Her free hand clutches his wrist all through the ride, except when the steering wheel demands her use of both hands. She divides her attention between the road and his face. Her eyes dig beyond his countenance to uncover his thoughts.
His eyes focus on nothing and everything in front of him. The blurry asphalt, the moving vehicles, the church goers clad in their Sunday best, the blue sky, the rising sun. He says nothing. Maybe he is too tired to speak—because he slept late—or he is just being himself.
But what is certain is their silence. Like their words would be strangers interfering in this their private moment. Or their words would be too familiar and taint the novelty of this moment.
She wraps her arms around his arm, and leans her head on his shoulder. He makes to drop a kiss on her forehead and her lips. But public displays of affection have never been his strong suit. So he kisses her in the privacy of his mind and imagines her receiving his lips on her lips. His tongue caressing the softness of her tongue. This has always been a fantasy of his, kissing at the airport. Maybe this came about by binging on Bollywood movies, like an airport is the only arena for the most sincere of kisses. But he can’t stand the crowd watching and, like the movies, applauding. Or since it is Nigeria, label her a whore for kissing a guy without a ring on her finger.
Punctuality had demanded he sacrificed breakfast. His stomach makes a rumbling sound, a consistent reminder of this sacrifice. At this point, she offers to buy him food. He declines, not wanting to upset his system, and also raising the defence of the high prices of food here. She counters. It won’t upset his system. And, besides, it is her money. So let her complain about the expensiveness of the food.
He puts up a smile that she would read as a thanks-for-insisting smile or a you-are-very-caring smile. But it is false. Her money. Like she said it to remind him of the wide gap in their financial status. Don’t worry I’ll drive you to the airport. Her car. It was worse when she said things like that in the presence of his friends. Or when they go shopping, or to a restaurant, and the attendants all look at him to pay. Then she hands them money from her wallet. And he focuses on his shoes, whether the laces are properly tied.
Quelling himself that she did not say it on purpose, or more specifically, saying it to hurt him, he agrees to eat. And she pays. And the food doesn’t upset his system.
He pays for eating by being at the end of the queue. Nervous that he might miss his flight, she tells him to wait, walks to the front of the queue, and meets an older guy: Jeans shorts, plain black shirt, gold chain, and Beats headphones around his neck. She smiles at the older guy, and says something, then smiles again. The older guy laughs. Then she waves him over. He pulls his luggage and joins them. He has always admired her ability to talk to strangers, and easily warm her way through their heart, like a table knife slicing through butter.
The older guy calls him her younger brother. She laughs and says no, then introduces him as her boyfriend. Boy what? the older guy says.
He is already used to it. Most people tried to understand the connection. Why someone like her stayed with someone like him. Sometimes he also wonders why she has not left him long ago, and skipped off in the hands of another man—a better man. Or why she even decided to be with him. He never had excellent grades in the University, his scores were average. He came out with a 3.48. There was nothing extra he did on the side that brought him money, or looked like would bring him money anytime soon. So without good grades, money, and any definite future prospect, what was left? Sex? It wasn’t all that great either. Back in boarding school, he had his bath very early in the mornings or in the afternoons, when the bathroom was practically empty. On few occasions when he missed these times, he faced the mossy bathroom wall, cupping his crotch in his palms. There were fewer periods when it was seen. And the boys would point and laugh, comparing it to their pinkie finger. She would say size doesn’t matter to her. And sometimes when he was thrusting, she would clutch his back with her nails, telling him not to stop that she was about to come. But most times, he couldn’t withhold his excitement, and before she came, he exploded. And she would hold his head and pat his back, as he tried to regain his breath.
He stands in front of the older guy. She is at the older guy’s side, outside the queue. The older guy talks, she talks. But he cannot hear their words clearly. Every time she laughs—which is getting too frequent for his liking—it startles him, like a roaring thunder during a light drizzle. He doesn’t know what could be so funny. Has he ever made her laugh like this? What is the older guy saying that makes her laugh so hard? It is true that people are naturally aligned to those who make them laugh. What if after this guy, she takes his silence as being bland or brooding? Then during their little fights, she searches for the older guy’s number to call to make her happy. Then she will end up leaving him alone, exposed, ordinary, without the cloak of her presence wrapping him in mystery. Maybe he should call her attention. Maybe he should join their discussion. Before he decides on what to do, an Aero official directs him to the check-in desk.
He has two options: to either be attended to by two young men or two young women. He looks back. She waves at him and smiles. Then she dabs her cheeks with handkerchief—an aftermath of series of laughter. He opts for the ladies. Maybe because it will be easier convincing them to reduce the amount charged for excess luggage, leveraging on the opposite-gender leeway. Or because he plans to laugh at whatever the ladies tell him, so that she will know how it feels.
The ladies tell him to put his bag on the scale: twenty eight kilograms.
Four thousand naira, one of the ladies says.
He pleads to pay half the price.
She looks at him for about six seconds without blinking. She finally blinks, and with her lips barely moving, she says: Okay, but pass the money under.
He smiles. It is the Lagos way of life. Everybody bending protocols to assist the other. Assisting the other for the benefits of their pockets. This way nobody loses, except the country. It is the definition of being sharp. It is not corruption, just being sharp. If you’re not sharp, you suffer. He smiles for being sharp.
The lady asks for his ID card, he gives her. Reference number, he shows her. Then she asks him to spell his name, he spells it. To spell it again, he does. And again, he does. The lady calls the other lady. The other lady types on the laptop, looks at his ID card, and then types again. Finally, she says she cannot find his name on the flight manifest.
What? But I paid online, he says.
I just can’t find it, she replies.
So what do I do now?
Go to the booking booth and let them check it for you. When you’re done, just come here straight. Don’t line up.
The time is 11:35a.m. His flight is by 12:30p.m.
He hurries to the booking booth. A voice tails him, matching up with his quick footsteps, asking what the problem is. He neither looks back nor answers. If she wasn’t wasting time laughing with that stupid guy, and leaving him all alone, she wouldn’t be asking this stupid question.
The booking booth is a room with three attendants behind the desk. Customers speak to the attendants through a square opening covered by a grille. A small crowd, divided into three short queues, surrounds the opening. He stands behind the shortest queue. After enduring the rants of an incensed woman—a pungent smell escaping her mouth each time she opens it—it finally gets to his turn.
The attendant asks for his ID card, the bank he used, date of payment, and the last four digits of his debit card. He only has the first two. He used his father’s card, and thinks the date of payment was either the sixteenth or seventeenth of December. He dials his dad for the digits on his debit card. He knows this is the first Sunday of the year, and churches take this seriously, dedicating the whole year in the hands of God; coupled with the fact that his dad is a deacon, sitting on the pedestal right behind the pastor, only a rare exception will work in his favour, and make his dad pick his call.
By 12:10p.m, he has called his dad, the pastor, and certain church members, but none of them picks. He imagines them in their flowing agbadas, towering geles, and tightly wrapped iros—the only Sunday of the year their church officials are allowed to wear traditional attires—dancing to praise songs amplified by three deafening speakers. Even a China phone, notorious for their embarrassing loudness, cannot be heard in such periods.
He asks the lady, if anything, he means anything, can be done at all to assist him. She says no. The details are important.
So what it is the solution now?
You will have to buy a new ticket sir.
What? But I paid for this thing.
She stares at him.
So how much is it?
Twenty thousand, two hundred naira only sir.
Where will I get that kind of money from?
She stares at him.
He turns and walks away, brushing his palm across his hair in frustration. She stands before him, her eyes digging beyond his countenance to uncover his thoughts. She gives up, and finally uses her words.
I asked what is wrong, and you ignored me.
He weighs his anger against the urgency of his current situation. One outweighs the other, and like other problems he has had with her, he blames this on him being unreasonable. If he gets angry on something like that, he would have to kill every comedian. Then he explains everything to her. And just like that she walks him to the nearest ATM machine, and withdraws the money. But before she hands him the money, she brings out something from her bag, and places it in his palm.
Two months ago, he had found it at a mall. A lady had hurried past him, and he heard it clack along the floor. He picked it up, and called the lady’s attention to it. She said it wasn’t hers, and continued walking her way.
It was a small glass sphere affixed on a red ceramic cylinder. The glass sphere had a teddy bear inside. On the red cylinder, ‘I Love You’ was inscribed in white. But when he picked it then, what remained of the glass sphere were jagged edges.
He examined it, and wondered what could have gotten it broken. Like she could uncover the thoughts beyond his expression, she said lover’s quarrel.
Or it fell from someone’s bag, he said.
It couldn’t have fallen. This is a sentimental gift, and so far she loved him, she wouldn’t have kept it carelessly.
Why had she implied that it was the guy who had given the girl the gift? Why not otherwise? He tried to remember the last gift he gave her.
She must have found out he was cheating, and slammed it out of anger, she said.
Cheating at a mall?
She held his hand to examine it.
I don’t know, but this was broken out of a love-gone-sour situation.
Hmm. Ms detective.
She laughed. Imagine the whole drama they would have caused, she said.
And he imagined the whole drama they would have caused. The crowd watching two lovers go at it. In such outbursts, dirty linen would be brought bare. Secrets traded in times of intimacy would be transformed into weapons of mockery. Someone might have brought out a phone to record, and before they knew it, they would have become trending memes and a wealthy source for humorous clips. The thought of it brought shivers down his spine.
Promise me one thing, he said.
That we won’t end up like this. Then he handed the item to her. Let this be like a reminder or symbol of our promise.
Where is all this coming from? She smiled and kept it in her bag.
You remember, he says.
Yes, I remember. She then gives him the money. Go catch your flight.
He stuffs the money in his pocket, revealing his teeth and happiness. Thank you dear, he says.
To his surprise, before he takes a step to leave, she pulls him towards herself and embraces him tightly. Then she looks at him, her eye balls darting left to right. All she sees are the whiteness of his eyes, his firm cheekbones and the softness of his lips. Then to his shock, she draws his face closer to hers and kisses him. Her lips receiving his. His tongue caressing the softness of her tongue. His heart dancing wildly.
Contrary to his belief, no crowd gathers, no one applauds, and no one calls her a whore for kissing a guy without a ring on her finger. In fact, no one cares.
I love you, she says.
As she says those words in the middle of the airport hall, he finally comes to a conclusion as to what the connection between them may be and he wonders if all her kindness and understanding came from a place of love or from a personal satisfaction to see him forever indebted to her.
Gbolahan Badmus (@) is a lawyer writing stories. His works have been recently published or forthcoming in Naked Convos, Omenana, Litro, The Missing Slate and Saraba. He lives somewhere very close to Lagos that in most cases he calls Lagos.
Related country: Nigeria
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