. “You saved your ass by not lying. But consider this the last time you’ll screw my morning schedule up.”
“It will never happen again,” Pascal said in relief.
“Get me an appointment with Unilever’s marketing manager. Do everything to have him see us this week. I’m tired of his flakiness.”
“What’s on my schedule right now?”
“You’re supposed to be having breakfast with Imade Harrison in eighteen minutes. Should I call to cancel?”
“Remind me who he is again?”
Pascal was aware that Toni knew who Imade Harrison was. Everyone knew him. But Pascal indulged her. “Head of CIPRON Oil. He hired us on Tuesday….”
Toni frowned. She picked her purse and car key and began out. Pascal followed.
“Toni, I have a suggestion.”
“This is a good time to tell HR to recall the driver you fired. You can’t be going around, driving yourself like that. You’re a senior partner here, Toni, and you’re going to see Imade Harrison. You need to turn up there in style.”
“I’m not going for a party. I don’t need to turn up.”
“I know. I’m just saying you should…”
“Shut up, Pascal.”
They came out to the larger office and his colleagues were seen breaking away from their gossip clusters and scampering back to their cubicles.
“Keep scurrying like rats,” Toni said as she walked through. “Some of you will scurry your way out of here by the end of the week if I don’t get the results I asked for.”
Pascal followed her with a sense of pride. It felt good to be on her good side.
“Why are you following me?” she asked when they stopped before the elevator at the reception.
“Em… I want to go to HR,” Pascal replied.
Toni stepped into the elevator. “Use the stairs. And next time, Pascal, don’t take a swim in a bottle of deo spray.”
The doors slid shut on his face.
“You’re so lucky,” Kudirat said with a sniffle.
“Yeah,” Pascal responded. “I’m bad like that.
Christie’s eyes were on her husband. The man’s attention was on his phone. He had no idea he was being observed. He hadn’t spared a glance her way since they got into the backseat of his car nearly an hour ago. They were returning home from a visit to the paternity clinic after running a DNA test on their newborn. A test Christie didn’t consider necessary, but had consented to, just to assuage his fears. She was also hoping that the results would help heal the rift between them. These days Folarin was a stranger to her, but he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was. They had not started drifting apart over night; it had been a gradual change that took the course of five months.
In October, he had returned from a trip around Africa with a writer friend and colleague, Savanna. Upon return, they published a book detailing their experiences from the various places they visited on the continent. Savanna, before then, was already a renowned American travel blogger, an editor for the New York Post and an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, who was also married to a Nigerian. That sort of résumé was rich material for foreign media. And it was made juicier when Savanna’s wife of less than one year abandoned her, after revealing that she was pregnant for some Nigerian man her parents initially desired her to wed. The book, UnAfrican, which mainly spoke about the modern age in Africa and how fast urban life and westernization was mixing with culture, was immediately revised and details of Savanna’s broken marriage as regards the topic of homosexuality, added into the concluding chapters. It was then remarketed, and in no time, made it to the New York Bestseller list.
Savanna was the star of the book, her love life being the subject of huge controversy. But Folarin had caught the limelight as well. He became a brand, created, managed and promoted by Covet Advertising.
In the months of December and January, he was mostly outside the shores of the country, on a protracted book tour with Savanna. Back home, he became an instant celebrity. He went from being a relatively-unknown editor of a known media outfit to a notable personality in the literary world. There were interviews, speaking and teaching engagements and invitations to noteworthy events. His online following went through the ceiling with such speed it scared Christie. Before the fame, he had been actively involved with social media; hence, he became a target for all manner of businesses and corporations that desired to market their brands to a massive online consumer base.
Folarin finally turned into the man Christie always wanted him to be. The one who had a name worth remembering, was a boss of his own, and commanded respect on the basis of his status. All of that had come to pass, but she realized that it came with a price. Folarin became the typical man who was so consumed with work he hardly stayed at home. And whenever he did, he spent long hours on his phone, disconnected from his family. He had new friends too; men and women Christie found hard relating with. Some of them were renowned, and she feared that the lifestyle of the rich and famous would rob off on him. She feared for their marriage and for the relationship he was losing with their ten-year old daughter who was beginning to withdraw from him.
Christie observed these changes occurring in her home in silence, afraid to speak out because of the sins of her past. It wasn’t so long ago she was in his shoes, keeping late nights, traveling the world and making friends with the wealthy and famous while he played a more domestic role in the home front. When she fell pregnant and had to slow down during her third trimester, she hadn’t minded that her career life was coming to a pause; she was happy to regain the sanity she had lost when she spiraled out of control during her affair with Raji. She readily accepted to take Folarin’s place, and it had seemed well at first, until she realized how much he had had to endure when she had been deeply invested in her profession.
Viewing things through his eyes made it hard to speak to him about the fears she nursed, about the distance between them caused by his newly-found fame.
“Let’s go on a vacation,” she suggested. “Easter vacation.”
“Mm?” Folarin asked, smiling distractedly at his phone.
“Easter vacation with Boluwatife and Tamilore.”
Folarin threw a stare at Christie. “Didn’t we have one in December?”
“No, I had one with Tife and you met us halfway and then disappeared again.”
“I have a conference in Egypt. I already told you about it.”
“You can cancel, Folarin. Easter is for families.”
“Did you cancel business two Christmases ago to join the kids and I in Calabar?”
Christie was silent.
“I thought as much.”
The Christmas in question was spent with Raji, pursuing a deal with a Finnish phone company. It was also on the occasion that Raji first kissed her. She hadn’t been receptive to his initial advances, but she continued to entertain his company. She hadn’t had a choice then. An accident had left her immobile and at his mercy. Raji had always been in her home, helping her with whatever she needed, ensuring that she was comfortable. But the physical phase of the affair didn’t occur until a couple of months later.
“I can’t cancel my conference, Christie. You would have to go on that vacation without me.”
“This isn’t about me or what I want, chief. Tife… she misses you,” Christie said.
“You always used to be with her. You’d pick her from school, stay with her all afternoon, take her out, tuck her in bed… All of that stopped suddenly.”
“Things have changed for me, Chris. She has to understand that.”
“Have you explained it to her?”
“Not yet. I will, though. But have you spoken to her too?”
“I do. All the time. But she wants you. And now that Tami is here, it’d be really nice to assure her that she won’t be replaced.”
“Christie, Tife is not a baby anymore. She has to realize that and grow up.”
“She was your little girl for ten years, your only baby. Kids don’t just grow up like that. Have you noticed that she won’t come near Tami? She’s jealous already, and that’s because you’ve been so into Tami since her birth.”
Folarin let out a sigh and fixed a stare outside. “Am I the only one feeling the pressure you’re putting on me here?”
“Pressure? No, chief, I’m just making an observation…”
“Suddenly, you’re a good mom. You stay at home for a few months and you now know everything.”
“I played that role for eleven years, Christie.” He looked at her. “And I never lectured you on your parenting skills.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Nights that you stayed over at the office, weekends you were away, days you were so absorbed by work you shut Tife and I out. I made excuses on your behalf to our daughter. I held the fort. Today, I’m finally in the place of my dreams and you can’t do the same for me?”
“Awww, Folarin, don’t talk like that.”
“Let’s discontinue this conversation before I lose my cool.”
He picked his phone once more. Christie faced her window and let out silent tears. It was just occurring to her that he was still bearing a grudge, that maybe he had never actually forgiven her for cheating on him.
Imade Harrison was a man who thought the world of himself. He was hubris personified. And he had every right to be. He was the CEO of a major oil company. He was also known for his philanthropic works and gorgeous wife who owned TV and radio stations and fancied herself the Oprah of Africa. The couple had everything going for them. People envied their success story. It wasn’t every day one came from a poor background and ended up being an oil tycoon. It was an achievement worth having a big head over.
But Toni wasn’t particularly impressed by his résumé. She was only interested in having his money come to Covet. And if this included swallowing her pride after being treated like trash by him in the past, she was willing to do it.
He had reached out to them the moment he ousted his former boss to take his place, following a bad investment deal made by the boss that almost brought the company to a halt. Imade had rescued CIPRON Oil and moved to overthrow his boss, a move that other partners in the company supported. He then took his place and had the company sue him. The lawsuit didn’t drag for long as the man committed suicide while it was ongoing, leaving a heartrending note, detailing how he had taken Imade from nothing to prosperity and how Imade had backstabbed him. The note was leaked out to the public and Imade’s name became synonymous with evil.
He had reached out to Covet to help clean up the scandal and restore his reputation as a man of kindness and generosity. Toni was to rebrand his image and that of the company. The breakfast date with him was their first since coming across each other ten years ago. She was praying that he would not be as conceited as he had been the last time.
“Antonia!” he greeted, rising up from his seat when she walked towards his table in a classy restaurant alleged to be owned by him. He spread out his hands for a hug but Toni took the right one in a handshake. She made it firm and brief before she pulled out a chair to sit.
“I see that you have changed quite a lot,” he commented.
“And I see that you haven’t. Annoying as ever.”
Hushed laughter came from his lips as he sat. “I don’t recall ever being annoying. Tempting enough for you to want to sleep with, but not annoying. I’m sure when I rebuffed you ten years ago you put that tag on me.”
Toni showed a smile. “I’m here to talk business, Imade. Not history.”
“Oh, let’s talk a little about the past,” he said, signaling a waitress over. “What would you want to have?”
“Just some wine.”
“Good. I think they have something you would love.”
The waitress came over, welcomed Toni and took orders from Imade. As she strutted away, Toni put her phone on silent. She noticed she had missed a call from Raji.
“So, do you remember ten years ago when you walked into my office?” Imade asked with a naughty grin which took some years off his age. He wasn’t past his forties but the stress of work seemed to have taken a toll on him. Nonetheless, he was a good-looking man. For years he had maintained a certain weight that always toyed with the idea of being chubby but never really making it there. Like wealthy men in his class, his clothes and accessories were of unsullied taste. Toni recalled being carried away by his sophistication years ago.
“You were young, bright-eyed, ready to conquer the world and willing to do anything to make a name for yourself,” he continued.
“I had been going to your office almost every day for two weeks and you never wanted to see me.”
“But you kept coming and I said, ‘let me just give this girl a chance’. You walked into my office with all the seduction ten men couldn’t bear.”
“A girl had to try.”
He gave a hearty laugh. “I was tempted, Antonia. I could have had you right there on my table that day.”
“But instead you laughed at me and told me to go play with my toys.”
“Stupid mistake I made. Now, we’re here …” His eyes washed over her with desire. “I’m wanting you so badly.”
“Your services, of course.”
“Imade, everything your former boss wrote in that suicide note, was it true?”
He snapped out of his lust. “No. I knew that man like he was my own father. That note sounded nothing like him.”
“But it was in his writing.”
“He was probably murdered by the same person whom he was conniving with to rob the company blind. He had stolen billions and that was our reason for suing him. He called me that night and begged to have the lawsuit dropped, that he was willing to settle and return most of the money. Two hours later, he was dead.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“What I believe or don’t believe doesn’t matter. My job is to repair what has been damaged. For starters, you will make a public statement to clear your name.”
“I don’t want to. If I talk, it would be an admission of guilt.”
“If you don’t talk, it would still be an admission of guilt. You choose.”
The waitress came by with a pail of wine in ice. Imade rested his eyes on Toni as they were served glasses of the rich red wine.
“Are you still chummy with any member of his family?”
“Yeah, his son. Our bond is for life. But I will not do what I think you want me to do. I won’t drag him into this.”
“The family is dragging you into it. I gather from a reputable source that they want to sue you for damages.”
“Damages?” Imade laughed. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Have a sit down with the son in public. We’ll be somewhere taking photos. That alone can kill the whole scandal.”
“Then, it is going to take a long time to clear your name and that of CIPRON Oil.”
Imade tasted his wine, his lust returning. “Do your magic, Antonia.”
“You’ll eventually have to listen to me.”
“Come and work for me,” he proposed unexpectedly. “For CIPRON Oil. I will pay you double, even triple of what you’re making as a partner at Covet.”
“Come and be your mistress, you mean?”
Toni felt annoyance growing. Her terrible mood which had been put aside for the sake of securing him as a client was begging to return.
“I’ll take care of you like no man has ever done and will ever do.”
“Does my response affect the relationship Covet is going to have with CIPRON?”
“No. That’s a done deal. You guys are hired.”
“But we…you and I, we need to start packing some heat.”
Toni rose up.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She leaned over him, giving him a mouthwatering view of her cleavage. “Go play with your toys.”
She straightened, pushed his glass of wine to the edge of the table before him and tipped it over, sending the cold, red liquid down his pants. But he didn’t move. Instead, he smiled as she made her way out of the restaurant.
Toni sat in her car, breathing out in heavy gasps. There was a constant pain in her chest these days, a heavy longing to throw away her pride and run back into Andre’s arms. It overwhelmed her at night when she was left alone with her thoughts. She had never needed any man the way she needed him. Not even Mark who had had that much power over her emotions. And the scariest part was that she was yet to shed tears over their breakup. She felt the torrent, now building into a waterfall, waiting for some trigger to fall through.
Toni pushed out one last relieving breath and rested her back on her seat while reaching for her seatbelt. She then remembered Raji’s phone call. Her hand dipped into her bag and retrieved her phone. There was an SMS from Andre.
Can you come and get your things and return my key? I’ll be out of town tomorrow.
The SMS was as cold as she had expected anything from him would be. She knew Andre and was aware that he was done with her. The only way back would be to grovel and accept that leaving him was a mistake and she was willing to accept his conditions.
She couldn’t do any of that, and hence, she held on to her pain, praying that it would come and be gone swiftly, and that one day, Andre would be a distant and pleasant memory.
She dialed Raji.
“See me in my office immediately you come in,” he said.
She drove back to Covet, which wasn’t a distance from the restaurant. When she arrived, she headed for Raji’s office. The man had two glasses of Irish Cream on ice when she walked in. Toni took the glass he offered.
“How was the meeting with Imade?”
Raji nodded with a content smile. “Going public was one of the best decisions we’ve taken here as a firm.”
“You can say that again.” Toni sat on a couch, away from Raji’s desk.
“Best financial advice a friend ever gave me.”
Toni threw her partner a look. “And this friend is…?”
“You called me here to talk about Andre?”
“I know you guys broke up.”
“Of course, he told you.”
“Over drinks, two days ago.”
Toni let in a minute-sized ice-cube from her drink into her mouth. She crushed it with relish.
“He’s heartbroken, Toni.”
“So am I.”
“But it was you who ended it.”
“He didn’t give me a choice. But look, it’s not really about the boy. It’s about what the boy coming into my life would do to me. I’m not ready, Raji. I have life goals. And I’m afraid too. I know nobody understands the fear but it’s real.”
“Andre is faithful…”
“People change, Raji. What if he finds someone else out there tomorrow? What if I do? I can’t commit everything to another person again. I just can’t.”
“And that’s not a good life to live, Toni. You need someone. The human heart was not created to exist without another.”
“Raji…” she groaned.
“I’m not pushing you to go back to him. Just…give it a thought, and maybe have a sit down with him and talk. The manner in which you ended things was really harsh.”
“I know. And I feel bad over it.”
“You also need to take some time off.”
“You’re on a dismissal spree in your department, I’ve been told.”
“Firing only those who need to be fired.”
“Shouting on your team, using strong language on them?” Raji gave a reprimanding, cocked brow stare.
Toni threw her head back and sent all that was left of the Irish Cream down her throat, leaving melting ice-cubes in her mouth.
“My emotions are just messed up.”
“I know. Go home and don’t return until Monday. Your associate will handle things.”
“I’m fine, Raji.”
“That was an order, Toni.”
Although, they were equity partners, Raji was the head of all affairs in the agency. But beyond that, they were friends; Toni and Andre had grown quite close to him over the past months. They had not judged him for what had occurred between him and Christie. They had shown openness and he, in turn, had proven that he was a friend to rely on.
Toni rose up, stretching a limb or two. “Salma was at the naming ceremony. She looked ravishing.”
“Are you guys still…?”
Toni laughed. “My love to her.”
Christie listened to Toni’s voice over the phone while changing Tamilore’s diapers. She was alone in the living room with the newborn. Folarin’s mother had gone shopping for food items while Folarin was out on his many daytrips.
“But I have a friend you can talk to,” Toni said after a complaint about something that had gone bad in her car. She was responding to Christie’s request to connect her with a therapist.
“Who?” Christie asked.
“Khanyisile. She works for us.”
“Yeah. She’s the new organizational psychologist at Covet. She was hired when you went on maternity leave. She has a couple of days off in which she runs her private practice. She’s had experience helping out CEOs of companies. Some sort of life coach too. I can hook you two up.”
“That would be fine. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Toni replied. Christie could detect some moodiness in her tone but she didn’t wish to ask questions, not with the load of her own moodiness weighing on her. She sensed that whatever troubled her had to do with Andre. Both of them had come for Tamilore’s naming ceremony at different times and left in the same manner. Christie had also noticed that they had not communicated during the party.
“But this Khanyi person sounds foreign. Why didn’t anyone tell me anything about her?”
“Because you asked not be involved with office affairs, remember?”
Again, the edginess in Toni’s tone.
“She’s South African.”
“Oh okay. Khanyi…? What’s the name again?”
“That’s a mouthful.”
“Just look her up on Google. She’s quite good. She’s on contract with us. She comes in on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Then on Thursdays and Tuesdays, she runs her private practice. I’ll text you her details.”
“But what’s this about anyway?”
“Just trying to refresh my mind and prepare for my return. I need to be mentally ready.”
Christie lifted Tamilore off the sofa and onto a nursing pillow resting on her laps.
“Christie, dear, I have to go.”
Toni rang off. Christie set to nurse Tamilore who was beginning to whimper. As the child fastened to her breast, she went on Google and typed in Khanyi’s name. Some alphabets were missed but Google suggested the accurate name. She tapped on it and the search results that came up brought on a new type of worry. Displayed on her screen was a photo of Khanyi. The familiar face and curves caused a shiver and made Christie go into quick mental calculation.
She had seen her before, and not just at the party on Saturday when the aso-ebi and gele she had on made it hard for her to be recognized.
A year ago, Christie and Folarin took a trip to Ghana and lodged in a hotel. There, Folarin met Khanyi, and some sort of connection was established between them. The woman flirted brazenly with him during his visits to the swimming pool all through their stay. But Christie hadn’t been bothered. She had enjoyed watching him in the company of another woman, hoping that something might spark in him and resurrect the man from his youth. But Folarin had snubbed Kyanyi’s advances.
How the woman was now in Christie’s territory was a thing of worry. Christie recalled the easy laughter Folarin had shared with her on Saturday. They had had more than a couple of conversations. Christie had thought nothing of it then because she had concluded Khanyi was Toni’s neighbor whom she always gossiped about. Now that the pieces were put together, she was becoming restless. She had more questions for Toni but felt it was best not to be a bother to her again. Raji was the other option. He would gladly divulge details about how Khanyi came into the employ of Covet. However, Christie had put a long distance between herself and him.
Folarin was the last option. Maybe she would ask him a few questions about Khanyi’s presence. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe she should let it be.
Tamilore broke away from her feeding to smile absently at something behind Christie. She went back on Google, scrolling through other photos of Khanyi, looking for one in which she looked ugly and less endowed.
There was none. She was even more dashing in person, if Christie honestly recalled. Her bi-racial complexion, combined with her South African hourglass figure left our dear Christie intimidated.
Was she losing her husband to her?
Toni Braxton welcomed Toni into her house. The loud soulful sounds of a heartbreak song coming from the surround system made Toni cuss. This was Leticia’s doing.
Toni turned off the music and out came Leticia in the nude with a facial mask and a dildo in her hand.
“Why did you do that?” she demanded.
“Seriously?” Toni asked, eyes on the dildo.
“I’m sad. I need to listen to that song…”
“While screwing yourself?”
Leticia brought the dildo to her face as though she was just seeing it. “I’ve been faithful to one man for one year. This is one of my side cocks.”
Toni made a face of disgust and walked to her bedroom. Leticia followed after turning the music back on.
“You’re going to go and beg Andre.”
“Tish, seriously, I didn’t come back home to hear you whine or cry about Andre. You’ve been doing that since Sunday and I am fed up. Go back to your wanking.”
Toni gave her back to Leticia who helped unzip her jumpsuit.
“We are going to beg him.”
“No. I’m only going to his place to take my things and return his key as he requested.”
“He said that?”
“Yes.” Toni kicked out of her jumpsuit.
Leticia sank into the bed. “I was so sad today I didn’t go to work. Now, I’m going to be sadder.”
Toni ignored her. She picked a pair of shorts and a tank top. Placing a cigarette between her lips and slipping into a pair of Ankara slippers, she headed out again.
“Wait for me!” Leticia called after her.
Andre went through his first meal of the day without interest. He ate it slowly and gave up at some point. This had been his manner since Saturday. It went without saying that he missed Toni. The hole she had left in him was awful. It was only after their breakup he realized how much he loved her. And yet, he wasn’t going to let her back in without concessions from her end.
Jozi was more important than Toni’s presence in his life. If she wasn’t going to take his son, then she wasn’t worth the trouble. There were many women out there that would gladly settle for the arrangement. Andre was done having relationships that were leading nowhere. He needed a wife and a mother to his son. He was ready to throw himself back into the dating pool.
If only his heart would stop aching for Toni…
He dumped his half-consumed meal in the kitchen and returned to the living room to pore through confidential marketing records of a firm in which he was a partner. His delivery business was booming as he had planned it would. In a short period, it had accomplished the purpose it was designed for. Now, Andre was looking to sink his feet into something more profitable. From the start of the week, he had been behind his laptop and in a sea of paper documents, both at home and in the office.
The old demons of enterprise that had made him successful in the past were returning. He could feel their presence like one felt the rain. He had paid his dues for so long, staying on his knees to pick the pieces of his shattered dreams. Now, he was rising again. He didn’t need any type of distraction. A decent wife and a blessed home would do him some good.
He already had a couple of candidates waiting. All he needed was to exorcise Toni from his system.
There was a knock on his front door. He looked at it. A second knock came and he went to the door. A peek into the peephole revealed Toni and Leticia outside.
A third knock. Andre unlocked the door and opened it. Leticia stood before him but it was on Toni his eyes rested.
“Hi Dre.” Leticia smiled.
He ignored Toni and walked back in. “Toni, I packed your things in those two bags over there,” he said, pointing. “You can return them when you take the stuff out.”
“So, this thing is real?” Leticia said.
“What is real?” he asked.
“You two, breaking up. You guys were not joking.”
From the shining moisture in her eyes he knew there was going to be drama.
“Tisha, please, don’t make things harder than they are. Your friend came to get her things. Help her get them so I can go back to what I’m doing.”
Leticia looked at him in a daze as tears dropped from her eyes.
“Tish, come and help me.”
Toni was hunched over one of the bags. Andre kept his eyes on her. She looked broken, yet beautiful. It was hard not to leave where he was standing to where she was to just hold her. The silence that her absence in his life brought was unbearable.
“Me, I’m not helping you carry anything o…”
“Leticia!” Toni grunted.
“No o! You people must come back together. Andre, Toni came to say she was sorry for the way she ended things with you.”
“Tish, stop it.”
“I’m not stopping anything, Toni! Two of you should stop this nonsense and reconcile immediately!”
Toni picked one of the bags and began for the door. Being a proper gentleman, Andre helped with the second bag. Toni showed surprise when she got to her car and turned to see him coming after her.
“Thanks,” she muttered. He dropped the bag on the ground and walk back into the house where Leticia gave him an earful over the breakup. He endured her rant until Toni returned to the living room with his key.
“Tisha, give us a minute,” Andre requested. Leticia hurried out. Toni stuck to the wall beside the door as though she was afraid to go in further. Andre went to her.
“I want to start dating again,” he said. “Not immediately, but soon. And when I start, I’m doing it with marriage in mind. Jozi needs to have a stable home. The idea of going from one single parent to another is not good for him.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“The door is still open if you want to come back in…”
“Not on your terms.”
“Then you should be aware that someone else will take your place. I don’t want it being a surprise to you.”
“Thank you for the heads up,” she remarked, her nose a little up in the air in cheekiness. “Totally unnecessary, though. It’s not like our paths are going to cross after today.”
“My key.” Andre stuck out his hand. She placed a single key into his palm. He caught her hand and kissed it before proceeding to place his lips between hers. The kiss that followed was instantly fiery and consumed them, but Andre stopped abruptly and held the door open for her. Toni stepped out. He shut the door and let out an expletive in French.
She still hadn’t cried, and Leticia continued to do the crying for both of them. An annoying act which Toni endured all the way home. But she could feel the tears closer now than ever. Andre’s kiss had triggered it. And that look in his eyes of deep adoration was going to haunt her for a long time. His words had been extra fuel too. How quickly she was soon going to be forgotten. The thought of someone else in her stead was too much to bear.
Yet, she held her heavy heart, went home and dipped herself into a bathtub of warm, foamy water. The tears began to come as she sat in there, listening to Toni Braxton tell her to let go and just let it flow.
Leticia burst in. “Your phone is ringing.”
“Please answer,” Toni replied, rubbing her hands on a towel.
Leticia clicked the answer button and put it on speaker. She passed the phone to Toni who supposed it was a client calling.
“Is this Antonia Braithwaite?”
“My name is Abrams Ebute.”
“I’m sure the surname is familiar to you. I am Mark Ebute’s uncle.”
Toni clenched up.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
She clenched up some more.
“Mark passed away last night after a prolonged illness. I thought you should know and also invite you for his funeral which is for next Friday.”
Toni had stopped breathing. “Antonia? Ms. Braithwaite? It’s important for you to be at the funeral. Mark insisted on it.”
Toni’s breathing returned and it came in wheezing sounds. Leticia dove for the phone to save it from falling into the tub.
“She’ll be there,” she said to Abrams Ebute. “Please text the address.”
Leticia hung up, tossed the phone in a laundry basket and dashed back to Toni.
“I’m breathing,” Toni gasped. “I’m breathing, Tish. I’m breathing.”
And then she gripped her and let out a tear-jerking wail that broke Leticia to pieces. But she didn’t cry this time. She simply held her friend and received the rain of tears long desiring to be let out.
Leticia stared into the air miserably. Long, painful nights awaited her best friend.