Tonye reaches out a hand to me but I do not take it. He withdraws it and pushes the shades up so that they crown his head, bald and shiny as ever. His eyes are still a clear, honey brown, fine lines webbing its corners as his face breaks into a warm smile that disappears just as quickly.
“You are crying. I don’t remember you as a Cry baby,” He says softly, his stare intense.
I wipe my eyes with the back of my hands.
“I am not,” I respond firmly.
“Your body has filled out nicely too, Muna.”
“I am fat.”
“Shush. That is what Americans say and they don’t know anything.”
I sigh, looking away. Eight long years between us, and I cannot hold his gaze without withering like a school girl. Eight years, and my arms are folded underneath my T shirt, pulling it downwards to divert his eyes from my growing bulge.
“Where have you been?” I know, but I ask anyway. He is too old-fashioned to use social media, but Marie, his niece in LA does. I have followed her on Instagram since she popped up on my Explore page, the skinny caramel-skinned girl who dotes on her uncle. I have seen him in her photos, on family trips to Disney Land and Hollywood and even Rwanda. There are videos where she catches him off guard with a flower filter perched atop his head, where she yells, “Gotcha!” and he groans, “Not again Marie,” with a strange nasality to his tone.
There are slideshows with her family − Tonye raising Marie’s little brother high above his head, his recently widowed sister – Marie’s mother leaning into his shoulder, and Marie always standing so close, her arm around his waist.
Tonye shrugs as he responds, “I have been moving around the world. Put my company in the hands of a stranger and packed a bag. Simple.”
“What about you, Muna? You seem well.”
“I am well. My job is great and family has been amazing.”
“So, are you going to invite me in or…?”
“No. We can talk here.”
“Why? Is your boyfriend in there?”
Tonye laughs, a lingering throaty laugh. The sound snaps something inside of me, engulfing my throat, then releasing it.
“If you are so happy, then why are you here?” I ask quietly.
He moves closer to me, the cigarette smell so strong on my nostrils I want to sneeze. He must have learned to smoke in his sister’s chilly living room like the Americans, and as it is with Tonye, everything becomes addictive in the end.
“Muna, I left for you. I gave you what you wanted, didn’t I? Perhaps I should have continued to stay away, but it has been so long, my baby. You are strong; I had hoped you would be even stronger now.” He cups my chin with his palm and I do not move away. As people pass by this street, they will see a man and a woman, and they will not wonder if he is too old for her or if she is one of the lost girls who sell their bodies for money. They will not judge me as they would have many years before, for age has done little to mar Tonye, and with his taut belly and stylish beard, he could as well be my husband.
“You should have stayed away,” I say.
“You have no idea what I have been through without you.”
I take two steps back and his hand falls away. My ensuing laugh is mirthless and bitter.
“How noble of you to spare some of the time you have left in Nigeria to come here and talk about all the pain you are feeling.”
“I see you have not lost any of your biting sarcasm.”
“Fuck off, Tonye.”
“I am sorry.”
I remember what Tonye used to say about apologies, the acuteness of humanity’s need for these simple words, believed to be strong enough to erase the hurt that we cause, albeit knowingly. I remember Tonye perched on his car bonnet just as he is now, many years ago, outside the hospital where Ifeanyi lay so still, saying these words.
“I am sorry, Baby. I didn’t mean to hurt him that bad.”
I had stared up at him in the waning light, and I had laughed, so hard that I feared I had run mad.
“I will pay any amount. I will do anything,” he said, and pay he did. He took care of Ifeanyi’s bills for the three month period that it took to care for him. He paid for the extra year Ifeanyi had to stay in school after missing his final exams. He paid for Chukwuedo’s silence, in the police cell where he had slept for three weeks, because Ifeanyi’s parents needed a person to blame.
And in those days, I had drifted between spaces, the hospital and the prison, alone. I had gazed down at Ifeanyi’s new shaved head, and imagined the bandage around it to be a halo, because with that haunting half-smile plastered on his face, he looked like a cherub. The first time I bumped into his father, sitting beside his bed, he had said firmly, “The boy is only sleeping,” and I had felt grateful for these words, for this man who had understood when I pleaded with him to forgive us. It was all my fault, I had said. It had been a misunderstanding. We will pay the bills. Ifeanyi is my boyfriend and I love him very much.
Ifeanyi’s mother had not been as understanding. She had spat in my face at the police station and said her son would never have anything to do with such an evil family, and as her husband dragged her out, she had cursed me, her finger outstretched, her voice hoarse with tears.
And in the room reserved for visitors, I had sat across from Chukwuedo in the sweltering heat, watching him eat ravenously from the flask of rice I always brought him. Sometimes, he would ask, “When is your sugar daddy getting me out?” and I would wish that it were traces of sarcasm that I found in his eyes, instead of a gnawing emptiness.
I had felt empty too when I read the text from Tonye, the one where he said thank you for talking to Ifeanyi’s parents and Thank God Chukwuedo has been released, and can I send my brother’s account number?
And Chukwuedo had called me shortly after, gushing in surprise. “Your man is swimming in money o! No wonder you stick with him. You have done me well Sis,” and afterwards, I had folded myself in a ball and stared up at the ceiling for a long time.
The months would fly past, where I would text Tonye about something new Chukwuedo wanted, where I would leave Ifeanyi’s messages unopened, and walk through school with my head bowed, jumping at every tap on my shoulder. I had been immensely thankful when, in the quiet of my lecturer’s office, he had shown my final results. Barely escaping an extra year in school, but I was graduating and that was enough.
Tonye had said he was sorry again, in his final text to me that year. He was sorry he couldn’t put up with my brother anymore. He had done enough. He had tried. He was leaving. And he did.
I like to think that I did it all to protect everyone else from our truths, letting Chukwuedo continue walking over me long after Tonye stopped giving, but then I remember the man with the gigantic penis who promised me an escape, a new life in Dubai, just give me your body and your money, you see? Instead, He morphed into thin air, like in the stories Aunty Amaka used to share; I spent some more money in a dingy place where a herbal doctor treated sexual infections, and now I believe in ghosts.
“…..I had hoped to find you happy, living the full life you have always wanted.” I catch the last of Tonye’s speech, the words he has probably been trying to say all along.
I cross my arms over my bosom. I raise my head a little higher.
“I am fine.”
“I really hope that you forgive me, Muna.”
“How is Marie?”
He is taken aback by my question.
“Your sister’s child.”
“Oh,” Tonye laughs nervously, then his eyes narrow as realization dawns. “Wait, you mean…No, Muna, I would never defile my niece in any way. Jesus Christ! She is a kid. Like sixteen or seventeen, perhaps.”
I want to laugh, but it feels like bile rising in my throat. I want to ask him if he remembers, if he remembers anything at all.
But I say nothing.
After a while, he asks, “You want to go back in?”
“Yea. I am not sure this heat is healthy for my baby.”
“Oh!” his eyebrows shoot upwards. “You are carrying? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“And the father?”
“You ask too much questions, Tonye.”
“You should be happy, Munachimso.”
“Like you are?”
He says nothing in reply.
“The cigarettes…you should be careful with your lungs.”
“I realize. Thank you Muna.”
I turn and walk back through my gate and from my veranda at the top of the stairs, I watch him drive off very slowly.
“Muna? Are you done?”
I turn to Chi-Chi. “Yes.”
“Come in then. What are you waiting for? Your rice is getting cold.”
I pour her a chilled glass of Baileys and we eat together, from a plate heaped with golden brown chunks of turkey and rice, green with promise. Sisi Yemmie would be proud of me.
“I think I will have a son,” I tell ChiChi.
“Not a daughter?”
“Not a daughter.”
“What will you name him?”
“Something fancy, maybe, but I am not sure.”
“I have an idea.”
“How about you call him S-O-N-S-H-I-N-E? Like your own customized version of the word! So to shorten the name, you call him Son, and it will make people wonder…”
“You want to ruin my child’s life before it even started!”
We fall on each other giggling, until I start to choke, and I take several gulps of water. Then we are silent for a while, and we continue to eat- she chewing noisily on a bone, me scraping the last grains of rice with my spoon. I should pay more attention to these cooking channels; I will soon have a little boy to feed, or a girl. It wouldn’t matter. This child will taste many varieties in my cooking, and someday learn to make his or hers. And we will take long walks down the road to burn off all the food while I listen to him or her chatter about everything or nothing.
You should be happy, Munachimso.
I have often felt happiness in the conversations with my Mother, where I tell her not to worry her heart about Chukwuedo that he is doing fine, where I tell her that I love her and I appreciate her prayers. She is like a child; hanging on to my every word, pleased that her children are doing well, that God has blessed her immensely. But when she learns of my pregnancy, a cloud will settle over her face. She will ask, where is the father of this child? Do you want to raise it alone like I did? And I will tell her that I am getting ready. Ready to create a life for my child to blossom and this will require that I find my prescriptions and take them religiously. Happiness in dozes, in the morning and in the afternoon and in the night, until my joy is no longer a passing, fleeting thing.
I scroll lazily through my phone with oily fingers, Facebook notifications – a friend request from Ifeanyi Echezona sitting amongst the pile for over a month. I wonder if he grew out his hair again, and if he has scribbled all our ugly memories in a manuscript somewhere. Perhaps, I will accept this request when I am done with my prescriptions, after I have typed my resignation letter, and after I dial my mother’s phone, and speak to her for a very long time.