Cheta saw the emails and ignored them. Some of them came directly from intending buyers while the others were through Laja’s lawyer. Aunty Gbemi had also called to inform her about the Adeyanjus being approached over the same issue. Investors were falling over themselves in a bid to acquire Laja Towers and the offers were staggering. Everyone felt it was a good idea to sell now that demand was high. Everyone, except Cheta.
“How could you?”
She was mad at Nero this evening, after he had tried to get her to see why the towers needed to be sold off to the person with the best offer.
“Do you have any idea the sentimental worth of this place?”
“Chichetaram, Laja is gone.”
The words felt like a stab in Cheta’s chest, but they were not so painful that she couldn’t take them.
“I knew him,” Nero continued. “Maybe not as well as you did but enough to know that he was looking to sell this place and build something else.”
“He handed the towers to us, Nero. He tied our hypothetical relationship to it. He even made provisions for our son’s future. This was supposed to be our home.”
“Well, it’s not my fault that we’re one unit, split in two.”
Cheta was going to say something else, but his accusation stopped her. The expression on his face was of disenchantment. Since the day at the beach, they hadn’t talked about them, and this was because he had made sure not to bring the topic up the couple of times they met. This wasn’t something Cheta was used to. Men did not simply take her out, give her a piggyback ride, kiss her, and then pretend that none of that happened. She was beginning to believe that she imagined that whole day in her head. She still wanted him.
“Stop being unstable,” Naza told her this morning. She had become her new sounding board, being that Gold could not be trusted these days. Cheta had told Naza about the thing with Nero, excluding her history with Hadiza. “I understand your concerns with relationships, but you have to let someone into your life sometime in this century, Cheta.”
Naza had always known about her trust issues, as regards relationships. Those issues were not particularly tied to the fear of being cheated on; it was about love. It was hard for her, and sometimes impossible, to let someone in because she was afraid that love might not mean the same thing to their situation, as it did for her. She was the type to love without questions; and loyalty came to her with ease. Half-hearted devotion was not something she could deal with, and after years of living without deep ties with men, her heart wasn’t ready to let anyone in, no matter what she felt about them. In Nero’s case, the situation was twice as difficult because of Hadiza.
“Nero, we are not selling this place,” she said emphatically to him. He looked at the man who was in the room with them. He was the boss of the facilities management company responsible for managing Laja Towers. They were presently in his office, situated on the first floor of one of the towers.
“Grant, could you give us a minute?” Nero requested.
“Sure.” Grant walked out of the office and Nero sat on the edge of the desk, facing Cheta. He folded his arms across his chest.
“I want you to give this some thought, Cheta. Just a little thought.”
“I’m not interested in thinking about anything.”
“If you want us to retain some of our stakes, even after it’s sold, we can work it out.”
“We’re not selling, Nero. What is wrong with you? I don’t expect anyone else to understand, but you too? Haba! These towers meant a whole lot to Laja—”
“Yet, he wanted to sell them.”
“I don’t know about that. He didn’t tell me.”
“He told me. That is why you have buyers coming in from all over the place. He put it up in the market. Come on, Chichetaram. Look at the numbers. We may never get offers like this again, especially with the economy going to shit. This is the best time to sell. Plus, you need the money…”
Cheta gave him an angry stare. “I am not desperate, Okiemute. And let this be the last time you’re all up in my financial situation. The other day, you wanted to help me fix my car. This was after all the gifts you threw in my son’s face. Then you sent money into my account without my permission…”
“It’s for child support.”
“I neither asked for it nor gave you my account number.”
“I’m not going to apologize for that.”
“Don’t do it again!”
The tone of her voice stunned her as much as it did him. There was a brief moment of silence before he said, “Our son. He is mine too, Cheta. And what’s all this anger, really? Is it just because of Laja Towers or because I’ve shut you out?”
She drew back, showing exaggerated surprise. “Shut me out?”
“Cheta, I’m not going to chase you. I’m too old for shit like that. You say you want a man, but you’re quite comfortable waiting for him to come for you.”
She maintained her ignorance. “What are you talking about?”
“Back to Laja Towers…”
“Sell your own half and leave me alone.”
“Have you seen the contract we signed? We are one entity, one body. We don’t own halves. It’s either a no or a yes.”
“So, I vote for a no.” Cheta stood from her seat. She picked her handbag and made to move, but a wave of dizziness hit her. She stopped and reached out a hand to hold the table. The hand rested on Nero’s thigh, instead.
“Are you okay?”
She removed her hand but he caught it. “I’m fine, Nero. I got up too quickly.”
He drew her towards him and observed her closely. “Obi is right. You’re stressed. See how pale you look.”
“You need to rest. Go home. We’ll talk about this issue another time. Don’t even stress yourself thinking about it.”
He pulled her into a hug.
“Are we still on for tomorrow?” she asked. They had plans to spend the day, searching for schools online for Obi. They had both agreed to let him have an entire year at home. By 2022, he would be somewhere outside Nigeria, studying.
“I’ll be at home all day, as agreed. If you’re up to it, you could come over. If not, you could just stay at home and rest. My house is also a good resting spot.” Cheta gave him a suspicious stare that made him laugh. He raised his hands in innocence. “Hey, just an invitation. I told you I won’t bug you anymore.”
She left the office. Grant was waiting in the hallway. Hands in his pockets, he walked in circles, singing. He didn’t see Cheta until she called his name.
“Oh, sorry.” He looked up.
“You didn’t tell me you could sing.”
“There were many things I didn’t tell you about myself. Ask me anything.”
She laughed. Those had been his words a week ago when he sat across a table from her while having dinner. He had asked her out on a date, and she had accepted because she had been hungry and had spent a full day at the studio. The date hadn’t been anything serious, although Grant never stopped letting her know how much he was charmed. For her, it felt good to bask in the feeling of being wooed by a man again. There were other men out there, actively seeking to date her, but she hadn’t had time for anyone. Nero was the only man on her list, for obvious reasons. Grant was trying to move up the scale. She saw him more often than she saw Nero, being that she was always in the building to supervise the work being done at Sunflux Entertainment.
Grant was good-looking, young, flirty, funny, and chubby in the way she liked chubby men. She couldn’t believe that they had started out fighting each other. Their first encounter had ended in a heated exchange when he opposed her after she took an entire floor to set up her production studio. Nero was largely responsible for their reconciliation.
“We should hang out again soon,” Grant told her. “Somewhere more exotic this time.”
“Exotic? In Lagos?”
“E go shock you.”
She giggled. “Okay, tour guide.” She felt a presence behind and turned. Nero was at the door.
Grant smiled at her. “I’ll call you.”
He went into the office and the door shut behind him. Cheta walked down the hallway to the reception. She paused for a bit to appreciate the beauty and classiness of the place. She also stopped to stare at Laja’s photo, resting on the wall that faced the entrance.
“The plan was not to sell this place… Or was it?”
She waited, as if expecting a response. Shortly after, she stepped out of the building.
“It’s a boy!”
Basim didn’t relate to the joy he saw on Fajr and Nero’s faces. It was just another baby being born into the world that looked no different from all the others. He couldn’t believe he left the bar where he was having a good beer, just to hear that his sister had a baby. What were they expecting she would have after being nine months pregnant?
“Congratulations, maman yara,” he said teasingly. “I hope this is the last one.”
“He is, insha’Allah.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means that if Alhaji says he wants more, she’ll give him more,” Nero explained.
“What sort of backassward thing do you and your man have going on, Faj?”
Hadiza’s face replaced Fajr’s on Basim’s phone screen. Basim recoiled, acting as if he had seen her in the nude.
“Next time, warn me before you show up like that.”
“You’re very stupid,” she replied.
“Nice to see you too, Son. So, you’re still alive?”
“Let’s not start this evening, please. It’s all about the baby.”
“You can’t call your mother or even send a text to find out how she’s doing?”
“The last time we spoke, you told me to go and find a new mother, that you were done with me. So, I did just that. I found a new mother.”
“You’ll not stop this your madness?”
Nero snatched the phone from Basim. “You guys should cut it, abeg. Fajr?”
Fajr’s face came on, bearing a tired smile. “Yes?”
“Congratulations, darling. I can’t wait to see him.”
“Same way I feel about Obi. When are you bringing him over? Let him come and spend Christmas with us na.”
“I’ll give it a thought.”
“Thought ke. We have to see him.”
“Exactly,” Hadiza said, poking her head into view. “Let’s do Christmas as one big happy family.”
“Except that we’re not,” Basim stated.
“Nero, tell that boy to shut up.”
“I’m done talking,” Basim announced. “Faj, baby, I love you. Kiss your baby for me.”
He returned to the lounge where he and Nero had been having beers before Fajr’s call came in. He downed his beer and ordered another. Across the room was a woman, seated alone. She wore a short dress that showed the length of her legs, all the way to her thighs. In front of her was a cocktail, and in her hand, a burning cigarette. She was gorgeous and sexy—his type of woman. He couldn’t believe that no man had built up the guts to walk up to her. He would have, if he wasn’t thinking about Gold right now.
“If you’re staring so hard, you should be there, not here.”
Basim almost chuckled at Nero’s beer parlor logic. The guy had been consistent in giving him bad counsel as regards women from the moment he told him how serious he was about Gold. Nero didn’t support their relationship, on the basis that he believed that Basim would snap into default and cheat on Gold. Naturally, Nero wouldn’t care, but for the sake of Gold’s friendship with Cheta, he considered her off limits to Basim’s wandering lust.
“I’m not going to cheat. Give up already.”
“You said ‘cheat’,” Nero responded. “Wow. This is a relationship and not a situationship?”
“I already told you, but you’re not listening. Gold is the one.”
“Until you slip…”
“I’m not the one slipping,” he blurted. “She is… She’s cheating on me with her ex.”
Nero drank some beer. “Back up a little. What did you say?”
Basim replayed his own version of what had happened between him and Gold the day before. He had called her and spoken to her on the phone while he was trying to append an electronic signature to a document. He had forgotten to end the call, and the next thing he heard was Gold moaning out Ozzy’s name.
“Ozzy, please, stop…” he mimicked in a manner that made Nero laugh. “Not funny.”
“I’m sorry, but for real?”
“Dude, she was moaning, and when I called her name, she hung up on me. Can you imagine?”
“And did you ask her about it?”
“What’s there to ask? I heard her in real time!”
“So, you’re not going to say anything about it? You’re just going to go right ahead and cheat back?” Nero’s eyes were directed towards the beautiful woman across the room.
“No. That’s the annoying thing. I don’t want to.”
“Why not ask her then? Maybe what you heard wasn’t what really happened.”
“Yeah. Maybe earthworms can fly.”
“So, what are you going to do about it since you won’t confront her?”
“What does that mean, Basim?”
Basim picked up his beer and had a long guzzle.
“You said you weren’t going to be that person anymore.”
“What person?” Basim kept a plain face.
“The one who stalks his women, who gets unnecessarily jealous and possessive…”
“Do you have any idea who Ozzy was to Gold, back in school? They were the cute couple that everyone admired. The stupid halfcaste was all over her ass for three years. If he’s back in her life, I deserve to know.”
“And so you’ll spend money stalking her, setting a detective on her? How different are you from Mom whom you’re always judging for putting an extra eye on all of us?”
“It is not the same thing, Okiemute. Mom has lost it…”
“And you’ve not? You’ve quickly forgotten what you did to Laraba and how you drove a good woman away on mere suspicions?”
“We’re not going to talk about my ex.”
“Fine. Just don’t do this to Gold. Talk to her, hear her own side of the story. Then, you can decide to leave her if there’s no future for you guys.”
“I’ve heard. Let’s not spoil this evening abeg.” He lifted his beer. “To Fajr and her frogspawn!”
“It’s a baby, Bas. Maybe you should try and have one?”
“Okay, accidental dad.”
Nero laughed and raised his bottle to toast with him. They drank at the same time, and when Basim let down his mug, he caught the long-legged woman staring at him. There was blatant invitation in her eyes. He held the stare for a bit and looked at Nero who was on his phone.
“I didn’t see shit,” Nero said.
Nero had always thought of his house as an extension of himself. Unfortunately, he had shared his space with women who had not appreciated his taste. Now, that he was alone, he was giving himself the creative license to shape things up the way he wanted to. Over the past couple of weeks, he had effected major changes on the look of his house. He did this with Obi’s help, exploiting the opportunity to bond with him. This morning, they put up a framed photo of two of them that had been taken by Basim at a gym, in which Nero was seated on a bench while Obi rested a foot on the same bench, tying his shoelace. Nero had longed to share the photo on his Instagram, but due to Cheta’s wishes that his relationship with Obi be kept away from the public for now, he refrained. The photo, however, was perfect as an aesthetic addition to his décor.
The idea for his revised home design was simple. It came with punchy palettes of blue, white and red. It was a mix of the new and old, with vintage pieces gotten from Hadiza that Nero thought would find expression in his space. He changed his furniture as well, balancing light and heavy fixtures. Having worked for years with professional home decorators, he knew well the secret power of layering, which was all about balancing and blending different elements to make a place look natural while achieving a feeling of individualism. Having accomplished this, his house looked like something one would find in a magazine.
He was proud of what he had done, but to him, he was not yet through. Decorating one’s home was a work-in-progress, which he did not desire to sort out alone as the years moved into the future. His wish was to have Cheta share his personal space with him and add her expressions to complement his.
“Mom is here.”
Obi’s voice cut into his moment of staring at his favorite artwork in the house. It was a Yusuf Grillo, which Hadiza had bought some years ago. He had struggled with the piece for over a week, wondering if it was in a good spot or if he needed to hang it elsewhere.
He stared out the window to see Cheta drive into his compound.
“Tell her I’m in the shower,” he said to Obi, making his way to his bedroom. He took off sweaty gym clothes and went for a relaxing shower. Flashes of his dream from last night came to him. He had seen himself with Joy in his bed. Lying between them was Obi, but as a baby. They seemed happy, and that bit annoyed him the most. He was mad at his subconscious for retaining pieces of Joy. He still hated himself for the power he had given her over his emotions. He hoped she tripped and fell whenever he thought about her.
Nero came out of the bathroom and dressed in fresh clothes. He returned to the living room, following Obi and Cheta’s voices to the kitchen.
Obi was wiping off a stain on Cheta’s top with a kitchen napkin, but she didn’t seem impressed by his effort.
“It’s okay, abeg.” She smacked his hand away. “You’ve made it worse.”
“You could say thank you,” Obi quipped.
“Is everything okay?” Nero asked.
Cheta looked at him and a smile lit her face. “Hi.”
“I went to get pizza for Obi, as he requested, and some kid splashed juice or whatever she was drinking on me.”
“Let me see…” Nero went closer and observed the wet area on her top.
“The stain is gone, but I’m wet. No thanks to this big head here.” She rubbed Obi’s hair, which had been recently twisted into fresh locs. “I love your dreads ehn.”
“Mom, stop.” Obi pushed her hand off but she tugged his hair again.
Nero watched them, still amazed at how the girl he had met almost seventeen years ago was now a mother to a teenage son. The duo looked like siblings.
“I have a t-shirt you could use while Obi sundries your top,” Nero said.
“Thanks,” Cheta answered.
He took her to his bedroom and handed her a t-shirt from his closet. “You can change in the…” He stopped when he realized that her top was already off. “Oh.” He recalled that she once told him that she was a nudist.
“It’s not like you’ve not seen all of this,” she commented, handing him the top.
“This is not a good day to play games with me, Cheta. Please, help me focus on what brought you here.”
She laughed. “Relax. I’m not going to cock-tease you.”
“Cock-tease me? You think I’ll be thirsty if you tried anything? Madam, don’t overrate yourself, abeg.”
Cheta slipped into his t-shirt. “I’ll go easy on you, baby daddy.”
“Stop calling me that.”
He began towards the door, then stopped, turning around and bumping into her.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I forgot something.”
He moved away to let her through. After she was gone, he took a few seconds alone. He had just realized that the t-shirt he gave her was the same one Joy was wearing in his dream. He wondered if it meant that Cheta was the one he dreamt about and not Joy. This was why he hated dreams; he was better off not having them.
He left the bedroom to the kitchen, where Obi was already helping himself to some pizza.
“Didn’t you like have breakfast already this morning?”
“Yeah,” Obi answered indifferently. Nero tossed Cheta’s top at him, and as a whiff of her perfume came to him, he regretted not sniffing it when he had the chance.
He went into the living room. She was seated with her laptop resting on her lap.
“I’m ready whenever you guys are,” she said.
“Have you had breakfast?”
“No, I’m not hungry.”
Neither was Nero. He sat on a sofa adjacent to hers.
“The new look is beautiful,” she said.
“Your house. I love what you did with it. Very classy and masculine. And that painting…” She pointed at the Yusuf Grillo. “That’s my best. I walked in and it just caught my eye.”
She stared at him for a bit.
“What?” he asked.
“I get it.”
“You get what?”
“You. Your coolness, sex appeal, sophistication… You’re the entire package. I get why women want you.”
“Women want me? Are you talking about me or another Nero in an alternate universe?”
“Well, according to Basim, women are all over you.”
Nero laughed. “Don’t listen to Bas. He’s just trying to be the perfect wingman. Women are so not all over me. At all.”
Nero recalled Cherish this morning at the gym and how she had tried everything to get his attention. From being a friendly neighbor to stopping by unannounced at odd hours to borrow this or that, she was becoming a pest. So were other women. He used to enjoy being wanted but not anymore, especially now that Cheta was back in his existence.
“Is this some sort of mating call you’re doing?” he asked her.
“Flatter yourself, Oghenero.”
She faced her laptop, and this time, he watched her. She was always beautiful, always a huge distraction to him.
He stretched out on the sofa and spent the minutes that followed, reading comments on his Instagram. Yesterday, he had posted photos of a car he wanted to get for himself in the new year. He asked his followers what color they thought was the best, and this morning, he woke up with over two-hundred comments, many of them doing the Nigerian thing of requesting for a Christmas giveaway.
“If I were to do a Christmas giveaway for my followers, what do you think I should give?” he asked Cheta.
“A car,” she answered.
“You have seven of them, which you don’t drive at the same time or even keep in the same place.”
“Well, in my defense, each car serves its purpose.”
“Vanity upon vanity.”
“You’re judging me.”
“Just give one away.”
“Obi is already going to get one next year…”
“He’s not old enough to own a car.”
Nero ignored her. “If I give him one, six would be left. And you want me to give another away?”
Cheta blessed him with a disapproving stare.
“You’re still judging me. And yes, I’m very stingy with cars. I’d rather give money.”
He mulled on her advice but quickly discarded it. He already made plans with Basim to bless fifty families this Christmas. He would stick with that.
“I’m ready.” Obi walked into the living room.
“Good. Let’s do this somewhere more comfortable.”
They moved to the dining table and hurdled together in a corner, the laptop in front of Cheta. Nero checked the time. If things went quickly, he would dash to one of his construction sites to see how work was progressing before returning to spend the rest of the day at home.
“So, have you finally made up your mind on what computer course you want to read?” Cheta questioned Obi.
“I…” he scratched his head. “I’m thinking about graphic design.”
Cheta gave him a piercing stare. “Come again?”
Nero crossed his arms and leaned back, sensing trouble on the way.
“I want to study graphic design,” Obi said emphatically.
“That’s what I really wanted to read.”
“And I’m asking you since when, Obi. When did you make this decision?”
“And your computer skills? You’ll throw them all away?”
“I’m not throwing anything away, Mom. I can still study online or something. I learnt everything I know today from the internet.”
“Exactly. You can also learn graphics and design off the internet too.”
“Graphic design,” he corrected.
“Whatever. It just won’t work. What type of job do you even want to do with it?”
“A lot, apparently,” Nero replied. Cheta eyed him.
“Tell her, Dad.”
“He’s not telling me anything, Obi. You can’t go all the way to a foreign country to study graphics and design.”
“Dad and I already talked about it,” Obi said with a raised tone. “Dad, tell her.”
Cheta looked at Nero who unfolded his arms and leaned forward. “Obi, give us a minute.”
Obi pushed his chair backwards and left the dining area.
“You’re supporting this nonsense?” Cheta quizzed.
“I think you’re a little ignorant of what graphic design is all about. There are amazing opportunities out there for graphic designers.”
“Really? Asides logos and designing posters, what else?”
“Cheta, you’re smarter than this. Don’t be difficult for no reason.”
“For no reason? My son is about to waste three to four years of his life and I should smile about it?”
“Do you care at all what he’s passionate about, Chichetaram? Or you just want to be the typical parent who must have their way and hurt their child in the end?”
Cheta was weakened by his words.
“One of the things you told me when we first hooked up years ago was that you won’t repeat your parents’ mistakes. I think you need to revisit that plan.”
Cheta went quiet for a while. When she called Obi back, she asked him to sit.
“Your dad and I have spoken and we feel that it’s best you read what you want to read.”
“Or you could say thank you,” Nero remarked.
“Thank you, guys.”
“Just don’t throw your computer skills away,” Cheta added. “It’s the future.”
“So,” she exhaled, “let’s dive into schools.”
Nero saw another fight coming soon. Obi had plans to school in unpopular places that Nero was sure Cheta would hate. Her top university choices were all in English-speaking countries. Obi wanted a place where he could learn some other language, but he was smart enough to let her list out the schools she wanted. Together, they went through the admissions requirement for international students, compared tuition fees, and made research on the boarding and living conditions in each school.
“We’re down to five,” Cheta concluded.
“Six,” Nero said. “I told you not to make your decisions on fees.”
“Six,” she agreed with him.
“How about you, Obi?” Nero looked at his son who had become restless in the last ten minutes.
“I… I don’t want to go to any of those schools.”
Cheta brought her brows together in puzzlement.
“Why?” Nero asked.
“I want to go somewhere different, learn a new language, be with people who don’t speak English.”
“Wow.” Cheta rested her elbows on the table and stared at Obi, stunned. “And you let me waste almost three hours, researching something you’re not interested in?”
“I didn’t want to get you pissed.”
“Well, you have. Next time, give me a heads-up. I have better things to do with my time.”
Nero raised his brows, cringing at her words.
“Mom, this is about me,” Obi said defensively. “What I want. I’ll be the one out there, schooling. So, can you not make this about you…?”
“I’m making this about me?”
“Yes. It’s about what you want, what you can pay, where you feel is cool. And I don’t care about those things—”
“Of course, you don’t, Obi! What do you know about life that you have to sit there and say those words to me? And when did you even get that smart mouth to talk to me that way sef?”
“I just want to go to the school I want! Stop trying to control my life!”
“I’m controlling your life?”
“Every time! Is it because I don’t complain? You’re very controlling!”
Cheta’s lips moved but words didn’t come out of them. “Obi, I’m very controlling?” she eventually asked in a whisper.
“You choose what I wear, the friends I hang out with, where I go, what I watch… Everything! How different are you from Grandma and Grandpa?”
He touched a sore spot that had Cheta pulling away from the table in slow motion and glaring at him, speechless. Nero could have stopped Obi at this point, but the boy had a lot on his mind to say to his mother about how their relationship had gone through the years. Where Cheta had thought he was a quiet, obedient son, was where Obi swallowed a lot to make her happy, because he had seen firsthand how her own parents had treated her. He loved her too much to add to her pain.
“I’m not trying to be my parents, Obiedika. Only trying to be the best mother I can be. If I caged you while doing it, I am sorry. Apparently, I’ve become what I always hated. And apparently, it’s your life, not mine. You’re growing into a man. So, by all means, do as you will. Your father will support you, after all. He has the money and patience I don’t have, clearly.” She stood. “If you guys would excuse me.”
She went into the kitchen.
“Why is she being like this?” Obi asked. “That was emotional blackmail, right?”
“Obi, she’s your mother and she’s done a great job raising you. The least you can do right now is not to make her feel like shit for being there for you.”
“She wasn’t there for me! She left me for ten years!”
“Lower your voice.”
“She left me, Dad!”
“I left you?” Cheta burst out of the kitchen.
“Oh boy,” Nero muttered.
“No, Obi, repeat yourself! Say it to my face!”
“You left me with those…those people!”
“My parents, you mean?”
“You hate them and yet you left me with them!”
“I was doing the right thing for you!”
“How is it right if you yourself couldn’t stay with them? Why did it have to be me?”
“Obi, you know I didn’t have the financial or emotional capacity to take care of you—”
“I was just a child! Nobody cared about me in that house! I was all on my own! They were ashamed of me, as if I did something wrong! They kept telling everyone that I was adopted! All they cared about was that stupid church! Then you, you’ll come and stay a few days and act like you had better things to do—”
“That’s not true.”
“They hated me and you hated me!”
“Obi,” Nero warned.
“But I came for you,” Cheta said in a small voice.
“After ten years, Mom! And you think you know me? You don’t know shit about me! You never gave a fuck!”
“Obiedika!” Nero scolded. The boy picked his phone from the table and stormed into his bedroom.
Too dazed to move, Cheta stood frozen. Nero faced her.
“Are you okay?”
She didn’t respond.
“Are you all right?”
She came to. “Am I all right? What sort of question is that?”
“A simple one.”
“I’m fine, and I’m going home.” She moved to the living room. Nero followed her. When she picked her handbag, he stopped her.
“You’re not going to walk away from your son just like that.”
“Really? Watch me.”
Nero seized her handbag.
“Oghenero, not now, abeg.”
“That boy just poured out his heart to you, expressing years of resentment, and the best you think you can do is walk away?”
“Wow, Nero. You have a son for five minutes and you think you’re now the father of the year? Go right ahead and give yourself an award for best parent. You seem to be winning in all the categories.”
“Don’t be obtuse.”
“Don’t insult me, Nero. All of this happened because of you! Obi and I were fine the way we were before you came in with all your money and charm, and he suddenly realized that his life with me was shit! That I was a bad mother, and I didn’t give a fuck about him! Well done, Daddy!” She snatched her handbag and marched to the front door.
“All he wants is for you to understand that he’s a person of his own, not the little boy you had and didn’t want, not the grandson to grandparents who didn’t give a damn about him and his mom. He is beyond all that.”
Cheta opened the door.
“And yes, he feels like himself around me, not because I’m the best dad, but because I always take him as he is. Not like I have a choice, Cheta. I lost sixteen years of his life. I’m grateful to be given the chance to make up for all that time. So, yes, I may be a little too indulgent and too cool and too inexperienced in dealing with a teenager. But trust me, I’m not trying to out-parent you. I just want to be that person he can look up to, and at the same time, show his real self to. I want him to forget what he’s been through. Same thing I want for you.”
Cheta remained by the door for a few seconds, and when it seemed like his words had gotten to her, she stepped out of the house and shut the door without looking back.
Nero sighed. She was more stubborn than he had imagined. He felt sad for her. Looking at the way she handled what had just happened, he concluded that she had chosen to walk away from many fights rather than make peace—just to protect her heart and pride. He also concluded that it had not been her fault in those situations. From all Obi had told him about her, she was a sweet soul. Sadly, the world was too much of a bitter place for sweet people and she had had to learn the hard way.
He walked to the window when he didn’t hear the sound of her car. He peeped out and saw her seated within, head bent.
Nero turned towards the sound of Obi’s voice. He was standing by his bedroom door with an expression of remorse.
“Let me talk to her,” he said. Nero raised a finger, stopping him. It touched him that the boy felt responsible for making her feel better. He was too young to carry that burden. How many times had he had to pull his mother out of a dark place?
“I’ll talk to her.” Nero left the house and walked to her car. She didn’t see him approaching until he tapped on the window. She quickly wiped her tears and let the window down.
“Come back inside.”
“No. I have stuff I need to do.”
“Cheta, come back in, let’s talk.”
“About what? I’m a bad mother.”
“Can you stop the self-pity thing?”
“No, Nero. I’m not…” She tried to say more but a spell of tears stopped her. Nero let her be for some time. “Obi is right. I… I didn’t want him, even though it was hard for me to let go. I just didn’t see him in my life at that moment. I went back home after six years, Nero. Six years.”
“You were in school.”
“Yeah, but six years. What loving mother does that? And he was right about the way I was around him. I basically ignored him. It was always all about me. Even when I finally took him from them, I made him travel everywhere with me to fulfill my dreams…”
“And make ends meet. You were doing what every good parent does. Please, stop being hard on yourself.”
“He’s right too about the controlling part. All these years, it’s been about what I wanted for him and not what he wanted. I mistook his silence for good behavior. I was just so stupid, Nero.”
“No, you were not.”
“How do I make it up to him? Where do I even begin?”
Nero smiled. “You see why I’m crazy about you and want you so badly? You’re an angel.”
“Not now, Nero.”
“Just keep being yourself, only try to be more attentive to the things he’s not saying. Don’t just assume that what you want for him is always the best. He’s an entire human being of his own and his needs matter. Never forget that.”
Cheta nodded. “I should know this better than anyone.”
“As for the school thing, let him do what he wants. As long as it’s quality education. He’ll turn out fine.”
“I hope so.”
“Now, will you come in and have lunch? I’m starving.”
Cheta wiped off traces of tears from her face and followed Nero in. He ordered lunch for three of them, and when it arrived, Obi asked to have his meal alone. He stayed in his bedroom while they remained in the living room. They watched Friends as they ate. Afterwards, Cheta stretched out on a sofa, confessing that she was too tired to drive home.
“You should rest. You actually look really exhausted. I don’t like the dark circles around your eyes.”
“You say you won’t chase me, but you’re doing just that—in a very ‘I already got her’ way. I won’t be surprised to wake up tomorrow and find myself in a relationship.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
Nero’s phone rang and he walked into the kitchen to answer it. When he returned, he found Cheta sleeping. He stooped before her and touched her arm. She opened her eyes.
“House rules: we don’t sleep in the living room.”
“I actually liked how fluffy your bed looked.” She used him as support to stand. Nero held her hand as she slid her feet into her slippers. They went into his bedroom together and he drew the drapes to block off daylight.
“Please, I need this room very cold,” Cheta requested. Nero lowered the temperature of the air conditioner. “Anything else, milady?”
Nero turned, guessing she wanted to strip.
“You can turn back now.”
He did, and he caught her slipping underneath his blanket, her bra and jeans on the floor. When he was satisfied that she was comfortable on his bed, he asked Alexa to play him his siesta playlist.
“Alexa, turn down the volume,” he added when a song began playing.
“Nice,” Cheta muttered. “Give me an hour, tops.”
But she slept for four hours, waking up at dusk. Nero had come to check on her for the second time and saw her stirring.
She looked at him, confused, for a second. He allowed her a few more seconds to pull her thoughts together. “This place is dark.”
Nero switched on dim lighting.
“What time is it?”
“Wow.” She sat up.
“You don’t take naps and it shows. You should start learning how to rest.”
“Okay, doctor. I need to pee.” She got up and started towards the bathroom. “My mouth tastes of stale onions and vinegar.”
“I have mouthwash,” he announced. “I’m in the parlor.”
Nero went back to the living room where he was poring over the blueprint of a hotel he had been contracted to build. Cheta soon joined him. Her jeans were back on; her bra, however, was not.
“He went out with friends who came over.”
She yawned. “I can’t believe I slept that long.”
“Yes, you did. I went out and came back. I even took a short nap myself.”
“Na wa o. Which kind sleep carry me so?”
“I’m not complaining.”
“Thank you, Nero. I should be heading back.”
Those were not words he wanted to hear. “Do you want to see a movie?”
She lifted her brows in a playful smile.
“No, this is not me toasting you or anything of the sort…” He stopped to laugh. “No, I’m serious. It’s just a movie.”
“So, are you game?”
“Great. Let me get your top and we’ll be on our way.”
He dashed outside, picked her top from the line and brought it to her. Then, he went in to change, coming out with her bra. She went back to his bedroom; minutes after, she returned, holding her handbag. She looked refreshed, with lips covered in pink lip gloss. He wanted to pay her a comment, but he held back.
“What movie are we seeing?” she asked as they left the house.
They had chosen a Nollywood production, which to Nero’s valuation, was boring.
“I can’t wait to see your first major motion picture,” he said, halfway into the movie. “I’ve seen your documentaries, and they’re good, Cheta. You have this British thing to your art. It was almost as if I was watching a BBC production. Quite stellar.”
They watched for a bit, and then Cheta asked if he wanted to do something different.
“Drinks. I know a place.”
He handed his car key to her. She drove them to a new bar in town, situated in a hotel. Basim loved to call such places high concept bars. It was all about the expensive drinks, sophisticated ambience and the caliber of people who visited such places, looking for luxurious thrills. This particular bar, if Nero were to be honest, was pleasing to the eye and he didn’t care that the people in it probably felt more cultured that the average beer drinkers. He was with Cheta in the VIP room and that was all that mattered.
They had a good time, as this sort of things went. Alcohol was always a mood easer, even though they didn’t need it to make things flow between them. Nero was beginning to appreciate the fact that, beyond the sex and lust that brought them together years ago, they had had a lot to talk about. Somehow, they picked up their lighthearted, easy banter from where they had left off that year. If they continued this way, he saw them becoming close friends soon. But he wanted more than that.
“My sister had her third child yesterday,” he said when the conversation dipped a little.
“That’s good news. Congratulations to you guys.”
“Thank you. Speaking of which, when will be a good time to introduce Obi to my family?”
“Yeah, you told me to give you some time. It’s been a while now.”
“I…” Cheta sipped her cocktail. “I still need more time.”
“Is there a reason for the delay? I also want your family to know about me. I understand why you’re not excited about that happening, but on my side, my folks already know you. Even the Okiemutes. They’re all eager to meet you and Obi.”
“Let’s do it after Christmas, in January.”
“That’s fine, as long as you don’t postpone again.”
He caught the uneasy smile on her face.
“What are you doing for Christmas?”
“My cousin is getting married and my house is going to be accommodation for extended family members. My parents and my brother and his wife are all coming too. They’re staying in the guesthouse. I now know why they decided to give me a house with the guesthouse.”
“If they stress you, you could chill at mine until they’re gone. I think you’re already in love with my bed.”
“I am.” She smiled, but he noticed that her unease was still there. He talked about something else, wishing he hadn’t brought up the previous topic.
“Could you excuse me for a bit?” she said, interrupting him while he spoke. “I need to use the restroom.”
She made her way out and was gone for a bit longer than normal. As he began to worry, she came back.”
“Sorry, I had to answer a call too.”
Another round of drinks came and Nero declined.
“I’m the designated driver,” he said. “Unless you want us going home in a cab.”
“I’ll drink yours.”
He gave her a concerned look, remembering that she told him earlier that she was bad with alcohol.
“It’s just a cocktail.”
“Are you sure you can handle it?” he asked.
They continued talking and Nero observed how Cheta speedily downed her cocktail. When she reached for his, he drew it back.
“I can handle one more glass.”
He was probably going to call a cab or end up booking hotel rooms for them.
“You think I’m a drunk or something.”
“No. But I think that right now, you’re way too tipsy. It’s not showing, but I know you are.”
“I am, actually.” She smiled. “And that’s why I feel that it’s a good time to tell you something I’ve been hiding from you for a while now.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“Nero, I need to let this off my chest.”
Nero stretched his hand towards hers. He held her. “Don’t to do this now. I need you to do it while sober, looking into my eyes as you speak. I detest a tongue loosened by alcohol.”
His words sank in hard. Cheta nodded.
“What I think we should both do is go home now. Okay?”
She removed her hand from his and called a passing waiter. She asked for their bill. Nero didn’t speak until they were seated in his car. He turned on the radio.
“This thing you wanted to tell me, how bad is it?”
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Would it change the way I feel about you?”
“I don’t want anything to change the way I feel about you, Cheta. Falling for you is top tier the best feeling I’ve had in years. Don’t come and spoil my fun, please.”
“Ignorance is not bliss, Nero.”
“It is, sometimes. Think about a man whose wife is cheating on him and he doesn’t know, and everything is good with them at home. Isn’t that bliss?”
“Until he catches an STD or she leaves him for the other man.”
“Until then, it’s bliss.”
“Tell me when you’re ready. If you have to hide behind alcohol, it means that you’re not ready.”
“I can’t fault your logic.”
“I’m just an idiot in love. My eye go clear soon.”
They laughed together.
“I want to kiss you,” Cheta said.
“And why must you announce it, Chichetaram?”
“Because I want to be sure that you want…”
He leaned over and shut her mouth with his. She smiled between his lips.
“I so want to be with you, Nero, but I…”
He kissed her again. “But you what?”
“It’s complicated and I…”
He added a third kiss. “What were you saying?”
She looked into his eyes. “This is so nostalgic.”
“I know, right?”
“We should leave.”
“Yeah, after one last kiss.”
“Only one. I just want to…”
She stopped him short with a kiss. He kissed back, broke away, and laughed. Then, he came back with one last kiss. It lasted longer and was slowly stripped of its humor, leading into something intense. When they stopped, Nero found that her hand was in his, rested on his chest.
“Deal with whatever you need to deal with and come to me wholeheartedly, Eden. Don’t keep me waiting for long.”
Cheta fastened her seatbelt and turned up the volume of the radio. Gareth Gates’ cover of Unchained Melody was presently playing. As Nero drove away from the hotel premises, he bopped his head to the song. On the road, he began to sing along, not caring about the constant crack in his voice. Cheta rested her elbow on the tunnel console and supported her chin on her hand, giving him an audience. At the end of the performance, she applauded.
“Do you think I should have a music career?” he asked.
“Totally,” she answered, “even if I’m the only one who listens to you.”
Ruby & The Romantics came on next with Our Day Will Come. It was Cheta’s turn to entertain him. When she began to sing, he nearly stepped on the brakes.
For a second, she was confused. “What is it?”
“You can sing!”
“Oh.” She kissed her teeth. “You scared me.”
“No, seriously, you can. Where did you learn to sing like that?”
“Well, church choir. Popsi forced me to join, so…”
“Oya continue before the song finishes.”
Moving to the beat of the song, Cheta kept singing. Nero smiled discreetly. He liked that she had not outgrown being herself around him. Her carefreeness was one of the things he fell for when they first met. There was a happy person within her, ready to break free.
“Oh, I love this one too!” she said when a new song came on.
“I don’t. I had my first heartbreak listening to it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Let me change the station then.”
“No, it’s fine…”
But she already switched to another radio station where Joeboy’s Lonely was playing. As if planned, they both began moving to the beats of the song in similar fashion, then burst out laughing. It was in this same manner they continued with strictly Nigerian music until Nero pulled up outside her gate. Earlier, while leaving the bar, they had agreed that he would take her home, since she was too tipsy to drive. Tomorrow, Obi would bring her car to her.
“I had a good time,” Nero said.
“Maybe we should do this again.”
“Maybe.” She unfastened her seatbelt, opened her handbag and passed her car key to him. He held her hand after taking the key.
“You don’t know how much I’m holding back from expressing myself, Cheta.”
He let go of her hand and they both stepped down from the car. They walked to the pedestrian gate and stopped there. The guard opened the gate and poked his head out. He withdrew when he saw them.
“So, you said January, right? You and Obi meeting my family.”
They both went silent but remained standing, staring at each other.
“This is silly, Nero. We’re acting like teens…”
“Spend Christmas with me.”
“Let’s do Christmas together. Nothing elaborate. We could go to some resort or just chill at my place. Anything you prefer… If you say yes—”
Her immediate response made him laugh. “That’s awesome.”
Fingers hooked to her back pockets, she stared up at him with desirous eyes.
“Do you want to kiss me?” he asked.
He took her waist, drew her towards him and gave her multiple short kisses. He stopped and she put her arms around him, hiding her face in his neck. He felt something was wrong, but when he asked if she was okay, she nodded. Still, he hugged her snugly, rubbing her back in rhythm to Fireboy DML’s Like I do, which was playing on the radio.
Cheta soon pulled away. “Ask your mom to tell you what she’s hiding from you about me.”
“It’s the same things I wanted to talk to you about earlier. We have a secret between us. Tell her to tell you. I can’t bring myself to say it.”
He had no clue what she meant, but he nodded. “Okay. I will.”
“After that, you can decide if we’ll spend Christmas together or not.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Just talk to her.”
They hugged one last time and Cheta went into the compound. Nero went into the car. He mulled over her words for a while before picking his phone to send Hadiza a message. He then discovered that he had missed Joy’s calls a couple of times. A text from her dropped.
Hey stranger. I want to stop by tomorrow to pick the rest of my stuff. I also think we should talk. Call me when you get this. XX
Nero gave her an instant response.
Leave me alone Joy. You and I don’t have shit to talk about
Nero put his gear in reverse and drove away from Cheta’s premises.
®Sally Kenneth Dadzie @moskedapages