PLEASE MARRY ME – GRACE OCHIGBO
“My decision to visit Mona was not a coincidence after all. I consider it divine because it led me to you.” Ayegba mouths as he brings his car to a halt right in front of the house.
I hear the loud pounding of my own heart as he looks at me. It is true what they say. Everyone we meet, everyone we love, how we got here, what path we choose, and who we choose to remember, they’re all a part of our story. But we should never allow our story to be written for us because we may not have forever. Sometimes all we have is a single day.
A single day.
Ayegba would be on his way to Lagos in a few minutes and then, everyone will return to their normal life. None of us may be able to control what happens after today. If I am able to bring myself to tell Ayegba that I still love him and haven’t really been able to move on all these years, perhaps, it could change a few things, if not everything. Sometimes, saying what one feels can break ones heart, so I will simply keep mute and pretend not to truly care that he’s leaving…again.
Things got strained between us after we had sex that fateful evening. For me, it was like I’d just let someone strip me of my dignity. That’s what we were taught in church; your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and must not be defiled. I sat in guilt for days and made sure never to cross paths with Ayegba even when we were in the same house. He too didn’t make any attempt to find me anyway and that, instead of being a relief, broke my entire heart the more.
Boys will lose regards for you after having their way with you, our teenage ministry facilitator always say.
I felt that had befallen me. That Ayegba didn’t care the least about me anymore. It wasn’t until two weeks later, after mum had long returned and he found me in the kitchen, that I learnt it was actually the opposite with him. He said he couldn’t bring himself to face me the whole time because he was sore scared. That it was new waters for him too and he didn’t know the best way to handle it. He told me he was sorry. I told him I was sorry also. We looked at each other coyly and in few seconds, began to laugh out loud.
“What’s so funny around here?” Mum asked as she walked in on us.
We both readjusted immediately.
“Did anyone hear my question?” Mum asked again.
Ayegba cleared his throat. “Nothing, mum.”
Mum looked from him to me and back to him. She didn’t look convinced about his response but she was too exhausted to say anything more. Mum had become unusually quiet ever since dad died. She simply turned around and climbed the stairs back to her room.
Sure that she was out of sight, Ayegba drew nearer me and my eyeballs widen. When he saw that, he withdrew a little bit. After what happened, we ought to observe total social distancing henceforth.
“Look Vee, there’s something really important I need to tell you.” His voice was panicking and that made me scared.
With my eyes, I urged him to speak on. He mumbled something unintelligibly about my avoiding him and making him not have anyone else to share and gist with as usual. When I eyeballed him coldly, he cleared his throat and stood up straighter.
“I put in for the Nigerian Defense Academy last year.” He said. “The first shortlist is out and my name is on it.”
Alarm went off in my head. He just announced something as massive as being shortlisted into NDA like it was no big deal?
“Okay?” my voice was soft-spoken and mellow, sending a warm glow from my face.
Ayegba shrugged and smiled. “Okay?”
“Congratulations.” I said and ran towards him. He opened his arms wide, embraced me so warmly he unconsciously swept me off my feet. “When were you going to tell me?”
“You haven’t been talking to me, remember?” He mouthed
“Before then? When you were filling the forms?”
Ayegba heaves a sigh. “That was last year, Vee. Dad encouraged me to try it. He must be proud now.”
I squeezed Ayegba’s hand softly. His honest eyes burrowed into me, revealing pain and hurt.
When he announced the implication of the shortlist to include he would be gone for a long time, my heart sank to the floor. My head cocked to the side and eyes shifted from him to the window. It felt like my heart stopped and I could barely breathe.
“How long?” I managed to say before my heart stopped completely.
He told me about a six-month intensive training that would mean him not able to visit or communicate. He reassured me that after that the training will be a bit more flexible. At least, communication ban would be lifted.
He saw the shock register on my face before I could hide it.
“I’ll be home to see you first chance I get, Vee. I promise.” He said as a small smile played on his lips.
The week before he left had us sticking with each other everywhere like iron and magnet. Mum didn’t seem to mind anymore. She knew her son would be gone for six whole months anyway and so much can change in that time. If words could be banked, Ayegba and I talked enough to last us a year. The days in that last week had only seven hours in it because that’s the only way to explain why the week fled past in a blur. Before I knew it, Ayegba was gone.
I could barely concentrate on anything after he left. Everything in the house reminded me of him. Every single thing. I had to suppress the urge to cry severally and at other times, I locked myself up in the bathroom and let the tears pour like a mightily gushing spring.
Two months later at school, some group of ladies came to talk to the girls. They talked about sexuality, ovulation cycle amidst others. The talk brewed fear on my insides so much so that I wrote an anonymous note and forwarded to the speaker during the question and answer session.
“We have a question here.” She said excitedly, opening the wrinkled sheet of paper. She began to read out loud. “Ma, thanks for the lecture. So you mean if one has not seen her period after two months, it means she’s pregnant?”
Commotion rose among the students after she was done reading. Everyone echoed their take on the question. When the noise quietened some, the woman smacked her lips and began to talk.
“If this person had been engaged in any unprotected sexual activity, then I am afraid she may be pregnant. However, this has to be confirmed with a pregnancy test.” She went on to talk about a strip and how it can even be used at home.
Panic overwhelmed me and I began to feel dizzy immediately.
“Whoever asked this question is in trouble.” A girl sitting on my right hand side whispered to me, giggling.
Sadness drained through me rather than skating over my skin as usual. It traveled through every cell to reach the ground. I couldn’t talk. I could only open my mouth to find that even words have deserted me. Because I was overthinking, I noticed a strange sharp pain in my tummy, then the two pimples that formed on the top of my nose. Early signs of pregnancy, I affirmed.
When I got home, the fear had already eaten me up. Mum asked if I was alright and I lied that I was. I was in dire need of a getaway, a time when mum will send me to the grocery store. Maybe there, I can search for and buy the strip the woman talked about in order to confirm.
I dialed Ayegba’s number tirelessly. I knew his number shouldn’t go through but there was no harm in trying. Most times I ended up throwing the phone onto the bed in frustration when the automated response, ‘…currently switched off, please try again later’ came through my ears.
It wasn’t until the next Saturday that mum finally sent me to the grocery store. I tried to persuade the driver that the items on my list were not much so he didn’t have to drive me but he wouldn’t bulge. He even insisted on walking into the store with me so as to assist me with pushing the cart.
I held my heart up in my mouth as we shopped. Whenever he glanced at me, I spread my lips into a horrible fake smile, then a laughter, a bitter sarcastic laughter. As I picked every single item on my list, I scanned my eyes in search of what I really needed but I wasn’t in luck. There was nothing like the strip the woman described on the shelves.
When we got to the cashier and paid, I felt the weight of my body too heavy for my legs to carry.
“Please where is your restroom?” I asked the smiling young man behind the desk.
He pointed his first finger to a door on the far right. My eyes told the driver to go ahead that I would join him in a jiffy. Otherwise, he may just follow me into the restroom with the way he was acting like a paid CID.
As I hurry towards the restroom, I saw a tiny placard above me on the left – pharmacy. My heart leaped for joy and the inconvenience I felt earlier disappeared instantly. I hurried in there, scanning my eyes up and down a shelf full of drugs and syrups. Then another shelf and another shelf until I found it. Right there, on a mini shelf alongside sanitary pads and pampers.
I couldn’t wait to get back home. Mum had gone for a meeting in church so I had the entire house to myself. With keen eyes and the steady devotion of a lion scheming his prey, I waited eagerly, hoping not to see a third line on the strip as illustrated on the label material. Alas, it finally showed… distinctively. I knew I was done for. My mind ran through possible things that may befall me when mum learnt about it. She will not handle it well at all, that I was sure of. She just lost her husband few months earlier, and now her adopted daughter was pregnant for her only biological son?
I took the initiative to wipe out everything on my phone, including the numerous ‘not delivered’ SMS I sent to Ayegba’s ‘switched off’ phone number in my moments of panic. I dropped the device on my neatly dressed bed, picked as many clothes as can fit into my biggest bag and hurried out of the house. The driver had gone out after dropping me back home and the gateman was dozing as usual so I quietly slid past the gate unnoticed. I had no idea where I was headed but I was convinced anywhere other than Mrs. Ocheme’s house was safer for me.
There’s a soft noise of a paper tearing as Ayegba stretches something to me. This brings my attention back to him. Fear cripples me, freezing every muscle of my body as he urges me to take the rectangular shaped white paper from him. My teeth chatters as I turn it over to read what’s written on it.
“You got to be kidding me, Ayegba.” I say before I could stop myself.
“Please.” He answers. A blank expression sits on his face.
It’s a signed cheque with no name and no amount written on it.
“I don’t know what names are on your document these days.” He says, smiling at me and I frown in a playful manner. “Also, I don’t even know how much is too little to write. So I leave that to you. And please don’t be considerate about the amount to fill in. I have enough on that account and you’re free to waste my money, Vee.”
I couldn’t help a smile at the way he said ‘you’re free to waste my money’.
“You know I am not going to take this, don’t you?”
Ayegba shifts uncomfortably on his seat and picks my hand. “Don’t ever think I am trying to repay you, Vee. Never! I can’t. Where do I even start from? This is just me trying to be dad enough for my son.”
His last sentence breaks my heart. All this is about Attah only after all. It’s not because he still loves me and is concerned about my welfare or anything like that. It’s all about his son.
I swallow painfully.
“Thanks.” I manage to say before opening the car door and stepping out. “Safe trip.”
He nods in the affirmative and powers the engine. I watch Ayegba’s luxury car as it flies down the road and raw tears well up in my eyes.
With no one around to bug me, I’ve thrown myself into work, as much as I can anyway. Communication with Mona hasn’t been so frequent. Even though he’s due back this weekend, my heart is not in any way elated about it. I’ve decided to expand my photo studio and have rented out the adjacent building. Many thanks to Ayegba’s blank cheque. He asked me to waste his money anyway, so? I plan to set up a place for sales of photography gadgets.
When I shared my business plan with Mona over the phone, I thought he’d be happy. I was wrong. Instead, he began talking about how being in love with a soldier demands that you don’t put all your eggs in one basket when you’re in a place. You have to be open and willing to move when duty calls. Bla, bla, bla. I didn’t understand any of those so I kindly reminded him of the conversation we had the night he was to travel.
“Just saying, baby. I am working on stopping the transfer for now. I just want you to be open. Anything can happen, you know?” He said with his most patronizing tone yet.
“Please, Mona, don’t.” I stressed, raising my voice a little. I can only hope he’s not under the illusion that he can get me to change my mind.
Things are fast falling out of place with Mona. I need to fix it but I don’t know how. I know every once in a while, you hit a rough patch in a relationship but this is more like a road crash leaving scars that won’t go away.
When Ify arrives, the contractor is following behind her, staring at her behind. Some men are so vain. She comes to hand over the nylon with my lunch in it to me before going to her desk and turning to him. She thinks he’s a customer and he just might be after today. Maybe I can talk her into dating him while construction is going on so I can get a cheaper price.
I smile at my own thoughts. I have just turned into not only an inconsiderate fiancée but an equally evil scheming boss. I need help.
“Hi Mr. Tunji.” I say out loud.
“Good afternoon, madam Ileanwa.” He replies, still looking at Ify. The way he pronounces my name makes my tummy rumble. I snap my fingers to get his attention. It takes forever for his eyes to finally meet mine. Great, now he’ll be distracted by Ify the whole time he’s here.
“Let’s discuss my plans next door,” I say grabbing the keys and walking out. I pull the sleeve of his shirt to follow me and don’t let go until we are safely outside. I whack him in the arm.
“Wetin nau, Oga Tunji?”
“No be my fault, madam. Your girl fine die.” He responds in Pidgin English too.
“Yeah. Well, she no be your type. Na work I carry you come for, so concentrate, ejor.”
I open the door to the adjacent building. Mr. Tunji follows me in. I like his work. He renovated the photo studio for me when I first got it. I know I can trust him.
“I was thinking we should open this wall,” I point to the adjoining wall. “so we can make it glass. Then that back door should be linked to the reception in the photo studio, so we can come in without walking out front.” I say, walking to the other side. “This side can just come in a little more. It’s a gadget store, so?” I point the opposite wall.
Mr. Tunji starts making notes and begins measuring the walls. He knocks on the walls and writes notes where he was knocking. “I fit start tomorrow be that, if you ready?”
“I’m ready.” I reply quickly. I’m eager to start and bring a new aspect to my business.
“Shebi, we’ll put a new signpost outside ni, abi kini?”
The way he blends Pidgin English with Yoruba is impressive.
I nod. “Ehmm… we may just take down the one there and redesign or something.”
“Uh huh,” He says while scribbling on his notepad. “I go need one more hand sha to help me.”
“No problem, Mr. Tunji. Just make this place world class for me. I trust you.”
I leave Mr. Tunji to finish his assessment and head back to the studio. It will be nice when the wall is replaced with transparent glass. I know my idea is grand. I have a vision about this whole business expansion and I plan to make sure it succeeds.
“Who was that, Ma?” Ify asks as soon as I walk in the door.
“Ile!” I cut in. I don’t know how many more times I’m going to have to correct her.
She smiles shyly. I can’t tell by her initial expression if she was happy with the way Mr. Tunji was gawking at her or disgusted.
“That’s Mr. Tunji. The contractor working on the expansion. I already warned him, so don’t worry.”
I press my right hand on my hip, pick up the nylon of lunch with the other hand and walk towards my office. There’s a loud laughter coming from the studio room. Dayo must be cracking one of our customers up in his characteristic jovial manner. I love that we have good customer relations and everyone who’d been photographed by me or any of my staff has just this one thing to say.
“You guys made me feel so at home while taking pictures.”
That’s the goal of the business. Playful while being professional.
Back on my seat, I rip the rubber plate open to devour my meal. I am starving in an unusual way today. Putting a spoon in my mouth, I hummed at the deliciousness of it. Good meals make one think smarter.
There’s a soft tap on my door and Ify comes in immediately.
“I brought you something that came in the email this morning.” Ify says, stretching a paper to me.
She had to even print it?
I normally check the email every morning but guess the expansion plan is clogging my brain today. I drop the fork in my hand to collect the piece of paper, reading the headline and looking at her.
“I saw this thing on Instagram last week and decided to try it. We were told to upload a before and after editing portrait, tag them, drop our email address and get a chance to be selected for a 2-day all-expense paid photography workshop.”
Leaning closer, I read about the workshop. The opportunity to take classes, practical sessions and attend a trade show all in one convenient location it says. Keynote facilitators like TY Bello, Aisha Augie-Kuta and Kelechi Amadi-Obi. Excitement builds in me as I read on. TY Bello is my role model in photography and the thought of an opportunity to have a one-on-one session with her is bursting my brain open. I’ve never attended any workshop before, but with the expansion I’m doing, maybe it’s time I start expanding my knowledge base.
“I should do this.”
“Totally, Ile.” She replies.
When I look at her, she’s grinning from ear to ear.
“I just called you by your first name and… I didn’t die.” She says. That makes me laugh but she’s not done yet. “That’s not all though. The workshop is in Lagos, on the island specifically and its next week.”
I look back at the paper, sure enough, it is. My heart pounds just a bit faster at the thought of seeing Ayegba. What if I run into him on the street? Would he hug me if he saw me or ignore me?
I’m being silly. Lagos is a big place. I’ll never run into him.
“You should go. Meet new people and increase the network for this business.”
“Thanks so much for this, Ify. I owe you.”
Ify turns her back and exits the office. I read the blurred words on the paper over and over again. All I can think about is seeing Ayegba, but I know that doing that would hurt Mona if he ever gets to find out. And I don’t want to do hurt him.
After everyone leaves the office, I sit back clutching the flyer. My thumb hovers over Ayegba’s name on the screen of my phone. I am not sure if I should call him. What if he says it’s not a good idea or tells me to come but he’s busy? Can I take the rejection?
I jump when a horn blares on the express. My thumb inadvertently hits the call button, his and Attah’s faces light up my screen. It’s a picture I took when neither of them knew I was in the room. My hand shakes as I bring my phone to my ear. I listen through the rings and hope he doesn’t answer.
“Hello.” He doesn’t sound out of breath or rushed when he answers, just calm and very Ayegba.
“I didn’t mean to call,” I say barely audible.
“I am happy you did. I like hearing your voice.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that to me.”
He laughs. “Well, if you expect me to lie, it’s not going to happen. So what do I owe the pleasure of your call? I’m very happy to hear your voice.”
“Is this how you are sweet tongued with all your women?”
“Only that there are no women, Vee. I promise you. So what’s up?”
“I am thinking of coming to Lagos for a workshop or trade show or whatever it is. Anyway, I just wanted to know if you don’t mind lunch.”
Ayegba is silent for a moment. I can hear him breathing so I know he didn’t hang up on me. “Are you bringing Attah?”
“No. This is next week and he is busy at school. It would just be me. And… if you’re busy and don’t have time, I understand. I know this is short notice and you’re probably trying to catch up with all the pending works from last time and also…”
“Just shut up already, jeez! I want to see you, Vee. Even if I’m out of the country, I’ll fly back in immediately just to see you. Where will you be staying?”
I unfold the flyer and look. I tell him where and he starts to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. It’s just about three buildings down my street.”
I’m going to be spending two days on the same street with Ayegba Ocheme next week. I think I’m in trouble.
TO BE CONTINUED.
- Do you think running away when she learnt about the pregnancy was the best thing Ileanwa could have done?
- Is her love for Mona fading too fast or she never even truly loved him in the first place?
- What do you think will happen now that she’s visiting Lagos?