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 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.’
‘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.