“You made me leave class for this? You should have seen me panicking and running out like a mad man. Now, I’m here and you’re walking up and down and making me dizzy? My friend, stop walking and talk to me.”
Dugo obeyed Ace’s instruction, having just realized that she had been pacing around since she returned home. She also noticed that she had stopped thinking. Her head couldn’t contain the different thoughts that struggled for relevance. She had never felt so confused and embarrassed, and regretful, all at once.
“Talk to me,” Ace said, coming to stand in front of her.
“I fucked up. I really fucked up. I really, really fucked up.”
And then she told him everything about her visit to New Beginnings and being exposed by Osarobo.
“You ran away? Dugo, you fall my hand.”
“I didn’t know what to do! He was looking at me, and that stupid Gemma won’t shut up! Scheisse!”
“Now, he knows who I am because that Gemma, she’s a loud mouth, ya. She’s going to tell him everything! And all my plans will just fall away like that!”
“Relax. I don’t think it’s as bad as you’re painting it. And even if it is, then it’s good. Luper now knows who you are and what his mom did to you and…”
“And what? They get away with murder?”
“Chill. Nobody murdered anyone here.”
The look Dugo gave Ace had him withdrawing his words. “Look, babe, I understand that getting back at them for what they did is your main mission right now, but we have to end that plan and come up with something new, now that you’ve been busted.”
“Something new like?”
“Like still keeping yourself in his life to do what you want to do.”
“And you think he will still want me when he knows that I hate him and want to strangle his mother?”
“He will. Trust me. If anything, he’ll be apologetic. Look at his NGO. He knows what his mother did and he’s trying to wrong her rights.”
“I thought so too.” Dugo sat on an easy chair. “It’s actually cute what he’s doing with those girls. I think he has a good side.”
“I believe he’s a good guy, Dugo. I’ve always sensed that.”
They both glanced at her phone that just begun buzzing. It was the second time it was ringing since Ace entered the house. Luper was calling.
“Answer his call nau.”
“No. I can’t.”
“You know he’s going to come here, right? And you’re going to answer his questions and everything will be fine. Meanwhile, I made ogbono soup earlier, in case you’re hungry.”
“What am I going to tell him?”
Dugo shook her head, rising up from the chair. Just then, a car drove into the compound. She dashed to the window that faced the entrance of the house and spotted Luper’s car outside.
“He’s here,” she announced.
“And I’m out of here.”
“No. Please, stay.”
“You’re not going to use me to escape the inevitable.”
“No. I have to go back to class.” Ace put his hand on her shoulders. “Breathe, Dugo. You can do this. You’re a smart chick. Don’t let your feelings for him cloud your thinking.”
“You never stopped loving that guy, Deedee. Be honest with yourself. Asides that, you’re actually a softie inside. See how you just melted for him.”
Ace stroked her cheek. “Allow him undo what he did in the past. Stop the lies or they will eventually pop up and destroy what’s good.”
Ace got to the front door, just as Luper knocked on it. He opened it and let him in after greetings were made. At Ace’s departure, Luper walked further into the living room.
“Hi,” Dugo greeted. He didn’t respond to the greeting. An uncomfortable moment of silence and scrutiny from his eyes supervened.
“Won’t you sit down?” Dugo pointed at a chair, but instead of moving towards it, Luper ended up in front of her.
“What happened back there, Ada?”
“Nothing? And you bolted out of the place for no reason and ignored me when I called you?”
A lie was already at the tip of her lips, but she couldn’t bring herself to let it out. Not with the way he stood so close to her. It was as though she could almost hear his heartbeat. His peculiar cologne which she was now familiar with, bore a slight trace of citrus she had never picked out before. It had that fresh-out-of-the-shower fragrance.
“You’re not going to answer me?”
“I had to leave.”
“But you went there with me. If anything got you upset, you were supposed to tell me you were leaving, not walk away and ignore me.”
Dugo moved away from him, hugging herself as if cold. “I’m sorry.”
She was apprehensive, yet ready for her bag of secrets to be ripped open by him.
“I apologize for Gemma’s behavior,” he said. “The chick that came at you, calling you Deedee? That’s her name. Gemma. She’s a little over the top sometimes, but she’s a nice person. She was taken to Italy as a teenager and spent the bulk of her years in brothels and on the streets, doing drugs before she was arrested and taken to a detention camp. We somehow got her on the deportation list with other girls and picked them up at the airport when they got into the country. She’s the only one who has stayed with us. The other girls ran away the moment they arrived. Sometimes, we can’t help everybody. But sometimes, we get it right. Gemma is a success story. However, the trauma of her past comes back to haunt her occasionally and she acts weird. It’s hard to imagine what girls like her went through, being used as sex slaves, the abuse, the racism, the inhumane treatment… It can mess one up, and even if they survive it, they’ll be scarred. Again, I apologize for what happened.”
Dugo was once more weakened by the kindness of Luper’s heart, although unsettled about the state of things.
“Did she explain why she acted the way she did?”
“No. The moment you left, she burst into tears and ran upstairs, refusing to talk to anyone. But she’ll be fine. I’ll have a talk with her later.”
Dugo’s conscience bit her. Osarobo used to be the clown amongst them back then, always uplifting the girls with her humor and crazy stories. She kept hope alive for them. She had often looked up to Dugo as an elder sister.
Dugo settled into Ace’s lovemaking couch. Luper pulled a stool and sat in front of her.
“Can I be honest with you?” he asked.
“I think you’re weird.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. You’re just different. The way you act, how you view things… And your eyes, they seem to have seen a lot of things.”
It was a deflective response. She didn’t like to be under his scrutiny.
“How are you feeling, though?”
“Alright.” He stared at the time on his watch. “School is canceled for today, and I’m starving. Are you starving? Have you eaten?”
“No. But I have food. Ace made ogbono soup.”
“Yes. And he’s really good.”
“You see what?”
“Let me ask you something, and it would be the last time I’ll ask you.”
“You and Ace… Are you sure you’re just friends? No benefits attached? Like I’m not going to walk in here one day and see somebody on top of another person?”
His question made her laugh.
“You’re laughing. These things happen.”
“And if they do, why is it your business?”
“Am I doing a bad job of showing you that I like you? I thought it was pretty obvious.”
“But you told me you will not make the moves.”
“I’m changing my statement. In fact, I’m making all the moves from now on, and I would be glad if you acknowledged them.”
“We’ll see about that. So, the food…”
“Yes, the food. Do you have yam, by any chance?”
“You don’t like ogbono?”
“I do. It’s just that I like it with pounded yam.”
“Oh, don’t stress yourself with that. We have that Poundo flour stuff.”
“Poundo wetin? I’m a Tiv man. We love pounded yam like mad and we love it done the classic way.”
“Lucky you, we have the mortar and the pestle. You do the pounding, I watch.”
“Fine by me.”
Dugo more than watched him. After she had changed into more comfortable clothes and she went into the kitchen to find him peeling a tuber of yam, she stayed by the door and kept her attention on him. His sincere, soulful eyes, his well-groomed beard and moustache, raven-black cropped hair, a towering frame with an air of adventure; borne by a stubborn, but attentive persona. It all made him an interesting specimen to observe. But more than that was a heart that was making it difficult for her to maintain her grudge. For someone who had mostly faced unkindness in her life, Luper’s compassionate side put him on a pedestal only few could attain in her life.
He put the yam on fire to cook and strode to where she stood. He slowly unbuttoned his shirt, eyes looking into hers.
“I recently started working out and my biceps are beginning to annoy me. My shirt sleeves are all tight now. I need you to help me remove this.”
He turned around.
“I still feel like we’ve met before,” he stated. “You’re sort of familiar.”
“You and the familiar thing again.” Dugo helped him out of his shirt. Underneath it was a plain white t-shirt.
“You know that feeling when you’re trying to remember something and it’s there, but your mind just can’t reach it? One minute, you see it, and the next, it’s disappeared. It can be frustrating. Maybe I’m thinking too hard.”
“But are you a hundred percent sure that our paths have not crossed before?” he asked, rotating to face her again.
“I’m sure we have. But don’t worry yourself. I’ll remember. I always remember stuff eventually.”
She took his shirt to the living room and came back to the kitchen. He glanced at her briefly. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and somehow she knew he was going to say something about it.
“You don’t like wearing bras?”
“No. I don’t like clothes too.”
She opened the fridge for lack of what to do. A half-consumed bottle of champagne belonging to Ace beckoned to her. Every weekend he bought a bottle to defy the gods of poverty that had kept him lacking for years. It was a hilarious ritual Dugo enjoyed recording.
She took out the champagne and asked Luper if he wanted some.
“I never say no to alcohol.”
She filled two glasses and tendered him one.
“So tell me something I don’t know about you,” he requested.
“Have you ever been in love apart from the one you told me about in your teenage years?”
“No? Like never?”
“And don’t you want to?”
“Is it necessary?”
“You have to feel it once in your adult life. Get to know why it’s all the rave.”
“What if you end up falling for me?”
Dugo paused. She laughed. “I can’t fall for you.”
“I just can’t.”
“Can’t, or you don’t want to?”
“I don’t want to,” she replied, looking him dead in the eyes.
“Ouch. That hurt. But you feel it, though? The vibe. We’re vibing, and it’s strong.”
“It’s all in your head, Torkuma.”
“You still owe me that kiss sha.”
The kiss. She wanted it as much as he did. On Sunday, it was about hastening the process of getting into his life. Today, she wasn’t sure what her motive was. But whatever she ended up telling herself her reason was, she was sure she wanted that kiss as badly.
They talked about the school and how life had been in Germany for her as he pounded the yam. It was a conversation filled with laughs and serious moments. Luper was sweating when he was done. She asked him if he would have a shower before or after they ate.
“Did you not hear that I’m starving?”
“I tire for you o.”
He served their meal, and when they sat to eat, Dugo played a collection of tranquil Nigerian songs that created something of a quaint atmosphere. She washed the dishes after they were done while he had a shower. She also washed up subsequently and joined him in the living room. The apprehension from the events of the day had been done away with and she appreciated his company, so much so that when he told her he was leaving, she asked him to stay a little longer.
“I have a meeting with Shipi and the school’s lawyer… But it can wait.”
“Oh, no. Don’t cancel because of me. She’ll come into school tomorrow with an AK and shoot everybody.”
Luper laughed, tugging out his phone from his pocket. “Let me call her and cancel. I’m tired, anyways.”
He did as he said he would, speaking to Shipinen in what Dugo guessed was the Tiv language. She thought it sounded sexy, even when Luper uttered it in a less pleasant tone. The call lasted longer than it should have. He tossed the phone on the stood beside him when he was done.
“I want to hear about your marriage,” Dugo entreated.
“And I don’t want to talk about it… Unless you tell me something about yourself you haven’t told me before. Deal?”
“So what exactly do you want to know?”
“You said Shipinen never loved you?”
They were seated next to each other. A throw pillow between them.
“I think she did,” answered Luper, “but she fell out of love. Or maybe fell in love with my dad. I don’t know which. At first, I didn’t realize it because I was caught up with work, but when, as a man, you don’t have sex for a while, you begin to notice that things are not the way they should be.”
“Did you ever try to fix your relationship?”
“I did. We both did, but everything was fucked. My whole existence was upside-down. It got to a point I couldn’t even remember the last time she told me she loved me or when I said the same or even when we had sex. I stopped counting once I realized it was senseless. We didn’t even sleep in the same part of the house, let alone same room or bed. I slept downstairs. She was upstairs. But she seemed okay with it, although I don’t think she was. I think she was fine with not being my wife anymore.”
“I wasn’t fine with it. No, I wasn’t. I started to wonder if she was cheating on me or something. And when I got tired of wondering, I went upstairs one night and there she was. Beautiful, drop dead sexy, all in the nude. I can’t remember what I said to her that made her agree to have sex with me. In my mind I was like, ‘yes! Hope!’ It had been months.
“And so we started, you know. From a touch, to a kiss, to my tongue on her body the way I knew she liked it. It wasn’t something I hadn’t done before. Her body was familiar. It used to belong to me. So I thought that if I did this, that would happen. Or if I did that, this would happen. But none of that shit happened. I so badly wanted things to be the way they used to be…”
Luper smiled blandly, eyes faraway.
“And it wasn’t as if she was being cruel or refusing to connect with me on an emotional and physical level. She tried, I think, but it wasn’t working. You can’t fake such things. We were two people who knew each other so well. Yet…”
“You were strangers.”
“We were strangers. She was done with me. You don’t know how much that broke me. I was laid on that bed, shattered. She understood. She left the room without speaking and I had a moment of painfully coming into my truth. I cried like an idiot. She was outside the door, listening to me bawling like a fool. Her wretched husband who was nothing like his father, who failed at everything, even at something as simple as keeping a wife.”
“Was it your fault that she stopped loving you?”
“I think it was. I remember when she wanted more for us. She wanted us to travel out, go on vacations and do things differently. We were married for four years at that time and all we ever did was go to work, come back, have dinner and go to bed. On Saturdays, I hung out with my friends and she did the same with hers, that was if we weren’t at my dad’s. Sundays were for church… Same old routine that she kept complaining about and I never listened. It killed our marriage.”
“Why didn’t you have kids?”
“Shipinen can’t get pregnant. She was born without a cervix and uterus.”
“It is. I should have filled that void, but I was busy trying to show my dad that I could be a better man than he was. My business failed eventually, after Shipi moved out of the house to my dad’s. He wouldn’t let her get an apartment of her own at first. He blamed me for what happened between us. I don’t recall him trying to help fix things for us. He simply said if I was man enough I should win my wife back. At that point, I’d given up. I knew she didn’t love me, so what was the use? Maybe I should have tried harder.”
“So sorry, Luper.”
“She eventually moved out of his house, but she maintained whatever it was that was going on between them. He made her part-owner of the school as long as she kept the family name.”
“But you fired her.”
“She was being such a terrorist. I didn’t have time for that.”
“Do you think she wants you back?”
“No. She just wants to get even. Sometimes I also want to do that too, you know. Like marry somebody and have kids just to spit in her face, but I’ve learned a hard lesson from one bad marriage. I won’t make that mistake again.”
He had come to the end of his story with a smile on his face.
“So that’s my story. What’s yours?”
“I didn’t promise to tell you a story.”
Luper pointed an accusing finger at her. “I don’t like this your Igbo sense.”
Dugo giggled. He turned a little into the couch, resting one leg in and another out so he could face her properly.
“No, seriously, tell me something. I know it seems childish that we’re asking these questions, but these days people don’t talk anymore. They jump straight into bed and into a relationship and neglect communication. I don’t want that to ever be a problem between us. I want to know you inside-out. Tell me about Germany. What you were doing there, why you went there…”
Dugo’s eyes looked elsewhere. Ace’s words returned to her. There was no escaping the truth. It was going to keep popping up. But was she ready to let it out? To dig down deep?
“I’d rather not talk about Germany.”
And so she gave Luper a surface version of the truth.
“I… It’s not a time of my life that I want to remember.”
“You can tell me about it, Ada.”
She loved the way he called her name. Ada was so common, and it was why she chose Dugo, instead. But each time Luper called the former, it left fuzzy feelings, like he knew her more than he showed.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. Not now.”
“But I want to do something I told you I’d do.”
“Ah… The kiss.”
“Why did you spoil it? I was going to surprise you!”
“This is why I said you’re weird. It’s just a kiss, Adaugo. I’m hoping it would bring us closer, but if it doesn’t, I’m hoping it would be a pretty damn good kiss. Because the way you’ve had me anticipating ehn…”
“Just since Sunday.”
“To a man, that’s like a million years. Oya, I’m ready.” He puckered his lips and had Dugo almost falling to the floor in laughter.
“Ha-ahn. You’re not taking this thing serious o,” he teased.
“But you said it’s just a kiss.”
“Okay, let’s start all over again.” He picked a glass of wine off the table and chugged it down. “Fresh breath.”
“Anyone. I’m ready.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“You like blowing hot air, Ada.”
And taking her unawares, Luper reached over and aimed for her lips. But he stopped there, as if he was going to do nothing, like he would tease her with his breath and the impression of his lips on hers.
But the kiss came. A little parting of her lips in a probing manner, to have that first taste of her, before he dragged her into something deeper.
And it was for her, fireworks season. Not because he tasted like magic or that it was romantic, but because he brought back the past. More than a decade might have come between them, but something intimate about his mouth and the way he held and kissed her revived what might have been considered dead.
The kiss in itself was gentle, but penetrating, extending, as a sort of prediction that there was more to come. When Luper stopped, Dugo was left with a fast-beating heart and eyes that burned under a fresh kind of emotion for him. She also found her hands resting on his chest. He took them and held them in his.
“It’s dark already,” he whispered. “I have to go home.”
“You say a lot of ‘okays’.”
He laughed. “Come and walk me to my car.”
He picked his shirt, car key and phone. Outside, it was drizzling. He told her not to get under the rain.
“Goodnight. And thank Ace for the soup.”
It was she who reached up to kiss him, but placing only a peck on his lips to stop him from giving her another mind-altering episode.
She went back into the house while he got into his car and drove out of the compound.
Dugo was going to be stuck in Luper’s head all night, as she had been from the instant he met her. Then, he hadn’t known how far he wanted to go with her. But now, he was certain he was ready to start something fresh with someone again. There was no longer that pressure from family and society. These days he lived as he pleased. It was only fitting to be with someone who would give him a new lease on life.
The rain maintained a steady drizzle as he made his way home. Dugo continued to burn in his mind. He already knew things about her, as told by Osarobo whom he had questioned earlier. He had followed her upstairs and found her seated at the top of the stairs, crying. She wouldn’t talk at the start, but he had a way of being persuasive, and soon he got her mouth running like a broken faucet.
She told him that she had met Dugo in Turin, Italy. Initially, four of them, all newcomers, had been kept in a stinky bedroom for a week. They were later cleaned up, fed, given skimpy clothes to wear and kept in separate rooms.
“The men, they pay and they enter your room just like that,” Osarobo shared. “They don’t ask you questions. Them go just start to do things.”
“Deedee went through this as well?”
“Yes. But she dey stronger than all of us. All of us fall sick that first month, but not her. She dey stubborn too. She go talk anyhow to maman and sometimes she go fight the men. But early in the morning around five or maybe six, you go dey hear her crying and singing in Igbo. Maman go tell her to shut up. She go flog her, but she no go stop. Her room dey near my room, so I dey hear her every day. When we come out to eat or do other things, she no go talk to anybody. After one year, she can speak Italian very well. Two years pass and Maman come carry her enter her house. She eat good food and fuck only one man a day. All the men, them want her.”
“Did she ever tell you her real name?”
“No. All we know na Deedee. She no dey too talk. After five years, she come run away. I no see her again. Some people say she go back to Nigeria. Some say they see her for Germany. I don’t know.”
“Thank you, Gemma.”
“She will come back here? I wan see her. Is she angry that I call her like that?”
“No, Gemma. She’s not angry at you.”
“Okay. Are you sure?”
Luper smiled, tapping her hand. “I’m sure. I’ll bring her back to you. Just be patient.”
Luper had not been angry at Dugo. Not even when she maintained her lie. He understood what it meant to hide a part of one’s life that would rather be forgotten. His mother and the heinous acts she had perpetrated on young girls was that part of his life he was hiding. He had found out when a band of youths almost eight years ago, barged into their house in Benin, demanding for her head because one of them had lost a sister in Libya due to inhumane conditions. The girl had never made it to Italy, and she was never going to return to Nigeria to receive a decent burial. The brother had gathered his friends, and they had come for Madam America. But Luper had hidden her and suffered the wrath of the boys, beaten almost to death.
After he survived the ordeal, he cut off from his mother. But she fell ill shortly, and it was he alone who took care of her. His father had at that time been separated from her. Perhaps he had also found out what she was involved in. Luper had no idea. They never talked about it.
He nursed her back to health and sent her to live with a relative in Gboko, Benue state. It was there she resided presently, not Benin, as he had told Dugo. People were waiting to kill her if she ever got into the city. Sometimes, she left the country to be with his sister and brother; sometimes she visited him. He was ashamed of her, ashamed to be called her son.
Hence, he understood Dugo’s reasons, even though she was yet to tell him. He wasn’t going to ask her. He was fine with whatever lie she had used to erase that sordid past. All he was hoping for was that his mother hadn’t somehow been involved with her journey to Europe. He had, and was still trying his best to fix some of the girls the woman had messed up through the medium of his NGO. None of them had a success story like Dugo’s. Being able to escape from her enslavement and to build a life for herself while other girls grappled with the clutches of prostitution and drug abuse, showed that she had gone through a lot to get to get to where she was. She didn’t need her past ringing her doorbell again. She didn’t need his mother showing up in her life, that was if she had had a hand in what happened to her. It was best the old woman stayed where she was.
On his way home, Luper dialed his mother’s number. She answered after the first ring.
She asked how he was doing, how the school was, if he had taken dinner. He answered her questions and inquired about her health. She said she was doing well, that the doctor was impressed and declared her fit to travel.
Luper cussed within. He didn’t want her alive this long. People like her deserved death. He had long stopped feeling guilt over wishing she was dead, having heard stories of the atrocities she once committed.
“I’d like you to postpone your visit.”
“Well, the end of the term is almost here, which means exams. We also have a graduation party. After that, we have to start preparing for summer school. Plus, I have to travel. I think this would be a good time for you to visit Nenge.”
“But I just got back from there.”
“Then go and see Terwe.”
“You know your brother doesn’t have time for me.”
“So is it me that has time?”
She was silent.
“I’m mad busy. I cannot babysit you.”
“Have you ever babysat me before? You are hardly ever in the house, and I’m not complaining. Please, allow me come.”
“No, Mom. Stay back.”
“I already told you that I’m busy.”
“I won’t disturb you. Besides, I have my personal reasons for coming over.”
“Okay. It’s fine.”
“I’ll call you later.”
“Alright. Take care. I love you.”
He rang off. The air conditioner was on, but he wasn’t feeling it. He turned it off and let down the window. It had stopped raining.