PREVIEW: Any Love

PREVIEW: Any Love

CHAPTER ONE: DON’T SPEAK

February

Tekena

I’m not an addict.

Standing before the small bathroom mirror, my eyes don’t leave my reflection as I drop one, two, three pills under my tongue, stacked, because that’s the quickest way to get the kick. Either that or crush them and inhale like a junkie. And I ain’t no junkie.

Not anymore.

The smell of marijuana wafts in and I grit my teeth. This woman knows I hate any kind of smoke, lest of all pot which I find smelly, pungent, and disgusting as fuck.

I close my eyes as my body calms, basking in the familiar floating sensation, the liquid euphoria now pulsing through my veins. Whoever says this feeling is addiction doesn’t know addiction. I know addiction. I know what it feels like to live to use and use to live. I know what it feels like to wake up in a cold sweat before the sun rises, thinking only of where your next hit will come from.  I know what it feels like to run out of places to hide your bottles and, worse, your needles. I know what it feels like for the only cure for a hangover to be another drink. I know what it feels like to see other people living their lives and hating them for it. I know what it feels like to be emotionally dead, to feel and believe in nothing. I haven’t been that person for over a decade, haven’t sniffed a line or touched a crack pipe in just as long. After what the hard stuff did to me, I’ll never touch it again with a ten-foot pole. Now, I keep it simple. A mollie – or a couple – occasionally or a glass of a little sum’n now and again to relax and ease a bit of tension. So, no, I’m not an addict.

I just like to get high.

“Should I send the cops in there?” Banke calls out.

I shake my head and smile, my mood already better than when I left her in the bedroom ten minutes ago. Sober, I wonder if she’s worth the trouble. Sober, I wonder if I shouldn’t have stopped sleeping with her when she got married three years ago. Sober, I know I could do a lot better than banging another man’s wife. But when I’m high, heck, when I’m high, the ring on her left finger is only a small detail.

“You must have me confused with your man if you think I’ll quiver in my pants at the mention of cops,” I say as I return to the bedroom.

The smile on Banke’s face fades and the one on mine broadens. If you live in a fucking glass house, you should learn not to throw stones. Everyone in this town knows Biyi Braithwaite is as crooked as they come.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she retorts.

I have a comeback for her, but it dies in my mouth as the thick fog of marijuana smoke clogs my throat.

“You know I don’t like this!” I cough as I glare at her.

Her smile resurfaces as she leans back in her pillow and takes an exaggerated drag of the blunt in her hand. “That’s rich for someone who pops as many beans as you do.”

I raise a brow, well aware she isn’t talking about beans of a legume nature. I open my mouth to argue like I always do but decide against it. Still smiling, she stubs her joint in an ashtray on her lap, places the ashtray on the bedside table and leans forward, the sheet covering her chest slipping to reveal her generous Double G breasts, a come-hither look in her eyes inviting me for more of what brought me to her house as early as 7am in the morning. Maybe I was horny, maybe it was the excitement of fulfilling my fantasy of shagging her in the home, in the room, on the bed she shares with her husband, whatever it was, I was here before she could even finish the invitation. But as I look at her, rather than the instant arousal her buxom body normally elicits, usually enhanced when I’m high as a kite like I am now, I feel nothing. Instead, under the harsh glare of the behemoth chandelier over the equally crass bed – like, really, who mounts a chandelier over a bed? Suicidal, stupid people. Suicidal, stupid, new money people – the dark patches that surround her eyes and the nicotine stains on her full lips are more visible. Our eyes hold and I realise this volatile six-year situationship that began when what should have been a one-night stand led to us banging on the regular, not stopping with her many failed attempts to coerce me to marry her or when she finally found a sucker dumb enough to want to, might have finally run its course. Either that or I just need a break from all this smoke.

Besides, I have a wedding to attend.

“I have to go,” I answer, walking over to where my cargo shorts lie discarded.

“So soon? Biyi isn’t back until tomorrow,” she purrs, the sound ridiculous enough for me to look at her again.

The sound of her voice typically only grates when I’m sober. We really might be done this time.

“I told you I have someplace to be,” I answer as I reach for my watch from where it sits on the nightstand, and I curse when I see the time. I have a little under an hour.

“Fuck that wedding. Who gets married on a Monday, anyway?” she says.

“People who want to get married on Valentine’s Day,” I chuckle. “I’ll bet there are many weddings planned for today all over the world.”

She raises a brow as her mouth curves in a smile. “I never would have pegged you the romantic type.”

My smile wanes. She’s right. Romance is definitely not for me.

“I don’t think we should waste a good opportunity to spend quality time together, especially with Biyi out of town,” she pouts.

I pull on my t-shirt and blow her a kiss. “I’ll be back right after the wedding.”

I won’t.

“You promise?” she asks.

“I promise.”

I don’t.

After smoking all that weed, she knows better than to offer her lips as I come to her, and I plant a chaste kiss on her forehead.

“Laters,” I say, throwing her a salute before I walk out of her room, down the dimly lit hallway, and out of the apartment.

Once in the elevator, I close my eyes as the box makes its descent, prematurely feeling the comedown that comes after a high. I tap my pockets and curse under my breath when I realise the pouch with the rest of my pills must have fallen out of my pocket when I retrieved the three I popped less than, what, thirty minutes ago. While that is tragic in itself, it is even worsened by the reminder that the pills in the pouch are the last I have. I contemplate giving my supplier, Jagal, a call but I know I don’t have the time. I promised Ijeoma I wouldn’t be late for her wedding and, as it is, I run the risk of being exactly that.

The elevator opens and I am deep in thought as I walk out, bouncing around in my head the wisdom of having Jagal meet me somewhere. En route, perhaps? Or at the hotel where the wedding is holding? As I approach the glass double doors, I am snapped back to attention by the sight of the man walking through them, flanked by two burly, imposing goons. Standing an average five feet and six, maybe seven, inches, what Biyi Braithwaite lacks in height, he makes up for with bulging vascularity, his stocky frame barely contained by the fitted white suit he wears. Considering I have always made myself scarce anytime I’ve run into him and Banke out and about, it is the first time I see him up close. As I walk past him, he turns to me and our eyes hold for a split second, not long enough to be called a stare but long enough for his to narrow. I break the gaze before mine give anything away, my heart hammering in my chest. As I walk out of the building, I am not brave enough to turn back to see if he is still looking at me, the realisation of the large bullet I have just dodged making me feel faint. What if I was still in their apartment? What if I was still on his wife? For fuck’s sake, didn’t she say he was out of town until tomorrow?

I get into my car and rest my head on the steering wheel, the confusion, regret, and depression I feel almost as potent as my most severe of comedowns, bringing with them the demons they always do. My head pounds and I squeeze my eyes to banish the visual of sitting in a spinning car, squeezing even harder to drown out the deafening sound of a truck’s horn blaring and splintering glass. Sounds I will remember for as long as I live.

With grit teeth, I reach for my phone.

“Jagal, how soon can you get to my place?”

Ijeoma

It’s finally here. My wedding day.

As the makeup artist, aptly named Beauty, brushes bronzer onto my face, I smile as I take in the activity in the room. My Aunty Nono is animated in a video call with cousins who couldn’t make it here today, and the closest thing I have to sisters – my brother’s wife, Erin, and hersisters – are strapping my mother into the elaborate corset dress she is wearing for the occasion.

“Mommy, we need to make it a little tighter,” Fiyin, Erin’s older sister, says. “We need you snatched.”

“Please, I still want to breathe oh!” my mother exclaims, her complaint belied by the broad smile on her face.

Our eyes meet in the mirror, my mother’s and mine, and a lump rises in my throat. At forty-one, and after the horrible luck I have had with men, I know she’d probably lost hope of this ever happening for me. In our wordless communication, my eyes relay gratitude and hers, overwhelming joy. Our gaze doesn’t break as Fiyin and Erin take advantage of her distraction to hook her dress in place, and if the glassy sheen in her eyes is anything to go by, Beauty will need to be on standby for a touch up. But ruined makeup is nothing compared to the intense emotions we both share today, not only because it is finally happening, but as we remember the two members of our families not here today; my father and younger brother, Ekene, both of whom dearly departed, reducing our family of five to a family of three – mom, my older brother, Emeka, and me. It was emotional at Emeka’s wedding seven years ago, but I suspect it will be even more so today.

Thankfully, Aunty Nono calls my mother over to chat with yet another relative on the phone and as the last bit of setting spray is spritzed on my face and the last curl on my hair rolled, I smile as I listen to Erin, Fiyin, and their youngest sister, Ara, bicker over Ara’s choice of attire for the day, a cobalt blue pant suit. Fiyin hates it, but I think Ara looks great in it, and so does Erin, apparently. My smile broadens as the large diamond on Fiyin’s finger catches the light, my joy over her recent engagement a very close second to my excitement about being joined in marriage today to my best friend, Massimo.

My makeup done, I rise and step into my dress, a champagne-coloured strapless Elie Saab confection with an embroidered bodice and Chantilly lace overlay. As they strap me into it, I smile at my reflection in the mirror, grateful the dress has grown on me. Even though I earn a decent living as Emeka’s manager, I would never have spent over ten thousand dollars on a wedding gown. But Emeka and Erin insisted on paying for it, so I caved. My smile wanes a tad as I take in the intricate lace detail, interspersed with crystals and pearls. I have never been a lace, tulle, and pearls kind of girl. Not only would my dream gown have had none of it, it wouldn’t have been anything adjacent to white. Heck, it wouldn’t even have been a gown. I smile as I picture what I would have looked like walking down the aisle in a bright orange caped jumpsuit, with a large rose perched on my head. In an ideal world, that’s what I would be wearing today, but the moment I said ‘yes’ to Massimo, I knew that would never fly. Massimo is a traditional man, and I would never do that to him, lest of all on his wedding day, a day he has waited almost fifty years for. After today’s ceremony, we will have a small blessing in a church in his hometown of Verona, Italy, not only for the benefit of his family who could not make it here for this one, but for the spiritual consecration he craves. I smile at my reflection. This dress might not have been my first pick, but it is the right one.

“Oh my goodness, Ijeoma!” Fiyin exclaims, her voice shaking. “You look so beautiful!”

“Just like a princess,” Aunty Nono remarks, beaming from where she stands.

“Like an angel,” my mother says, stepping forward, her threatening tears having won the battle and now streaming down her face, streaking her foundation.

She reaches for my hands, and we just smile through our tears, both of us over the moon, both of us grateful for this day, a day that only took forty-one years to arrive. She steps back as my hair stylist secures the last rose clip in my bun and there is a collective gasp in the room, making me glad I didn’t give in to my desire for a quirky outfit. This dress is perfect. I look perfect.

Today is perfect.

The door opens and Emeka walks into the room, his face a reflection of the emotions of everyone in the room.

“Wow,” he says, the word coming out choked.

I smile as he offers his hand, and as I slip mine into the crook of his, it is almost as perfect as if it were our father doing the deed himself. Emeka and I have been through so many low lows and high highs and, thinking about it, nobody else would be better to walk me down the aisle, to lead me into this journey Massimo and I are about to embark on.

Holding my bouquet of red roses and white orchids, with our entourage behind us, Emeka leads me down the hall, down the stairs, and down the hotel lobby. I smile as we pause at the door, taking in the beautiful sight of tulle and red roses the garden has been decorated in. With our guests seated, it looks more vibrant than it did when I made a final check on the place before being led upstairs to get ready. My eyes travel to the floral arch on the other side of the garden, the man who will soon be my husband already standing before it. Massimo is wearing a fitted midnight blue suit, and his salt and pepper hair is shorn lower than it typically is. My heart warms as I see him fidget, folding and unfolding his hands in front of him, his face flushed. He is just as anxious as I am, and this realisation settles my own nerves.

“Are you nervous?” Emeka asks, echoing my thoughts.

I inhale deeply and laugh. Am I nervous? Absolutely. Am I so excited, I want to tear down the garden, run up to Massimo and throw my arms around him? Hell yeah!

My happy ever after begins today.

Tekena

Damn, I look good in a suit.

Jagal didn’t make it to me on time, but a shot of whisky was enough to take the edge off this afternoon’s close call. If I needed a sign that this mess with Banke has to end, there couldn’t be any more glaring than this.

I smile at a few familiar faces as I take a seat, grateful to have made it in good time. It is a nice intimate set-up with no more than sixty, seventy people, and I can’t help but feel chuffed Ijeoma considered me worth an invite. The red and white flowers and streamers are bright and vivacious like she is, and I smile as I shake my head, not at all surprised she has turned this otherwise ordinary space into something that looks like something out of a Disney movie. I spot string lights overhead which I’m sure will be switched on in a couple of hours when the sun sets and the reception begins.

I allow my eyes roam the space. Apart from the people I have already greeted, I know hardly anyone here, which is no surprise, really, as Ijeoma and I don’t particularly run in the same social circles. That, and the fact we don’t have exactly the most cordial of family histories, considering her brother, Emeka, married the woman my own brother, Karibi, was once madly in love with. It’s now water under the bridge – I hope, considering Karibi is married to someone else – but I don’t reckon either will be on the other’s Christmas card list.

Ijeoma and I got friendly when I was remodeling a client’s house. The client wanted Emeka’s very sought-after portraits, I got in touch with his manager – Ijeoma – and we hit it off like a house on fire. Are we the best of friends? Not really. We probably see each other all of three or four times a year. But anytime we do, she seems to enjoy my jokes and I definitely love listening to her wild, raucous laughter that belies her delicate appearance. She’s a quirky one and it’s no wonder this is the man she has chosen to marry.

My brows furrow as I look at the white guy standing under an arch in front. Dude looks more like someone about to pass out than one set to exchange vows of forever with the woman he loves. I scoff and shake my head. Why any man would willfully put himself through this ringer beats my mind. I could never do it.

Andrea Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye starts to play, and I join as everyone rises to their feet. A wide smile returns to my face as I see Ijeoma emerge with her brother. Even though I’m surprised to see her in a conventional wedding gown, she is true to form with an assortment of red and white flowers scattered round her hair, instead of a traditional veil.

As she and Emeka approach, as she gets nearer where I stand, as I take in her wide, bright eyes, luminous skin, and crimson-coloured glossy lips spread in a wide smile, she is the most beautiful I have ever seen her. Our eyes meet and my grin broadens as I wink at her. Ijeoma, my gee!

This man better not mess with my girl.

Ijeoma

My heart feels like it will just about burst. As I spot the faces of my friends and family, I am delirious with happiness. On all their faces, in all their eyes, their joy for me is evident and I have to swallow hard to keep from crying. This has been worth waiting for. This day has been worth waiting for.

As we approach Massimo, my smile broadens. He smiles back and exhales, his face even redder than it appeared from a distance. I haven’t seen him since the dinner party Emeka and Erin hosted for us two nights ago, and my brain is already buzzing with everything I need to catch him up on. Ours might not be based on aching lust, fiery fireworks, or flaming hot passion, but the deep affection and friendship we share makes up for all of it. He makes me happy, in a stable and calm kind of way. After the volatile relationships I have had in the past, calmness and stability are everything I need.

He reaches for my hand as Emeka hands me to him.

Sei Bellissima,” he says, his smile finally reaching his eyes.

I smile and squeeze his hand, my cheeks already hurting from smiling non-stop all day, all week, heck since I decided to get over myself and my childish expectations and give this relationship a go.

“We are gathered here today to witness the joining of two lives,” the officiant from the Ikoyi Registry begins, making Massimo and I peel our eyes away from each other. “With love and commitment, these two separate people, Ijeoma and Massimo, have chosen this special time and place to begin the journey of living their lives together as husband and wife…”

The man’s voice drifts in and out as Massimo and I look at each other. I am bubbling with nervous energy and as short as the ceremony is supposed to be, I want it to be even shorter still. I wish I could hit the 2x speed button to hasten the officiant’s opening to when Massimo and I exchange the vows we have written for each other. It’s the reason we didn’t opt for a religious ceremony this time, so we could have the liberty to declare our commitment outside of the mundane ‘I Do’s’. I widen my eyes to communicate to Massimo in our secret language, telling him without words how I wish the guy would hurry up already. But rather than respond with a smile or eye movement like he ordinarily would have, he lowers his eyes, breaking our gaze.

It is later that I will realise this is when a cloak of premonition descended on me like a malevolent covering.

“It is their words, their intentions, and their vision that will define and shape their marriage,” the officiant continues. “And it is in their own words that they will state their promise to each other, before everyone here, pledges that will bind them together…forever.”

I inhale deeply, happy we have finally gotten to this part. I wrote my vows over a month ago and have looked forward to looking into Massimo’s grey-blue eyes and pouring out these verses I have crafted from my heart. But before I can, I will listen to Massimo’s first. I am even more excited to hear what he has written for me. It doesn’t matter that it might likely be mostly in Italian, and I might not understand everything he says. In our years together, just like our eyes have their secret language, our hearts have learned how to converse as well, defying any language barrier. So, no, I don’t have to understand his words to know their meaning.

The officiant looks at us and I give Massimo’s hands a gentle squeeze to prompt him. As he looks from me to the officiant, I notice that the red tint of his skin has given way to a grey pallor.

“Are you okay?” I mouth, my concern now rising.

His jaw clenches and his eyes water as he shakes his head. “Ti amo,” he says, his voice so low, I can barely hear him. “I love you…but I can’t.”

A cold wave sweeps over me and I lean forward, unsure of what I have heard, unsure of what to make of his words.

“You can’t do what, Massi?” I ask, holding in place the smile on my face more for my sake than to assure everyone watching that there is nothing to worry about.

“I can’t do this,” he answers, his body visibly vibrating and beads of sweat competing with tears now streaming down his face. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And then pulling his hands from mine, he takes a step back, brushes his hand over his face, and turns and walks away.

Leaving me staring at his receding form like I have been caught in a dream.

A very bad dream.

 

Tekena

I’m not sure what I’m looking at.

I watch as the white dude half walks, half runs away from the floral arch and down the aisle. He stumbles and almost falls as he makes his way past me, and I’m not sure if this is some sort of stunt he is pulling, some sort of grand gesture for his bride. Maybe it’s part of the ceremony. Maybe Ijeoma is in on the whole thing.

But as my eyes drift to her, as I see that her wide-eyed excitement has given way to wide-eyed horror as she stands there, pale as a ghost, I realise this is no stunt.

This motherfucker just dumped her at the altar.

My blood boils as I turn to look back at him as he runs in the direction of the car park, and I want nothing more than to jump over the rows of chairs that separate me from him, catch him, and whoop his ass. But I check myself, especially as the other guests, equally confused, are still seated as they murmur and exchange bewildered looks. As Emeka and a few other guys chase after the white guy, as the other guests start to get up from their seats, I rise to my feet but instead of chasing after the runaway groom like half the guests are, I follow the other half in Ijeoma’s direction, but she is whisked away before I can get to her.

Ijeoma

One minute, it feels like time has ground to a halt, like everything is happening in slow motion as Massimo walks away, as the realisation of what is happening dawns on me agonizing second by agonizing second. And then the other minute, everything is a whirl, happening at rocket-fast speed. It is one big blur, and I have no idea how I get away from that place. All I know is that one minute, I am so happy it feels like my heart will burst, and the next, well, the next, I’m back in the suite I only just emerged from as an eager blushing bride.

“What did he say to you?” someone asks.

“Is he okay? Is he feeling unwell?” someone else asks.

I stare ahead, having no answers for anyone. In what sounds like a very far distance, but is actually a few feet from me, I hear Erin and Fiyin usher out of the room anyone who isn’t direct family. I hear Ara offer to check on my mother who has been led back to her own suite, devastated. I hear my cousin, Nora, and Erin ponder over asking the guests to wait, just in case it is all a misunderstanding.

All the while feeling like I am watching them from outside my body.

No, this can’t be happening. There is no way, absolutely no way Massimo would have flaked on me. Not on any given day, lest of all our wedding day. There has to be a reason, a very good reason, why he bolted. Maybe he desperately needed some air, or maybe even a toilet.

“My phone,” I say, snapped back into consciousness. “Let me have my phone.” As everyone scrambles around, I rise to my feet and walk to the window, grateful to see most of the guests are still there. “Tell everyone to wait. He’ll be back.”

“Emeka and Gori have gone in search of him,” Fiyin says, handing me my phone. “I’m sure they’ll find him.”

“He’ll be back,” I say, nodding for emphasis, wanting to believe it more than anything, wanting to believe that the switched off message I get when I dial his number again and again means nothing. He’ll be back. There’s no way Massimo will hurt and humiliate me this way.

Soon everyone in the room is on their phone. Erin calling Emeka, Fiyin calling her fiancé, Goriola, and Nora calling God knows whom. Ara hasn’t returned so I reckon my mother is in bad shape. There is too much tension in the room, so I rise and, with my phone still in hand, walk the few steps to the toilet, lock the door behind me, place down the lid of the toilet, sit on it, and continue to dial Massimo’s number. Dial, hear the phone-is-switched-off message, and dial again. I lose track of how long I do this, only noting as the grey of the sky Massimo and I had thought perfect for our evening nuptials gives way to a light, then deep, purple, till it becomes a dark indigo. I also note as the noise downstairs tapers down, and the realisation that our guests are leaving makes the fear a glaring reality.

Massimo and I will not get married today.

Eventually, there is a tap on the door.

“Ijay,” Erin calls. “Massimo is here.”

I inhale and shut my eyes, now unsure how I feel about facing him. It is pitch dark outside and I’m certain even the people from the registry have left now. Anger surges through me as I open the bathroom door and see him, the man who should have by now become my husband, standing in the room, his face flushed, his cravat discarded, and looking like he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I see Emeka and Gori standing behind him, and from their worn expressions, I can tell bringing Massimo here was no easy feat. And that riles me even more.

“Let’s leave them to talk,” Erin says, gently tugging Emeka’s sleeve.

My brother’s face is red, and it is obvious that he is doing everything to contain his rage. I watch as Fiyin, Gori, and Nora follow suit, but long after the door is shut, I say nothing as I stand before Massimo. We say nothing as the seconds then minutes tick, his eyes averted, unable to meet mine. That is when the penny drops for me. That is when I know he doesn’t want to marry me. Not anymore.

“What the hell happened?” I demand, finally finding my voice, which is, surprisingly, steady. “What did you mean by you can’t do it?”

“It’s all too much,” he answers, running both hands through his hair and looking like he has aged a decade in the hours since he bolted. “It feels like I’m suffocating, like I’m choking to death.”

His agitation makes me soften. In truth, even for a wedding this small, there has been a lot of pressure putting it together.

“Do you need some time, Massi?” I ask. “Should we just focus on the ceremony in Verona and not bother with anything here?”

He finally looks at me, his eyes bloodshot. “I love you. I love you so much, Ijay,” he says. “But I wasn’t built for this.”

“What do you mean you weren’t built for this?” I explode, no longer able to contain my emotions. “You’re the one who came to me! You’re the one who asked me to marry you!”

“I thought it was what I wanted. I love you so much and I thought it was what I wanted,” he continues, his eyes now glistening with tears. “But I can’t.”

“Is it because of what we discussed about shuttling between Rome and Lagos?” I ask. As Emeka’s Italian agent, he is based primarily in Rome, and we had decided to maintain homes in both cities. “We don’t have to if you don’t want to. I could quit and move to Rome with you…”

He shakes his head, the tears in his eyes now spilling down his face. “Marriage isn’t for me. Please understand, amore mio…”

“Don’t call me that!” I yell, shaking in my anger. “Don’t you dare call me that!”

He sighs and takes a step towards me. “Please understand…”

“Get out,” I scream. “Get out now!”

He covers his face with his hands as he sobs, and I am tempted to reach for him to comfort him. I am also tempted to lunge at him and claw his eyes out. But I don’t move and instead watch him as he cries. After a few minutes, he looks at me, his eyes and face both beetroot red, offers a shaky smile, turns around, and leaves the room.

“Get out!” I yell when the door opens immediately after, not caring whom it is. “Get out and stay out!”

Whoever it is immediately does as I say, and I cover the distance between where I stand and the door, secure it with the deadbolt, and crumble to the floor as I dissolve into tears.

Tekena

What an evening!

After waiting an hour, I decide against hanging around to see how the drama will play out. Wanting something to bolster my mood, I head for a bar nearby. At 7pm, it’s still pretty early, but that serves me just fine. Tonight, I crave the anonymity that comes from sitting and nursing a drink – or a couple – in private.

But that proves to be a tall order.

“Hi, Tekena!” a group of girls call as I walk into the dimly lit tavern.

I smile and wave at them, none of whom I recognise but all of whom I have probably fucked. With my head bowed, I walk to the end of the room, hoping the booth I like is vacant. The place is packed, and I kick myself for not remembering that, for a Valentine’s Day evening, it is not unexpected. Thankfully, my regular booth is empty, and I slink into it, hoping its seclusion will give me the privacy I desire. I’m barely seated when I lock eyes with a woman seated with a man, and a smile spreads across her face as she waves tentatively. I have no idea who she is, but I wave back. Her date turns around, his face a mask of displeasure. His narrowed eyes widen with recognition, and I can see the conflict on his face, not knowing if he should be upset by his woman’s distraction or awed by the identity of the distractor.

“A Whisky Sour,” I say to the waiter who comes to me, not looking at him as I reach for my phone.

“Bourbon, shaken, neat?”

I look up at him. That is exactly how I would have ordered it, how I typically order it. I guess I’ve come here one too many times.

“Yes.”

The waiter smiles. “Coming right up, Mr. Graham-Hart. Will that be all? Will anyone be joining you tonight?”

I shake my head and offer him a stiff smile as he walks away, wondering why I didn’t just go straight home afterwards. I can just imagine the Instagram captions of pictures of me drinking alone on Valentine’s Day. Well, it beats pictures of me lying on the floor wasted, that’s for sure.

Tekena Graham-Hart, black sheep of the Graham-Hart family, famous for being famous.

My drink is served, and I take a large gulp, halving it immediately. I beckon at the waiter to let him know I’ll be needing another one, and I reach for my phone again, opening the infamous Instagram app and refreshing the search for Ijeoma’s wedding hashtag, #IjayOffToMass, hoping to see pictures showing things have resolved and that the wedding is now underway, but finding only the pictures that were there before, most of which from some dinner party held for the couple. I set my phone down, unable to shake off the devastated look on Ijeoma’s face as she stood alone at that altar, and I am filled with regret for not following my instinct to chase after that cowardly asshole and beating him up black and blue. Why take a woman that far if you can only go so far?

I empty my glass as the second is served, and as the warmth of the beverage spreads through me, I close my eyes and nod my head along to the music, Asake’s Sungba, the beat catchier than it was seconds ago. But over the music comes the crashing sound of a collision and splintering glass, making me open my eyes with a start.

I guess I’m going to need something more potent to get through the night. So I reach for my phone.

“Hey,” I say when Jagal answers. “I’m at The Dive. Deliver it to me here.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Setting my phone back down, I empty the second glass of Whisky Sour. It’s going to be a long night.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO: GIVE IT AWAY

Tekena

Between Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Give it Away playing in the background and the pills dissolving under my tongue, I can almost forgive the fog of smoke my friends – Seye Ladeji and brothers, Ladi and Shola Toriola – are creating from the assortment of trash they are smoking. It is another friend’s bachelor’s eve, and it is every bit as wild and out of control as I expected Obiora Njoku’s party to be, with almost every street drug passing around like hors d’oeuvres. At least a dozen strippers in various stages of undress are shaking, rolling, and twerking their assets around several poles on a mounted stage, completing the chaotic debauchery in the room.

But what’s life without a little debauchery?

I watch as the Toriola brothers snort lines of cocaine and look away, grateful that isn’t me anymore. Seye is snorting from his wrist, but not cocaine like Ladi and Shola, but a crushed molly. Yes, the kick is faster that way, but after everything it took to get me clean from snorting and shooting, I don’t mind taking the longer and harder route of popping the pills in my mouth, even if they do taste like soap mixed with battery acid and grime from a kitchen sink. Besides, snorting the stuff burns like hell. So, yeah, the longer route for me.

“I’ll bet she thought she was being smart by marrying a white guy,” another guy on the table, I forget his name, chuckles. “Serves her right!”

My ears perk up and I shoot the idiot a glare. It’s been almost a week since Ijeoma’s wedding fiasco and, as expected, it has been on everyone’s lips. Thankfully, there have been no leaked pictures or videos from the event, but the fact that her groom bolted from the altar has proven too juicy a morsel for people to let go of.

“She’s that loser’s sister, isn’t she? That Emeka chap,” Seye jumps in.

I scoff as I reach for my glass of vodka, wondering who exactly the loser is; a successful photographer who has made a name for himself locally and internationally, or a daddy’s boy who has never worked a day in his life. But I say nothing, partly because I can understand Seye’s beef, having once dated Emeka’s wife, Erin, and also because, until I made a business of my knack for refurbishing spaces, many would have classified us the same.

“See your babe,” Ladi chuckles, tilting his head in the direction of the doors.

I look and see Banke walking in with her husband, Biyi. In a black bandage dress that stops a few inches below her ass, her voluptuous body is on full display, her large breasts straining for freedom and her bright, chunky thighs rolling with each step. Biyi stands a few inches shorter but in a black silk shirt unbuttoned all the way to his stomach, tight black leather pants, and large gold chains twinkling around his neck and wrists, he looks just as lousy as his wife. Banke and I make eye contact and her mouth curves in a small smile. She leans and whispers something to Biyi before walking away. As she heads towards the toilets, she turns to look at me in silent invitation. I feel a twitch beneath my pants, my decision to end our dalliance forgotten.

“I’ll be right back,” I say, rising to my feet.

“Be careful, man,” Seye says as I squeeze past him.

He doesn’t say more, but he doesn’t need to. Cavorting with Banke while her husband is in the same vicinity is the height of reckless, even for me. Maybe it is the close encounter with Biyi days ago, or the rush of knowing her husband will only be a few feet away, or the fact I’m crazy horny after not having slept with anyone since the last time I was with her, whatever it is, I find myself eager for some sexual release. With her.

As I head in the direction of the toilets, a hand circles my wrist. It is my cousin, Soprinye, and I am both pleased to see her and frustrated by the interruption.

“Hey, Soso!” I exclaim as we embrace. “When did you get into town?”

“Last night,” she answers, flashing her dimpled smile. “I had a feeling I would see you here. How’ve you been?”

I shrug, my eyes straying to the toilets, desperate to break away. “I’ve been great. Listen, can we catch up a little later? I have to…”

My voice is cut off by a woman’s shrill scream. We look in the direction of the sound and my eyes widen when I see a girl I know socially, Maria, being manhandled by a burly man. Incensed, I make to walk towards them, but Soprinye’s grip on my hand tightens.

“Tekena! Not tonight!” she hisses, glaring at me. “I beg!”

A couple of bouncers walk up to Maria and her assailant, and the guy is soon escorted out, which is just as well because there’s no telling what would have happened if I’d gotten to the guy first.

“I thought you’d changed,” Soprinye says, shaking her head. “I thought you stopped all this unnecessary fighting when you quit drugs.”

I look at my cousin. Her worry is not unfounded. I have been thrown out of many a party, kicked out of many a bar, and made many an enemy following one too many brawls like the one I was a hair’s breadth away from getting into. All it takes to get me going is seeing a woman – any woman – being messed about, and I throw anything called caution to the fucking wind.

“He was hurting her, you saw it,” I say to Soprinye. “How is defending a friend ‘unnecessary fighting’?”

“It’s not your responsibility, Tekena! C’mon, you’re too old for this,” she answers with an eye roll.

Having just turned forty-one, she might be right.

“Anyway,” she says, her megawatt smile returning to her face. “Enough about that. Let’s go get something to drink.”

Before I can protest, I see Banke emerge from the toilets, her face contorted in a frown as she throws me a glare. I watch as she heads where Biyi is now seated, and as she makes a show of twerking for him. As she bends over in front of him, as her large ass is propped in front of his face, as he obliges her and runs large hands down the sides of her thighs, she throws me another look, a smug look to show me what I have missed out on tonight. But rather than excite me, it deflates my erection.

“Yeah, let’s go get something to drink,” I say to Soprinye, taking her hand and leading her to the bar.

Ijeoma

My blinds have been drawn for days. I don’t even know when the sun rises or when it sets. I have no idea what day it is. I only know that my dream of a happy ever after has been shattered.

After checking out of the hotel on Tuesday morning, I declined offers from everyone – from Emeka and Erin to take me home with them, from my mother to take me home with her, from Fiyin and Gori to take me to London with them – and decided to return to my apartment instead. If there is anything that will make me feel worse than I already do, it’s the pandering, smothering pity from my family. While I know their hearts are in the right place and that they only want the best for me, solitude is the only salve for me now, the only thing capable of healing the gaping wound from Massimo’s betrayal.

How did I not see it? How did I miss it? How did I, Ijeoma, the best judge of character not sense anything was amiss? I think back to his romantic proposal in Venice last year, wondering if there was anything I said or did in the time since to put him off marrying me. Before then, in our three-year relationship, marriage had never crossed my mind once. I’d been satisfied with our beautiful companionship and would have been happy to continue like that for years. After my last emotional encounter, apart from no longer believing marriage would ever happen for me, I’d simply been glad to have found peace and stability with someone for a change. But that changed the minute the diamond ring was slipped on my finger and I became someone’s fiancée for the first time in my life. From that moment last May, marriage became my fantasy, a lifetime commitment with Massimo my sole desire. But the same way he elevated me to the clouds with that dream…

He has sent me crashing right back to earth by taking it away.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE: WONDERWALL

May

Tekena

I glance at my watch, knowing Karibi is intentionally late. I know my brother and he is too much a stickler for perfection to be tardy. I take another sip of my Corkscrew cocktail, a rum and Martini fusion, strong the way I like it. I contemplate reaching for the disco biscuit in my pocket but decide against it. Karibi is a hound dog and would know if I’m even the slightest bit spaced out. No, I need to have my wits about me for this meeting. After weeks of avoiding not just him, but indeed my entire family, I finally agreed to meet up with him today, on the condition it would be after-hours at a bar and not at a restaurant for lunch like he’d requested. A small rebellion, a tiny win, but it feels good to know this meeting will be, for the most part, on my terms.

My phone buzzes with an incoming text and I lift it, expecting to see a message from Karibi, but instead see it’s from Banke.

WYD?

I scoff and turn the phone face down. What am I doing indeed! After Obiora Njoku’s bachelor’s eve, my interest in our messy dalliance has waned to nothing. Maybe it was seeing how eager she was to play with fire, maybe it’s the suspicion of her deliberately wanting Biyi to catch me with her in their apartment on Valentine’s Day, whatever it is, she’s not worth risking my life for. From everything I’ve heard about the Biyi fellow, that’s a dance around a blazing furnace I’d rather not make.

As I empty my glass, I see Karibi walk in. Still in his suit, I can see the clench of his jaw from a mile away. I am unable to keep my grin from broadening at the sight of the Chief Executive of Eldabra Exploration and Production wading through fog and smoke from everything from cigarettes to shisha to weed. I’m almost tempted to raise my phone to capture the sight.

“You’re late,” I say as he takes the seat in front of me.

“I spent a long time trying to psych myself into coming here,” he mutters, glancing around in disdain.

“Come off it, bruv,” I retort. “Don’t act like there wasn’t a time in your life you frequented places like this.”

“Several lifetimes ago and I quit when I was much younger than you are now,” he answers, his look pointed.

I shrug and raise my hand at the waiter, indicating I’d like another refill of my drink.

Karibi looks from me to the waiter and back at me. “What number is this one?”

I glare at him. “The second, if you must know.” It’s actually my third refill and fourth glass, but I’ll be damned if I admit that to him. “Anyway, what did you want to talk about?”

He doesn’t answer, but instead looks up at the waiter who has now brought my drink. “Gin and tonic, please.”

I take a sip of my drink and my eyes catch those of a woman seated two rows behind us. Curvy, thick, and either mixed race or just extremely light skinned, she is exactly how I like my women. Her face is apple shaped and all bronze and gloss and absolutely gorgeous. I smile at her, and she returns my smile, with an added wink for encouragement. And I am immediately regretful of having any company tonight.

Karibi turns to see what has caught my eye and then looks back at me. “Your full attention, if it’s too much to ask.”

I shrug. “You weren’t saying anything. Besides, is there anything wrong with a little bit of harmless flirtation? Or does that go against Eldabra’s code of ethics.”

Karibi smiles as the waiter drops his drink, and the smile remains on his face even after the guy has left.

“So this is what this is all about. You’ve been avoiding me, dodging everyone’s calls, because of the twentieth anniversary event,” he remarks.

“I don’t want to be roped into that,” I answer, riled by how quickly and accurately he has hit the nail on the head. “I don’t need to be a part of that.”

“But guess what? As a director, you have to,” Karibi spits back, his smile gone. “It’s not about what you want or need. This is the company our father built off the strength of his back! This is the company that funds your nasty lifestyle while you do fuck-all for it in return!”

“I happen to have a business of my own, as you’re well aware,” I throw back at him, my own anger rising.

Karibi crosses his arms. “Oh? And how’s that going for you?”

I say nothing and reach for my glass, downing its contents in one gulp, hating to betray the fact that he is right, that my business has reached a repressive stall. It has been a good six months since my last project, so, yeah, not going exactly well. Thankfully, I get paid for being a non-executive director with my father’s company, so that has helped me keep my wits together while I strategize my next move.

“Just come for the event, Tekena,” Karibi says, softening. “It’s only a day of your life. It would mean a lot to dad if you’re there.” His eyes hold mine. “And me.”

I shrug. I guess I could do that.

“No problem. I’ll put it in my calendar. May 24th, right?”

Karibi smiles and nods. “So no need to keep running away. The kids miss you. Esmé has been asking when next you’ll bring over those candied nuts she likes.”

Hearing my niece’s name is enough to make me thaw.

“Tell her I’ll stop by this weekend,” I smile, having also missed her and her brother, Ethan, something awful.

Karibi rises to his feet and pats my shoulder. “Thanks for the drink.” He glances at the light skinned woman still looking at us. “And be careful out on these streets.”

Yeah, whatever.

I throw the woman a smile as my brother walks away and rise to my feet as my phone vibrates with another message.

I’m lonely and missing you like crazy. Come over.

It just might be time to block Banke’s number. Switching my phone off, I walk over to the light skinned woman.

“Hey,” I say, still smiling.

She returns my smile, revealing deep dimples. “Hey.”

I take the seat in front of her without asking for permission. “Have we met? You look awfully familiar.” She doesn’t, but I’ve come to realise women find this opening less intrusive than a flat out you-look-fly-can-we-hook-up line.

“Nice try,” she laughs, clearly not buying my act. “We haven’t met, but I know who you are. I know your name is Tekena.” She stretches her hand. “Mine is Leila.”

Her hand feels soft as a cloud, her skin like velvet. Up close, not only does the silkiness of her natural hair and the greenish tint of her eyes confirm she is, indeed, mixed-race, she is even more beautiful than she was from several seats away.

“Nice to meet you, beautiful Leila,” I say, raising her hand to my mouth, caressing her supple skin with my lips.

Right until I am grabbed from the back of my shirt, lifting me off my feet, almost choking me in the process.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing talking to my girl?!” comes a deafening voice as I am struck on the face and then thrown to the floor.

Before I can gather my thoughts or wits together, I wince in pain as I am kicked first on my thigh and then my groin. I raise my hands to protect my face, but my assailant is pulled away from me as the bar erupts in raucous yelling and shouting. I am helped to my feet and led to the seat I was just pulled off, fussed over by Leila and several other patrons, while the bar’s security guards drag my attacker away. I look at the guy, a big, nasty looking fellow, and as our eyes meet, a smile curves my bloodied lip. You see, on a good day, it would have been a free for all, and I would have given just as good as I got. On a good day, I would have clamped his balls with a grip so tight, it would have cut off his air supply. I would have lunged at him and we would have made a fucking battle scene of that bar. But the minute Leila rushed to me and not him, I knew I’d won.

Without even having to lift a finger.

But a little over an hour later, walking into the quiet darkness of my apartment, it doesn’t quite feel that much of a win. After receiving an ice pack to ease the swelling on my face, I’d found myself no longer keen on flirting. So I’d left the place without even getting Leila’s number. I walk over to my home bar and reach for a bottle of Scotch whisky. I retrieve a glass but do away with it and take a swig of the drink straight from the bottle instead.

Without turning on the lights, with the only illumination coming from a streetlamp filtering in through a gap in the blinds, I walk over to the couch and sit, taking intermittent swigs from the bottle. On cue, the demons return, the blaring horn, the crashing sounds, the splintering glass, the yell of ‘Tekena!’, all echo in my head, loud and deafening. I reach for the pills in my pocket, even though I know I’m too inebriated for it to be a good idea.

But this isn’t the time for good ideas.

I drop them under my tongue – one, two, three – and lean on the headrest for them to take effect, for them to quieten the noise. My heartbeat quickens and beads of sweat form on my brow and trickle down my back despite the room’s aggressive air-conditioning, but the noises in my head fade to oblivion.  I close my eyes as the hit floods the pleasure centres of my brain, and it feels like I’m floating off the ground, floating in the clouds. I take another drink from the bottle and sink back into the calm, the tranquillity, the confidence that I can do anything I fucking want to do. I have no reason to be afraid of a one-day family event. I’m Tekena fucking Graham-Hart.

And I can do anything.

Ijeoma

I sing along to ABBA’s Dancing Queen as I get ready for work, my first time back since, well, since February the 14th.

After spending the first two weeks under my blanket, leaving my bed only for bathroom breaks and to rummage in my stark fridge, I’d eventually showered, thrown open my curtains, and spent the months following ordering takeout and binge-watching Korean dramas on Netflix. With the exception of Emeka and Erin, whom I allowed visit on Sunday mornings on their way home from church, I took nobody else’s call, responded to nobody else’s message. Not even my mother’s. The last thing I needed from anyone was pity. And now, after eleven weeks, I’m ready to face the world again.

I guess I’m just one of those people marriage isn’t for.

I roll on lip gloss, smack my lips, and step back to inspect my reflection. Leaner than I already was before all this happened, but with my skin brighter and smoother, I am pleased with what I see. I tease the braids I got done yesterday into a low ponytail and clip on a black and white corsage to match the cropped black and white jacket I wear over white trousers.

Let’s go do this!

The roads are relatively clear, and I make it to the Victoria Island gallery in ten minutes, half the time it would ordinarily take from my Oniru apartment.

“Welcome back, Ijay!”

“It’s good to see you, Ijeoma!”

“You look so good! The time away really did you good!”

I smile at the greetings from the gallery’s employees, beaming and waving in response and hoping I don’t look like what they imagine a forty-one-year-old woman dumped at the altar would. In my office, I am grateful it has been cleared of the framed pictures of Massimo and me that were hitherto littered everywhere. The bridal magazines have also been removed and, to the untrained eye, it is the workspace of – I look at the only picture left on the table, one of me set to go paragliding, with a bright green parachute strapped to my body – a fun, happy-go-lucky woman. And I guess that was me for the longest time; fun and happy-go-lucky. No reason I can’t be that woman again.

But my brother isn’t buying any of it.

“You sure you’re ready to be back here?” he asks, his furrowed brows showing his concern.

I roll my eyes. We have had this conversation at least a dozen times since I told him of my intention to return to work. As if it isn’t bad enough that I abandoned my job for so long and that he is now without an agent in Italy.

“Emeka, it’s been almost three months,” I answer, forcing a bright smile. “I’m more than fine. I was going stir crazy in my apartment.” I raise my brow at him. “And you really didn’t have to be here because of me.”

Emeka is hardly ever here. He only comes over when he has an exhibition or important meeting, spending most of his time in his studio in Lekki Phase One. As his manager, this is my operating base, not his.

“I’m not here just on your account,” he answers. “I have a meeting with the team from Tempo.”

“Bonju’s wife’s radio station?” I ask. “Is she already back at work?”

Emeka and Erin only recently acted as Godparents to his best friend Bonju’s newborn son.

“Not yet. I’m meeting Destiny, her brother and partner,” Emeka emphasizes the last word for clarity. “They’re planning an art, music, and runway type of charity event and are keen on using the gallery as a venue.”

“Runway? Like models strutting on a runway type of thing?” I ask, the lights in my head switching on. I did a fair bit of modeling in my twenties and the idea of doing it again is already giving me a buzz.

“No, Ijeoma,” Emeka says, shaking his head. “I know that look. Whatever it is you’re thinking…no.”

“Just ask them if they need more models,” I laugh, not surprised my brother has been able to read me.

“One hundred percent no!”

“You’d say no to your sister who was jilted at the altar?” I pout, batting my eyelashes at him, knowing that is the one sure way to guilt him into anything I want.

He sighs and shakes his head. “You can ask them yourself. You’re the Gallery Manager, remember? This is actually your job!”

I grin as we settle down to discuss the meeting further, determined to do exactly that.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR: SOMEBODY TO LOVE

Ijeoma

I finally get to wear a caped jumpsuit.

Standing before the full-length mirror as Iyua, the designer of the outfit, clips the cape in place, I am in awe of the magnificent combination of bedazzled adire, aso-oke, batik, and denim. With a deep sweetheart neckline that plunges way below my sternum, the fitted jumpsuit clings to my body like a second skin, stopping at my calves. Rhinestones bedazzle the neckline, making it look like a diamond trail running all the way to my belly button, and as the cape is affixed, the weight of all its embellishments – sequins, beads, pearls, and Swarovski crystals – makes it feel like something I would lift at the gym. But it’s worth it. Earlier this evening when I sat down to have my face made up, the feeling of déjà vu I got from getting ready the afternoon of my wedding was so strong, I almost dropped out of the show. But I needn’t have bothered as the makeup artist’s much heavier hand was so different from Beauty’s delicate one, it soon felt like the completely different experience it was…it is. With a smoky, bolder eye, dark purple lips, and a deep wine blusher, I couldn’t look any more different from the way I did for my Valentine’s Day flop of a wedding.

Which is just as well.

The afternoon we met with the team from Tempo, they were immediately on board when I volunteered to model for the show. And by the time Erin and even Alero got wind of it, there was nothing Emeka could do to stop it. So, after a few days of rehearsals, here I am, set to hit the stage for the rock segment of the show.

From the side of my eye, I glance at the other models, most of them professional, all of them younger, but rather than feel intimidated, I am excited about getting on the stage with these young ‘uns. Apart from wanting to show the world that this girl is a-okay, I want to remind myself that life has not ended because my fiancé decided to bail on me last minute.

“Let me know if this hurts,” Iyua says as she affixes a dazzling tiara on my head, glorious in rhinestones, diamante, and precious stones.

Oh, did I mention that Iyua and I are closing the show?

I beam at my reflection in the mirror when the tiara is in place, dancing along to the sound of Sarkodie’s Adonai being performed by the band for the evening, Ultravalent. For the evening, different genres of music have been celebrated with performances of classic songs by the band, with models dressed to strut to the tunes. The current category is African Hip Hop, and I smile in encouragement as the models for Amapiano get ready to take the stage. My category, rock, is the last for the evening.

“You’re going to kill it,” I say to Iyua, who is fanning herself in her rising anxiety.

“You’re the one who’s going to walk the runway,” she answers, looking like she’s going to pass out.

“Yes, but your creation…” I gesture at my outfit. “…is going to have everyone talking. Why do you think they chose it to close the show?”

This seems to calm her, and I squeeze her hand in reassurance. We’re both going to kill it.

 

Tekena

I wasn’t going to attend this music-fashion-charity-whatever-it-is show.

Even after hearing jingles for it almost non-stop on the radio, it wasn’t on my radar of activities for a Friday night. But when an invitation was personally delivered to me at home this morning, I was flattered enough to agree to stop by.

Walking into the gallery, I am amazed by its transformation, albeit a temporary one. I have had cause to come by several times to select pieces of art for clients and to attend a couple of exhibitions by artists I am curious about. Today, the usually bright room is dimly lit, with spotlights beaming on a raised platform between rows of chairs. Two tall, lean models, lithe in skintight leopard catsuits, are dancing down this runway, with two energetic young men singing Mayorkun’s Geng. I take a seat as I look around the room. I see Emeka and his wife on the set of rows on the other side of the raised platform, nodding along to the catchy music which, I must admit, sounds even fresher and more upbeat than the original. I scan the room for Ijeoma, but I’m not surprised not to see her. After several unsuccessful tries to reach her after what should have been her wedding day, I’m pretty certain she has left the country. I know I would have if that kind of thing had happened to me.

The next category is African Hip Hop, and the singers return, singing a cover of Sarkodie’s Adonai, this time with a lone model who intersperses her long strides with some very impressive leg work dance steps, impressive enough to make the crowd go wild. She wears a short colourful adire apron dress over what looks to be a patent leather bodysuit, and I scan the brochure I have been handed for the designer’s name. All the names listed aren’t any I have heard before and I find myself impressed by this move by Tempo to not only raise money for their chosen charitable cause but to bring unknown local designers to the fore.

Amapiano is next and two full bodied models in fringed dresses made from Isiagu fabric, one in red and the other in brown, take the stage, dancing in sync to a cover of Gupta by Focalistic and Mr JazziQ by the same singers, Ultravalent is their name, apparently. The crowd erupts in wild cheers as the models flawlessly execute the genre’s dance steps, from the Zekethe to the Pouncing Cat, to the Gwara Gwara, the models dance so well, I do what I hardly ever do; record the performance with my phone. The crowd is cheering long after the girls have left the runway. I lower my phone as the music fades but raise a brow when the Ultravalent boys start to strum a familiar melody on their guitars, one I can recognise as the opening sequence of I Believe in a Thing Called Love by the British rock band, The Darkness. The Ultravalent boys start to sing the song I know too well, and my surprise is heightened when I see the ‘model’ that appears on the runway.

A very enthusiastic Ijeoma struts down the runway, a megawatt smile on her face. Maybe it is her elaborate caped jumpsuit, maybe it is the music, maybe everyone, like me, is happy to see her in better spirits, whatever it is, the room erupts in a rapturous standing ovation. Buoyed, Ijeoma raises her arms, shimmying as she walks. When she gets to the end of the runway, as one of the boys breaks into the acoustic guitar sequence at the bridge, she mimics his movements, energetically playing an air guitar. I shake my head as I laugh, still applauding. Now this is the Ijeoma I know, and I am more than happy for this image of her to replace the one of the horror-struck bride in my head.

As she makes her way back down, she has both hands raised in the classic rock and roll salute; index fingers up, middle fingers down, pinkies up, and thumbs in. She disappears briefly, before returning, flanked on the one side by a diminutive, dreadlocked woman I recognise from the program as one of the designers, Iyua Umburter, and on the other side by DJ Divine from the radio station Tempo. The three women walk with arms interlinked down the runway, grinning from ear to ear. On the other side of the platform, Emeka, his wife, and a dark-skinned dude are clapping and hollering louder than anyone else in the room. And as my eyes return to Ijeoma on that platform, I can understand why. If I’m this glad to see her back to being herself, I can only imagine how her family and closer friends feel.

The Ultravalent duo gets a standing ovation as well and as they leave, a mixed-race dreadlocked guy takes the stage to talk about the charity for widows the show has been organised for, and the audience is implored to make generous donations and – or – bid for the outfits the models wore. I do both, pledging a generous amount and bidding a figure even I know is outrageous for the extravagant caped jumpsuit Ijeoma wore, my sole desire to support Ijeoma and, by extension, the designer. Absolutely not to take ownership of the outlandish outfit.

The show over, a popular DJ from the station, Syph, takes over as the fashion show morphs into a party. I make my way through the room as people talk and socialise, looking for Ijeoma. I see her standing with a group of people, talking in her usual animated manner with her hands and facial expressions. She spots me and grins, raising a hand communicating that I wait for her. Less than a minute later, she is still smiling as she walks up to me.

“Tekena! I’m so glad you came!” she exclaims as we embrace.

“Where’s the rest of your outfit?” I tease, referencing the cape she has now discarded.

“That thing almost dislocated my shoulders from their sockets,” she answers with an exaggerated eye roll. “Let’s just say I won’t have to lift any weights for a while.”

“It did look heavy,” I answer with a chuckle. “But it was worth its weight in gold…literally. All that bling and sparkle, it’s obvious the designer put in a lot of work.”

Ijeoma’s face softens into a smile. “She did. I’m so happy it all came out well. She’s going to go places.”

I hold her eyes. “I’m glad to see you. I tried to call and text you several times…”

“I wasn’t taking any calls. I simply couldn’t,” she answers with a shrug, the light in her eyes dimming a fraction. “I just couldn’t deal with the pity. There was way too much pity…from everyone. Heck, I couldn’t even talk to my mom until a few weeks ago.”

I nod in understanding. I get that.

 

Ijeoma

Tekena is one person I didn’t expect to see here. Even though, with him already on gallery’s mailing list, he got an automatic invitation, he wasn’t one of the few I’d penned as a sure attendee. We met professionally a few years ago and I’d been prepared to instantly dislike him, given how his brother, Karibi, almost destroyed the career and livelihood of mine because of the woman they had in common at the time, Erin incidentally. But with both men now married, apart from finally accepting it to be water under the bridge, I immediately clicked with the laid-back and easy-going art connoisseur Karibi’s brother turned out to be. In the years since, apart from doing business together a few more times, Tekena and I have run into each other socially, and I have found him an absolute blast.

“Looks like things are winding down here,” he says. “Want to go grab a drink or something?”

I perk up at the offer to go somewhere nice and fun. As amazing as tonight has been, with Emeka, Erin, and even Alero and Bonju, hovering, I can anticipate the smothering attention that awaits me.

“I’m up for a drink for sure,” I answer. “Give me a few minutes to get out of this outfit.” Even without the cape, the jumpsuit is still…a lot. “I’ll be right back.”

I make my way to my office and change into a black slip dress I brought along. I contemplate wiping off the heavy makeup but decide there’s no harm looking like a femme fatale for the night. Grabbing my purse, I head downstairs. Emeka is, thankfully, engrossed in conversation with a team from the Dutch consulate, so I am able to beckon at Tekena from where he waits and exit the building before my brother can see me. As wonderful as Emeka’s care and attention has been, it has been a tad stifling.

“I’ll ride with you, if it’s okay,” I say, walking with Tekena to where his black BMW X-7 is parked.

“I’ll charge you,” he teases as we get in, him from the driver’s side and me from the passenger’s side. “Especially if you’re going to expect me to drop you at home.”

“You should count yourself lucky! Do you know how many people would kill for this opportunity? Do you know how many people would give an arm to be able to speak to me for even a few seconds?” I laugh. A joke, yes, but with plenty of truth underlying it. I still am yet to return phone calls or read text messages.

Tekena must realise this as he nods and smiles. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

It is a short drive to Aces & Ales, a trendy bar that just opened a few streets away from the gallery. We chat and rave about the show and how amazing the Ultravalent boys were, and I enjoy the easy banter and the intoxicating smell of leather, sage, vanilla, and cinnamon of both the man and the car. Getting to the bar, we set about ordering drinks; a rum and Coke for me because I don’t have much of a head for anything stronger, and a Whisky Sour for him.

“It was a great show tonight,” he says again, taking a sip of his drink. “I had no idea you were also a rockhead. Your air guitar skills are,” he kisses his pinched fingers, “chef’s kiss.”

I laugh at the term I haven’t heard in forever, recognising what it is he’s doing; trying to make me feel better.

“Enough about me,” I say, changing the subject. “How have you been? What have you been up to?”

He shrugs. “Nothing spectacular. A little bit of this and that.”

I smile and take another sip of my drink, reading five million meanings into that answer. Just because he’s my friend doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of his wild, bad boy reputation.

He raises a brow. “And what’s that smile?”

“Just thinking you had the right idea all along,” I answer, still smiling. “About life. It’s foolish for people like us to dream of happy-ever-afters.”

 

Tekena

“People like us?” I repeat, not knowing what the hell she means by that.

She sets her glass down on a side stool and leans forward. “People like us who’ve done some bad stuff!”

I glance at her drink, wondering if the few sips she’s had are enough to have gotten her tipsy. Somehow, I doubt it.

“I mean, I’ve heard about…you know,” she continues, making a face.

“No, I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard you’re sleeping with Biyi Braithwaite’s wife,” she answers with a matter-of-fact shrug. “And I’m no saint either. I had a long affair with my brother’s married friend.”

Oh? This is news to me.

“George,” she says his name like I’m supposed to know who he is. “He was my childhood love, I left him for another guy when I lived in Abuja briefly, he got married to someone else, and I spent many years regretting losing him.” She is quiet for so long, I wonder if that’s the end of the story. “But the night of Emeka’s wedding, I slept with him. His wife was out of town, we’d had so much fun drinking and dancing at the wedding, and before we knew it…” She shrugs, reaches for her glass, and takes another sip. “We were sleeping together for three years after that. It wasn’t until I decided to give Massimo a chance that I was finally brave enough to leave George.” She shakes her head and laughs humourlessly. “I was foolish to think I’d get a fairy tale ending after what I did to George’s wife.”

“Are you saying that jerk left you at the altar because of some sort of karma?” I scoff. “That’s bullshit! I don’t believe that for a minute.”

“But it’s the truth, Tekena. It’s the truth. All the while with Massimo, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. But after he proposed to me in the most beautiful way possible, after months went by and our wedding day approached without incident, I actually started to think karma had missed me after all.” She laughs and sets her glass back down. “Well, joke’s on me for being stupid enough to believe that.”

“My cousin is happily married to a woman who was one of this town’s most notorious courtesans,” I counter. “It’s going on six years, and they’re still very happily married.”

She grimaces. “Knock on wood for your cousin, because it might not last that long if she has all that latent karma waiting for the right time to strike.”

“That’s a lot of nonsense. Yes, they might not last forever, but it sure as heck won’t be because of karma,” I say. “They might not last forever because happy-ever-afters are mere fantasy. Human beings weren’t designed to be bound to one person for a lifetime.”

She shakes her head. “No, that’s not true. Some people do get a happy-ever-after. People like my brother, like my sisters-in-law, like even your brother, from what I see on social media. Some people get lucky in the love sweepstakes and some people don’t.”

“People with good karma?” I tease as I reach for my drink. By now, I would have been on my second or third glass, but I guess I’m too intrigued by the subject of discussion to inhale my drink the way I would have by now. “True, Karibi is insanely happy. So is my cousin I just told you about, Diekola. But I think it’s a transient feeling, not one that will last forever.”

“Your parents are still together, aren’t they?” she asks.

“They just got lucky. Besides, at that age, many times you just deal with the hand you’re dealt,” I answer, even though that is the furthest thing to describe what my parents have. Almost fifty years married, those two are as excited about each other as teenagers newly in love. But they, in my opinion, are the anomaly to the rule. “Monogamy is a Disney construct. It’s ludicrous to think we can only have one mate for life. If you ask me, I think you had a lucky escape.”

Ijeoma

“I once had a crush on your brother,” I say, laughing at the reminder.

“Karibi?”

“Do you have two?” I giggle. “I even told Erin to hook us up after she left him for Emeka.”

“You better never bring that up in conversation with Karibi,” Tekena chuckles. “Being publicly dumped that way is still a sore topic for my brother, I’ll tell you that.” He lifts a brow. “How could you crush on him when I’m the better looking one?”

“In your dreams!” I scoff. “Your brother is more my type, more muscle. And let’s not even talk about that ass!” Tekena rolls his eyes, prompting laughter from me. “You’re too lean and lanky for my taste.”

“Well, the feeling is mutual,” he says, a mischievous glint in his eye. “You’re not my type, either. I like my women thick and curvy.”

“Get yourself some muscle before you start talking about preferring thick women,” I say, grabbing his arm to buttress my point.

Instead of the soft flesh I expect to grab, his arm is strong, solid, and corded with muscly tissue. Without meaning to, I knead it, enjoying the feel of skin and muscle, satin over steel. My body blooms with an unexpected heat, thrumming with unprecedented yearning as I am assaulted by ghosts of sexual frustration past and present. The last time Massimo and I had sex was on New Year’s Eve, and after five months, my body yearns for the warmth of a man.

Any man, it seems.

Tekena

My brows furrow as I watch her rub my arm. Is this woman turned on by me? A quick and almost imperceptible swipe of her tongue over her bottom lip confirms this and I am equal parts amused and, well, amused.

“How come you and I never hooked up?” she asks, her eyes meeting mine. “From everything I hear, you don’t discriminate with the women you…”

Lady, say less. I know an open opportunity when I see one.

Before she can finish, I lean forward and claim her lips with mine. She immediately cups my face with her hands in response as she deepens the kiss, her desire unmistakable and awakening my own. So what if she doesn’t fit the mold of what I would ordinarily find sexy? This kiss is sexy. Her lack of inhibition is sexy. As she leans forward in her chair, my hand drops to the curve of her hip, moving a few inches to cup her soft derriere.

Oh, this is definitely sexy.

“My place is less than five minutes away,” I say through our intermingled breath.

She nods in assent and pulls away so I can rise to my feet. I place enough money to cover the cost of both our drinks and a tip, take her by the hand, and lead her out of the bar.

Ijeoma

He wasn’t kidding. His apartment is actually a five-minute drive from the bar. We say nothing at all for the short drive or even as he walks me into the building and as we ride the elevator to his fourth floor flat. But the minute we’re inside it, he pulls me to himself. I need no further encouragement as my arms circle his neck, this kiss deeper and more demanding than the one we shared at Aces & Ales.

Heat burns through the fabric of our clothes, the pressure building before us heady, potent. Our breaths rise and break together, his hand splaying around my bottom, pulling me closer. And as I feel the thumping of his heart against my ribcage, this starts to feel like more than a quick fix to an itch.

He backs me into an adjoining hallway, hitting a switch to illuminate it, not taking his mouth of mine, the spicy accords of his perfume flooding my senses and hitting my bloodstream. He twists open a doorknob behind and backs me into a room that smells like him, with added accords of lavender and incense. Slipping his hands under the thin straps of my dress, he slips it off and I inhale sharply as the chill from the airconditioning hits my bare skin as I stand before him in a black Victoria Secret’s brassiere and matching thong. I am not quite as smooth with his shirt, fumbling with its buttons as I attempt to disrobe him. He steps back and deftly undoes the buttons, his eyes on me the whole time in a hypnotic stare. As he loses first his shirt and then his chinos, I am unable to take my eyes off his body, a striking palette of bronze and copper and a perfect geometry of angles and slopes.

We lie on his large bed, soft yet firm, and as he slips off my underwear, discards his, and sheaths himself in a condom, blood pumps through my body in frantic rhythm, my breath shallowing as anxiety and excitement combat in my veins. As our bodies connect, as his touch makes my skin simmer with a heat that is alien to me, as we move in rhythmic, desperate, wanton passion, as I explode like a solar flare, as my bones fill with helium making it feel like I am levitating, like I am floating out of my body and to the skies, I know one thing for sure.

Nobody has ever made me feel this way.

Tekena

It is surprisingly better than I thought it would be.

As we lie spent, I turn to look at her, surprised by the turn of events but not at all mad about it. Our eyes hold and from the slight drop of hers, I can tell she is a bit embarrassed. But before I can think of any platitude to make her feel better, her lips widen into a grin.

“I thought you said I wasn’t your type,” she says.

“I thought you said I wasn’t yours,” I quip, still surprised by how good the sex was.

She turns to face me, propping her head with her hand. “Well, I guess types change.”

My smile wanes. I wouldn’t go as far as saying the same. We had one amazing shag, that’s all. But as her hand trails my chest, as I feel my blood flow south, I realise it’s going to be two amazing shags. I pull her closer and marvel over how soft and supple her skin is, as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

And speaking of bottoms.

My hand curves the padding of hers, padding that is fuller and lusher than I expect, and as our lips melt into another kiss, I can still taste the sweetness from her drink and, even sweeter still, her desire for me. Her kiss is soft yet scorching, tender yet demanding, and as I roll on top of her, I am more than ready, more than willing, to give as much as she asks. We ride slower this time, both of us giving more this time, both of us taking more. And as her nails dig into my skin and her back arcs in her release, the intensity of my release surprises me. It must be the surprise factor, the fact I am still surprised she is writhing and groaning under me.

“Why are we acting like horny teenagers, Tekena?” she half pants, half laughs.

“Must be the alcohol,” I smile as I roll off her, even though I’m well aware neither of us had enough to blame it for…for this.

I allow my eyes roam her body and am surprised by the tapestry of art splashed across her torso and upper thighs.

“Nobody seeing you would know you have an entire patchwork of tattoos on your body,” I remark, tracing the outline of a dragon in a rose bush on her left side, a trail of stars on her right side, a winged angel on her sternum, an entire kaleidoscope of butterflies on her left bottom, and a calligraphic inscription running from her right hip bone down her upper thigh. “’Enjoy the Journey’,” I read the inscription aloud.

“Because life is a journey,” she says in response, smiling.

I shake my head in wonder, especially as the parts of her body visible to the world – her face, chest, neck, arms, and legs – are as bare as an empty stage.

“I’ll bet guys you sleep with are surprised to see all of this.”

“Surprised? Maybe,” she answers, a glint in her eye. “Turned on? All the time.” She moves closer. “You don’t have any? Not one?”

I stiffen but not before she locates the only one I do have; a small black heart on my left chest.

“A black heart over your black heart,” she teases, tracing it. “What’s its significance?” she winks. “A former lover? An ex-wife?”

“Nothing important,” I answer, hoping that kills the topic.

Our eyes hold, our gaze tangling in the dimness of the room and, again, desire erupts in me. Our lips, seeking and hungry, find each other, and it doesn’t take long for our bodies to follow suit.

Three amazing shags.

We fall asleep in each other’s arms, the perfect culmination to the most explosive sexual encounter I have had in a long time.

But as the first morning rays peek through the window blinds, all I can do is wonder what would be a polite way to get her to leave.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: SILENT SIGH

Ijeoma

I smile and stretch as the sun rays hit my face, my body pleasantly achy, my mood better than it has been in months.

Way better.

I open my eyes and look at Tekena lying beside me, scrolling through his phone. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this; sleeping with Tekena Graham-Hart. If I’d been asked to count ten – heck, twenty – of the men I’d like to have sex with, he probably wouldn’t have made that list. But if the way my body is buzzing is anything to go by, it shows you never know with these things. My face tingles from the prickle of his beard, and his smell lingers everywhere, on my skin and the sheets around me, but for the first time, I find myself thinking of what if’s. What if this is more than sex? What if a happy ever after is possible? What if a happy ever after with him is possible?

“You’re awake?”

His voice lands on me like a soft caress, igniting leftover heat from last night.

“Yeah,” I answer, suddenly self-conscious, suddenly wanting more from him than a cursory greeting. “How long have you been up?”

“A while,” he says, swinging his feet off the bed and walking across to the bathroom.

I watch him as he goes, his lean body solid and strong, and fire winged butterflies swarm in my stomach. When he returns a few minutes later, he is wearing a pair of boxer shorts, but my eyes land on the ladders of muscle rippling his stomach, and a heat wave flushes through me. He is still scrolling through his phone so is unaware as I stare at him unabashed, noticing for the first time the regal rise of bone in his cheeks, the strong profile of his nose, the taut line of his jaw, and his perfectly sculpted lips.

What is this? This makes no sense. It feels foreign, like a parallel universe where everything is inside out and upside out. Because how could I have gone from thinking of him as no more than a loose acquaintance to wanting nothing but to kiss him until I lose breath, to burrow my face in his neck and inhale that cinnamon smell until I become one with it, to have those strong arms hold me, that lean body consume me forever?

How?!

“What are your plans for the day?” I ask, hoping he’ll answer that I’m his plan for the day, hoping he’ll get back into bed so we can make love one more time, hoping he’ll make me breakfast in bed, hoping our night of passion will spill into the whole weekend.

Tekena

Hey, handsome. It’s been a while. Wanna hook up?

I smile as I read the text from a girl I see occasionally, Hilda. Yeah, hooking up won’t be a bad idea at all.

Sure, I text back. Free for lunch?

“Tekena?”

I look up and realise Ijeoma has asked me a question. She is sitting up in bed and even though she has the sheet over her, it doesn’t stop me from visualizing the body beneath. Who would have thought sleeping with her would be as amazing as it was? But amazing though it was, it’s done, and we need to keep the conveyor belt moving. This train doesn’t dock in any station.

“Huh?”

“I asked if you have plans for the day,” she repeats.

I blink, wondering if she’s really trying to extend things beyond the amazing night we had.

“Yeah, I have to meet up with a few people,” I answer, forcing a smile. “As a matter of fact, I need to hop into the shower right now.”

Her face falls and, for a split second, I almost feel guilty for disappointing her. Almost. She isn’t a kid and God knows I made her no promises last night.

“Cool, I need to go anyway,” she says, her smile returning as she gets out of bed.

I watch as she dresses up, as she covers her slender patterned body in lacy underwear before slipping on her dress, and I’m tempted to jump her again, to throw her back in bed and have my way with her one last time. But no good can come from that. We’ve had sex, we’ve gotten the itch out of our systems, end of story.

When she is dressed, I lead her to the door.

“This was fun,” I smile at her, and meaning it because it truly was.

She nods, her eyes drop to my lips, and she leans forward and kisses me. Thankfully, she pulls away before I lose my resolve and pull her back into my arms…and my bed.

“Let’s do this again,” she says.

I nod, wink, and shut the door.

Nah, I don’t think so.

Ijeoma

I am unable to wipe the smile off my face.

Even after I’ve gotten home, even after I’ve had a shower, even after I’ve wolfed down a hearty breakfast after so many hours without food, even after I’ve awoken from a much-needed nap, even as I try to stay focused watching Crash Landing on You on Netflix, I simply can’t stop smiling, images from our night together spooling in my head, a pornographic hydra of visuals. Before, Tekena was just a guy I knew socially, but now that I know what his breath feels like on my face, what his surprisingly strong arms feel like on my body, and how our lips moved in a cadence that was almost lyrical, he is all I can think about. Hours later, I still feel him; his heat, his scent, his breath on my back.

All because I wanted to touch his arm.

Even though it takes a lot from me, I manage not to call him the rest of the day. But as today, Sunday, draws to a close, after doing everything to distract myself all day – church for the first time since February, brunch with my mother, a trip to the cinema with Erin and my nephews – as I sit on my bed, my phone beckons at me like a hypnotist.

So I call him.

Tekena

“Hey, Ijeoma,” I say, trying to sound as casual as I can. “What’s up?”

“Hey to you too,” she says, her accompanying laughter nervous. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Friday night.”

I smile. Yeah, Friday night was pretty memorable. “We had fun.”

Because that’s all it was. Fun.

“You were a real hit on the runway,” I say, steering our conversation to a path more normal for us. “I’ve lost count of the number of posts I’ve seen hailing you as the star of the show.”

“Not bad for a forty-one-year-old girl, huh?”

I chuckle and sit on my bed, the affection I have for her pushing through any apprehension and anxiety I might be nursing about our new dynamic. “You’re the most beautiful forty-one-year-old girl I know. Babe, you killed it. And I can’t wait to find out if my bid on your outfit was the highest one.”

“You bid on my outfit?”

“Of course, I bid on your outfit,” I answer. “You’re my buddy. Of course, I’d do that for you.”

There is a short spell of silence before she asks, “Are you free tomorrow? Maybe we could do drinks or something?”

I don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to know what ‘or something’ means. I don’t have any plans for tomorrow, short of trying to engage old clients to see if I can get any business. Drinks with Ijeoma will almost surely bring us back here…my bed. As much as that doesn’t sound at all like a bad idea – because, let’s face it, Friday night was darned well spectacular – I like her too much to turn her into a fuck buddy.

“I’m busy tomorrow,” I answer. “Family thing. Maybe later in the week. Wednesday?”

I have no plans to call her on Wednesday. Much as it pains me to have to keep my distance from her now that she has finally emerged from hiding, that’s what I’m going to have to do until this blows over and we’re back to our normal status quo.

“Wednesday works,” she answers, and I can hear the smile in her voice, worsening my guilt.

“Fantastic. See you then,” I say, disconnecting the call.

I drop the phone and my eyes travel to the spot on my bed where she lay two nights ago, and I briefly contemplate picking my phone back up and telling her I’m free tomorrow after all. The sex was good, really good, and maybe a friends-with-benefits arrangement wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Surely, she’s old enough to understand how that would work. But as memories of how other such arrangements have blown up in my face float in my head, I know that’s not something I want to do to our friendship. I like her too much.

So I pick my phone back up, first to respond to an invitation from an acquaintance, confirming I will attend his hotel opening in Ghana on Wednesday, and then I dial Hilda’s number. Yesterday with her was fun, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a companion for the trip to Accra.

Ijeoma

The conversation leaves me with mixed feelings; disappointment from Tekena calling me his ‘buddy’ and his willingness to wait until Wednesday to see me, but exhilaration over his declaration of me being the most beautiful forty-one-year-old girl he knows. That and the almost seven-figure amount he bid for my outfit.

No, there’s something here. He wouldn’t have said that, done that, if he isn’t feeling this thing I’m feeling now.

And so I wait patiently for Wednesday. I do everything to occupy myself on Monday and Tuesday, catching up on things my assistant couldn’t manage in the months I was away and beginning the hunt for another Italian manager for Emeka. By the time Wednesday rolls by, I awake in anticipation of what the day holds. I wear one of the underwear sets I was gifted at my bridal shower and which I’d set aside for the honeymoon that never was, a plunging bra and barely-there panties in red lace. I might not have much to stack but, looking at myself in the mirror, I’m pleased that what I do have looks pretty darned good. I slip on a blazer, using a layered pearl necklace to hide the fact I have nothing but a red lace confection beneath it. With distressed jeans completing the look, I slick on matte red lipstick and douse myself in my most intoxicating perfume, a heady concoction of vanilla, honey, jasmine, and orange blossom. If I was a hit on Friday, Tekena won’t know what hit him today.

I spend all morning and all afternoon abuzz with nervous energy. Outside a few calls discussing art installations for his clients, Tekena and I were never phone buddies in the past. Despite our social interactions being limited to the times we ran into each other out and about, we formed a good enough rapport for me to consider him worth a wedding invitation. But even though we have been friendly for a few years, I have no idea what to make of this dead silence from him. Is he just not a telephone person? Does he simply prefer face-to-face interactions to remote communication?

By 6pm, I can no longer contain myself. I’m not some teenage girl who’s going to fold her arms and wait for her love interest to make a move. Tekena and I agreed to meet up today, and we’re going to do just that. Besides, I look too good to let the day go to waste.

Reaching for my phone, I dial his number but my brows furrow when I hear the ring back tone. No, he can’t be out of the country.

Can he?

Tekena

Seeing Ijeoma’s name flash on my phone makes me grimace as I remember our last call…and the promise I made to talk to her today. I forgot about it almost immediately she got off the phone, and I couldn’t be further away from living up to my promise tonight, literally. Having landed in Accra this afternoon, I’m minutes away from leaving my hotel suite – complimentary from the hotel owner – for the launch party in the grand ball room downstairs. But I could never disrespect Ijeoma by ignoring her call.

“Hey,” I say, smiling to give my voice more of a boost.

“Why did your phone ring like that?” she asks, cutting straight to the chase.

“Like what?” I decide to play dumb.

“Like you’re out of the country.”

“Oh that,” I answer, walking over to where my gleaming black patent leather loafers lie in wait. “I flew into Accra this afternoon for my friend’s hotel opening.”

“Oh,” is all she says in response, unable to hide the disappointment in her voice. “Archie Eze’s? I heard about that.”

“Yeah, Archie’s,” I say, grateful for the diversion. “Really nice place, complimentary room and all. He added the nice touch of giving us personalized room numbers.”

“Oh? What’s yours?”

“Viper 44,” I chuckle, in reference to the nickname from my wilder days in Chi-Town, because of how quickly I was ready to strike at the slightest provocation.

“Well, that’s too bad. And I got all dressed up for you today.”

Something about this statement piques my interest.

“Oh yeah? What are you wearing?”

“Jeans, a blazer…” she answers, her voice dropping an octave. “And underwear that’s more skin than fabric.”

I swallow, assaulted by the visual, and unable to deny the beginning of a boner.

“In the flimsiest, sheerest, red lace you can imagine,” she continues, her voice down to a sensual husk.

A vivid image of her in nothing but this flimsy, sheer, red lace underwear under her jacket forms in my mind’s eye, worsening the growing ache in my groin.

“You’re going to have to wear it again when I get back,” I say, my lips curving in a smile that is just as sly as I feel. “Exactly like this.”

Heck, we’ve already crossed the line. What are a few more great shags to add to our tally? If we set the ground rules clearly so everybody knows what it is, there’s no harm keeping up this sexual energy.

“When are you back?” she asks, and I am happy to hear my desire reflected in her voice.

“Friday. Saturday at the latest,” I answer. “There are a few people I need to see here in Accra and possibly Kumasi.”

“Okay. I’ll repeat the outfit when you’re back,” she purrs. “Maybe switch up my underwear to a crotchless purple…or an edible yellow.”

“Bye, Ijeoma,” I chuckle, ending the call before she gets me into trouble. Yep, we’re definitely going to hook up again.

But after I’m done with my foxy travel companion here.

The bathroom door opens and Hilda struts out, her silk robe open and revealing her curvaceous body, barely clad in underwear different from what I ripped off her the minute we walked into the room. I eye her as she approaches me, her wider than natural hips swaying with each step, and I contemplate throwing her to the bed to ease the tension that has built since Ijeoma planted the visual of red lacy underwear in my head. But I’m already dressed in a brand-new white shirt that I don’t want to mess up.

“How long is the party going to be?” Hilda asks, the pinch to her face showing she hasn’t forgiven me for asking her to wait here for me, rather than accompany me downstairs.

The last thing I need is for pictures with her to flood Instagram tonight. Nah, I’d rather keep my business off the feed of idle online gossips, thank you very much.

“It’s not a party, just a small ceremony,” I smile as I rise to my feet, careful not to move closer lest her face, or even body, browns up my shirt.

“Hurry back,” she says as I slip on the jacket of the black fitted double-breasted seersucker suit I am wearing for the night.

I wink at her as I walk to the door. “Don’t worry, I will.”

 Ijeoma

The minute I get off the phone with Tekena, I know I have to go meet him there.

So, at the crack of dawn, I pack a small bag and head to the airport, getting there in time to check into the 7am Air Peace flight to Accra. Like yesterday, I’m wearing a blazer over jeans and, also like yesterday, nothing underneath but another racy underwear set, this time in sheer lace the colour of my skin. All through check-in, boarding, and getting settled in the plane, a smile plays on my lips as I imagine the look on his face when he sees it…sees me in it. If he was so turned-on hearing about it, seeing it is going to blow his mind.

We land in Accra at 7:10 local time and I get a taxi for the fifteen-minute drive to Archie Eze’s hotel, unimaginatively named Archie’s Palace. After building a successful hospitality chain in Nigeria, the young mogul has decided to expand through the continent, and social media has been agog with the opening of this new hotel in Accra.

It is 7:40am when I walk in through the glass doors, and even though the lobby is quiet and without the hub of activity a hotel would have at this time of day with early travelers standing around in suitcases waiting to leave for the airport or businessmen in huddles making their way to the restaurant for breakfast, I can still see its potential. With soft lighting, glossy mahogany flooring, wall paneling and table finishing, and green foliage rising in organic swirls, the place is tastefully done. I steal a glance at a couple checking in at the reception but decide to make my way straight to Tekena’s room instead, without the unnecessary preamble of having myself announced and losing the shock factor. That’s why I got up at 4am this morning, isn’t it? The shock factor. Well, the shock and seduction factor.

As the elevator makes its way up to the fourth floor, I am equal parts horny, excited, and nervous. No, that’s not true. I’m ten percent nervous, fifteen percent excited, and a hundred percent horny. My heart slams in my chest as the elevator doors open. Okay, make that ninety percent nervous.

With room names beginning from N to Z to my left, I walk in its direction until I locate the one I’m looking for; Viper 44. Tekena is going to have to tell me the story behind the name. I inhale deeply and knock, a firm knock in case he needs to be roused from deep sleep. A few seconds pass before the door opens.

“Surprise!” I say, jazz hands and all, as Tekena opens the door, dressed in nothing but boxer shorts, the partially opened, slightly red tinge to his eyes betraying that he was roused from sleep.

“Ijeoma!” he exclaims, suddenly alert as his eyes widen.

He makes no move to let me in and I am about to tease him about being so surprised to see me that he is rooted to the spot when I notice a form on the bed inside the room behind him.

“Who is it?” comes the unmistakable voice of a woman.

And I deflate, feeling like a bucket of water has been tipped over me. The smile on my face withers and I take a step back, no longer sure what to do with my legs, with my hands, with the rest of my body.

Tekena steps forward and shuts the door behind him. “I didn’t know you were coming. You said nothing last night.”

“It was kind of spur of the moment,” I answer, still feeling like I am having an out-of-body experience.

He shuts his eyes and exhales. “Ijeoma, last Friday was fun, but that’s all it was. A bit of fun. I thought you knew that.”

His words sink into my flesh like sharp daggers, slicing me down the middle like a cadaver. I have never felt more foolish in my entire life. Not even when I was left alone in a wedding gown with my groom running for dear life.

“Of course, I knew that,” I scoff. “And I thought it would be fun coming here to surprise you, that’s all.” I force a smile, but it is so forced and stiff, I know it is convincing no one; not him and definitely not me. “I better leave you to your guest.”

“Ijeoma…”

I turn around, not wanting to hear a word of anything else he has to say. I walk, pacing myself not run, but wishing I could say a magic word and disappear from sight, especially as it appears he is still watching me from where he stands.

Well, Ijeoma, it appears the gods of karma aren’t done with you yet.

Tekena

I watch her until she makes the turn in the direction of the elevator, disappearing from view. I want to feel relieved that she now knows we’re not exclusive. I want to even feel flattered that she got on a plane to come to me this early in the morning. But all I feel is a hollow emptiness, the hurt that flashed in her eyes haunting me. I hate that I’ve hurt her. I hate that I’ve done this to her so soon after the last time someone else did. I stand in front of my door for several minutes after she has disappeared, before stepping back into the room and shutting the door.

This trip has been one giant dud so far.

“Who was that?” Hilda asks from where she lies on the bed, her closed eyes indicating she has no intention of getting up anytime soon.

I don’t answer and instead think back to last night’s ceremony. Standing with my friends, one of whom was launching his seventeenth hotel and the others equally as accomplished, I’d felt like a total failure. As we toasted Archie’s success, the reminder that I have nothing but the monthly stipend from Eldabra to boast of made the champagne in my glass taste like cat piss. To make matters worse, the contact a friend from Lagos referred me to and to whom I was to make a pitch texted to let me know his travel plans had changed and he will not be returning to Ghana for another month, thus canceling our appointment in his Kumasi warehouse tomorrow. All that combined, when I got back to my room, sex was the last thing on my mind, and I had to fall asleep listening to Hilda get herself off with whatever toy she came along with.

Pushing the bathroom door open, I walk in. I might as well shower and set off early to meet my old friend from university, Coblah, who runs a successful wine and spirits business here. We have run into each other so many times over the years – partying in Ibiza, Vegas, Mykonos – and keep exchanging half-arsed promises to ‘do something together’. Well, now that I’m here in his town, he needs to put his money where his mouth is so we can find a way to do some business.

But as I shower, as I change into a shirt and dress pants, Ijeoma’s face still haunts me.

It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let her get carried away.

Ijeoma

After waiting forever, I finally board the 6:45pm flight back to Lagos. Even though I headed straight to the airport from the hotel, the noon flight was fully booked, leaving me with two choices; pay for an expensive flight with another airline or wait for the next available one with the airline with which I came. Chastened and subdued, I had no choice but to sit in wait, with nothing but my phone for my company. What on earth was I thinking anyway? What was I expecting from a man with the kind of reputation Tekena has? How could I have thought last Friday was anything more than a one-night stand for him?

Ijeoma, you should have known better.

I grimace as I remember my eager phone calls, the desperate attempts to reenact our last time together, and impulsively hopping on a plane at stupid o’clock in the morning, hating myself for being so senseless, so thick I couldn’t read the writing on the wall, engraved bold in neon. Well, I’ve read it now. I’ve read it and gotten the message.

But it appears the gods aren’t done laughing at me yet.

Getting on the plane, as I make my way past the business class section, my eyes narrow when I spot Tekena seated beside a typical Instagram baddie with bright light skin, big human hair, mile-long false eyelashes, and breasts spilling out of her tight blouse. Before I can look away, our eyes hold, Tekena’s and mine, but I quickly break the gaze. I contemplate turning around and passing the other aisle, so I don’t have to walk past them…past him. But there are too many people behind me to make this possible, leaving me no choice but to soldier on.

As I walk past his seat, Tekena’s hand circles my wrist, forcing me to look at him. I raise my brows in question and all he can offer is a plaintive look in return. When I realise he has nothing to say, I gently tug my arm out of his grip, offer a small smile, and make my way to economy class, hating that I didn’t splurge on a more expensive seat.

But then again, how could the karma gods have gotten their full kick for the day if I hadn’t been dealt this final dose of embarrassment?

Tekena

I shut my eyes and sigh as Ijeoma tugs her hand away, smiles, and walks past. This has definitely not been my day. After being turned away at Coblah’s office because he was ‘feeling unwell’, I decided to cut the trip short and return to Lagos immediately, much to Hilda’s disappointment. I hadn’t banked on being on the same flight back as Ijeoma, considering how long ago she left the hotel. I hadn’t banked on seeing her before I was able to regroup well enough to offer her a better apology. I hadn’t banked on guilt, raw and brutal, clawing my insides as her eyes held mine.

“Who’s that?” Hilda asks when Ijeoma walks away. “She looks familiar.”

“A friend of mine,” is all I offer, reaching for my phone to send a text message to the Eldabra driver waiting for me at the airport in Lagos, determined to push Ijeoma to the back of my mind.

But she refuses to stay there, and as soon as the seat belt signs go off after the plane stabilizes in air, I rise to my feet, walking down the aisle and past the curtain separating my section from hers. I spot her in a middle seat towards the back of the plane and, by some stroke of luck, the aisle seat next to hers is vacant.

So I take it.

She looks up from the magazine she is reading, her eyes first wide and startled before settling into an impassive gaze. “What are you doing all the way back here?”

“I wanted to apologise to you properly,” I answer, trying not to be daunted by the shift in her typically bubbly persona.

“The guy who owns this seat will soon be back. He went to the toilet,” she says, before shrugging. “And you don’t have anything to apologise for.”

“I hate that things turned out this way,” I say. “I didn’t want to hurt you…”

“Hurt me?” she scoffs, shaking her head in mirthless laughter. “You didn’t hurt me. Stop overthinking things, Tekena. It’s really no biggie. I’m fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“You’re flattering yourself now,” she mutters, her smile fading. “I’m perfectly fine. My heart isn’t shattered to pieces, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Before I can say anymore, a pot-bellied man walks up to us, and I have no choice but to rise and vacate his seat. Ijeoma looks up as I do, smiles that same smile that doesn’t reach her eyes, and returns her attention to her magazine.

When we land in Lagos, I rush up to her as she makes her way out of the airport, her lone bag slung over her shoulder. It is then I notice her outfit of a blazer over jeans. It is then I realise she is probably only wearing a bra beneath that blazer. It is then I realise what she wanted to surprise me with.

“Ijeoma!” I call as she exits the building.

She turns around, her phone pressed to her ear and her brows raised.

“Let me give you a ride to town,” I offer without even thinking how that will work, especially with Hilda also riding back with me.

Ijeoma seems to have this same thought as the smile that curves her lips isn’t of the tight variety she has been giving today but one amused by the stupidity of my offer.

“I’ve already called an Uber,” she answers, raising her hand in a final wave. “Take care.”

I stand there as a black Toyota Corolla approaches, not moving even as she gets into it. As the car pulls away, I dial her number, not knowing why, not knowing what I’ll say if she answers.

Just knowing I have to hear her voice one last time for this soul crushing guilt to go away.

 

Ijeoma

I look at my phone ringing, Tekena’s name flashing on the screen, but make no move to answer it. There’s nothing more to say. I don’t need his pity. I’ve already made enough of a fool of myself.

When the call rings off, I dial my travel agent. I’d initially declined attending Fiyin and Goriola’s wedding at the end of the month, unsure how I would feel witnessing nuptials so soon after my botched one. But now, getting away from town is the only thing that will cover my shame, even if only for a little while.

Hopefully, by the time I’m back, both Tekena and I would have forgotten this unfortunate episode ever even happened.

“Hi, Irina,” I say when the line connects. “I need an affordable ticket to London. How soon? Yesterday.”

 

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3 Comments
  • Deedee
    Posted at 20:26h, 17 December Reply

    Great story… Love it

  • mgbakor onyi
    Posted at 10:29h, 18 December Reply

    this is sure going to be an exciting read. cant wait!!! so far, i am mad at Tekena. i hope Ijeoma gets he groove back on.

  • Muyi
    Posted at 09:35h, 20 December Reply

    Looking forward to the complete book on Friday

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