It mortified Callista that she needed to pretend to show Chukwudi Udolisa that he no longer mattered to her. Mortified her even more because it was necessary.
She could not understand why she was still hung up on him as if he were the only man on earth. The whole thing was not only mortifying, but it annoyed her beyond imagination that a smart and industrious woman like herself was conducting herself as one silly and empty-headed.
What was it about Chukwudi Udolisa that made her heart teeter like a drunken fool at the thought of him?
Like it did just now, Callista thought sourly, recognising the tiny flutter in her chest and wishing she could wrench it out. Like Mario had pointed out, he hadn’t treated her well or in any special way while they’d dated. Instead, he had made her feel like she should be grateful he looked her way. And she been grateful–grateful and stupidly flattered. So flattered she had refused to acknowledge the many times he cheated on her with other girls and the fact that he was completely unapologetic of his cheating.
Yet fourteen months after he’d left her, she still felt lightheaded when she thought of him. Still wished he hadn’t left her. Or, that he’d cared for her enough to marry her as Mario had suggested.
Was she so without a good sense of self-worth that her heart clung to a man as unworthy of her as Chukwudi was?
Callista had no answer to the question that repeatedly puzzled her mind, but she knew it was this inexplicable, persistent feelings she had for him that had made it necessary to pretend she had a new man in her life. She didn’t want Chukwudi back in her life.
No, she didn’t, Callista told herself firmly, ignoring the flutter in her tummy. She shouldn’t have given him a chance in the first place, and she wasn’t going to risk making same mistake.
So if she had to have a fake man in her life for a couple of weeks to restore her self-respect where he was concerned, then so be it.
Done with styling Mummy Ibiso, as everyone called the headmistress of the primary school not far from her salon, Callista unclipped the cloth around her neck, and gave her a soft tap to rouse her.
“Ah, Cally, you’re done.” Blinking to clear the sleep off her eyes, Mummy Ibiso straightened up to stare into the rectangular mirror nailed to the wall.
“Your hands are always so soothing, they never fail to put me to sleep. Not only soothing, but skillful too. Look at how beautiful you’ve made me.” Craning her neck from side to side, she admired her new hairstyle, and then beamed. “I love it. No one styles short hairstyles like you in this town.”
Callista smiled as she dusted off her body. “Thank you, Mummy Ibiso. I’m glad you like it.”
“As long as you made it, I will like it,” Mummy Ibiso assured her, before inquiring about her charge and making her payment.
Then she rose, took the powder Callista offered to touch up her face and peered vainly again into the mirror. “This is just wonderful. I’m going to be a hit at Asaba on Saturday. Everyone is going to be like: is this Mummy Ibiso again?”
“I doubt they would be all that surprised as you’re always stylish and beautiful, Mummy Ibiso,” Callista said, meaning it because it was the truth.
Her words pleased the older woman enough that she laughed. “You know how to get your clients coming back, Cally. I’ll see you after Christmas. I plan on entering the coming year with a new hairstyle. I’m in that kind of mood.”
Callista smiled because Mummy Ibiso was always in one mood or the other as far as fashion and style were concerned. “It will be a home service then, because I’ll be closing the salon on the twenty-fourth.”
“Home service is even better, even though it will cost me more. All right, I’ll see you. Say me well to your mother.”
“That old woman never ceases to amaze me, the way she’s still so snazzy at her age,” Ndidi said with a laugh as soon as they were alone.
She had apprenticed under Callista, and now worked for her as she couldn’t yet afford to open her salon.
“Late fifties is not old these days,” Callista said. “Besides, she’s a very beautiful woman and should flaunt that beauty before wrinkles make it less discernible.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I am. Anyway, I’m going to see Jebo and won’t be back. So close down when it’s time.”
“Um, Aunty Cally.” Ndidi called her that as a form of respect. “I was wondering if it’s possible to get a loan of two thousand from you. There’s nothing at all at home, and Monday is still yet to be paid his November salary.”
Monday was the man Ndidi lived with even when he wasn’t making any attempts to formalise their union. It troubled Callista that she was wasting her youth on a man who could toss her out anytime he wanted, but since she’d never listened to any of her counsels, she’d learned to mind her own business.
“I can’t spare two thousand, but here’s one thousand. And it’s not a loan.”
“Thank you, Aunty Cally.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Callista strode out of the salon, waved down a commercial bike and mounted after calling out her destination.
Commercial bikes were the only way to get around their small town, unless you were among the lucky few who had a car. Callista considered the bikes were even faster and better as the roads were in such a poor state, she was certain cars riding over them must be suffering.
Jebolisa was washing out a mortar she’d obviously used in pounding fufu when Callista strolled into the backyard of the house she and David rented at the newer residential area of the town.
“I was just telling myself that you’ll be here anytime soon,” she said in greeting, receiving the side hug Callista gave her. “How are you now?”
“I’m well.” Callista sat on the bench under the mango tree. “How’s Nma? Is she doing better?”
“Better enough to follow her father to her grandparents’.” Jebolisa hefted up the mortar, took it inside the kitchen and came back to join her on the bench. “It’s just cold, cough and catarrh this time. I’m thankful it’s not Malaria again.”
“Maybe you should consider getting her this treated net since she’s so susceptible to the parasite,” Callista suggested.
“I’m already considering it. I was foolish enough to give the one she used as a baby to Amara when she had her baby last year. It was supposed to be a loan, but you know how she can be now.”
Callista laughed. “Loan is not a word found in the dictionary of siblings.”
“I hear you. What can I offer you? There’s water, and there are soft drinks.”
“Nothing, thank you. I shan’t be staying long. Thought I would be seeing Nma to greet her.”
“You did well, my dear. I will send your greetings to her. Meanwhile, since you’re here, how are you taking the news of Chukwudi coming for Christmas?”
“How will I take it? The man is from this town and he can come and go from it as he pleases.”
They had been friends since primary school and if anyone was close enough to Callista to know when she was pretending indifference, it was Jebolisa.
“Leave that story for those who will believe it,” Jebolisa dismissed. “Tell me the truth, because I know you still fancy yourself in love with that man.”
She could go on pretending, but it was silly to when she was with a dear and trusted friend.
“To be honest with you, I wish he wasn’t coming. My heart’s been jumping up and down since I heard it from his aunt. And the way she gave me the news was even annoying, like she expected me to be overjoyed on hearing it.” Freshly annoyed as she recalled the incident, Callista hissed.
“But she will act like that because you haven’t shown anyone you’re over Chukwudi. It’s been more than a year, but you’ve not let any man close to you.”
“As if men are lining up to get close to me,” Callista retorted. “Apart from Gozie, who else did you see that showed interest in me since he left?”
“And what was wrong with Gozie that you could not give him a chance?”
“Nothing was wrong with him. But my feelings for him remained platonic, much as I tried hard to intensify them, so what do you want me to do?”
“You didn’t try hard enough. I was there and saw how quickly you dismissed him.” Because all of that was too late and not what was important at the moment, Jebolisa waved it off with a fling of the hand. “Let’s forget that and focus on how you’re going to deal with this Chukwudi’s coming. I hope you’re not leaving yourself open for him to deceive you again?”
“If by leaving myself open, you mean if I will allow him close enough to touch me, the answer is no. Ahn-ahn, Jebo, have a little faith in me. I know I was stupid where he was concerned before, but I’m wiser now. Chukwudi is not going to get a chance to come near me. Not this time.”
“Good for you. Pretend like he doesn’t exist and that will teach the pompous ass a lesson.”
Callista frowned. “You’ve never said before that he was pompous.”
Jebolisa shrugged. “You were so into him at the time that it felt unkind to say how unbearable I found him. I always wondered how you could put up with his self-important ways.”
“I put up with it because I made the excuses that being who he was, he had a right to feel proud of his achievements,” Callista confessed.
“What did he achieve, a Masters in Business Administration? My cousin, Dalu, in Lagos told me that qualification is the cheapest kind of masters.”
“Cheap or not, he had it and we know not many people here do.”
“Not many people here need it,” Jebolisa retorted. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re finally seeing him for who he is, and won’t spare him a moment of your time anymore.”
“I acted like a besotted fool over him, Jebo, and every time I think of it, I’m mortified,” Callista admitted with a frown. “I don’t even understand why he had that kind of hold over me. I guess it might have been because men generally didn’t look my way before him.”
“What do you mean men didn’t look your way?”
“Come on, Jebo, you know what I mean,” Callista chided. “Do you know how many men were after you before you settled for David? How many did I date before Chukwudi? Just one and we lasted barely three months before he moved to Asaba and got married there. Jebo, I’m not the kind of woman men look at. I’m built in this small way, have this long, boyish face and not at all what you will call pretty.”
“Of course you’re pretty. Your small body makes no difference to that.”
“I think it does, because a lot of men refrain from dating women my height.” Callista gave her head a shake to forestall further arguments. “Anyway, what I’m saying is maybe all that affected my self-confidence and when a handsome and achieving man like Chukwudi decided he wanted me, I was so flattered, I didn’t care anymore what he did, or didn’t do.”
“It makes me sad to hear you talk this way,” Jebolisa said, her expression actually unhappy. “Cally, you are a fine woman. Everybody cannot be Miss World, with long legs and tall as Iroko tree.”
“It’s true. You’re fine as you are, and apart from physical beauty, you have a good heart, a sound character and own a good business, you set up all by yourself. My dear, you’re worthy of any good man out, whatever their qualifications.”
“Thank you for the ego boost. Anyway, not trusting myself to pull this through on my own, I’ve asked Mario to be my pretend boyfriend.”
“What does that mean?”
“We’ve agreed to be boyfriend and girlfriend while Chukwudi is here.”
“What ever for?” Jebolisa asked, astonished.
“Jebo, I kind of stop thinking sensibly when I’m around Chukwudi. But more than that, I don’t want him to come here and feel like since he left me, no one has looked my way.”
“He would think that too,” Jebolisa muttered. “But I still don’t see the reason for the pretense.”
“It’s for my self-respect, Jebo. And I chose Mario because not only is he my only real male friend, he’s kind of person to do something like that without looking down on you.”
“That’s true. But…”
“And it’s not going to be hard for people to believe we are dating, because they half believe it already. In short, your husband saw me with him yesterday, and made a comment to that effect.”
“I keep telling David the two of you are not in any kind of romantic relationship, but he refuses to listen to me. Still, I don’t understand why this deception and drama is necessary over that fellow.”
“Like I said, it’s for me.”
Jebolisa thought it would be better for her if faced Chukwudi and told him off, but if this was how she wanted to handle, she would give her support. “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea, because I don’t know why you and Mario have never tried to get together given how close you two are.”
“Because we’re friends, and nothing more.”
Callista laughed at her snarky tone. “Don’t join others to start getting the wrong idea about us because of this, I’m giving you a warning now.” She rose. “Let me start heading home. Greet Nma and David when they get back.”
“And you, greet your new boyfriend for me.”
“I sure will.” Callista laughed as she walked away.
Advent – Mystical Encounters #1 & For Better, For Worse on 50% sale on Okadabooks.