Imported oranges? Vivian had cried out when I told her that was what he smelled like. She said she hoped I hadn’t said that to him and that I said the silliest things. She did not say it with the type of half-smile you have on your face when watching a loved one’s antics. So I rolled my eyes and didn’t tell her anymore. I didn’t tell her that I didn’t; in fact, speak to him that first day.
He had his hands buried in the pockets of his black kaftan and I remember thinking he looked like the poster picture for a Suicide Bombers Academy. His beard was cropped close to his face, his hair was full and he had a striped scarf hanging from his neck. It was just us two in the elevator and I found it funny that my iPod shuffle had picked that moment to play the only Hausa song I had- ‘Nagode’.
I stared at his clean toenails discreetly and didn’t say a word. Vivian always said I was hopeless with men and inept at conversations with the opposite sex. Just like that, all the time. You’re hopeless with men and inept at conversations with the opposite sex; and then she would huff and continue to brush out her long weave. She was always brushing out her weaves, up, down, up, down; the rhythm seemed to soothe her.
He smelled of oranges. Oranges and some other exotic perfume. He would tell me later that it was some Egyptian musk he had fallen in love with on one of his vacations in Hurghada. And I would say I had never been to Egypt, after which he would go on to tell me about the ‘lovely city’ and ‘all the water activities’ and how I would like it very much..
He was reading the sports section of the Newspaper that day but he didn’t look very interested. I stood there, clutching my small laptop to my chest. A bag for my laptop was the first thing he bought me, even before he got me the chunky bracelet I now wear every day. We bought it at the fair. Abdul came with me because according to him, he wanted to spend that day with me. He said it with a straight face and I had turned my face towards the window of the office cafeteria so he wouldn’t see through to the hysteric dancing my heart had launched into.
And when the elevator stopped at the ground floor, I walked slowly so he was ahead of me and I could study his brisk walk and re-enact the elevator scene again but this time, with me saying something witty and him laughing loudly. He disappeared into the parking lot while I walked out to stop a taxi. I thought about him for days after until I saw him again. At the cafeteria. Sitting alone. Of course, I wasn’t brave enough to walk up to him and plop my tray on his table and talk up a storm but I did deliberately glance over as I walked past. He said hello when he was leaving. And he smiled.
The third time we had lunch together was the day I spoke about my boss and did imitations of his famous grunt. I caught myself wondering how it was that I was comfortable enough with him to be grunting. Vivian banged on my door that night and said she wanted to know who it was I had been talking to for over an hour. Abdul, I had whispered through the door. It was that day he told me his father was a director at the Development Authority Headquarters, right there where we both worked. I never tried to disappear into the wall whenever I saw the director walk down the hallway after that day. His son was my friend.
So, this Abdul. What’s going on? Vivian asked me one day as I stared abstractly at the kangaroo with a chef’s hat that sat to the left of the dates on the calendar hanging in our tiny kitchen; my mind never far from Abdul. He had kissed me the night before. It wasn’t what I had expected it to be, or what I had dreamed it up to be on my solitary walks while daydreaming. I had been rambling about the horrible language of the Lifestyle article in the Punch newspaper and I paused when his cold fingers touched my neck. In his car, he lowered his head and kissed me. I smiled. I really like you, I said. He smiled and kissed me again.
Well, we’re friends. I said to Vivian. She stopped chopping the spring onions and swung around to face me. We did it this way, Vivian cooked, and I cleaned up after. Friends? Didn’t I say you were clueless with men? Vivian said to me, exasperated. Just make sure he’s made it clear to you before you set yourself up for heartbreak. And when am I supposed to meet him? Or you’re hiding him? Is he short?
I had admitted it to myself that I didn’t want Abdul to meet Vivian yet because I was afraid. I was afraid that Abdul would see Vivian in her small grey shorts and tight white tank top and long weave and forget about me. Me with my faded jeans and Rock n’ Roll t-shirts. So, I kept them away from each other. When Abdul asked about the housemate that I spoke so much about, I said she was busy and drank a little water to quiet the rumble of guilt that always came.
Her words refused to budge from my head. Abdul and I had made no moves towards anything official; we were just Abdul and I. You’re just a big baby. Vivian said to me during another one of our kitchen sessions. She said this because I spent two weekends of every month at my parents’. She didn’t know that the last time I had supposedly done this had been spent at Abdul’s in his oversized red t-shirt and baggy shorts laughing at Modern Family, making orange juice and sharing kisses on his small balcony while commenting on the lack of a romantic view to cement the moments. I had gulped down a glass of water to settle the rumble.
I needn’t have worried though because when Abdul finally showed up at our tiny flat and cramped his tall frame on our white and black dotted couch, he ate Vivian’s spaghetti with relish while eyeing the pretty dress I had donned for the occasion. I had pretended not to notice. When I asked Vivian afterward, what she thought about him, she had mumbled ‘He’s alright’ but I think she was jealous because Paul had disappeared and Emeka had stopped coming as often as before. Emeka and Paul were the consistent men in Vivian’s life.
But we were still Abdul and I. Even when he told me all he wanted to be- a husband, father, a developer and all he was before; how the scar on his left shoulder had come from a bar fight and how his love for oranges stemmed from the fact that it was the only thing he remembered sharing with his dead mother; we were still just that. And I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. I liked Abdul a lot, I feared I loved him; and the words he would not say, I convinced myself I saw in his eyes. Still, my ears craved for the words to tickle them the way my older sister used to when she found a feather lying about.
It was when he returned to Egypt, for business this time, that I realized that the tiny prick on my skin had become a big festering wound except that is not the right analogy because it was sweet. A sweet, dull pain in my chest. I missed him, the smell of him, the deep throat chuckle he made at my silly imitations, the slight lift of an eyebrow when I asked a stupid question and the long, unbroken stare into my eyes before he kissed my forehead. I tried to mask the thirst for him when he called from Egypt but my lips wouldn’t cooperate. I miss you. I said.
God, I miss you too, P. He said. My dad wants to meet this girlfriend I’ve been raving about. When I get back? P? Do you mind? You are that… right? I had never heard him sound so meek and uncertain. I felt secure in that.
He’ll never know about the little jig I did in the darkness of my room when I heard that. Vivian will never know too because I told her ‘It’s official’ in the most of offhand voices I could affect the next morning. She had laughed loudly and said I had learnt a thing or two from her before she went on brushing. I didn’t bother to contradict her or roll my eyes; it was a lazy Saturday, perfect time to snuggle and finish my short story collection while wearing that abducted tee that smelled of imported oranges.
Story by Pemi Aguda