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She saw his Facebook friend request on Christmas Day while she was in bed, smoking a cigarette, wondering what she would have for breakfast.
“Andre Fabrice Kouassi,” she read out, the names came out in a slow burr. She liked the way they sounded on her tongue. She repeated them, and without a second thought, accepted his friend request. Straightaway she checked his profile and photos.
She found that he studied marketing in one of the universities in the western part of Nigeria, did his high school in France and his present occupation was ‘Self Employed’.
She laughed. Everybody on Facebook was self-employed.
He had just a few photos. Not more than ten or so. His relationship status revealed that he was single and interested in women.
There was nothing more of interest to see. She went back to his timeline. Nothing there, either. Just a recent post an hour before. It simply read: “Lonely Christmas.”
Weirdly, he got close to two hundred likes and a good number of comments from a few Nigerians and others whom she guessed were Ivoirians.
She scrolled further down his timeline until the feed led to a dead end. She put her phone down, stubbed her cigarette in an ashtray and stretched out on her bed, yawning.
In the next room, Leticia was with her ex. Some guy who had nothing to offer, but what he had in his pants. Toni was sure the sex wasn’t great, although Leticia always moaned like he was the best she ever had. Just like she was doing now.
Toni left her bed and went for breakfast in the kitchen. She whipped up her daily skincare smoothie and a bowl of cornflakes, and replying her troubled fans’ emails, she sat to eat.
Leticia joined her shortly. Naked and sweaty.
The weather was cold.
“Merry Christmas, baby.”
She hugged Toni, pressing her breasts into her back. Toni shifted.
“Eww! Half of the sweat on you is not yours. Go away!”
But Leticia lingered until Toni, bullied, passed over her half-consumed bowl of cereal. Leticia chugged it down and made another.
“So, what are you doing today? Sly taking you out?”
Toni hissed. “I dumped him last night after a long phone call. I’m sure he’s somewhere in Badagry with his wife now.”
“He still refused to tell you why he drugged you?”
“He refused. I told him I couldn’t continue anymore. He begged, though.”
Leticia sat on the counter, not caring for the disapproval in Toni’s eyes. “How about Andre?”
Toni’s face returned to normal. “What about him?”
“You like him.”
“Says me just because he is juicy. You cannot not like all of that sexiness we saw yesterday.”
Toni shook her head. Andre was neither juicy nor sexy. He was rugged, the way African men were built. Muscular in an I-didn’t-work-out-but-I-slave-under-the-blazing-sun kind of way. Nothing hot about that.
“And his hair…”
She didn’t remember noticing anything special about his hair, if it was short, grown or in dreads.
“Why don’t you just go for him, Tish?”
“He doesn’t like me. It was you I remember him staring at even though my ass was all up in his face.”
Toni chose to kill the conversation as she got busy balancing a couple of cornflakes on Leticia’s nipples. It was one of her favorite past times. She had hung all sorts of things on the pair.
“You’re turning me on, madam.”
Toni smiled. Leticia always said those exact words. “Stay still.”
Toni carefully removed her hands and admired her work before taking out her phone to get a snapshot. She had a special folder for the nipples, which she dubbed Tishtits. They were long and rosy.
“If the guy likes you, which I know he does, please Toni, break your rules of not dating single guys and just have him in your life for the shags. Your sugar daddies haven’t satisfied you in years.”
True that. But not like Toni bothered. She wasn’t a sexual person. As a professional mistress, one had to get sexual pleasure off their treasured list or simply just find a sex buddy on the side.
“And it’s not like you masturbate, either.” Leticia shook her head, scooping out the last bit of cereal from the bowl. “Sometimes you’re just a contradiction of yourself. You give amazing sex advice on your blog and yet you haven’t had an orgasm or a real man in years.”
“I’ve had real men, Tish.”
“Toni, the size of a man’s pocket does not define him.”
Toni smirked. They were about to fall into their oldest argument, which could lead them into a quarrel. She was not in the mood for that.
“Try something different this Christmas, Toni. Try single, sexy and young. You need it.”
Leticia dumped the dish in the sink. She jumped off the counter. The cornflakes remained on her nipples.
She left the kitchen. Toni took a napkin and wiped off the spot she had sat on and went back online. Several minutes well ahead, after Leticia’s ex had gone, she entered her bathroom for a relaxing bath. Leticia joined her in the tub, uninvited.
“Do you understand the meaning of alone time, Tish?”
“I want to have one now.”
“You need company. I’ve come to beg you not to let this Christmas be like the others, Toni. You can’t be lonely again this year.”
Toni fixed her eyes on the foamy surface that covered both of them, forcing her mind not to dwell on Leticia’s words. Being the other woman was not always as fun as she liked to make people believe. It came with a lot of loneliness. Many nights she slept alone; holidays were always unbearable. No married man would leave his family for his mistress during such periods. Although there was that occasion where a certain sugar daddy had her in the same plane with his family to Hawaii and booked her in the same hotel they lodged in. They eventually got caught by the man’s sister who promised not to tell, but forced Toni to leave. It was one of the silliest things she ever did. Toni had promised herself never to let loneliness push her into such stupid acts again.
“If you don’t call Andre or one of the numerous guys dying for you, I’ll go and buy a strap-on, tie you on your bed, make you my sex slave for three days and make sweet love to you.”
Toni gave Leticia a harsh stare that had her laughing hard, but she was stopped abruptly by a splash of soapy water in her face. Toni kept a straight expression as she watched Leticia gasp and cough. When the moment passed they settled for some office gossip that lasted as long as the steamy water. The moment it turned cold, Leticia left. Toni remained, changed the water and had a proper bath. By the time she got out, Leticia was all dressed for a date with some guy Toni didn’t know.
“I’ll be back for dinner and I’ll grab you to a house party down the street.”
Toni shoved a pack of condoms into her handbag before enduring a forehead kiss from her. The front door slammed hard at her exit and Toni stared at it with a mix of lonesomeness and relief. She had the house all to herself but felt lonely.
She pondered on her options. She could:
Swallow her pride and call Sylvester
Call one of the many guys that promised to give her a fun time this Christmas
Stay in and work on her dissertation.
She chose the last option, walking back to her bedroom to get her laptop and books. She couldn’t wait to finish her PhD in media and communication. She had been at it for five years at the University of Leicester, as a distant learning student. The hardest part was having to lecture for three months. She was glad to be over that. Her dissertation was the next hurdle. How was she to do it all alone?
She sat on a sofa and began studying. Her phone, nearby, rang. She saw it was her dad calling. She ignored it. It rang out. A few minutes later, her mom’s call came through. She ignored it too.
Several minutes passed and the phone went up again. Toni darted her eyes to have a look. It was neither of her parents. Rather, the name Andre French Guy popped up on the True Caller window. Toni dropped her pen and picked the phone. She hesitated before answering.
“Merry Christmas, Antonia.”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Andre. You didn’t store my number?”
“No. Hi Andre.”
He sounded cheerful. She wondered why, considering how their last conversation went.
“So, at what time will you be ready for me to come pick you up?”
Toni’s face turned sour. “Excuse me?”
“You said you’d be ready in two hours. I’m just calling to confirm.”
“Sorry, are you sure you know who you’re talking to? It’s Antonia Braithwaite on the line.”
“Yes, Antonia. I know it’s you.”
“Okay? So what are you talking about?”
Toni pulled back. Na wa for this guy o. His liver is growing by the second.
“Em…see, Andre…I hate to do this to you but seriously, don’t call me again. That I accepted your friend request on Facebook doesn’t give you the right to cross your boundaries with me. Please, respect yourself and don’t call me again.”
And with that she hung up. She hissed. She hated stalkers. Unfortunately, she had many of them in her life. Good reason she couldn’t entertain another one. She planned to deal with Andre later on. Right now, there was research to do. She dumped her laptop on her thighs, but a notification sound on her phone distracted her. She picked the device to turn off her data and was not surprised to see that there was a message from Andre on Facebook.
Typical stalker moves. She was sure his message had to do with expressing his hurt at the way she addressed him. She tapped on the notification and it led her to Facebook.
Nice one, Antonia. What was the plan? You being all friendly on here just so I’ll call and you’ll be rude to me on the phone? You derive pleasure from that I guess. Sorry, I intruded. Will never happen again.
Toni’s first reaction was indignation, but then she saw that she had actually had a long conversation with him in her inbox, in which she played all sweet and agreed to go on a date with him, even giving out her address.
“Leticia!” she screamed. “I’ll kill you!”
Her anger went full force as she dialed her darling friend’s number.
“Andre called yet?” Leticia giggled the instant she answered.
“It’s not funny, Tish! Not even small!”
“I came out of the bathroom and quickly wanted to check something online and your phone was there, so I typed in the password…”
“Remind me to change it.”
“And I saw that a certain Andre Fabrice whatever was saying hi and so I decided to play along.”
“You’ll pay for this, Tish.”
“Go out and have fun, Toni.”
Toni thumbed on a red button on her screen and ended the conversation. She immediately dialed Andre. His line went unanswered.
She tried a second time and it went through.
“Hi Andre…” She scratched her head. “It wasn’t me that chatted with you on Facebook.”
And she went on to explain the whole thing to him.
“I don’t believe you, Antonia. You’re playing games with me. And it’s petty because you’re a grown woman. If you like me, say so. If you don’t, then let me know.”
Again, Toni was baffled by his way. She detected streaks of Alpha Male in him.
“I just explained what really happened.”
“I heard, but I want to know if I should bother with you or just forget you. I’m too old to play games with a woman. I really like you and I think – no, I sense you like me as well.”
“Because even if what you just explained to me was true, why bother if you’re not really into me?
Na wa o!
“But it’s all up to you. So, are we going on this date or not?”
Wow. Subtlety is not his strong point.
“Um…” She cringed, knowing her answer already. “Yes, we are.”
“Cool. I’ll be over in the evening?”
“See you then.”
She put her phone away and sat quiet for some time. What had she just done? She was on the verge of breaking three of her rules.
No bachelors. No broke guys. No alpha males.
She blamed it on Leticia and holiday loneliness. Whatever came out of the situation, she would not be held responsible for it.
Lade went still at the sound of her name coming from Tayo’s lips. She picked a napkin from a rack beside her and wiped wet hands on it. As she hurried out of the kitchen, she wondered what she had done wrong this time.
She found Tayo in their bedroom. He was still in bed as she had left him after his breakfast. He had declined breakfasting with her and his mother, a development that worried her.
“Tayo, you called.”
He glanced up. “Come in and close the door.”
She entered the room, pulling the door shut behind her.
“Come.” His forefinger beckoned. She moved closer. He tapped on the bed. “Sit.”
She dithered. What is he up to?
“Sit,” he repeated. She sat.
Lade looked at him and held his taciturn eyes for a bit. A faint smile flashed on the corner of his lips and he went back to keeping a plain expression. She could hardly believe this same man was once in love with her; that they once laughed, loved and lived like the young couple they actually were.
Those days were vanished. Recalling them was like looking into someone else’s past.
“Come closer, Omolade.”
His tone carried a tone of gentility – but she found it flavored with coldness.
She let herself onto the bed beside him and kept her face away but he put his arm around her and drew her closer. At his touch, she felt something nostalgic. The last time he touched her that way was the night they made their daughter. She remembered how he returned home drunk, after hanging out with friends. He had met her sleeping on a couch in the sitting room and came at her with kisses that were expressive.
They say when you’re drunk your true self is revealed. That night, Tayo’s heart was laid bare before her. In his drunkenness, he revealed how much he loathed her for not being able to have a child, how he was certain she had carried out countless abortions in the past and destroyed her womb, how he had made a mistake marrying her and how he wasn’t so sure their marriage would last. He let out all of this while having sex with her. That night, the little affection between them died.
“You know I love you, right?”
She felt Tayo’s breath on her ear. She smiled lightly. She still loved him.
His hand caressed her cheek. “I got you something for Christmas.”
He moved away for a few seconds and returned with a little box.
Lade undid the wrap around the box and lifted the lid. A pair of dazzling diamond earrings greeted her eyes.
She smiled in appreciation, her heart still wary of his intentions.
He had her on her back and held her eyes for a while. They was no warmth in his stare, just a searching of her eyes. She didn’t know what he was looking for.
It was the same expression he carried on the first day they met. He had walked in on her during rehearsals for a stage play at Terra Kulture. At his appearance, she stopped in her lines and forgot them entirely. She was held by his stern facial features that made him look way older than his young age of twenty-five. He seized her eyes longer than was allowed for such first encounter situations before leaving the theater.
Later on, he accosted her outside and took her contact details. She had found out, under a streetlamp that flickered above them, that he owned a handsome smile beneath that serious face. They began dating a few weeks later. He gave her a good time, spoiling her rotten with what little he possessed. In those days they had a lot of fun. She recalled it all with a lump in her throat.
“We should replace Ifeoluwa.” Tayo kissed her shoulder. She blinked in response.
So this was why he was being sweet out of the blue? Why he bought her the earrings? He didn’t want to rekindle their love, he just wanted another baby to replace the one he accused her of killing?
The lump in Lade’s throat grew bigger and brought pain with it. She felt tears.
“I know you miss her, honey. But we have to put the past behind us and find happiness again.”
Ife is not my past, Tayo. I will never forget her.
Tayo’s lips took Lade’s. They came down on her soft and needy. The smell of him filled her with the past and the way they used to make love without abandon. If there was one thing he could do, it was sex. He often gave his best, but would pull her down the next day with abusive words. Hence, Lade learned how not to let herself go in his arms. She mastered the art of dumping her heart in some other place whenever they made love.
But these days she was without practice. She wasn’t so sure what would happen after this moment, though she was longing for this.
“I’ve missed you.” He sounded earnest as he stripped her.
He was tender with her. He took his time. Lade, for a moment, forgot everything. By the time they were done, the morning was inching towards noon.
Lade lay sated; her legs propped up to ensure she kept all of him in.
“Move back into this room,” Tayo instructed as he headed to the bathroom. “And stop spending time with Joyce.”
Lade glared at him. She was yet to understand why mother and son never got along or why he addressed her by her name. He was a Yoruba man who prided in strong cultural values. It was totally unacceptable to treat his mother the way he often did, but who was she to caution him? Besides, she knew there was more to the story than they both were letting out.
Yesterday, she shared with the old woman the struggles they were facing as a couple. She was wise not to paint Tayo as the ‘monster’ she had heard her call him. She blamed the distance between them on Ife’s death and their struggles with childbearing. Tayo was a good man, a loving husband.
She knew Joyce did not believe her.
“But Tayo, why?” Lade asked, sitting up a bit. “She’s your mom.”
Tayo turned. “I said stop spending time with her.”
“But it’s just two of us at home. How am I supposed to avoid her? She’s nice to me.”
“I hate it when you try to be stubborn, Omolade. Stay away from my mother. Is that hard to understand?”
Lade looked away. He was plunging into a bad mood.
“Is it hard to understand?”
She raised her head at him. “No.”
“Good. And anything she tells you about me, my dad, the family, I want you to relate it back to me, okay?”
He turned back to the bathroom door. Lade watched his tall, slim frame disappear. What had happened to her loving husband? Where had she gone wrong with him?
“We’ll use an Uber. The car is bad and the other one is without fuel.”
Lade saw a black car parked outside the gate of their house as she stepped out with Tayo. They were going to see a movie. It was Tayo’s idea. Lade hadn’t been out in over a year, but she was sure the mall would be as it always was during the holidays – crowded. A movie wouldn’t have been her first choice for a date but she couldn’t complain. She was grateful Tayo was doing something romantic.
“Get in, Lade.”
He opened the back passenger door of the Uber and Lade stepped in. He followed.
“Good morning, ma’am,” the driver greeted. “Morning, sir.”
“Good morning,” Lade replied. Tayo didn’t. She caught the side view of the driver’s face. He looked young. A hairy hand gripped the steering wheel. Lade straightened out her dress as Tayo told the man where they were headed.
The car fired up and they eased into a narrow street.
“Please turn up some music,” Tayo requested. “Something mild and not Christmassy. If I hear one more Christmas song I’ll vomit.”
“Okay, sir.” There was some laughter in the driver’s voice. “You like African music?”
“Whatever. Just play something.”
In a short while Sauti Sol’s scandalous Nishike began playing. Lade smiled. She loved Sauti Sol; she believed they were the best group in Africa at the moment.
She glanced at Tayo. He was already on his phone and was going to be that way until they arrived at their destination. Lade chose to gaze out. Not much had changed since the last time she went into town. There were more buildings, though. New roads. But it was all much the same – the life that held her dreams and freedom.
Once, she had desired to be an actress. She was good at it, as she had been told. Gifted. Rare. But marriage had changed things and Tayo asked her to be a stay-at-home mom.
She had protested.
“Is it money that’s your problem? You’ll have everything. I’ll take care of you. Just forget this dream of becoming an actress. Nollywood is not for responsible women. You’re too beautiful to be seen with those lost souls. Let me take care of you as a man ought to. I love you and I only want what’s best for you.”
Lade remembered how she cried and begged, but Tayo remained unyielding on his stance. He also asked her to cut off from her friends, most of whom were aspiring actors. He didn’t want them influencing her. Lade tried to be stubborn and the consequence was him disappearing for a whole month after an argument in which he emotionally blackmailed her, leaving her feeling bad for choosing her friends over him. By the time he came back home, she had severed ties with them and pledged undying devotion to him alone.
Lade wanted her old life back. She wanted to dream again. Gazing at the gigantic buildings, fast cars and buzzing metropolitan, which she always fantasized being part of, she wondered if it wasn’t too late to start all over.
But there was Tayo whose heart would break if she as much as mentioned this to him.
He loves me. He only wants what’s best for me…
“Driver, follow that silver car in front of us,” Tayo cut into her thoughts. She raised her head and saw a sleek car two paces ahead of them. “That’s my friend I haven’t seen in a while.”
He tapped buttons on his phone screen and put the phone to his ear. Soon he was talking to somebody. Lade listened. The silver car pulled over to the sidewalk. Tayo touched the driver’s shoulder and instructed him to park as well.
When the car came to a halt, Tayo alighted and hurried over to a guy about his age who stepped out of the silver car. Lade didn’t know the person.
She turned her attention to a woman by the roadside with her four kids, all of them dressed in matching Christmas regalia. They were waiting for a bus. The woman was cleaning snot off the face of the youngest child who was in her arms.
Lade remembered Ife. She missed her.
Just then, a new song began to play that made Lade smile, despite her pain. She sang along, moving her lips in a whisper.
Adam kissed Eve and the world came to be
Romeo kissed Juliet, they went down in history
So kiss me now baby, tomorrow I might be gone
Mama kissed papa and so I was born
Judas kissed Jesus, betrayal was done
So kiss me now baby, tomorrow I might be gone
I might be gone
Tomorrow may not be like today
And even if I’m here, I may not taste the same
Kiss me now baby, tomorrow I might be gone
Delilah kissed Samson and cut off his hair
And Sheba kissed Solomon and wisdom was shared
So kiss me now baby, tomorrow I might be gone
A sinful woman kissed the feet of Christ
And David kissed Jonathan and friendship survived
Kiss me now baby, tomorrow I might be gone
“Madam, you know the song?”
Lade looked at the driver. “Yes.”
“You like Sauti Sol?”
“They know how to sing.”
Lade agreed with another nod.
“I think Nigerian musicians can learn one or two things from them.”
Lade wasn’t sure about that part. She was loyal to Nigerian music.
“I once watched them perform in Nairobi. They sounded exactly the same way they sound in studio. Unlike some of our Nigerian artistes who croak on stage and must mime their own songs.”
Lade stayed silent. She wasn’t good with maintaining conversations with strangers. She kept her head down to kill the interaction. If Tayo returned and saw that she was talking with him, she would be in trouble.
“Are you new to Lagos?” the driver asked.
“Hm?” Lade was beginning to dislike him. She felt he was out of line.
“Sorry for asking. I noticed you were staring out the window a lot.”
“I’m not a stranger here.”
“Oh. Then you don’t go out often.”
Lade didn’t reply. This was totally inappropriate. If she wasn’t too polite, she would have asked him to stop speaking. But somehow it seemed he read her silence and understood its meaning. Still she caught him gaping at her through the rearview mirror. She saw deep-set eyes that lay beneath bushy, curious brows. She took her stare away. They listened to the rest of the song in silence.
Tayo returned and they continued their journey, the silence extending.
But once in a while, Lade would look into the mirror by accident and she would catch him looking back. Deep-set eyes still curious.
She found him intriguing and creepy.
Toni gave the car in front of her just one look and made a nasty face. She didn’t want to believe Andre actually came to pick her in a Kia Picanto that was a moving billboard of the delivery company he worked for.
Forget that he looked delicious in a classic chino, a trim lightweight jacket, a nautical striped t-shirt beneath and Chukka boat shoes. Forget that his hair was fine and smooth as Leticia noted. Forget that he looked nothing like the broke guy she believed he was. Forget that his lips had left a soft kiss on her cheek just minutes before. Forget all of that. She wasn’t entering that car with him.
She told him so.
“It’s all I have, Tonia.”
“Toni,” she corrected, glaring up at him. Not many guys reminded her of her five feet, three-inch frame. Even with her heels he managed to make her feel small.
“So you want something else? A posh ride?” Andre questioned in sarcasm, bringing his brows to the center in a concentrated frown.
“Anything the lady wants.” The sarcasm continued. Toni pretended not to notice.
“Let me call my cab guy.” She got out her phone.
“I got this. But we might want to go back in and wait until the replacement car arrives.”
It wasn’t an option Toni fancied. She didn’t bring men into her house. Nevertheless, she opened her door and let him in as he made a phone call.
The date would go bad. She sensed it already. As he made himself comfortable on a sofa close to the door, she insulted herself for agreeing to go out with him in the first place.
“Can I get you something to drink, Andre?” she asked when she saw he was done with his call.
He adjusted his jacket. “And please, turn on the air conditioner.”
She crossed him and walked to the kitchen. She was sure he was ogling. Her choice of outfit was designed to make him uncomfortable.
Toni popped open a bottle of wine she found in the fridge belonging to Leticia. It was expensive, a gift from Izu for the Christmas. Toni got pleasure from pouring it out into two wineglasses. She went back to the sitting room and found Andre comfortable in her space as if he owned it.
“You have a beautiful apartment,” he complimented, taking the wineglass she offered.
She took a sofa that sat directly facing him. She wanted his eyes to have a fill of her. It was all he was ever going to get. He had taken her unawares with the kiss on her cheek earlier. None of that would repeat itself.
She turned on the air conditioners.
“This wine is really good,” Andre mentioned after a taste. “I’m guessing it’s Pinot Noir.”
“No, actually it’s Taupenot-Merme.”
I know some French too.
Andre laughed. “I know it’s Taupenot-Merme but I was not referring to the winemaker Romain Taupenot. I was referring to the type of wine. It’s a Pinot Noir. The grapes, difficult to grow, are cultivated mostly in France and Austria. Sometimes, California. It’s known for its delicate and fresh taste because it’s rarely blended.”
At this point, Toni felt embarrassed. So you know a little about wines, why not keep the knowledge to yourself? And the laughter wasn’t necessary either.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked.
“It’s your house.”
Toni lit a cigarette.
“So, let’s talk about you, mademoiselle. What do you do with your spare time when you’re not in the office…?”
“…besides sleeping with other people’s husbands?”
The air was sucked right out of Toni. She stopped herself before the wine in her mouth went down the wrong path. She couldn’t believe he had asked her that question with a straight face. Who the hell did he think he was? If she was sitting close to him she would have done the cliché thing of emptying her wineglass on his face. He deserved even worse.
She should probably ask him to leave. But then she would come off as quick tempered and immature.
“Could you please repeat what you just said, Andre?” she requested with a sure voice and an unruffled smile. It was a tactic she always employed whenever someone made a rude remark at her. She would ask them to repeat themselves. More often than not, they wouldn’t be able to. They would give the usual “I said nothing.” And she would reply with a “I thought as much.”
“I said,” Andre answered, leaning forward, “what do you do in your spare time apart from sleeping with married men?”
Toni’s mouth went dry. Who the hell is this guy and what does he want from me?
She drew in a copious amount of cigarette smoke.
“Are you alright, Tone?” He smiled.
Tone? Okay, that did it! She was going to ask him to leave. He was probably a serial rapist or something.
But her answer to his question stunned her.
“I’m em…” she stuttered, betraying herself. “I’m fine. I’m alright.”
But she was not. And nothing at the moment seemed right. Yet for some reason, Toni couldn’t say so to him.
She smiled back, blowing out smoke through pursed lips. There had to be another way to handle him. She would endure him for the night. One date couldn’t kill her. He was just a man, she reminded herself.
Just a broke man.
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