I am the last passenger off the plane. I wish I can say that this is because by a quirk in my nature, I like to lap up every possible shred of enjoyment, from even the most mundane of experiences. Or that this giant Boeing has transferred to me some of the same lethargic ponderousness with which it had lifted off the ground. But the unvarnished admission would be, I am, well, maybe not terrified. Anxious. The good kind: and the bad.
I ignore the curious glances of the other passengers as they shuffle past me along the aisle, some pausing to retrieve their belongings from the overhead luggage compartments. They probably wonder if I am in some kind of trance, I sit so still.
I struggle to fill my ears with the whirr of the propellers, the drone of the engines, the voice of an air hostess, as she thanks us for flying the airline. . . I listen intently to words I know by heart, dissecting each one into its component parts – airline becomes air and line . . . my silly games.
At the door of the aircraft, a crew member, with a garish slant of red paint across her lips, and fake lashes so thick I can see the glue welding them to her eyelids, offers a tired smile. I smile back at her, lean in and whisper, “Please get some rest, but before you do, take off the war-paint,” and I glide past before she can react. But I am smug too soon.
Out in the open, the propellers of the plane are still turning, and a strong gust lifts my short pink chiffon dress in a flutter. As I struggle to smooth it down, I glance back, and there is fake eyelashes, smirking at me. I will never fly your airline again I think.
I cross the tarmac and walk through the airport building, past the passengers waiting for checked in luggage, right through Arrivals and into the Departure area where the exit now temporarily is since renovations started. The newly tiled floors are so sleek I am grateful that I chose to wear flats instead of heels. The lady who had entered the building beside me, striding purposefully in five-inch black lace-up stiletto heels, has since fallen back several paces, walking gingerly now, her eyes trained to the floor, a look of concentrated fear and impending embarrassment etched on her face.
I climb into the battered green cab waiting for me, and trying to keep my doubts at bay, I talk with the driver, Bayo, about whatever enters my head – the weather, airport security, or the lack of it as the case may be, unemployment and the floods that have ravaged many states in the country.
I love talking with Bayo. He is my friend Nneka’s personal cab driver and I have known him over a year. I wonder every now and then how he has come to be driving a cab, but I have never asked. He has however hinted that it is lucrative, an edge creeping into his voice that lent it an air of defensiveness – much the same tone that clung to his voice, like pieces of paper in the pockets of wet laundry, when I inquired about his education, or the lack of it.
Along Airport Road, traffic comes to a crawl. Up ahead, we approach a military roadblock and stern faced soldiers peer into each vehicle, glaring at the occupants as though they would detect a potential terrorist just by looking. Or maybe they think their guns and deep frowns will scare someone into saying “Officer, I have a bomb strapped to my back. Here look.” I say this to Bayo and he laughs out loud.
In the traffic that ensues, street vendors make hasty sales, running alongside the cars, zigzagging their way from lane to lane, as they shove their wares through the car windows on unsuspecting motorists and passengers. I wind up the glass where I’m seated in the ‘owners’ corner, but stare longingly at bread, grapes so succulent I can picture the juice trickling down my fingers, apples so red and round and firm I can almost hear the crunch as I bite into them. It is early evening and I remember that all I have had is a cup of tea. I am hungry but I know I cannot eat. No need to try. Too anxious.
The sun bounces off the window frames of the cars ahead, and light stabs me in the eyes. I drop my head sharply to avoid the glare and in the momentary distraction when I drop the visor, Bayo almost takes the road leading to Nneka’s house. I tap him on the arm and shake my head. He looks at me with questions in his eyes, and I tell him we are going to Utako. I can tell he is surprised, but he hides it well.
I like to keep things simple, and Nneka does not only like complications, she is a complication. From the moment of her birth when the umbilical cord came wound around her neck, and she, as though sensing the unvoiced unwelcomeness of her arrival, refused to cry for a whole minute, followed by her father storming out of the hospital room – and their lives, at the birth of yet another baby girl, to the moment when her mother’s lover began to take more than a casual interest in her homework, and her clothes, and her hair, and her body. As if to help life along in its enterprise to thwart simplicity, she found complications in the most innocuous events.
She told me all this the first day we met, six years ago at a gym off Allen Avenue, before she got transferred to the office in Abuja. Her mouth crammed with a granola bar, a smoothie in her right hand, she gestured with the left, her voice rising in an arc, her forehead tense, as she explained that her life never went the way she planned and was I sure I wanted to be her friend seeing as she always seemed to bring the people that associated with her down along with her. I was amused, I thought she was interesting, I thought she would be full of adventure.
She wasn’t. she approached life with taut shoulders, blinked with uncertainty and then discarded any prospect that seemed too good to be true, working hard to discredit anything that might make life a little easy, so as to continue the tradition of complicatedness. She was relieved when things went badly, secure in the vindication of her powers of prognostication, just as she was edgy and frustrated when things went well. She could make a typhoon out of a toilet flush. I found her amusing, but I kept most of my more daring antics to myself.
My mind temporarily defeats my reluctance to introspect; I indulge in panicked thoughts what am I doing? I am tempted to think of all the ways this could go wrong, this impulsiveness. Again, with sheer force of will, I get a grip and continue to chatter mindlessly to Bayo. If he finds this curious, since I usually leave all the talking to him, especially when I come in like this, tired from a trip, I cannot tell. There is no strangeness on his face.
As we approach Utako, Bayo asks for directions. I hand him the piece of paper with all the information I have. He pulls up to the roadside and studies it.
I take out my phone and dial. A voice answers, soft and yet undeniably male, singsong, a Northern twang. Where have you been? He asks. Your phone has been off. I tell him my battery was low and ask what he is up to, where he is. He reminds me that he had told me he would catch a drink a little distance from his house. Anyway, I am just checking up on you, I say. He tells me he misses me, and I ask him what he would give to see me. He says he would give his beloved hiking shoes, so I say it’s a deal.
We hang up, he laughing, and I smile. Not only do I no longer have to shop for hiking shoes for our proposed mountain climbing in Obudu later in the year, this pair, Hi-Tec Falcon Waterproof Hiking shoes is pricey. I have seen the pictures.
When we get to the address, Bayo looks at me. My expression does not encourage discussion – I don’t even look at him. The neighbourhood is shambolic; from a junkyard, broken-down vehicles spill into the untarred street. The gutters that run along the left side of the street are lined with scum, the houses covered with dust. A naked child of about seven darts past the front of our slowly moving car, a woman, presumably his mother, in pursuit. She grabs him by the arm just as he is about to scale the gutter, pulls him back and delivers three slaps in rapid succession across his face. He is slow to react and when he does, he emits a screech so loud I nearly cover my ears with my hands.
We leave the car and Bayo accompanies me, hovering protectively as I scan the row of houses on our right for number twenty-three. It is one of the few gated compounds on the street. The gate is open.
A young girl of about eighteen walks towards us. I tell her who I am looking for, ask if he is home. I do not act as though I am not sure if this is even the right place.
She nods, “I see am o, e never tay wey e comot,” she says.
“As you see am, e be like say e go tay?” I ask.
“No o, e wear house shoe with one kain shirt like that.” She nods , “e no go tay. Make una wait.”
I look around. I see a small building detached from the main house, and guess that this would be his apartment. We start to walk towards it and she does not stop us, so I know I am right.
I pay Bayo for my fare and thank him. As he turns to leave, I say, “one more thing.”
He looks at me like he can guess what I want to say.
“Nneka doesn’t know I am in town. Please don’t say anything to her.” I say.
The building wears a cream coloured paint with brown smudges; a balcony that runs across the front is raised above ground level by the height of a step. I blow on a spot to dust it, sit down, place my duffel beside me, lean against one of the columns of the building and wait.
I feel relief. Relief that I am here at last; that after weeks of long phone calls, filled with pregnant pauses where we just listened to each other breathe, text messages that struggled to convey a wealth of longing, shared pictures and voice notes, an eternity of chat whose transcript, if printed out would stretch across two turns on third mainland bridge, amateur poetry that went something like when first our eyes they meet/will they with fires lit – I am here.
Relief is the word that euphonizes, but does not capture what I truly feel – trepidation, and a tingling uneasiness. I do not know what I will find. But he kept procrastinating, and one of us had to do something about our meeting.
I reach for my bag again and this time, I find my compact powder. I flip it open, survey my face in the mirror. Sweat has beaded my upper lip and the rest of it is shiny. I dab all over with some tissue then swipe the sponge across my face. I apply gloss and spray some perfume.
I see him before I hear him. He comes from the other end of the house. I lift my head, and there he is, frowning at me, one hand braced against the column, the other resting on his hip. He stares at me, calmly.
I stand up, my head reaching only to his shoulder, dust my backside and smile, looking at him through my lashes.
“Hi,” I say. He is still staring at me, unsmiling.
“I am. . .” I begin, but my voice is hoarse. I clear my throat, start again. “I am Toke.”
“Toke? Like the Toke I just spoke with on the phone?” His face is changing before my eyes. His full black brows that nearly meet at the middle, lower; his eyes slit.
“Yes,” I say and struggle to smile. I have to remember to be casual. I haven’t done anything wrong. What is a surprise visit between friends?
There is a tense moment, and then just as if I imagined it, his expression changes again. In a move that seems deliberate, coaxed, he relaxes his shoulders, smiles, and pulls me towards him. We hug.
“Toke,” he whispers.
There is something missing.
He is hugging me, holding me close, but it is not exactly the kind of first hug I expected. There is a slackness, a lack of urgency where I had expected ardour.
“But how did you know where I live?” he asks
An impish smile.
He unlocks the door and as we enter, a chill envelops us. We stand in the centre of a small living room, done in art deco style: shades of beige and mauve in bold patterns manage to look effortlessly artistic. A pink sofa with a comforter flung across half its length and one arm, taking up most of the floor space is the only provision for sitting. Lamps with pale pink shades stand on two side stools, and the dim, yellow light they emit creates a halo around the stools. Art pieces dot the walls directly opposite the front door. On the left is a 42 inch LCD TV, the kind with 160 degree angle viewing point that makes it possible to see perfectly from an 80 degree angle on either side of the screen. The wall behind the TV is painted mulberry, but does not disturb the harmonious effect; it rather seems to absorb any excess light. The rest of the room, eclipsed by thick damask curtains is obscure. Someone had put a lot of thought into creating this ambience.
There is an air of mystery and brooding silence, and I feel the need to tread softly, even though the thick pile carpet would swallow any sounds I might make. When the automatic air freshener atomizer hisses as it sprays, I jump.
He chuckles as he strides over to the window, sweeps the curtains where they meet in the middle, to either side, and secures them with the whipcords hanging on the wall. The room is flooded with light, the graveyard mood is lifted. Then he turns to me where I stand bolted on the centre rug, stretches out his hand, says, “Let’s start over. I am Enoh.” I notice he has a lisp. I hadn’t picked that up from our phone calls.
I take his hand, solemnly and look up at him. His palms are soft and moist. With my eyes, I try to apologize for this surprise which I somehow sense is unwelcome. I try to convey my hope that all is not lost, I try to superimpose the image of the man who had me tossing in my bed, grinding my crotch into my pillow, stroking myself as he whispered urgently in my ear, suggestions of what he would like to do with me, on this man who stood before me, a benign smile on his face; who seemed different, distant, unknowing.
“I am Adetoke,” I say, trying to recall all I know about coquettishness. I open my eyes wide and blink slowly; I lick my lower lip and hope my pout is not too obvious.
He looks at me with curiosity, like I have just grown an extra eye in the middle of my forehead, then drops my hand, turns around and says, “Let’s get you settled in.”
I stare at him. What is wrong with this man? I am twenty-four to his thirty-eight years old, he should be flattered. Then I get it. He is nervous. I have to remember that I have upset any plans he may have made. I make my way to where I can hear him banging around.
The kitchen is as big as the sitting room; and has got everything my little heart could desire. I like to cook but I am more than willing to hand the reins over in the presence of someone who looks like they knew what they were doing, and this man looks like he rules here. And it smells good, like rich aromas are just coming off the wall, ghosts of countless cordon bleu cooking; my mouth waters.
Pointing down the hall with the knife in his hand, he indicates a door. “Settle in,” He says and continues doing something I cannot see.
I go to the room he pointed me to. A quick inspection tells me that this is his bedroom. It is then I realise that I had been afraid he would banish me to the guest room, which I can see further down the hall. This room is done in green and yellow patterns, bursts of sunflowers.
I notice that everything is in place. I am a little scared, perturbed by his finickiness. At that moment, I remember my mother’s sister, Aunty Tinu, describing her ex-boyfriend, Festus, a man she could not marry because his neatness drove her insane. She made us laugh as she regaled us with stories of how she would clean the bathtub carefully after a bath, and then he would come and ask her if she was done with the bathroom. That question, his tone made her know right off that he had found something, maybe a strand of hair in the drain. She would lie and say she was not done, go over the bathroom with a careful eye. He would return a few minutes later, again asking her in that weary tone if she was “all finished.” The day she left him, she yelled, “I am finished. As are we!” I hope I don’t have a Festus on my hands.
I change into beige shorts and a pink tank top and sneak up behind Enoh as he stands at the sink dicing carrots. I wrap my hands around his waist, circling it to link them in front, just above his belt buckle. I rest my head against his back. My face is hidden (as is his), and I have the boldness to say what is on my mind.
“Um, Enoh? I’m sorry I showed up like this. I wanted to surprise you. If you are expecting someone, or you have other plans, I have somewhere I can go. . . ” I say everything in a rush.
“Hey, what’s that about?” He turns around to face me, wipes his hands on a dish rag hanging from a hook the shape of a flower, and pulls me close to him. “I am happy you are here,” he says, nudging my head with his chin to lie against his chest, and runs his hands through my weave. I look up at him and smile. He smiles back. The smile is affable.
I keep my head upturned, stare deep into his eyes, move my hips forward. He looks at me, looks amused, takes a step back. “Food will soon be ready honey.”
A short time later, we are eating – white rice with lots of carrots boiled in it, goat meat stew, sipping freshly squeezed juice from tall sweaty glasses. Enoh sits on the sofa, a napkin spread on his laps, and I sit on the floor. We are watching The Oprah Winfrey show. I push my tray to the side when I finish and stretch out on the carpet, belly-up, like a cat. He says I will soon grow a fat ass, too big to carry around. I feel like the old Enoh is coming back. So I say, “but it’s already fat,” and turning to the side, I wobble my buttocks and wink. “You want this.”
“Do I?” Silence.
I don’t even know what to make of that.
You are getting fat. You know I don’t like fat women. A voice from the past, unbidden. I squelch it and send it back where memory belongs. In the memory.
When he finishes, he takes our plates to the kitchen and stays to wash up, and I doze lightly. As I hear him return to the sitting room, I turn to pick up the remote and my top rides up above my belly, exposing skin. I pat the space beside me. “Come and lie here,” I say, trying to make my voice throaty. I am not feeling particularly amorous – his apathy is getting to me – it’s there in the way I catch my eyes squint, my mouth tighten on the end note of the teasing – and I am working now by instinct. I am determined to recapture the connection we had, I know I did not imagine it.
He goes to the couch, stretches out and continues to watch TV.
I pick up the remote and rudely change channels to MTV Base. It’s perfect, I think, as the idea forms. He is looking at me as I knew he would be, with mild annoyance. I begin a slow dance, not in tune, and yet not out of tune with the song playing. Instead of moving to the beat, I catch every other beat and my hips undulate in time. I twist my waist from side to side – my version of a hula. I hold his eyes.
He laughs, stands up, joins me in the centre of the room – our makeshift dance floor, and we hula away. He does it better, twisting his waist like it’s boneless. Actually, I would have preferred if he sat and watched. I am trying to seduce, and the miming gestures in this dance don’t allow for much intimacy, so there is not much pleasure in dancing together.
The song ends and as he resumes his slouch on the sofa, I glimpse a stack of magazines on the floor. I really don’t want to see any magazines but I crawl all the way across the room, and when I reach the stack, I bend forward still on my knees, aware that I cut a provocative picture. I look behind me, and Enoh is looking at me. Finally, I think and smile. There is no answering smile. I look at him again and realise that he is actually looking past me, at the magazines.
It begins to rain, a light patter on the aluminium roof. Thunder rumbles like an angry god, grumbling; lightning streaks across the darkening sky. I have dreamt of making love with Enoh in the rain.
The way it plays out, I am standing at the window looking out, against the backdrop of a dark room, the strains of slow music and the sound of rain. Enoh comes behind me and I pretend that I don’t know he is there. He whispers my name and I ignore him, the haughty lady and her besotted lover. He kisses my neck, runs his hands down my arms, cups my breasts and skims his palms across them. He unclasps my bra, frees my breasts. I feel his erection resting heavy on the small of my back, poking. With one hand he unbuckles his jeans and with the other, lifts my dress, pushes me forward. . . .
My reverie is interrupted by the gentle snores coming from behind me. Enoh is sleeping. I stand over him and watch him sleep.
Something deep in my gut is telling me that I am wading in deep waters; that I am standing in unfamiliar territory. But men are familiar territory and this man is a puzzle I am finding increasingly incomprehensible and it is driving me crazy. I have to make him want me again. The irony of the situation has not eluded me.
I walk into the room and not knowing what to expect, climb into bed, and await the night.
I wake up around midnight and pad on bare feet to the en suite bathroom. Light enters the room from the streetlamps across the street, and in the dimness, I can see that I am alone. Enoh’s side of the bed is untouched. I walk slowly to the living room. At the archway between the living area and the hallway, I pause and allow my eyes adjust to the gloom. Enoh talks on the phone in heated whispers. His voice is husky, his right hand making frenzied motions beneath the comforter. I watch him, fascinated and appalled. I watch him as the dam of dread I have boarded up all day bursts over me, my anger a febrifuge, wiping away the fever of my desire, dousing the flames as surely as lite water.
I stand over him. He looks up, his eyes unfocused. Then he pulls his hand away from under the coverlet and stands. His phone slides off the comforter, bounces off the arm of the chair as he stands, and skitters across the floor to land a few feet away. In one unthinking motion, I whirl on the ball of my foot, crouch, pick up the phone and put it to my ear.
Enoh is moving faster than I have ever seen a grown man move, but he is a little late. On the other end of the line, a voice is saying, “Enoh? Honey? Are you there?” It is gruff, deep. Male.
I look at him with frank surprise, then I start laughing. I do not mean to but gales of laughter come burbling forth, wringing all the uncertainty and insecurity and pain like water from wet laundry.
I stop as suddenly as I started. Enoh is looking at me with anger, malice and chagrin, a defensive glint like Bayo’s in his eyes.
“Why?” I ask. I need to know. I am not Nneka I think, near hysteria. I believe in people. I need to keep believing in people. Surely, there is a reason. . .
“I wanted to know if I could,” he says, the defensiveness lacing his voice like the bourbon my father liked to sneak in his coffee.
“Could what?” I ask. “Seduce a woman?”
He just looks at me with the world in his eyes.