Chima was as moody as the devil. Moodier if that was possible. He prowled his office attached to the Dreams Table Water factory like a bear with a boil on its arse. That was Uche’s description, grunted out a minute ago and both him and his irritating comparison were making Chima’s mood worse.
“So, it’s certain now that she’s dating this Bernard guy?”
Chima growled a cuss, kicked the bin he had by his table.
That was his response and Uche took it as such. “Damn, I did say you were going to run her into the arms of another man if you hounded her too closely.” He said, then blew out a breath and added in a considering tone. “But might be she really wants this guy and is not after running from you at all.”
“She doesn’t want Naeto!” Because the temptation to stamp his foot itched, Chima planted both feet in place on the wood tiled floor. “She saw Marie with me at Zen Garden and misread the situation.”
“You were at the Zen Garden with Marie? I didn’t know you two were seeing each other.”
“Of course we are not seeing each other.” Chima added an indistinct oath to his impatient denial. “We only ran into each other at the restaurant’s parking lot.”
“I see.” Uche made a thoughtful hmm. “So, you ran into Marie at the parking lot of the Zen Garden and then Kobi and this Naeto also ran into you two. But if they were already together, coming out of the restaurant, what’s making you think then that she’s with the guy just to slap him in your face… so to speak.”
At Chima’s hiss, he gave a slight smile and continued comfortably. “Because it looks to me like she might already have chosen this guy and that choice has absolutely nothing to do with her seeing you and Marie together. In fact, it is arrogantly presumptuous you thinking that way, in my opinion.”
“It is not arrogant or presumptuous and I didn’t ask for your opinion on the matter.” He didn’t want an opinion. He didn’t want a debate. He wanted only Kobi. “I saw the displeasure in her eyes once she saw Marie beside me. If she and Naeto were already together in that way, she wouldn’t have given a second’s damn even if she found me with twelve naked women.”
“Hmm.” Uche pinched his nose, the eyes he stared at him with half amused eyes. “So, she had displeasure in her eyes, eh? Might it be you and Marie were too cosy with each other in that parking lot?”
“Me and Marie were nothing. I don’t give a rat’s ass damn about Marie, not three years ago, not that evening and not ever.”
“That’s cold. But hope you made it clear to her? Her being Marie.”
“Crystal.” Chima snapped. Then slumped down beside Uche on the leather sofa and breathed into the hands he pressed against his face. “I feel like I’m losing her, Uche. I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want another man being with her, touching her, being in her heart. I want her back. I want her back as mine. Mine only.”
“But she’s Naeto Bernard’s now.”
It hurt his heart to hear it. Hurt his pride to accept it. “I would never allow her to be, Uche.”
“Don’t see how you can stop her.” Uche murmured. “She’s a free agent and you have no hold over her. Maybe you should let her go, man.” He gave his shoulder a sympathetic rub. “She’s made her choice, Chima, and it’s best to accept it and move on. Find yourself another woman. God knows there’re plenty of them out there.”
“I don’t want another woman.” He couldn’t think of another woman. Not when his thoughts roiled with only Kobi. “I don’t want to move on. Damn it, I tried to move on and couldn’t. I tried to let her go, to push her out of my life, out of my heart, but it was impossible.” He raised his head, stared at Uche with eyes that have narrowed into determined slits. “She’s mine, Uche. Kobi’s mine and I mean to get her back.”
“She’s with another man, Chima.”
“His ring is not on her finger.” And it never would be, he swore to himself.
“A ring is just symbolism. It is what’s in the heart that matters, Chima.”
“Good then. Because I, and only I, am what’s in Kobi’s heart. It is me she loves and not Naeto Bernard.”
“Christ! You were always headstrong.” Uche muttered.
He intended to be whatever he had to be and to do whatever he had to do to get back Kobi.
And after Uche left and his mind started roiling once more with thoughts of what next to do, Chima got into his car and headed in the direction he recalled Ifeoma Ikeobi’s supermarket to be.
He was led into the small office behind a row of shelves by a shop attendant. Three years had not changed Ifeoma Ikeobi noticeably, Chima decided. They’d briefly encountered each other outside Kobi’s office at The Big Mall but he’d been seething with impatience to notice much of anything that day.
But now, when he was at ease, he could really look and he saw that marriage and childbirth apparently still refused to do any damage to her physical appearance. Where Kobi had been big and curvaceous, she’d been stick slim and streamlined. And where he’d found Kobi intensely attractive, he’d considered Ifeoma only lovely to look at.
“Chima Obi-Ikendu. What a surprise!” Her voice and her smile were still the same, soft and pleasant. She gestured to the armchair. “Please, sit. May I offer you anything? Or did you purchase something from the store you wish to have changed? Though I must warn you that we are not big on returns here like The Big Mall.”
Because she teased, Chima smiled. And because he’d perceived her, those few times they’d met and talked, as a woman who was never afraid to say her mind or too restrained to have a little fun, he’d respected and liked her.
“I haven’t made a purchase yet. But I’m sure when I do, there won’t be any complaints.” He leisurely crossed his legs, leisurely surveyed her. “Long time, Mrs Ikeobi. How are you these days? And your family? You have a little girl now, right?” She’d been visibly pregnant when he’d last met her and Uche had supplied the unsolicited information that she’d birthed a baby girl.
“I do indeed, and we are all well.” She smiled the smile of a contented woman. “How are you, Chima? It was a surprise hearing that you’re fully back in Lagos. Didn’t think you ever will.”
“Because I messed up big time?”
“Did you?” The glint in her eyes was a flash of pure amusement.
“I did.” He kept his own eyes serious. “But I’m a Lagos born and bred, so this is my home. Still, my coming back is mostly for Kobi.”
“Yes, it is.”
She studied him. In the way a person might carefully examine and evaluate another person. Then she leaned forward in her chair. “Why are you here, Chima? I can’t believe you just remembered Kobi’s old girlfriend and decided to pay her a friendly visit.”
“Actually that’s the case–I remembered you and decided to pay you a friendly visit.” He liked the way her neatly trimmed and penciled eyebrows rose in a don’t-bullshit-me arch. “I also came because I need your help.”
“You need my help?” Her surprise seemed genuine. “How?”
“I want Kobi back.”
“I’ve heard that bit of surprising information.” Though her tone didn’t change, her expression went from genial to suspicious. “Why?”
Chima uncrossed his legs, leaned forward and locked his eyes with hers. “I am in love with Kobi.”
She said nothing. Her eyes didn’t flicker until a few seconds ticked by. She looked through his eyes into his soul, Chima thought. Or maybe it was into his heart. Suspicion persisted for a minute, then it tittered off and something like acceptance took its place.
Not trust, but acceptance of something likely to be the truth.
“I think I believe you.” She finally said and in a matter-of-fact voice.
“It’s the truth. A truth I’m not finding funny at all. Especially as Kobi’s refusing to believe it or trust me.”
“That is expected, is it not? You messed with Marie, gave no excuses or apologies, let her break up your relationship and left the city about a week later.” She sat back and angled her head. “Those are not the actions of a man in love, Chima.”
“No, they are not.” He agreed with a grim nod. “But they are the actions of a man scared shitless and running away from love.”
Again, she considered him before she inclined her head. “I guess that’s a possible reaction. But if that was your reaction–scared to let yourself love her–why then are you back and willing to do so now?”
“I couldn’t forget her. I couldn’t expunge her from my heart. And I promise you, Ifeoma, I tried everything I could to rip her out of my heart.” Frustration bit, like it had bitten so many times in the past. “I did things that I wasn’t proud of to get my heart to stop feeling and my body to stop yearning for her.”
“Like fucking Marie in the bed you shared with her?”
He winced, not at the blunt speaking, but at the sting of shame. “Would it have made a difference if wasn’t on the bed we’ve shared together?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Ifeoma responded after the shortest silence. “Only as humans we mourn such trivial details because for whatever reason, they deepen the cut to our heart, or our pride.”
Chima nodded. “That was my biggest mistake… not the use of my bed, but giving in to Marie, taking her even when I knew it was the worst kind of betrayal.”
“It made you an asshole and it ripped at something inside of Kobi. She loved you too much then, in my opinion.”
He winced this time at the deliberate use of past tense. “I know. I cared for her from the beginning. I enjoyed the woman she was–open, generous, ambitious, loving—and I sort of enjoyed the fact that she was in love with me and was all mine in that special way.”
It had been like a soothing balm on an old wound, he remembered. “I didn’t plan on falling in love with her. Heck, I didn’t plan on hanging that long with her. Five, six months used to be my relationship timeline. But with Kobi… she was special. She made me feel special. She made me fall in love.”
Because even now it baffled him, Chima frowned at the intensity of emotions vibrating through him. “I didn’t know it could happen, not to me. But it happened and I wasn’t expecting it, and I couldn’t figure it out and I wanted it ripped out of me. So… I messed up.”
“You messed up and now, it is too late.” Ifeoma said, gave her head a single nod, her eyes both sympathetic and matter-of-fact. “She’s with Naeto now.”
“She doesn’t love him.”
“It doesn’t mean she’s still in love with you.”
“Is she not, Ifeoma?”
“Is that why you’re here, Chima?” There was a slight frown on her face. “Are you here so I can tell you that Kobi’s in love with you?”
It was, wasn’t it? Chima realised it and felt that small sting of humiliation. So, he shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe I am losing my mind and acting crazy these days.” He snorted a laugh that was self-deprecatory. “I’m certainly acting stupid. Telling her, repeatedly and with no encouragement or interest from her, that I love her and then coming here to tell you same. Crazy, stupid… pathetic.”
“Maybe it’s crazy. But I don’t know that it’s stupid, or even pathetic.”
Her eyes were kindly even though a little amused. Chima shook his head. “I can’t do without her, Ifeoma. I want her back in my life. I want her to build a home and a family with me.”
“You want to marry her.”
Chima nodded at the quiet statement. “I do. I’ve never wanted anything like I want that.”
“You really hurt her, Chima. She loved you so much and seeing you with Marie broke her heart in a way it has never been broken before. It wasn’t just a betrayal of the love she’d willingly given you.” Ifeoma shook her head. “It was more the scorning of the woman she physically was. You chose Marie–slim, fit, sexy… slutty Marie. It was a stomp on her pride, a blow on her already wobbly self-esteem.”
“I never had a problem with Kobi’s physique, Ifeoma. I liked her the way she was. Darn it, I enjoyed her that way.”
“It seemed to her you enjoyed Marie same way.”
“I didn’t even see Marie. Gosh, I’ve never cared much for the skinny slim type.” Chima swore, at himself, at his stupidity. At the mistake that had cost him. “It was just sex. Sex I wouldn’t have welcomed if I wasn’t hell-bent on ridding myself of those feelings that had me panicked. The sex and Marie meant nothing. I am not proud to say it, but Marie meant nothing, Ifeoma.”
“And maybe I shouldn’t say it, but hearing you say that gives me immense satisfaction.”
Chima chuckled. Then he quickly sobered up. “Do I stand a chance, Ifeoma?”
“Love always stands a chance. But it is for you to find out if she still loves you. I cannot tell you that.” Her eyes and mouth smiled. “I can tell you though that a change of tactics would likely be more beneficial. Sometimes, a sneak in gets us faster through the door than a stomp.”
Chima stared at her. Then he too smiled. “You know, I have a debit card that’s got some change in it and I am in a supermarket. Shouldn’t I be shopping?”
“That you should be.” Ifeoma grinned as she got up. “And I must tell you that at Lucky Day Supermarket, we just love to exchange our goods for more than some change.”
“I think I can do better than some then.”
Kobi wondered if she was hearing right. Chima had been at Ifeoma’s supermarket and he’d confessed his love for her to Ifeoma?
What the heck!
“I believe him, Kobi.”
The softly stated words aggravated Kobi’s flickering temper. “Why? Because he said so?”
“No. Because he looked so. I saw what he truly felt in his eyes, Kobi. His emotions are raw and out there. He loves you, Kobi.”
“I don’t love him!”
“No, I don’t.” She tightened her mouth, hardened her heart. “I will never again love Chima. I loved him once, with all my heart, with everything I’ve got.” How could it still hurt so much? “I gave him all of myself, but he discarded me. Discarded me and chose Marie.” Bastard! The cuss hovered on her lips but since a sob trembled behind it, Kobi clamped it down.
“Are you taking revenge on him, Kobi?”
“Of course not! What is wrong with you, Ifeoma? I care about Naeto.”
“Yes, you do. You care for Naeto but would you ever love him?”
“I…” Would she ever? Kobi blinked. “I would learn to love him, Ifeoma. He’s a good man. Love doesn’t always have to happen at once or be this gut-staggering feeling that takes our breath away. Sometimes, even many times, it just slowly builds up as we get to know the other person.”
“Are you sure, Kobi? Because it is Naeto’s feelings, Naeto’s heart on the line if you’re not in this relationship with him—body, mind and heart.”
“I am certain, Ifeoma. I know my own heart. My heart wants nothing more to do with Chima.”
There was a pause. Then a sigh. Then Ifeoma said quietly. “Be sure you are not making a mistake, Kobi. Be sure it’s not pain or anger driving you into Naeto’s arms.”
“Affection, respect and mutual understanding are what’s driving me into Naeto’s arms. He’s the man for me. The only man I want.” Kobi breathed, settled her heart in place. “Leave this, Ifeoma. Leave it alone because I know what I’m doing.”
Kobi saw him as she approached her house and cussed loudly and viciously. She stormed out of the car, her temper wild and boiling as she stomped towards him.
“What the hell are you doing here, Chima?”
“I’m sorry I’m here without notice.”
The quiet tone and apology stumped her, diffused some of her anger. “Why are you here? What do you want?”
“To talk. I just want to talk to you, Kobi.”
She stared at him. He was clad in dark denims and a dark long-sleeved sweatshirt. He looked calm, almost apologetic, and hauntingly rugged. She didn’t want him there at her gate. She didn’t want to talk to him.
“We have nothing to say to each other, Chima.”
“I have something to say and I am asking you to please hear me out.”
Her head, the only part of her she was listening to these days, objected. Yet, she hesitated.
“Please, Kobi. Hear me out. Thirty minutes.”
“All right. Thirty minutes and only to talk.” She pushed open the pedestrian gate and went through.
Inside, she flicked on her lights and gestured to a seat. “Have a seat and give me a minute to take off my heels and drop my handbag.”
“Thank you.” He simply said and sat.
She turned and walked inside. In her bedroom, Kobi pressed a hand against her stomach and breathed deeply to settle herself. He was in her apartment, like he used to when she had only one room and a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom. He’d share that tiny bathroom with her and share her bed afterwards. Only a couple of times, because most times, they were at his own apartment and shared his own bed.
The bed he’d been sharing with Marie that day.
Forget it, she ordered herself, moved to slip off her shoes. Listen to him and then get rid off him.
She returned into the living room to find he’s gotten up and was staring at a collection of picture frames on her tidbits shelf. Resentment suddenly burned that he was there, staring at her picture.
But she kept her voice cool when she asked. “Would you like a drink?”
He turned his head, shook it. “No, thank you. You’ve really changed. You always looked amazing, but now you look spectacular.”
“I’m still a size 16.” She didn’t want his compliments. “I have some good many pounds to shed yet.”
“You look beautiful as you are, Kobi. You always did.”
“I know. But I will lose those pounds… for me.” She sat, faced him with her calmest expression. “So, what did you want to talk about, Chima? Your thirty minutes is ticking by.”
“That it is.” He resumed his seat, linked his hands on his laps and looked at him. After half a minute, he raised his eyes to hers. “My mother left my father when I was thirteen. I’d just gotten into J.S.S.3 and I came home that day to find her bags-ready and only waiting to tell me goodbye.”
The subject of discussion surprised Kobi. She’d expected… something else. Anything else.
“She wasn’t crying but her eyes were red-rimmed. She said she couldn’t take me with her. She would like to, but my father wouldn’t let her. She said she wasn’t leaving because of me, but she couldn’t stay either. It wasn’t working, their marriage that is.” Chima absently picked the coaster on the side low coffee table and started running his hand over it.
“My father stood there like a sentry officer, watching her, us like a hawk and doing nothing to stop her. Neither of them spoke to each other. I guess they must have said whatever they needed to say before my return from school.” He shrugged and set down the coaster, his eyes never shifting from hers.
“I was scared. I was confused. I was angry and I was hurt. I felt like she was leaving me, not just her husband, but also me, her son. I felt like she hadn’t fought hard enough to take me with her. Or maybe that she shouldn’t have thrown in the towel and decided leave.
“I blamed her, even more than I blamed him. She was my mother. She shouldn’t be leaving me. She should stay for my sake, if for no other reason. But it wasn’t her fault.” His eyes softened as he said. “I blamed her but I knew it wasn’t her fault. I was only thirteen but I knew it. My father was a difficult man. Too traditional, too critical, too inflexible, too religious and righteous. He was always right and everyone else, especially her, was wrong.
“I heard them quarrel often. All the time. He criticised everything she did. He criticised more her job as a broadcaster, her fashion style, her liveliness and just about anything and everything about her. I think, later as I grew up, I started to think that he was maybe threatened by her.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “She was, is a beautiful woman, cultured, eloquent, easily admirable. I guess he was scared she would leave him, and at the end, she did. But that wasn’t her fault, not solely. But those days, those years, heck, up until maybe last week, I blamed her and couldn’t forgive her for walking out and leaving with him.
“But she couldn’t have taken me with her. He wouldn’t let her. I was his only child, his son, I wasn’t going nowhere. Over the years, he would stand in my way of seeing her. Not that I much wanted to.” He added with a short laugh. “She had left me, and even though I did not want to acknowledge it, she had broken it and I was hurting and refused to let go that hurt.
“So, I was never eager to see her, especially after she married Richard Brown and had George and Tamara. But she would persist and when my father was feeling generous, he would permit me to spend holidays with them. Sometimes, odd weekends. I learned to like and respect her husband. He was good to me, still is. And my siblings, well, it was nice to be an only child anymore. But I resented her. I resented her for a long, long time.”
He stopped talking and just stared at her. Then he frowned a little and continued to speak. “My resentment of her built into an unconscious resentment of women, relationships and love. My own mother left me, I didn’t trust any woman not to. Hers and my father’s relationship was my first example and it didn’t last, so I didn’t believe in relationships and avoided them.
“And love, that was just a word. Or something people said to excuse their doing certain things. I scorned on it and wanted nothing to do with it.”
A smile, slight and self-mocking, played about his mouth. “I guess scorning some things doesn’t stop them from happening to you. You came into my life—well, I saw you at The Big Mall and instantly wanted you. What I didn’t think would happen was that I’d stay in a relationship with you for nine months. Or that I’d start liking the feeling of you falling in love with me and telling me that you were.”
The smile widened a little. “And I sure didn’t expect me to start feeling the same. I didn’t know how it happened. God, who knows how love happens. But it did. I started feeling things. I started thinking too much about you. I started thinking of a future, a permanent future with you… and I panicked.
“I just panicked and… and I made a mistake with Marie. I thought I could kill those growing feelings. If I had sex with her it would stamp out the feelings that were scaring the shit out of me. But you found us. You walked in that evening, maybe I wanted you to walk in and find us, I don’t know. But you did and I saw your heart break, saw your anger and then you ended things between us and I felt relieved.”
He gave his head a slight shake. “I swear it, I felt pure utter relief. I felt free again. And when I got the job offer the very next day, I grabbed it and took off to Port Harcourt. A clean start and no more dreamy feelings, I told myself. But that was wishful thinking, because no matter what I did, you stayed in my heart and love wouldn’t go away.
“Three years and I finally accepted it was futile, and so when I was laid off, I figured it was time I confronted those feelings and confessed them.” He snorted a short laugh. “Only it was too late. You’ve moved and no matter what I’m saying, truth is I’ve lost you.”
He blinked, smiled faintly. “I guess tonight, I just want to say I’m sorry, Kobi. I am sorry for hurting you. I am sorry for breaking your trust and your heart, and even more for making you feel like there was something wrong with you. Because, Kobi, there wasn’t. You were perfect. Perfect the way you looked and perfect for me. But I was too stupid to know then. Forgive me for hurting you, Kobi.”
Kobi stared at him. She opened her mouth, shut it again and then inhaled deeply. Then she nodded. “Thank you for telling me… all these and for apologising. I’m sorry about what your mum leaving did to you. I hope, um, that you two become closer.”
“We are trying to. I mean, I am giving us the chance to.”
“That is good. I think she’s a nice woman.” Kobi clamped her hands together on her laps. “Um, about us… well, there is no us anymore. I am with Naeto and that is because I want to be with him. I… I wish you would find someone else. I know you would if you try.”
Chima nodded. “I guess I would. Naeto is a very lucky man. Kobi, I hope we can be friends. I’d hate for there to be enmity between us.”
Something surged through her. It felt like panic. “Chima, I don’t think we can be friends.”
“Please.” His eyes appealed to her. “I can’t bear to entirely lose you. Give me this one small thing—your friendship.”
Kobi stared at him, while her heart pounded. It was impossible. They couldn’t be friends, not ever. “Chima, I am with Naeto now and I won’t ever change my mind.”
“I know. I’ve finally accepted it, I’ve lost you and you’ve chosen him.” He gave a rueful smile. “The mistake was mine and the punishment of never having you is mine alone to bear. I am only asking you to give me a little solace by being friends with me. You were the only woman who completely made me happy, well, after she left. Let me recapture part of that feeling through friendship, please.”
“Ah…” Kobi inhaled. “All right. We can be friends. Just friends.”
“Friends.” He reached for her hand, gave it a quick squeeze even as she stiffened and let it go. Then he stood up. “Thank you for this, Kobi. I’ll let you get your dinner now and some sleep.”
“All right.” She walked him to the door. “Goodnight, Chima.”
Kobi returned to the living room, stood at the centre of it and left her mind to run over the night’s events. She blinked when her eyes blurred.
“Three years too late.” She murmured and blinked again. “You are three years, Chima. I am with Naeto now and I can’t hurt him.”
She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.
She exhaled, rubbed a hand down her front, clutched a second underneath her left breast and then walked into her bedroom to undress.
Her phone started to ring just as she slipped off her skirt.
Kobi picked it up and frowned mildly at the strange number before lifting to her ear. “Hello.”
“Hey Kobi, it’s me.”
“Chima? How did you get my number?”
“Oh, my mum was gracious enough to give it to me.”
“Hey, I thought we’re friends now. Friends call each other, right?”
Kobi closed her eyes. Surely this was going to be a mistake? “Why are you calling, Chima?”
“I just want to say thank you for forgiving me, Kobi. It means so much to me.”
“Ah, okay. You’re welcome. Goodnight now.”
“Sleep tight, Kobi.”
She dropped the phone. What had she done? How was friendship ever going to be possible between them?
Weary and unwilling to think about her too many confusing emotions, she tugged off her underwear and strode into the bathroom.