My freshly fixed neon nails suddenly looked more interesting than everything else going on around me. I had stepped into church convincing myself I had been away for too long. The truth was, I had come with the hopes of ‘accidentally’ running into him. But the uneasiness I felt deep in my stomach told me this was a terrible idea.
As the Pastor’s voice vibrated in the background, my thoughts faded to the day we last saw each other.
*** *** ***
I could remember that night vividly because the sky was bare of stars and the air, unusually chilly. Almost like they had been trying to warn me.
We were strolling down the long-stretched John Baker road in Ikeja, hand in hand, after a heavy dinner at Sumo’s. A few cars passed occasionally as we talked about our day and threw jabs at each other. Anyone who saw us would have wondered if these two laughing figures had lost their minds. It was a Friday night and we didn’t have a care in the world.
I had been joking about getting the tattoo of a sphynx on my back when he broke the news. He had finally nailed the job he had been pushing for. Talk about a new house, an official car, mouth-watering salary with benefits. I squealed in delight, hugged and congratulated him. Island big boy, I teased.
There was a gust of wind, followed by this thick silence. We both knew what was coming next but the question hung unspoken over us like a mistletoe. I like to think he had thought over it and had ample time to come up with a response. But who would bell the cat?
Our strides had slowed down and we were standing under a street light now.
“So, what’s going to happen to us?” I leaned against the street light, not considering the fact that a wire could be loose in there and I could get electrocuted.
You see, Ben and I were in a phase where we weren’t dating but our friendship had blossomed to a point where we weren’t just friends either. It seemed as I would later find out, that I was the only one who thought so.
“Max…” he sucked air into his mouth and dipped his hands in his pocket, avoiding my gaze.
I knew I wasn’t going to like whatever was coming next.
“…the past few months with you have been beyond amazing. You’ve made me come alive in ways I didn’t think possible. You’ve been there for me, constantly cheering me on which I really appreciate…”
“…and you are beautiful, smart, witty. You have all these amazing qualities I’ve always wanted in a woman…”
He kept on rambling while I watched a pink Brabus speed by. How patronizing, Ben. My mild irritation was masked with a plastered smile. I could tell where this was headed. If only Ben would stop stalling and hit the nail on the head.
“I really, really like you but…”
“…I need to focus on building my career right now and I think you should consider doing the same.”
I rolled my eyes. Easy now, tiger. Thread carefully. I didn’t need to be reminded of the fact that I didn’t have a degree and I’m trailed by my failure to kickstart multiple businesses. I’m still trying to find my footing, give me a break.
He kept on talking, suddenly shifting the spotlight on me and telling me a thousand and one things I needed to work on. Since when did you become an expert at Max Studies? Since when did my life need so much fixing? To think he was slowly raising his voice. All I did was ask such an innocent question. Why the charade?
Pain was beginning to bite into my shoulder, so I leaned off the post.
This new Ben, the career counsellor et life expert was not only beginning to bore me out, it was almost sounding like he was tearing me down. All I could summarize this unwarranted speech to was “You were of great use but now that my level has changed, I don’t think you’d fit into the aesthetics.” Just as I was about to tune his ramblings out, he asked.
“It’s not like you are ready for a relationship, are you?”
I smiled. Is this a trick question? “Of course not. I just didn’t want to you know…assume things.” Screw you for trying to make me look desperate, Ben.
In truth, I wasn’t ready for a relationship. And while what we had felt and shared over the weeks had had me conclude we were unofficially together, I didn’t expect this sudden harshness in his tone. I mean, he once asked if I’d leave the country with him if I got the chance. Doesn’t that spell I-want-you-by-my-side-forever? Are you confused, Ben? Way to make a girl feel stupid.
I said a half-hearted goodbye and was on my way. More humiliated than heartbroken, I kicked everything in my way like they were the offender.
We never really spoke much after that night. I guess he got busy ‘building his career’ while I was busy hiding behind the humiliation of falling for someone who apparently just used me to pass time. Got a new number, did my best to erase all traces and memories of him and moved on with my life. Or so I thought.
*** *** ***
Seeing him on TV last night had brought to surface feelings I didn’t know still existed. He looked well. I had to see him up-close. Close enough to touch his shirt. Or catch a whiff of his signature Passion parfum. I didn’t intend to be seen though.
So, here I was sitting uncomfortably among the congregation as I kept reminding myself coming here was a bad idea. I couldn’t do this. It was probably time for me to get back.
I didn’t realise I had been holding my breath until I stepped out of the church building.What was I thinking, coming here?
I hurried out of the premises, taking one last glance at the church. No one was following me. Thank goodness. My all-black ensemble – complete with a face cap and oversized shades – must have made me stand out like a sore thumb as I walked out mid-service.
Someone called out my name. My mind is playing tricks on me, I thought as I kept walking. Then I heard it again. This time, I froze. The voice was all too familiar. Slowly, I turned, taking the windscreen off my face.
There was Ben jogging towards me. I swallowed hard as the muscles on his torso tensed with each movement. He had put on some meat in the right places it seemed. My throat seemed dry all of a sudden.
I shouldn’t have come.
“Hey.” He was trying to catch his breath.
“Hey.” I responded as his scent hit me like a hurricane. My eyes went to the chattering roadside vendors as I tried to gather my thoughts. I wasn’t about to make an utter fool of myself.
I really shouldn’t have come.
“You were the last person I’d expected to see at church. You just…” He gesticulated, signifying that I had disappeared.
“Yeah. I was in the neighbourhood and thought to drop by.”
Part-truth. I had moved away to my Grandmas’ for a while to be away from him and away from church where I was sure I was bound to run into him.
There was that awkward silence again.
“So, are you fully back or…”
Did he come looking for me while I was away? “No. I’m visiting.”
“Oh. How’s your aunt?”
I had been staying with my aunt pre ‘break up’.
“I’m visiting a friend. But she’s fine.” Too much information, Max.
From the corner of my eyes, I saw him reach for my hand but beat him to it and clasped it with the other hand.
“You shut me out, Maxie.”
I flinched and ground my teeth. He was the only one who called me that and I missed the sound of it. But he didn’t have that right anymore.
“Listen, I need to go. It was really nice running into you.” I turned to go and walked as fast as my legs could carry me. He was relentless and his strides caught up with mine in no time.
“Where are you headed? Can I drop you off? How can I reach you?” I ignored his questions and kept walking. He grabbed my wrist.
In that instant, my phone rang in my jacket and I reclaimed my hand. It was D-rocks. I made sure he got a good glimpse of the caller ID before I picked the call.
“Hey…yeah… Just went to the mall to pick some things but I’m close by…I’d be home soon…bye.” I was tempted to see the mortified look on Ben’s face but I also wanted to be out of here like yesterday, so I looked away and resumed my walk.
“The friend you are staying with is D-rocks?” He pronounced the name like it was a plague. I could feel a slight change in his voice. It had a hint of jealousy and I tried to hide the smile creeping up my lips.
Ben had never really liked Dimeji aka D-rocks. Back then he would always swear that Dimeji liked me much more than I’d like to admit. I don’t know why he did that. Maybe he wanted to know if I liked Dimeji too. Maybe he wanted to know who I liked better between them. It was always fun watching them both hassle for my attention whenever we hung out with a bunch of mutual friends. He was jealous then. He was jealous now.
“Are you like seeing each other now?” His voice was shaking.
I stopped and faced him squarely.
“Why the sudden interest in my personal life? You…” The rest of my words were caught in my throat as he leaned in and captured my lips in his. Everything seemed to slow down as the warmth of his lips sent shivers down my spine. I had dreamt of this moment for so many nights. But that was when it mattered. Not anymore. I pushed him away.
“Stop! Stop right now!” I was flushed and furious at the same time. “You have no right to do this.” Don’t cry now, Max.
“Maxie…” his voice pleaded.
“Don’t.” I was fighting back tears. “You pushed me away, remember? And now you think I’m seeing someone else, someone you don’t like, you suddenly want me?” I shook my head as I began to feel the pressure mount in my tear bags.
“I realised I wanted you the moment you were gone. You left a vacuum no one or job could fill. I’ve looked all over for you but you made it impossible for me to reach you. Please, let’s talk about this.” He suddenly sounded and looked tired. “That night was a mistake and I’m really sorry for everything I said. I was so insensitive.” I could hear the sincerity in his voice.
As I stared at the bus stop few metres ahead of us, a cloak of sadness enveloped me. Across town waiting for me was a man who had been nursing my heart back to health. He, not Ben deserved a spot in it.
“It’s a little too late for that now. Go back to church. The service isn’t over.”
I turned and walked towards the bus stop. All I wanted to do was jump into a bus and get the hell out of here. I would cool off in Dimeji’s arms tonight and he’d make me forget all these happened. Thankfully, the traffic was very light. I didn’t want Ben stopping me again.
I started to cross to the other side but was stopped by the sharp blare of a horn. Bright light was headed my way at an incredible speed. It took me a moment to realise it was a bike man who was driving on the wrong side of the road. I stood rooted to the spot in shock. The last thing I heard was someone calling my name before everything went black.
*** *** ***
I woke up to the unflattering smell of a hospital room. Machines beeped around me as tubes ran in and out of my body. I could barely lift a finger. How am I still alive?
I was out of danger, the doctor would later tell me but I still needed constant monitoring. My body had taken a good hit, leaving me with 5 broken ribs, a ruptured kidney and a slight concussion. Adding the fact that my face was swollen to about the size of a football. The young man who shielded me had taken most of the impact and wasn’t as lucky, he said. Poor guy had died on the spot.
When I asked to see who had traded his life for mine, I found myself staring at the picture of an all too familiar face. I broke into uncontrollable sobs. It suddenly dawned on me; Ben had left me for real this time.