“How does the story end?” her hand, the one that wasn’t holding the microphone, flew in the air and fluttered around slightly at the word ‘end’. Good natured laughter swam through the small crowd huddled close to one another and probably looking like a hunched shell from outside the bookshop’s glass walls.
“I’m sorry. I never made it to that part either”, he replied in a grave even tone.
The laughter swelled higher and he cracked a wry smile. They all thought he was a riot and he had heard from more than a few people how refreshing it was that the humour he splashed in careless coats over his book was evident in his own self. The girl smiled too, the corner of her mouth turning up in crooked knowing.
He was leaving the building two hours later when he saw her standing alone in the lot outside. He let himself watch her for a second. She had a rich brush of silky hair growing out of her scalp in a shade that rivalled the fiery hue of a setting sun – or maybe he thought that because the sun really was setting. He chuckled and shifted his gaze, floating it leisurely over the pale cream skin that was showing the signs of a tan, skipping it guiltily over the firm mound that shot out from her rear and finally settling on the slimly built jean-clad legs which made him realize she was starting to walk away. He broke into a brisk trot after her retreating back. Despite his haste, he didn’t miss the tiny bit of sway in her hips that matched her easy gait and leisure pace. He was close now, close enough to see the black dot that stood in perfect contrast at the base of her neck.
“Hey”, he said for lack of a better opening. She turned.
“Oh…hi”. He chuckled slightly, noting she wasn’t any better with lines.
“How would you like a proper answer to your question?” he asked in a tone he could only hope was neutral.
She laughed then, a low ringing sound from somewhere behind her lungs that made her cheeks lift themselves up slightly.
“I suppose I’ll have to cancel my Uber now.
They went to a pizza place down the street. People kept sending side glances their way, some actually staring and forgetting to look away. He felt a tinge of pride run down his spine – the black guy sitting in Domino’s somewhere on the Lagos mainland sharing cheesy pizza with a white chic. As they sat, he felt slightly guilty of too much hubris and paid renewed attention to her.
“So,” he said, clearing his throat awkwardly, “I’m Ola.”
She laughed again. “I got that much from your book.”
Of course she knew his name. There were at least five hundred copies of printed evidence all over the city.
“I’m Nicolette. Do not call me Nicki.” She proclaimed in a deadpan tone.
He almost laughed then stopped until she started laughing and he joined her.
“French?” he said when he could breathe again.
That was how it came to be that he listened to her talk about growing up in Paris and moving to London for school when she turned 18. He was enchanted by her, her chirpy tone, her animated gestures, the way her eyes danced to the side as she spoke, the words that came out of her mouth. He saw how small her hands were and thought they looked like the description of porcelain gloves he’s read in a long-forgotten book. His ears picked at her queer accent as it danced into his brain, a delicate exotic mix that reminded him of fruit salad and made him long for her dessert. He started to think of how he would like to listen to her talk all night over cold, cheesy pizza and colder drinks. That was when she mentioned the husband.
He did a mental double take and the room suddenly felt too cold. He stuttered a little when he said, “Your husband?”
She nodded, taking a sip of her drink. “Ex-husband really. I was so young, gosh. I was 21 and I was finishing college. We had been classmates and he was this dark skinned hunk from India. We met in the first year, started dating after 6 months. So at our graduation party, he just dropped on one knee in front of everyone. I almost swooned.“
Ola didn’t realize he was holding his breath until she paused and he heard himself sigh.
“We got married in like what, five months. I moved back home with him because he didn’t want to be another non-resident Indian. The country is amazing, Ola. So much colour in everything, everywhere. Beautiful women. I suddenly felt like I needed to take up photography. Nobody thought it made sense because I majored in Human Resources and I had a pretty nice job, but the soul of that place…” she shook her head, looking like she was remembering the favourite teddy she had lost when she was six. “It was begging to be captured and I just had to do it.” She fixed her eyes on him. They looked like jades, glistening in the bright light. .”You would probably get that feeling.
He felt his head bob and she smiled a sad smile.
“So what happened?” he asked.
“Well, first off his family was not very receptive of him bringing home a white girl from London. They were all set to match him with some proper Indian girl from a respectable family and there I was. He was very firm at the beginning, until I started the whole photography thing. That was really it. He didn’t understand me leaving my job and starting a photography blog. It was his country he said, not something spectacular. I tried to explain but he called me overly romantic and…it wasn’t a very pleasant conversation.” She smiled again.
“So you left.”
“Not until he started cheating.”
He blinked. He wasn’t a saint but he had limits. He put his hand over hers. That smile again.
“Well, I was young.“ This time she laughed.
“That was about 6 years ago. What started for me in India has led me all over the world. I want to show everybody the soul that exists on the planet we live.”
“So now it’s Nigeria.”
“Yes, in a way.“
Her eyes took on a lost look and he let her be for a minute, letting the moment wash over him like he was a shell on a sandy beach. He felt that giddy feeling, the one that told him he would always remember that moment.
“So what do you miss the most about India?”
She paused for a second, seeming to remember so deep-buried memory.
This time it didn’t feel like a shower of ice. It was more like that first touch of water on a harmattan morning. He had very quickly come to expect her little surprises like a new layer of onion and he saw it as a little test she gave, dishing out bits of herself in small portions, dose by dose. When he said nothing, she continued.
“It was about 2 months after I left. I had no idea what to do. There I was, just waiting to travel the world and I had to think about bringing two sons in tow. So I did the only thing I could. I took a break for a year to have them then I took them to him when they turned one. He had a new wife already and he insisted I wasn’t going to take his children on my pointless tour and I agreed with him. My life is no life to get children into. So I left them behind.”
The air hung between them. He suddenly became aware of how empty the room had become. He snuck a look at his watch. Late, he saw.
She had her eyes closed now and he imagined what she must see, her twin sons, about five now calling their father’s wife ‘Mother’. Without thinking, he placed a hand over hers where they lay clasped on the table. Her lids fluttered open and she gave him a small cracked smile. He thought he saw a sheen of unshed tears.
She spoke his mind when she said, “It’s getting late. We should leave.”
As they stepped out into the night, she turned and faced him. She held his gaze in the dim light for a while before she gently wrapped her hands around his neck, slightly burying her face in his shoulder. When she pulled away, she laughed a little.
“This really is weird, even for me”
She began to reach into her purse. “Hey, you know that song? Hey I just met you…”
He laughed again, singing along “And this is crazy…”
Her lips curled as she sang the next line, putting a square card in his hand “but here’s my number…so”
He felt his right brow shoot up a tiny bit. He looked down at the card.
”Call me maybe”
“Make sure you do.” She said over her shoulder as she walked away.
Time is tricky. It has a way of turning your mind into cotton candy and making you forget to count the days so it can run as free and wild as it wills. The days went by in the same pattern that never got old.
They hung out a lot, sometimes at her high rise apartment at Ikoyi, sometimes at his ‘self-contained’ flat at Palm groove. They both liked to stay indoors. He was a sucker for good food, ’like any proper Yoruba man’ he would boast. She liked to cook, odd recipes she had picked up from her travels. Some days it was rotis and parathas from India, other days it was kimchi from South Korea. She made crepe and crème brulee and when he wanted something more ‘African’, she learnt to make Jollof rice. Her favourite were ladoos, the little yellow balls of delight from her great ‘Hindustan’.
Once or twice she made guacamole, and as a joke he made them eat it with hot boli. To make up for the disastrous taste of the combination, he made the only thing that gave him confidence in a kitchen, Amala. As an extra treat, he prepared the custom gbegiri that came with it and served it with sizable chunks of Ogufe for good measure. They made wild love that night, basking in the glow of a full and satisfied stomach.
Afterwards, when she lay snuggled next to him, her hair glowing in the darkness of NEPA’s usual disappointment, he felt a tightening in his chest. Her body lay warm and yielding in sleep, soft curves melded into the rumpled sheets. His fingers itched to trace the soft carve of her chin where it lay heavily against his chest. That night, a realization began to dawn on him.
Amala became their special food, something like an inside joke that they kept from the rest of the world and the day she almost said good bye, they had a large plate of it right in front of them.
He was remembering what she had said once, about how Amala would now be like weed to her and maybe if it were weed, she would be dying of lung cancer. He smiled to himself, stretching his arm around her and reaching for the steaming plate with the other.
“So Arjun called yesterday.”
He paused, the dripping morsel halfway to his mouth.
“Ex, Ola. Ex.”
He blinked, putting the food safely in his mouth. He nodded.
“He said the kids wanted to talk. They sound like absolute angels.”
She started to laugh, a high cackle that quickly faded into a sob. He stopped eating, cradling her against his chest with his gbegiri stained fingers. Amala would taste like tears now.
“I need to go, Ola. I need to see them. It’s been so long. My babies.” Her voice sounded muffled and shaky, trapped between the sobs and his bare chest.
His voice sounded strange when he spoke.
“Will you come back?”
He had tried to pretend this moment would never reach them, cocooned as they were in the sweet monotony of life in Lagos. He had gotten used to it, to her. The mornings when he would wake up and find her roaming about the flat with his shirt from yesterday draped carelessly on her lean body, her bronze-tinged legs peeking from beneath were the best part of his days. He had learnt to live with how she put too much pepper in everything and even joked about how she should have been born Yoruba. He was used to her endless chatter about everything and the sullen moments in between when she went on her odd spin-offs and nothing from this world could get through to her. He had learnt not to ask about them, waiting instead for her to mention it casually over breakfast two weeks later. He had known she would have to leave one day, whatever the reason. She was not one to be caged in for one person’s pleasure. She was a bird of flight. Now the day had come and he was fighting himself to accept what it meant.
The moment dragged on for a while. He felt her beating chest against his ribs, her breath stirring the hairs against his chest. He saw the forgotten plate of cooling abula, the gray mass streaked with yellow streams lying in the chipped enamel plate. The feel of the moment lay around him, in the air, around the sofa, wrapped all over the house. He would remember it and maybe one day he would put it in a book. Maybe.
“I don’t know.”
Her voice cracked the layer and he felt it drift off hurriedly like smoke. He nodded.
“Let me help you pack.”
He went back to his flat that night, the place he had temporarily deserted.
Two weeks later, after he had ridden with her to the airport in partial silence and waved good bye as a lone tear sneaked out his left eye, he would sit on the bed in this flat and think about everything, from when it started, from where it started. He would pick his phone and finally open the messages that had lain unread for 14 days. Then, he would begin to type.
“Nicollette. I still don’t know how the story ends. I don’t even know if it does end, or if it should be a story at all. I’m not sure how it starts either. All I know is if it’s a good one, nothing should matter. You just need to read it. Your writer, Ola.”
He would put the phone down without waiting for a reply and go to bed, a strange sadness weighing on his stomach like a lead rock.
But, that night when he went back to his flat, the door swung open as he unlocked it, letting out a loud yawning creak that sounded like a welcome from an old friend to his tired ears.
Zulaikhah Agoro is a second year student of Building Construction at the University of Lagos. Her work has appeared on Brittle Paper and has been shortlisted in the Afreada Photo Story Contest as well as the Africa Writes x Afreada Short Story Contest. She has an upcoming publication in the Okike Prize anthology. She writes musings and other odd things at www.frandela.com. What she really likes to do is daydream about spending money she doesn’t have…yet.
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