Had he always been this way?
Hadiza’s question wasn’t a strange one. Nnedinma had often asked herself the same thing in the past. She had also talked to him about it a couple of times, daring to slip it in when he seemed human enough to engage her as a normal husband would a wife. His responses came with emotional blackmail, presenting himself as the victim and making her feel like she had done a wicked thing to ask him such a question.
“Have I ever been unkind to you, Dinma?”
“No… But Julius, you know what you do is not right. It’s… sinful.”
“It’s a weakness, Nnedinma. As my wife, I expect you to understand me and pray for me. Instead, you judge me like everyone else. You look at me with disgust and make me feel worse than I already do, even though you are aware of my struggles. No man is perfect, and this is the burden I have to bear. If a whole Apostle Paul had his weaknesses, who am I to feel like I’m better than him? Who are you to judge me?”
“I’m not judging you. I’m just—”
“What if Paul’s weaknesses were like mine?”
“What if he couldn’t control his lust? Remember he wasn’t married? He didn’t even speak kindly about women. It was as if he hated them, but he didn’t. It was all a farce, so that no one would know. But when he was alone…”
“Julius, that’s blasphemy.”
“Oh, shut up. He wasn’t God. He was a man that kept bugging God to take his cross from him and God said he was made perfect in his weakness. What do you think God is saying about my own weakness? And here you are, judging me. Imagine if I had judged you over your despicable acts with Hadiza and shamed you before the church and your family, where would you be today? Why can’t you show me the same mercy?”
Exhausted, she had advised him to see a sex therapist, but he told her that Jesus was all the therapist he needed.
“Deal with your own lusts and leave me with my God. I know you still pine over women.”
Vile. Controlling. Stubborn. That was the man she had been forced to marry.
Seated in front of her now, he gorged on his meal of akpu and oha soup as if his aged digestive system could handle it at this time of the night. As usual, he was ignoring his doctor’s rules about his diet and mealtime. In the same way he felt he had gotten away with his depravity, he believed he had conquered death. If cancer couldn’t kill him, nothing else could.
“So…” He sucked his thumb and smacked his lips. “I sent you to convince your lover girl to back off or face my wrath, but here you are, telling me that she tried to buy you over to her side. Why are you always so stupid?”
Nnedinma was silent. She sipped from her cup of black tea. She had a headache, and the bright chandelier above them exacerbated the pain. All she had wanted was to come home, crawl into bed with thoughts of a day well-spent, and enjoy a long night’s rest. She could not remember when last she smiled the way she did today. In her stash of façades, she kept a collection of smiles reserved for the public, tuned to perfection over the years. The ones she displayed in photographs, on pulpits, at events, and in interviews where she talked about her blissful marriage and how she was blessed with the finest husband a woman could ever have. Over time, the practiced smiles had become part of her, as intimate as the fine wrinkles on her face.
Today, however, she had tasted something different. Something old and familiar. A smile so raw, it hurt. She had felt it in her chest, long after she parted with Hadiza at the airport. Heading home, she decided upon a detour. She gave instructions to her chauffeur to take her to a friend’s restaurant in Wuse. It had rooftop dining with a view of a busy street below. There, she sat for three hours, consuming two bottles of wine and browsing the web under her catfish accounts on social media. She was addicted to the internet, but like most things about her, she was secretive about it. People always met her in the middle of a book, but when they weren’t watching, she was stalking her favorite Twitter personalities. On Facebook, she was a twenty-something-year-old woman with a black rose as her profile picture, who wrote poems about forbidden love shrouded in mystery.
As the clock struck half past nine, she decided it was time to go home. On her way, she opened a bottle of mixed oil perfumes, a gift from Hadiza, one which she had preserved for three decades. The fragrance filled the car and revived Nnedinma’s smile; it also brought eased some of the pain from the migraine she had begun to feel, caused by the wine she had consumed. She rubbed some of the oil on her wrist and inhaled it at intervals until the car pulled up in the driveway of the house.
She went in, holding on to the memory of her time with Hadiza.
Leaning on the front door, Nnedinma opened her eyes to see the housekeeper standing a few feet away from her. The smile on her face faded and she was reminded that she was back in her prison.
“Daddy is about to have dinner,” the housekeeper informed her.
“At this time?”
“Yes, Mama. Should I bring your food too?”
“No. Just black tea would do.”
“Okay, ma. He said that when you come in, I should tell you to join him.”
Nnedinma went into the dining room where Julius was already seated. For ten minutes, he ignored her and his meal, speaking to a relative on the phone. When he was done, he took a long look at her, focusing on her lips.
“That’s too much of a bold color on your lips, don’t you think?”
Nnedinma touched her lips, recalling the lipstick Hadiza had applied on them. Power Red, she had called it. In case Nnedinma ever needed to get another one for herself. Hadiza had also tried to do her makeup as she used to do when they were a lot younger, but Nnedinma had stopped her.
“So, tell me how it went or are you just going to sit there and stare at me?” Julius demanded as he pounced on his meal.
Nnedinma told him only what she felt he needed to know, which in itself, was enough information. She could have kept the details of what Hadiza asked of her, but it was all part of her plan to throw him off her scent. Not even Hadiza and her grand scheme to ruin him could fluff what she already had for him.
“Interesting.” Julius was done with his dinner now. Having washed his hands, he wiped them on a napkin. “Disappointment is an understatement, Nnedinma. But what did I expect from you? It’s like sending a dog to do the work of a lion. So, why did you take so long? You left here in the morning and you’re just coming home.”
“I had the evening off, Julius. I went to my friend’s restaurant to have dinner. Am I also not allowed to do that?”
He drank from his glass of water, staring at her suspiciously. “Are you sure you did not open your legs for Hadiza while you were with her? I’m sure she was able to arouse you—something I have consistently failed at.”
“Julius, your insinuations are unnecessary. I am no longer that woman. You know this.”
“And yet, your body never burned for me.” He grabbed his walking stick and helped himself off his chair. He walked towards her and stopped. “You’re lying to me and I will find out soon what you’re hiding. As for Hadiza, she had better not try me. I will bring my wrath down on her and on you. And of course, on that brat daughter of yours who has decided to be in bed with her too.”
He walked away.
“Good night, Julius,” Nnedinma said, lifting her teacup.
No, he had not always been like this.
That had been her answer to Hadiza. But it had been a lie. The lie she told herself for years. It was much easier to accept it than to acknowledge that she had walked into a marriage to a man whose origins of vileness she had not known.
As a voracious lover of literature who had lost herself in countless fiction novels before the internet came, Nnedinma had met many villains like Julius in the pages of her favorite books. All of them had a backstory, a genesis of their wickedness. She understood that authors did this to get the readers to relate to the villains; to make them more human. If only someone had done the same to her and taken her back in time with Julius!
She had been barely sixteen when her family thrust her into his arms. He was in his late twenties then, already made rich by family wealth, already a pastor. He seemed great in those first few years, but it was only because she watched him through veiled eyes. When she began to truly see him, the shock that claimed her was too much for her fragile soul to handle. Hadiza had been her respite from that horror, a reminder that there was still goodness in the world.
Not a single person who knew him had the answers she sought after. Not even Kamharida.
“All I know is that my brother went to fight the Biafran War as a human being and came back a different thing altogether.”
“But you were just four when he left.”
“Yes, but I remember. Before the war, he used to be so playful and happy. But he came back angry, refusing to talk to anyone. He spent most of his time at the parish. We were lucky that Papa didn’t fight the war. He left for the UK with his boss and came back when the war ended. So, unlike many Igbo families, we were rich, because when he returned, he continued his boss’ transatlantic trade, taking us to Lagos with him. Unfortunately, he died shortly after. Julius then took over, but not for long. He abandoned the business in a cousin’s care and moved to the north where he became a pastor in one of the biggest evangelical churches there. He came around occasionally to see how the trade was going. He communicated with us only when we annoyed him. He would snap and shout on whoever was the object of his anger, including Mama. It broke her heart so much that it affected her health. She soon died too. After her burial, he took me to the north to stay with him, because our sisters were all married then. That was shortly before you guys got married.”
“You’re saying he changed after he returned from the war?”
“Yes. If you ask me, I think he became a pastor to cleanse himself from whatever evil he did on those frontlines.”
Kamharida uttered those words with her voice lowered.
“Unfortunately, wickedness cannot be covered with prayer.”
Nnedinma didn’t get closure from Kamharida’s retelling of Julius’ vague past. In her own recollections of his earlier years as an evangelist, Nnedinma remembered a man that had been so fiery in his ministry that he became popularly known as the firebrand evangelist. His success rate with planting and building churches across the north was matchless. But not everyone was a fan. Certain senior pastors in his church felt that he was wielding too much power with the congregants across their branches. To tackle the issue, they transferred him to a remote area. Julius rejected the transfer, turned in his resignation, and founded his church a month later. In about a year, he opened a second branch in another state, doubling the numerical strength of his congregation. Five years later, he outgrew his former ministry, stamping his name as one of the early pioneers of the revival that spread across the middle belt and northern part of Nigeria.
To everyone looking in from outside, this was surely a man close to God’s heart, but it was during those years he maltreated Nnedinma over her thing with Hadiza. It was also then she began to see that he was sexually deviant. Broken and afraid of him, she watched him turn into a monster as the years progressed. There were times she wanted to leave, but she discovered that her feet were too weak to run. She felt as helpless as his victims did. Time passed, and she began to bear the weight of his guilt. She blamed herself for every rape and every time a victim tried to fight him back and lost. But it was in her darkest moments she saw his weaknesses. They had nothing to do with his vileness; it was more about his foolish audacity. He trusted too much in his influence and wealth, too much in a society that shamed a victim over their rapist, too much in a justice system that could be bought. So blinded he was that he never saw her plotting his ruin right in his face.
Done with her black tea, Nnedinma left the dining room and went to her bedroom. After washing her face, she picked her Bible and lay in bed to read. Her housekeeper soon came knocking. She asked her in and asked what she wanted. The woman went on her knees, pressing her palms together in a gesture of gratitude.
“My sister said that they will discharge Rifkatu from the hospital tomorrow morning. Thank you, Mama.”
“God will bless you, Mama. Nothing bad will come your way…”
Nnedinma lifted a gentle hand to interrupt her prayers. She didn’t think she deserved them. Saving her daughter, Rifkatu, from Julius’ hands was the least she could to the woman who had served and taken care of her for years. Rifkatu, being one of Julius’ victims, had attempted to take her life when she went to the village for Christmas. Nnedinma paid for her hospital care and she had plans underway to get the girl to see a psychotherapist. Afterwards, she would facilitate her admission into a higher institution of learning.
“Just make sure she doesn’t step her feet in this house again.”
“I promise you, Mama.”
“If you need any more money, let me know.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
In the past, it had been difficult for Nnedinma to help anyone financially. Julius controlled her money, being a signatory to her funds. She was not allowed to make withdrawals without his permission. On a few occasions, he had emptied her accounts to prove his point. This pushed her into opening a secret account, which she funded from monetary gifts and other means. It was from this purse she supported his victims—most times, anonymously. It was also from this she financed her plans to destroy him.
The name would not leave Cheta’s head. She remembered the woman’s face, how gorgeous she had looked when she walked in on her and Nero having a discussion in his office two weeks ago. She remembered her curves, emphasized by the trim corporate gown she wore. She looked like a pastor, all right. The type of pastor you didn’t want around your man. Annoyingly, said man was with her now. Doing God-knows-what on a Sunday afternoon. He had called it ‘work’ when his phone rang on the lunch table and he had to leave her and Obi. Of course, he didn’t tell Cheta it was Laura calling. If she hadn’t seen her name on his phone screen, she wouldn’t have known.
“And I’m not even the jealous type,” Cheta muttered.
“Huh?” Obi looked up from his meal.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?”
“Mad at you? No, I’m not angry that you tried to kill yourself and leave me childless.”
Obi found her sarcasm amusing. “Mom, you’re so extra today. Chill.”
“Yeah. What’s with having lunch on this table?”
“That wasn’t me. That was your dad. And he upped and left us.”
“You’re mad at him?”
“No, I’m fine. Very fine with the fact that you rode a power bike without a helmet and broke your head. I’m chill.”
“And Yomi is such a good friend for providing the bike without the helmet.”
“I said I’m sorry nau.”
“I promise not to ever ride a bike without a helmet on.”
“How about, never ride a bike again? Ever.”
Obi ignored her, reaching for his phone beside him. She pushed her meal aside as thoughts of Laura returned. It had just clocked to her that Joy wasn’t the threat to her relationship.
“Can Junior come over?”
“Who is that one again?”
“He lives down the street. The one with the biracial sister?”
“Oh. Yeah, sure he can come over.”
“His sister too?”
Cheta gave Obi a curious stare.
“It’s not what you think.”
She showed a faint smile. “She can come over.”
“Why are you smiling, though?”
“Nothing. Take the plates to the kitchen.”
Obi cleared the table while Cheta lay on a sofa and chatted with a client. Again, she was thinking of Laura and her pious perfection. Cheta reminded herself that she was not the jealous type, but her intuition had never been off. She recalled how easily Laura had warmed up to her that day at Nero’s office.
“You look like your dad,” she said. “I so much admire him. He’s one of the great ministers of our time. You’re so lucky to have him as your father.”
Cheta didn’t know if she had hated her use of “so much” as much as she hated how she venerated her father.
“You should try and drag this one to start attending church,” Laura said, referring to Nero. He laughed like a boy when she added that he was too stubborn for her liking.
Putting the memory away, Cheta grunted. This was why she hated relationships. She didn’t have the strength for the mental calisthenics that came with trying not to dwell on the minor issues. She already hated that she felt vulnerable with Nero. Why should she care that her man was with a more gorgeous woman?
“Argh!” She covered her face with a throw pillow.
“What?” She let the pillow down and saw Obi in front of her. “I’m good.”
“You’re lying down on the remote.”
Cheta got off the sofa and went for a shower. When she was almost done, she heard Obi outside her door, saying something to her. She responded with an ‘okay’ and he went away. She stepped out of Nero’s bedroom minutes later, dressed in his pajamas. She walked in on Hadiza, seated at ease in the living room. The woman looked up at her with a smile.
“Good morning, darling. You didn’t tell me how charming my grandson was.”
Cheta showed a polite smile. The woman was relentless.
“I like this one.”
“Yes. This is it. This is the house.”
For the third time, Gold regretted her decision to bring Ozzy along instead of Cheta, to see houses she had already seen the day before. All she had needed was a second opinion. She already knew what she wanted, and it was not what Ozzy had just picked.
“This is two hundred thousand more expensive, Ozzy,” she whispered to him.
“Rans is paying. What’s the issue here?”
“He’ll think we just want to hustle him.”
“He’s rich on taxpayers’ money, mine and yours. I say we hustle him.”
“No buts.” Ozzy looked at the real estate agent for the house. “We’ll take this.”
“What?” Gold protested. Ozzy put his arm around her. “We’ve not…”
“Ignore my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s pregnant and very emotional right now. We love this house. It’s big enough for us and the baby.”
Gold smacked his hand away, which had begun to rub her tummy. She was stunned that he knew she was pregnant.
“Is it possible to get the lease agreement signed today?” he asked. “I can’t wait to move in.”
“It will take a couple days, sir,” the agent replied, apologetically.
“Make it tomorrow.”
“That can work, sir.”
“Looking forward to hearing from you.”
Annoyed, Gold chose not to speak to him until they were seated at the back of a cab heading to Cheta’s house.
“Who told you I was pregnant?”
“Saw you puking outside this morning. Took a wild guess. So, you’re really pregnant?”
“For that Husseini fool?”
“You’re carrying his bastard?”
“Looks like you’re already feeling better. I should have abandoned you in the hospital.”
“You want to be his baby mama?”
“Leave me alone, please.”
“He won’t marry you, goldfish. You know that, right? He’s a rich kid. Rich kids marry other rich kids.”
“And who told you I want to marry him?”
“Trust me, being a single mother is not something you want to become. Why do you think I never knocked you up? You’re too beautiful to go through that hell.”
“How sweet of you.”
“See, I may be many things, but a sperm donor is not one of them. I’m not that wicked or dumb. I saw what my mom suffered, raising me alone. A child is not a responsibility I want to carry on my head or give any woman to carry. Those little bastards age you.”
“It’s enough abeg. Let’s just get home in one piece.”
“I hope you’re going to have an abortion?”
Gold looked at him, horrified.
“But that’s after you use the baby to get all you can from that bastard. He should pay for knocking you up. Then, pay for the abortion. Then, pay for the emotional stress you’ll face after the abortion.”
“Just advising you.”
“I don’t want.”
Again, she chose not to speak to him until they got to Cheta’s house. She served him lunch and ensured that he took his medication. As she made to leave his bedroom, he drew her back, dragging her to the bed with him. He pinned her underneath him.
“I can’t leave you, Goldie. You and I are stuck on each other. It’s called love, I think.”
“You know it’s not nonsense. We’ll keep finding our way to each other, no matter where we go. And this is why you can’t have this baby. It has to go.”
“Ozzy, you don’t matter in my decision to be a mother or not.”
“You’re not listening to me, Gold. This baby has to go. You know what Hadiza did to me. I have this stupid disease or whatever the fuck it is, because of her. She nearly killed me. She took me away from you. The least you can do is stand by me…”
“By aborting an innocent baby?”
“Get off me.” She pushed his chest. “Get off!”
He moved away and she jumped off the bed.
“I’m serious,” he said.
She slammed the door on her way out.
“When I told you I wanted to talk the other day, I was really down. Now, it doesn’t feel like it. I’m a lot better, actually. Being with Cheta has really helped.”
Nero almost laughed at the stunned expression on Laura’s face in reaction to what he had just told her. Her arms were crossed as she glared at him.
“I attended the first service today just because of you, Nero. I was not supposed to. My shift is going on right now, but I switched it for you.”
“Well, you were not here when I needed you yesterday.”
“I was in a leaders’ meeting all day. I explained it to you. I’ve sacrificed my activities for today because of you and you’re telling me that you don’t need me?”
“I didn’t say that, Laura. I really wished you had told me you were coming. I would have told you not to bother.”
“Okay, let’s do this properly. I will walk out of this office right now and come to the door and knock. You will then ask me to come in. Then, we will talk like the friends we are. My coming here cannot waste.”
Nero snorted in laughter.
“I’m fine, Laura.”
She dropped her arms. “Well, for one, I’m happy you’re now talking to Cheta about the way you’ve been feeling.”
“I didn’t say that either.” Nero took his hands out of his pockets and sat on the visitor’s chair. Laura was perched on the desk. “She and I still don’t talk about Joy. I already told you that it’s not something I want to burden her with.”
“But you can dump all that load on me, shey?”
“I can because you’ve always known Joy nau. Plus, you know the root of all this wahala. You’ve been there for me. It’s easier to talk to you about it without feeling like I’m bringing my ex into our relationship.”
“So, what was it with her this time?”
“Nero, talk to me nau. That’s why I came here.”
“Okay, it’s not nothing. The doctors… They suspect that Joy might be suicidal.”
“She’s never been. At least, to the best of my knowledge.”
“And that worries you?”
“A lot. That, and the fact that I feel responsible for where she’s at presently.”
“Wow, Nero. That’s new. You’re blaming yourself now?”
“It’s… I…” He sighed.
“You’ve always been there for her.”
“If I had not pushed her towards being the best version of what she didn’t want to be and just allowed her to be herself, maybe I could have saved her.”
“You’re not Jesus, Nero. You can’t save anyone.”
“I can. People save people. Don’t talk like that.”
“Only God saves.”
“Don’t bring God into this.”
“Oh, but you like God’s benefits, abi? Laura, pray for me, Laura pray for Joy… Who do you think I pray to?”
“All I’m saying is that I thought that pushing her deeper into her job could save her from her addiction, but I fucked up.”
“Nero, you gave her the option to pursue her passion in fashion, but she declined.”
“I should have tried harder. With addicts, you don’t give up. You keep trying. But I didn’t. I failed her, like everyone else. I even called her lazy, unambitious, a burden… Then, I dumped her and got into an entire marriage, just to hurt her. Who does that?”
“You did your best, Nero.”
Laura leaned towards him and rested both hands on the armrest of his chair. “You did your best.”
“Then, why doesn’t it feel that way?”
“Because the devil keeps telling you that you messed up, that you’re not good enough. He keeps lying to you, Nero, and it’s time you shut him up and out of your life.”
“The devil?” He laughed. “Laura, please.”
She pulled back and shrugged. “Well, it’s up to you to believe or not. At least, pray.”
“Pray?” He laughed again. “Can you try to give me great advice without adding religion into it? I mean, you’re good without the religious aspect. You’ve been good for years. Just try and remove God…”
“I can’t, Nero. You know that. But I’m not asking you to do the impossible. Just pray. You really do not need me to keep interceding for you, although I’ll never stop.”
“I suck at prayers.”
“That’s because you think there’s a rulebook for it. There isn’t. Just talk to God about Joy, about how you feel. He listens. He will answer.”
“I mean it.”
“And I said fine.”
She rubbed his arm. “I have to go. See you tomorrow?”
“Sure. Thank you, Laura. I owe you a lot.”
“Best payment would be letting Jesus into your heart.”
Nero chuckled. “Jesus is everywhere nau. Getting into my heart wouldn’t be an issue for him.”
“Be serious for once in your life, Oghenero.” Laura picked her handbag and made for the door. “My love to Cheta!”
“Calvary greetings, you mean?”
“I’m tired of you, young man!” she said with a fading voice.
Nero’s phone rang. He picked the call. “Hey, Domina.”
“Your mom is here.”
“Yeah. Where are you?”
“Still in the office. I’ll be home in a bit.”
When Cheta heard Obi’s bedroom door close, she regretted her decision to let him and his guests leave the living room. She didn’t want to be alone with Hadiza.
“So, just two of us,” Hadiza said.
Cheta smiled. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?”
“I’m good, dear. Don’t worry yourself. I’m here to talk, and I think we should do so before Nero comes home. So, tell me how you’ve been.”
“I’ve been good.”
“And Obi? I saw the bruise on his head.”
“He fell off a power bike.”
Hadiza shook her head. “Boys. If they are not trying to kill themselves with their rough play, they are trying to give you a heart attack.”
Cheta gave a polite smile. Hadiza was beautiful, as usual, regal in appearance. It hurt Cheta to think that she was about the same age as her mother who looked older.
“So, why have you been avoiding my calls?” Hadiza asked.
“Um… You know why.”
“Cheta, I’m not asking you to do something you can’t…”
“I can’t,” she replied quickly. “He’s my father.”
“And that’s why you’re the best person for the job. Come and sit with me, darling. Come.”
Cheta left her sofa and sat with Hadiza. “No woman, nobody out there can take your father down except you. Think of what would happen to any producer who decides to take up the project. Imagine how ruined their life would become. Julius is going to destroy them. You know that.”
“Julius will destroy me.”
“He will not. He can’t.”
“Then you don’t know my father. He never loved me, and he sure as hell won’t hesitate to ruin me.”
“I won’t let him. I’ll protect you. Cheta, I have plans for you.”
“No offense, but extend the plans and protection to another producer out there…”
“My dear, who will agree to take on the project? I don’t want to approach them, because the moment I mention his name, it would get to him and all my plans over the years would come to nothing. Chichetaram, you’re the only one with the balls to do this. The only one whom people would hear from and believe.”
“Believe?” Cheta laughed. “You don’t know Nigerians. I’m going to be the most hated woman because I dared to destroy my father, a pastor loved by thousands of people, respected by influential men and women. Do you realize the enormity of what you’re asking me to do? Please, pass that burden onto someone else.”
“I won’t pressure you, dear. It’s your choice, after all.”
“It doesn’t seem that way,” Cheta responded in annoyance. “First of all, you came into my life and made me feel guilty for the accident. Then, you started pushing me into doing this thing because of your own personal vendetta. Do you even care about his victims?”
“Yes. Your mom is one of them.”
“She chose to remain in the marriage with him. It’s her fault.”
“Don’t talk like that, Cheta. You don’t know how hard it is for abuse victims to leave their abusers. She tried many times, but your father is… Well, you know him. Look, we have to get your mom out of there, no matter what it takes. She needs us. She needs you.”
“When I needed her, she abandoned me.”
“She didn’t know what she was doing, darling. Please, forgive her. A mother could never abandon her child. She loves you.”
“I was with her yesterday.”
Cheta looked at Hadiza. There was a smile on her face, the type a lover bore whenever they spoke about the person they loved.
“We talked for hours. She told me things, Cheta. Your mother loves you to death, and she’s really, really sorry for how she treated you.”
Cheta couldn’t sit any longer for the conversation. She got on her feet. “Mommy, I’m going to get you lunch. You must be hungry,” she said.
“Why won’t you talk about your mother?”
Hadiza was annoying and intrusive, but Cheta was determined to handle her with calm.
“There’s nothing I want to say about her.”
“Then, maybe you should try to talk to her…”
“She won’t talk to me,” Cheta responded. “She doesn’t even try. Nobody talks to me.”
She hurried into the kitchen and took a moment to breathe, realizing that her last statement wasn’t only about her mother. It had to do with Nero too. She released a sigh when she heard the sound of his car outside. His mother was now his problem.
After Basim walked past Hajara for the sixth time, still lying on his favorite couch, he stopped to ask her, “What’s the plan?”
She lowered the book she was reading. “Plan?”
“You, being here. What next?”
“Oh.” She covered her face with the book again. “Don’t worry about me. I already applied for jobs in Lagos. Something will turn up.”
“You really gave up living in Chicago for Lagos?”
“Bas, if Chicago is everything, please go and live there and leave me alone.”
“You had better not be talking to me like that.”
She lowered the book slowly this time, presenting a puppy face.
“I think I can get you a corner office at the company, so that you can be doing something until you get a job.”
“I don’t do investment banking.”
“Well, we need a new social media person and you’re so good with Twitter and Instagram.”
“I wasn’t asking.”
Hajara sprang up from the couch. “I can rent my own place, you know that?”
“Be my guest, Haja. You think I want you here? Your parents have already called and asked me to speak sense into your head.”
“And that’s what you’re doing, I guess.”
“I said I’d talk to you.”
“You didn’t defend me?”
She started towards her bedroom. “That’s why Nero always wins Brother of the Year! You suck!”
“You’re no longer a baby o, Haja! Quit the tantrums! You’re twenty-seven for fuck’s sake!” He lay on the couch and put a call through to Nero.
“Can you take Hajara off my hands?”
Nero’s response was laughter.
“I don’t have the strength, please.”
“You don’t seem to have the strength for anything these days, baba. How about Gold?”
“What about her? She said she needed space.”
“Well, she’s back at Cheta’s now. Maybe you could stop over or something.”
“That babe gives me headache.”
“What do you want, gaan? First, you couldn’t do without her. Now, she’s giving you headache.”
“I want Gold like mad, I won’t lie. But I don’t know. I can’t trust her.”
“Anyway sha, Momsi’s in my place right now.”
“What’s she doing in Lagos?”
“You can come and ask her.”
“I know she’ll show up here. Back to Hajara…”
“Send her over.”
“With all pleasure. Wait, fes…” Basim took the phone away from his ear. “Hajara, Nero says you can go and stay at his!”
Hajara opened her bedroom door and poked her head through the crack. “And he won’t stress me?”
“She needs to be working sha. No holidays in my house,” Nero said.
“No, he won’t stress you. He’s expecting you right away.”
She shut the door.
“You didn’t tell her momsi is here?”
“Not my problem, abeg.”
“Bas, we’ll talk later.”
Nero rang off. Basim held his phone for a bit, staring at the screen. To call Gold or not?
He looked up. Hajara was standing in the living room. “What now?”
“If someone was lying to you about themselves, putting up a front that’s not real, you’d know, right?”
“What are you talking about?”
She sat on the center table. “So, I’ve been sort of chatting with this guy online. He’s really cool and all, but I don’t know if I should trust him, trust him.”
“Trust is a serious thing. You don’t give it to just anyone.”
“I know, but this guy checks out all right, and I really like him.”
“Don’t you like have a boyfriend that’s from Poland or something?”
“We broke up. So, back to this other guy… How do I know he’s real?”
“Maybe I’m old school, but this internet dating thing doesn’t work for me. If I want to know whether someone is real, I’d meet them face-to-face and judge. Too many catfishes out there.”
“Funny thing, I call him Catfish.”
“Romantic,” Basim muttered.
“When we started chatting, he seemed too good to be true, so I just named him catfish. He didn’t take it personally, though. Now, the name has stuck. But he’s like the sweetest guy I ever met. He sent me this huge box of Malteasers when I told him I was sick. Then, the other day, he had a bookstore deliver me all of Chimamanda’s books because I said I hadn’t read any of them and I really wanted to.”
“And that means what exactly? Aren’t you old enough to know that a guy can do all of that and still be a dick?”
“Well, I’d have to meet him to judge, right?”
“Wait, who is this person sef?”
“Not anybody you know.”
“Haja…” Basim cleared his throat. “I know I haven’t exactly been the big brother I was supposed to be all your life…”
“You didn’t even try.”
“I know, and I apologize.”
“I’m not angry with you.”
“What I’m trying to say is that despite all of that, I have good intentions for you. And this is why I think you should have a plan for your life.”
“I do. I’m looking for a good job. Once I get it, I’ll get out of everyone’s hair.”
“Haja, you had a good job in Chicago.”
“Yeah, a job that Mommy wanted for me.”
“So, you quit to piss her off?”
“No, I quit to do what I wanted.”
“The thing is… nobody knows what you want. The other day, you wanted to keep a baby. Today, you’re intentionally jobless and following some catfish guy that none of us know about.”
“I really wanted that baby,” Hajara blurted, taking in a heavy breath. She crossed her arms and took her stare away. Basim observed the change in color on her face.
“Talk to me.”
She maintained her pose for a bit, and then, she looked at him. He gestured her over to sit with him. She walked to his couch and sat, facing away.
“Jedrik… That’s his name—my ex—he didn’t want the baby, so I thought that if I came home and told Mommy that I was pregnant, she would understand, you know? I mean, she was a single mom before she married Daddy. I thought she’d support me. Yes, she’d be mad, but she had to understand, right?”
“And she didn’t.”
Hajara’s eyes became glassy with tears. “I should have listened to Nero when he said he’d talk to her about if first. He would have made her see why keeping the baby was important. You know how he is with her.”
Basim nodded. Nero always had Hadiza’s ear. When they were much younger, Basim used to be jealous of their connection.
“I could have said no and stood my ground with the abortion thing, but… I was scared that if I was stubborn about it, Mommy would make my life miserable.”
“No, she wouldn’t.”
“See what she did with Daddy. All those years, she shut him out, and we couldn’t do anything about it. She’s very mean.”
Basim disagreed. He knew Hadiza enough to know that she loved her children fiercely, regardless of whatever they did. Her anger at Hajara would have lasted but a moment.
“Apart from that, I was heartbroken from losing Jed, so…”
“Did he tell you why he didn’t want the baby?”
“He said he wasn’t ready, but I think he wasn’t ready for me. His family wouldn’t have accepted me or the baby, and what he felt for me wasn’t strong enough.” She smiled through her hurt. “I think I was a fantasy in his head that he wanted to cancel out.”
“Black African Muslim girl. You don’t get more exotic than that.”
“Yeah. And it was hard to think I’d go back to Chicago and face him at work.”
Basim felt sad for his baby sister. He also felt guilty for not being there for her when it mattered.
“Let me guess. The internet guy became a balm for your pain.”
She nodded, smiling. “He was there for me.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through all of that.”
“I’m still going through it, Bas.”
“Is there any way I can make you feel better?”
She looked at him with a smile. “I’ll be fine.”
“I want you to stay.”
“Nope.” She sniffled under a giggle as she wiped her nose. “I’m going to Nero’s house.”
Hajara paused. “She’s in Lagos right now?”
“Ah. I’m staying here.”
“But you don’t get to suddenly act like the good brother just because I opened up to you.” She got off the couch. “I don’t need your pity.”
Basim didn’t say anything as she returned to her bedroom. He picked his phone and dialed Gold’s number. Listening to Hajara’s story made him realize that somewhere in the back of his head, he had judged Gold. He had always known that she had her reasons for being indecisive with him. Hadiza was one of them, but it was better to be sure than presumptuous.
He listened to her line ring until it stopped. He tried a second time, and when she didn’t respond, he reached for his car key.
“Freshly-made orange juice for mommy and baby.”
Gold gave Ozzy a suspicious look and frowned at the glass of juice he put in front of her.
“Please, shift from my front, I’m watching something important.”
“Tell me thank you for the juice na.”
“Ozzy, you’ve disturbed me all day, following me up and down. I entered this parlor to escape you and here you are again. What do you want?”
“Nothing. I’m just feeling a lot better. That’s all. And I brought you juice.”
“I’m supposed to drink that?”
“Then, I start bleeding and lose my baby?”
Ozzy laughed, sliding beside her on the sofa. “You watch too much Africa Magic.”
“Oswald, I couldn’t trust you even if a million popes spoke in your favor.”
“Your loss.” He took the juice and gulped it down. “You don’t even know when a guy is trying.”
“Trying to do what exactly?”
“Get back on your good side, get into your pants, be your man again. You think I want to lose you a second time? Haba, Goldie. Look into my eyes and see if I’m lying.”
“All I see in your eyes is highness. Stop smoking in Cheta’s house.”
“Chill. Cheta is not as uptight as you keep saying. She used to be my guy.”
“She was never your guy, please. She tolerated you because of Laja.”
“That’s not how I remembered it sha. Anyways, I’m outta here.”
He stood and Gold reviewed his outfit. He was dressed like a serious person; he also smelled nice. He asked her how he looked.
“Thanks. Is there anything you want me to get for you on my way back? Anything you’re craving?”
“Ozzy, please, go where you want to go and leave me the heck alone. Please! And it would be nice if you just moved out tomorrow, seeing that you are now strong enough to jump around.”
“I’m strong enough for you, goldfish.” He leaned over and kissed her lips. She slapped him.
Smiling, he made for the door. “Your phone was ringing earlier,” he told her. “Basim, or whatever his idiotic name is!”
“Oh.” Gold jumped to her feet. She heard a car driving in as she made for the kitchen where she left her phone charging. She saw that she had missed four calls from Basim. She dialed his number.
“Hey,” he answered.
“I missed your calls.”
“No wahala. I just wanted to let you know that I’m on my way to you. Hope you’re at home?”
“Good, because I just drove in.”
Gold’s eyes popped out. “Shit.”
“Um… nothing.” She hung up and dashed out of the kitchen. “Ozzy!” She saw him making for the front door. “Don’t use that door…”
He opened the door and she paused in her steps, her shoulders falling. He turned. “You said?”
“Nothing,” she responded.
He had a rascally smile on. “Your boyfriend is outside. Come and say hi.”
Gold chose to remain in her position as Ozzy made his exit. Soon afterwards, Basim entered the house. She saw the question on his face and the disappointment that accompanied it.
“Hey.” She tried to smile, but it was a poor attempt.
“Is that who I think it is?”
Gold dropped her head and picked it up again. “Basim, we need to talk.”
“It’s about time.”
Books. Chocolate. Jewelry.
He had done the first two, but the third was too mainstream. Any man could give a woman a piece of jewelry. He wasn’t any man, and he wanted her to know that. So, he took the ultrasound photo of her baby, which she had shared with him on WhatsApp, and framed it. Sure, it would make her cry, but that was according to plan. She would cry and thank him for being thoughtful. Then, she would lean deeper into him, seeking more from him than just comforting words, now that the long distance between them was over.
Like the gentleman he believed he was, he waited for her in the intimate restaurant he had chosen for their first date. He had wanted this moment special for her, something she would not easily forget.
Twenty-three minutes after he arrived, she came walking through the door. She looked around the restaurant, searching for him. When she found him, she laughed a little. He remembered his message to her earlier.
You’d find me wearing a pink shirt over a pair of khaki pants. I’m a shirt flirt, I know. And I must say I cut an impressive silhouette in pink. What will you be wearing?
She had not responded to his message, even though she had read his—and this was a good thing, because she walked in, looking simple, but classy in white and black. Her pictures online and her face on the numerous video calls they had didn’t prepare him for how breathtaking she was. She was a pampered woman, spoiled to perfection. Her body frame belonged on runways and billboards. Such beauty could not be caged.
He rose from his seat when she approached the table. “Nice to finally meet you, Hajara.”
“Hi.” She appeared shy, but he knew her so well. She was a wild one.
“Do you do handshakes?” he asked. He saw the way she stared at him. He had that effect on women. They always temporarily lost themselves because of his looks.
She stuck out her hand and he took it.
“You’re so gorgeous. Gosh!”
She smiled. “Thank you.”
“Allow me.” He drew out her chair and she sat. He returned to his seat. “We finally get to meet.”
“Nice shirt,” she complimented. “Shirt flirt.”
They both laughed.
“So, am I what you expected or do I have to dash into the little boys’ room and put on some makeup?” he asked.
“You’re okay,” Hajara said with exaggerated indifference. “I expected a dash of Wentworth Miller, though.”
“Wentworth?” He sniggered. “That nigga is so white, forget his father is black.”
“I’m just kidding. You’re…”
She blushed. “You’re handsome, I guess.”
“You guess?” He faked a frown.
“Okay, you’re hot.”
“I know, right?” he answered smugly. “So, are you ready to order?”
“Yes. I haven’t eaten all day. My brother is such a bachelor. No food in his house.”
“That’s not me o. I can cook up a storm. If you ever visit me, I’ll be sure you eat until you can’t move.”
“Looking forward to it.” She picked up the menu and got lost in it for a while. “I don’t know what to pick.”
“Do you need my help?”
“Try the peso pasta and grilled chicken. You’ll ask for more.”
He called a waiter over, and they made their orders.
“So, I’m not sure what I should call you,” she said. “Catfish suddenly doesn’t seem like a good name.”
“Aww, it was sexy while it lasted.”
She giggled. “So, is it Oswald or Ozzy or Oz?”
He gave her a charming smile. “Just Oz.”
“Just Oz. Sounds like ‘Just us.’”
“Yeah, just us.”
“Okay. Oz. I like it. Wizard of Oz.”
“Come on, Hajara.”
She burst into laughter, covering her face. He smiled back. He was tickled by her openness and naivety. This was going to be easier than he had thought. He had experience with girls like this—Daddy and Mommy’s precious little things. Soon, she would be mush in his arms. It would take only a prick to burst that protective bubble and have her at his mercy.
“So, tell me about your tattoos,” she pried.
“Oh, these?” He touched his neck. “There’s a story behind them.”
“I’m listening.” She rested her chin on the cusp of both hands, leaning towards him.
“I lost my mom in an accident. I was only thirteen…”
®Sally Kenneth Dadzie @moskedapages