“Ahn Ahn Muna! You have turned this place into a cemetery! What’s with all the flowers and candles?”
I push past a smirking Chichi and walk towards the kitchen to empty the bags we had bought from Shoprite. It is Saturday and the air in my apartment smells of cleanliness, of lemon air freshener and scented candles and fresh flowers. I feel immensely attractive, in a pair of shorts that cling to my buttocks like a second skin. A year before, I had needed a belt to hold these shorts up. The T shirt I am wearing is one of my favourites, a black piece with the letters F-A-D-E scrawled across my bosom in fading white. It had once belonged to an ex-boyfriend many years before, had once hung slack and loose across my shoulders like a short dress, in the days when I was a smart mouthed long-legged girl who wanted to walk runways and design clothes for a living.
“What’s the deal, Girl? The flowers are freaking me out. Is this the opening chapter of your midlife crisis or what?”
I turn and lean against the counter, facing Chichi’s lopsided smile and raised eyebrows.
“What? You don’t like flowers?” I ask, chuckling.
“It’s simply not a Nigerian thing to do!” Chichi exclaims, her rotund arms flapping at their sides in exasperation.
I shake my head and turn back to the counter, as I start to take out plates of frozen turkey bits wrapped in tight cellophane, carrots, green beans, and a can of baked beans. Today, I will make fried rice like the one I saw on Sisi Yemmie’s YouTube food channel: a deep, flourishing green, not the curried yellow that I had learnt from my mother.
When I am done, I will heap Chichi’s plate with spoons and spoons of rice, ignoring her grumblings about dieting. I will add chunks of turkey fried golden brown, and vegetables that have been mashed in mayonnaise and sprite. I will pour her a glass of Baileys and take some fruit juice, and we will trade stories in between mouthfuls.
This is the first Saturday in a long while that I have allowed Chichi to come visiting, because I have been afraid that, as always, she would take one look at me and start to demand answers I cannot give. I watch her from the corner of my eye as I empty the turkey in a bowl and turn on the faucet. She is talking animatedly, about her new promotion at the office and what her man has to say about it. There is a sense of adoration in the way she says, “My man,” and I think that perhaps, I only find this term sickening because there is something wrong with me. I know “her man” alright; a lanky, afro-haired, carefully stylish person whose eyes, I have noticed, seem to always linger on other women in public spaces, myself included. I do not know whether Chichi’s man is cheating on her, but I know that whenever I am with them, there is a quiet restlessness about him, an empty look in his eyes. Too often, ChiChi would giggle and say, “Don’t mind him jor. He doesn’t like talking,” and I would feel inside, a burning embarrassment for her.
And yet you got yourself knocked up by a man who is making the rounds with all your friends. Fucking Hypocrite.
“Ahn Ahn! is that how you chop onions Muna? Why so aggressive?” Chichi claps her hands loudly, startling me.
I chuckle nervously, and continue chopping. “So what were you saying?”
“He was now asking me if I will still have his time again, but that is his business oh. I love my man, but I am not going to give up extra hours at work for anybody. Girl, I have even decided to register at a gym. You know, lose some pounds on my new salary increase.”
See? She is smart.
She laughs. I laugh. I turn to look at her with teary eyes that may or may not have come from the onions I am cutting.
“I love you ChIChi,” I say suddenly.
“Where is this coming from, Muna?” She moves closer, her hands folded across her bosom.
“What? You mean I can’t say I love you to my friend?” I look away.
“Look at me.”
“Look at me, Muna.”
I turn to her.
“I don’t know when you planned on telling me that you are pregnant, but I guess this is a good time to talk about it. No, don’t act shocked. We both know you are glowing because there is a baby growing inside you, and don’t give me that bullshit talk about the wonderful effects of coconut oil.”
I burst into laughter, wild and reverberating. I lean towards her and she embraces me, and then I begin to cry, loud sobs that smell distinctly of onions and spice. When I am calmer, I pull away. She hands me a tissue and I wipe my nose noisily, wash my hands, and resume my chopping with ginger. Chichi fetches the bucket of rice from the lower cabinet, measures three cups into a bowl, and makes room beside me.
We work together in heavy silence; she parboiling the rice while I chop the vegetables, checking the steaming turkey while I line the pan with butter, mixing the salad while I dish out the rice. This silence is safe.
And then, my phone rings shrilly, disrupting it all. My heart sinks and my mouth goes dry. I want to ignore it. I should ignore it.
“Your phone…” Chichi chirps in tentatively.
I sigh and head in the direction of the sound, sucking turkey sauce off my finger. I pick up the phone from my cushion. I do not have this number saved, but I can recite it in my sleep.
I swipe right and place the phone to my ear, the sound of my own heartbeat tearing all around me.
“Have you nothing to say to me, my baby?” He asks. Age compliments the texture of Tonye’s voice, as it is silkier than ever, gentle, chilling.
“Yes, it is me.”
My tongue feels like sandpaper, I do not know what to say.
“My Angel, I have so much I need to say,” Tonye’s voice slurs with emotion. I feel weightless, my hands reaching for a sofa and my body sinking into it. I curl myself into a ball and start to weep.
“Pull yourself together, I will wait. I have always waited. When you are ready, I will be in the red Volvo outside your gate. I just want to see you.”
“You are….here?” I sniff.
“Why would an old man lie? That is sheer folly.”
I hang up and turn to my side, trembling, and in a flash, Chichi is there, gathering me in her arms and asking what happened?
Yes, what happened that night? The night you saw Tonye last?
It was the day after semester exams. Ifeanyi had come to my house with an oily nylon bag filled with bole and some weed. I said No, I don’t smoke, but I was eager to try out. We shared a joint, and had sex for the first time, the air in our mingled breaths thick with pepper and marijuana. I do not remember the sex, not because it was terrible, but because my nosy neighbour had come banging and yelling my name as usual, perhaps to beg for a matchbox or a mop, I had thought. I ignored her, but a stronger force broke my door down, and what a sight it must have been: me glancing fearfully over Ifeanyi’s shoulder, him freezing for a nanosecond inside me, and then cussing as he wrenches free to cover his instant flaccidness with my bed-sheet. Chukwuedo glaring down at us, wearing only a singlet over his jeans, holding a plank with nails jutting out of the sides. Tonye right behind him, an unreadable expression in his eyes. My neighbour standing with her mouth agape, her phone shooting upwards to steal a picture as Chukwuedo turns swiftly, pushes Tonye aside, and slaps her, hitting her phone to the ground and smashing it with the heel of his boot. She runs away, screaming, “You go pay for my phone o! Thief o!” her voice jolting me to alertness as I grab my dress off the floor and throw it on, leaping to my feet.
A small crowd is gathering. Ifeanyi is fiddling with the buckle of his belt. My neighbour is screaming from somewhere far away, demanding that her phone be replaced. I am frightened by the fieriness in my brother’s eyes, his loud breathing.
“What is happening Muna?” Ifeanyi asks.
“Shut up!” Chukwuedo bellows. “You have not finished eating and you want to talk. Pick your skinny body and get out of this place if you know what is good for you!”
Ifeanyi squares his shoulder and makes to approach Chukwuedo but I stop him with a hand on his arm. Tonye’s eyes have not moved from me. His cold stare slashes me in places like fresh cuts from a razor blade.
“You want to fight?” Chukwuedo begins to laugh.
“Gentlemen, this is a lady’s room. Have you no self-respect?” Tonye finally speaks, his eyes travelling across the room.
“How did you get here Chukwuedo?” I ask quietly.
Chukwuedo gawks at me in disbelief, chuckles, and then stares again. “Oh, Interesting of you to ask your big brother a question like this. Well, I followed your sugar daddy. I wanted to have a word with him and he led us here. See? None of us realized we would find you fucking your small boyfriend. I should apologize for interrupting…”
My hand leaves Ifeanyi’s, and I look at Tonye. I open my mouth, but I am incapable of forming any words.
Chukwuedo continues, addressing Ifeanyi, his voice heavily laced with mockery: “You this Bob Marley wannabe, you didn’t know you were tapping from a family treasure abi? Look at that old man there. You need to be careful about whose niece you’re sleeping with..“
His words stop midway as Tonye pounces on him with swift punches and slaps. My room becomes a blur of flying fists, the crowds outside dispersing quickly. I am screaming, first helpless, then outraged, pulling Tonye away yet shielding his body with mine, but Chukwuedo is fighting blindly, and his kicks hit my belly, bringing me to my knees. Ifeanyi pulls me up, the look in his eyes like a slap, hateful.
“Slut!” He grinds out in a low tone, through gritted teeth, but Tonye had heard. He pushes Chukwuedo aside and lifts Ifeanyi off his feet with a hand enclosed around his neck, pushing him towards the wall and smacking his head against it repeatedly.
“Tonye Please stop. Please.” My body grows cold with fear as I begin to tremble, my tears freezing on my face.
This image stays with me: Ifeanyi’s eyes glazing over, strands of his hair falling over his face as his body juts forwards and backwards like a Puppet’s.
I run to Tonye and hit his arm again and again and again.
“Please. Tonye. Please leave him!”
And he leaves him.
Ifeanyi sinks to the floor as though he weighs nothing, the silence emerging and enveloping us all. I look up to find Chukwuedo staring at me in disbelief, Tonye covering his face with his hands.
“It is all your fault,” Chukwuedo says to me.
I turn to Tonye and say, “Call your Doctor,” as he starts to fiddle with his back pockets for his phone like a person who just snapped out of a trance. “I am so sorry Muna,” He whispers.
“Call your Doctor now!” I yell. To Chukwuedo, I command, “Pick him up!” And we become a flurry of activity, our reality a still form on my floor, his body bent at an unnatural angle.
“I am sorry,” I say to ChiChi, wiping my nose with the back of my hands.
“You need to tell me what is going on,” There is a quiver in her voice, glistening in her eyes.
I shake my head and say I have to go downstairs, I have to see someone.
I walk away from her, open my door, and hurry out into the scorching afternoon sun, shading my eyes as I unlock my gate and look out for the Volvo.
I do not need to search for long. He is right there, where he said he would be, leaning against the car bonnet with his legs crossed at their ankles, sunshades framing the upper half of his face and greying beards framing the lower half.
I make my way towards him, and I get my first whiff of a smell I remember: wood, and one I don’t, cigarettes.