Exasperated he might be, but when he made a promise, Mario considered himself honour bound to keep it. And if they were going to convince everyone they were indeed in a romantic relationship, and not playing some odd game, they needed to start spending time together.
With that purpose in mind, he drove to her parents’ home after making sure she wasn’t still at the salon. She was at the veranda of her late father’s house with her mother, sorting through fabrics. Her mother had a store in the market.
“This is a pleasant surprise, Mario. It’s rare for you to visit us when there’s no occasion,” her mother said after receiving his greeting.
“But there is an occasion,” Mario said, smiling. “I’ve come to pick Cally. We’re going out.”
“Going out where?” Surprised by his presence there and his response, Callista frowned.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten our plans for this evening, Cally?” Mario clicked his tongue in reproof. “You promised to spend time with me at Buchi’s Bush Bar, remember?”
“I didn’t…” Callista caught the pointed stare he aimed her and halted the denial. “Ah yes, it slipped my mind. I’m sorry I didn’t mention it earlier, Mama, but he’s right, we have plans to go out this evening.”
“That’s a first. I’ve never known you two to spend time alone together.”
Callista flushed under her mother’s curious stare. “We won’t actually be alone. There will definitely be other people at the bush bar.”
“I meant alone in each other’s company, not alone in a venue,” Ijeoma Okoli reproved her daughter. Callista was still too naïve at her age, and it worried her mother. “So, what occasion warranted this outing?”
“No occasion, Mama. We are just going out, that’s all.”
“Why?” Her mother asked bluntly.
Since Callista looked at loss how to respond, Mario came to the rescue. “I think it’s time to tell her, Cally. We did agree to stop hiding our relationship after all.”
“Stop hiding your relationship? What relationship would that be? As far as I know both of you are only friends.”
“Yes. No…I mean, we are not only friends.” This lying business was going to be tougher than she’d imagined, Callista thought. “We’ve been, uh, something more for some time now.”
“Something more.” Ijeoma Okoli looked from her daughter’s flustered expression to Mario’s calm look, and narrowed her eyes. “Something more like what?”
“Like more than friendship,” Mario said. “I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise, Mama, because we know a lot of people were suspicious, which is why we agreed it was pointless continuing to keep it private.”
“Suspicion is one thing, truth is another.” Again, Ijeoma Okoli studied her daughter. “Why is your face like that of a child caught stealing sweets, Cally? Explain to me, and let me understand what you two mean by something more than friendship.”
“It means we are, uh…”
“We are dating.” Mario helped her out. The silly woman wanted to pretend, but she couldn’t tell a simple lie without fumbling. “You see, Mama, the thing is we started out as friends. I’m sure you know this part given the number of years we’ve known each other. But a few months back, we realised we liked each other a lot and decided to find out if there was more to it.”
“I see. So you are actually trying your luck with Cally?”
The question and frown on the older woman’s face made Mario uncomfortable. But he maintained his easy smile. “Not trying my luck, Mama. But we want to find out if we have enough inside of us for each other to build something permanent.”
“And what exactly does this finding out entail?”
Her mother’s arched stare didn’t hide her meaning, and Callista flushed at the implication. “We are just trying to get to know each other better. It’s not like we are doing anything. I mean, we haven’t been, uh…”
“Cally prefers to wait and I respect that.”
“I see.” Ijeoma Okoli wasn’t sure if she did yet. But if Mario Elue was saying he was interested in her daughter, she considered it fantastic news. “So, you want to see if you can fall in love with each other? You young people, nowadays, like to think love is all’s needed to sustain a good marriage. But I can assure it’s not. Friendship and commitment do the most work.”
“Marriage?” Mario blanched. Good lord! He’d only agreed to be a pretend boyfriend, and now they were talking love and marriage?
“We haven’t come to the point of marriage talk, Mama,” Callista said lightly, noticing Mario’s stunned look and realising it was time they got out of there. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before about us, but like Mario said we are trying to see how we really feel about each other. Our findings will decide which way we go. Meanwhile, let me dress up. Mario, I’ll be only a minute.”
“No woman dresses up in one minute. Take your time, I will keep Mario company.” Ijeoma Okoli dismissed her daughter, patted the seat she vacated. “Have a seat, my dear, and tell me how are your parents?”
Mario didn’t sit, but he tried to dispel the feeling of unease with a smile. “They are both well. I don’t see Azuka and Ikechukwu, are they not at home?”
“At this time?” Callista’s mother snorted. “They are surely out somewhere with friends. You’re a man and should know how young men act.”
“Hmm.” Mario made the non committal sound. It was his private opinion that Ijeoma Okoli was more lenient with her sons than she was with her only daughter.
That leniency was the reason Ikechukwu, the first son of the family and a man of twenty-four, still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. Again, in his opinion. Azuka managed their late father’s electronics repair shop. He did well enough, having studied under his father, but he tended to party hard with his older brother.
“You know, someone was whispering to me that you have your eyes fixed on Isioma, Amadi’s second daughter, but I guess they must have been wrong.”
“They were,” Mario lied smoothly to the inquisitive face. What was keeping Callista? “My eyes are only fixed on Cally these days.”
“And are you liking what you see?”
The question was not subtle, and it stumbled Mario. What did he see when he looked at Callista?
As if to give him a chance to rightly that answer that question, Callista reappeared.
“I’m ready. We can go now.”
Instead of responding, Mario looked at her, and he saw a slender woman in a flowery print dress that was fitted at the top and flared out to her knees. The style and length of the dress flattered her straight, smallish frame. And the light makeup she’d used gave a little more fineness to her long, almost narrow face.
She looked… he’d wanted to say fine, but Mario thought cute would be better, and frowned because he’d never thought her cute–or even fine before. He’d never before now consciously considered her physical appearance, other than to notice that she was wearing some form of clothing and looked clean.
“Well, let’s go. What are you looking at?”
“You, of course. A man must admire the woman he is going out with,” Ijeoma Okoli said, although she too was wondering same thing as the young man was looking at Callista as if he was seeing her for the first time.
Recovering from his moment of absent-minded confusion, Mario added with a smile. “And he must pay her a compliment too. You look nice, Cally.”
Callista gaped. He’d never said that before. No man had ever said that to her; except Gozie when he’d been fervent in his pursuit of her. And she hadn’t believed him. She didn’t know if she should believe Mario either, they were play acting after all.
“Thank you.” She opted for a cordial response. “But we should be on our way. I have no wish to stay out late. Mama, I would be back latest eight, I promise.”
“If you have need to stay a little later than that, you can. You’re a grown-up woman now.”
Surprised again, Callista stared at her mother. She’d never before been so permissive. “Ah, okay. But I still think I should be back by eight.”
“We might stay longer, and I’m glad we have your mother’s permission to do so.” Acting his part, Mario slipped his hand over hers. “We will see you later, Mama.”
The second they were inside his car, Callista turned to him with a frown. “Don’t you think you should have called me on phone to find out if I was interested in going out with you this evening?”
“Your mother is still watching us, so I suggest you put a smile back on your face,” Mario said, reversing into the street, and giving a cheerful wave before driving off.
“Now that we are out of her sight, kindly answer my question.”
“I could have called you, but I had a feeling you will say no, as you prefer to stay indoors after work.”
“I prefer to stay indoors after work because I don’t have a man to take me out. I would go out with other girls, but as you know I don’t have any girlfriends other than Jebo,” Callista retorted. “And being married, she rarely indulges in evening outings these days.”
“Well, you have a man to take you out now, though you are not looking very cheerful about it.” Mario cast her a frowning glance. “I don’t see why you are so put out. It’s not like we’ve not spent time in each other’s company before. Besides, you are the one who wanted a boyfriend.”
“I am not put out.” She wasn’t. She was in fact grateful to him for thinking to do this, and Callista confessed it. “I actually appreciate that you thought of this. I realise now that I haven’t completely planned this out yet.”
“It’s clear you haven’t. But as your boyfriend, and partner in this pretend game, I will assist in the planning, so you can relax.”
“Thank you.” Callista threw him a grateful smile and relaxed. “You know, I can’t remember the last time I was at Buchi’s Bush Bar.”
“I expect it was before Chukwudi left on his merry way to the city. I’ve invited you a couple of times, but you always say no.”
“You’ve only invited me twice–on your birthday four months ago and last month when Buchi had a band coming over.”
“That’s a couple of times, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know for you,” Callista said with a sniff. Then she grinned. “I am looking forward to it anyway. I hope I am dressed right. Chukwudi often said I dressed like we were going to church when we went out. But Mama doesn’t approve of me wearing trousers and I feel more comfortable in dresses, even though they don’t fit me well. Well, nothing fits me with my tiny body and straight figure.”
“This dress fits you and it is more than right for where we are going.”
“Oh.” Callista looked at him. His face didn’t look like he was teasing. “You mean what you just said, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. Why else would I say it if I didn’t mean it?”
“Because we are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend, and you are being kind.”
“No one is here, so I’m not pretending.”
“But saying I looked nice earlier was pretending because my mother was there, wasn’t it?”
“Actually, I wasn’t pretending then either. You look nice, and I am not being kind by saying so. Just stating a true fact.”
“So I really look nice?”
Mario turned briefly to hold her eyes. “You look very nice, Cally.”
This time Callista believed him and she beamed at the compliment. “Thank you.”
Mario thought she looked nice, she wondered if Chukwudi ever thought so, but never said it.
Annoyed with herself for thinking about him, Callista adjusted on her seat to focus on Mario and started to chatter about her day.
Posting Schedule: Tuesday and Saturday… as long as I can make it possible.