“Madam!” The middle-aged man said, tapping her.
She jerked slightly. “Hmn?”
“Sorry, fifth. Thank you.”
He grunted in response, no doubt irritated with her for not hearing him the first time.
The entire ride up, she braced herself. Knowing her personal assistant, there was likely going to be a fanfare waiting for her at the office; even though she expressly stated that she wanted a quiet birthday.
She took a deep breath, and let it out just as the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor.
She stepped out, made it to her section and there was silence.
Her Personal Assistant met her right outside her office door. “Good morning ma.”
“Good morning Ajoke, how are you?” She responded, an eyebrow raised.
“Fine thank you ma, and Happy Birthday.”
“Thank you. Please tell me-” She began.
“Nothing planned ma. I have noticed you have not been yourself recently so this time, I did not plan anything. However, I will not be held responsible if people randomly pop into your office to wish you a happy birthday.”
“Fair enough.” She said with a weak smile, then proceeded into her office.
She dropped her bag and blazer on her desk before sitting down. She pushed the power button on her computer, and whirled her chair around to stare out the large window while she waited for it to boot up.
She kicked off her heels and rubbed her feet. As she did so, a slow sad smile spread across her face.
“What would you like?” The waiter asked.
Liskebe was rubbing her feet and reminding herself that she had nobody to blame but herself for wearing such painful shoes. “Do you have something that can soothe my aching feet?”
The bartender chuckled. “No, but I have something that can distract you from the pain.”
“I’ll take that, thank you.” She said gratefully.
“I detect an accent. Where are you from?”
“Oh cool. I have met a few here in Houston. Nice accent.” The waiter ended with a smile.
“Thank you. Yours is nice too.” Liskebe offered, smiling just as wide.
“Em, I don’t have an accent.” The bartender retorted in a manner that implied that Liskebe could not possibly know what she was talking about.
“You do, it’s American.” She said, her surprise obvious.
A man chuckled beside her.
She glanced at him briefly, then back at the waiter.
“People from the South have a bit of an accent but I don’t. I’m from California.” The waiter said, educating her.
“An accent is a manner of speaking-” Liskebe began.
“See, if you no want make this guy spit for your drink, just jejely say ‘okay’.” The man seated beside her said without looking at her.
She was supposed to act like the stranger had not spoken to her but in her surprise, she glanced at him quickly, then back at the waiter. “Nevermind. So what is the drink called?”
After the waiter had moved onto another patron, she finally turned to the stranger.
“Why would he have spit in my drink? Was there something offensive about what I said?”
“No, but a lot of Americans are under the impression that only foreigners have accents. There are different accents within America, but they give it cutesy descriptions like ‘Southern drawl’, and ‘speaking like a New Yorker’ meanwhile, they are all accents. It’s really not a big deal but some people take it personal, I don’t know why.” He ended.
“Okay, thank you.” Liskebe said genuinely, returning to her drink.
“I am Tayo by the way.” The man said, extending a hand.
“Liskebe.” She said, taking it.
“Liskebe? That’s unique. Where are you from?”
“Really? Wow. You are the first person from Gombe state that I have ever met.” Tayo said, turning his upper torso to face her fully.
Liskebe smiled. “In that case, you are welcome.”
She turned back to her drink.
“I myself am a Lagos boy. I know, boring.” He continued.
“How are you from Lagos? Is anybody from Lagos?” She asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“Ah, it is a common misconception. There are actual villages in Lagos believe it or not. I am an Isale Eko boy. A lot of people that live in Lagos claim to be Lagosians but I am the real deal. One hundred percent, unadulterated Las Gidi.” He finished with a smirk.
“Anybody listening would think there was a medal given for the Lagos purebreds.” She quipped.
This time when he laughed, he threw his head back.
“I am sure that sounded absolutely egotistical to you. If you grew up in Lagos, you’d understand.” He said when he finally stopped laughing.
“How do you know I didn’t?”
“Because you didn’t understand. So where did you grow up? I know it is not Gombe because you would sound different if you did.” He smiled.
Liskebe knew there was no use arguing, he had a point.
“Abuja.” She replied.
“So how long have you lived in the US?”
“I actually don’t live here. I’m visiting.” She answered, then sipped on her drink.
“From Naija?” He asked.
“Yep!” She quipped.
“I am visiting too but I live in California. I’m here for my friend’s wedding. Tochukwu and Elohor. Are you here for the wedding too?”
“No. Secondary school reunion.” She responded.
“You came all the way from Nigeria for a secondary school reunion?” He asked in disbelief.
“Wow. Your alumni must be badass.” He exclaimed, then reached for his drink.
Liskebe only smiled. She supposed they were.
Her alumni network was a strong one, and she was proud of it. They stayed connected since Secondary school and made it a point of duty to be there for each other. Births, deaths, financial struggles; they banded together through it all. They were not just old classmates, they were sisters; and she never missed a chance to see her sisters.
Nonetheless, she understood why Tayo found it shocking. It was a long, and rather expensive trip.
“What School?” He asked moments later.
“FGGC Gboko. It’s in-”
“Benue State, I know.” He cut her. “My brother went to FGC Wukari. He used to say your school had the prettiest girls.”
Liskebe smiled. It was not the first time she had heard that.
“This is the part where you pretend to be humble and say you guys weren’t all that pretty and you are sure there were pretty girls in other schools.” He said, feigning seriousness.
“I don’t tell lies.” Liskebe said flatly.
Tayo laughed. He laughed so hard that Liskebe could not help but smile.
She was just indulging him till she finished her drink, but she was not expecting him to laugh that hard. Nonetheless, she was glad he did because it gave her the extra seconds she needed to finish the last few contents of her glass.
She set down her glass, thanked the bartender, turned to Tayo and said “Goodnight Mr. Purebred Lagosian.”
He chuckled. “Goodnight Ms. Gombe.”
The Reunion activities were concluded the following morning, and by 11:AM, they were saying their good-byes.
Liskebe had booked a week’s stay at the hotel because she wanted to do some shopping and a little sight-seeing. She had a list of shopping outlets to visit, so she set out to her first stop.
She thoroughly enjoyed herself at the mall. She actually got lost within the mall a few times but because she was not in a hurry, she had enough time to enjoy being lost. There were sales going on in almost all the stores, and she could not believe the bargains.
She had not realised just how much she had walked until she was seated in the taxi heading back to her hotel.
By the time the taxi came to a stop at her hotel entrance, she could barely move her feet. A concierge assisted her with her shopping bags, and she silently prayed for him and his descendants.
Back in her room, with her bags shoved to one corner, she realised she was hungry.
She grabbed her satchel and key card, then headed down to the poolside. It was late, so a full meal was a bad idea. What she needed was finger food that would quell the hunger without doing damage to her midsection.
She placed an order for chicken wings and a bottle of water, before dragging herself to one of the poolside benches.
She groaned as she stretched out, every inch of her aching. She figured she must have looked weird; fully-clothed by the pool, but she did not care and it was getting dark anyway.
“Ms. Gombe?” A familiar voice asked.
Liskebe removed her forearm from her face to see Tayo grinning down at her from the bench beside hers.
“Well if it isn’t the purebred Lagosian. I thought you would have checked out by now. Or is it a two-day wedding?”
“Nope, it was a normal Saturday wedding but I have family in Houston so I stayed a little longer so I could say hello to them. How come you are still here? Or are the Reunion festivities for a week?” He asked.
“We finished this morning, but I am here for a week so I can do some shopping and sightseeing.”
“Cool. I take it today’s shopping went well? You look exhausted.”
“I am.” She responded, covering her eyes again. “So many options, so many sales. I must have walked that entire mall seven times!”
He chuckled. “Which one did you go to?”
“Today? The Galleria.” She said.
“What?” She asked, removing her arms from her eyes.
“That’s not how to pronounce it but never mind. Where are you headed tomorrow?”
“I know, the cab driver already corrected me but I forgot to pronounce it the American way just now.” She did not mask the slight annoyance in her tone.
“It’s not ‘the American way’. It’s an Italian word, so there is a correct way to say it.”
“Okay. Thanks for the lesson. Tomorrow is Uptown Park. Did I pronounce that one correctly?”
“Yes you did, and no need to chew my head off. I was only helping.”
“After laughing at me?” She quipped, glaring briefly at him before bringing her arm back to her face.
“Fair enough. I apologize. I should not have laughed.”
She groaned and sat up. “Apology accepted. Where is this man with my chicken wings?” She asked, turning towards the poolside bar.
Tayo smiled. “It has been long since I heard that.”
“Yeah, apparently you guys call it Buffalo wings here. It makes no sense. I am still half afraid that man is going to bring me buffalo meat so I might have you taste it for me before I bite into it.”
Tayo laughed. “It really is chicken. Apparently the art of preparing chicken in that manner originated in Buffalo, New York.”
“Oh, I see.” She paused, then quickly added. “Do you mind still tasting it for me though?”
Tayo shook his head. “So you want me to be your test subject abi? No wahala. Anything you want Ms. Gombe.”
Liskebe smiled. “Thank you, and please don’t call me Ms. Gombe. It makes me sound like a beauty pageant contestant.”
Tayo chuckled. “No problem, as long as you stop calling me ‘purebred’, it makes me sound like a dog.”
Liskebe chuckled as well. “You’ve got a deal.”
Four hours and two servings of chicken wings later, Liskebe and Tayo were laughing like old friends. They talked about a lot of things. Their views on politics – American and Nigerian, how they grew up, all the things wrong and right with the way they were raised, sibling drama, family obligations, local traditions and which ones they felt were entirely ridiculous. They were so engrossed in their conversations that they had not realised how much time had passed until Liskebe felt her phone vibrate beside her.
“Oh goodness, five missed calls. Oh wow, it’s past midnight!” She exclaimed. She suddenly looked around them, and realised that they were the only ones left by the poolside. Even the food vendors had shut down for the night.
She felt a little flustered.
“I lost track of time as well. I’m sure your husband must be worried.” Tayo said casually.
“Yeah. I’ll call him back when I get up to my room.” Liskebe said, picking up her satchel and getting to her feet.
They walked in silence, past the reception and to the elevators.
“What floor?” She asked after they got in the elevator.
“Eleventh, thank you.” He replied.
She pressed the buttons that read 9 and 11.
“If things were different, would you have given me your number?” He asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“Honestly? Yes.” She said without making eye contact.
“Are you saying that because you are a nice person or because…”
“The other reason. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think one should be rude to a man when he woos you but that doesn’t mean I hand out my number to every Tom, Dick and Harry. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
“But you would give it to me if circumstances were different?” He pressed, turning towards her and fixing her with a stare.
“Yes.” She repeated.
“What do you mean ‘how’?”
“How would you give it to me?”
“Anyhow you want it.”
“Really?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Would you mind naming a few of those ways?”
“Are we still talking about a phone number?” She asked.
The slight twitch of his lips gave him away.
“You are terrible.” She said, punching him in the arm. “Highly inappropriate, but mostly terrible.”
He winced amidst giggles and ended in a sigh.
“Why are the intriguing ones always taken?” He said, finally.
She stared straight at the elevator doors, fiddling with her wedding band.
“Perhaps they got tired of waiting.” She let out, then turned to him; her eyes meeting his.
Just at that moment, the doors opened on the ninth floor.
“Goodnight Tayo, and thanks for the company.” She said, then stepped out.
“It was absolutely my pleasure.” He replied.
The doors closed.
Liskebe closed her hotel room door and smiled. She could not remember the last time she had such a good time just talking. If she was the kind of person that believed in “types”, he would definitely be hers but alas, their stars had not aligned.
Perhaps in a different lifetime.
She pulled her phone out of her satchel and dialed her husband’s number.
Liskebe woke up early the following morning, and went through everything she had bought. She checked them against the list she had made before her trip to the U.S.
She had bought only about a quarter of the things on her list, but had somehow managed to blow through most of her spending money because she bought things she had not planned to buy.
She certainly was not going to return anything, but she had to make better use of the money she had left. With any luck, Uptown Park would prove less enticing than The Galleria was.
She rounded the corner in the hallway leading to the elevators and stopped cold.
Standing by the elevators, leaning on a wall and reading a newspaper was Tayo.
He looked effortlessly handsome in a Polo shirt, khaki shorts, and sneakers.
She could not believe she had not noticed how good-looking he was before, but she was more perturbed at his presence on her floor to let that thought linger in her mind.
“Good morning?” She said cautiously.
“Hey you! Good morning.” Tayo said, pushing away from the wall, and folding the newspaper in half.
“Start talking.” She said, folding her arms.
“Well, I had a lie rehearsed in my head but now that I am standing here looking at you, I cannot bring myself to say it so I’ll go with the truth: I have a couple of things that I want to buy, and even though I could buy them from any mall, I decided on Uptown Park because it gives me an excuse to see you again. There. I said it.” He ended, looking at her expectantly.
As much as Liskebe was flattered, she knew it was a bad idea to spend time with someone who found her attractive but if she said that to him, he would think she was attracted to him; and she was not going to put such ideas in his head. Besides, she really did enjoy his company.
“On one condition.” She said, finally. “I have a list, and I need to stick to it. Yesterday I got thoroughly carried away by all the things that were on sale. I need you to keep me focused and under budget.”
“Yes ma’am.” He said, standing at attention and saluting.
Liskebe rolled her eyes, walked over to him, gave him the list and pressed the button for the elevator.
Tayo rented a car for the week, and they set off to the mall.
With Tayo’s help, Liskebe was able to get everything on her list in good time, and without exceeding her budget. She was even left with some spare cash so she let herself indulge a little more.
When they sat down to have some ice cream afterwards, he talked to her about financial security and how to make her money work for her. He explained the importance of having a diversified investment portfolio, and why she was not too young or too “secure” to be thinking of her future.The entire conversation left her in awe of him. She thought he was just a guy who was good with words. The more time she spent with him, the more she realised how wrong she was.
On Tuesday, with her funds fully exhausted and all the items on her list bought, Liskebe was all out of ideas. Tayo suggested a tour of Houston and she went for it. On the way they talked about religion, education and raising children; and discovered that they shared very similar views on those subject matters.
Wednesday happened to be July 4th – Independence Day for the United States. They spent the day watching a local neighborhood Independence Day parade, then had dinner, saw a movie and came out of the theatre just in time to catch the fireworks display.
“This is so beautiful.” Liskebe whispered, her eyes transfixed on the fireworks exploding in the night sky. The different colours, shapes and designs. She had never seen anything like it.
“I know.” Tayo responded.
Once the display was over, everyone applauded. Liskebe raised her hand to do the same and realized that her left hand was in Tayo’s right; their fingers intertwined.
She quickly jerked her hand away, and apologised.
“There is nothing to be sorry about.” He said, looking uncomfortable himself.
“There is. I mean, I should not have. Em, anyway, can we go now?”
The ride back to the hotel was a quiet one. Neither of them said anything.
Tayo wanted to say something; a lot of things, but he did not want to make Liskebe upset so he stayed mute.
Liskebe’s mind was a flurry of activity, but the last thing she wanted to do was talk to Tayo.
As soon as Tayo parked the car at the hotel premises, she muttered a quick “thank you, it was nice” and flew out of the car as if she was being chased.
Tayo opened his mouth to say something but closed it back, there was no use.
He made it all the way to his room on the eleventh floor before realising he had forgotten to pick up his key card from reception where he left it for safe-keeping. He sighed and headed back towards the elevator. It was just as well because he was much too restless to call it a night.
As soon as he noticed she was married, he had told himself that she was a definite no-go area regardless of how beautiful she was. Yet, he could not explain the constant urge to see her, know her, be with her. Through it all, he had convinced himself that he was just enjoying the company of a truly remarkable woman but after tonight, there was no way he could deny that he felt something for her. Something deeper than he had ever felt for any woman.
When they stood shoulder-to-shoulder watching the fireworks, he was acutely aware of her. When her hand grazed over his, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand, but he kept his composure. It was bad enough that minor contact with her was having this kind of effect on him, the last thing he wanted was her finding out about it.
Then she reached for his hand and intertwined her fingers with his. He had stiffened at the gesture, then looked down at her with a puzzled look on his face but she was staring past him at the fireworks, completely mesmerized.
She had not even realised she had done it. It was a completely natural reaction. Even now, he admitted that it was selfish of him not to call her attention to it, but how could he? When that singular act sent jolts of electricity coursing through his body.
He picked up his key card and headed to the hotel bar. There would be no sleep for him tonight, so he might as well drink his sorrows away.
Liskebe paced back and forth in her room, wondering how she got here. She was not going to delude herself into thinking she had no feelings for Tayo. If she were being completely honest with herself, she fell for him Sunday night by the pool side but had been telling herself she merely enjoyed his company. After tonight though, there was no running from it.
For goodness sakes she had intertwined fingers with him and not even realised it. The act was so natural she had not even noticed it happen.
How had she let it get this far? She should have known from the way her breath caught when he smiled that something was amiss.
Oh what horrid timing.
She took several deep breaths.
“Liskebe, pull yourself together. Sure, he is handsome; but so is Boma. I know it’s not about his looks, but nothing can be done. You are with Boma. You are married to Boma, and that’s the end of it.”
Liskebe nodded, convincing herself it was a non-issue.
“I am going to need something strong.” She let out, wiping her brow.
She looked around the room for the satchel she had flung somewhere in frustration, grabbed her key card and headed out.
He saw her first from where he sat. She walked briskly into the bar, ordered a drink, turned away from the bar, took a long sip from her straw, sighed and open her eyes.
When she did, he was standing in front of her.
She nearly lost her footing and dropped the glass in surprise, but he caught it just in time.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He apologised, meaning it.
“It’s okay.” She said, flustered.
“Can we talk?” He asked cautiously.
“Em…” She began.
“Please, it will only take a moment. Please.” He pleaded, gesturing to the table where he had been sitting.
Liskebe walked ahead of him.
Once they were both seated, Tayo cleared his throat.
“This is probably going to sound a hundred percent inappropriate but I don’t think I will be able to function if I don’t say…;” He trailed off.
“I was supposed to check-out Monday morning.” He started, making a second attempt. “I was going to check-out on Monday morning; but on Sunday night, in the elevator. The way you looked at me when I asked why the intriguing ones were always taken, I just knew I had to see you again. At first I thought it was just an urge to prove to you that men that ‘take too long’ are not all asses, but as I headed back downstairs to extend my stay, push my flight back and send an e-mail to my boss asking for the rest of the week off; I realised that all I wanted was to spend more time with YOU.”
He looked at her, even though her eyes were averted. “I have fallen for you Liskebe. I am absolutely and utterly smitten by you, and I don’t know how I intend to go another day without you but I am going to have to figure it out because you are happily married, and leaving tomorrow but I just felt like I was going to go out of my mind if I didn’t say something to you. This is probably all meaningless to you but-”
“It’s not meaningless.” Liskebe said quietly, her eyes lowered. “It’s of no use, but it’s not meaningless…if that makes sense.”
She let out a long, deep sigh and looked up at him.
“I married Boma in April. I am thirty years old. Do you know what that means? It means I have spent the last seven years of my life looking, and waiting for that man who would sweep me off my feet. That man who would awaken parts of me I didn’t know existed. That man who would speak to my mind, body and soul. But by the the time I hit thirty, I stopped dreaming and became a realist. I had a good man clamouring for my attention, and I would have been a fool if I kept turning him down. I liked him enough, so I married him. My heart told me not to, my very pores screamed against it but I let the thoughts of others prevail. And now…” her voice broke.
“…now, in my thirty first year, I have found a man for whom my heart beats loudly. A man for whom both my head and heart are finally in agreement. A man that I respect and admire. A man who makes me want to be a better person…but I cannot have him-” her voice broke again.
Tayo reached for her but she pulled back.
“I settled, Tayo. I settled!” She cried. “I did the one thing I used to say I would never do. I settled because I gave up on love, and gave in to pressure. If only I had waited. I should have waited.” She sobbed loudly, completely forgetting they were in a public place.
Tayo quickly went around the table and sat beside her, cradling her head to his chest.
“I’m sorry.” She said, pulling away. “I’m causing a scene aren’t I? I just can’t help these bloody tears.”
“It’s okay, I don’t care who’s watching; but if it makes you feel better, we can go to your room.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She said, shaking her head.
“My room then?”
“That’s an even worse idea.”
“I guess we’ll just stay here then?” He offered.
“Let’s take a walk, please?” She asked, tearfully.
They had not decided where they were going, but somehow they found themselves in the pool area.
“Of course. Where it all began.” She chuckled, her voice still croaky from crying.
“For you maybe. I think I fell for you from that first night when you were trying to educate a proud Californian on accents.”
She allowed herself a small laugh.
The walk to the pool area had given her enough time to think through her situation.
She married because he was a good man and it was time, and now she had fallen in love but there was nothing she could do about it because she had sworn a commitment to another man. As beautiful as love was, it was not enough.
She turned to face Tayo where they stood.
“I made my bed.” she whispered, not making eye contact.
“No, don’t say that. You may have, but you don’t have to lie in it. Not anymore.” Tayo responded, interlocking all ten fingers with hers. “I know it won’t be easy, but we can at least try-”
She shook her head, interrupting him. “We can’t.”
He cupped her face with his palms, and tilted her face upwards so she was staring him in the face. “Knowing what I know now, how am I supposed to move on? It will be agony to do so. Agony for both of us.”
“He is a good man, Tayo.” She said, fresh tears falling as she locked eyes with him.
“As am I.”
“I know, but I made a vow; I can’t break it.”
“You made a vow before you found something real. Now it’s just bondage. You shouldn’t hold fast to a vow that enslaves you.”
“What kind of person would I be if I break a vow I swore to God and man? Besides, If I break it, I will become shackled by guilt; and that means I can never truly be happy with you.”
Tayo started to say something then stopped.
She was right.
“Damn you and your logical mind.” He swore, pulling her to him and wrapping his arms around her.
She wrapped her arms around him and sobbed.
It wasn’t until she felt a wetness on her scalp that she realised he was crying too.
“You should have waited.” He whispered into her hair.
“I know.” She whispered back.
“You should not have given up.”
The alert reminding her of an impending meeting snapped Liskebe back to the present.
For a moment she let herself imagine how it would have been if she were spending her birthday with him. A long, deep sigh escaped her lips. “For heaven’s sake, why didn’t I wait?” She asked herself for the umpteenth time since that night.
Before him, her life was good, and she was content with that. She would have even described it as ‘happy’ if she hadn’t experienced what true happiness was. The ease and beauty of it.
She cried a lot these days. She never let anybody see her cry but the telltale signs were always there. Constant sniffing, glassy and swollen eyes. She never intended to lie but someone asked if she had a cold, and that was it. It became her standard answer.
She rubbed her lower belly absentmindedly. She had removed her IUD immediately she got back from her trip, convinced that getting pregnant would help her forget him.
If anything, the heightened emotions made her cry more often.
A tear fell and she reached for her handkerchief, just as her PA brought in a bouquet of roses.
“Hmn…I go love oh.” Ajoke said, grinning as she handed her the bouquet.
Liskebe rolled her eyes at Ajoke. She was a little surprised because Boma was not the flower type. In fact, he had joked about the ridiculousness of flowers when she told him she fancied them.
There was a card, and it had just one line: “You really should have waited.”
This time when she cried, Liskebe didn’t care that there was someone else in the room.