When Andre opened his eyes, following a five-hour slumber, he found Toni awake. She was seated at the edge of the bed, applying lotion on her thighs. He cast his eyes on a window and saw that it was still dark outside. He raised his torso while letting out a yawn. Toni stopped and angled her neck in his direction.
“Did I wake you up?”
“No. What time is it?”
“Where are you going?”
“Home. I’m taking the kids to school today.”
Andre rested his back on the bed. The fragrance of the lotion which reminded him of something orangey or lemony had become part of his daily life over the past few days. Toni, who had suddenly developed irritation for her signature scent, had switched to something milder, buying a whole range of beauty products from Givenchy that worked well for her present condition. So far, she was doing fine. No nausea, no pregnancy difficulties. But he worried that she stressed herself too much.
“I don’t like the idea of you driving all the way to the island in the dark.”
“You don’t like the idea of me doing anything these days, Fabrice. Left to you, I should just lie in bed all day.” She said this, standing up. The silhouette of her nude body put desirous thoughts in his head.
“Come, let me kiss you small nau.”
“Go back to sleep, Andre.” Her voice had hints of laughter in it. Andre watched her slip into a dress, pick up her handbag and laptop. He lifted his body off the bed again.
“The best part of you being pregnant is the end to your cigarettes.”
“I don’t even miss them. Weird how I’m yet to have withdrawal symptoms.”
He got off the bed. “It’s the Lord’s doing.”
He heard something like a giggle as he reached for her.
“Promise me you won’t stress yourself today.”
He tried to kiss her but she shook her head. She had also become irritated by his morning breath. She pressed her lips on his chest, and looking up to him, asked, “Why did you pay for the house without checking in with me? I thought we were both contributing.”
Andre sensed an argument coming. He moved away from her and to the bathroom to release a full bladder.
“Toni, please don’t make it an issue. I’ve paid and that’s that.”
“How about doing things together? We agreed that both of us would pay but you went behind my back…”
“I didn’t go behind your back, ma chatte. I simply paid. Can we not fight over it?”
“I hope when we start living together, you won’t act like you’re the man of the house and all the responsibility lies on you?”
He smiled. “No, baby.”
“Good. I don’t want to have to fight you over that. I’ll let this slide. Décor and everything else is on me.”
He winced. He had already made a down payment to the décor company they had chosen to go with. He wasn’t sorry for his actions. He was old-fashioned. He believed that it was the man’s responsibility to cater for his woman and the home. Toni was going to have a hard time accepting that side of him.
Andre returned to the bedroom. She was waiting by the door.
“I’m still bothered about Tisha,” Toni said as worry lines came to rest on her forehead.
“She’ll be fine.”
“It’s gone on too long. She’s shut Dapo and I out.”
“Just give her time.”
Toni bit her lips in thought. “What if she knows that I’m pregnant and she’s resenting me?”
“How does she know you’re pregnant? Didn’t you say you trashed the test stick?”
“I did, but I’m just saying… Maybe she senses it.”
“She doesn’t, but all the same, tell her.”
“How? So that she’ll sink more into her depression?”
“Maybe it’s what she needs. Toni, Leticia loves you with her life. She’ll be happy to know you’re pregnant, despite everything. She wanted you back with me so we can start a family. Keeping the truth from her can hurt your relationship. How long do you want to hide it?”
“Until she gets back to the Leticia I know.”
“Just tell her and be there for her.”
“Not yet. I can’t hurt her more.”
Andre put his arm around Toni and walked her to her car. She drove out of the compound and he stood until she was gone. He returned to the house, switched off his phone and went back to sleep. It was a good thing Josiah was with Simone. He was going to enjoy a short nap before heading to work.
“Leticia, I’m really concerned about you. Are you okay?”
Leticia’s eyes were secured on Raji’s wristwatch. Her mind was gone, as it had been doing over the past week. It had become so easy for her to get lost in thoughts and lose sense of her environment at the bat of an eyelid. Humans and her daily activities distressed her. Left to her, she would sit at home or spend the bulk of her time with Ruby and Duke. The children made her happy. Solitude allowed her the space to brood.
“Leticia?” Raji called. She returned to him.
“Are you even here at all?”
“Yeah… Um… If you’re referring to that account we almost lost…”
“We lost it, Tisha,” Raji corrected wearily. “You were handling it, but failed to show up for appointments twice, and didn’t think it necessary to report to Izu that you didn’t honor the meetings. I need a tangible explanation for why this happened and why I should not query you.”
“I…” Leticia shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Raji sighed. He pulled his chair forward. “Is this because of Izu? His position as your boss is only temporary. Jumo would soon be back from vacation.”
Leticia couldn’t explain to Raji what her problem was. He wouldn’t understand. No one would. Everyone that mattered to her felt she was losing her mind, but she wasn’t. And even if she was, she had every right to. She had come across Toni’s pregnancy test stick, hidden in the medicine cabinet when she had gone to get painkillers for menstrual cramps. Her first reaction was happiness which bore no ill feelings. She was genuinely elated for her friend. But as time passed and her emotions settled, reality threw her into a place of glum. Again, she questioned why she couldn’t get pregnant; why God didn’t want to answer her prayers; why it had come so easily for Toni who didn’t want a baby; and why Toni had to hide it from her.
She fought the little foxes of envy that forced themselves into her mind. She fought them while she battled with her own pain. But she lost with each day that went by and Toni kept mute over her pregnancy. Leticia was disappointed. Her own best friend didn’t think she would be happy for her. She began to despise her for thinking she was too fragile to accept that someone else was getting what she desired. It drained Leticia and ate through her reasoning like a virus. She withdrew from everyone, not on her own making, but as a result of a mind that was tortured.
She couldn’t tell Raji this, hence she vented, letting out another raw pain she had harbored for a while.
“Izu is not supposed to be heading accounts. I should be the one. I was doing well before Jumo showed up, but you put him ahead of me. I said, no wahala. He’s my boss and a senior partner. And then he travels and you bring that backstabber to sit on my head and order me around. Mr. Asepita, I have worked my ass off for Covet for years, and I have not even been offered junior partnership. That’s my grouse. I’m angry at you and your partners, and I kindly ask that you reconsider my position and pay. I know there’s no open window for partnership right now, but it would be a huge mistake when that window opens and I’m not on that list. I have the cash and experience, and I’m waiting.”
Setting her face in ice, she gave Raji a direct stare. “You can now go ahead and query me.”
But Raji smiled. “You’ve earned your stripes, Leticia. Covet is glad to have you here as a dedicated member of staff and also part of the wheel that keeps the agency running. I apologize on behalf of management for undervaluing the worth of your presence here. We will look into giving you a more suitable position.”
“No queries. You may leave.”
She went on her feet.
“But are you sure that’s all that’s bugging you, Tisha?”
“Yes, Raji. Thanks for asking.”
She left his office in fast strides for fear that he would see through her façade. Outside the door, she sought for that weightlessness she had longed for since her bane started, but instead she felt worse. When she entered her office, the annoying presence of Izu met her. For a second she wondered how she had fallen for him, seeing how much she despised him now.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, walking to her desk.
“I came to talk about the little stunt you pulled.”
“What stunt?” Leticia sat.
“Going to my house and confessing everything we did to my wife.”
“Is that why you reported me to Raji?”
“Tisha, what was that about?”
“I’m cleaning my closet,” she replied.
“By going to give my wife heartache?”
“I’m sure she didn’t feel it. I was just another drop in a mighty ocean. Same thing I was in your life.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that you denied your own child, dumped me and took back the car you gave me. It doesn’t take away the pain I felt when I became nothing to you after that, especially after going through an agonizing abortion. And let’s not forget how you sometimes bruised me with your nine-inch cock.”
“It’s just seven inches.”
“Whatever. I took all that from you and was left with nothing!”
“Why are you so angry at me?”
“Get out of my office, please. And the next time you report me to Raji, I’ll make sure the nonsense deal you have with them here would be over. Meanwhile, don’t ever think that you can order me around again! Get out, Izuchukwu.”
“This is what I get for the multiple orgasms I gave you.”
Leticia hurled an empty penholder at him. He picked it off the floor where it had fallen and pushed it towards her. She hurled it at him a second time.
“You’re a bitter bitch.”
After he was gone, she hid her face in her palms and wept. The misery was crippling. It left her wanting to seek a place where she could hide away. But her door burst open. She turned her face away.
“I’m sure you know well to knock before entering an office that’s not yours.”
“Tish, are you crying? What’s wrong?”
Toni’s voice pushed her deeper in her pain.
“Raji called me,” Toni mentioned. “He was worried about you. I had to rush here.”
Leticia felt a gentle touch on her back.
“Talk to me.”
She shook her head. “Just go away. I want to be alone.”
“Come on, Tish. You can’t keep being like this. It’s gone on for too long. I’ve allowed you space, but I don’t think I can bear it again. Talk to me nau.”
“Toni, go. I don’t want to talk to anybody right now.”
“Not even Dapo? He also asked me to speak to you. Why are you cutting everybody off?”
“I said I don’t want to talk. Is it so hard for you people to understand? Leave me alone.”
She felt Toni’s hand withdraw from her back.
“Okay. Let’s do dinner at that new spot you like…”
“Wow. Okay. I have my own little thing to worry about. I’ll check on you later?”
She managed a nod. Toni planted a peck on her head and left the office. Leticia locked the door, hurled herself over the desk and continued weeping.
Toni bore a troubled heart on her way back to her office, but she didn’t let it dwell. There was a more troubling issue she had to handle. She stopped in the kitchen for a bit to get a glass of freezing orange juice before continuing to her office.
“You have visitors,” Pascal announced as she made for the door. She didn’t bother to ask who. When she entered, she caught the tall frame of Andre standing before the corner window that formed a wall and looked out to the island. Her eyes left him and traveled to the left side of the office where an annoying man sat quite comfortably on her sofa.
She was supposed to release a smile at him but what came to her lips instead was a frown. Andre turned.
“Good morning guys,” she greeted, refusing to acknowledge the presence of the man.
“Antonia the Braithwaite!” he called, all smiles. She hated his smile too. It always came from a knoll of jet black beard.
Andre grinned. “I take it you two already know each other?”
Toni first pulled out her chair and kept her juice on the desk before responding. “Who doesn’t know Madu Ibekwe?”
“You’re not looking bad, bebe.”
“Shut it, dwarf. And might I remind you, you owe me 200k.”
“Haba!” he cackled.” After all these years? Forget it, baby. But seriously, you are looking fly.”
“For one who spends his time arguing with little kids on Twitter, I’m surprised you still use words like fly. It’s so 1970.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been silent on Twitter lately.”
“Oh, I forgot. I blocked your sorry ass.”
“But I’m not kidding, bae. You’re sizzling.”
Toni nearly laughed at the sudden look of interest Andre threw his way. She then gave her attire a glance. Of course she was ‘flying’ in an all-black outfit, styled with a pair of silver snakeskin heels. She hadn’t thought much of her choice of outfit before coming to work. She was secretly glad her style combo was approved by Madu. As much as he was a regular asshole, he was also an authority in fashion, which was why he was well-suited for his role at Guru & Monet, a fashion brand that was becoming the biggest in Africa.
Madu formally held the position of Head PR in the company, but being that he was a hustler, he also got the post of style consultant, a position that was unnecessary but good enough to sate his demons. He had a knack for being foulmouthed and troublesome. Toni had no idea what he was doing in her office.
“Why are you here, Madu?”
Madu looked up at Andre. “Your boyfriend invited me to have me weigh in, and maybe handle your present troubles.”
Toni gave Andre a sharp stare. She was sure she had mentioned more than a couple of times that Madu wasn’t exactly her favorite cone of ice-cream. Nonetheless, she sat, as did Andre.
“And what are my present troubles, if I may ask?”
“Rita Harrison’s latest drama online.”
“I don’t see how what Rita does online concerns me or you, dwarfy.”
Andre’s eyes scolded her.
“I miss your feistiness, Antonia,” Madu flattered. “But it’s not needed right now.”
Toni stuck out her middle finger.
“Rita revealed that her husband is dumping her for a younger woman who is pregnant for him, whom he bought a house and a car for. That should bother you baby.”
“Wait…” Toni looked at him suspiciously. “How did you know…?”
“I told him everything, ma chatte. He’ll do damage control and clear your name in case she decides to release more information about you and Imade.”
Andre had promised to handle the situation the moment Rita went public with her marital woes and garnered sympathy from people. Both Toni and Andre had feared that she would do worse.
“But are you pregnant for Imade?” Madu asked.
“Pregnant? I’m not even pregnant,” Toni lied. “I’m sure Rita is talking about someone else, not me.”
“But you briefly dated Imade?”
“Me? When and where?”
“That’s the spirit.” Madu grinned. “I fucking love this woman,” he said to Andre. “But let’s be serious bae. Give me the details so we can fuck things up.”
Toni was not interested in having Madu get in her business, but she was learning to trust Andre’s decisions, coming to understand that in a relationship she couldn’t steer the rudder alone. Therefore, she spent the next ten minutes, detailing her affair with Imade to Madu and her encounters with Rita Harrison.
“So, after going public with the news of her impending divorce, she still came to you?”
“Yes. Two days ago. She was here. She threatened to expose more if I didn’t ask Imade to let her have her father’s company as a divorce settlement or remain married to her.”
“Wow! So you really have that man under your thumb, Braithwaite? The almighty Imade. Do you know how influential he is? Do you know him at all?”
“Can you stop being predictably excruciating, Maduabuchi?”
“What’s he like? Is he a morning person or a night person? Coffee or tea? Boxers or briefs? See, I need to meet that man one on one after all of this drifts over, because men like him, you study closer and emulate.”
Toni, quite used to Madu’s antics, contained her annoyance.
“You amaze me sha, Braithwaite. How much you’ve grown! I remember our NYSC…”
“But you’re sure the baby’s not Imade’s?”
“Didn’t I tell you that I’m not pregnant?”
“I told him you were,” Andre said. “I’m sorry. It was necessary.”
“Can we have a minute?” Toni stood up. She marched out of the office and Andre followed.
“This pregnancy is the most guarded secret on earth,” she whispered. “Why would you go and tell that lunatic?”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. He assumed you were pregnant for Imade, based on Rita’s reveal, so I just blurted out that it wasn’t Imade’s but mine.”
“No more telling anyone.”
“But you know Madu’s the best.”
“Best but very divisive. I won’t be surprised if he asks me to run naked around Yaba market just to clear my name.”
“Just flow with him, ma chatte.”
They went back into the office.
“That was too quick of a quickie,” Madu joked.
“So what’s the plan?” Andre inquired.
Made sprang up, pushed one hand into a pocket and began walking in a zigzag motion.
“What are you doing, man?” Andre asked.
Madu lifted a finger. “I’m thinking… Let me think.”
He continued zigzagging until he came to an abrupt halt. “Rita Harrison is going to say more.”
Andre rolled his eyes.
“Breaking news,” Toni muttered in sarcasm.
“What do you think she’s going to reveal?”
“Definitely nothing that would ruin her chances of getting financial benefits from Imade,” Toni answered.
“So, that rules out any sex tape or nude images of you and the man.”
“What else does she have on you?”
Madu made it to Toni’s desk. He turned her chair to face him. “Think, bae. Think real hard. Is there any secret of yours you think anyone would dig up?”
“Are you sure? Because she would want to hit you really hard and pretend she’s not the one who did it and then make people connect the dots and blame you for her failed marriage. That’s what I’d do.”
Toni swiveled her chair back to its former position and bent her head in brief contemplation. She looked at Andre. He understood her thoughts. He nodded at her. She turned to Madu.
“I’m the High Mistress.”
“The High Mistress.”
“The High…?” His eyes widened. “Are you fucking yanking my balls?”
“No, but I wish I was.”
He slammed his palm on the desk and threw himself into laughter. Toni was not amused. He laughed hard, choked and went for her juice. When he regained his breath, he laughed again.
“Fuck me sideways! You this woman, na wa o! So you’re the almighty High Mistress?”
He moved backwards and bowed three times in exaggerated show of worship.
“Fool,” Toni murmured.
“Oh my goodness! You are one heck of a badass…” He stopped as Andre’s eyes cut him.
“Guy, be serious na.”
“But that’s some damning information there.”
He had another drink of her juice.
“How do we handle it?” Andre asked.
Madu’s fingers drummed the air in mind calculations. When he stopped, he looked at Toni.
“You won’t like what I’m about to tell you,” he sang.
“Do what you think she’ll do.”
“And what’s that?”
“Leak out that you are the High Mistress.”
“Why would we want to do that?” Andre asked with impatience.
“Rita Harrison has no desire to really expose you, or she would have done so a long time ago. It’s not about creating a scandal. She just wants to be treated right by her husband. Hence, she’s using the last and most important card, which is you. So she’s going to milk it until she gets you to do what she wants, which is why she’s treading carefully. But to kill all her plans, we’ll release the most damning information about you anonymously, and while everyone is wondering if it’s true or not, you’ll stay silent. You don’t say a word. No damage control. Allow it die a natural death. From experience, such scandals last two days tops. Once the heat has died down, you announce your engagement to Andre and also the pregnancy, and leave our darling Rita looking for another way to handle her amazing husband.”
“That’s your plan?” Toni put on a tired expression.
“It’s stupid,” Andre retorted, “and it leaves room for Toni’s image and that of Covet’s to be smeared. We’re not doing it. You promised me you could fix this.”
“I can. The only other option is to leak out something pejorative about Rita herself.”
“I don’t want this to be a back-and-forth,” Andre emphasized.
“Exactly. From experience, it achieves nothing. So just go with my plan.”
Andre lifted himself from the sofa, bringing the session to an end. A faint crease on his forehead showed he was trying to stay calm. “We’ll think about it.”
Madu stood up as well. “Don’t think for too long.”
Andre extended his hand for a shake. Madu responded with a firm grip. He then blew a kiss at Toni who replied with a blank stare. Both men exited the office, with Andre returning shortly.
“You’re right about him,” he said apologetically. “He’s lost it. We’ll find a way out of this…”
“Actually…” A thoughtful expression came upon Toni’s face. “I think I like his idea.”
“Letting the world know you’re High Mistress? No, Tone.”
“If I don’t do that now, the possibility of me being exposed is always going to be there. In fact, it’s always been there, hanging over my head like a rain cloud. So why not just do it and get it over with?”
“Toni, High Mistress shamelessly shared stories of the married men she’s had encounters with. She glorified adultery. She gave sidechicks and sidecocks reasons to hold their heads up. She rubbished the institution of marriage. High Mistress was hated as much as she was loved. Do you want to be associated with that person?”
“I was that person, Andre,” Toni answered with a sincere smile. “And I don’t regret being her. She was one part of my life I had to go through. Unfortunately, she has come to an end.”
“Give me a moment to mourn her.”
Toni shut her eyes and felt genuine tears sting them. She opened them. “That being said, it’s been a burden as well. I need to end that side of me and let it all go, baby. I can’t wait for the part where I get to announce to the world how much you mean to me.”
Andre was now standing before her. Concerned eyes regarded her as he held her hand. “I just don’t want anything to happen to your reputation. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I’ll be fine, Fabrice. The only problem is Tisha. I have to tell her about the baby.”
“You should do that.”
Andre kissed her hand and then her lips before making his exit. Toni picked the receiver off the phone on her desk.
“Imodumeh, get your ass in here.”
Salma’s day had pretty much started with her feisty sister waking her up with a phone call. She wanted to know the name of a certain drug Salma used to treat an ear infection Leelah had during the holidays. Her son was suffering the same fate. Salma gave her the name of the drug and added that it was best she took the boy to see a doctor first.
“Abeg, leave me. Meanwhile, I hope you’re set for Aisha’s wedding?”
“Are you seriously asking me which Aisha?”
“We have Aisha Rogo, Aisha Bello, Aisha Dan-Baba…”
“Aisha that lives in Magodo. What is wrong with you?”
“Oh! Aisha! Usiju’s girlfriend.” Salma drew herself up. “When’s the wedding?”
“When’s the wedding?”
Her sister was silent for a second and then she went crazy.
“Are you okay, Salma?! Or has Raji started twisting your head again with his prick? The wedding’s on Saturday!”
“I can’t believe this. How could you? You bought her aso-ebi last month. Please, don’t tell me you haven’t taken it to your tailor.”
“You didn’t remind me nau.”
“I must remind you to do everything?! My friend, will you get yourself out of that bed right now?!”
“Stop shouting nau.”
Salma made a sound akin to sobbing, and while her sister continued to scold her, she grumbled beneath her breath, finding her way out of her bedroom.
The maid was already making breakfast when she got downstairs. Salma took a drink of water and went back up to wake the children. As it was with them daily, it took an extra ten minutes to get Fahad out of bed. With the help of the maid, they were soon dressed for school and having their breakfast. The school bus picked them up shortly after and Salma returned to her bedroom to start the day.
She spent a few hours at the supermarket before driving over to her tailor’s. She was one of few people blessed with a tailor that never disappointed her. The man was pricey and demanded almost double the fee for express jobs, but he always delivered on time.
Salma explained her situation to him and painfully parted with a good sum to have him put her outfit together in three days. When she was through with him, she drove to a swanky hair shop to pick a weave she had preordered a week before.
Upon entering, she came across Maliq standing by the front desk. For the reason that he was the last person she expected to see, her heart unashamedly neglected a few beats and put her pulse in a faster pace.
She had always fantasized about what she would do if she came across him again. She had faced some difficulty getting over him, especially after seeing a side of him she had never seen before. His anger at her, the way he had expressed it and the manner in which he had dismissed her, it left her wanting more of him. The first few days of getting over him were particularly hell for her. But she was surprised to find that the pain vanished away rather quickly. She had wanted it to linger, to stimulate nostalgic feelings of her younger years when she was mad in love with Raji and spent her waking hours daydreaming about him. She missed the flightiness that came with falling in love. Maliq had given her that gift briefly, but the woman she was now, bearing her present responsibilities, didn’t let her dwell on fantasies. She moved on so fast that she wondered if what she had borne for him was ephemeral.
Seeing him now, the old feelings began to stir again. But her racing pulse slowed as she boldly sought his eyes. As always, he showed off in an Ankara outfit. Today, it was shorts and a black t-shirt that had tads of the Ankara material on it.
“Salma…” He didn’t seem as composed as she was. Her presence was undoubtedly unexpected.
“Good afternoon, Maliq.” She surprised herself by her calm. “Happy new year.”
“Yeah, same here. How have you been?”
“Great. You’re here to get something?”
“Yes. Em, New York Remy.”
“Oh. I think they brought in some yesterday. You have any in mind? I could help you choose.”
“No, I’m fine. I preordered actually.”
“Oh, that’s good then.”
Silence dropped, and for a few seconds, they simply stared at each other. “Let me get the weave,” Salma said.
“Sure.” Maliq stepped out of the way and she stood before the front desk. While she spoke with the receptionist, she felt Maliq’s eyes on her. Maybe it was her outfit. She didn’t dress conservative today. She was wearing a cashmere sweater over a long, fitted spandex skirt that emphasized her curves and left a slit, showing some leg.
Salma kept her eyes away from Maliq and fixed them on a poster of Gabrielle Union sporting the type of weave she had come to pick up. In no time, her order was given to her with a receipt. After she was through shopping, she turned and realized Maliq was gone.
In a weird way, she wasn’t disappointed at his absence. She stepped out of the shop, got into her car and was almost on her way out when he reappeared outside her window.
She let it down.
“So I’m thinking that I owe you an apology and maybe lunch?”
“They’re both unnecessary.”
“I know I said I didn’t want to have anything to do with you again, but seeing you in there dredged up something.”
Salma inhaled the scent of his perfume, allowing it resurrect memories she had tossed away.
“I miss you, Salma.”
“And you’re just getting to know that after ogling my ass.”
He smiled demurely. He didn’t like to talk about certain things. A woman’s body was one of them. Salma knew this; she was enjoying putting him in a spot.
“I hope you got an eyeful.”
“Haba, Salma. You know I wasn’t doing that.”
“The same way you never were doing it all those times we were together.”
He seemed like he was going to say something, but he bent his head and laughed. This was what she liked about him – the way he could be modest and blatant at the same time.
“So, lunch?” he requested again, clearing his throat.
“I’m no longer a distraction?”
“That’s the thing… You’ll never stop being a distraction, Salma. A challenge, more like. And I love challenges.”
“No, you love playing with fire.”
“What man doesn’t?”
Salma shook her head in a silent laugh. “I have to go, Maliq. Stop flirting with me.”
“There’s a long line. Join it. Your application may be considered.”
Her car came alive.
Salma fostered a smile as she drove away. Relishing her present mood, she went home, abandoning the supermarket for the day. She felt her bedroom needed cleaning, and so she spent three hours, turning the place over and remodeling it. The result was extra space.
The sudden need to clear out Raji’s side of the closet came on her and she did so, taking out clothes and shoes and bagging them. She also found a stash of magazines he used to subscribe to back then. She dumped some of them in the garage and returned to her bedroom. What she had just done wasn’t symbolic. She simply wanted the extra space to store her shoes. Raji was still an important part of her life. They understood each other better now that they were apart. There were no more fights. He was that one man she could easily stay away from, and yet effortlessly get amorous with in a wink. They had an ongoing connection, and although she presently wasn’t intimate with him, it didn’t stop him from doing everything to court her again. From flowers to gifts and messages, Raji was always there. He had vowed to do everything to get her back. It was entertaining watching him try.
Salma took a breather from her present activity, admiring the new look of her bedroom. Tired, she lay on an old couch brought in from the garage and engaged in her favorite past time of going through photos on Instagram. Lately she had been occupied by the supermarket, having little time for herself. Moments like this were priceless. She remained on Instagram until her eyelids began to shut down. The phone slipped off her hand and fell to the floor where it began to ring. She reached for it, and when she saw Comfort’s name on the screen, she jolted up.
“Commie, I forgot. I’m sorry,” she mumbled into the phone, rising to her feet. “I’ll be there in a bit.”
She grumbled when Comfort rang off. The latter had invited her for Isi Ewu and drinks and to have a talk with her. Salma had been apprehensive when she first got the invitation and then forgotten about it entirely. Now, the feeling was back. As she picked her skirt and slipped into it, she prayed it didn’t have anything to do with Raji.
Raji was being tempted. The glowing, curvy flesh of the voluptuous woman in his apartment was hard to ignore. Thrusting breasts exposed by a low neckline jiggled with every movement she made. Sometimes it was the full view of a well-rounded backside that fed his eyes with lust. Nothing stopped him from having a taste of heaven freely offered to him. He had been given, not in words, but through unspoken communication that had spanned over a few weeks. If anything happened between them now, it would be a natural consequence of the thirst that had built up over time.
But Raji maintained his distance and self-possession, upholding the professional relationship they were supposed to have. He was her boss; she was his psychologist. That was all he wanted them to be. More than he would love to admit, Salma had become the drug in his life he couldn’t stop using. He didn’t care what he had to give up to get her back.
“These are all the books?” Khanyi was bent over a carton of novels, her bodacious pair lunged at him. He had a moment of distraction before responding to her.
“Um…yeah. These are the ones I won’t miss.”
“Thank you,” she said, rising up. “I used to read a lot, but social media is killing my reading culture. And e-books, I hate them with a passion.”
“Well, I don’t mind them. It’s the words that matter. But I like the smell of paperback, especially when stacked on a bookshelf. It’s vintage and nostalgic.”
“Thank you, Raji.” Khanyi gave a generous smile. Raji lifted his hand to the light, eyes on his wristwatch.
“Shit. I’m late for my date.”
“Date?” Khanyi’s voice dropped a tone.
“Yeah, with Comfort.”
“Oh. You guys are back together or…?”
“No. Just a date.”
At the moment, Raji regretted giving Khanyi details about his life. But it was hard to hide things from her. She had the gift of making one unveil their secrets.
“Can I help you carry this?” he asked as he went for the carton of books.
He lifted the carton and hurried to the door.
“Lovely place, by the way,” Khanyi complimented. “Really posh and modern and typical single-mannish.”
“Thank you.” Raji laughed.
Outside the apartment, they entered an elevator. Again, he was given a view of her bum. But she turned around to face him.
“My birthday is just around the corner and I was thinking of throwing a small party. Just Covet management staff. Would you like to come?”
“And maybe before that, we could go out for drinks?”
Raji smiled, sucking in his lips. “You’re asking me out?”
“Is that such a strange thing around here?”
“No. It’s just that… You’re a beautiful woman. Surely, enough guys are on your case.”
“They are o. But I’m not interested. I’m tired of having numerous first dates that end up empty. It’s either they want serious relationships or just meaningless sex.”
“And what do you want?”
“A bit of both.”
The elevator parted open and they stepped out to the reception. Raji led her through the exit that opened up to the parking garage.
“And you, what do you want?” Khanyi inquired.
“My wife. I want her back.”
“Awww, that’s so sweet.”
“This is where we part ways, I guess.” Raji thrust out the carton to Khanyi.
“Enjoy your evening.”
He began towards his car as she went for hers. When he settled behind the steering, he watched her until she drove out of the premises. His phone began to ring at that moment. He knew it was Comfort calling. He let it ring out and ignored the subsequent call. She had chosen a spot that was a short distance from his destination. It was an open space looking out to the sea, where seafood was sold and a live band performed on most nights.
As Raji approached the place, he picked out the unmistakable form of Folarin backing the entrance. He was seated with Comfort and Salma, enjoying cold drinks and the view. His presence and Salma’s were unexpected, but Raji didn’t put much thought behind it as he walked up to them.
Folarin looked up with an expression of surprise. They shook hands and Raji went to Comfort for a hug. Salma was given a peck on her lips and a brief shoulder rub before Raji took his seat beside her.
“Okay, I’m curious,” he said. “Commie, you invited all of us, here?”
“Why don’t you settle down and have a drink first nau,” Comfort responded, pushing back wisps of her hair blown by the wind.
“I’m also curious o, Comfo,” Salma said. Raji had placed a hand behind her. “Fola, you know what this is about?”
“No. I’m curious too.”
“Okay nau,” Raji murmured. “Let the drama unfold. This one that you want me to start drinking first.”
Comfort giggled. Raji picked out the nervousness in her tone.
“Who told you there’ll be any drama?”
“Wait first, is Raheem okay?”
“Alright. That’s my biggest worry. Any other thing can fly.”
A waiter came to them.
“Get me a Heineken abeg,” Raji ordered.
“When will you stop drinking?” Salma asked quietly.
“The day alcohol decides to disappear from the face of the earth.”
She shook her head.
“Or the day you let me back into your life,” he added.
“If it’s that one, go and be a drunk.”
He placed a hand on his chest. “I’m heartbroken.” He looked up at the waiter. “Peppersoup for everyone.”
“I have this covered, Raji,” Comfort said.
“No, I have it covered,” Folarin objected.
“Okay then,” Raji answered. “This gorgeous lady here and I would have catfish and goat meat peppersoup. Commie, which one?”
“Goat meat for her, and Fola?”
The waiter confirmed their orders and left the scene. Raji took it upon himself to keep the table alive. He knew Folarin would rather jump into the sea than strike up a conversation with him. It was ironic that the ladies had gotten over their issues with each other and were now friends, but he and Folarin struggled to get a word with each other beyond perfunctory salutations.
For a stretch of thirty minutes or thereabouts, nobody raised up the issue of why they were there. They drank, consumed their peppersoup and ordered for more drinks. But Raji began to worry about the look of nervousness on Comfort’s face that was growing severe.
“Commie?” he called when he got an open window of silence. “Can you now tell us why you invited us here? I’m concerned.”
“Okay.” Comfort exhaled, pushing away her dish which now held pieces of bone and a small quantity of peppersoup. “I…” She exhaled again.
“Just let it out. Are you pregnant?”
“Seeing someone’s husband?”
“Then why all this nerviness?”
“I called you guys here because I want to tell you that I’ll be going away.”
“Going away?” Salma repeated.
“I got a job in Canada.”
“Canada?” Folarin asked.
“As the editor in a publishing company.”
“Wow. That’s good news,” Folarin commented. “One of those numerous applications clicked.”
“Then why are you not happy?”
Comfort looked at Raji who had his chin now resting on his hand. “I…”
“You’re not going anywhere with my son,” he said flatly.
“I’ll also be doing a short master’s program in September,” Comfort went on as if she had not heard him. “So I’ll be schooling and working at the same time.”
“This is wonderful news, Commie,” Salma stated. “You really should be excited about it.”
“How can she be excited when she knows I will not support her taking my son halfway across the world? She doesn’t just want to work and school there; she wants to live there permanently.”
“Is that true?”
“I’m tired of Nigeria, Salma. I so badly want to get out of here.”
“Do so,” Raji retorted irately, “but leave my son here with me.”
“He’s my son too, Raji.”
“I don’t fucking care. You cannot separate him from his family. The boy is barely getting his bearing health-wise and you want to take him to that cold end of the world, separate him from his siblings and put his life at risk?!”
Comfort’s eyes filled with moisture. “I knew you’d be like this.”
“Of course you knew I’d be like this! You do not change a child’s life that drastically! That’s insensitive and insane!”
“Calm down, Raji,” Folarin pleaded.
“Guy, bone that thing. When she was doing her numerous job applications, did she consult me? You think you can just make drastic decisions about my son like that and casually tell me about it over drinks and peppersoup?”
“Abeg, I’m done here.” Raji sprang up.
“Raj…” Salma held his hand but he tugged it away.
“Raheem stays here with me.” Raji struggled to stay composed. “You can come and visit him whenever you feel like or you can choose to stay there and never come back. I don’t care. The long and short is that my son is going nowhere with you.” He picked his car key. “Thanks for the drinks, Fola.”
“He’s my son too, Raji!” he heard Comfort say as he stomped away.
He was infuriated. Comfort had always been selfish, and he wasn’t surprised that she was coming up with this new curve in their relationship. He had gotten a break from her madness for a while. Now she was back and asking the impossible. He would sooner see himself hanging from a noose than release Raheem to her.
He got into his car and took a moment to breathe out. Standing outside was Salma, tapping the window. He wound it down.
“That was extremely rude.”
“You could have listened to her first and then discussed it afterwards.”
“There’s nothing to discuss, Sal. Raheem is going nowhere.”
“He is as much her son as he’s yours.”
“So she should take him away from me?”
“He will always be in Nigeria for the holidays nau.”
“Why not the other way? Why can’t she come home when she wants to see him?”
“Raji, please, be reasonable. Why would you want to separate a child from his mother?”
“Why would you want to separate a child from his father?”
“Please, go home and think about this carefully before you make a decision…”
“Whether I think about it for one second or ten years, Raheem is not leaving my sight, Sal.”
“You have other kids, you know? She’s got only Raheem. I know the boy means a lot to you, but this is not how to go about it.”
Salma moved away from the car.
“Bye, sweetie,” Raji mumbled. His car sped away. He didn’t take the route he came with; rather he drove to Comfort’s home. Raheem was just about to turn in when he got in. Raji packed a bag for him and carried him to the car, leaving the maid a little confused. It was out of character for him to pick Raheem at that hour.
The boy slept in the backseat as Raji rode home. When he parked in the garage, he discovered that he had forgotten his phone at the bar.
Raheem stirred and Raji got down to help him out of the car. He picked the boy and the bag and found his way into the building. Salma was waiting in the reception with his phone. She gave him an accusing stare on sighting Raheem.
“You’re going to complicate things,” she whispered as they got into the elevator. “What if she decides to take you to court?”
“Biggest mistake of her life.”
Heavy silence for the rest of the journey to his apartment.
Raheem was put to bed by Raji the moment they got in. When he emerged from the boy’s room, Salma was waiting in the living room.
“The first day I saw you with Raheem, he was terribly ill.” She sat on a long couch. “You were carrying him. There were tears in your eyes, Raji. I was jealous, watching you two. And yet it was a moving sight. As time passed, I came to the realization that you loved him more than our kids…”
“That’s not true.”
“I’ve made my peace with that, and I understand where you’re coming from right now. I just wish you would see that Comfort loves him with her life as well. He’s all she’s got, Raji.”
“She sent you to beg me.”
Raji sat beside Salma and took both of her hands in his. He kissed them each.
“Tell her I’ll give her anything she asks for just to keep Raheem here.”
Salma’s hands were kissed again.
“Why didn’t you fight to keep me like this?” she asked. “Why did you go to Christie and then to Comfort again?”
“Foolishness,” he replied, his eyes in hers. “I’m sorry, and I miss you crazily.”
“Stop looking at me like that. It’s confusing my emotions.”
“Why? Because you still like Maliq?”
“No. Because I still like you.”
That was the only invitation Raji needed to seek access to her lips. She offered no resistance. When his hand gently felt the smoothness of her cheek and traveled down to the small of her back to rest there, she didn’t break from kissing him. Her body allowed his to guide her down slowly on the couch.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” she whispered.
“Salma, this feels right. You’re still my wife. I don’t care what the divorce papers say. I’ll be loving you till jannah.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Asepita. Eternity is no joke.”
“Then let’s take one day at a time.”
Salma laughed. “I’m done with your sugar-coated lips.”
“No, you’re not.”
Photos – Tumblr, @noble_igwe