There was a certain glow on her skin he had never seen before. She radiated with exquisiteness from where she sat. Her laughter seemed to come from a place of freedom. The gleam in her eye was something that was almost alien to him. He used to be acquainted with it, back when all they had in their relationship were moments of sunshine.
In those days they nursed grand dreams. He had promised her the world. She had believed in him. But the years passed and the gleam went away with the dreams. It was painful that he was just realizing how much she had lost being with him. She seemed happier now. Dumping him appeared to be a good decision in the end.
He didn’t want to spoil the moment she was having with her friends, and so he sat, four tables away from her, and watched her from behind his phone, his camera clicking away at the different faces of cheerfulness she exuded. He didn’t mind being there all day, but a potential client had just called and he needed to deliver a pair of shoes immediately.
Ace arose from his table to use the men’s room. He was donning a cap and a pair of sunglasses as he walked past Joana and her friends. He hoped she would not recognize him. But upon his return from the gents, he spotted her walking towards him with a grin, hands held by a man he had not seen earlier.
Ace stopped as they approached him.
“Hi Jo,” he greeted, showing a plain face.
“Hi!” Joana was fully smiling now as she reached over and hugged him. “How are you doing?”
“Good. You?” The momentary feel of her body over his and the fragrance of her perfume threatened to revive memories.
“I’m fine. It’s been ages.”
“Yeah. You’re looking good.”
“Thank you. You’re not doing bad yourself.”
He wanted to tell her more, that she was radiant in her short pink dress that showed her creamy legs, but one look at the man beside her who was bearing a sophisticated mien and snobbish air made him hold back his thoughts.
“Oh! Meet Sebastian, my fiancé,” Joana introduced. Ace showed no surprise. His eyes sought for and found an intimidating diamond ring on Joana’s fourth finger.
“Darling, this is Ace, a friend.”
Ace extended his hand first. Sebastian took it coldly.
“He’s a photographer,” Joana continued.
“And I have a boutique for men’s designer wears,” Ace added. He needed to make himself as important as the man that stood before him. He brought out a complimentary card from his wallet. “I sell only the good stuff,” he advertised, handing the card to Sebastian. “You need any of your favorite designers, call me and I’ll deliver.”
Sebastian took the card with a frown that almost broke into a smile, but did not.
“We’re leaving,” Joana announced. “Today is a work-free day for both of us, so we just want to laze about.”
Ace stepped away to let them through. He watched Sebastian possessively palm Joana’s waist as they made their way towards the exit of the restaurant. The galling man dropped the card on an empty table just as they stepped out. Ace didn’t feel stung by his rudeness; rather, he was worried about Joana. She used to detest men that behaved that way. What was up with her?
Ace spent the afternoon brooding over the encounter at the restaurant. He had thought he was over Joana, but seeing her again threw him back in a place of pain.
He received a text from her while he lay in the living room, listening to sounds from a movie he wasn’t watching.
‘I think I miss you,’ her text read. She didn’t forget to sign off with her usual heart emoji.
Ace read the text a million times. Above it were the numerous texts he had sent to her upon his return from Zanzibar which she had ignored. It gave him no joy not to respond to hers. He still loved her.
Using a photo app on his phone, he edited the pictures he took of her earlier and created a folder for them. Dugo had helped him delete the old folders on a night of drunkenness in which he wasn’t sure if he had cried over Joana or not. Dugo never told him what happened that night, except the part in which she made him trash everything related to Joana.
He was crawling back into that space again, and it was a good feeling. It wasn’t a bad idea to celebrate it with a couple of beers.
Dugo had her hand over her mouth to stifle laughter as she watched Mila show her the love bites her current lover had inflicted on her. The woman had a thing for black men, specifically the ones endowed in the sack. She was in her fifties with five children from different African men, and was yet to learn the concept of shutting her legs.
“I have to go, Mila,” Dugo told her for the fourth time. “You know I’m at work.”
She had been on a video call with her for more than an hour. She was hungry and needed to grab a bite before she left the school premises.
“Okay, go. I call you on Sunday, so you see Mustafa and say hi or…” Mila was trying out her English. It sucked. She had the German thing of adding ‘or’ at the end of sentences.
“I’ll be happy to chat with your boy toy,” Dugo responded, laughing.
“No boy toy with Mustafa. Only man. Big, big, BIG man.”
Dugo almost fell over her laptop in laughter.
“Okay, Mila. Bye-bye.”
They blew kisses at each other and Dugo hung up, shutting her laptop. She picked out laughter from the hallway. The voice was unfamiliar. Having worked in the school for five days, she could somewhat say that she was acquainted with the voices of the administrative staff she shared her work environment with. They came off as a friendly bunch. It was something in the way Luper ran the school. He implanted an air of camaraderie. Dugo wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, because she could sense that the smiles were sometimes forced, and she was certain that there was drama underneath the friendliness. But she didn’t make it her business.
She was occupying the position of guidance counselor, a job she knew nothing of, save for the numerous articles she read online and the collection of books on child psychology Ace purchased for her. But Luper was convinced she was the real deal. At her first staff meeting, he had introduced her to her colleagues with elaborated words that made the fraud in her glow.
It was amazing what a fake work history on a bogus CV and a phone call to a phony former boss with a German accent could do to one’s career.
Dugo’s first session with a couple of troubled teens had been smooth. She was a good listener, and having spent sufficient time with Mila’s children, she knew more than a little about handling kids and teenagers. Presently she was working on a counseling curriculum for the school. Luper and the head teacher were expecting something amazing from her. As usual, the internet was there to rescue her. She was going to con her way through every task until she got what she wanted.
Dugo shoved her laptop into her bag. She was done for the day, but desperately needed a bite at the staff restaurant before leaving. As she cleared her desk, she heard the laughter again, followed by Luper’s voice before he also burst into mirth. He seemed to be flirting with someone, and for some reason, Dugo felt uneasy with it. Luper belonged to her. Not in the sense of loving or owning him. She needed him free from any form of romantic attachment to get his complete attention for her plans to work.
She turned off the air conditioner and made her exit. There was no sign of Luper or the laughing female. The other offices seemed empty too.
Dugo made her way to the restaurant. Ace was coming to pick her by five-thirty. She ordered for a malt and a chicken pie, and just as she sat to eat, Luper walked in.
She hadn’t seen him today. She thought he looked good in his signature outfit of a pair of jeans and flannel shirt.
“Hello Adaugo,” he greeted, coming forward. “You’re still around?”
“Yes. I had to finish up on some work.”
“How are you doing?”
He had his almost-smiling face on, which was a constant with him. How much he had changed from the frowning boy from fifteen years ago.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
He took the chair facing hers. “So how are you finding the job?”
“Better than the one you had in Berlin?”
“I won’t compare.”
“That’s okay. Don’t mind me.”
Luper engaged her in small talk, asking her about the differences between life in Europe and Nigeria. As she responded, she flirted low key, twisting the edges of her hair, casually caressing her neck as if in habit, sometimes looking at his lips as he spoke, and not his eyes. She noticed that he occasionally got distracted. Her subtle cleavage which had been hidden behind a scarf due to the school’s dress code was now flagrantly exposed. His eyes had wandered there a few times too.
They were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the lady in charge of the kitchens in the school. Dugo had not liked her at first sight two days ago, and she didn’t like her now either. The lady had the type of body men found hard taking their eyes off.
“Good evening, sir.” She bore an indulgent smile for Luper.
“Hello Wendy. How was work today?”
“Good. Are you here to eat?”
“No. I came to get my change.” He looked at Dugo. “They always like keeping my change.”
Wendy giggled. “We’re sorry, sir.”
“Are you done for the day?”
“No, sir, but I have to run off and prepare for tomorrow.”
“That’s true. It’s your birthday tomorrow.”
“Yep. You’re still coming, right?”
“Of course. That reminds me. Adaugo, you have to attend Wendy’s party tomorrow.”
“Yes, you. What better way to get acquainted with everyone that works here than in a social setting?”
“I don’t know…”
“You’ll be my plus one.”
Wendy showed a tight smile. “You’re invited, ma.”
“You heard the lady.”
“Alright. I have to go,” Wendy said. “You people should not forget to bring gifts for me o!” she added as she began to walk away. “Or else you won’t eat rice!”
She laughed and Dugo immediately recalled the voice she had heard from the hallway earlier. It had been Wendy’s. So why did they both pretend like they were just seeing each other for the first time today?
“Since they don’t want to give me my change, I think I need to leave as well,” Luper announced.
Dugo stared at her watch. It was already past six o’clock.
“Are you calling a cab or would you want me to give you a lift?”
“No, I’m fine. A friend is coming to pick me.”
“You mean the guy that comes for you every evening?”
She lifted her brows.
“I’m sorry. That was too intrusive.” Luper stood up. “Enjoy your evening, Dugo. TGIF.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Luper.”
Dugo was amused by his manner. He was a breezy man, as she had come to learn. Great with the staff; awesome with the kids. She had overheard some teachers speaking amiably about him and how he had no bad bone in him, although one of them thought his friendliness made people walk all over him. Generally, they preferred his style of leadership to his father’s. The man had founded and run the school until his passing two years ago.
Dugo didn’t think she had fuzzy thoughts about Luper. What lay underneath was cold and vengeful. But because she had learned from being a sex slave and porn actor how to loathe someone and still show them warmth, she found it easy being with him.
She sipped the last drop of her malt and picked her handbag. Ace wasn’t taking his calls. She wondered what end of the earth he was lost in.
Joana stood outside the house like something from a pleasant dream.
“Can I come in?”
How had she gotten here? Ace rubbed his eyes. He had taken only two cans of beer and slept off. No, he hadn’t gotten drunk.
“How did you find me here?”
“The card. I saw that Sebastian dropped it as we were leaving. I’m sorry he did that. It was totally stupid of him. I sha went back and picked it before we left. You had already gone then.”
She brandished the card in Ace’s face.
“I was restless after I sent you the text. You got it, didn’t you?”
Ace was silent.
“I decided to trace you here. I would have come earlier, but traffic… Is this your house? I thought it was your shop?”
Ace was staring blankly. He couldn’t bring his lips to move.
“Idowu, talk to me nau.”
Idowu – the name only she and family called him.
Ace moved away from the door to let her in. He shut the door behind them and turned around to find her with tearful eyes, fingers twisting against each other.
“I know I hurt you badly. I’m really sorry for the way I ended our relationship and for not picking your calls and answering your texts. I…”
She stopped and dropped her hands, only to pick them up again and put them around Ace’s neck as her lips went for his. It wasn’t a tentative kiss that followed. It was a demanding one, the type a woman gave to a man that belonged to her.
Ace didn’t protest. He savored the familiar taste of her mouth and got lost in her like one under a spell. He was stupid in love, and he knew it. Or just maybe the kiss and whatever would follow would bring them back together. She said she was sorry, wasn’t she?