He was still in a state of self-reproach when Callista came in later in the day. And because he was consciously thinking of her, he took notice of her appearance, a blouse of soft fabric tucked into a pleated skirt with sandals on her feet. Her face, where she bore her physical beauty, wore a nicely done makeup. And her hair, the natural dark form of it combined with a reddish brown extension, was lifted on top her head.
She looked…cute, Mario decided. Cute and unhappy. He finished attending to the customer who exchanged a greeting with her before she left.
“You look nice,” he made himself pay her the compliment. It was the truth anyway.
“I do?” Surprised by the compliment, Callista offered a smile. “Thank you. Where’s Ndubuisi?”
“Sent him on an errand.” Mario joined her on the bench. “Why do you have that worried look behind your smile?”
“It is there because I am worried.” She’d wanted someone to talk to, and who better than Mario who was in this with her. “Chukwudi came to see me.”
“Oh, did he?” The mention of him brought back the guilty tug, and with it, irritation. “And what did he have to say to you that’s got you worried?”
“He came twice to see me.” Although she heard the annoyance in Mario’s voice, Callista didn’t pay attention to it. “First time was three days ago when he came to the salon. I sent him away.”
“I did. He wanted to speak to me, he said. But I was busy with Mama Victor’s hair, and told him I could not leave my customer to attend to him.” A small smile of remembered pride curled around her mouth. “I wanted to embarrass him, and I succeeded as Ndidi and Oge were there, and he stormed out of the salon after the manner I dismissed him. I tell you, Mario, I was more than a little proud of myself. He could always get me to do whatever he wanted, and not only did I refuse to do his bidding, I was cold and nonchalant too.”
“It was indeed a moment to be proud of,” Mario said, himself proud of her.
“I was in that euphoria of pride until I came home yesterday evening and found him in front of our house with my mother. He brought a bag of rice–25kg–a bottle of wine and an envelope holding five thousand naira.” Because the unnecessary display of gifts still offended her, Callista’s tone was bitter. “He brought a gift for me too, a phone, which he presented to me with so much pride.”
“I’m sure he did. So, where’s this phone?” His voice was deceptively quiet and Mario knew it was because his temper was itching to snap.
“I refused it.” Callista frowned as she noted Mario’s quick surprise at her response. “You thought I accepted it, didn’t you? Why, have you ever known me to be the greedy sort?”
“No.” Mario felt a little sorry that he’d shown no faith in her. “But it wouldn’t have been greed to accept his gift.”
“It would, because he had no reason to bring me gifts. I couldn’t stop my mother from taking the ones he brought her, but I wasn’t going to touch that phone even though I was sorely tempted. It was a matter of pride, like the day before, and I did well.”
“So you did. That shouldn’t worry you, that you rejected his gift.”
“It’s not what worries me. It’s what he said afterwards.” She had thought about it a long time last night before she found sleep. She’d been thinking about it all day, which pushed her to seek out Mario. “He said he wants to settle down–with me.”
For a minute, Mario gaped and then he let out a roaring laugh. “He said what?”
The laughter and utter disbelief hurt Callista. “Is that so impossible then, that a man would want to settle down with me?”
“It’s impossible when that man is Chukwudi Udolisa, and you should know that, Callista,” Mario said with a dismissive snort.
The derisive sound shot the sting of pain into anger. “Why should it be impossible, because Callista Okoli is not the kind of woman any man should marry?”
“Hey, Cally, you know that’s not what I mean.”
“How can that not be what you mean when you are quick to mock the fact that he would want to settle down with me?”
“It is not you I mock, but Chukwudi. Surely you must see through the little trick he’s playing?”
“Oh, so it’s a little trick? When a man says he wants to marry me, it’s a trick, is it? I am not good enough to be a wife then?” It hurt. It hurt because even him, her friend, would think this, say this. “I am not good enough to be a girlfriend even, am I?”
“That’s not at all what I’m saying.–“
“But it is what you are saying. It is what you mean to say, if you are trying not to say it. Look at me.” She flung to her feet, gestured wildly to her body. “I look more like an under-grown teenage girl than a woman. There are teenage girls who look better–certainly curvier and more soft and feminine than I do.”
He had handled this wrongly. Of course, she was raw and unhappy, but he should have been more sensitive. He should have been, now he realised the mistake they were all making with her.
Cursing his insensitivity once more, Mario reached for her, gentled his voice. “Come, Cally, don’t talk like that. God created everyone to be different and–“
“Yes, He did. He created other women to be beautiful with longer legs and lovely bodies, but me, He made like a dwarf in the world of tall people. I am no taller than a child of twelve and no better looking either.”
“Of course you are better looking than a twelve year old. The comparison doesn’t even bear mention.”
“It does if it’s apt.” Unwilling to be soothed, and only because he was afraid to offend her, Callista snatched free her hand. “It is not being short that I mind. It is not having the body of a woman. My breasts are flat; in short, it’s a crime to call them breasts–“
“No, it’s not a crime and they are breasts.”
“Have you noticed them before then?” Callista challenged, pinning him a stare that dared him to lie to her. “Tell me, Mario, have you noticed me as a woman? Have I ever walked away from you and you stared at my swaying backside?”
“This is ridiculous, Cally.” What it was, was mortifying and aggravating because she hit close to the truth. “Of course I don’t look at you that way because that would be disrespectful.”
“Disrespectful?” Callista sniggered, and she really would have laughed if she wasn’t feeling so wounded. “Oh please, don’t be a hypocrite, Mario. You think I don’t see you looking at other women’s backside, lusting after them? You don’t look at mine because there’s nothing to look at, only a flat mould that couldn’t wiggle even if it had oil sloping down on it. No one looks at me because there’s nothing to look at. No one makes advances at me because I am not the kind of female men want.”
“Callista.” Mario rose, to take her in his as, to soothe her.
But she shoved him off. Tears gritted behind her eyes, but pride wouldn’t let them fall. “I know what I am, Mario. Why shouldn’t I know it when I grew up around brothers who teased me, a mother who still casts worried glances my way and makes sighs when she see me naked, and men never spare me a lustful glance?”
“You don’t need men looking at you lustfully–“
“Yes, I do. I need it, I want it. I crave it, Mario, to be made once to feel like a real woman. But I will never have it, will I, looking the way I do?” It was becoming harder to keep at bay the tears, so she needed to go. “What if he’s not playing a trick on me? What if our plan worked in the way we didn’t expect it to? He confessed it, it shook him when he saw us together that night. What if that made him realise he cared enough for me to want me permanently in his life?”
“No, it didn’t make him realise anything of the sort.” Back at Chukwudi Udolisa, irritation shovelled away guilt. “He never cared for you before, and he doesn’t now. He only wants to use you. He wants you back only because he considers you a piece of property he owns. Heavens! Cally, the man is only after sex. He wants nothing more than a few days of pleasure with you.”
“And how do you know this, huh?” It wouldn’t hurt so much if she didn’t already half believe it.
“Because I know that fool. Because he–“
“No, it’s because you don’t think I’m the kind of woman to rouse any sort of devotion other than shallow lust in a man,” Callista quietly ended the argument that so hurt her, reached down on the bench and took her purse. “I’m twenty-eight, Mario. Many of my age mates are married. I want that too, I deserve to have that blessing. We started this game, so I don’t allow Chukwudi make a fool of me the second time, but if it’s forced him to see me in another light, then maybe I should consider giving him another chance.”
“No! He’s a bloody user and only wants to use you again. He told me so himself.”
“He told you he wanted to use me?”
The hurt in her eyes slapped at Mario. “I’m sorry, Cally, but he doesn’t care for you. He never did, never will.”
“Maybe he doesn’t care for me the way we would want him to, but he looks at me, he wants me, and that can be enough. That might be all I will ever have. I am going back to the salon.”
But she didn’t stop, and Mario stopped himself from going after her. He hadn’t handled this well. No, he’d made her feel worse, instead of better. Likely pushed her more to Chukwudi, instead of away from him.
Guilt and frustration gnawing his insides, Mario retreated behind his counter and wished he knew exactly what he wanted to do. What he should do.