Her smile was blinding…
But maybe it was the morning sun in his face.
He blinked to adjust his eyesight away from the brightness and back into the beautiful gap-toothed smile that was before him. She who had the blinding smile laughed at his dilemma and stretched up like a kitten to pull the curtains close. She returned to the bed and he had her in his arms.
“Don’t go,” he pleaded. She giggled and kissed him. It was just one of her tease-kisses.
“And Udo will kill me. I didn’t go for her Igbanku. I have to go for this white wedding. And if it wasn’t because of how tied you are at the office, I would have asked you to come along.”
“No, the real reason I’m not invited for that wedding is because Udoka hates me.”
“Only because you hate her back and hate every other woman on the planet.”
He squeezed her bum underneath the covers. “Hate is a bad word, Marie. How about love? Let’s try love now.”
She giggled as he kissed her lips down to the side of her left arm, the most sensitive spot on her body. She used to tell him that if that part of her was stroked lightly non-stop, it could make her lose her mind. She said it touched somewhere in her brain that couldn’t be controlled.
And so he made her squirm in his arms uncontrollably. Marie wiggled and giggled and stopped only when he tasted her skin as he lightly nibbled a love-handle in her side. She tasted of clean sweat and sheer womanliness. He buried his face into the soft fluff of her belly which was intricately tattooed with stretchmarks. She hated the stretchmarks but they were part of her and of him as well. He loved her like that.
“Jimi?” she lifted his head to look up at her face.
“What?” Jimi put his head down again and rested his ear on her belly. He could hear her innards churning. Funny sounds.
“Have I told you how much I love you?”
He kissed the little knob that was her belly button and lifted himself up. “I would like to hear that now but not in words, Marie.”
He got to her breasts and just as he was about to make his famous move on them, a baby’s scream from the next room interrupted him.
“And she’s up,” Marie murmured. “Baby of life!” she complained and shimmied out of Jimi’s arms. “Be right back.”
She rolled off the bed, walked to the baby nursery and seconds later Jimi heard their six month old daughter giggling in response to her. Despite the fact that his morning sex was cut off, he was glad to hear such happy sounds. Marie was singing now. She had the most amazing voice; it made him feel like the luckiest man.
Everyone knew about his bizarre dislike for women. His friends had concluded he was going to end up gay, a priest or marrying the ugliest woman in the world but Marie came and changed all that. At first, he treated her like he did the rest, shying away from her as if she was the Bubonic plague. But his phobia for her died the first day she held his hand. He was scared that they were going to be stuck together, his hand glued to hers. Yet when she tried to pull away, he held her tight.
Marie was enchanting.
She had a noticeable gap-tooth and there was that tiny mole on her nose like a stud earring. It was another thing she didn’t like about herself because she felt her nose was big enough and didn’t need any more attention but to Jimi she was all allure without the nastiness beautiful women were known by. Their love was cocooned and untouchable even by his hatred for her species. While he stayed away as much as he could from every other woman, his love for her grew each day. She was the only woman in his life – well, apart from his mother and sisters.
Jimi got off the bed. He still wanted Marie but she was taking longer than usual with her breastfeeding. He walked out of the room to the nursery to peep on mother and daughter and saw Marie in a conversation with someone on the phone. She looked stressed to the point of crying. Only Udoka could put her in that state. Jimi disliked Udoka. To him, she was another daughter of Eve who thought using men the way she felt like was her God-given right on earth. She and Jimi never hit it off (not that he had ever hit it off with any of them); especially since she found out that she couldn’t push him around as she did her fiancé. Jimi endured her because of Marie.
“I will be there na. I gave my promise, sweetie.”
Marie looked at Jimi and smiled as she tried to end her call. “I’ll be on my way. Akure is just four hours away na. Okay, see ya!”
She rolled her eyes and dropped her phone. “Udoka and her stress.”
Jimi strolled to his daughter’s cot. She was playing with a rattle but her eyes lit up when she saw him.
“You think she recognizes me?” he asked Marie.
“Yes Jimi, she does.” Marie was taking off the spaghetti top she had on which was stained with breastmilk. She peeped into the cot. “Kiki knows and loves her daddy.”
“I’m hardly home on time.” Jimi said in apology to Marie.
“It’s okay, baby.” She rubbed his back gently as she hurried out. “Terdoo!” She called the housemaid. “Come baf dis pikin o!”
“I’m sorry for being away so much, Ki.” Jimi tickled his daughter’s cheek. “But I’ll try to make it up to you, soon. I promise, okay?”
Kiki gurgled and continued with her rattle. Terdoo, the housemaid, almost bumped into him on her way in. She curtsied in apology and moved away. Jimi kept his eyes away from her. Looking at females other than the ones in his family was still a big issue for him, despite the fact that he was seeing a therapist for his predicament…or phobia, as he was told.
Gynophobia was the general term used for people like him but his was beyond the general type. He found the company of beautiful women, in particular, nauseating. Caligynephobia it was called.
Getting hitched to Marie seemed to have helped his situation a little in the initial stages but after a while he relapsed. At work, he stayed in his office the whole nine to five, every single day. He usually took a back entrance in, created for that specific reason, and he left work after everyone was gone, which was the major explanation for why Kiki hardly saw him. At the office they dubbed him The Phantom but it was a good sub for him. He was the boss and it was important that he was a specter to them. On the rare occasion when he came out for board meetings, the whole office slowed down as females stopped whatever they were doing to gawk at him as he walked by.
At home, he stayed in all day. His social life was dead and his friends had given up on him entirely. When he had gotten married to Marie two years ago, they found it hard to believe that he had ended up with a drop-dead gorgeous woman. They were certain he was playing a fast one. They waited for the curtain to fall and reveal the sham they were certain was his marriage but when they saw them moving past the first year and into the second and even with the birth of Kikelomo, they gave up and accepted that Jimi had been finally broken. From that time, Marie was awarded a high level of respect in their midst, mostly because they held that she was jazzing him. He didn’t mind. Marie had a special magic on him that locked him in her forever.
Marie was calling him in that exceptional voice that only meant one thing. He felt his heart race. It wasn’t excitement; it was fear. The same fear that always held him whenever an attractive woman looked his way or called his attention. Even with all the time he had spent with Marie, it was still a struggle for him. He took a deep breath and counted one to ten as his therapist taught him. After the count, he walked into the bedroom. Marie was kneeling on the bed, nude. She called him forward with her forefinger and he felt the racing heart again. This happened on a daily and his breathing exercises plus other therapeutic tricks to help up his confidence always worked.
Marie leaped into his arms and pushed him to the bed.
“My treat,” she said and sat on him. He wore his sunshades. He couldn’t look into her eyes for long.
She was in control. He was her slave and he let her do as she pleased. But halfway, she stopped and began to cry. He took off his shades. She had never cried during sex before. He was worried.
“What’s wrong, Marie?”
“I love you,” she said. “I want you to always know that.”
“Okay. I’ll try not to forget.” He laughed lightly. “Is that why you’re crying?”
She nodded. “Just…love me like this was your last day on earth.”
“With all pleasure.” He sat up and without break, switched places.
“Mmmm…smooth,” she smiled but a tear slid to the side of her face. She shut her eyes and cried some more as he complied with her wish.
He went to work late that day, right after he made sure she was safely tucked behind her seatbelt, ready for her journey to Akure.
“I still don’t think you should drive alone,” he had reiterated to her.
“Bukky is coming with me.”
“Okay. Ehm…no overtaking without making sure a car is not coming on the opposite lane.”
“Your limit should be eighty kilometers.”
She laughed. “Haba. You want me to reach there next year?”
“If any tire bursts, don’t step on the brakes.”
“And don’t ignore anything your dashboard is telling you, okay? Read all the regulators and meters.”
“Okay, sir. May I go now?”
“I already prayed but you’ll get there safely Insha’Allah.”
She beamed into his eyes and he looked away shyly. It still didn’t stop him from kissing her.
“I have given Terdoo all the instructions for Kiki. But I left a copy on the dresser. I love you, baby daddy!”
“Come back first thing Sunday morning o.”
He blew her a kiss. She keyed the engine and drove away from the house. Jimi stood until her car disappeared from his view. He didn’t feel right about her journey.
Jimi was restless at work, unable to concentrate for most of the morning. When he was sure Marie had arrived Akure, he called her phone and she answered.
“I’m here, alive and safe, so you better stop worrying.”
He was a bit relieved. “Okay, have fun and ping me with enough pictures o.”
“Marie?” his voice waned a little.
“Missing you already.”
“Me too but it’s just two days na.”
He was silent.
“Marie, you there?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here.”
“I just have this bad feeling…”
He wanted to explain what he meant but his secretary walked in. She was an old woman, almost as old as his mother and she fumbled and frowned a lot. Jimi was planning to fire her and hire a young guy instead.
“Everything’s fine,” Marie whispered in his ear. “I have to go. Talk to you later.”
She hung up and he faced his secretary who dropped in to tell him he had guests waiting.
His day went by in a slow, busy wind and he didn’t have time to call Marie back, though he constantly expected to see the blinking, red light on his phone indicating she was pinging him. But he saw nothing all day. Finally, work came to a close and he left quite early to spend the time with Kiki. He was glad when he got home and found her awake. They had a good father and daughter time until she fell asleep in his arms and he passed her on to Terdoo. He put off calling Marie till later in the night when he was sure she would be resting from all the excitement of Udoka’s bachelorette party. He had a shower and settled in to watch the news while having dinner and that was when he heard his phone come alive with Marie’s ringtone.
He went for it.
There was a short pause.
“Hello? Good evening.” The voice belonged to a male.
“Are you the husband to the woman who owns this phone?”
“Yes? Where is she?”
“I am sorry sir. She was involved in an accident and has been rushed to the hospital. We would like you to come immediately…”
Jimi didn’t hear anything that was said after that. He merely kept nodding in a daze. The caller was smart enough to text the address to him. Jimi called his best friend, Kaseem, who drove him to Akure. He was still not lucid when they got out of the car and walked into the hospital. Kaseem got all the information they needed and Jimi saw himself being led out of the emergency entrance to another part of the hospital. He didn’t mind the distance as long as he was going to be with Marie again. He was so lost in his haze that he didn’t see the huge sign above the large double doors they came to that read MORTUARY.
He walked in blindly and then it felt as if someone slapped him back to life and he became aware of his milieu. The temperature of the room they were in was cold. It was a small, empty room with a sleeping attendant at his desk who sprang up when they walked in. Kaseem talked to him and he led them to an inner room. It was larger and had stainless steel tables, refrigerators and floor coverings that extended up to half the walls.
“Wh-what are we doing here, Kas?” Jimi turned to Kaseem but Kaseem just followed the attendant further in. On one of the tables at the end lay something covered in a white cloth stained with blood. It didn’t look like a human corpse even though Jimi suspected it was. The attendant stopped and urged them forward.
Jimi couldn’t move.
“Tha’s not…that’s… That’s not Marie…”
Kaseem looked at him. “Jimi…”
He shook his head. “It’s not my wife. No. Let’s go.”
Kaseem came back to him and held his shoulders, looking straight into his eyes.
“Jimi, Marie was crushed by a trailer as she was crossing a street. I’m sorry, man. She didn’t make it. She’s gone. I am so sorry.”
Jimi pushed Kaseem’s hands away and moved towards the table, one unhurried step at a time. He could feel every part of his body coming to a convulsion but he pressed on until his hands were resting on the cold, steel edge of the table.
He couldn’t lift the cloth. He nodded at the attendant to do so and he did, very fast.
And what Jimi saw…or did not see of Marie’s remains sent a poisoned arrow to his heart. He heard someone scream in agony and didn’t realize the sound came from him until he was taken over by uncontainable sobs. He backed away from the jumble of bones and flesh on the table and was almost toppling medical apparatus on a counter behind him.
Kaseem put a hand on him. In his tears Jimi managed to tell him to take out Marie’s wedding ring to see if it had a certain engraving. Kaseem did, with the help of the attendant, and confirmed the engraving. It was Marie. She was really dead.
That day Jimi’s world collapsed.
He was dead. He walked around like a zombie. Life around him also departed, floating by in hues of grey and rust-brown, during which time he evaluated his mortality and came to the conclusion that he also did not deserve to live. The only reason he remained was because he was too much of a coward to kill himself. He went through irrepressible grief as months dragged by and when he finally came to the point of acceptance where he knew he had to close the door and at last recognize that Marie was gone forever, six months had passed. He was in isolation in his father’s old house in Jos and had not seen Kiki during the time. The room he slept in was a shrine dedicated to Marie that had most of her belongings and pictures. He was going insane and he knew it but felt it was his right to be allowed his madness no matter how long it lasted. It didn’t last forever, though. His mom visited and had a serious talk with him.
“You have to move on, Olujimi. Kiki cannot grow up without you. Her mother is gone but you’re still here and she needs to know that she’s not alone.”
“I am not ready, mom. Besides, Kiki is the exact replica of Marie. How do I look into her face every day knowing I’m looking back into Marie’s?”
“It’s Allah’s blessing to you. It means Marie is not gone forever. Son, you have no choice but to go back.” She picked out the words in slow bits to emphasize every point. “Pack your bag. We leave tomorrow morning.”
Her voice carried that final note Jimi couldn’t go against but the love in her eyes was unmistakable. For her sake and Kiki’s he was going back to the place where he was certain he would feel Marie’s loss more. He was not so scared, though. He wanted to hold on to her for as long as he could.
There was a quiet dinner organized by his sisters for him when he arrived home. It was bittersweet as he sat at the table Marie always insisted that they have their meals. It felt somewhat calming to be back and good to be accepted by Kiki who opened up her arms for him with an endearing hug. She didn’t remember him but she let him hold her. She was Marie personified in character with all the love and cuddliness. He was also relieved to find that Terdoo was still there. For the first time, he dared look into her face and saw that she was a withdrawn, beautiful lady with wise eyes. She loved his family as much as she loved hers and he knew he owed her a lot for all the sacrifice she put in to care for Kiki.
After the dinner, he retired to his bedroom which he had not seen in six months. In keeping with his instructions, no one moved a thing out of it. When he walked in, he half-expected the overbearing presence of grief to engulf him but what he felt was strange peace and the fruity smell of Marie’s perfume. It still hung in the air, her essence confined. He went to sleep that night without pain. Marie was finally resting in peace and so was his heart. The aching, he knew, would always be there but for the moment, he was not burdened by sorrow.
He used the subsequent days to accommodate his new life outside Marie, spending most mornings making important phone calls to get him the job of his dreams. He still had the position of his old job waiting for him since it was a family business but he wanted to do away with everything that would put him back into the life he used to know. A couple of evenings had him driving into town to places cursed with traffic so that he could get stuck on the streets just to enjoy the feeling of being lost and to cry alone; other times, he would just sit in and watch some boring football match or foreign news.
On one of those evenings when he picked the news, fate came visiting without warning just as it did on the day Marie died. Jimi was watching a sponsored piece on tourism in Cyprus. The location was Nissi Beach, one of their famous spots. He felt bad watching the report because Marie had always wanted to holiday there but his work had not allowed them.
As the reporter walked the length of the beach, asking a tour guide questions, Jimi followed their conversation out of boredom. They stopped at some point where a group of people, couples mostly, were relaxing on loungers under canopies. Jimi was marveling at the clear blue of the sea when the silhouette of a woman caught his eyes. She was dressed in a turquoise blue, short-sleeved dashiki and a pair of shorts and she was staring into the sea as gentle breeze blew into her springy Bohemian hair. There was scar on her left elbow that drew him closer to the screen and he leaned all out to have a clearer look at her.
Jimi’s heart began to beat really fast and he felt his head pulsing in apprehension as the woman in a slowed motion turned to her side and smiled at someone he couldn’t see. The world stopped moving for him at that instant because the woman smiling was none other than his Marie.
She did a full turn and stretched out her hand to the person she was smiling at – a young guy about his age with the body of a runway model. But it wasn’t the presence of the man that unnerved him. It was the bulge Marie was carrying. She was pregnant. And to add to his pain, he saw a gold ring on her wedding finger.
Jimi shot up from his bed. He suspected he was seeing things. It couldn’t be Marie. Marie was dead and buried! Who was this woman impersonating her?
Thank God for a PVR decoder. He got the remote control and rewound back to the moment she turned her face to smile at the guy. The mole on her nose was there and the gap-tooth was clearly identifiable. Unless she had a twin with the exact features, that was certainly Marie. Jimi pressed the rewind button over and over and over again until the screen froze at the point where she stretched out her hand to the guy.
There was a riot of emotions in him—anger, pain, confusion, denial, sadness, dejectedness—and he could hardly breathe.
A knock came to his bedroom door and Terdoo walked in. She curtsied.
“Uncle, good evening.” She stared at the TV screen. “Uncle I have something to tell you.”
Jimi threw a frosty look at her from her head to her toes as if she was a stranger. He took note of the delicate curve of her form and the dark, introverted beauty on her face and all of that combined together gave him an immediate feeling of nausea and edginess upon his already teed off mood. Without thought, he let out the first words he found on his lips.
“Get the hell out of my room and my house right now! You’re fired!”
He didn’t care what Terdoo’s reaction was, he just wanted her out of his sight, but when he realized she was still standing there, he shouted the more.
“Are you deaf?! GET THE HELL OUT!”
Terdoo retreated calmly and Jimi slammed the door after her. When he turned back to the TV screen, he found it had unfrozen and Marie was gone.
At this point, He was enraged and out of control. With one full force, he grabbed the television, wrenched it off the wall and hurled it to the ground.
He picked his car key. He had no destination. He only wanted to be away from everything that reminded him of Marie. He had been a fool to trust in a woman and have her fail him. His hands trembled as he grabbed the door handle and pulled the door open. He stopped when he saw Terdoo standing before him. His head immediately went down.
“I thought I told you to leave.”
“I was watching the report on Cyprus on CNN just as you were…”
Jimi couldn’t believe he was hearing the same Terdoo that had worked for him for almost three years speak articulate English. She had always conversed with Marie in pidjin.
“I can help you find your wife. Just…don’t send me away, please. I have a son who relies on me. Without this job he won’t go to school.”
Jimi’s anger made an immediate withdrawal from the exterior and into his insides, simmering in his heart in silence.
“Get out of my way,” he said as he walked past her. “And pack your things tonight.”