May 19th | The Mall
Going to the mall on a weekend was a no-no for Esohe. Everyone and their relatives flooded those walls during those two days as though the world was coming to an end, and she disliked being caught up in the crowd, and corresponding noise and heat. But her mum specifically requested for Shoprite chicken thighs for a recipe; so here she was standing in one of the numerous, unending, slow- moving queues that could only be found in the huge supermart on a Saturday afternoon. She just hoped she didn’t look as knackered as she felt. A pair of aviator sunglasses hid her sleep – deprived eyes, and she silently willed the crawling line to hasten along so that she could go back to her waiting bedcovers and pyjamas.
“Hello stranger.” Familiar raspy tones whispered softly behind her, close to her ears.
For a moment, her tiredness took a back burner, as she turned around to acknowledge the one person she hadn’t expected she’d see during the errand run. On impulse and with a genuine smile of surprise, she leaned in for a hug that he anticipated this time, was well-prepared for, enveloping her in a heady scent and denim- shirt embrace. “Where have you been?!” She shot at him once they had come apart, sliding her glasses onto her hair.
He grinned. “Absence makes the heart go frantic not…what happened to you?!” His teasing tone turned concerned at the sight of her heavy – lidded, baggy eye sockets.
Her queue, for the first time, moved swiftly suddenly. She replaced her shades quickly and caught up with it. “Work.” She flung out as she did so.
Moments later, he sidled beside her. “I’ll wait for you on the other side. Then we can talk properly.”
It was another 15 minutes before she emerged from the checkout counter area. By then, IK was at the exit talking to Wale who waved at her before disappearing out of sight.
“We were on the escalator when he saw you walk by but wasn’t sure. “ IK explained as they both exited the mart. “So I followed you in here to make a positive ID.”
“Oh…so where is he gone to now?” She wanted to know as they picked their way through the throng of people in the mall.
“He’s meeting with a friend of his, and they’d see a movie or something. I just came to drop him off.” With a hand on the small of her back, he directed her towards the parking lot. “Where’s your car?”
“I took a taxi. Too tired to drive.”
He unlocked the passenger’s side of his and saw her settled in before circling it to the driver’s side. Once seated, he didn’t kick the car to life but turned slightly to face her. Gently, he removed the glasses and uncovered her unsightly stare. “So what happened to you?” He asked quietly, concern etched between his brows.
She sighed. “Three crazy, crazy weeks leading up to yesterday evening. – a charity ball and my boss’s 50th birthday.”
His face cleared. “You need sleep then.”
She lifted the shopping bag containing the chicken packs. “My mum needed this. After which is a long-haul sleep until Monday morning for me.”
“So you’re at mum’s?” He turned away, adjusting, then kicking the engine to life. Parked by the pay metre, he had no need to leave the car in order to effect payment; a stretched arm accomplished the task in no time.
Esohe nodded. “Until Monday.” He swung the car out of its space and headed towards the gates leading onto the road. “So where have you been, mister?!”
He threw her a glance before staring straight ahead again. “I sent you a text message. Didn’t you get it?”
She shook her head. “When?”
“I went to Enugu with a client who is also a friend. Then he dragged me along to his house in Abuja.” He stepped on the brakes briefly. “I call you last week. Twice. I’m not sure what happened but both times you didn’t pick up…or call back either.”
She slanted him a look. “Just twice, IK? In how many days? Did I do something wrong?”
He was silent. “You friend-zoned me, Esohe.” The seconds flews as the only sound in the car was the muted noise of passing traffic and the surroundings as the car cruised by. “This is where you protest and tell me I’m imagining things. Does your silence mean I’m right, then?” He asked after a while, stopping in front of a red light. The break offering him a few seconds to meet her gaze head on, accessing her expression as she too took advantage of the lull in his driving.
“I have only just realized it a couple of days ago.”
“Because we hadn’t spoken in a while…”
“That helped too…but we can be friends.” She offered lamely.
He shot the car forward at the sight of the green gleam and turned leftwards sharply. “I don’t want to be your friend!” He blurted out abruptly, clearly, almost impatiently.
Whenever she replayed her last face – to – face conversation with IK, which was often, and perhaps the only time they were finally alone without the distraction of the children, Esohe wondered how she could have missed the signs. How many single, young men were on the prowl for friendship with women?!
Now that she thought about it, her new year resolution to get back into the dating scene hadn’t recorded any active participation on her part. She had coasted through the month of January on a triangular axis – work, Osayu’s school and her mum’s. Her job, of course, taking the chunk of her time as she set out to establish more official targets, objectives, goals – some with a six- month timeline – than dwelling on her personal ones. Even after IK appeared on the scene, her initial excitement about the dating process had waned and she had been quite content as they had settled on outings involving the children as well. Or rather only those involving the children.
She clamped down on the uncomfortable feelings which surfaced at the mere thought of spending time alone with IK. Her slight hesitation. Her sweaty palms. And her utmost relief when he stopped asking her to drinks, dinner, etc. The children-centric dates were just as good. For her obviously. Certainly not for him.
“I like you, Esohe.” He declared that day, parked outside her mum’s apartment in Games Village. “Not that I have to say it because you’ve probably figured that out by now. And I think, tell me if I’m wrong, that I’m not alone in that emotion.” He paused. “But for some reason, you’re holding back on me, on us. And I don’t know why…maybe it’s something about me. Anyway, this is where we are. You giving off vibes that nothing else is likely to develop between us. I don’t think you want it to.”
She regarded him quietly. “I’m sorry if I led you on. I’m trying to sort things out that I didn’t know existed until I met you but I’d really want us to be frie…”
He was already shaking his head. “More. I want more, Esohe. Like a significant other. The one who lights up those beautiful eyes of yours. He who you reserve a special kind of laugh for, a unique ringtone. More, Esohe.”
“I’m sorry, IK.”
“Yeah, so am I.”