Ikenna caught a movement through the corner of his eyes.
He thought it was odd that Ifeamaka had the entire menu up to her face like she was nearsighted, but he did not think much of it until he noticed her shoulders vibrating.
“Are you laughing?” He asked, sliding the menu down a bit.
She was. Uncontrollably so.
Ikenna turned towards the stage of the karaoke bar, and noticed the source of her laughter.
He had been so preoccupied with the menu that he had not realised that the “singer” was singing and dancing off-key. Well, if you could call what she was doing “dancing”.
He cleared his throat to keep from laughing but Ifeamaka whacked him with the menu.
“Nwokem let it out jo! You know you want to laugh.”
“I do but I am not a particularly fantastic singer and well, you know what they say about karma.”
“Oh come on. The good singers don’t go to karaoke bars to showcase their talents. It’s for people like us that were nowhere to be found when the good lord was handing out singing talent. It’s basically a place to laugh and get laughed at.”
He thoroughly enjoyed her company. She made him laugh, and she was great to talk to – about any topic. She was as serious as she was playful, and he was not sure he would ever understand how one person was blessed to have that combination.
Since the day they met on their not-so-blind date a month ago, they had hung out every weekend since. Some weekdays too – when they were able to tear themselves away from work.
She was a Solutions Architect with a major Telecommunications firm, and he was a Director with one of the Big Four auditing firms so creating time, especially during the week, was a chore for them but somehow, they had managed to do so.
Truth be told, Ikenna had stopped being as much of a workaholic because he looked forward to their evening chats on the phone. His PA had even made a comment about how special this woman must be, but he ignored the statement.
There was no use getting ahead of himself. For now, she was just a lovely woman he connected with on multiple levels that he was still getting to know.
“Besides,” Ifeamaka continued, “I don’t know about you but I can hold a tune, so I don’t think anybody will be laughing at me.”
Ikenna cocked an eyebrow.
“Okay, fine I cannot sing to save my life, but why do you think I wore this fitted dress?”
“Oh my goodness! Your strategy is to distract us from your horrible singing by making us gape at your figure?” Ikenna asked in mock horror.
Her only response was a sly smile.
His breath caught.
She was sexy when she was not trying to be. When she was…heaven help him.
“What?” She asked.
“Oh, n-nothing. Sorry.” Ikenna stammered, tearing his eyes away from hers.
Her smile wavered as she picked up her drink and sucked on the straw, turning her attention back to the menu in her hand.
She did not insist on knowing, and he did not offer to explain. It was that way with them; a kind of unspoken understanding.
The waiter returned.
“I’ll just have the chicken wings.” Ifeamaka said.
“You know what? Make it the full starter platter. We’ll share.” Ikenna said.
“You do realise ‘calamari’ is squid right?” Ifeamaka said once the waiter was gone.
“Yes I do.” Ikenna responded matter-of-factly.
Ifeamaka gave him an incredulous look.
“It is battered and deep fried.” He said, rolling his eyes.
“So? It’s still squid. That’s the cousin to an octopus! It’s disgusting and Ọ na anọ anọ.” She said, scrunching up her face.
Ikenna chuckled. “It’s not slimy jo, it’s crunchy. Battered and deep friend remember?”
“It is still squid. You will eat that part of the platter alone. Just don’t call me in the middle of the night when you have a nightmare of an octopus trapping you with its tentacles, and asking why you ate her cousin Okonkwo.”
Ikenna could not hold back the laughter that burst out of his throat. He was usually composed, and had mastered the art of controlling even the manner in which he laughed. This time, however, he neither could control it, nor did he want to.
“Why ‘Okonkwo’?” He asked, when he finally came up for air. “And why is his octopus cousin female?”
“Laughter suits you.” She said, smiling. She had been watching him.
He stopped laughing but a smile remained. “Trust me, I think it suits you a lot more.”
She averted her eyes. “Well, ‘Okonkwo’ because that’s the first name that popped in my head, and female because women are more vengeful.”
Ikenna’s eyes widened. “One minute while I pull out my phone. I need to record this.” He said as he rummaged around his pockets.
“A woman admitting that women have faults.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. We are absolutely perfect beings.” Ifeamaka said, batting her eyelids.
“But you just said-” He protested.
“Nope.” She shook her head.
“A second ago, you-” He persisted.
“No clue what you mean.” She maintained.
“Are you serious right now?” He chuckled.
“No entiendo Inglés.”
Ikenna stared at her in disbelief. “You can speak Spanish?”
“Si, un poco.” She said effortlessly.
“Wow.” He breathed. “I didn’t think it was possible for you to get any more attractive.”
He was in awe of her.
She smiled, finished what was left in her glass and got up. “Let’s go pick songs. I am not leaving this place without hearing how bad your voice is.”
“Cannot sing to save your life eh?” Ikenna said, fixing Ifeamaka with an accusatory stare as they walked out of the karaoke bar a few hours later.
“When compared to Jennifer Hudson, I can’t sing.”
He gave her a look.
“So the dress was just eye candy for us then?” He said, lifting an eyebrow.
“Don’t objectify me Mr. Chidindu. Can a girl not wear a dress just because?” She shot back playfully.
“My apologies Ms. Ariri. I was merely acting on the impression you gave me.”
She stuck her tongue out at him, and he chuckled in response.
He loved seeing her so playful. He wondered if he could ever be that playful.
“Instead of you to tell somebori that you like her dress, you will be toking anyhow.” She said, in a thick Igbo accent.
“How do you do that?” He asked, coming to a stop. “How do you speak pristine English, Spanish, pidgin and with an Igbo accent all in the same night?!”
“What can I say? I’m hawesome.”
Ikenna laughed. “Indeed you are.”
The night was still young, but neither of them felt like going anywhere else so they sat in his car and talked.
“So when did the shop say your car will be ready?” Ikenna asked, removing a spec of dust from his dashboard and ignoring the dull pain that leapt into his chest at the thought of her being in an accident.
“Monday. So inconvenient. I don’t understand why painting it takes so long.”
“It’s not the painting that takes long, it’s the drying. Oven-baking gives it a nice finish – which I am sure you will appreciate, but the process is not a fast one.”
Ifeamaka groaned. “Well, Uber will make some more money off me on Monday morning then.”
“Why does that bother you so much? There are human beings behind Uber so it’s not some random large corporation just taking your money. They provide a service; a good one at that.”
“Yes, but to the detriment of taxi drivers.”
“Oh come on. They reduced their vehicle requirements in Nigeria so that people who provide taxi services can partake too. Quite frankly, I think that was quite considerate of them.”
“This is a third world country IK, how many people can afford 2012 and newer cars to put on Uber? Uber themselves would not make as much profit if they did not change that requirement.”
“They are not an NGO Ifeamaka, they are a business that happens to provide jobs for many. You have to at least give them that. We could use some job creation opportunities in this country.”
“Whatever.” She said. “It just feels corporationy to me.”
“Okay ma. I have heard.” He chuckled, giving up.
They paused a while, taking in what they could see of the Lagos nightlife from inside his car. It was a Friday night, and there was a lot of activity. Couples going in and out of restaurants and lounges, workers trying to unwind after a long work week, unemployed young men looking to make a quick buck by parking cars of patrons, and ladies of the night seeking patronage.
One could easily get wrapped up in the non-stop, live-action movie that was Lagos; but all that occupied Ikenna’s thoughts at that moment was Ifeamaka.
“You are sure you don’t want me to drop you off at home?” He asked, not making eye contact.
“You already know the answer to that question.” She responded.
“Okay, okay. I was just offering; you know, as a gentleman and all.” He said, raising his hands in mock surrender.
“Biko, let me hear word.” She responded, smacking him on the shoulder playfully.
“Do you know that there is a way your eyes light up when you smile?” Ikenna said, staring at her. “I like it. I have never seen anything like it.”
Ifeamaka met his gaze and held it.
She swallowed, and then looked away while tucking a strand of hair behind her ears.
Ikenna realised he had made her uncomfortable, and was surprised by it. He expected some smart retort but none came.
That was unusual.
“Anyway,” he started, in an attempt to end the awkward silence, “lunch tomorrow?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Ifeamaka said quietly, averting her eyes.
“Why not?” Ikenna asked, surprised.
It was not that she had always been available to hang out every time he asked, or he every time she had asked; but she did not say she was not free. Her response implied she did not want to.
That was odd.
“It’s late. I really should get going. I had fun tonight, as always, thank you.” She said, meaning it.
“If you did, then why won’t you have lunch with me tomorrow?” He asked with a smile, trying hard to mask his disappointment.
She only smiled at him in response.
A strange smile. Not her usual mischief-laden grin.
There was a sadness in her eyes that seemed foreign against her lovely features.
She started to open the door but turned back to look at him. She was trying to decide whether or not to say something to him, and the internal struggle was evident on her face.
Finally, she let go of the door handle, took a deep breath, turned her upper torso to face him completely and looked into his eyes. “Can I be completely honest with you?”
“Please.” He said, his tone going grim.
She paused, as though unsure he meant it.
He noticed her hesitation. “When we first met, you noticed I was a cynic right? Well that is because people have lied to me most of my life – even when they thought they were protecting me. I have found that lies never make anything better, even when they are supposed to. So, I detest them. I would rather have the truth, painful as it may be, than a lie. So please, truth only. Always.”
“Fair enough.” She sighed. She took a deep breath, then another.
Ikenna was about to assure her that he could handle whatever she was about to say, then she finally spoke.
“You are broken.” she let out.
“You are smart, intelligent, eloquent, kind, charming despite yourself, hardworking from the look of things, but you are broken and…” She looked away, took in a breath and let it out through her lips then looked back at him. “I…I don’t have the bandwidth to fix a broken man.”
He was wearing two layers of clothing, three if you added his blazer, but he had never felt so naked in his life.
She had summed him up so succinctly that if he did not feel utterly vulnerable, he would have praised her for it.
The wall he had built and reinforced for the better part of two decades fell to a magnificent heap, and the resulting dust threatened to choke him.
He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out.
“Believe it or not this is more about me than you. Cliché, I know.” She smiled sadly. “I too am…well I am not entirely broken, but I am close and …” she trailed off as she rubbed at an imaginary stain on her sleeve. When she looked back up at him, she had tears in her eyes. “…I need someone stronger than me right now.” One tear fell, then another. “I’m sorry.”
She turned away, opened the passenger-side door and got out of the car.
Ikenna sat motionless as he watched her cross the street over to the taxi park. He watched her talk with a driver, get in the back seat, and then watched the taxi drive off.
What had just happened?
How had it happened?
He was not in denial. He knew he had started developing feelings for her but he had been cautious, careful. The last time he let anybody in, even halfway, he regretted it and had made up his mind never to do so again.
He liked to think “that special someone” might change things, but deep down he knew he would never entirely pull down his walls. Not entirely.
So how had that same wall exploded in front of him?
Years of stone, cement, and bricks all blown to smithereens at the utterances of one woman.
One amazing, intuitive, kindhearted, brilliant and absolutely beautiful woman.
How did she do it?
How did she jump the gun like that?
One minute, they were having a casual conversation as they always did, and the next, she drops a bomb like that?
Okay, fine, she was smart; she knew their friendship was evolving and wanted to nip it in the bud, but he had not even asked her out formally. He had not even talked about taking their relationship to the next level, but she just took it there, blew up the place, dropped the mic and left.
It both intrigued and scared him that she could read him like that.
She saw him. Naked, raw, unfiltered.
That was too much power.
If he gave her his heart, he did not think he would survive if she ever broke it.
Nobody should have this kind of power over him.
He turned on the ignition and drove off.