28 May PREVIEW: An Unlikely Kind of Love
THE KNOTS IN HER STOMACH tightened as the cab raced past the Lagos Business School, the landmark that signified she was now halfway to her destination. Cracking her fingers, she wondered how on earth she had been convinced to agree to such madness, the madness of spending not just an evening, but an entire weekend, with people who were as good as strangers to her, people she hadn’t seen in two decades.
The closer the cab got to the luxury hotel and golf course that had been chosen for the occasion, owned by one of her old classmates no less, the more she regretted opting for a simple t-shirt over blue jeans outfit. Stealing a look at her bare face in the rear-view mirror, she knew one thing she would not be doing on arrival was make a statement. Hopefully, she’d get the chance to change into something else before the evening’s mixer, but even she knew none of her other choices would be significantly different from what she already had on. Cursing under her breath, she felt like kicking herself for not preparing better for the weekend and at least doing some shopping.
Reaching for her phone, she dialled Ikenna for what had to be millionth time, and cursed again when it rang off. For someone who’d promised to be her support that weekend, he was already doing an awful job of it. Her best friend since secondary school, and the only person she’d kept in touch with over the years, he’d been the one who’d convinced her to attend the reunion.
“It’s going to be a blast!” he’d raved, when they each received the invite months before. “I’ve heard a lot of people plan to attend, so it’s going to be mad fun.”
And like a fool, she’d signed up for it. In retrospect, as Ikenna was still very friendly with a good number of their old classmates, a sharp contrast to her own zero tally, what was going to be ‘mad fun’ for him was bound to be anything but, for her. The only silver lining was being able to spend time with him. Even though they were still as tight as thieves, it didn’t change the fact that they lived continents apart and didn’t see each other as often as they liked. While she had remained in Nigeria, Ikenna moved to the States immediately after school. But distance hadn’t weakened their friendship, and they were just as close as the first time they’d clapped eyes on each other as young fourteen-year-olds.
Putting the phone back in her bag, she inhaled deeply. She was just going to have to face the music without him.
His phone stopped ringing just as he got out of the shower, and he chuckled when he saw that it was Tomi and that she’d already called eleven times before. Still laughing, he returned the phone to the nightstand. Tomi was just going to have to calm down. She was clearly just as tense about the weekend as she’d been when he’d finally convinced her to attend, and he couldn’t wait for her to see just how much fun it was going to be.
Standing in front of his closet, he eyed the clothing options he’d chosen for the trip to the Epe resort; a black, single-breasted Thom Browne blazer over a white t-shirt and a pair of black Neil Barret combat pants, or a light pink Ralph Lauren shirt over jeans. He opted for the blazer, t-shirt and combat pants.
Standing in front of the hotel bathroom mirror a few minutes later, he gave himself a once-over, wishing for the better view his full-length mirror at home provided. Adjusting the blazer, he was satisfied with what he saw. In the years since his divorce, he’d learned that impressions, first impressions especially, were everything. And even though he’d kept in touch with a lot of his old secondary school mates, he hadn’t seen a good number of them in years, and he wanted their first visual of him to count.
It was a very different visual from what most of them would remember.
Reaching for his diamond stud earrings, he hesitated, wondering whether or not they would prove a bit too much. Even though they were part of his identity back home in L.A., he decided he didn’t want to shock and awe his reunited pals too much, so he snapped the case shut. The earrings could come back on after the weekend.
Folding the pink shirt and jeans he hadn’t worn, and placing them in his suitcase along with his other clothes, also neatly folded, he checked his watch. If he knew Tomi well, she’d probably be blowing a gasket by now. Ah well, they had all weekend to make up.
Reaching for his phone, he opened the invitation, so he could text the address to the taxi driver he’d engaged to take him there, and he smiled at the picture on the invitation, his year book picture. He shook his head at the pimple-faced boy with the large overbite and even larger glasses. He’d been that boy until only a few years ago, after his very painful divorce. Losing Archana, the love of his life, had been enough motivation to make changes; lose weight, get fit, and overhaul his wardrobe. It had started off to win her back, but as his new identity evolved, he realised he was doing it more for himself than anyone. With his new muscled body, designer clothes, and the attention that came with them, he decided he liked it all very much indeed.
He was just about to dial Tomi’s number when his phone rang again. He smiled at the name on his caller ID. It was Alexis, one of the very many Lagos-based honeys he had plans for while he was in town, and the one he’d chosen to accompany him for the reunion weekend.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he cooed.
“Hey, handsome,” she answered, her voice just as suggestive. “I take it you’re not yet in Epe.”
“I leave in,” he glanced at his watch again, “exactly one minute.”
“If you make it fifteen, I could come over. Won’t it be better for us to go together, instead of me joining you there tomorrow?”
“Babe, we already talked about this,” he said, trying not to succumb to his rising impatience. After painstakingly explaining why he wanted to go there alone, so he could bond properly with his old friends that first evening, he didn’t expect her to still insist. “The driver will bring you tomorrow afternoon, just like we agreed.”
“Okay,” she answered, and he could even hear a pout, if that was possible. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Be a good boy, okay?”
He sniggered as he disconnected the line. It was best for her not to get any ideas. This was only supposed to be a little bit of fun. After what his heart had already been through, the last thing he needed was anything serious.
Grabbing his suitcase, he dialled Tomi’s number and smiled when she didn’t answer. He knew her too well.
The taxi had already turned into the imposing grounds of the hotel when she heard her phone ringing in her bag, but so mesmerised was she by the sight before her, she didn’t even bother reaching for it. Yes, she’d heard it was a nice hotel, and had even seen a few pictures of it online, but none of them, neither what she’d heard nor any pictures she’d seen, had done the place justice. Sitting on what looked like at least three hundred acres of land, the large glass edifice stood tall and imposing, galloping several floors up to the clouds. As the taxi made its way up the long driveway, she caught sight of the famous golf course on one side of the compound, and the Atlantic Ocean in the far distance. The place was breath taking.
And standing in front of the building, his arms crossed, was Nonso Aguta, the young owner of the masterpiece of a hotel.
Getting out of the car, she smiled nervously at him, just as her taxi driver was kind enough to help offload her suitcase. Even though she’d heard a lot about Nonso’s exploits in the press, most notably his success in the power and infrastructure space, she’d still pictured him the way he’d been back in school; funny, talkative and a total goof ball. Nonso had been the class clown, but the man standing before her, with his blank stare and thrust-out chin, looked anything but.
Upon sighting her, his lips turned in the slightest of smiles. “Welcome, Tomi,” he said, embracing her. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
Considering that, in the immaculate white shirt he wore over smart dress pants, he looked like he’d just stepped off the pages of GQ magazine, a far cry from how scattered and shambolic he’d been in secondary school, she wasn’t sure if that was even a compliment. Once again, she was filled with dread anew over what the weekend had to offer, especially if it appeared she was the only one who hadn’t changed at all.
“Thanks for having us!” she responded, returning Nonso’s embrace. “You look great, and this place is amazing. Well done!”
He smiled again, if you could call the imperceptible lip movement a smile. “Thank you. It opens officially in a few weeks, so it’s also a good opportunity to get some feedback before the launch,” he answered. “Where is Ikenna? He called when he got into town two days ago. I thought you two were coming together.”
She shrugged. “He’ll be here later.” That was all she knew, and all she could offer.
“Well, it’s good to see you,” Nonso said, with the most subtle hint of dismissal. “Bioye is in the lobby registering everyone. She’ll give you your room keys, and let you know what the plan for the evening is.”
Bioye Laguda had been the ultimate party planner even back in school, and hearing her seemingly back in her old role gave Tomi a small sense of comfort that some things were at least still the same.
“Thanks,” she said to Nonso, picking up her suitcase. “See you around.”
Walking into the lobby, illuminated with a soft and welcoming light akin to sunshine, but in a gentle pastel hue, she felt herself start to relax, all the stress and anxiety she’d been nursing evaporating. Heck, even if everyone turned out to be as awful as she feared, at least she was guaranteed a couple of nights in a nice, five-star hotel.
“Tomiloju Aguda! Is that your face?” Bioye shrieked, rushing up to her. “When you RSVP’d, I didn’t believe it. You look great! You haven’t changed one bit.”
She smiled at the bright-faced Bioye, with the same large smile she’d had back in school. She had always been pretty and glamorous, so seeing her that way, with her bright, well-maintained skin, and human hair weave that clearly cost a fortune, was no surprise. It was also no surprise that she’d assumed Tomi would be a no-show for the event, considering how anti-social she had been back in school. She hadn’t even attended their Senior Prom.
“Thanks, Bioye. You don’t look bad yourself,” she said, returning what she hoped was a compliment. As friendly as Bioye was even back in school, both of them had been worlds apart. While Bioye was one of the cool kids, Tomi had been one of the invisible ones, one of the nerds nobody took any notice of. And it hadn’t bothered her, as she hadn’t been interested in boys, parties, fashion and the other trivialities that excited the cool girls anyway. For her, topping their class had taken priority, and with a handful of like-minds as friends, Ikenna being her closest one, she’d been very content to do just that.
“Tom-Tom! MC Jacker!” came a voice from behind her.
She turned around, eyes wide as she saw Zinna Aniche, one of the few people she’d been friends with in school. Like her, Zinna had been more academically minded than social, but unlike her, she’d had decent enough interpersonal skills to still relate with the students on the other side of the divide; the cool kids. After school, Zinna left for university in the east, after which she had done extremely well for herself. Even though they hadn’t stayed in touch, Zinna’s exploits kept her well in the news. From finishing with an almost perfect GPA in Mathematics from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to getting a scholarship to Oxford University, to being immediately snapped up by the World Bank, where she’d risen swiftly through the ranks, it wasn’t difficult to stay up to date with all her achievements. The last Tomi read about her, she had just been appointed a Senior Vice President for Europe and Central Asia, so it was even a surprise to see her at the reunion.
“Zinna!” Tomi exclaimed, as they embraced. “My goodness! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Ditto! You were the last person I thought would come for this,” Zinna laughed. “You look…”
“I know, I know. Just the same,” Tomi smiled, echoing what she’d been hearing all her life. “Last I read about you, you were based in London, or somewhere.”
“Geneva, actually,” she laughed.
Tomi rose a brow. “So you flew back to Lagos just for this?”
“Ha!” she cackled in the characteristic Zinna way. With her long dreadlocks and linen jumpsuit, she looked just as laid-back and carefree as her younger self had been, and was the least changed of everyone Tomi had seen so far. “I don’t love you guys that much. I just moved to Lagos after getting hired by a new bank that just started business. Capital Trust Bank, have you heard of it?”
Had she heard of it? Tomi had only spent the last few months trying to crossover from the bank she was currently hired to the new bank where, rumour had it, salaries were quadruple what other banks paid.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Tomi beamed. “What role?”
The smile on Tomi’s face waned, and she found herself suddenly fighting off feelings of intense envy. Even though she hadn’t finished with a perfect GPA, she too had made a First Class, but in Physics, from the University of Lagos. Unfortunately, that had been as far as she’d been able to go, and she had opted to accept an entry-level role in a commercial bank, instead of going further to get a Master’s degree. She’d risen through the ranks, yes, but had only just been promoted to the role of Manager. While it was decent, it was several, several rungs below being a whole Managing Director!
“Nice one!” Tomi forced herself to smile. “Well done!”
“I’m sure you’re going to want to be near your friend,” Bioye cut in, handing her a bunch of keys. “So, I’m putting you in the room opposite Zinna’s. You have a few hours to freshen up before the mixer tonight. This,” she handed her a small card, “has the details for everything, the same you got by e-mail. It also has a map to help you navigate this ridiculously large hotel.”
“This place is fantastic! It totally blew my mind when I arrived.” Zinna remarked.
“I know, right!” Bioye beamed. “I count it as a personal victory that I was able to not only get Nonso interested in this reunion, but also let us use the place.”
Tomi was full of so many questions, mainly about why Nonso’s involvement had been so critical, when a couple walked into the lobby, their large boxes wheeled behind them on a gurney. A wide smile broke on her face when she recognised yet another member of their nerdy group, Eva. Like Zinna, they had also been quite close, and also like Zinna, they hadn’t stayed in touch.
“Tomi!” Eva squealed, running up to her.
As they embraced, Tomi’s eyes rested on her old friend’s companion, her husband from the look of things. A tall and portly man, there was something vaguely familiar about him. He looked almost like…
“Omoruyi! I don’t believe my eyes!” Zinna exclaimed. “So Eva went ahead to make a fat boy out of you!”
Tomi’s mouth fell open when she realised that the man with Eva was indeed Omoruyi, the most popular and handsome guy in their set. Standing well over six feet even back then, apart from being a piece of eye candy, he’d been the school’s star athlete, captaining the track and field, basketball and volleyball teams. The man she was looking at, with his multiple chins and large stomach, looked nothing like that boy. Even more surprising was that he and Eva had ended up together. Like Tomi, Eva had lacked social skills, which meant she existed on the same parallel planet Tomi did, not one that intersected the cool kids’ planet on occasion, like Zinna’s. Never in a million years would Eva and Omoruyi have even conversed back then, let alone become acquainted. How on earth they’d gone on to get married was shocking. Well, to her anyway. Neither Bioye nor Zinna looked quite as surprised.
“Please leave Omoruyi alone o!” Bioye laughed, as she welcomed the couple. “He’s being well taken care of.”
“Too well!” Omoruyi bellowed. Even his laughter had changed, it was uncanny. “Tomi, it’s so good to see you. You look exactly the same.”
“She looks beautiful, just like I remember!” Eva raved, still holding her. “Gosh, Tomi! My dear friend! You just forgot about me sha.”
All she could do was smile, not knowing what to say in response. What was there to say about her decision to keep the same academic energy through university, which also left little or no time to socialise.
“So you guys were able to get on the early flight out of Abuja after all?” Bioye asked.
“Abuja?” Tomi repeated. “Is that where you live?”
Eva nodded at Tomi before returning her attention to Bioye. “There was a noon flight with another airline, so we went for that. We wouldn’t have missed this weekend for anything.”
“This place is really nice,” Omoruyi remarked. “I was just telling Nonso that it’s probably the best hotel, not just in Lagos, but the entire West African region.”
“Uyi!” Eva exclaimed, shoving her husband good-naturedly.
“I’m inclined to agree,” Zinna said. “I’ve been to a lot of hotels, and this one stacks with the very best of them. Nonso spent a good deal of money here. It’s very gracious of him to allow us use the place this weekend.”
Eva chuckled and shook her head. “Like who would have thought, though? Who would have thought Nonso would become such a big deal? Ever since finding out I went to school with him, my boss has been calling me non-stop, harassing me to find a way to schedule a meeting to get him to open an account with us.”
“Well, he’s the reason almost everyone in our set agreed to attend this reunion,” Bioye remarked. “Remember the poor attendance for our tenth year reunion? This one would have been even way worse, if I hadn’t name-dropped Nonso.”
“And that glow up? Mad o!” Eva continued to rave. “The guy is hella fine!”
“Excuse you!” Omoruyi exclaimed in mock protest.
“And he’s not the only one who’s glowed up,” Zinna said, looking at Tomi, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “I’ve seen pictures of Ikenna, and he looks like a snack right out of the oven. Where is he anyway? Was he able to make it to town? I heard he’s just been appointed Chief Operating Officer at Winkle.”
Winkle was a technology company that specialized in Internet-related services and products, similar to Google.
“He hasn’t accepted the offer yet,” Tomi clarified. “And yes, he’s in town. He should be here later today.”
Ikenna’s achievements always made her proud. After graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT, he’d gone on to Cornell to get an MBA. He’d surprised her by marrying his classmate, an Indian girl, even before completing his first degree, having a son shortly afterwards, and then settling for a job in a small biotech start-up in Atlanta after completing his MBA. He’d helped grow the start-up to one of the biggest companies in Georgia, but unfortunately, as his career grew, his marriage disintegrated, and by the time he’d risen to senior management position, his wife had filed for the divorce. Following the break up, he’d quit his job, moved to Los Angeles, and was immediately hired to head the strategy team of a Fortune 500 company. And after five years there, several other companies were now courting him, Winkle being only one of them.
The only thing Tomi hadn’t understood was the dramatic transformation that followed his divorce. She still didn’t see why he’d gone through so dramatic a makeover; losing so much weight, spending endless hours in the gym, and morphing from a sweatpants and t-shirts kinda guy to one who now spent thousands of dollars on ridiculously expensive items of clothing. To her, all that had been unnecessary. He’d been fine the way he was. But overweight, or muscled and rippled, he was still the same Ikenna, the same Ikenna who’d been her person for over two decades, the same Ikenna who was the first person she called when she was happy or sad, excited or angry. He was still her best friend.
“How about Toju?” Eva asked Bioye, with a sly wink. “You two were quite the item back in school. I’m surprised you guys didn’t get married. Is he coming this weekend?”
Tomi threw her one-time friend a puzzled look. The Eva she remembered had her head so buried in books, she never would have even been aware of any of her classmates’ romantic pairings. This Eva, with her blond crop cut and figure skimming dress, was quite different from the studious kid with glasses even larger than hers. It was almost like she’d absorbed all of her husband’s cool-factor, leaving little or none left for him. Omoruyi from 1999 would never have been caught dead in the lackluster plaid shirt, dad-jeans, and additional 50kg his 2019 counterpart was wearing and carrying.
“Yeah, he’s coming,” Bioye answered, with a giggle. “I haven’t seen him in so many years, so I’m quite excited.”
“Was it the distance?” Zinna asked. “Was that why you two split?”
Bioye nodded. Like many of their peers, she’d left the country right after secondary school, while Toju, like the rest, had remained in Nigeria. Even though they’d been joined at the hip back in school, it wasn’t surprising that as young adults, they hadn’t been able to sustain a long-term relationship.
As Bioye handed Eva and Omoruyi their room key, Eva smiled at Tomi. “I hope our room is close to yours.”
“I’m so sorry, but you guys are in the east wing,” Bioye answered. “The entire west wing is now full.”
“Wow! That many people made it?” Omoruyi exclaimed.
“Not surprising,” Zinna remarked. “A good number are here either to find a way to do business with Nonso or, considering he’s still single…”
She didn’t have to finish the sentence. There was no denying the fact that Nonso Aguta was one of the most eligible bachelors in the country.
“Whatever happened between him and Ogonna anyway?” Eva asked. “Wasn’t he mad about her back then?”
Yes, Nonso had been mad about Ogonna, but as mad as he’d been about her, it had been clear to everyone else that the feeling wasn’t mutual. Ogonna had taken advantage of his affection for her, of the fact that all she had to do was say the word and she’d have him at her beck and call. He drove her and her friends wherever they wanted to go, did her assignments and class projects, and dropped everything anytime she as much as snapped a finger. But she’d dumped him spectacularly right after their final exams, clearly having no more need for him.
“Well, she RSVP’d to attend,” Bioye answered, her slightly downturned lips registering her dislike for the girl who’d been called the most beautiful, not just in their set, but the entire school. “And from what I hear, she’s still single, so…”
A slow smile spread on Zinna’s face. “You think she might want to shoot her shot?”
“I don’t know o! Don’t put me in trouble abeg!” Bioye laughed, clapping hands with the equally amused Zinna.
Hmmm. It was turning out to be a very interesting weekend indeed.