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How could anybody not love her? She was enchanting at first sight and got even more endearing when one spent more time with her. Her humble nature and depth made it hard for Toni not to be infected. She was officially Lade-stricken, now understanding why Manny was obsessed with the young actress.
They both had feared she would lose her mind after the surgery. Manny was certain the shock and pain of infertility would scar her. However, Lade took the news bravely. She cried but only for a short moment. Clutching Manny’s hand, she gave a heartbreaking speech.
“I just want to say I’m relieved that babies are not dying in my care again.” She laughed while everyone in the room tried hard not to tear up. “You guys don’t know how much that killed me every time. It made me feel like I could never be a good mother. To me, I’d rather lose my uterus a hundred times than lose another baby. But now I don’t have that hanging over my head. I’m actually relieved.”
Toni was astonished.
“God has allowed it and I can’t fight him. It’s just to thank him that at least my own life was spared. I saw death but he brought me back. I thank God.”
Toni left the ward, sought the comfort of the nearest restroom to expel her emotions through the help of a stick of cigarette not minding that she was in a hospital. It was there she decided to adopt Lade as her own. She had siblings she grew up with but Lade, in just one night, affected her in a way no other person had. When the doctors discharged her two days later, Toni insisted on taking her home. Manny didn’t argue but begged that she be cared for. Toni gave her word.
She brought her home and accommodated her in her own bedroom even though there was a spare one. Over the ensuing days, they spent quality time with each other; her and Leticia spoiling the 26-year-old.
Today being Saturday, they stayed in and watched a couple of TV series. When the power went out, Toni painted Lade’s nails, made her up and took photos of her. Subsequently, she helped her with the lines for her first feature movie.
“You’re excited, aren’t you?” Toni stopped midway, dipping her hand in a bowl of salted water containing grapes. There was something about the sweet and sour taste of the grapes that merged well with the salt. It left an explosion in her mouth.
“Actually, I’m scared. I’ve never been on screen before.”
“I saved some videos from Youtube so you can experience what it feels like to be on a movie set. We can watch them later?”
“Sure. Thank you,” Lade said shyly.
Toni wished she would stop thanking her. Having heard all that Tayo had done, she felt she owed Lade. She was going to do her best to see that she turned out great. Lade was a superb actress – awesome at macro expressions and excellent with interpreting roles. She always amazed Toni when she switched from shy girl mode to a completely different person in a matter of seconds when going through her lines.
Toni saw a star. A rare breed. Tayo was a fool for trying to stop her dreams.
“Aunty Toni?” Lade called.
Toni gave her a reprimanding stare. She had told her countless times to refer to her as Toni alone but Lade would not dare. There was a seven-year gap between them but other than that, she was her husband’s elder sister. It was improper to address her by her first name.
“What did Mommy’s nurse say when you called earlier?” Lade asked.
“She said she’ll be strong enough to Skype with us this evening.”
Lade lit up. “Finally!”
Toni nodded and smiled. She was even more excited than Lade but didn’t show it. Joyce had been on chemotherapy and unable to communicate with anyone for a while. It would be Toni’s first meeting with her. All through the day she had been having bouts of excitement she couldn’t show anyone.
“Mommy will be so happy to see you,” Lade said. “After thirty-three years.”
“Yeah.” Toni rose up abruptly. She didn’t want to continue with the conversation.
“Are you going? We’ve not finished with the script.”
“I want to turn on the gen. It’s getting dark.”
Toni hurried outside. She saw her gateman sitting in front of his post and instructed him to turn on the generator. When she came back in, Leticia was with Lade, working on the script together. Toni let them alone and went online to concentrate on some office work.
She hadn’t gone quite some minutes when she heard someone knocking. She went to the door and looked through the peephole. It revealed a face that wasn’t familiar but when she opened the door and got a clearer view of the man standing before her, a frown fell on her face.
“Good evening,” he greeted.
“How may I help you?”
“I’m here to see Omolade. My name is Tayo. I’m her husband.”
“Omolade,” Toni repeated slowly. “Are you sure you have the right address?”
“Yes.” Tayo stared at his phone screen. “She sent me a text to this address, number 67B…?”
“It is. Come in.”
Toni stepped aside to let him in, allowing her eyes take in his form. She offered him a seat and took another directly opposite him. For almost a minute she directed a strong stare at him. He looked nothing like her. None of their physical features matched. He must have acquired the looks from his biological father, the soldier. He possessed long limbs, angry brows, demure eyes and hands that were lean and smooth as though they never lifted anything heavier than a handkerchief.
Tayo moved a little in his seat.
“Sorry, is Lade in?”
“She is but I’m contemplating on whether I should let you see her or just ask you to leave.”
He frowned. “Why?”
“Did she tell you who I was?”
“She said she was staying with a friend.”
“Well, my name is Antonia Braithwaite.”
His brows arched up.
“Heard of me before?”
She watched his Adam’s apple bop up and down.
“Your silence tells me you have but somehow I was not important enough for you to come looking for. But just in case you’re still not sure who I am, I’ll introduce myself. I am the sister you never had, the one that was stolen three decades ago. Nice to meet you, baby brother.”
Tayo remained quiet.
“You can’t talk or you suddenly lost that famous vicious tongue of yours, which you’ve used on our darling Lade over the years? Say something, boy.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“That’s much better. Now, let me make things clear here. Lade is not the Lade you used to know. She has changed in many ways, and if your plan is to go in there to take her back into her past, you better leave my house right now, because if I see as little as a teardrop on her cheek, you will taste the wrath of an elder sister. So don’t fuck with me. Go in there and be a gentleman and fix all your screw-ups or I’ll help you fix them. Am I understood?”
Tayo gave no reply.
“Am I understood?”
“By the way, where were you when she was in the hospital and we were all trying to reach you but couldn’t?”
“Really, it’s none of your business.”
“It is, Tayo. From the moment Lade came into my life, you and the bullshit that surrounds you became my business. So where were you when your wife was dying?”
“I traveled for my father’s funeral.”
For a second, Toni froze. She moved to the edge of her seat.
“Your father or mine?”
“My biological father. I’m sure you know the story since you seem to know everything about me.”
“Yes. He’s…dead. Dapo and I went for his burial. You know about Dapo too, right?”
“I do.” Her tone went low. “Tayo, I’m sorry to hear about your loss. Does Mommy know?”
Tayo shook his head.
“Please don’t tell her until she gets better.”
“Better?” Tayo’s angry brows turned angrier as he brought them together. “She’s sick?”
“You had no idea?”
Tayo shook his head again.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“It’s not in my place to tell you.”
“But you just said my life is your business.”
“Tayo, you should speak to her yourself and let her tell you. She kept it from you for a reason.”
He stood up, his face turning cold. “Please, where is Lade?”
Toni pointed at her bedroom door. As he made to turn, she stopped him.
“He’s still with our dad’s family. He was close to him.”
“And you were not?”
Tayo ignored the question and aimed for her bedroom. A short while after, Leticia came out.
“That’s your brother?” she asked.
“Aww. He doesn’t look as bad as the stories we heard.”
“You’ve forgotten that monsters come with the cutest faces?”
“So how was it when he walked in? Were you emotional? Was he?”
Toni crossed her arms and sat on an armrest of the couch beside her. “I don’t know. He’s so cold.”
“At least two of you have something in common.”
“In all fairness, I’ve been tragically vanilla these past few days.”
“Deceive yourself. Once Lade is up and doing your horns will grow back. Shebi you’re still refusing to call Andre.”
“How did we jump into that topic just like that?”
“Have you called him?”
“I’m supposed to call him? Dude turned me down in the most embarrassing way. He owes me a call and apology. In his mind his dick is the staff of life and he’s starving me to death.”
“More like rod of correction. If only God will bless me with that type of man.”
“And what type is that?”
“The type that doesn’t want pussy all the time.”
“Oh, Andre wants it, alright. Just for himself.” She snorted.
“I don’t share ma chatte,” Toni said, mimicking Andre’s French accent.
“Babe, me, you and the world of hoes know that a good man does not share his woman.”
“I’ve told you to stop including me in your world of hoes. But let me correct the travesty in your statement. I am not Andre’s woman, and even if we had something going on, I hold the rights to my box. Men like him annoy me. You date them and they start telling you at what time your legs should open and close. And no, having a man’s ring on my fourth finger still does not give him that right.”
Leticia sighed. “E don do. Don’t go all feminist on me abeg.”
“I wasn’t going femin… Just forget it.”
“You’re now annoyed.”
“I am not.”
“He does that to you. Andre – he gets you all worked up all the time.”
“Tish, you’re sooo annoying. You’re the one getting me all worked up. And by the way, how different am I from the new you? You’re the one moaning up and down about being celibate from now on.”
Leticia sat down and Toni regretted steering the conversation in her direction. She was still sore about Izu, especially since gist hit her ears that his wife was in town.
“Tish,” she put her arm around her, “you’ll find the right guy soon. And I don’t mean Nnamdi, whom I think you should call and break up with before he flies in and your family starts making wedding preparations.”
“I’ll call him.”
Toni rested her chin on her head. “You’ll be fine, baby girl.”
Folarin had offered to babysit the Asepita kids for the whole day. He helped pick them up from Comfort’s home while Salma spent the day glamming up and shopping. It had been Folarin’s idea. He told her she needed some R&R time to appreciate herself and let go of bad toxins. When she asked him about himself and how he was coping, he told her he was fine.
They were standing in Ahmed’s large, spotlessly-white kitchen when he answered her. She noticed wrinkles by the sides of his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Just like her, he was tired and wanted the whole drama to end. They both expressed relief that at last all would be exposed.
He gave her a hug and rocked her, rubbing her back gently, almost making her cry. It wasn’t until after he let go that she realized he hadn’t been comforting her but himself. She wanted to hug the broken man in him once more but he had walked out of the house and left her with Ahmed.
Ahmed entered the kitchen and stood quite a distance as though he was a stranger. This was his usual manner and she was quite used to it now. He was respectful, never crossing his boundaries with her although his eyes told a different story sometimes. She could see warmth in them when he looked at her and on his face contained affection.
“Thank you for accommodating me, Ahmed. I wish I could stay here longer.”
“It’s my pleasure. And I too wish you could stay longer.”
She let his eyes caress hers. She didn’t look away.
“So you’re going back home?” he asked.
“To fix things with him?”
Salma bit into her lower lip. It was a hard question. She still loved Raji despite all, and leaving him would be hard on her and the kids, but she was going to continue on the path of divorce. Living in a one-sided marriage was worse than living apart.
“I have no desire to keep being his wife, Ahmed. He will keep cheating on me and I don’t want the children to grow up in that type of environment. What will I be teaching my girls? That it’s okay to be with a cheating husband? And my son? What picture of fatherhood will he have?”
“Salient points there.”
Salma went for a drink of cold water.
“You know why I’m asking these things, right?” Ahmed questioned.
Salma knew. Folarin had communicated Ahmed’s growing feelings for her. Salma liked him too but not in that way. She wasn’t sure she could trust another man with her heart too soon.
“Why are you asking them?”
“Because I think you’re a wonderful woman, Salma, and I would like to keep open this line of communication with you even when we’re apart. But I don’t want to be a reason your marriage breaks up.”
“Trust me, Raji’s wandering penis is the only reason our marriage is breaking up.”
“So, I can send texts, call you once in a while?”
“That would be great.”
Salma grinned. “I have to go,” she announced.
“Thank you for staying and keeping me company.”
“Thank you for having me.”
They stood before each other awkwardly. She suspected that since he was a devout Muslim, he restricted himself from physical contact with females but he surprised her when he took her hand in a gentlemanly gesture and kissed it.
But he stopped there, and politely pointed the way out for her, following behind. Then she remembered something someone told her a while ago about men letting women walk ahead while they followed behind. It wasn’t always an act of chivalry; sometimes they just wanted to have a good view of the woman’s backside.
She relayed this to Folarin when she went to get the kids. He laughed.
“You think Ahmed was checking out my ass?”
Folarin laughed harder. “I’m so not telling you.”
“That’s a yes.”
“Just go home, madam.”
Folarin helped her carry the twins to her SUV.
“Be good. Stay calm and don’t let him piss you off,” he instructed.
Salma nodded but she knew that the chances of Raji not getting on her nerves were slim.
She drove home. The house welcomed her in with its peculiar fragrance of citrus and spice. Salma stood at the door and breathed it all in; she was trying to feel the aura of the air around her, if it still felt like home.
It didn’t. She wasn’t sure if it was real or all made up in her head but she was sure of the itchy desire to leave the kids and run.
But her better judgment prevailed and she set about cleaning the house, first sending a text to Raji to inform him that his children were back home and missing him.
Toni almost broke into a scream at the first sight of her mother. Her heart was beating so fast she was sure she heard the throbs stumbling against each other. She squeezed Tayo’s hand who was sitting beside her, and he gave her hand a stare before looking into her face.
“Hello,” Toni replied and Joyce began to weep. Toni held her breath but it was hard to keep the tears away. She joined her seconds after. Lade and Leticia were also not left out. Soon the room was heavy with weeping women.
“You are so beautiful, Arinola,” Joyce bawled. “I never thought I would ever see you again. This is the happiest day of my life.”
“How are you my luv?”
“I’m good.” Toni sniffled. Leticia handed her a tissue.
“I see you’ve met your brother.”
Toni looked at Tayo. “Yes, I have.”
“Tayo, how are you, son?”
Tayo smiled at his mother. The first real smile in years; but it was a miserable one. It was difficult to look at her and not think that some giant creature had sunk its snout into her and sucked out her health. She was barely holding herself up on the bunch of pillows set around her.
Tayo wanted to tell her he was sorry and that he missed her and that he loved her, but he was too ashamed. The same way he hadn’t been able to speak when Lade broke the news about her surgery. He hadn’t said a word but sat staring at her and wondering why was she not falling apart as he was.
She was the one who had lost her womb and her chance to ever carry her own children and yet it was he who bled inside. How could she smile about it and tell him it was God’s will? Was it also God’s will that his father died without both of them getting to know each other? Was it God’s will that his mother was now dying of cancer? Or was it just him, that everything about him was going to hell?
Lade had also told him she was leaving him, right after she broke the news of her surgery. She didn’t give him that ultimatum she gave on that night when she revealed that she was going fulltime into acting. This time, she shut all doors leading to her heart.
I’m going to live my life as an actress and you have no place in my future. You had your chance, you blew it. I’m done with you.
He hadn’t been able to plead or even utter a word. The shock of everything left him weak. All he was able to do was reach for her hand. But she let him hold it only for a short moment before she let go.
“You’re losing everything, Tayo,” she said. “Don’t you think you need to stop and think about where your life is headed?”
She had no idea that he had already stopped and thought; when his father’s family gave him the privilege to be the first to pour earth over the man’s coffin. Tayo had held the white sand in his hand and like one whose life was flashing before his eyes in his final moments, he had thought about all his mistakes and foolishness, and seen the pointlessness of his ways. Dapo told him later, that he had stood there until the small crowd at the funeral began to murmur. Only then did he open his hands and let dust return to dust.
He hadn’t been the same since then.
I’m not okay, mom. I’ve lost my wife, my marriage, my father and now I’m losing you.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had cancer, mom?” he asked.
“I didn’t think it was something anyone needed to worry themselves over,” Joyce replied. “I’ll be fine. Just pray for me…”
“I want to fly over,” he blurted. Joyce stopped speaking. Surprise showed on her frail face.
“You’d do that?”
“We will do that,” Toni answered.
“Both of you?”
“And Dapo,” Tayo added.
More tears ran down Joyce’s face. She was unable to contain herself as she began to weep again; but this time, she went into a coughing spell that was so intense they all held their breaths. Her nurse’s face popped into the screen.
“Is she okay?” Toni asked the lady.
“She’ll be fine. But I need to hang up now.”
“No,” Joyce said between coughs.
“No, Joyce. You will talk to your family tomorrow. Now, you need to rest.”
“No, mom,” Tayo insisted. “Rest. We’ll call tomorrow.”
Joyce scarcely heard him. Her cough had gotten worse. The nurse hung up and left them in sad silence. Tayo turned to Toni and saw that she had gone comatose.
“Aunty Toni?” Lade called.
She was silent.
“Toni?” Leticia repeated.
Toni stood up and walked out of the room. Leticia went after.
“Toni, your mom will be fine,” she said, stopping her.
“Maybe none of you saw it but I saw the hanky in her hand. She was coughing out blood. Tish, blood. She’s not going to be fine.”
Leticia tried to speak but Toni walked past her, picked her car key from the center table and left the house.
At first, she didn’t know where to go. She drove around a bit, crying and barely listening to her favorite radio station, which was warming up its audience for a lively night.
Then she remembered that she had Andre, who once told her that if she needed someone to talk to, he was always there.
Thus, she ferried her torn self to his house. When he came to the door, she put on a brave smile but it was quickly swamped down by tears.
“I can’t smile,” she whispered. “I’d rather have the cuddle.”
Andre drew her in and shut the door. She lost herself in his embrace.
Heartbreak to him would always be Bon Genre by Maxazria. It was the perfume she had on when she finally ended things with him.
She had let him kiss her as they both lay on the bed in his hotel suite, which could have been a love haven for both of them that weekend. But she had chosen to lodge in another hotel and visited him only after her meeting with the furniture company executives she had flown in to see.
He kissed her. She kissed back. They kissed each other until his hand found her breast.
She stopped him then, pushing back and leaving the bed. When he made to touch her, she recoiled. Then she gave him the talk. It was a long one, unlike all the others. She talked about Salma a lot and about Folarin too but said nothing about their feelings towards each other. It was as if, to her, the way he loved her meant nothing. In her long speech, she missed out the part where he adored her like she was an old shirt that came out from the wash, smelling fresh and new, yet resting on his form intimately. Or how every morning she was to him like that exhilarating, matchless moment on a rollercoaster ride for the first time where one’s heart lurches and all they want to do is to scream out.
Christie was to him an endless weekend where he woke up in the middle of every night and realized there was no work the next day and he could sleep for as long as he wanted. However to her, they both had slept too long, thus she shattered his heart without mercy. And when he threw away his pride to beg her, he saw in her eyes that she was really done with him.
“For our spouses, Raji. For the kids.”
A cold stare from her met his desperation but beneath it there was pain; and if she had stayed with him in that hotel room long enough, he could have reached in there and matched that pain with his and healed her.
But she walked out the door and never turned back.
No phone calls to or from him. No texts either. No sight of her. She was really gone.
It had been just a day without her yet it felt like his entire lifetime. He was back in Lagos where reality was waiting. Salma and the kids had returned home. Parked outside the house, he sat in his car in silence, not feeling the burning Sunday sun above him.
Christie had instructed him to go back to Salma and make things right, in the same manner she was planning to do with Folarin.
“You love Salma somewhere inside you, Raj. You have to find that place just as you found your hidden crush for me and rekindled it.”
“This is more than a crush, Christie. I love you.”
“Love does not hurt others. It does not throw away family and kids. It is not selfish. We’ve been selfish, satisfying our emotions and temporary pleasures and forgetting the ones that needed us most. I can’t continue this. And just so that we’re clear, you were not a crush either. You held me in the place where I kept that part of me that I could share with no one. You held together the secrets that wanted to pull me down without even knowing what you were doing. You took my sins and loved them the way they were. How could I have not loved you?”
“And yet you want to leave.”
“We don’t belong to each other. We must return to the people we belong to.”
So here he was, returning to Salma even though he was still lost in Christie.
Had he ever loved Salma? Yes. When there had been no obligations, no parents pushing them to be bound to each other, no promises made to each other on a signed certificate in a court registry.
Yes, he had loved her before all of that, and even after. However, it was an empty type of love that not even her striking beauty, personality or their adorable children could save when it started to wane. Still, after all this time he was attracted to her. She didn’t nauseate him. She was the perfect wife, the type his parents had groomed him to marry and endorsed for his future. She took care of his kids well. Salma, as her name meant, was a woman of peace, and he was expected to do right by her.
He pulled up enough strength and disembarked from his car. Heavy legs dragged him home. When he walked in, his children who were downstairs watching TV, ran to him with innocent excitement; and for that moment the mad world faded away.
The twins had so much to tell him about their holiday at Raheem’s. He listened as much as he could, with nods and words to show enthusiasm while inside he mused on how beautiful it would be to become a child again – knowing nothing about how unjust the world can be.
He gave them each presents he had returned with and then went upstairs to his bedroom. Upon entry, he saw that Salma was engaged in her favorite pastime of taking selfies in sexy underwear. She loved photos and preferred them either in the nude or with very little on. Her laptop was filled with folders of so many different photos of herself; he had never had the privilege of seeing any of them.
He stood by the door and watched without distracting her. He had almost forgotten how dangerously curvy she was.
But nothing of what he saw at the moment moved him. Christie was all that was on his mind.
“You’re back.” Salma turned when her camera caught a reflection of him. “Welcome.”
“Please, pass my bathrobe. It’s on the door.”
Raji picked up a blue bathrobe off the door behind him and handed it to her. After she wrapped her body in it, she announced to him that she had moved her things into one of the spare bedrooms.
“Because I want to.”
Raji saw that all the smiles she had for the camera were now replaced with iciness. He didn’t want a quarrel with her.
“If staying away from me makes you happy, fine.”
He began to take off his clothes. When his trousers hit the floor, Salma stood before him with the divorce documents.
“You can’t even let me sit down and drink water first, Sal?”
“I came back and saw that dust had gathered on them. Please sign so we can both move on.”
Raji kicked his trousers away and snatched the papers from her. As she stood before him, waiting, he ripped them into bits.
“We are not splitting, Sal. This marriage stays the way it is. You wanted us to be this way; you worked your ass off to get me to marry you. You have what you want. Enjoy it.”
Raji stormed into the bathroom and left Salma flabbergasted.
“I worked my ass off to marry you, Raji? That’s the story now? You’ve forgotten that you put an engagement ring on my finger and left me hanging for two good years, chasing away every single man that came near me?! Or how you told me to leave my family and abandon law school, just to come and live with you in Lagos?! And then you made me a housewife, sleeping with me and making me cook and clean for you?! You’ve forgotten?!”
“I told you to give me time!” Raji wheeled back. “I was planning something huge for us! I begged you but no, you went to my mom and told her God-knows-what and we were both shoved into this madness!”
“She invited me to stay with her! Mommy came to the house and saw me there and told me it was wrong to live with you without marriage! She invited me to live in the family house! I didn’t go to her!”
Raji saw the pain in Salma’s eyes but chose to ignore it.
“So this is what your cheating on me has been all about? You think I forced myself on you? That I was so desperate to marry you that I went behind your back to meet your parents?! This has been your conclusion all along?!”
Raji didn’t have a response.
“Then let me go.” Her voice dropped low.
“Salma, no. What happens to the kids if we split?”
“They’ll cope. They won’t be the first to go through a broken home.”
“And we won’t be the first couple either. I think we can both manage this like adults until they are old enough. Right now, they are still too young to have us live apart. Feel free to engage in an extramarital affair. I don’t care as long as you don’t bring your shit home.”
Salma spat on the floor. “You’re nauseating.”
“Salma, let’s be honest with each other here. The love is dead. We both tried but…” he shook his head. “It’s gone.”
Salma kept a brave face. “I know.”
“So the best we can do is manage.”
“The only reason you want to manage is because you can’t have the woman you’re sleeping with right now, isn’t it? I’m all you have at the end of the day, so you want to still keep me – to cook your food, to uphold your image, to impress your parents and to screw whenever you feel like. Abi? But that’s not going to happen because we’re done, Raji. It is over.”
“Good luck divorcing me, then.”
Raji returned to the bathroom and slammed the door. Salma cringed. She fought for control as she felt herself falling apart. He was winning, as usual. Hurting her, making her bleed, breaking her heart and yet, carrying on pompously as one might expect. But for the first time in a long while, she was tired of sitting down and being pooped on. There was only one weapon left in her arsenal and with it, she barged into the bathroom where he was having a shower.
“I have evidence of your cheating,” she revealed. “And what’s sweeter is how things are going to get really ugly for you from the moment I let it out.”
Raji turned in her direction, his face lathered with soap. “Salma, please leave.”
“I know you’re cheating on me with Christie. Folarin knows it too.”
Raji halted. Salma smiled.
“While you’re there thinking of how to escape the beating Folarin will give you, I’ll get another copy of the divorce papers. And please, be prepared. I’ll take everything from you, Raji. I didn’t study law for nothing.”
Salma spun around, her pulse racing fast. She didn’t feel victorious or cheerier. What she felt was more of anger, the initial emotion she had pushed aside to accept shame and pity. Now, she was over all of that and was ready to kick his ass. And Christie’s.