The sigh started from his toes, crawled through his body, got to his lips and with a ballooning of his cheeks, he exhaled. The man sitting opposite him raised his eyes from the document he had been perusing, brows furrowed, a frown around his pursed lips.
Barry shook his head and ran a hand over his eyes. “Let’s finish in the morning.”
“No, no, that is no good. You do know we are running against a tight time limit,” the man said.
“Chike, you know more than these other guys how much I have put into this. If I say I’m all out, you have to believe me.” He looked at a table eight feet away where six men huddled over a computer, five of them crunching numbers on a calculator, feeding data to the one who sat typing frantically.
Chike searched his face. “Alright, if you say so. I hope all is well.”
“It will be. Get the guys to stay on a little longer, but let them retire once they look tired. We can’t have any mistakes.”
Barry stood up, squatted a little to unlock his knees and gathering his half-finished drink, papers, phone and folder, turned in the direction of the stairwell. As he took the first step, he broke off and turning around, looked down at Chike who looked up at him.
“What?” Chike asked.
“She’s here. Both of them.”
Chike searched Barry’s face for a sign that he might be joking but it was easy to see the distress on his friend’s face. He now understood the tension he had felt emanating from Barry all evening; that had made him wonder if there was a problem with the project that he did not know about. It was suddenly clear.
“But guy, how did that happen?”
“Her cousin Nnanna asked me where I was and I told him we were lodged here for the duration of this project. I had no idea she was in the country, talk less of her planning to pay me a visit.”
“Kai, that’s bad. When you say she’s here. . .”
“Remember when I got a call from front desk. I got her another room. But it’s too close for comfort. I couldn’t get a room on another floor.”
“What are you going to do?”
Barry sighed and ran a hand through his overgrown hair. “I don’t know man.”
Chike scanned his friend’s face, peering deep in his eyes. “Barry, guy, be careful. That girl is dynamite.”
“Don’t I know it. Isn’t that how I got here? Let me go up, man. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight boss,” Barry heard from behind him as he finally walked out of the conference room. He waved over his shoulder at the men who looked at his retreating back with surprise. He must be really tired, they thought. He’d been working long hours for days.
When Barry got to the second floor landing, he looked first at the door directly opposite him. He stared as though he would peer through the oak at the woman who must be lying, curled up in a foetal position, her right hand forming a loose fist under her chin, her lips slightly open as she slept in her white flannel nightie – the only kind she ever wore; the woman he knew as well as one human may claim to know another, a knowing borne of many long years of friendship and closeness, beating the odds as a team. Years of passion that started as a roaring flame, burning with fury, then waned and ebbed and finally, cooled to a sedate familiarity. My wingman they called each other, secure in their togetherness and fealty. An old married couple not quite old and not quite married.
Barry willed himself to turn right, and walked to the end of the carpeted hallway. He knocked on a door facing him. The door opened soundlessly and a woman stood back to let him enter, wearing lip gloss on full, smiling lips, and nothing else. His heart flipped.
He walked straight to the end of the room, dropped his things on the dresser top and started unknotting his tie. She stood behind him like an apparition and held his eyes in the mirror. He tried not to look, but her gaze was compelling – or maybe it was her dark nipples, perked, begging him to abandon his conflict even if for just a minute.
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, the light hitting the lip gloss she wore made it seem like her lips were melting and dripping. As he watched, she moved, closed the space between them and embraced his back. Through the mirror, her body was shielded by his up to her waist, where her hips flared. She pulled down the shirt from his shoulder, slice by slice and placed a firm, wet kiss at the base of his neck, his shoulder, lower. . .
Barry gripped the dresser at the edges, his knuckles stretching the skin taut, knees shaking. He tried to say stop but the sound that came out did not convey to his tormenter the seriousness of his intent. If anything, it worked in his disfavor, a groan that stripped them both of the illusion that he could do anything other than succumb.
Still holding his gaze in the mirror, she let her eyes trail a path down his body till they got to his thighs, where his erection strained painfully against his pants.
“Why did you come?” he breathed.
She reached around to his front and calmly, deftly, matter-of-factly undid the buckle of his belt. “We are having a baby together. Don’t fight it.”
“I don’t love you.”
Mayen sat up when she heard the knock. She had been struggling to stay awake for about three hours, hoping he would come, and had just drifted off to sleep when the knock came. Let it be him she prayed, as she tied a robe around her body and padded to the door.
“Who’s it?” she asked.
“Open the door.”
She did and stood aside to let him in. As he walked in, he pulled her along, whirled her around, kicking the door shut behind him and immediately started fumbling with the belt of the robe she wore with one hand. With the other, he pulled her head back and kissed her, two-stepping her backwards towards the bed.
“Hey, wait up.”
“Sssh,” he said. She kissed him back, obediently, unsettled by his staring eyes. He always closed his eyes while kissing. His open eyes made her alert. It had the effect of a broom over cobwebs on her mind and she pushed him away from her, touching her bruised lips.
She looked up at him. “You were with her.”
“Mayen, I told you, it doesn’t matter.”
“So you were with her then,” she said, the tears starting. “Just tell me the truth.”
“I was.” A flood went over her head; she felt overwhelmed. She stumbled backwards and sat on the bed. Barry followed and sat with her, putting his arm around her shoulders.
“It did not mean anything,” he said.
“Yeah? I have seen her. You cannot deny she is beautiful. She is from a wealthy family, younger, new to you, and now pregnant with your child.” She stared straight ahead, unseeing. Her voice was robotic. “You were always so careful with me, how did this happen? I have had an abortion for you, why not her?”
Barry winced, taking his hand off her shoulder, heaved a sigh and stood. Chike would understand. Only another man would understand that love was not always enough. He would understand that Mayen who had been with him from their undergraduate days eleven years ago had proved too patient after all. If only she had demanded.
He would also understand that Mayen reminded him too much of the life he wanted to leave behind. From humble beginnings, they had grown together, worked hard. But always, he had looked at the ease of people who came from means and Mayen’s fawning gratitude and determination to stay humble made him look over his shoulder at his friends who acted entitled. Being rich was not enough. He wanted to know how to be rich the way only people who were born to wealth knew. Mayen was sweet, loyal; sweet, but coarse. There was a fluidity of motion, an assurance of their place in the scheme of things he craved and saw in the foreign-schooled daughters of his bosses. . .
Three months ago, Barry had been in Exeter for a conference, idling in St. Olaves Hotel, lonely and bored. A hitch in his travel plans had had him arrive two days before the conference was to begin. His friend, Nnanna had mentioned that his cousin who was schooling at the University of Exeter lived nearby on the Streatham Campus – a cycling distance as it turned out. She had come over with a pie, tinkling laughter and an irreverent wit.
How could he have known that she would take one look at him and decide she was in love with him and had found the man she would lose her virginity to? How was he to know she would be an enthusiastic pupil – and a fertile one, as it turned out. How would he have guessed she had been contemplating coming back to Nigeria?
What shocked him most was his fickleness, his willingness to leave Mayen, to trade her for headiness, innocence and affluence? Like he had just met himself, the he that had been lurking deep inside, while poverty ascribed to him humility he did not have, and which fortuity had thrust to the fore.
He had lied when he told Chike he did not know what he would do. He remembered with a flush the sense of elation he had felt—that instant when an astrologer’s clock chimed in the distance, planets realigned, time rechecked itself and set itself to rights—when she had told him she was carrying his child. Their child. He felt like an unknown musician for whom all the unpleasantness of tuning the instruments and putting together an audience had been taken care of, and he had only to step up to the stage and be borne on the adulation of a primed, cheering crowd.
But Chike would understand.
Quando sono solo sogno all’orizzonte
e mancan le parole
si lo so che non c’è luce
in una stanza quando manca il sole
se non ci sei tu con me, con me
su le finestre
mostra a tutti il mio cuore
che hai acceso chiudi, dentro me
la luce che hai incontrato per strada
Barry paused, mid-stride for the second time that evening and turned around slowly. He felt trapped as the past washed over him in the tide of memory.
Mayen stood by the table, a half smile playing around her mouth, her eyes inscrutable, finger poised over her computer where she had just hit the play button. Strung through the invisible tapestry that bridged the distance was woven the threads of forgotten beginnings.
It was a night like any other, they two were like every other person gathered in the small living room of a friend’s house, watching a football match and arguing loudly. Moments after the game, someone suggested they dance and their host sauntered over to his compact disc, set to act as DJ. As he muttered that he was sure he had a rap mixtape in one of the disc holders, the strains of Andrè Bocelli’s Conte Partiro flowed from the twin speakers.
“Sorry,” he apologized hastily and made to change the disc selection, when two voices spoke at once, “Leave it.”
Barry and Mayen looked at each other in surprise: they had been dating for two years.
They drove home in silence and once they got to Barry’s place, a self-contained off-campus apartment close to the back gate of their university, Barry dusted his disc The Best of Andrè Bocelli and holding his arms out to Mayen, they danced, barely moving for close to an hour. They danced a silent communion, made vows with their silence. As their bodies fit together, their minds fused.
By the end of that hour, when their bodies came unglued, their minds had knitted so firmly that thereafter, physical distance was nothing to the telepathy they invoked and insisted they shared. A two-fold cord is not easily broken. Every happenstance, any incident that could be explained as mere coincidence, they ascribed to this extrasensory perception. They had to believe in something higher that would guarantee the inevitability of their unification, so they sought it in the rational, and in the absurd.
They would see Andrè Bocelli, this blind Italian tenor live in concert; they would work hard toward this dream – and others; they would get married; have two children and the first boy would be Andrè, the girl Andreas (or something like that), naturally. They giggled and planned. What one had to do with the other – their discovery of this shared passion and their determination to forge a life together – they did not know, and they did not much care.
That night, their lovemaking was different. Barry held Mayen as he would porcelain, the way many men were wont to hold the woman they had bestowed on the role of mother to their children, raising them to lofty heights, shrouding them in imposed virtuousness.
Mayen, honored, eager, was happy to tamp down on her raging adventuresomeness. And for eight years, she was wifed, albeit without the requisite ceremony.
There was always a reason they couldn’t get married. They were in school. Then they had to find jobs. Then someone was doing a Masters Degree. Then someone had to get ahead at work and marriage at that point would be a distraction. Usually, Barry proffered the ‘reason’ but Mayen was complicit in being amendable. Time and again.
And now here they were at the place of reckoning, one of them knowing but never admitting they would get here, and the other feigning ignorance, hiding and denying a deep-seated fear that had throbbed and throbbed for years.
“Do you remember?”
As Barry turned around a last time, he felt a pang. He knew that whatever had changed, the damage was great. It went beyond the pair of boxer shorts in Mayen’s laundry bag back home, beyond the smell of his cologne on her pillow, beyond the intrauterine adhesions after that abortion they never talked about, and it wrecked its way through to the paradoxically tough and equally fragile tissues of the heart.
He felt her eyes stab him in the back through the flimsy fabric of the T-shirt he had donned when he rolled out of bed, stealthily, after ensuring that the woman who carried his child slept. He imagined the shimmer of tears on lashes; wondered how long before they dammed. How long does it take to unbreak a heart. How long to unfuse minds. To sever a psychic bond. To regain stolen years. To end one life and begin another.
Mayen spoke into the silence. “I will send your things over.”
He stopped but there were no more words. Without looking back, he strode out of the room and faced the direction of Chike’s room.
Chike would understand.
Chike, who had married his secondary school sweetheart. Who had stayed devoted for much more than eight years and been bound by his word. Who lived by a personal code of honour, however he might feel. Who gritted his teeth, choked it down, stamped it out, tamped it down, held his head up and did what was right.
This story was first published in Brittle Paper. You can also read there and leave your comments.