Mario wanted to kiss her.
While she made Sunday lunch for her family, Callista thought of this new, and still unbelievable, information with a feeling caught between excitement and apprehension. He wanted to hold her, to sniff her scent.
Now, that part sounded silly because she’d been using the same perfume almost all her adult life, and Mario should have been used to it by now. But he’d never before noticed it, according to him. And he’d never thought of her as anything but a friend until now. Until now when he wanted to hold her, to sniff her scent and to kiss her.
Unbelievable. Not just unbelievable, Callista mused, but crazy. Mario, her friend since the day she’d received her WAEC result, and he’d been there at her mother’s shop with his aunt when she was sharing the news. While everyone had made teasing remarks that little Callista had the best WAEC result in her school, he’d looked directly at her and said that anyone who could make the best result wasn’t little at all, but a great person.
It was the first time he was speaking of her–to her hearing, at least–and what he’d said had touched her so much, she’d stopped him in church a few days later to thank him. Mario like, he’d waved off her thanks with a teasing comment, and from that day they’d become friends and remained so more than ten years later.
Now, her friend wanted to be her boyfriend, and he wanted to kiss her.
“Why do you have that funny smile on your face?”
Callista yelped as she flung up her head. Then she glared at her eldest brother. “What is with you and sneaking about everywhere, Ike? You scared me.”
Unoffended by the sharp reproof as he wasn’t ever serious-minded, Ikechukwu snorted. “I don’t sneak about. And you only got scared because I caught you chatting with your water spirit friends.”
“Who has water spirit friends?” Azuka wanted to know, coming up behind him to hang by the door.
“Cally. I caught her twitching her lips and smiling dreamily to herself.”
“She’s smiling dreamily, and you talk of water spirit friends instead of a spirit husband?” More of a serious mind, Azuka regarded his sister with narrowed eyes. “Were you having a romantic conversation with your spirit husband, Cally?”
“If I was, then it wouldn’t be any of your business,” Callista snapped, shooting them glares. “Both of you should get out of my kitchen, I’m cooking.”
“You have been cooking for hours now, and we are famished. When’s the food going to be ready? We have somewhere to go to.”
“Both of you are going out? But where to?”
“Nowhere that’s your business,” Azuka retorted. “Just let your spirit husband be for a while and focus on your cooking.”
“I only asked because you made Mama the promise that you will replace the broken bamboos at the back fence today,” Callista said with a shrug, giving the tomato stew on the stove a stir. “What time are you going to do it if you’re going out after eating?”
“When we get back, which is why you should hurry up and feed us, because the earlier we’re on our way, the earlier we will be back home,” Ikechukwu said, turning to stroll out of the kitchen, Azuka at his heels.
Like they’d ever come home any earlier than ten p.m. when they went on any of their outings, Callista thought with a scowl. But she’d learned to stay out of her brothers’ business since complaining to their mother never earned anything other than a mild reproof or a dismissive retort.
Turning off the stove, she took out plates from the rack and proceeded to serve lunch.
When they were all home, they ate as a family in the living room. It was her father’s rule–meals were to be eaten together, around same table. She would sit on his right, and her mother on his left, and he never failed to leave something on his plate for her.
Now, it was her brothers who sat on the three-seater couch, and she didn’t need them leaving anything on their plates for her–and they would never think to do so.
“Talking about spirit husband has reminded me of something I’ve been hearing lately.” His stomach half full, Azuka was in the mood for amicable conversation. “They say that you and Mario Elue are now an item. Is it true?”
“An item as how?” She understood him, but Callista chose to act ignorant.
“How else except as a couple?” Azuka retorted impatiently. “Are you really dating him? Because you’ve been denying you were all this while.”
“I wasn’t then, which is why I denied it.”
“And you are now?” Ikechukwu asked even as Azuka hissed at her nonchalant response.
“Yes, I am now.” While she wasn’t yet certain if she agreed with Mario’s new idea, Callista wasn’t going to tell her brothers otherwise. “Do you have any objections?”
“Why should we?” Azuka demanded. “If you have a man in your life, then you can be certain we are overjoyed. Of course, I, for one, would have preferred a man like Chukwudi Udolisa. He’s a better man than Mario–“
“Why, because he has more money?” Callista cut in.
“It’s not just money he has more than Mario, but everything else. Still, that doesn’t matter now, as you didn’t try hard enough to keep him in your life when you had him.”
“I tried more than I should have to keep him in my life,” Callista said, refusing to let Azuka’s opinion get to her. “But I can assure you that I’m glad that I failed, for he’s not the kind of man I want.”
“Ha, see Cally talking about the kind of man she wants.” Ikechukwu smirked. “You too want to be selective now?”
“And why shouldn’t I be selective? Am I not a human being like the rest, and with the right to choose for myself what I want?”
“We’re not talking about you being human, or not human. We’re talking about you being a woman and not looking exactly like one.” Wicked humour danced in his eyes as Ikechukwu grinned. “Edozie was saying just yesterday that he wondered if Mario felt a mound bigger than an onion when he touched your chest.”
“And I’m sure when he made such a lousy remark about your sister that you laughed, or didn’t you?”
“Of course I did as it was a fine joke.” Ikechukwu laughed again as he recalled the joke.
“No, it’s not a joke. It is an insult, and you should have been affronted to hear your sister spoken off that way. But why should you be, when you say the same thing, and worse?” She’d never before rebuffed them over their teasing about her body and Callista noted their shock as she did so now.
“He wasn’t insulting you, Cally. He was only teasing, and that is all we do.” Careful of the rage he saw in his sister’s eyes, Ikechukwu spoke mildly. “Besides, it’s not as if we are speaking unjustly against you–“
“You might not be speaking unjustly, but you’re speaking unkindly, and it’s time it stops,” Callista retorted. “I am a woman, whatever I look like, and I demand to be respected as one. You are my brothers and if you cannot love and appreciate me for everything that I am, then respect me, because I will no longer tolerate any disrespect from either of you.”
“What is wrong with you, Cally? How can you speak this way to Ike?” Azuka demanded.
“I can because I am your sister, and I expect you to treat me better than others do. I can because you never did, you never do, and it is hurtful.” Blinking back the tears that itched behind her eyes, Callista stared from one to the other defiantly. “When you say these things, does it not occur to you that it hurts me to hear them? Or do you not care if I’m hurt or not?”
“Of course we care if you’re hurt. But we don’t expect you to be over-sensitive about something as silly as harmless teasing.”
“If it’s hurting me, Azuka, then how’s it harmless teasing?”
“Well, it is, and it’s your fault if you’re taking it too seriously to see the joke,” Azuka retorted, shoving aside the centre table to push to his feet. “Come on, Ike, let’s go.”
“Wait,” Ikechukwu said. He might be unserious about his life and his responsibilities as a first son, but one thing he never was was purposely unkind. “Cally’s right, we knew she was sensitive to our teasing, even though she never said anything until now. And knowing, we should have stopped.”
“Oh please, it’s something we’ve been saying since we were children, and she should have developed a thick skin by now.” Azuka never cared to be tormented by a guilty conscience. “It’s just her new relationship with Mario that’s entered into her head.”
“No, it’s not my relationship with Mario that’s entered into my head.” Ikechukwu’s willingness to admit guilt had mollified Callista enough to speak calmly. “It is the fact that I shouldn’t be made to feel like I’m less than others that’s finally entered my head. I may not look like other women, but I am still one, and I should be treated with care too. But my point is, however you see me, and whatever are your thoughts on my look, I no longer want to be a sport of amusement for anyone. If you find nothing to appreciate in me, then say nothing at all.”
“That is fair.” Ikechukwu nodded, rose and came over to give her an awkward pat on the arm. “Sorry, Cally. We won’t do it again.”
Azuka snorted. “Speak for yourself. If I have a mind to say something about my sister, I will say it.”
“No, we won’t say it, if it hurts her. Let this be, Azuka,” Ikechukwu said firmly.
He was rarely firm, but when he was, he managed to be sound like their father, Callista thought, and offered him a smile. “Thank you, Ike. And if I dare, let me remind you to come back early enough to handle the fence.”
“We will try.” Ikechukwu nodded, turned to their mother. “We are going out, Mama, but we will be back to fix the fence like I just told Cally.”
“Okay then,” Ijeoma Okoli said, waited for her sons to exit the house before she added. “You did well.”
“I did what well?” Baffled, Callista frowned at her mother.
It hadn’t surprised her that her mother stayed silent all through. She often stayed out of it when she argued with her brothers; except for the rare moments she was in the mood to reprove her.
“In rebuking your brothers.” There were only a few things Ijeoma Okoli regretted and a major one was how she’d always been over lenient with her sons. “You finally stood up for yourself and I am glad that you did. I should have stood up for you, I realise that now. I should have stopped them because I noticed how it got to you when they made teasing remarks about your body. But I didn’t because I told myself it was teasing among siblings, and you shouldn’t be so over-sensitive. So, I’m glad you spoke up today.”
“I did because I am tired of knowing I deserve better, and allowing myself take less,” Callista confessed. “I am more than how my body looks, and it’s time I, and everybody else, realise it.”
“That is true. I know too, that I didn’t do any better than your brothers. I never teased you, but I worried.” She still worried, but Ijeoma Okoli knew she was going to learn to stop worrying over that. “I worried because I was afraid no man would consider you good enough for marriage.
“But I should have known better, because there are people who look beyond the skin. And while you may not be physically beautiful–according to our human estimation, that is,” Ijeoma Okoli said with a faint smile. “You are beautiful inside you. You are a good person and have never given me cause to worry that you might wind up in trouble. Any man who ends up with you is winning a prize, and I hope Mario Elue knows that.”
It was the kindest words her mother ever said to her and Callista’s eyes misted. “It might not be Mario who will end up with me. We are only in a relationship, and no one can tell how it will end.”
“No, no one can tell,” her mother agreed. “But I see Mario as a man who knows something good when he sees it. Besides, if he’s choosing to date you after you two have been friends for so long, it can only be because he’s realised your true worth.”
“Don’t you worry it might be because he’s looking for something casual?”
“With you, his friend?” Her mother shook her head. “I don’t see Mario as the kind of man who will ruin a good friendship for something as cheap as sex. If he’s showing interest in you, it will be because he’s truly interested.”
Interested enough to want to hold her, to want to kiss her, and maybe more.
Hope fluttering in her heart, Callista rose, and gathered their plates into a tray. “Whatever he’s interested in, we will find out soon enough. For now, I will wash out these things and take a nap. We are going out this evening. Onyisi and Chinonye are celebrating their engagement.”
“That is such good news.”
“Yes, it is,” Callista said, walking into the kitchen, her mind already debating what she should wear.
She’d like to hear Mario pay her another compliment.