“It’s not going to work. We can barely stay in the same room for longer than five minutes. Her death only momentarily put aside our differences but did not eliminate it.” Kristi lamented to Cheta inside the warm and aroma-scented kitchen of Mama’s Kitchen.
This was her friend. He had been for six years since they met at a corporate event he was catering in Calabar. When he’d wanted a change of scenery, she’d encouraged Mama to snatch him up before another restaurant did. He was the best cook she knew, and one who sorely hated being called a cook. Best of all though, he was her listening ear when she wanted to talk, or vent.
“We are no longer a couple. We’re not a unit anymore, so how can we run a restaurant together?” And she added, because this was simply the truth. “Besides, the restaurant should have been handed over to Levi. Only to him. He was her son; her only child.”
Cheta, chef—and he considered that his many years of culinary training had earned him that title—a practical man and wise for his young age, in his opinion, set the snails he’d painstakingly cleaned on the granite stone counter and picked up the plate of peeled onions.
“It will remain a puzzle to us why she left the restaurant to you two, not just her son. Although we can hazard a guess and likely not be wrong. But that is not important. What is important, and at the moment, is that both of you running this place together can work.” He talked calmly as he sliced onions. “It’s all a matter of deciding to put aside your differences and working past it.”
“We don’t have differences, Cheta. We’re a married couple that are now separated.” Because onions had the bad habit of stinging her eyes, she shifted to the deep freezer and propped her back against it. “We should be thinking of making that separation permanent, not trying to manage a restaurant together like chummy business partners.”
“Is that what you’re considering these days, a permanent separation between you two?” He threw her a glance before he set aside the sliced onions and started on the habanero pepper.
It was always a marvel to her how he never seemed to suffer from dealing so closely with onion and pepper. “I don’t know what I’m considering. But it’s inevitable now, isn’t it? We’ve been apart going on two years, so why continue to pretend like we can work things out?”
“But you can work things out. If you both want to.”
Since he has switched pepper for tomatoes, de-seeding them before he started slicing, Kristi returned to perch on her stool. “Oh, Cheta, I don’t know what Levi wants and sometimes, I wonder if what I want is even possible. I never wanted us apart this long. I never wanted us apart at all. But we are and it’s probably because it suits one of us, if not the two of us.”
“Or, it’s probably because neither of you have done nothing to initiate a reconciliation.” Cheta pointed out, moved to light the cooker, poured half a litre of water into a pot and set it on the fire.
“Well, that’s on him, not me.” Kristi shrugged. “He did the wrong, not I.”
“True.” He set the snails to cook and reached for another pot for the tomatoes and peppers. “But you’re suffering for that wrong just as he is, are you not?”
“So, what should I do, go back to him when he’s not proven himself to be remorseful?”
“Oh, come now, Kristi, you know he was remorseful.” Since he had to wait for the snails to cook right, Cheta strode to refrigerator to get out the drumsticks and wings he’d marinated and left to set. “He asked your forgiveness, twice, but you wouldn’t forgive him.”
“I was still raw. Still too heartbroken then to hear anyone, or anything, but my own pain.” Kristi defended, her eyes flashing. “He should have tried again, not give up and go about living his life like I mattered nothing.”
“Maybe.” Because he understood her outburst, he spoke gently. “But all that’s done now, isn’t it? The girl’s gone, the child’s gone, so it’s time to think of the future. Your future together, if you want one.” He angled his head to study her. “What do you want, Kristi?”
“What do you want, Kristi?” Kristi repeated his question, exhaled to dispel the burst of temper and snorted a mocking laugh. “What do I want but the same thing I’ve always wanted? I’m the predictable woman, am I not? He cheated on me, even got the girl pregnant, but here I am pining for him and wanting him back in my life. Predictable and sad, right?”
“Not necessarily.” Cheta said. “It’s not sad to let love win.”
“You would say that, wouldn’t you?” Kristi scoffed with a roll of her eyes. “You’re after all a man and men stick together.”
“I’m in your camp, not his.” Cheta chided, gave her a playful jab and shifted to stir one of his pots. “Love doesn’t have to be complicated, Kristi. It doesn’t have to be excused. It doesn’t have to be explained. You loved this man and married him primarily for that reason. That love doesn’t have to end because he failed and hurt you. In fact, it is proof of that love that despite his failings, you still want him.”
“And what is proof of his own love?” Kristi wanted to know.
“That he hasn’t yet initiated a divorce?”
Kristi thought about that. Maybe. Or… “She would never have approved of a divorce. Maybe that’s why he never tried to initiate one.”
“The man loved his mother, no one who knew them ever doubted that. But he was never tied to her apron strings.” Cheta aimed her a pointed stare. “If he wanted a divorce, he would have pursued one, with or without his mother’s approval. And you, Kristi, know that.”
Maybe she did. “Or, he’s never found any reason to initiate one. Maybe if he met someone, someone he really wanted, he would decide to finish things between us.”
“Maybe you’re looking for excuses to complicate this. It’s the way of women, after all.” He turned off the fire under the tomato and pepper sauce and came back to join her on the counter. “Maybe it’s not so much of a puzzle why Mama left you two this place. She wanted you both back together. Maybe, just maybe, she might succeed in her matchmaking as she once did before.”
“Or, maybe she will fail this time because you can create a path but you can’t make a way out of it unless it’s really one.” Kristi countered.
“Oh boy, you’re really full of excuses.” Cheta said and pushed up to go back to his snails. “See why I love cooking? Food never complicates matters. It’s food and it stays food.”
“But I’m not complicating matters. I’m a woman and I just want to be treated like the woman in this matter—be pacified like an offended goddess.” Kristi protested and then laughed at his loud snort.
The first thing he’d wanted to be was a doctor. A doctor who strolled around the wards, accompanied by a nurse and telling patients what was wrong with them. That ambition had been birthed when he was seven and had to be hospitalised a few days from a poor case of pneumonia. But at the end of the day, he’d wound up a pharmacist and owner of Vita Pharmacy, and Levi never regretted it. He wasn’t one to dwell on regrets anyway.
“Okay, there you go. Keep that foot off the ground and be back for a fresh dressing by Friday.” He gave the dazzle-eyed boy a bump on the chin before going over to wash his hands on the sink.
“Say thank you to the doctor.” His mother, calm now her little boy’s leg wasn’t going to be lost after all, instructed and said it before he did. “Thank you, doctor. You were amazing. And sorry, I went crazy on you earlier.” She added with a laugh.
“I see crazy every now and then, goes with the job, so it’s cool.” Levi grinned. What was amazing, in his opinion, was getting to be called ‘doctor’ despite not being one. The magic of the white coat. “The analgesic will help should he be in pain, but staying off the foot will mostly do the work.”
“I’ll make sure he does just that.” The mother promised, got to her feet and helped her son to one of his. “We’ll see you Friday, doctor.”
“Thank you, doctor.” The boy said now with a proud grin and a wave.
“See you Friday.” Levi grinned back. He probably thought himself a hero for getting a deep gash from a swinging machete.
“May I come in, doctor?”
Levi lifted his eyes to his door and watched the man in dark grey suit stroll in with his grin in place. “You’re already in as I see.” He said to Tekena. “Not closed for work before five p.m., are you?”
“Ima wants me home early for dinner.” Tekena lowered into his guest chair, smoothly crossed his long legs and cocked his head to the side. “How are you?”
That would be why he was there, to look in on him, make sure he was okay. Tekena Cookey wasn’t big on emotions but he was a friend, one who cared, when you needed him. Friends since meeting at the NYSC Orientation Camp, Kaduna, Levi has found him to be a man with focused direction. He thought through a thing before he ventured into it and rarely made erroneous judgements. Except when he’d dated and married his first wife, Jade. But he’d bounced back and now, he had Ima and she was pure gold. A fact that made Levi content because he’d seen that from the get-go of meeting her.
“I’m good.” He effortlessly rolled out of his thoughts and gave his shoulders a casual lift. “It’s just been five weeks but I’m learning to not expect her to be there again. She’s gone, for good.”
“She’s in a better place.” Tekena actually believed that. Iheoma Azuike had been a saintly woman. “And Kristi, how’s she?”
“Fine, I should think. Haven’t seen her since the reading of the will.” Levi picked a paperweight on his table and toyed with it between his palms. “I don’t get why she did it though. I don’t get why she would leave the restaurant to both of us.”
“Of course you get why she did it.” Tekena said. “She wanted to force you and Kristi to deal with each other, so you can bring an end to this pointless separation.”
The reproving tone didn’t surprise or offend him. Tekena liked Kristi, respected her, and like his mother, probably thought her to be the only woman for him.
“That kind of after death manipulation might not work, Tekena.” He didn’t see how it could. “We’ve been separated too long. We both live our own lives now. We don’t even get along anymore. There’s this wall between us and we can’t get past it.”
“You got along plenty the last few weeks and I never saw the wall.”
“Brought together by shared grief. She loved my mother sincerely, there’s no denying that and that feeling was mutual between them. But there is a wall and maybe it’s an unbreakable wall.” He dumped the paperweight and threw up one hand in exasperation. “She shouldn’t have done this, Tekena. Put a clause like that that demands we only transfer the restaurant to any child or children between us. Christ! The only way that’s going to ever happen is if we get back together.”
“Which would be exactly what she was counting on.” Tekena said dryly.
“It’s impossible!” Levi snapped. “We’re not getting back together. You think after a year and nearly ten months apart, that is achievable?”
“Yes, I do. If you both want to achieve it.”
“That is it, we don’t want to. I don’t want to have to squabble over anything with Kristi. If Mama wanted Kristi being a part of the restaurant, she should have willed it completely to her. I wouldn’t have minded.”
Tekena merely arched his eyebrows.
“Fine, I probably would have minded. I grew up side by side with that restaurant.” Because he sat there looking so sage, Levi glared at him. “But I still do not want to squabble over anything with Kristi—the restaurant, some other property, a divorce, if she wants one. I don’t want to, or have to, fight her. We don’t have to end up complete enemies, Tekena. I’d hate that.”
Tekena nodded. “We’d all hate that, Mama inclusive. So, what are you going to do?”
“Frankly, I don’t quite know yet.” He hasn’t been able to think the matter through. He was still trying to deal with his loss. “I think we should both sit down and talk. Maybe even go see Barrister together. See if there’s a way we could alternately resolve this.”
“All right.” He didn’t think there would be a way other than for the two of them to start working out their differences, but Tekena kept that thought to himself. “Want to come home with me, have dinner with us?”
“And ruin Ima’s plan to have quality time with you tonight? Uh-huh, I don’t think so.” Levi declined the invitation with a smile. “I’ll pick up dinner on my way home. Or, I might call Zikora, go out somewhere with her. I believe she’s off this evening.”
“Okay, if that works for you. I’ll head on then.” Tekena lifted to his feet. “I’ll see you Friday evening.”
“Sure.” Levi took the hand the he held out and then watched him walk out.
He wasn’t oblivious to the fact that Tekena preferred never to acknowledge Zikora’s existence in his life. Again, just like his mother, he considered him still very much married and so, another woman was not worthy of discussion.
He settled back in his chair, breathed a sigh and glanced about his office. Kristi had furnished and decorated it. She was good at that sort of thing. She used to come there and be with him on evenings he would close late. She would bring dinner sometimes. Most times though, she brought only herself and he was fed to his satisfaction all the same. That was during the first year of their marriage. The times before everything went wrong.
Levi blinked, picked up his phones and pushed to his feet. Those times were gone and no, he didn’t think they would ever come back.
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