SHORT STORY: THAT GIRL

Simple, stylish, and sophisticated. And blonde. I winked and pouted playfully at my reflection in the full-length mirror, imitating silver screen legend Marilyn Monroe, another blonde notorious for turning heads albeit for the right reasons. Unlike me. Odachi, my boisterous next-door neighbour who popped round for a natter and a chatter every other day, had an eye for cosmetic detail thanks to the makeup skills she’d learned on YouTube. Too bad she couldn’t work her magic on me today since she was entertaining guests at home, and without her expertise I didn’t feel human enough to face whatever remained of the day. God alone knew how many times Odachi had repeated the “You’re beautiful the way you are” cliché each time I begged her to conceal my freckles and accentuate my eyes, but while I never believed those words myself, I had to hear them. She meant well, but I would rather have starved for a week than step into the sunlight without my long glossy blonde wig. And my NYX Butter Lipstick in the perfect golden shade. And my Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Foundation, as endorsed by that nurse-turned-Instagram model. Thank God for my US-based cousin who sent a few bottles via courier after countless WhatsApp messages begging her to hook me up, but how long before the next batch arrived? 

 Guess it’s just my eyebrow pencil and Afro puff today, I mused, pinning a detachable hairpiece atop my head.  I caught sight of the wall clock in my mirror and panicked—only thirty more minutes before the local bush meat dealer closed his stall for the day, but I only went shopping late in the afternoon when the sun burned less brightly. During my school years, teachers had dismissed me as dull and lazy, ignoring my protests when I requested a seat at the front to allow me view the blackboard clearly. None of those dictators could have predicted my success with Tiny Tots, Makurdi’s highly-rated nursery school. Bite me, haters.

Time to shoot through the door and pick up those groceries. My makeup finally sorted, I grabbed an umbrella and found my purse, but halted at the bedroom door as my phone rang. Just when I was about to go out too…

    “Hello?”

    “Nkeoma, is that you?” shrilled the voice on the other end.

    “Speaking. I’m sorry, but who’s on the line?” I asked, praying this mystery caller would state their business as quick as possible and hang up. Sunday’s okoho soup wouldn’t flavour itself if I didn’t get a move on.

    “This is Felicia Aguocha.”

    “Oh, okay.” I racked my brains, wondering why the name sounded familiar. “Sorry again, but have we met?” Probably one of my pupils’ mothers, even if I didn’t recognise the name. “Does it concern Tiny Tots, because you can speak to the receptionist, and she’ll sort out a meeting…”

    “No, it’s not Tiny Tots. You’ve forgotten who I am?” The voice paused before dropping the bombshell. “It’s Francis’ mother, or have you forgotten him too? Francis Aguocha?”

    Oh. My. God. You could never forget your first love, especially when you’ve spent months drying your tears after dealing with your first heartbreak. Especially after your first love’s mother comes between you and destiny. Why this sudden contact after years of animosity? Ten years ago we’d parted on bad terms, never guessing she’d contact me again. What did she want?

    “Nkeoma, I’m glad to hear your voice, it’s been such a long time. Mrs. Williams, your boss at the school where you used to teach, gave me your phone number—we both go way back, we attended TTC together. Francis tried contacting you himself, but you snubbed him…”

    And with good reason, I argued inwardly, determined not to get into a fit over hearing the voice belonging to a woman who’d nearly caused me to drown in my own tears. “What can I do for you?” I asked.

    “Nkeoma, I really think we should get together and talk because we have something important to discus, and it concerns Francis…”

    ***

    “They’re gonna love you, baby, just wait and see.” He patted my knee and briefly let go of the gear stick to squeeze my hand, but neither his soothing words nor his affectionate gesture could eradicate my mounting fears. I gave my boyfriend a nervous smile, trying hard to disguise my old insecurities rising to the surface yet again. Hauwa, my roommate in Makurdi where we both served as youth corpers, had recently become engaged, and had spoken of nothing since her return. Before leaving Makurdi to join Francis in Enugu where he resided, Hauwa had offered the classic “Just be yourself” line when I informed her of my upcoming visit to meet his folks. Just be myself? Yeah right, because that tactic had served me well in the past. Random strangers screaming vicious insults from a safe distance, inconsiderate teachers labelling me a dullard who would never amount to anything in life… Because I went about my own personal business as myself? Not that I could impersonate another individual if I tried. People I considered friends couldn’t help taking jabs at me either. Despite promising Mum and Dad I’d always remain strong when society launched their attacks, I shed buckets the day those ‘friends’ composed a song and dance focusing on my imperfections. How original, at least I could demand royalties when their improvisation became a smash Broadway hit. Francis’ family though… How would they react upon meeting me for the first time? They sounded lovely on the phone, but one could never tell…

    Sensing my nerves, Francis stopped the car, turned my face towards his, and clutched my clammy hand once again, removing my sunglasses to gaze into my eyes. “Nke, it’s okay. You’ve spoken to them several times, and they already love you, that’s why they’ve asked you to spend the week with us this Easter. It’s going to be a great time, and I’ll look after you, promise.”

    Francis hadn’t stopped assuring me the minute we left his Enugu bachelor flat for his parents’ family bungalow in Umuahia. His compliments hadn’t ceased since our first meeting when he attended an engineer’s conference held at the University of Port Harcourt during my final year as an Education student. He’d spoken highly of his mother and father—a primary school headmistress and retired NEPA manager respectively—claiming they couldn’t have wished for a better daughter-in-law. I’d developed an instant fondness for his mother the day my boyfriend of a year handed me the receiver during their phone conversation, and I quickly discovered how much we both had in common. Mrs. Aguocha had worked in education nearly thirty years, and as an aspiring teacher myself, I imagined the two of us comparing notes. Her friendly demeanour conjured up images of a pleasantly quaint dwelling where she welcomed visitors on her veranda and served them home-cooked meals prepared with freshly-plucked vegetables from her back garden, every morsel relished in a dining area adorned with smiley-faced family portraits and potted plants in every corner. How exciting.

    Francis’ BMW pulled into a gated compound and parked in front of a cream bungalow fringed with ixora shrubs and red hibiscus bushes. Oil palms rustled overhead in the April wind, scattering withered fonds across the swept grounds, and I smiled at the gate man who offered a friendly salute. Through the windshield I noticed Francis’ exhilarated family gather on the veranda, ready to welcome their son and his nervous fiancée. Taking one more mango air freshener-infused deep breath, I adjusted my dark glasses and waited for Francis to open my door from outside, take my hand, and escort me up the balcony stairs to his parents who glanced at each other completely startled. My heart pumped wildly. Bad impression? Maybe Francis and I could both jump back into the car and return to Enugu, no questions asked. What had these imposters done with the warm couple I’d laughed with several times during our lighthearted phone conversations?

Not that I waited long to work out this clue. Mrs. Aguocha drew me into her towering frame, welcoming me into her home, asking if we both had a safe journey. Her husband, a wizened diminutive carbon copy of his beloved first son, smiled and took my hand, as did the rest of his children. The Aguochas led me to the dining area where gari and achara soup lay waiting on the table. Just as I’d imagined. The Aguocha’s wide smiles and generous nature soon put me at ease, and I cursed myself for nursing those second thoughts on the way to their house. What Igbo girl in her right mind hadn’t dreamed of marrying into a family like theirs? Early days yet, but from what I’d observed the Aguochas epitomised what I’d always dreamed of since my teens, and the good Lord had answered my prayers, despite the odds.

    Or had He?

    “Francis, what were you thinking? That’s the person you’re marrying? That’s the person you’re thinking of bringing into this family? That girl?”

    Two nights had passed since my arrival, each day filled with laughter and excitement, and I’d begun to regard myself as a bone fide member of their clan. The heated argument in the middle of the night shook me awake, the subject of their row instantly multiplying the horror I’d learned to endure from childhood. I sat up in the guest room and pressed my ear to the wall, my heart sinking lower.

    “Mummy, why are you being judgemental?” I heard Francis yell. “She’s respectable, hard-working, good family background. She’s in the room next door, she might hear you…”

    “I don’t care!” After her amazing hospitality since my arrival, her true colours had finally emerged, and nothing could prepare me for this newly-discovered hypocrisy.

    “But what’s wrong with her?” Francis wanted to know.

    “‘What’s wrong with her’?” his mother mimicked scornfully. “Look at that girl… just look at her! How can you even think of marrying someone who will pollute our bloodline? Good family background? Don’t make me laugh. Her mother must have played away behind her husband’s back before conception, that’s why she gave birth to a child like that. This is a respectable home, and she shouldn’t bring her ancestral adultery under my roof…”

   “Felicia, that’s enough!” Francis’ father chided. “Are you even listening to yourself? Stop spewing that superstitious garbage, what did that poor girl ever do to you? Nkeoma doesn’t deserve all this. Our son has made a good choice, and we have to respect…”

    “Never!” his wife shot back a trifle louder, causing me to shiver on my side of the wall. “That girl will never become a part of this family, mark my words. Have you thought about the children she could bear? How would you explain if they end up like that girl? And how would I explain everything to our friends? What am I going to tell them when she attends church with us on Easter Sunday? Of all the women in the world, it had to be that…that girl?” I blinked away the tears in my eyes, cowering at her harsh words. “No wonder you never sent any pictures of her—had we known, I wouldn’t have invited her over. I’ve been too nice for too long, but the pretence ends right now. You are not marrying that girl, and that’s that. Let her marry her own kind and leave you alone. I have spoken, either you tell her yourself, or I will.” 

The door slammed shut behind her, and silence engulfed the other room until I heard Mr. Aguocha grief-laden voice booming through the wall.

“My son, you’ve been a source of pride from day one, but your mother has a point. Think about the children Nkeoma could give birth to if you proceed with those plans. Do your kids deserve to go through everything I’m sure she’s already experienced if they turn out like her? She’s a good girl, and I don’t believe that adultery story, that’s absolute rubbish. Maybe her mother didn’t consume the right vitamins at birth, I don’t know. It’s not Nkeoma’s fault, but think about what I’ve said. The sooner you come to a conclusion, the better…”  

     I threw the sheet over my head, muffling out my sobs with a pillow. I knew I hadn’t imagined Francis’ sisters clustering together to speak in hushed tones when they first saw me behind their brother’s windshield. No wonder his brother hadn’t smiled once since my arrival. Not in my direction, at least. I couldn’t blame his two-year-old nephew for clinging to his mother’s hip when I attempted to pat his head—as a kid, he didn’t know any better. Mrs. Aguocha, on the other hand… Deceiving me with those welcoming arms in my presence, only to trash me in my absence? Poor Francis, growing up with a shallow woman for a mother. Surely he’d fight my corner and stand up to her? I loved Francis with all my heart, and we’d already come this far. Please Francis…please tell me this isn’t where our journey ends…

    “Nke, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. I don’t think it’s fair you witness any unpleasantness during your stay here, because we’re experiencing a problem within the family.” Francis pushed away the rest of his akara, and I nodded silently. “There was a huge row last night, and I think it’s best if you stayed with your family in Owerri, spend Easter with them before you return to Makurdi. I’ll call you, maybe I could catch a plane and catch up with you before I return to Enugu…”

    At least he’d told the truth about the rowing, but what about the rest? As much as I couldn’t wait to leave considering I had no intention of incurring Mrs. Aguocha’s wrath, I’d expected more from Francis’. And he’d disappointed me. Anguish washed over, but I prayed out hearts wouldn’t drift from each other too long. Francis loved me, and with time his parents would accept me after he reasoned with them, but when? I packed my belongings, bade my hosts a quiet goodbye, and sat next to my fiancé in his BMW, both of us staring ahead in silence, the touchy-feely interaction we’d previously shared notably absent. At the bus park we said our goodbyes, and he drove off without as much as a backwards glance or a wave. Not a good sign. My parents, surprised to see me home that soon, spent the next few days consoling me, urging me to stay strong, assuring whatever would be would be, but I spent hours waiting for Francis’ call.

Two days later I dialled the Aguocha’s landline in search of answers. Big mistake.

    “Yes, Francis changed his number, he knew you’d call.” His mother sounded nothing like the sweet-natured headmistress I had the displeasure of meeting not long ago. “Francis is no longer interested in you, and we all know why it won’t work. I’m sure you’ll find someone else like you, but you need to forget him and move on…”

   Francis had dumped me? Francis, the man who encouraged me to hold my head higher when those superficial idiots labelled me a “blonde gorilla…” Gone, just like that? No guts to break the news himself either. My ever-supportive parents and siblings abandoned the Easter Sunday service to rally around me, offering comforting words, begging me to take heart and move on. Easier said than done.

   “It wasn’t meant to be… Be strong, it happens… You were too good for him anyway… There’s someone bout there better for you…”

    My one chance of ever finding love with a man who saw the real me had disappeared, leaving me destined to live the rest of my life alone? No, this isn’t the Francis I know and love, he’ll soon come back to me…

***

    “Nkeoma…Nkeoma…are you still there?”

    “Yes, I’m still here,” I replied through clenched teeth. “What exactly can I do for you? I’m busy right now, and I don’t have time…”

    “Do you have to be so cold? You don’t even know what I want to ask you…”

    “Yes, I don’t know what you want to ask me, and I’m not sure I want to know,” I cut in with abrupt force. “You saw to it Francis and I broke up, and please don’t deny anything. You said you didn’t want me polluting your family bloodline, and after that you drove me away from your home…”

   “I never said that!” she retorted.

“Yes, you did. Are you also going to deny you claimed my mother’s so-called adultery resulted in my…”

    “You want me to admit it?” Mrs. Aguocha whimpered. “Okay, I was ignorant, I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did when you came for the weekend, but that was years ago, and I’m sorry. Are you going to hold that grudge against your one true love forever?”

    “My one true love?” I repeated in total disbelief.

    “You heard me. You must have heard Francis got married after you broke up with him…”

    “How could I forget?” I retorted. “You’re asking me if I heard how your son moved on so quickly after you encouraged him to break off our engagement? And by the way, I never broke up with him, it was the other way round. Your son said he loved me, then he married someone else six months after he left me at the bus park in Umuahia. If he’s married, he’s married. It’s his life.”

    “Yes,” Francis’ mother confirmed. “He got married to a girl his father and I found for him in our village…”

    “That’s none of my business…”

    “Don’t interrupt. He got married, but all isn’t going well in his house at all. His wife is bone-lazy, and all she does is spend my son’s money on pointless vanities. Such a disrespectful woman, and a bad mother too—how can a woman that lazy spend a fortune on nannies?”

   Talk to the hand, woman. “And?”

    “And you know the worst thing? She cheats on him. A woman married by God in front of people who witnessed her sacred vows, cheating on my boy. My friend caught her entering a hotel room with another man, and she said they were talking business. Chai!” she spat. “Is the bedroom the same as the boardroom? I’ve never been in favour of divorce, but the sooner she’s out of his system, the better it will be for all of us…”

    And cue the violins. “Okay. And…?”

    “My dear, Francis is miserable, and I feel like I’m losing my son, but you’re the only one who can help him.”

    I nearly dropped my handset. “Me?”

    “Yes. Francis can deny it all he wants, but he still loves you, I just know it. I’ve heard him whisper your name when he thinks no-one else is present, and I know he still keeps photos of you, despite claiming to have destroyed them after he married Ogechi.” She paused, taking a moment to compose herself before bring her voice down. “Nkeoma, I want you to return to Francis, because we made a mistake, and I’m sure you still love him…”

    That did it. “What?” I screamed into my mobile. “Is this a joke, some kind of sick trick? Why should I return to him when it wasn’t I who left? How dare you?”

    “Don’t talk to me like that…”

    “I’m saying it the way it is.” Every remaining shred of respect had floated through the window. “Are you aware I’m now married myself?”

    “Yes, I saw you on ‘Bookface’. And that other one for photos, you looked beautiful in every one of them,” she said, and I suppressed a scornful chuckle. How interesting—a sixty-something-year-old stalking me on Facebook and IG? As if her flattery could help change my mind. “I saw those photos you took with that man, but are you happy with him? At least my son has actual feelings for you, unlike that man who only married you out of pity…”

    Now she’d really crossed the line. “Did you just refer to my husband as ‘that man’? What do you even know about him?” Francis’ mother expressed a few incoherent phrases, but I’d put up with enough of her nonsense at this stage. “Do you think I’m like your son, marrying the next available victim just to take his mind off the first one? Are you implying I don’t love my husband? Ten years ago I loved your son more than life itself, but you came between us…”

    “Nkeoma…”

    “Wait, I’m not finished. The person you refer to as ‘that man’ is my husband whom I love dearly, and I will not have you disrespecting him like that. He’s a real man, and real men stand by their women whatever the circumstance. When Francis brought me to stay with your family for a week he promised he’d look after me, only to leave me at the motor park after three days. My husband’s parents are really nice people, understanding people, and I won’t lie, I wasn’t what they expected at first, but at least they got to know the real me first. Unlike you and your husband, I should have known it was all an act.”

    “Me? What are you…”

    “Do not deny anything, the truth shall set you free. I heard that argument you and your husband had with Francis when I stayed at your house, every word, every insult,” I revealed. “You said your son should be ashamed of himself for bringing me into your home, and that it was over your dead body I’d ever become your daughter-in-law…”

    “I was ignorant!” Francis’ mother’s pathetic attempt to defend herself filled me with more disgust. “I didn’t know any better…”

    “Oh please! You’re an educated African woman, educated enough to know I’m just as black as yourself, but your prejudice ruined everything. Job well done, happy now?”

    “Nkeoma…” Her pleas did nothing to touch my over-hardened heart. “I’m sorry for the way we treated you, but please, Francis needs you. I’m sorry I ostracised you because you’re…you’re fair…”

    Fair? I nearly burst out laughing. Had I actually described her as educated? “Let’s break it down—my name is Nkeoma Onoja, and I’m not fair, not ‘yellow’, not oyinbo pepper, and definitely not ‘that girl’. I’m black and proud, and I’m albino. Yes, albino. Simple as that,” I declared. “You rejected me because of a few recessive chromosomes, and he married someone else not much darker than myself six months later, only to resurface when you both discover I’m happy…”

    “Nkeoma…”

    “What you did to me was heartless, absolutely heartless. If you’d said to my face you didn’t want me marrying your son, I would have respected your honesty, but lying to my face and plotting behind my back?” Was it just me, or did I hear light sobs emitting from her end? Cry me a river… “Your son is just as bad, and I can see where he gets it from. He said he’d always be there for me, he said he’d always love me, then he disappears. And then he gets married to someone else six months after we break up. Actually, he never broke up with me, he ran away and let you do his dirty work. After everything you both put me through, you call my number and expect me to leave my husband for your son…seriously?” Talk about losing the plot. “Let me tell you something—my absence of melanin doesn’t signify an absence of feelings, you hear me? This anyari bitch had feelings, and you hurt them…”

    “Nkeoma, I’m sorry…”

    “Whatever. I’m sorry your son is unhappy, but other than that I don’t care. He actually did me a favour, he opened the way leading to the true love of my life, and woe betide anyone who thinks they can break us up—they will never succeed. Tell your son to sort out his own issues, and leave me out of it. Never call me again, and that goes for Francis too. Goodbye, Mrs. Aguocha.” I ended the call, cutting off any further protests, thus cutting her family out of my life for good.

    “Stupid woman!” I cursed aloud, vowing to give her an even bigger piece of my mind should she dial again. How dare she? All she knew about my current life was the husband she assumed had shacked up with me out of pity after her precious son abandoned me. Was she aware of the nights I’d spent bawling my eyes out after a fellow youth corper from Francis’ hometown confirmed his wedding? I’d rather have swallowed a heavy chain with razor blade pendants, pulled out the other end through my oyinbo pepper ass, and flossed myself to death than stand in that family’s vicinity ever again. “Asking me to leave my husband for that wimp?” I threw my handbag across the bedroom in a rage. “Stupid woman…”

    “Nkeoma…”

    I looked over my shoulder, and shuddered. How long had he stood at the doorway without a word?            

   “S-Simon?” How much had he heard? “Simon…I was on the phone to someone, but I…”

    “Shh…” My husband walked up to me, placed a finger on my lips and drew me by the waist. “It’s okay, honey. Your ex’s mother, right?” I nodded. “I couldn’t believe the nerve of that woman either. Asking you to return to your ex despite knowing you’re a married woman? There’s something else, though.”

    “What’s that?”

    “I do love you,” he replied. “I loved you from the moment I first saw you, and I didn’t care what anyone thought, you were beautiful inside and out, and still are. It could have been a whole different story—you turned me down several times when I asked you out—but I knew what I’d set my heart on, and no way would I have let you go.” Simon grabbed both my hands, drawing them to his chest, and pressed his forehead against mine to look into my pale irises. “I’m so glad you gave me a chance despite everything, and I’ll always love you.”

   Cheesy or what? Not that I cared at that moment. “I love you too, Si,” I cried, melting into his arms, tears spilling onto my husband’s broad shoulder. Like Francis, Simon hadn’t stopped complimenting me since our first meeting at my old workplace when he stopped by to drop off his niece. Like Francis, he’d promised we could both weather any storm hand-in-hand. Unlike Francis, Simon meant every word.

    “Mummy, Mummy!” Two mischievous terrors burst into the master bedroom, screeching at the sight of their mother, leaping for joy. “Mummy, Daddy bought doughnut!”

    “He did?” I asked, breaking away from their father and stooping to greet them with a kiss before arching an objective eyebrow at their father. “Si, you know how I feel about buying that stuff for these junk food junkies. If you keep giving them doughnuts, they’ll soon start resembling doughnuts themselves.”

    “I know honey, but there was an accident between two cars on our way from the mall. It took ages before the jam cleared, and Okibe and Anebi were hungry, but don’t worry.” Simon added, reading my mind. “It was only one doughnut, I asked them to share, and it won’t ruin their appetite. They begged for an ice cream, but I said no.”

    “Okay. Speaking of appetites,” I hastily added “The butcher closes early on Saturdays, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it there on time. I’ve run out of sunscreen too, and there was also… you know…” I nodded at the mobile phone nestling between our pillows, and Simon only grinned.

    “It’s okay, I picked up a bottle at the mall like I said I would before I left. And never mind the bush meat, I’m taking us all to Mr. Biggs tomorrow after church, my treat…”

    “Mr. Biggs!” Okibe and Anebi lept for joy on the mattress, and I dragged them off, warning them for the hundredth time to behave themselves. Anebi stared at me quietly, noticing my large blonde Afro puff and long light blue chiffon skirt with silver embroidery. He tugged at his father’s trouser leg, and Simon lifted him to his side.

    “Daddy.” Anebi spoke softly into Simon’s ear. “Daddy, Mummy looks like a princess!”

    “Mummy always looks like a princess,” his big brother remarked.

    The words touched me. Why did I care what people thought when I had family and friends who had always looked out for me, my own nursery school business in the middle of town, a husband who loved me with all his heart, and mischievous yet adorable children who believed his mother could pass for royalty, makeup or no makeup? Even my could-have-been mother-in-law had dropped the ‘that girl’ tag in favour of my name, finally realising my worth, but only after social media and Rihanna’s beauty brand took off. Too little, too late.

    I beamed down at my two sons, each one mahogany-dark like their beloved father as well as humorous and compassionate, and gathered them in my arms, thanking God for these blessings He bestowed on me. And with my loyal support system behind me, this girl was on fire.

© 2019 Okoro Dedeh, Tami. All rights reserved

 

3 thoughts on “SHORT STORY: THAT GIRL

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  2. I love this. What she experienced in Francis’ home is the sad reality most albinos have to live. Totally unfair discriminating against them, not as if they created themselves. I’m glad Nkeoma got to have her happy ending. The nerve of that Francis’ mother though.

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