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The Widow’s Night

Widow

That’s a word I never thought would apply to me. Who ever thinks such a word would apply to them? I never thought of death, my own or that of the people close to me, maybe my children, when I fretted as they played in places where I couldn’t see them, rode their bikes off to the club, maybe then as I worried about them, it was death I was afraid of. I don’t know.

I never thought Dele would leave me, leave me alone to raise our children, I always thought that if anything I would go first. Dele was the one who was larger than life, the one who smiled, who laughed, who drank every drink and ate every meal with enjoyment, life for him was enjoyment, he approached everything, work, family, food, drink, sex with the same gusto and enthusiasm. I could always see him as an old man, a widower, still missing me but enjoying life to the fullest.

Now I was the one missing him, and not enjoying life so much. Sometimes I think of him and wish I were more like him, that I could defuse anger, make the children laugh and forget their troubles, just by being me, I am not like that. I am not like Dele was, nobody can be like him.

It breaks my heart the way the children miss him, I am too emphatic, I feel the pain of everybody around me, and their pain weighs so heavily on me, it crushes my heart. They are all in boarding school, I almost withdrew them after the accident, but both my parents and Dele’s advised me not to. ‘They are all in the same school’ my mother pointed out ‘they will be there for each other and they have all their friends there already, let them stay there.’

I pity my children though, so young and already scarred by death, neither me nor Dele were, our parents were still alive, as were all our siblings, and all our friends, we were already married before we lost grandparents. It wouldn’t be like that for my children.

I imagined what it would be like if Dele had been here with me in this hotel restaurant, He would not be pushing his food around on the plate like I was doing, he would be eating his food like it was the best thing he had ever tasted. What a man! What a husband! Who could have ever asked for a better one?

The strange thing about me and Dele was that our relationship had never been one of those romantic ones like in the books or movies, I didn’t fall in love with him at first sight or ever, Dele and I had looked across a room at each other and recognised in each other the fulfilment of our mutual needs, we were very different and yet so alike in the things we wanted, in the direction we wanted to go with our lives, we were friends, we became lovers, he understood me, I enjoyed him, we were never a strain on each other, and when the children came our love for the little angels brought us closer, until the accident.

I had liked being married to Dele, it was the best time of my life, not being married to him meant sitting alone in a restaurant like I was now, no jokes to laugh at, no hand to hold mine as we walked upstairs to our hotel room, no warm body to hold me as I slept cuddled against him. Life without Dele was a poor reflection of life with Dele, a very poor one indeed.

Less than an hour ago I had dropped he children back at their school, it was their visiting day, the school allowed you to take them out and so I had taken them to the zoo, a big mall, a restaurant, and an ice cream place, and then back to school. I did that once every month trying to make sure I didn’t miss anything their father would have done for them, but who could compete with Dele, Dele who could make the children shriek with laughter just from buying a newspaper from the vendor.

I dropped my fork and gathered my things together, it would be a lonely night at my hotel room, the tenth lonely night I would have spent at this hotel, in the ten months since the accident. Maybe next time I would stay somewhere else, somewhere where the walls, the bed, the food, the decor did not remind me of something Dele had said or done.

‘Lizzie?’ I looked up startled. For a moment I didn’t recognise him, this tall dark stranger, but he was no stranger, it was David Aliu, a familiar face I hadn’t seen in years. I smiled.

‘What a surprise’ I said

‘Yes’ he exclaimed shaking the hand I proffered, ‘yes it is. What are you doing here?’

I told him about the children, how they were in boarding school and it was their visiting day, how I always stayed here overnight when I flew over to visit them.

‘Children? how many?’ he asked, sitting opposite me

‘Three’ I replied ‘a girl and two boys’

‘I have two’ he said smiling proudly.

‘Congratulations’ I said. We smiled at each other.

‘I heard about your husband’ he said finally, ‘I am sorry’

I nodded

‘I should have called or something’

‘No’ I said shaking my head ‘no problem’

‘So how are you holding up?’ he asked

‘I am fine’ I replied, ‘I’m more concerned for the children than for myself, my husband was a wonderful father.’

He nodded. He was still as handsome as I remembered from those days, his skin was still like chocolate with lots of milk in it, His lips were still pink and pretty, like a girls, he was still as thin as a reed and well dressed. The way he dressed alone had always been enough to make me love him. It was funny how long I had been in love with this man, before Dele, before marriage, before anything, in those heady days of school, of dreams and expectations, I had been in love with his man, to whom I hadn’t spoken in years.

In those days when I had been heartbroken, I had tortured myself with questions, why hadn’t he picked me, why had he chosen someone else, how was I not good enough for him, whenever I saw her I tortured myself by wondering how she came to be better than me, was it in the breeding, was her family better than mine, was she cleverer, did he think she was prettier, for two years I asked myself these question at least once a day until I met Dele, who convinced me again that I was perfect just as I was.

We all fall in love at least once in our lives, we all find that person who we long for, who we want to be with, who fills our heart with that aching tenderness that is pain but also pleasure. Mine was David, from the day we met we had a partiality for each other, we hung out together every day, I teased him mercilessly and he listened when I bashed all the guys who asked me out, he listened patiently when I told him about my dates and how I’d much rather spent the time sitting somewhere talking with him.

I was sure he loved me too, but he never told me. And I never asked him, I was not the kind of girl who asked, and everyday it grew more painful, the fact that we were together but not together so I drew away from him and went out with the first suitable guy who asked me out, a guy many girls would have given a lot to go out with, but I didn’t want to go out with him, I just wanted David to miss me a little and maybe then tell me he wanted to be with me, but he never said anything, and then I heard he had started dating someone. I was hurt and angry but I never showed it, I just closed up my heart, steeled myself and went on with life. That was my way.

‘I’ve missed you’ he said, waking me from my thoughts.

‘You’ve what!’ I said taken aback

‘I’ve missed you every day since 1993.’ He clarified

‘How come?’ I asked ‘you had a girlfriend! You must have been in love, you married her’

He laughed and shrugged ‘Were you in love with your husband?’ he asked.

‘I loved him’ I replied.

He looked at me, how many times had we debated the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone, this man knew me more than anybody else I thought. There was nothing under the sun we hadn’t talked about.

I studied his face, the large dark eyes, too large for a guy, the full brows and the lashes way too long to be fair on a guy. I remembered how I used to bully him, he was two years older but I had always treated him like he was ten years younger. Would he ever have known that the hours we spent together were the highlights of my life in those days? Probably not. He may have suspected but he wouldn’t have known. Because I had never believed in showing my love for a man, if he liked you he would let you know, only then would you let it show that you had any preference for him.

Back then my best friend Angela had advised me to tell him how I felt. ‘You have to let him know you like him’ she’d said ‘nobody has the courage to be in love without proper encouragement’ she would say echoing Jane Austen. Later when I was in my relationship with Kay, the guy I’d dated until graduation and a couple of months after, she referred to him as my cold comfort. ‘How is your cold comfort?’ she would ask. My cold comfort is now a big deal in one of the new generation banks in Lagos, he still sends me Christmas and birthday greetings every year.

‘What are you doing here?’ I ask.

‘I had a meeting in one of the conference rooms here, I was considering dining here when I saw you from outside.’

‘Dining here?’

‘Yes’ he said. ‘My wife is abroad at the moment, actually she’s living there now, she spends less than a month at home every year’

I smiled ‘Have you become one of those men who send their wives to live abroad while they stay here and have affairs with young girls?’

‘I don’t have affairs’ he said, shaking his head.

I nodded, I shouldn’t tease him, I thought, it’s not like we’re back in school, we’re no longer best friends. I started drawing imaginary lines on the table cloth with my fingers.

‘You haven’t eaten your food’ he observed.

I shrugged, ‘I haven’t had much of an appetite for a couple of months.’

He nodded in understanding ‘Would you mind if I offered to take you somewhere where they have something that would rejuvenate your appetite? You always liked to eat and I’m sure once you see this you’ll be hungry again’
 
‘What is it’ I asked

‘Fish’ he said ‘The best grilled fish in Abuja.’

I smiled, ‘Where?’

‘I’ll take you’ He said.

There are times when someone long past their youth would young again, when a thirty six year old woman would sit on the grass in a park with a man and talk and laugh and feel the wind in her hair and her face and she would feel like a girl again. The smoked fish was hot and spicy and dripping with sauce, we ate it with our fingers and drank cans of Smirnoff ice to counter the pepper. We talked and talked about things I can’t remember, I laughed so hard I cried. It was like fifteen years ago all over again.

When he drove me back to the hotel I hugged him, for some reason I had tears in my eyes, I pulled away and looked him in the eyes, I surprised even myself as I said ‘Do you want to come up to my room?’

When is okay for a widow to have an affair? Years after she loses her husband? Or months? Is it ever ok? Is it okay for her to have an affair with a man who is married? There are too many questions in this world, too many wrongs, and yet life is so short, if too many rules are followed you wake up one day and discover that you haven’t lived at all.

I didn’t want to think of the rules, I just wanted to remember what it was like to be loved and admired, to be touched and caressed and whispered to. To be part of the club of people who spoke to one another with their bodies, to be one of those people who spent their nights in the arms of a lover, not counting the hours till morning, hugging my husband’s pillow and desperately trying to remember what it smelt like when he still used it.

‘I am going to take a shower’ I said as I locked the door of the hotel room, he nodded, I smiled at him, suddenly thinking how awkward this was, we had never had the slightest physical intimacy between us, not even a kiss and now here we were, about to make love with none of the romantic preambles that would have or should have preceded such a step..

I went into the bathroom and stared at my reflection in the mirror, my eyes were slightly droopy from the alcohol. I smiled ‘Hedonist’ I said out loud to my reflection. I remembered my honeymoon, for the first few days we had done nothing but eat chocolate, drink wine and make love, how decadent I had felt, how I had loved it.

I undressed and stepped into the shower, I tried not to think about what I was doing, what would happen after tonight, it was hard not to worry and I would have kept on fretting if he had not stepped into the shower with me.

Perhaps I am bound to think more of what happened than it actually was, after all, I am a woman, and it had been a long time since I was touched at all. But I know it’s not that alone. Sometimes a touch can hold more love than words, sometimes a man will wash your body in a shower and it will change your life. I have never been touched like he touched me, or made love like he made love to me, not by Kay who was my first, not by Dele with whom I always felt I could not ask for more.

David touched me as if I was a goddess and every touch was an act of worship, every finger, every inch of skin, every part of me was worshiped with equal adoration, until I felt like I was slowly melting into him, losing myself in his touch.

Afterwards I lay in him arms and listened to him breathe. How long ago had I convinced myself that my time for love was past, long before Dele, how then could I start to think of love now, that I was a woman, a mother.

‘What are you thinking about’ I heard him ask.

‘Nothing’ I replied

‘Do you always lie awake at night?’

I smiled ‘Sometimes’

‘I could spend the rest of my life like this’ he said

You could have, I reply silently, but I can’t ask him, not now, what would I say, why didn’t you love me when I wanted you to, why didn’t you choose me.

‘I dreamed of this day so much back then in school’ he sighed ‘I was so hopelessly in love with you.’

My eyes remained on the dark wall in front of me, what had he just said? And what did he mean? What was I supposed to say now? Did I dare believe him even, after all, he was a man and they would say anything. I sat up, unable to hide the questioning frown that took over my face, I looked at his face and tried to make out the features in the dark room

‘You are joking aren’t you?’

‘Of course not’ he said ‘I thought you knew’

‘You didn’t tell me’ I said

‘Well you would have laughed at me wouldn’t you? You laughed at every single guy who ever asked you out. You used to tear them to pieces in front of me’

‘I wouldn’t have done that to you’ I said

‘No you’d have pitied me and patted my head’ he looked at me ‘you always treated me like a younger brother’.

I sighed, what a life! I thought. I remembered how he used to do everything for me, try to please me, how else would he have shown that he loved me, Angela had asked me that, ‘What does a guy have to do for you to be sure, what has David not done?’
I felt like crying.

I lay my head on his chest. ‘I loved you’ I said, ‘I always did, I wanted you to ask me out the way everyone else did, but you never did’

He stroked my hair while I listened to him breathe, for the first time in months I wished that morning would never come.

‘I don’t want to have an affair’ I told him in the morning. ‘I don’t want to be the other woman, I don’t want to hurt anybody.’ I explained that it was enough for me that we loved each other, I could bear to be lonely, I had my children and he had his family. He listened to me and didn’t try to argue. ‘I will never make you do anything you don’t want to do’ he said. I nodded. He drove me to the airport. I kissed him goodbye and went back to my life.

He came to me after a week, I was at my office when I was told I had a visitor, he walked into the office and sat down, he seemed to have done a lot of thinking, I watched as he tried to find the right words and smiled as I realised that he was still the same guy of years ago, still shy around me, still inarticulate.

He said he had never been able to tell me how he felt about me, because he was afraid of losing me, and he had still lost me, he had gone along with the only relationship he had ever had because he had never had to tell her anything, she had been there and she had wanted him. He did not want that to happen again. He didn’t want to lose me again. He had a lot of things to say.

I tried to listen but I had already made up my mind. I went to him and held his hands. I was a widow who had known the best husband life could give, and now I had a chance not to be lonely. Maybe his wife would be hurt whenever she came back to the country long enough to find out about us, maybe his children would not like it, maybe my children would mind, but life was short and if one followed too many rules, then they would wake up one day and find, that they had not lived at all.

© 2012 by Somi Ekhasomhi. All rights reserved

Choice

‘Our husbands are the cloth with which we hide our nakedness.’

I do not reply. It’s usually better not to, when she talks like this. Anyway, I know she’s not finished yet.

‘Our husbands are the cloth with which we hide our nakedness,’ she repeats. ‘No matter who you are, no matter what you have, when you don’t have that cloth, people will point at you and say, ‘there she goes again, naked.’ And you? You will be ashamed’

I drop the melon seeds I’ve shelled into the jar on the table, the husks I leave on a wide blue tray, which, I believe, is much older than I am. It’s been present in the family ritual of shelling melon seeds since I can remember. We are seated at the kitchen table, my mother and I, shelling melon seeds for egusi soup.

My mother insists on doing it at home, even though like me and thousands of other women in Lagos, she could get them already shelled from the markets. Her mother, who still farms them, brings them to her from the village. My mother then dries them in the backyard spread out on wide plastic trays under the sun, until she is satisfied with them. Then the shelling begins.

We are all out of the house now, married. My sisters, my brothers, and me. These days my mother shells melon seeds alone. Last year, my youngest brother finally got married. His first child is due in a month, and my mother wants to shell melon seeds enough to cook the soup for the big, baby dedication party she has planned. Has my brother consented to this party? I wonder.

‘No matter what a woman is, she has to realise that the most important thing she came to this world to do, is to nurture.’ My mother pauses and drops the clean melon seeds into the jar. ‘She nurtures her husband and her children because their success is a measure of her success.’

I stare out of the window over the kitchen sink. The air conditioning is on, so the glass is shut tight. Outside, it is sunny and the clothes my mother insists cannot be trusted to the washer and dryer are hanging on the line, the whites so bright they seem to flash as they move in the breeze. Maybe she’s right, I think. My whites are not as white as hers, and I use an ultra modern washer and dryer.

‘Whatever your man does, no matter how dirty he gets himself, dust him, clean him up, raise and keep him. Do you know why?’ She pauses and looks at me. ‘Because even if you could have done better, you didn’t and now he is the one you have.’ She pauses again ‘and believe me having him will shield you from what the world has to say about you.’

What does the world have to say about me now, I wonder, that my husband of eight years told me that he was going on a business trip, but instead was in a hotel with the woman he used to go out with ages before we met, who dumped him for a richer man, who was now a gay divorcee, who had only crooked her finger for him to go running to her.

What if I hadn’t been invited to redo the interior decoration of the dining room at the Mayflower Hotel? What if I hadn’t gone there to take a look at the place? What if I hadn’t seen my husband having dinner with this woman when he was supposed to have been miles away in South Africa? What if I hadn’t asked the hotel manager who the couple were and had been told that they had been staying there for a week? Then I wouldn’t know. I’d still be missing my man and he’d still be in the hotel with her, not in the house waiting for me to come home so he could follow me around with ‘I’m sorry eyes’, waiting for me to say something, or do something.

I haven’t said anything, I don’t know yet what to say. Have I ever known of a man who didn’t cheat on his wife? I’m not sure. Did I really expect different from my husband? I don’t know. I can’t believe how much it hurts though, now that what I know I have been dreading for years has finally happened. I can’t believe how angry I am. I want to hurt him. But what can I do?

‘If every woman should leave her husband when he does the things that very likely all men do’ My mother continues, ‘there will be no marriages.’ She sighs. ‘I know how much you love your Daddy, but he wasn’t a perfect husband. If I had done some of the things you’re contemplating now, you wouldn’t have had a daddy to love.’

When I get home I am told by the gateman that my husband has taken the children to the club. I don’t mind, I do so want to be alone, I take all my white linen and put them through the washer and dryer. I want them to come out as white as my mothers, maybe because more than anything I want to prove to myself that her way is not always the right way, that sometimes I can do things my own way and not be wrong.

I hear the car in the driveway. I hear the children’s voices. I come out into the dining room and watch as the twins run into the house, at six and a half they are as active as fire crackers and as noisy. Sophia sees me first and hurls herself at me, Daniel follows immediately. I swear they compete in everything. John runs in after them and grabs hold of my legs, he is a quiet boy, my Johnny and very sensitive, he is only three.

My husband comes in last, carrying Daisy, our baby. I can’t believe how looking at him hurts me. Daisy coos at me, I smile back. Then I disentangle the forest of arms and legs around me and go upstairs. I am suddenly so sad and so tired.

He follows me upstairs. Did I know he would? I am standing by the window in our bedroom, when he enters.

‘What do you want me to do’ he asks, he is sorry, he has said over and over again. He has been sorry since I walked up to that table and said, ‘I didn’t realise that this was the business you had to do in South Africa?’

He had been so shocked. I almost smile as I think about it.

I haven’t replied him. He walks up behind me. I move away before he can touch me.

‘I’m sorry’ he says. I know if I turn around I’ll see tears in his eyes. ‘Men!’ I think. ‘How pathetic they are! How they can grovel to get what they want but how quickly they go out of their way to lose it again.’

I touch the window curtains; they are very good cotton, from Italy, my mother-in-law gave them to me. ‘I should wash them’ I think. ‘They are slightly dirty.’

My husband goes to sit on the bed and holds his head in his bands, he is crying. I ignore him for a while before I go to sit beside him. I know I will forgive him. I know I won’t leave him. Not because of my mother or what she said. I am not afraid to be a woman alone. Not because of the children even though they would seem to be the obvious reason, not because of anything people will say about me. No, I am going to stay with this man because I have made my choice. And that choice is to love him.

© 2012 by Somi Ekhasomhi. All rights reserved

The Valentine Gift

The first thought I had when I woke up that morning was not that it was Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day had long since ceased to excite me. It had disappointed me too often to mean much to me anymore.

My first thought was of Kenny and the fact that he was moving away tomorrow. I had been counting the days with growing foreboding. Kenny was my closest friend, close as in we lived in the same building, close as in we really were best friends, close as in we had a very easy companionship, not like I had with my girlfriends of course, there were things I discussed with my lifelong best friend Lola Bakare that I would never discuss with Kenny, but such things were very few.

Now he was leaving our block of flats on the mainland to go live in his new flat in Lekki, talk about moving up! He’d bought a 2-bedroom ‘Luxury flat in a modern residential complex, complete with jogging tracks, tennis courts and swimming pool.’ I envied him.

I also pitied myself. Who would keep me company in the evenings after work? With whom would I buy Suya and Smirnoff ice and feast while watching one of those 16 in 1 movie collection pirated DVD’s on Friday evenings? It was sad, I wondered if we would drift apart.

Kenny was originally my eldest brother Daniel’s school-son back in boarding school days, a long, long time ago. We became friends in university although we barely spent two years together before he graduated. When I started working in Lagos, Daniel called him to help me find an affordable flat on the mainland, where he lived, because my family house was too far away from Victoria Island where I worked.

Luckily he was able to help me find a self-contained 1-bedroom flat in the same apartment building as him, and then, before I got my car, he used to chauffer me to work. The fates actually conspired to make us best friends and the fates were successful, apart from Lola who had been living in the US since completing her youth service I had no friend as close as Kenny.

Back to Valentine’s. It being Valentine’s day wasn’t something I really cared about. Not that I didn’t believe in love, in fact I did, I was so romantic that I had romanced myself out of reality. There was no chance that I’d ever find the kind of love I dreamed about in real life. So I had given up trying.

I wondered if Kenny had a date, he had broken up with his girlfriend Florence (Florence the witch as far as I was concerned, she glared at me whenever Kenny smiled at me) more than three months ago, and, very queer for Kenny, nobody had as yet taken her place.

Anyway, since he was moving, he probably wouldn’t have time to do the whole Valentine thingy this time. I didn’t pity him, he had had enough romantic Valentine days in his life to feed the whole world with love.

I already knew what my day would be like, luckily it was Saturday. I would spend the morning cleaning my flat, then I would go out and buy myself a present (not for Valentine, just to reward myself for being me) then I would go to this new restaurant on the Island and have a long lunch after which I would have chocolate cake for dessert. Then I would come back home and watch a Rom Com while eating chocolate and drinking red wine.

It was a good plan, it would have been better if Lola were around to be my companion, Lola never spent Valentine with a guy, she was a polygamous dater and choosing one guy for Val’s day was something she’d never do in case he started to feel too special. Plus she always paid her half without pausing unlike some other girls I’d hung out with.

I was still cleaning my flat and thinking of Lola when she called.

‘Babes How far now?’ that was her standard greeting ‘What’s going on?’

‘Nothing’ I said ‘You know me now, same old boring girl’

‘Don’t tell me you’re allowing all that beauty to waste like that’ She exclaimed ‘My dear, enjoy your beauty in the days of your youth’

‘Is that from the Bible?’ I asked.

‘I think so’ she replied, then burst out laughing.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked

‘I think I’m in love’ she stated very matter-of-factly. ‘I’m having dinner with Dafe today, he’s beside himself. He thinks it means I’ll marry him or something’

‘Won’t you?’ I asked. She’d been seeing Dafe for close to six months and she had slowly stopped seeing all the other guys that made up her particular type of harem.

She sighed. ‘I think so, I do want a little boy who’s just like him.’

I laughed. ‘Only that?’

I could hear her smile. ‘Shhhhhh! I want other things but I don’t want to spoil you.’ She laughed. ‘Anyway, how is Kenny?’

‘Oh he’s fine.’ I said. ‘He’s moving out today and I’m miserable.’

‘Why don’t you go upstairs and tell that guy you love him.’ She asked matter-of-factly.

‘I don’t love him’ I retorted

‘You do, look at you considering suicide because he’s moving away’

‘I am not considering suicide’ I laughed

‘Na you sabi, the guy is hot anyway, if not that I knew you were into him, I wouldn’t mind going there at all.’

‘I’m not into him’

‘So can I have him?’

‘No’ I exclaimed. Then catching myself, I added ‘I mean you’re thousands of miles away’

‘I know where I am.’ She tinkled merrily. ‘Hmmn, I think I just caught you. Besides, you’ve never liked any of his girlfriends… You love him jor!’

‘I love him, like I love you, I am not in love with him’ I countered weakly.

‘Love o! In love o! All join, you sha like him’ She paused ‘Better go and tell him now before he moves to the Island and jamms some of those supernaturally beautiful chicks’

‘I am more supernaturally beautiful than them’ I said.

‘That’s what I keep saying! Put that beauty to good use, go upstairs and get your man.’

‘See me see wahala!’ I exclaimed. ‘This girl leave me alone, he is not may man.

‘So you don’t want him?’

‘No’

‘Not even a tiny teenie little bit’

I paused. ‘No’

‘You see! You’re lying! That’s why you didn’t answer immediately, I’ve been watching The Mentalist’ I could almost hear her smirk. ‘You like him jor! The sooner you accept it the better, if you don’t tell him, I will tell him’

She cut the connection before I could retort.

I shook my head at the phone and went on to finish cleaning my flat. Lola had always been a naughty brat. So I wasn’t too surprised.

After cleaning I showered and got back into bed. It was still too early to go out and I wanted to catch up on my sleep.

I was just started to drift into unconsciousness when I heard my doorbell. Who was it? I thought, annoyed. I quickly decided to ignore the visitor and sleep anyway. The knocking continued and I put my pillow over my head. Them mercifully, the knocking stopped. I felt myself drifting into sleep again. I had almost succeeded when my phone began to ring.

I groaned aloud and picked it up. Kenny! Of course!

‘Hello’ I said crossly.

‘I know you’re in there, open the door’

‘No’ I replied.

‘Please now’

‘No’ I said again

‘Please my love, you know I can’t live without you.’ He wheedled.

‘Hmmn’ I pretended to think about it. ‘Only because it’s Val’s day’ I said finally.

‘That’s ok for me’ He replied.

When I opened the door he was standing there with a box of chocolates covering his face.

I seized the chocolates. ‘Hmmn’ I said ‘Admirer?’

‘Someone from the office’ he replied. ‘Youth Corper’ He paused. ‘She loves me, I think.’

‘Ashewo!’ I teased.

He walked into the flat. ‘I can’t help being impossibly attractive, you know.’

I laughed. ‘Deceive yourself.’

He sat on the rug in the living room and gestured for the chocolates. ‘Come on! Let’s eat, I don’t have all day.’

I pouted. ‘You do, you have only today’

He sighed ‘Yes o! And I’ll miss my little pumpkin. Come here, come and give daddy a hug.’

I was tempted. ‘Who is your little pumpkin?’ I asked instead and went to the fridge to get fruit juice. When I came back he had already switched on the TV and was trying to find something to watch.

It was so comfortable having him in my flat and he always seemed right at home. It would be lonely when he left, I thought, feeling sad again and wishing I had taken that hug.

We ended up with Quo Vadis on TCM. We were still on that when my phone rang, it was Lanre as usual, my every-Valentine boyfriend.

‘Annette!’ He exclaimed. ‘My darling!’

It was always like that with Lanre, every Valentine’s day he would call and try to flatter me into going out with him. Personally I thought he just got lonely at Valentine’s and called all the girls he knew. I remember going on a date with him once, a long time ago, our first date, and afterwards he told the cab driver to take us to his place! What an idiot!

‘Lanre! My not darling!’ I replied. ‘What’s up?’

‘I miss you’ He said seriously ‘very much.’

I grimaced.

‘Let’s see each other nowwwww’ He cajoled in a whiny, affected baby voice, cute in babies and ridiculous in a grown man. ‘Let’s go out tonight.’

I was thinking of something biting to say but Kenny seemed to have read the tired expression on my face, he smiled at me and took the phone.

‘Hello’ He bellowed into the phone. ‘Who is this?’

I started to giggle and had to stifle the sounds so that Lanre wouldn’t hear over the phone.

‘Who is this? And why are you calling my fiancée on Valentine’s Day? So you are one of those guys who are trying to break my relationship ehn? I am going to MTN to get your information and then I am coming over to see you. You will apologise for ever tempting my wife to cheat on me.’

I burst out laughing, Kenny was laughing too. ‘Your boyfriend hung up.’ he said, handing the phone to me. He shook his head. ‘You and your many toasters! What’s wrong with that one now, tell me?’

I shrugged ‘The only reason I won’t call him an idiot is that it would mean an idiot is one of my toasters.’

He laughed again, shaking his head. ‘And we don’t want to be the kind of girl’s that idiots toast. Abi?’

When we had finished the chocolates Kenny got up ‘I’m going back to my flat’ He said. ‘It’s really empty now; everything has gone except for the bed I’m leaving behind and my clothes for tomorrow. It’s really boring.’

‘I’m going shopping’ I said, tempted to spend the day with him. ‘But you can stay here.’

‘Naah’ he shook his head ‘I have some shopping to do too’

After my shopping I had acquired a couple of new outfits. As I sat in the restaurant eating the last of my chocolate dessert, my mind drifted to Lola and what she had said in the morning. Had I really disliked all Kenny’s girlfriends? Why did I feel so bad about the possibility of him getting engaged or married or even hooking up with Lola?

I was so caught up in what I was thinking that at first I didn’t notice the person in front of me.

‘May I join you?’ he said

I looked blankly at him ‘What?’ I asked

He smiled. He really wasn’t bad looking, very good-looking, in fact.

‘May I join you? He repeated

I didn’t want him to join me, the essence of being out on my own was to be on my own, people seem to think that whenever an attractive girl is out on her own she is trying to invite male attention. Not so. At least for me. But how could I say no to him without feeling immature.

‘You may’ I said finally.

He heaved a big sigh of relief. ‘I felt sure you were going to tell me to get lost’ he said.

I gave him a look that said I would have if I were in the mood.

‘So what’s a girl like you doing here alone on Val’s day?’

‘What kind of girl am I? I asked.

‘A lovely girl’ He stated.

‘Appearances can be deceptive’ I replied ‘and anyway what’s a guy like you doing here alone on Val’s day’

‘Well I work around the corner, I eat lunch here whenever I’m in the office and I was in the office today. No Val’s day for me.’

I shrugged. ‘I like the chocolate cake’ I said, to answer his question.

‘So what kind of guy am I? He asked smiling. He did have a nice smile.

I thought of all the things I could say. ‘Actually, I don’t know’ I replied. ‘What kind of guy are you?’

‘A good one, the type that’s hard to find’

I smiled. ‘Good for you.’

I ate the rest of my dessert while he grilled me about myself, what school did I finish from, where did I live, work, serve, etc. I think he had probably read one of those self-help books where they tell you to make conversations all about the other person. I felt like I was getting an inquisition.

The bill came and he grabbed it before I could say ‘bill’ ‘Let me pay’ He said, silencing my protests. “I’d like to.’

I watched as he put some money in the bill and wondered how much my phone number was costing him. I had no problem with him paying, no problems with giving him my number even. What I have learned is that, not giving a persistent guy your number is to make him more persistent. If you don’t want him to call you give him your number but then, don’t save his on your caller ID. If, every time he calls, you have to ask ‘who is this?’ he’ll soon get tired of calling. If he keeps calling then maybe you should reassess his value.

After the waiter had gone, He inevitably asked for my number, we exchanged cards. I wondered at the look of boyish happiness that took over his face. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t call at all, some of the most eager ones were the ones who never called.

When I got home, there was loud music coming from one of the flats downstairs. It was Kes as usual, throwing a party. Kes would use any excuse to throw a party. If he fell into a gutter and got up with only one scratch he would throw a party because ‘I could have had more scratches’. As soon as I drove in, he stumbled outside, his clothes soaked in beer, the guys must have bathed him in it, I thought, laughing.

‘Annette!’ He called when he saw me.

‘Hmmn’ I answered.

‘Annette!’ He was shouting as if I was far away.

‘You’re drunk’ I said ‘and it’s not even four o clock’

He smiled. He had a disarming boyish smile; very deceptive as he was a womanizing thirty five year old.

‘I am drunk’ he repeated.

I nodded.

‘Anneeeette, come in and take a drink and some food, don’t stay if you don’t want to, the guys are animals’ He gestured towards his beer soaked clothes.

I laughed and followed him into his flat. It was full of people, food and drinks. I said hi to the people I knew and ignored entreaties from friends to dance. I went straight to the Dining table which was stacked with Wine and food and picked one of the bottles of wine and a takeaway pack of food. Well, stuff for the fridge, I thought.

Halfway out, I saw Kes’s current girlfriend sitting morosely in a corner. Eh yah! I thought, this was obviously not her preferred way to spend Val’s day. Instead of a romantic day with the guy she loved she had to co-host this party full of rowdy people. What a mess.

Personally I think that all partying should be done the night before Valentine’s. Valentine’s Day should be a day when you lie in, make love, have romantic dates and nights to remember. If I were Kes’s girlfriend, I wouldn’t be happy either.

As I walked upstairs, I wondered where Kenny was. I had expected to see him at Kes’s place, I wondered if he was at his flat, staring at the ceiling or reading a book, the image didn’t fit. I decided to call him after taking my shopping to my flat.

I didn’t notice the package in front of my door until I was almost standing on it. It was beautifully wrapped with Valentine colours, sitting in a pretty little basket. I picked up the basket and examined it, I wasn’t expecting any more gifts, and I was sure no one I knew was sending a Valentine to my doorstep. I examined the package and didn’t see a note.

It’s not mine, I thought immediately. It probably was meant to go to the second floor and not the first floor where my flat was. That made more sense because Ada, the girl in the flat above mine was probably the only real example of a siren I knew, she attracted men like a magnet did office pins, they were always about the place looking for her.

I sighed and trudged upstairs. I might as well go and deliver it before I settle into my evening of chocolate and wine and fantastical romance movies. I got to her door and knocked like ten times before she opened it looking slightly out of breath and sweaty in a flimsy silk robe.

Oh oh! I thought as I stood there, not everybody’s Valentine is as boring as yours is Annette!

She looked slightly relieved when she saw me. I guess she thought it was one of the other guys, probably didn’t want some guy to catch her doing acrobatics with whoever was inside her flat.

‘Hey Annette! What’s up?’ She asked, blinking continuously in a manner I assumed made men want to know what lurked beneath her eyes, but only gave me a headache.

I’m sorry I didn’t mean to disturb’ I said. ‘But there was this package in front of my flat and I thought it might be yours, I’m sure it’s not mine.’

She looked at my hands and sighed then took the basket from me. ‘Why do you think it’s mine?’ she asked.

‘I just assumed.’ I replied.

‘Never assume’ she said ‘or you’ll make as ass of yourself.’ She giggled to let me know it was a joke.

‘Ha Ha’ I said, ‘but anyway I wasn’t really expecting anything like that today.’

Its Val’s day!’ She exclaimed, looking exasperated.

I shrugged.

‘Come on. There must be some guys trying to hit that…’ She gestured generally in my direction.

I shrugged again. Of course I got valentine gifts, some from my platonic friends and some from would be lovers, but nobody I know would drop a gift by my door, they’d call me to let me know they were coming. And as far as I knew I had no shy secret admirers.

She closed her door and I went to the other door on the lobby which was Kennys flat. I tried it, it was open so I went inside and saw with something quite like dread how empty it had become. I looked in all the rooms but he wasn’t in. Where was he? I wondered, and why hadn’t he bothered to lock his door. I came out of the flat and was just about to descend the stairs when the door of Ada’s flat opened and I saw him come out.

My first reaction was shock. What was he doing coming out from Ada’s flat? Then realisation, oh my god! He was the guy she had been performing the acrobatics with! Then jealousy, then anger, how could he? With Ada of all people, and then jealousy again, and then arguments; it’s not like I care, I don’t care he can sleep with whoever he likes, I’m just angry because he usually tells me everything, why didn’t he tell me?

I had been standing on the top stair like someone who was paralysed. My fingers were sweaty and there was a knot in my tummy, then he smiled at me.

Why was he smiling, doesn’t he even feel guilty, and then I thought, why should he? I was the one who was overreacting. It was the stuff Lola had said over the phone in the morning messing with my psyche.

I tried to smile back. ‘I’ve just been in your flat’ I said, ‘I was wondering where you had gone to.’

‘I was in Ada’s flat’ he said.

And???????? I asked silently. Wasn’t he even going to tell me anything?

At that moment Ada burst out of her flat still wearing the silk robe, she saw me and stopped. She was holding the gift basket.

‘It’s not mine’ she said to me ‘there’s a card.’

She gave me the basket with the card now clearly visible sticking out of the wrapping paper. How come I hadn’t seen that? I wondered.

‘I told her it was probably hers’ Ada said to Kenny, with a smile. Was there something too bright in that smile or was it just my eyes? Suddenly, I liked her less.

I pulled the card out and read it slowly

Annette,
A thousand years should go to praise thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze.
You have pierced my soul.
Half in agony and half in hope,
I am
Your Secret Valentine.

It was lovely, it was just the sort of valentine note I’d wanted for years. And it was obviously someone who knew me, someone who knew how a line from a poem or a book could destroy me and turn me into a walking romance headed zombie.

I looked up at Kenny, he was looking expectantly at my face. Ada looked bored.

I frowned, coming back to earth, I read the card again scanning it quickly.

‘I don’t know who sent this’ I said confused.

‘Isn’t that the point of a secret Valentine’ Kenny said.

‘Anyway’ Ada said ‘As soon as I saw your name on the card I knew it was yours’

Duh, I thought unkindly.

She sighed tiredly. ‘See y’all’ she said airily and went back into her flat.

Kenny was looking at me. I wondered what I was supposed to say. Should I talk about my gift or about the fact that he’s probably just given Ada her Valentine’s Day appetizer? ‘I have no idea who sent it’ I said ‘but he took lines from my favourite poem and one of my favourite books.’

‘So it’s someone who knows you.’ he stated.

‘I guess.’

I was still confused about how I felt that Kenny had been in Ada’s flat. Well, if he didn’t want to tell me anything, that was his business. I stalked down the stairs leaving him trailing me.

‘Aren’t you going to open it?’ he asked.

I stopped walking. ‘I thought I should do that in my flat’ I said sarcastically. ‘But maybe you think it’s a better idea to do it on the stairway?’

‘Jesus!’ he exclaimed ‘What’s up with you? Why are you angry?’

‘Nothing’ I said. I knew that I was acting like a jealous housewife, but I was finding it hard to stop myself.

He followed me to my flat and flopped on the couch as usual as if nothing had happened. Ok, I thought, I could act as if nothing had happened too. I dumped the gift on the floor and switched on the TV.

‘Aren’t you going to open it’ He asked again

‘No’ I snapped, wondering why he was being such a broken record. ‘I’m just going to sit around wondering who sent it.’

‘You have lots of admirers you know, anyone of them could have.’

‘I got those kinds of gifts yesterday in the office, the odd perfume, some chocolate, a single rose and a book on sensual massage, they all signed their names on the cards.’

‘Ah yes, it wouldn’t really pay someone asking you out to send a secret gift, it would be better such a person if you knew it was him who sent it.’

‘Exactly’ I nodded.

‘So this guy must be someone who hasn’t started asking you out yet.’

I rolled my eyes.

‘Or maybe he has a girlfriend and has to be content to love you from afar, but he wants to spoil you nonetheless’

‘And they say I’m the romantic one’ I scoffed.

‘Or maybe he just doesn’t want to risk brutal rejection from you.’

I shrugged. ‘Maybe he just doesn’t have the guts to go for what he wants’ I said.

Kenny looked hurt. ‘Maybe if you open it you will know who it is.’

I got up and went to the fridge for the chocolate and wine I had been keeping.

‘Red wine?’ I offered.

He nodded. ‘Is it sweet or dry?’

‘Sweet’

‘I love you’ he said.

I smiled at him, he looked almost fervent, and for a moment I felt almost as if he meant it in some other way.

‘Just for my wine.’ I retorted lightly.

He smiled. ‘Then pour us a drink, my darling’ he said in the fakest british accent ever. ‘Let us drown our sorrows in the drink of the gods’

I ate most of the chocolate, he drank most of the wine, by the time we were done I’d forgotten I was angry with him, we were both giggling about a phrase I’d come up with ‘Lyrical immaturity in Nigerian music.’

I suddenly remembered that I wanted to see a movie. ‘Let’s see ‘The Holiday’’ I suggested.

He made a gagging sound. ‘Nope, let’s see Apocalypto.’

‘No way’ I said. ‘It’s Valentine! Not gladiator try-outs at the Coliseum. Let’s see Bridget Jones Diary’

He grimaced, ‘It’s Valentine! not April fool’s day.’ He thought for a moment ‘How about the Ghost and the darkness?’

We finally settled on Van Helsing, because I love it and because like most guys, he thought he didn’t like romance movies.

It was dark when we finished and Kenny suggested that we go out for dinner.

‘You can’t drive’ I said. My eyes slightly heavy ‘You are drunk’

‘I’m not drunk’ he retorted indignantly. ‘But we’ll walk.’

Halfway down the stairs he remembered that his wallet was upstairs in his flat. I went down the stairs to wait for him on the front porch. The cool night air sobered me up a bit and I started thinking about my Valentine again. I wondered who it might be. I didn’t like anonymous presents, mainly because of the wondering. I had thought that sort of thing had passed with graduation and growing up.

As I stood there I saw Raymond Ladoke, the guy who lived in the penthouse flat coming into the compound. He was one of those young self-made multi-millionaires who always got a mention in the society pages. He never spoke much to us people who lived in his building, not that I minded. I watched silently as he parked and started to walk towards me, normally he just said hi and went on his way but this time he stopped beside me.

‘How are you? He asked looking intently at my face.

‘I am fine’ I replied. How weird, I thought, we were actually having a conversation.

He smiled, oblivious to the direction my thoughts were going. ‘Hope you enjoyed your day’

I nodded.

‘Are you going somewhere?’

‘Yes, to eat.

‘Where?’

I told him, wondering why I was being interrogated.

‘Can I drop you?’ he asked.

At that moment Kenny came out of the building, panting slightly, had he run down the stairs? I wondered.

‘Actually I’m going with Kenny here.’ I said to Raymond ‘See you around’ I added with a friendly smile.

‘What was that about? Kenny asked me.

‘I don’t know, but he was acting all friendly’

We started talking about other things, I was already halfway through my plate of rice and shredded chicken when I saw Raymond enter the restaurant, he smiled at me again before going to sit at one of the tables in the back.

‘What’s up with him and you all of a sudden?’ Kenny asked. He actually looked petulant.

‘Nothing’ I shrugged. ‘We’ve never really spoken before.’

‘And then today, all of a sudden he’s all over you’

I laughed. ‘He’s not all over me!’

Kenny didn’t reply, just frowned a little bit more and glowered in the general direction of Raymond Ladoke’s table.

Wait a minute. I thought, was Kenny jealous!

No, that would be impossible. I chided myself.

But then why was he acting like such a child.

‘Maybe he’s the secret valentine’ I said with a teasing smile.

Kenny gave me a look. ‘What!’

‘You know’ I continued. ‘It wouldn’t be bad at all. Raymond Ladoke is probably the catch of our street’

Kenny made a face. ‘That’s if you like the boring silent type. I don’t think he has anything to say’ he continued.

‘Girls seem to like him though’ I said ‘there must be something in there, right?’

‘I don’t know why girls seem to like him and I don’t care’ he shrugged. ‘Except if you did like him then I’d wonder if you hit your head or something’

‘Or something’ I said teasingly. ‘Maybe I do like him’ I continued ‘What’s not to like? He’s good looking, rich, and ……’ I thought for a moment.

‘And…. Nothing’ Kenny said disparagingly.

‘Yes’ I agreed. ‘But the first two are usually adequate’ I shrugged. ‘Now that you’re abandoning me, maybe he’ll pick up the pieces’

He looked at me, ‘I’m not abandoning you’ He said seriously. ‘Look, Annette I…..’

I don’t know what he was about to say but when Raymond, who had moved to stand beside our table without either of us noticing, interrupted him with a polite greeting, he looked furious.

‘I heard about your move’ Raymond said to Kenny. ‘Congratulations!’

‘Thank you’ Kenny said looking anything but grateful.

Raymond looked at me ‘Guess you’ll miss your friend a lot’ He said, smiling.

It was an odd question from a near stranger. I gave him an odd look, but I nodded.

‘Well the rest of us are here for you’ he said, before saying goodnight and walking away.

‘Do you think he’s drunk?’ I asked Kenny.

‘Who cares’ he frowned, ‘Let’s go’

Back at my flat I wandered around trying to put the flat in order before going to sleep. I almost forgot the gift still on the sitting room floor.

After some time I decided to open it.

The wrapping paper went off to reveal a leather box, small but complete with clasps and a buckle, I opened it and found a card.

‘I know you’re hard to please but I hope that one of these pleases you.’ It read.

There was also a luxurious leather bound writing pad and on the first page, in the same calligraphy as the other notes, it said, ‘For you to write all your numerous wonderful thoughts.’

Then a bracelet with the inscription ‘How do I love you, let me count the ways’.

Then a pipe-like thing which I realised was a vintage cigarette holder, like the ones ladies used in the twenties. Something I had always wanted.

Then there was a framed picture of a beach at sunset which I had taken some months ago and uploaded to my blog.

And a key around which was a note. ‘I hope this is the one that pleases you the most’

A key.

A House key.

A key!

Oh God!

I sat there and felt like a fool

But why hadn’t he said anything?

I tried to remember his reaction when I read the note, I remembered his face and then it clicked.

‘Isn’t that the point of a secret admirer’ he had said.

How had he known what had been in the note? Because he had written it!

I wondered what to do.

And there was still the issue of him in Ada’s flat.

I frowned. Then I marched to his flat still holding the key.

I stood outside the door for a minute then as I was about to knock it opened.

He looked shocked to see me, and then he saw the key in my hand.

‘Oh!’ he said. ‘You finally opened it.’

‘Anonymous card?’ I asked

He sighed. ‘I knew it was a bad decision the moment I did it.’

‘No it wasn’t’ I said. ‘It was sweet.’

‘Really?’

‘Well it’s sweet because it’s you’ I said.

He gave me a look.

I smiled. ‘You could have just told me how you felt’

‘I could have’ He said. ‘But you don’t exactly inspire people to do things the easy way.’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘And sending an anonymous gift was the hard way?’

‘It was the silly way’ He smiled. ‘You make me do silly things.’

‘I hope that’s a compliment’ I said.

We were still standing at the door of his flat.

‘So what now?’ I asked.

‘Well’ He said ‘I have already offered you my heart and home.’

‘And?’ I prompted.

‘Annette’ He said ‘I can’t stop thinking about you. You are the most important person in the world to me.’

It felt so natural to hear him say that, as if those were the words I’d been waiting my whole life to hear.

‘I don’t want to be just friends anymore’ He continued. ‘Will you go out with me?’

I nodded. I was happy, Lola had been right, of course. I had been blind but who cared? Not when Kenny was going to kiss me any moment.

‘Wait’ I said. ‘There’s one more thing. What were you doing in Ada’s flat earlier today when she was wearing that slinky silk thing and sweating.’

‘What slinky thing?’ He asked, looking nonplussed

I rolled my eyes and waited.

‘I was going to tell you about Ada’s flat but you seemed kind of sulky then’ He shrugged. ‘She’s done this huge Adam and Eve portrait of herself and her boyfriend, the ones where they have just leaves covering their you-know-whats’ He paused to take in my incredulous expression. ‘She wanted to hang it above the bed before he came around. I was her carpenter.’

‘Hmmn’ I said. ‘Very adventurous of her’

‘I agree’ he said. ‘What did you think?’

‘Nothing’ I said. Good thing he was moving away, I thought, because I didn’t trust that Ada girl an inch.

He smiled. ‘Can I kiss you now?’

‘I thought you’d never ask.’ I said.

Best. Valentine. Ever.

© 2012 by Somi Ekhasomhi. All rights reserved