Kaima is sitting across a smiling man in a dimly lit restaurant. Joe. The man’s name is Joe, her boyfriend. A waiter walks over to their table, a tall youngish man, wearing a well-ironed white shirt and black trousers, a red bow tie on his neck. One might think this is a restaurant in Italy or France or somewhere in New York – with its cloyingly polite, overdressed waiters, a bouquet of red roses in cylindrical vases gingerly placed on the center of the tables, candles lit, slow music playing on the stereo – and worse; they pride themselves on their excellent canapés (whatever the hell that was). But it’s actually situated in a highbrow part of Lagos, Victoria Island to be more precise. It all seemed comical to her, a poor imitation of a dinner scene from a Hollywood romcom.
She would have preferred the normal eateries in town, but Joe liked the place. He said it was a special night and it was only fitting they went somewhere they hadn’t been before. He was yet to tell her what was special about this particular night, and somewhere inside her excitement and wariness mingled.
“Good evening, sir. What would you both be having?” says the tall waiter, turning to Joe who was already flipping through the menu, ignoring Kaima. He is extremely dark and Kaima imagined how in a dark room he would be completely anonymous unless he flashed his white teeth. Normally, she would have been annoyed by the waiter’s presumptuousness, by the fact that the waiter had assumed that Joe should solely get to choose what both of them were having, probably because he also assumed that she wouldn’t have been able to afford this fancy restaurant in the first place if not for her man. She could tell from the smug looks he was giving her, as though sizing her up. She would have complained to Joe about the waiter’s condescension until he got the waiter to apologise but she was too lost in thought to bother. What was Joe planning to do? to say? What was the big surprise? What was special about this – so far – unremarkable night?
“Just a bottle of champagne for now while we make up our minds. What do you say, babe?” He always consulted her before taking even the smallest decision. She nods. The waiter slightly bows before walking away. He turns to Kaima, a smile still effortlessly stuck on his face. A fine man. Sometimes she forgot how attractive he really was, with his finely chiselled dimple, his perfect hairline, his skin the colour of hazelnut, his bespectacled eyes that spoke of gentility. Or perhaps she underestimated his attractiveness because she was now used to him, the same way a mall is exciting to visit when it’s newly opened but after several visits become unbearably stale. Though it was all of this that had first drawn her to him three years ago when they’d first met at a mutual friend’s wedding. That and his humility. He never entered a room with the intention of dominating it, even though he easily could.
“A true gentleman. Not like most young men of today,” her father had said the day she introduced him to her family. They’d both travelled to her parent’s house in Enugu for the Christmas holidays. It was his first time visiting the East since his father’s sudden death after a brief illness when he was about ten. His mother was convinced that his father’s siblings had killed him because they envied his success and so had severed all ties with them which also meant their annual trip to the village was cancelled too. Joe had pleaded that they travel by road so he could feel the ‘Eastern breeze’ on his face again. She hated traveling by road especially during Christmas when the harmattan wind brought with it a cloud of heavy dust that invaded her eyes and ruffled her hair. But there was something about the way he said those words “Eastern breeze” with that childlike innocence of his that made her give in.
Throughout the trip, he kept commenting on how red the earth was in the east unlike that of Lagos, and how hilly Enugu’s dusty roads were. She had told him Enugu literally meant “hilltop” so he shouldn’t be so surprised, and he’d looked at her with genuine wonder as if she had said something profound. When they arrived at her parent’s house at Independence Layout, her father had initially contorted his face into a frown in that typical way that Nigerian fathers do when they are about to scrutinize their daughter’s boyfriend. Her mother and younger sister, Amaka had been too excited, almost squealing. When she had gone upstairs to her room, leaving Joe alone with her father in the sitting room, her mother and Amaka had come in to gush about him.
“Nne! You did not tell us he was this fine,” her mother had said.
“Look at his nose alone sef. Very pointed. Sister, you are lucky oo,” Amaka had added
She loved that they approved of him but a part of her was irritated by their awe of him. It was almost as if they could not imagine someone like him ending up with someone like her, as if she had won a prize they never quite believed she could. It made her feel lacking in some fundamental way. They kept talking till she was exhausted and excused herself to join Joe and her father downstairs. She’d hoped to save him from her father’s endless interrogations. It was what he often did with her previous boyfriends. Once he had asked her former boyfriend, Chuks – whom she’d dated in her third year at university – what his life prospects were. Kaima had immediately jumped in to respond, “Daddy this is not a Job interview for God’s sake.”
When she got downstairs that day, she had been surprised to find both of them drinking Orijin while laughing over football. Joe had somehow managed to charm him too and her father was never one to be easily charmed. On the day they were to leave for Lagos, after they’d hugged each other goodbye, her father had whispered to her, “He is a good man, and he seems to care deeply about you. Make sure you keep him.” She’d wanted to tell him that Joe was not some sort of toy or dog that she could keep, that he was a full-grown adult with a free will that was independent of her control, that it was unfair of him to place such responsibility on her. Instead, she smiled, nodded awkwardly and only said, “Okay Daddy.”
“So, what should we have babe?” Joe said, his eyes unabashedly fixed on her. She also liked that about him. How in a room full of people, he always somehow managed to make her feel like she was the only one there.
“Joe, I am so anxious. I doubt anything will stay in my stomach until you tell me what this is all about.” His fingers jerk a little. He slowly parts his lips and then shuts them again as though uncertain, as though trying to carefully put his words together. She had always admired him for his directness, his quiet but firm confidence but here he was struggling for words. What was it he was planning to say? Her heart paced.
Finally, he said “I’ve been thinking… It’s been three years, Kaima. I was hoping we could take it to the next level.”
For a while, she stared at him, transfixed. Next level? He wanted to marry her. Of course, it had to be marriage. How could she not have known? It has been three years since they first met at that wedding, he in his lemon green, double-breasted suit, and she in her peach aseobi dress. Three years since they’d sat across each other in that reception hall. Their eyes continuously met, revealing his full of tenderness and warmth and many other things she couldn’t quite put into words, and she found herself enveloped by giddiness, a sense of endless possibilities. (“I knew I loved you the very first moment I saw you” he’d later tell her.) Their relationship had been free of scruples, like sailing through still waters.
The only time she could remember them having anything close to a fight was a few months back. They had come back from a child naming ceremony for Joe’s colleague. She was going through Joe’s phone, trying to transfer the pictures they had taken at the party while Joe freshened up in the bathroom. A text message had popped up on the screen.
Hi Joe. I still think of the time we used to be together.
I can’t believe how much I miss you. Can we at least meet up?
It was a text from Adanna, his ex. Joe had previously told her that they were no longer on talking terms. She had tossed the phone at Joe when he came out from the bathroom, a towel loosely wound around his waist. On certain days when he’d playfully tempt her, he’d intentionally drop the towel and then say “Oops sorry! My bad, or is it?” while smiling that wickedly sexy smile of his that usually filled her with indescribable desire. That day he stared at the phone, as though unable to recognize it, his face clouded with intense sadness.
“I am so sorry. It’s nothing really. She called me just yesterday telling me how sorry she was for breaking up and that she wanted us to get back together. Of course, I told her that I was with you and that I loved you. This doesn’t excuse the fact that I should have told you. I should have been honest. I’m sorry.”
She knew he wasn’t lying, she could somehow intuitively tell, and yet she walked out of his apartment at Ikoyi that day and for weeks did not speak to him, ignoring his text and calls. In those weeks, she would realize that she did not miss him as much as she thought she would. A part of her also realized that perhaps she was overreacting, creating drama where there was none. Those weeks, she toyed with the idea of breaking up with him, but she couldn’t come up with any valid reason for justifying the break-up. She would later convince herself that she was being unreasonable, that it was stupid to let such a good man go, and that perhaps the feeling will fade with time. But it did not. Instead, she struggled to shake off a vague feeling of restlessness, of impending loss, of something about to be given up forever.
Nothing major has happened since. In fact, if she tried hard enough, she might even convince herself that they were happy. He was still the sweetest man she’d ever met, still present, too present even. But she found herself occasionally feeling suffocated by his incessant company, and then hating herself for feeling that way. The things she had once found cute about him – his snoring, his love for Anime and romcoms – now irritated her. In bed, he still obsessed about pleasing her, still asked her what she wanted him to do, where she wanted him to touch, but it was no longer the same. It was as though her body had forgotten how to feel what it used to feel the first few times they had sex. She’d however played the role of the content and happy girlfriend well, pretending to orgasm when they had sex, smiling whenever her friends told her how lucky she was to have found her very own prince charming.
Now, she sat perfectly still across from this man whom she had once loved, watching his facial features dissolve from hopeful joy to a vague uncertainty. He is looking at her now with a fearful – almost desperate – earnestness. Did he fear she would turn him down? Had he also been noticing the changes in her? Next level. She couldn’t stop thinking of those words. It made total sense that they would begin to think about marriage, considering how long they have been together and how much he loved her. But even as they sat there, she couldn’t stop herself from thinking of him in the past tense, from imagining different ways of ending things. How does this happen? How do you go from crazily loving someone to feeling a total and complete detachment from them?
“So, what do you say? I know you didn’t want us to rush things, but it’s been three years and I still love you as I did the first day I met you. Please marry me.” He’d now slipped out a tiny, red square box from his shirt pocket. She holds his gaze for a second before quickly turning away, and a sudden wave of sadness lunges through her, leaving no room for any other contradictory emotion. She couldn’t bear to look at him, this good man that was, is, too good for her. If only she could force herself to feel the things she wanted to feel.
“I am sorry, Joe,” she says, “I am so sorry.” She picks up her small yellow purse and heads for the exit, determined not to look at his stunned face.
At the restaurant’s glass door, she turns and sees the tall waiter walking towards where they’d both sat, carrying the tray with a bottle and two glasses. She imagined him getting to their spot and with a single glance at Joe, piecing the whole story together. Another pathetic heartbreak story. Three years of their shared life reduced to this singular scene. It seemed so unfair.
Adele’s “Someone Like You” is now playing on the restaurant’s stereo.
You know how the time flies
Only yesterday was the time of our lives.
It felt like a fitting ending to an epic, she thought as a sob escapes her.