By the second drawn out silence, it was obvious we had nothing in common. It was as if even the too-bright lights of the restaurant were designed to draw attention to our differences; his shirt which he wore buttoned all the way up to the collar over jeans, for one thing and the way he hunched over, as if trying to disappear into his own chest, for another. I pulled up the v-shaped neckline of my wrap dress only when goose pimples broke out all over my chest from the air conditioner. My date, Merije, scratched his head, glancing at the menu as if it was written in a language he could not read.
“Is everything alright?” I asked, rubbing my arms.
“Yes, yes. Everything is fine.”
Merije nodded and went back to perusing the menu, pushing his glasses up a nose which stood high and straight as if it had been measured by a ruler. Every other thing on him was average; middle-of-the-road complexion, average height, normal eyes. I followed the pattern of the tablecloth, until it disappeared under his arm resting on the table.
“You have beautiful hands,” I tried again. His fingers were long and stopped abruptly at groomed fingernails. Merije smiled at me. “No, you do. I am not trying to butter you up or anything.”
“’Butter me up?’”
“Oh. Thank you. They are my mother’s hands. Do you know my mother?”
“I don’t believe I have had the pleasure.”
“Everybody knows her. Just ask anyone to point her out to you when you’re in the cloth section of the market. ‘Madam George’ is her trade name.”
It was the longest sentence that Merije had made. I nodded and took a sip of my Sprite through the straw provided, rubbing at the toffee-coloured circle left behind by my lip gloss. Merije’s eyebrows were creased.
“Listen,” I said reaching out to touch his outstretched arm. “We don’t have to do this, you know.”
“Do what?” His eyes lingered on my fingers nestling in his arm hair.
“We don’t have to sit her making painful conversation. We could tell our mothers that we tried. What will they do, beat us?”
“My mother might try,” he said, smiling.
“Hey, you should smile more,” I said. “You look great – less serious.”
“I have a lot of responsibilities. I can’t be smiling all the time.”
“No, I suppose not.” I rubbed my eyes. “How old are you again?”
Merije leaned back in his chair. “How old do I look? Guess.”
“Did your mother tell you?”
His eyebrows shot up. “You are an honest girl. I like that.”
I shrugged and he went back to the menu again. I smiled at the waitress grinding the tiles behind him into powdered clay and touched Merije’s arm again.
“Maybe this is too formal,” I said when he looked up. “How about we go to a fast food place instead? I haven’t been back in a while and everything is changed. I don’t even know half the places here anymore.”
Merije studied me. “Would you like us to go to a joint? There is one that opened off the expressway. Very nice. It is near the road but far. Near-far.”
“So private? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “Also very good nkwobi and palm wine. Do you like nkwobi?”
“I can only have a little. The palm oil in that dish is too much. I am trying to lose weight.”
“Lose which weight? You are not fat now.” Merije looked me over, stopping where the table obscured his view at my waist and going back up again. “You are not fat,” he repeated. “Do you want to look like stockfish?”
“No,” I laughed and covered it up by clearing my throat, unsure if he was ready for my usual full-throated roar.
“A woman should have meat. It is important for carrying children. That is why my mother could have nine of us.”
“I’m not sure what school you went to but how much fat one is carrying is not directly proportional to their fertility.”
Merije said nothing.
“So,” I began when I started to feel dizzy from the scrutiny.
“Are we going to this joint or not?”
“Yes, of course. I will text my mother where we are going.”
“Errr…okay.” I watched him walk in front of me, punching the keys of his phone with the thumb of one hand, while the other hand grappled with the car door.
The joint was one of those ‘Garden’ places, naturally. I expected that. What I did not expect was the level of detail that went into its appearance. Even the air was the right side of balmy – if there is such a thing.
It was as if I had just stepped into a traditional Igbo homestead. There were about a dozen huts in a semi-circle around one main one that stood in the middle, all thatched, all circular. The citronellas planted in clumps to keep the mosquitoes away were hidden in the middle of flowering plants.
“Huh. Clever.” I frowned.
In front of the ‘main’ building was a fountain lit up from within which changed colour to give the water jewel hues. I chuckled.
“What?” asked Merije looking up from his texting.
“I like coloured water.”
“What?” He paused in his typing to study me.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
The fountain was a flower unfurling its petals, leaves already lying half-submerged in the pool of water, cast in a metal that its reddish hue betrayed as copper. “Bloody flowers. Ugh.” I grimaced and touched it to make sure it was metal since it looked so real. I half-expected it to feel thick and waxy like an Aloe Vera plant, but it was cool as it should be.
“That’s very nice.” I moved closer to the fountain. I felt like I was supposed to see something but I wasn’t looking through the right glasses.
In the middle of the flower was full of tiny, metal spikes, protruding like millions of teeth inside the jaws of a sci-fi worm, through which the water bubbled, flowing out over the petals. As I watched the lights in the fountain changed to red, giving the water the appearance of blood. “Disturbing.”
Feeling uneasy, I stepped back. “This place is full,” I couldn’t help the surprise in my voice. The parts of the compound outside the pools of light heaved with life.
“It’s cool here,” said Merije heading for the darkness. I watched him stand straighter with every step. “What do you want to drink?” he asked as a waiter approached.
I shrugged, still engrossed with looking around. “Whatever you’re having. The guy we asked to scout the area didn’t mention this place. Who’s the owner?”
Merije scanned the pools of light. “I will tell you when he comes. I can’t see him.” He pulled his seat closer, resting his arm across the back of mine. I raised an eyebrow.
“It’s just funny, this place…” I shook my head. The feeling creeping up on me was not dissimilar to having a weave-itch; you could tap and tap on the areas above it but until you dug into it with a hairpin, it never really went away. I shook my head again. “Weird. I really like it here.”
“How is that weird?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s as if I dreamt it and…I mean…” Merije peered at my face. “What?” I asked.
“You are not fat. I looked well.”
“Oh, that.” I brushed my unease aside. “How could you have? You were walking in front of me the whole time.”
“Maybe I have eyes on my back.”
“I think you are smiling, but I can quite tell. It’s so dark. Why are we sitting in the dark?” The waiter melted into the black, leaving behind two bottles of Heineken. I stared at the amber lighting coming from inside the huts.
“It is how to enjoy places like this. Haven’t you been to a joint before?” Merije was still peering at my face. “You sef, how old are you?”
I snorted. “Nice try.”
Merije lifted his bottle to his lips and tipped his head back. After a few seconds, he set it down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “The live band will soon start.” He looked at his watch. “We came at the right time.”
“Pardon you,” I said when he burped out of the corner of his mouth.
“I said ‘Pardon you’. You burped.”
“Oh, excuse me. I didn’t know you heard it,” Merije flashed me another smile and swallowed some more of his beer. His arm reclaimed the backrest of my seat and his equally outstretched leg told me he was beginning to relax.
“Are you feeling better?”
“This is a beautiful place…” he began. The rest of his speech disappeared into mic feedback. I clapped my hands over my ears.
“Testing, testing, one, two,” the lead singer adjusted the straps of his guitar and plucked the strings. A cymbal clattered to the ground and the drummer scooped it back up, securing it on its stand. “Testing, testing, one, two,” the lead said again.
“Bloody hell, just get on with it,” I said. Merije laughed, signalling the waiter who promptly deposited two more bottles of Heineken on our table. I looked from my almost-full bottle to Merije and back again.
“Would you like a soft?”
“No, thank you. I just want to finish this beer. I don’t really drink that much. It’s not my thing.”
“What things do you like to do?”
“Oh, this and that,” I said looking at the fountain. The lights changed to blue and the water flowing over the petals made it look as if it was jumping about.
“Like what?” His breath washed over me.
“Look at you getting bolder all of a sudden.”
Merije laughed. “Com’on. I was OK before.”
My stomach rumbled. I looked at Merije and we started laughing.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No, it’s my fault. We should have eaten by now. It’s just…that place was too exposed.”
“I understand, but I might have to leave soon. I have to go to work tomorrow.”
“What is that your job again? Your mother said you are involved in that new hotel they are building. The one everyone is buzzing about.”
“Yes, I am. It’s not a hotel in the traditional sense as much as it is an experience. It’s a series of chalets; in varying sizes and varying…degrees of luxury…” The itchy feeling was creeping across my shoulders. “You know this place kind of reminds me of what we are trying to do.”
“Mmm.” Merije raised his hand and a waiter was by our side. “Abeg, bring us two nkwobi,” he said.
“Maybe madam would prefer the fish?” said the waiter without moving his lips.
“How did he…” I began.
“Ah, chairman!” Merije stood to clasp the hand of the man who had spoken and pulled him in towards the table. “Ah, Abby,” he said when they had finished clapping each other on the back. “This is the man who owns this place. Edu, this is Abby. My…”
“So you’re Abby,” said Edu and I felt instant appreciation for his voice; it was like a hot bath after a gruelling road journey. I half-expected to see steam rising from our feet.
“Yes, I am. Have we…?”
“Met? No. Your reputation precedes you; we people in the business have to keep our eyes and ears open for competition.”
“She was just saying that she liked the place,” said Merije. I gritted my teeth.
“Thank you, yes, I was. It’s funny. I was saying to Merije that it seems so familiar here.”
“I will take that as a compliment. It’s the feel we were going for.”
“Yes. My partner and I,” said Edu.
“I’m at a complete disadvantage. I can’t really see your face so I don’t know really who I am talking to. I wouldn’t want to walk past you on the road tomorrow and not know you.”
“Sure. Would you like to move into one of the huts?”
“No, we are fine here,” Merije cut in.
I felt Edu looking from me to Merije. “Ok,” he said. “It was nice to meet you in the flesh, Abby.”
“I would like to take a look at the place though,” I said before he could walk away. “Maybe I can come back at a later date?”
“Hmmm…spying on us?”
“Are you scared of a little competition?”
“Not a little competition, no. The big ones, maybe.”
“Shame. Can’t we all just get along?”
“When do you want to come back?” asked Edu becoming businesslike.
“The next two weeks are a bit hectic. How is the week after that?” I whipped out my phone and we synced diaries.
“Please, try the fish. It is fresh from our pond, killed as soon as you order it.”
“Of course,” I frowned. “It’s exactly how I would do it too.”
I noticed Merije had gone quiet again but before I could start a conversation, the live band started playing. Merije turned his body towards them, but while everyone else was moving in some way to the music, his face was set. I tugged his sleeve.
“Are you alright?” I had to shout to be heard above the music. He nodded and turned bac towards the music. Our dishes arrived in earthenware bowls borne in mini baskets that seemed to be woven around the bowls. My fish was still bubbling in its sauce when they set it down. My stomach growled again. I tried to make eye contact with Merije but he was engrossed in his nkwobi, assaulting it like it stole something. When he was done, he downed the rest of his beer and stood. I raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t want you to be late,” he shouted from a place over my head. “Your work…”
I put down my spoon. “Sure. Let’s go,” I shouted back.
My ears rang in the silence of the car all the way back home. Merije managed a tight smile as he said goodnight, looking somewhere to the left of my face.
As soon as I bolted and padlocked the front door, I texted Greg: “Verdict. Passive-aggressive motherfucker. Literally.”