The scent of Leticia’s perfume stirred Toni from her afternoon nap. She opened her eyes. Her friend was staring intently at her. She bore that look that revealed she wanted attention.
Toni looked at the clock in her room. It was past one.
“Shit. I overslept.”
Her eyes met Leticia’s again.
“I’m sorry,” Leticia murmured. “I’ve had a bad morning because of our fight. My hair didn’t even come out the way I liked.”
“It’s okay.” Toni caressed the tresses of Leticia’s weave. “It’s fine.”
“The nails are finer sha.”
Toni let her slip underneath the blanket with her.
“I needed you today,” Toni confessed. “I was going to Bode Thomas and couldn’t find my way.”
“Bode Thomas?” Leticia pulled the blanket to her neck. “We’ve been there twice before nau. You’re such a disgrace.”
“I know. I had to take a cab.”
“Who were you going to see?”
Leticia poked a finger in her side. “If I start tickling you…”
“Okay, I went to see Andre.”
“Dre?” Leticia sat up, all smiles. “Are you serious?”
“I told you he has money.”
“Sort’a. He used to have a lot of money but lost it and now he’s starting all over. The delivery company is his.”
Leticia’s lips stretched out in a wide grin as she clapped silently.
“What’s all the rejoicing for?”
“I’m happy for you.”
“We’re not dating. But he kissed me.”
A shriek escaped Leticia’s lips and she slapped a hand over her mouth to hush it. “How was it?”
Toni let out her first smile for the day as her eyes went wistful. Leticia held her breath.
“It was quick, short… but really nice. The guy can kiss sha.”
Leticia sighed contentedly. “Now I can die happy. Baby girl has finally gotten herself a real man. Thank you, Lord.”
“That’s not all. He’s taking me out by two for lunch.”
Leticia squealed. “Aww, he really likes you.”
“They all do, until they turn to assholes. But like I said, we’re not dating.”
“Where are you guys going?”
“Will you let him smash?”
“No.” Toni grimaced. “It’s just a normal date in a public place. And to ensure that no smashing happens, I’m wearing torn panties.”
“Like that ever stopped anything.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“Abeg I’ve tried it all. Torn panties, hairy pubes, dirty bra, period excuse, all of it.”
“Well, you’re such a hoe.”
Leticia hopped off the bed. “Whatever. Let’s sha celebrate.”
“Celebrate ke. I’m going out.”
Leticia dashed out. Seconds after, loud music rent the air. It was a collection of Nigerian party songs.
“Leticia,” Toni groaned.
Leticia returned with white wine, two glasses and a jumbo pack of chicken nuggets wedged under her arm.
“Who bought chicken for you?” Toni sat up.
“So I can’t buy chicken for myself again?”
“Mnh-mnh. Not 5k chicken.”
“Okay, some guy I met at the salon. He brought his daughter to make her hair. Single dad. He looks okay but I was not in the mood jare.”
Toni picked a piece of chicken.
“Yet you managed to get him to buy you chicken.”
“I was hungry. He wanted talk. We went to a joint. Says he wants to see me again but I don’t want abeg. He was even the one that dropped me off.”
“How is Izu sef?”
“Still packing.” She sighed. “Dear High Mistress, I think I’m in love with a married man.”
“You know the rules, Tish. Leave when you start catching feelings. He will never dump his wife for you.”
“Please, leave him.”
“Yes, ma. Now, let’s talk about Dre.”
Toni didn’t want to talk about Andre but chicken, wine and Leticia made for a combo she didn’t want to go against.
Salma felt fat. She hadn’t been to the gym in two weeks. Ever since she discovered the place was a hub for cheating spouses, she became disinterested and chose to continue her weight loss program at home. She was bad at it and often found herself snacking after bedtime. Somehow she was hoping that her stay at Christie’s would help put her back into shape, but Tuesday went by without her accomplishing much.
Wednesday morning, she was up early. She tried some yoga and aerobics that left her unfulfilled. A long stare into the mirror told her she was far from her fitness goals, but rather than weigh her mind down with it, she got into her daily addiction of makeup and selfies.
After her fill for the day, she put on something decent and went to the kitchen to make breakfast. Folarin, she was told, had gone to work. Cyrus was helping his younger sister, Vanessa, get set for school. Salma offered to make breakfast. As she put together a meal of scrambled eggs and boiled yams, she spoke with her kids on the phone. Deejah wanted to know when they’ll see her again.
“Aren’t you having fun? You don’t like Aunty Comfort’s house?”
“I like it but…I want you to come back.”
“Baby, I will.”
“And Daddy too.”
“Daddy will come back,” she replied, although she had no idea where Raji was. Folarin had urged her to reach out to him the day before, but she had declined. Yet she sat as he tried to put a call across to him. None of his lines had been available.
“Can I talk to Fahad?”
“He’s wearing his school uniform.”
Salma heard some noise and Fahad was on the line.
“Mommy, don’t come back. We like staying here.”
Salma turned off the cooker.
“Why do you like it there?”
“Because Raheem is here and Aunty Comfort allows us play games on her Play Station.”
“She does, huh?”
The line disconnected. Salma shook her head. Fahad was a handful.
She served Vanessa’s meal and called her to the kitchen. The nine-year-old, respectful and cultured, received her breakfast with a smile and took a chair at the dining table. For lack of what else to do, Salma began tidying the house. She needed distraction from thinking about Raji.
Her day turned out okay. She spent most of it watching TV and Skyping with Bernadette. They weren’t so much of best of friends, but she needed to rant about Raji’s latest affair.
“Just overlook it, Sal. I’m sure it’s just a fling.”
“A fling? He’s probably with her right now. I haven’t been able to get him on the phone.”
“So you’re at Christie’s?”
“And Christie’s at work?”
“No. She traveled to Beijing.”
“You know her and her trips nau.”
“When did she leave?”
Bernadette was quiet for a few. “And you’re alone with Folarin?”
“And Cyrus and Nessa. I left the kids with Comfort.”
“Berna, I can’t think clearly with them around. They cloud my judgment. I need to think on my own, to know where this marriage is heading.”
“Don’t leave your husband for another woman o!”
“But I warned you about this. I told you that punishing a man for three years is not good. It will just drive him into the arms of other women. I warned you, Salma.”
“I know, but he deserved it. Imagine if it was me that cheated. You think Raji would forgive me so easily or at all?”
“For three years, Salma!”
“I was angry. And Raheem and Comfort kept popping into our lives uninvited. I just couldn’t handle it.”
“Anyway, what’s been done has been done. Now, all you have to do is find a way to win him back, and please shine your eyes well-well. Watch all the women around him.”
Talking to Bernadette had been a mistake. She left her drained.
“I have to go, Berna. Love ya!”
Bernadette kissed the air and hung up. Salma shut her laptop in exasperation. Bernadette’s advice had been nothing near Folarin’s, who had told her to put her foot down and give Raji an ultimatum. She was also to set some ground rules if they were to continue living as husband and wife. Ultimately, Folarin wasn’t pleased with him, even though he noted that Raji had a knack for falling in love too easily.
“You may not like to hear this, but he’s probably in love with this new woman,” Folarin had told her in a lengthy heart to heart they engaged in the previous night, both seated on the living room floor, chomping up on popcorn and Christie’s famous ice tea.
“I’ll advise that you give him time to pull out of the relationship or else you’ll be wasting your time trying to get your husband back. Either that or you just leave if you can’t handle it.”
Salma had been crying at that moment. As she nodded in agreement to Folarin’s counsel, teardrops plopped over her popcorn. Folarin put an arm around her to shake her up to cheer.
“You’ll be fine.”
He was right. She felt lighter the next morning. The pain wouldn’t go away, but it didn’t hurt as much. There were times in the past she had expressed her frustration at God over his decision for not giving her a husband like Folarin. It was exactly how she felt now, even though she chided herself for thinking such thoughts.
The front door slammed and Folarin walked in, tall and calm. The calmness was one thing he shared in common with Raji. He was the strong, silent type. Raji and Christie had told her he hadn’t always been that way.
“Hi Fola. How was work?”
“Work dey as e dey jare,” he replied taking off his shoes.
“You’re home quite early.”
“Yeah, I had a meeting and after that, decided to call it a day. How are you?”
“I got you something.”
He handed her a book. She read the title.
“Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay In or Get Out of Your Relationship.”
She looked up at him.
“That’s a mouthful.”
“But trust me, it will help you.”
“You’re welcome. So I was thinking that maybe we’ll go and see a movie and then have dinner. Let’s get you out of this house for a bit.”
“Not like I have a choice. Neither Christie nor Raji would forgive me for leaving you bored and sad like this.”
“Has Christie called?”
“Yeah. She called earlier. Says I should say hi. She was in a meeting and couldn’t speak for long.”
“How about Raji? Heard from him yet?”
“Typical. Just like when he had the thing going on with Comfort. He would switch off his phone and ignore all his responsibilities and…”
“Shh-shh-shh. We’re not talking about him today. Just go in and change into something and let’s go out.
Folarin disappeared into his bedroom. Salma entered hers. If she was feeling better earlier, the load was a lot lighter now. She didn’t know why Christie had complained about Folarin not quite long ago. He was the cool guy everyone knew him to be. Sometimes she felt that Christie was too spoilt to appreciate anything good.
“If he loves you and is faithful to you, why should his salary or choice of job be an issue?” she had thrown back at her when she complained.
“You don’t understand, Salma. I might be rich, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting my man to be the boss. I still do his laundry and cook his meals and serve them to him myself. I treat him like a king because I see him that way. Unfortunately, he sees himself as less. It turns me off.”
“How about when you guys are having sex? Is he still awesome?”
“He is. He’s always the boss there, but that’s where it ends. Sometimes I wish he could cheat on me, to bring back the old Folarin. Something has died in him.”
Christie was right. Salma didn’t understand her then and she didn’t now. Granted, Folarin had his quirks and those moments when he acted like a Martian but he was a great guy.
Salma wore something simple and traditional. She threw on a veil over her head. Raji hated whenever she covered up, but she was born and bred a proper Muslimah. Her mother would roll if she knew she sometimes went out with her hair uncovered or wore tights and knee-length dresses.
Useless raji had spoilt her.
Salma left her room. Folarin was waiting in the living room. He paid her a smile as a compliment and led her out.
Andre had come to pick Toni in a vehicle she had never seen him with before. He sat in with a frown because she had kept him waiting thirty minutes. She offered an apology that was met with a tight smile under a pair of mirrored sunglasses.
They had lunch at some nameless restaurant in a quiet business district. Subsequently, Andre announced that he was taking her sailing, after he presented her with nearly twenty fun ideas. On the eighteenth one, she stopped him.
“Isn’t the date over yet?”
“No. We’ll still have to while away time. You seem to have a lot of that on your hands today.”
His eyes briefly shot over her breasts underneath a bralette, which was supposed to provide full coverage, but was only half doing so. Above it was a sheer blouse matched with a pair of boyfriend jeans.
“You have a cool fashion sense,” he complimented.
“I do, actually.”
Toni had never sailed before. She once went on a boat cruise to some island in the Caribbean, but that was about that. She was up for anything.
He gave a mischievous smile. She didn’t understand its meaning until some minutes later when she saw herself standing at the bank of a lagoon, staring at a canoe with an old man sitting in it, flashing a few missing teeth.
She lifted her head at Andre and found the mischievous smile back on.
“You said we were sailing.”
“Too posh to go canoeing?”
He gave a muffled laugh and helped her into a life jacket. “You’ll love it.”
She didn’t – at first. The canoe smelled of fish and being so close to the water gave her goosebumps. She was scared they would topple over at each sway. Andre explained that he spent most of his childhood at sea. His late father had been a fisherman. One day, he would take her fishing; he still remembered a thing or two.
“I make the meanest fisherman’s soup.”
Toni gave him a suspicious look. “How did you know I love fisherman’s soup?” she asked but stopped, relaxing into a sigh.
“Never mind. But so not nice the way you stalked me.”
She was beginning to ease up now, getting used to the wobble of the canoe. The wind was kind, blustering mildly over them. The buzz of Lagos seemed distant as they rowed farther away from the shore. She could actually get used to this.
“Tell me about Anouk. Were you really cheating on her?”
Andre displayed a frown but it left with the passing wind. “Not all men cheat, Toni.”
“Some of us have principles.”
“I have seen principled men cheat. Both are not mutually exclusive.”
“I didn’t cheat on Anouk and please let’s talk about something else. She’s a topic I don’t want to discuss.”
“Why? You think you can’t get her killer jailed?”
“It’s part of my frustration, yes. As a foreigner, I simply cannot do anything. And that is why we should talk about something else. Let me tell you a story in French.”
“Why would I want to listen to that?”
“It’s abpit cats. Some people think it’s erotica, though. You’ll get it. I promise you.”
“Okay.” Toni brushed away hair from her face.
“It’s titled Ma Chatte.”
“Shat? Isn’t that the past tense of shit?”
“Yeah, it’s almost pronounced the same way but it’s Chatte. C-H-A-T-T-E.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means my cat. Or it could also mean my pussy.”
His face was so serious she let out loud laughter that made the toothless, old man turn.
Andre looked at her quizzically. “What’s tickling you?”
“Nothing. So what’s this story about?”
“Boy meets this girl one day on an errand to the bakery. She’s there, standing outside with her cat, a little kitten she calls…well, Kitty. So our guy falls in in love with her chatte but discovers that she lets everyone else but him play with it. He’s not so happy about that but he won’t let her be. Stalks her until one day she finally lets him have the kitty. He plays with it all day and all night and they have a great time. The kitty falls madly in love with him and he never lets anyone else touch it. End of story.”
“Really?” Toni gave Andre a direct stare laden with meaning. He blinked slowly. She suppressed a laugh. What was it about the guy that did her in so easily?
“Nice blurb. Now go on with the full story. I’m listening.”
Andre began talking and Toni sat in rapt attention, not understanding a single word, but catching on with the rise and fall of his tone and hand gestures. At some point, she felt flushed and wasn’t so sure what it was that left her in that state. All she was certain of was that Andre was a steamy storyteller. She wondered what it would feel like to let him play with her chatte.
An hour later, they were on dry ground and calling an end to their date.
“Did you have fun?” he asked.
“Yes. But I won’t do it again. The boat tore my blouse.”
“I’m sorry about that. Maybe next time, we’ll get into a yacht.”
They came out to a street and Andre flagged down a cab. There was silence between them as the cab slowed to where they stood. He negotiated with the driver and faced Toni.
“Thanks for the date,” she said.
“You can be sweet when you try, Toni.”
After a kiss on her forehead, he opened the back passenger door. She got in.
“I do hope you take home a lesson or two from the story.”
He straightened up and tapped the hood of the cab, sending it on its way. Toni was left aghast. Somehow he always found a way of shoving ants down her pants.
Folarin was doing a great job distracting Salma. In all her years of knowing him as her husband’s best friend, this was the closest they had ever been alone. She discovered she could actually laugh at his not-so-funny dark sense of humor.
As they sat having a light evening meal at a popular restaurant, he told her stories of his university days with Raji. Some of them were new to Salma’s ears.
“I didn’t know Raji was director of socials in school. He never told me.”
“Yeah. He liked school politics and all of that.”
“Always the life of a party.”
“What changed?” Salma picked a prawn off her plate.
“Well…” Folarin leaned back, arms crossed. “Many things. Many, many things.”
She noted that he didn’t want to talk further, so she switched the topic.
“When are you and Christie going to give us another baby?”
“I’m glad you asked.” Folarin tended forward. “Talk to your friend for me abeg. She says she’s done but I’m not. At least, just one more.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Salma assured. She was going to say something about giving Christie more time when Izu walked in with a lady she vaguely recognized.
“Ah-ahn! Warris going on here?” He strode over to them, the lady, keeping her distance.
“How far nau?” Folarin shook hands with him. “Na wa o, Fola! Person no dey take eyes see you again. Wetin dey?”
“I dey, my brother. You know as work dey be.”
“I know, I know.” Izu turned to Salma. “Alhaja Salimotu.”
“How are you, sweetheart?”
He gave her a hug.
“And the kids?”
“Great. How is Berna?”
“Didn’t you ladies talk today?”
“We did,” Salma admitted. It always confounded her how Bernadette and Izu had this close relationship across borders. They spoke almost every day and Bernadette told him basically everything. She was sure he knew that she and Raji were fighting.
“Oga Fola, where is your wife?”
“Beijing ke. Is there another women’s conference I don’t know about?”
“Yeah, everything is business with her and Raji.”
“He’s in China too?” Salma asked.
“I don’t know, but anywhere Christie is, Raj is bound to be nearby. That much I’m sure of. Anyways, glad to see you guys entertaining yourselves. Abeg, make me sef chop. Long day at work.”
He shook hands again with Folarin, winked at Salma and disappeared with his date.
“Isn’t that girl Toni’s friend?” Salma asked.
“He’s sleeping with her now?”
“Ugh. Berna needs to come back home and put a leash on Izu. Like seriously, he’s bound to give her a disease or something. Even Raji is not this bad.”
“Aww, so sweet to hear you defend him.”
“I was not defending. Just comparing.”
Salma smacked his hand with a straw.
“How does your foot feel now?”
Raji drew a line on the sole of Christie’s foot and elicited giggles from her. Earlier, she had complained about some discomfort on her injured ankle. She was yet to completely heal from the fracture she suffered during the holidays. She still experienced bouts of pain every now and then. Raji had been kind enough to massage the pain away.
“I have to leave tomorrow morning,” he said.
“Don’t go, please,” she begged, then laughed at the silliness of her request. “I don’t want this to end, to have us going back to burning consciences and mundane lives.”
“And the millions we make each month. Baby, life has to go on.”
Raji changed his position and lay beside Christie on the bed. “I love you, Christie. Madly. I can’t even explain.”
“I’m not sure what I feel is love, Raj, although I love you in other ways.” She cupped his cheek. “Where do you think all of this would lead?”
“I don’t know. Why can’t it just go on?” His fingers found her nipple and his tongue went down on it. Christie didn’t moan. She kept her eyes to the ceiling.
“You loved Comfort the same way you love me?”
Raji’s hand went between her legs. “In a different way.”
“Were you heartbroken when she ended things with you?”
Christie whined under the tease of his fingers. He stopped abruptly and buoyed up himself on his elbow.
“The moment she gave birth to Raheem and he was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, she started to hate me. I had taken her youth and given her a needy child. Those were her words. But she didn’t understand that I needed her or that we needed each other for Raheem. I was shattered. But when your heart breaks from an affair, you can’t talk about it with anyone because everyone sees the world in black and white. An affair is a bad thing.”
“It is, Raji.”
“It is love, Christie. How is love bad? How is what we share, right here, bad? If you think this is just for the knacks, then you don’t know me. I love you. And I agree that love can be messy, but there is a lot of grey. There are options. Are we betraying Folarin and Sal? Yes. They would hurt if they knew, but do I regret doing this or being this person with you? No. I love you in a way I have not allowed myself to love before. I have different quarters to my heart and Salma has only one part but you, Christie, you fill up every space. More than Sal, more than Comfort. I’m very scared that I might become addicted and wouldn’t be able to let go when you eventually get tired of me.”
“Oh, you’re such a smooth-operating, sweet talker Asepita. You know that?”
“I’m just being honest here, Christie.”
A kiss caressed her lips. His hand scooped her bum and crushed her into him. It took only a matter of seconds to find himself inside her. This had been their manner over the past couple of days. Talk and sex. Food in-between. Nothing else besides any of that mattered.
Folarin had just put Vanessa to sleep. He joined Salma on a garden bench in the backyard, just outside the kitchen door. She was having the last of Christie’s ice tea and staring at the household dogs playing with each other.
The lighting above was dim but bright enough for Salma to see that Folarin’s tattoos extended to his legs. Prior to this, she thought he had just the ones on his chest and upper arms.
“So I’ve been thinking hard,” he said. “Really hard. And it’s scary this thought I’ve been thinking. And because it’s so scary, I don’t think I want to think it alone. Please, feel free to slap me at any point you feel I’m going crazy with what you’re about to hear.”
“Folarin, you’re scaring me already.”
“Yeah, you need to be scared.”
“Do you think…that by any chance, Raji and Christie might be having an affair?”
Salma, who had been staring at the pattern of the tattoos on his left leg, stopped and took his eyes in a frown.
“What is the meaning of what you just said?”
“I told you it’s all crazy talk but has it ever crossed your mind…?”
“No, Folarin. Why would you even think such a thing?”
“Maybe because I have some evidence.”
“But what if they are? They spend more time with each other than we do with them.”
“Afolarin, we’re talking about Christie here. Yes, Raji is a cheat but not Christie. Please, stop.”
“Thank you for spoiling my evening.”
She downed the last bit of her drink and stood up. “Goodnight, Folarin.”
He didn’t let her go. He took her hand.
“You should at least, listen to my reason… Sit.”
She took her space beside him once more.
“What did Raji get you for Valentine’s?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Please… what did he get you?”
“A pair of Louboutins I always wanted.”
“And how much did they cost?”
“Roughly a hundred grand.”
“Okay, this is going to hurt brutally.” Folarin picked up something from the floor beside him. When he brought it to light, Salma saw that it was a gift bag.
Folarin took out a box and opened it, revealing an expensive wristwatch, dazzling in stainless steel.
“This is a Jaeger Lecoultre. It costs three thousand, nine hundred pounds. In naira, that is over one million bucks. This is what your husband gave my wife as a Valentine’s gift.”
Salma looked at Folarin and at the watch and back at him. She didn’t understand what he had just uttered.
“Oh, and it came with a card.”
Folarin pulled out a card from the bag. It had been squeezed but straightened out. He handed it to Salma whose hand was beginning to shake.
“Read what’s on it.”
“For sweetness,” Salma read, “R.”
She lowered her hand, sweat beads on her forehead.
“This can’t be from Raji.”
“Sal, that’s his writing.”
“Where did you find this?”
“In the booth of Christie’s car. This morning, my car had some issues, so I asked her driver to bring hers over. He gave me the key and seriously, I don’t know what led me to open the booth. I swear, I don’t. But I did and saw this. I couldn’t concentrate at work. That was why I came home early.”
Salma stood up again. The information was too much to bear.
“Folarin, you’re wrong about this. Not Christie. Not her. She’s a strong Christian. Most evenings she’s at church. They do house fellowship in your house every Sunday because of her. She’s a good Christian, Fola. She’s my friend! Your wife!”
“Lower your voice and sit down, Sal.”
“Not her. I’m sure Raji is trying to sleep with her but she won’t let him. Christie won’t. That’s why she dumped the watch in her booth.”
Salma sat down.
“Remember your neighbor told you she saw Raji a few times with a married woman that has natural hair?”
Salma’s legs started to shake. “Not Christie.”
“Remember what Izu said about two of them always being together?”
“They always travel together, Fola. They are business partners. They’ve traveled together for years. How can you be talking like this?”
“Because my instincts tell me something is going on.”
“Nothing is going on.” Tears fell from Salma’s eyes. “Please, stop.”
Folarin stopped, but only for a short while.
“What if they’re with each other right now? Having sex or something.”
Folarin brought out his phone. “Look at this picture I took at Izu’s birthday last two weeks. Raji and Christie were sitting beside each other. They’re both smiling into the camera but see where his hand is.” Folarin explained as though Salma had impaired vision. In the photo shown to her, Raji’s hand was resting at the back of Christie’s chair but his thumb was touching her butt.
“This means nothing,” Salma said in denial.
Folarin shrugged. “I pray I’m wrong.”
Salma pushed back into the bench. The night suddenly became quiet. The playing dogs had gone and were now barking at the other end of the house.
“What does ‘for sweetness’ mean?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s what he says during sex. ‘You’re so sweet. There’s nothing sweeter’ ”
Salma’s tears were heavier now.
“Fola, maybe we should ask them when they come back.”
“Because if we’re wrong, we’ll lose them. And if we’re right, they’ll lie and we’ll never find out the truth.”
“So what do we do? How do we know they’re even cheating?”
“We give nothing away.” Folarin kept his face straight. “And then we watch them. They’ll slip soon enough.”
Salma picked the wristwatch and gave it another look. “One million naira.”
“You know Chris and wristwatches. She always wanted this one, but I couldn’t afford it. Seems like Raji gives her things I can’t. Seems like you and I are not good enough for them. They’ve always been in their world and we’ve been in ours, lacking in ways only they know.”
The tone in Folarin’s voice made Salma sadder. She covered her face in her hands and cried. Folarin’s hand met her back; first, in a gentle rub before a full hug had her buried in his embrace.
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