The cold air curled about Stella’s feet as she stood on the stoop, her petite hands quivering in the side pockets of her denim shorts. Mark had phoned thirty minutes earlier, asking her to meet him in front of her three storied hostel. She waited. Her eyes searched the faces of the people in the car park and her teeth gritted in exasperation. The heat in her eyes blazed in annoyance because whenever she was before a crowd she got nervous. And anger was the only means to cover her nervousness. It piqued her that he was aware of her discomfort, yet made her wait. She removed her hands from her shorts and thrust them underneath her knitted grey cardigan and pressed through the teeming throng of students plodding to the Porters’ Lodge and the Common Room where the Mexican soap opera, ‘When You Are Mine’ was aired. She sighted her roommate on box braids and asked if she had seen Mark. The girl turned around, pointed to a tree and hurried along. Mark was seated beside Lisa, the mulatto of Nigerian and German descent on the park bench that leaned against the trunk of the dust filmed Pine tree. Lisa sported Mark’s Jersey; the exact one Stella gave him on his last birthday. Mark was laughing with his eyes closed, throwing his head back and forth and rubbing Lisa’s arm slowly, up and down. Lisa leaned her head on his shoulder and her glossy black hair sprawled down to her elbow. She was smiling and fiddling with his shirt. A dreg of beer spurted from the bottle that lay across his feet.
Stella stiffened and her stomach tightened. Her hands twitched and she struggled with the feeling that swelled up inside, the feeling to yank off Lisa’s hair and dishevel Mark’s Tee shirt. She thought of the rumors about their relationship. The rumors he rebutted with that ‘how can you believe everything you hear?’ look. The rumors that soon became the air that she breathed against her will. So, they were true. It was true that her best friend was dating Lisa and had made her find out this way. Why Lisa, of all the girls around? Lisa was reputed to be the most beautiful girl on campus. In truth, she was extremely beautiful, with green eyes that could hold a saint spell bound. She was tall and graceful with curves that never stayed hidden even in a bogus dress. She had a Spanish accent that she loved to flaunt and sometimes threw in Spanish words when she spoke English. She was born in Barcelona and spent the first ten years of her life there. Stella felt gauche whenever she sensed Lisa around because she wore thick glasses and often dressed incongruously. She was in fact grotesque, with awkward bowlegs and arms that were too long for her body. And when she smiled, her lips drooped and her incisors stuck out. Her face was pale with no luster feature. She sometimes tied a kerchief over a long weave to cover her head that was bald in the middle. She had no physical beauty that captivated people, but she was admired for her intelligence. She had topped her class, three years in a row. And everyone knew that beneath the awkward looking lady there lay a huge chunk of brilliance.
She never had to wonder why Mark became friends with her because she heard the reasons from gossips. And she knew they had to be true because besides them being in the same class they had nothing in common, at least on the surface. What would a debonair guy like Mark be doing with her? She reached his elbow when they stood together. She was short and scraggy while he was tall and burly. So, there could be only one reason they had been friends; she was brilliant. Her roommates often said that they don’t fit as a couple. Reading partners was more appropriate. She had not argued with them, but she had hoped that one day they would realize that compatibility has nothing to do with beauty.
Stella felt the sizzling of water in her head and her mouth tasted sour. She stared at her feet, rubbed her two big toes together and sighed. The sight of Mark and Lisa together nipped her numbed feet. Her stomach bubbled and the urge to puke almost consumed her. Her lips moved but no words were heard. She turned her back, deciding to run into her room and cry, but her inner voice accused her of being a coward. She did not want to live with that accusation. She turned around, assembled all her strength and walked towards them. Lisa saw her first and smiled weakly before tapping Mark. He leapt to his feet, pulled in his bottom lip and looked at her vaguely. How she loved the movement of his lips. His handsomeness seemed to keep her at a standstill. His blue eyes and full eyelashes hypnotized her and all she could do was stare at them. The explanation behind his blue eyes remained a mystery because he had no trace of white ancestry. Lisa interrupted the enigmatic moment as she stood up and brushed his shoulders before leaving. She had a grim smile when she looked at Stella, like one who finally clinched the trophy. What was funny? Stella thought, stopping her hands from pummeling her face. Her gaze returned to Mark, whose clasped hands were pulled to his shimmering red lips. She saw them better now. His lips. They were a darker shade. He must have kissed Lisa. Stella’s throat constricted at this sudden revelation. She began to sweat under her armpit. The cold weather had suddenly turned hot. It was as though she were seated beside a fire, only the fire was fierce like the sun. Mark crackled his knuckles and looked away from her. He said he was sorry to have kept her waiting.
“And it really – is – not what you think. I mean, Lisa is…”
“Mark, you don’t have to explain anything.” She felt he owed her an explanation, somehow. He should have told her there was something going on between them. He should have told her. She felt cheated on. They were not supposed to hide things from each other. She examined herself. Was she not hiding things from him? Why hadn’t she told him how she felt when their fingers brushed each other, the times he removed some dirt from her hair, or the times he helped her buckle her sandal when she could not bend because she wore a short skirt. The times they snuggled up in his room, eating popcorn and watching movies. The times they read late into the night, the day before exams and how she flushed and her eyes twinkled when she used his soap and cream and dressed up behind his back. How she longed for him to compliment her looks whenever she had a makeover. She was not known for applying makeup. But when she realized her feelings for him, she learned how to use mascaras, eyeliners, lipsticks, eye-shadows. She developed a sudden interest in powders and foundations and she learned to use them well. But when she wore them and saw Mark, he never acted like she looked different. He would stare for a moment and then act normal. She used to interpret the look to be a sort of disapproval. But she continued. People said makeup enhanced the look and she knew she needed a total transformation, not only an enhancement.
They had been friends for three years and she had fallen in love with him. Not at first though. Beneath Mark’s beauty, he had a charm, a sort of kindness and respect for people. She had fallen in love with that. She never told him. But she hoped he would read it one day from her eyes. The eyes don’t lie, she had heard people say. She had searched his eyes and had not found love, not yet. Love can come later, she chided herself. Most nights he constantly lay on her mind occupying the spaces meant for her intellectual assimilation, that she could no longer concentrate fully when she read alone. And almost every day she curled up in her bed, listening to blues sung on the radio, her earpiece fully tucked in her ears blocking the interference of any extraneous substance that attempted to come in between her fantasy and brash reality. After which she sent him text messages asking how his lectures went, lectures they had both attended. She did not reveal her real intentions. She could not uncover the secret, her inordinate affection for him. What if she was misreading him? What if he only felt a fondness between friends as he had earlier said? She felt he was lying – like she was.
One chilly morning during a long vacation, after she heard the first rumor about Mark and Lisa, she made up her mind to forget him and see him as she would a brother. There was no need waiting for what might not be. She felt such loneliness and deprivation – starved of the real affection that she craved for. That saturating feeling of loving someone and being loved in return. She wanted it with him but she felt from all indication that he was content with where they were. So on this morning she decided to make the final call, after which she wouldn’t call again or care less if he returned her call. Her fingers shook, and tears welled up her eyes. It was like paying your last respect to your loved one – the moment before the grave would be covered up with shovels of sand thrust upon the coffin till the polished wood became obscure. That was the moment she was in. Paying her last respect to a feeling that never blossomed, that was never watered by the landlord. She dialed Mark’s number and it rang for a long stretch of time but it was not answered. She dialed a second and a third time, still no answer. She looked at the eleven digit number as if trying to memorize it or erase the number already stuck to her memory. She contemplated sending a text but did not know exactly what to type in. Should she say she would not be reachable for a long time, so he shouldn’t try calling her? Not that he had returned any of her calls in the past week. However hard she tried she could not arrive at the first word or sentence to write. Without giving it much thought she sent a template “Please call me back.” She had not expected him to call back, but he did. And that singular act made her continue to believe that there was hope in the future, perhaps after graduation.
Mark cleared his throat and half smiled. He turned back and signaled he was coming to Lisa who waved at him. Stella tightened her lips, faked a smile and folded her arms across her chest.
“Okay thanks. About tomorrow, I won’t be available. Can I take a rain check?” He clasped his hands and pulled them to his mouth.
“Why? What’s happening?” She said, widening her eyes in surprise.
“Lisa’s mom wants to see me tomorrow. We are having lunch.” He said sotto voce.
Tomorrow? They were supposed to spend the morning at Matice, the afternoon at his place, and the evening in the classroom, reading. And she had meant to tell him about the turbulent waves of emotion that rippled through her brain and subdued every sense of reasoning. She had meant to do it tomorrow; her birthday and the third year of their friendship.
“Okay.” She said.
“We are good?”
“Yeah. Why shouldn’t we be?”
“Save it! You disappoint me Mark!” She raised her right hand in the air, eyed him and almost called him a low life bastard, but she shook her head and walked away. She did not have the hardihood to insult him. She batted her eyelids to push back the tears. Mark stood with outstretched arms and an open mouth for a moment before turning back to meet Lisa. Stella secretly wanted him to run after her or say a word. But he did not. She ached in her chest and veered to the right, towards the Faculty of Education. She walked without direction. She simply wanted to leave the environment, wanted a place she could lie supine on a wet grass and cry. She felt rejected and used because he chose Lisa over her.
The sharp smell of a perfume hit her nose and a pleasant talcum fragrance lingered around her. Light steps stomped behind her and she stopped. The step stopped too. She walked and the step trudged further. Her heart beat faster and sweat trickled down her face, mixing with her tears. She licked them. Salty. She squeezed her hands and remembered she was not with a weapon or pepper spray. She breathed slowly then whirled around. An oblong face with black and grey stubbles beheld her. The dim sunscreen eyes held her gaze and a cocky smile revealing the golden tooth impressed her. The huge figure obscured the streak of the street light and her heart beat tripled. Her eyes surveyed his coffee brown long sleeved shirt tucked in cream colored trousers. She took in all of him – his dark eyebrows flecked with grey hair, his shiny, bald head, his bloated stomach and his glossy brown tapered shoes. Was he a lecturer? Was he a student? He looked forty.
“Have you been following me sir?” She blurted, feigning anger but inside she relished the thought of being followed – of catching someone’s attention. The man ignored the question and instead offered her a neatly folded white handkerchief.
“Wipe your eyes, my dear. You have been crying.” He said.
“No, thank you. Sir, why have you been following me?”
“You don’t have to be angry with me. Come, I saw you with a boy – was that your boyfriend?” He paused. “He treated you badly. A beautiful girl like you should not be stood up. Look at your skin, like that of honey. You are even more beautiful than that yellow girl he was with.”
“Thank you, sir, for the compliment.” She smiled at his obvious lie.
“Oh, don’t mention. Please do not call me that – don’t call me sir. My name is Victor, just Victor or Vic for short.” He winked and stretched out his hand for a shake. She smiled and slipped her hand in his and felt his soft palm, smooth. How could this old man have such a soft palm when hers were like sand paper? He obviously did not wash and scrub as much as she did.
He pulled her close to him She could have pushed him back, but a force held her. She really did not want to push him and she did not know why.
“Thank you. Come, the evening is still young. Let’s have fun and forget the worries of this world. I like you and I hope you will like me too – I am sure you will like me – when you get to know me.” He winked at her. He must have sensed it, must have seen that she liked the pull. Ideas swarmed in her head. Ideas she did not understand, but felt at peace with.
“Yes.” She was not sure if she would eventually like him and she did not know what gave him the inkling that she would. She knew nothing of him, except he was assertive in a weird way. He unmasked himself too soon, too soon for her to mask herself. She knew he could not just like her like that but she did not question the possibility. He held her shoulders as they walked towards his car. He opened the door of the black Lincoln Navigator for her before turning round to open his. She found it gentlemanly. She was beginning to like him. He drove towards the university main gate and swerved to the right, towards Precious Palm Royal hotel on the Lagos – Benin express road. On approaching the traffic his hand fell on her thigh. He rubbed it slowly, his eyes fixed on the road as if he did nothing. She felt inclined to stop him but did not. She had known it would come to that besides she did not want him to call her ‘a small girl’. He smiled and looked at her. He probably felt she was enjoying it and so raised his hand to her hair. He picked a braid, “lovely hair” he said and let his hand slip down the pack of braids. He brushed his fingers against her left breast. Her temperature rose and she coughed. She wanted to shout, to caution him, but she did not want him to call her ‘a small girl’. He brushed his hand against her breast again, pretending he was caressing her braid.
“You’ve got nice boobs – firm – like they have never been touched.” He said.
“Thank you.” She mumbled and looked at her breast. They gave the illusion of being large because she was skinny and that seemed to be the only lump of flesh in her. A lewd compliment she never got but abhorred.
“I hope you do not mind my asking what size you wear.”
She raised her scanty eyebrows and creased her bulbous forehead in a frown. Was he asking her for permission or asking already? She did not want to answer because the question irritated her. She went quiet, tightened her eyes and imagined she was not in the car. She thought of jumping out.
“Did I offend you? Forgive my manners. You have not told me your name.” He looked at her then removed his hand and turned down the radio. He must have needed to do something, because the radio was low, and so was his voice.
“Nmazuelim.” She said in a bland tone. That was her middle name. Few people knew her by the name.
“That’s a pretty name for a pretty face. I am sorry about that, please.” He touched her nose. “Pointed nose, I think you should pierce it with a gold stud. It would suit your skin.”
“Thank you.” She laughed at his lines and his effort to assuage her.
“I am serious. I have one in my room.” He paused. “Beautiful girl.”
That made her smile. She liked the fact that he paused before calling her beautiful. It had the appearance of truth. He was the first person to call her beautiful, maybe that was why she smiled. Because every day when she looked at her greatest enemy – the mirror, she tried without success to convince herself that she was beautiful. She had hoped that Mark would say it even if it was a careless remark and he soon realize how wrong he was. Even if it was not in the way he spoke about Genevieve and Omotola, in that thoughtful way, with a distant look and the zeal with which an Artist or Painter appreciates his beautiful painting. Now that she thought about it, it occurred to her that he never mentioned Lisa who was the incumbent campus queen. She shuddered, not as a result of the harmattan wind that froze the air, but from the shiver that passed through her whenever she thought of Lisa. The compliments Stella got from her peers were usually on how intelligent she was. When she walked alone people pointed her out in a crowd or class or cafe and said, “That’s the school scholar. She might graduate with a 5.0 GP. She has been on that since her first year.” And sometimes when another fraction came closer they said, stepping backward and with a bewildered expression, “Oh! You have fine natural nails that need no polish!” As though they were surprised that she could have a bit of beauty stowed away somewhere in her ugliness. Stella began to see her intelligence more as a curse than a blessing. The anger brewing inside simmered down and the thought of leaving the car flew out of the rolled down window.
He drove into the illumined Precious Palm Royal hotel where a grove of palm trees bordered the path to yellow painted buildings that stretched down the road, into the clumps of flame trees. He parked in the crowded garage and asked her to wait. She said she wanted to go in with him but he wagged his head instead and pulled her face to his. For a moment she thought many things. She shut her eyes tight and froze. He pecked her on the cheek. A soft kiss. It could not have lasted more than three seconds. It was light, like a little grazing. She did not feel herself. She did not know if she breathed. She could not look at his face because she did not want her eyes to betray her. She felt her mind was betraying her already. His hand left her chin and the car door opened and closed. She still could not open her eyes. She breathed slowly. She could not decide what she wanted. She did not know what she was doing in his car, why she was there and why she felt these sensations. She only knew that she liked the peck. It was gentle, soft, and lasting. It made her come alive. Her phone beeped, jolting her out of her state of bliss and she opened her eyes. It was Mark. She switched off her phone and breathed in the draught that flushed her face. She touched the chair, the seat belt and twiddled her thumb. She touched her cheek and color rose upon her brown face. She was twenty years old and had never been kissed. Not on her cheek, not on her lips, not on her forehead and not on her fingers – the only part of her body that she was proud of and considered cute. She always got a shake or pat from her parents. That was the only affection they showed in appreciation of her excellent results. But now, this man that she barely knew under some few minutes kissed her. And it did not look like a histrionic gesture.
The door opened and closed. He was in. She opened her eyes. He threw a brown envelope on the backseat and gave her an album; a song mix. He said she should select the song she wanted to play. She wanted to tell him to caress her braid again, a little longer and to peck her, a little longer. But her throat was dry. He turned on the stereo. She scanned through the selection and pressed N0 7. It was Celine Dion’s track – If walls could talk. It was her best song but at that moment, she could not sing aloud.
If walls could talk, ooh… they would say I want you more
They would say, hey… ever felt like this before?
She sang each verse in her mind.
“Nice song choice.” He smiled and drove out of the hotel.
He said nothing and she said nothing more. He drove past the university gate and she wondered where they were going. She wanted to ask him why he changed his mind about Precious Palm Royal and if he was going to the club, but her throat was dry and itchy. She just nodded to the song. She focused on the dark road glittering with strings of multicolored lights coiled around the trimmed cone-shaped willow trees that bordered the verge. He made a U-turn and she wanted to ask him if he forgot something, but she could not find the words. The music stopped and he replayed it. They both looked at each other and Victor looked away. She saw something different in his eyes. The cockiness was gone and replaced by something soft or warm in his narrowed eyes. Could it be vulnerability or fragility beneath a hard surface? But in the same moment, it was gone, gone as fast as it came. Maybe her eyes betrayed her.
“You must really love this song. The effect is all over you.” He said.
“Yeah.” That was all she could mutter.
He drove into the university gate. What was he doing again? Was he going into the Guest House? The Guest House may be fully booked and students would be there. She might even see Lisa because she was a habitué. She wanted to tell him that she did not want to go there. If this was going to be her first time, then she wanted an unknown place. A place she did not know. It should not happen in her backyard. But she did not tell him. She fixed her eyes on the red Ixora hedges that lined the road beside the Sports Complex and Main Auditorium. She watched the students jostling and trudging with heavy books as they entered and left the John Harris Library. She bounced on the seat when the car galloped beside Access Bank. She was close to Hall 1, her hostel. He pulled up in front of the hostel and she turned towards him, her face glistening with sweat.
“Why?” The word stumbled out in a rasp.
“Thank you.” He said instead, his hands on the steering.
“I have not done anything.”
“Thank you for making me do nothing.”
“I don’t understand you. Why did you pick me if you wanted to do nothing?”
“You are beautiful Nmazuelim. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. No one is worth it. And you are not cut out for this.”
Her eyelids drooped and the tears stood and refused to fall. Why was he playing with her? Why did he not tell her before the drive? How could he just sit back and talk quietly as if nothing happened? Did he think she did not see the look in his eyes earlier? He stretched his hand to the backseat and pulled out a brown envelope, the one he threw in earlier and gave to her.
“What is it?” She asked, looking at it.
“I want you to open it tomorrow. When you do, please give me a call.”
“I’ll take you out.”
He gave her his phone number and that seemed to make her feel better.
“Goodnight.” She said and stepped out of the car. He nodded and waved her goodbye. She watched him drive and a part of her wanted to run after him. She blinked at the indomitable feeling that clouded her limpid eyes. Rejection. Again.
She stayed awake through the night. Sleep eluded her. Morning found her in bed waiting for it. She thought of Victor but did not think of the envelope. She thought that last night could have been a disaster or an indelible scar or a blessing. When her roommates left the room, she tore the envelope with extreme urgency. There were two smaller envelopes. She tore the first one open and there was a note which read, ‘You remind me so much of my wife. Thank you.’ She tore the second envelope. It contained a fat wad of Naira notes and a note which read, ‘I had intended to give this to some random girl after some rounds. But I am glad you have it instead.’ She felt a heavy weight on her. It was as though a sack of Royal Stallion parboiled rice was placed on her head. And her neck shrunk from the weight. She heaved. She held her nape and cried, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. She cried because she did not want to remind him of his wife or anybody. She dialed the number he gave her and got an automated response. ‘The number you are dialing does not exist.’ She dialed many times and still got the same response. And then she scrutinized the number. It really did not exist. No network had that number.
Image: Jeff Kubina