Nene was hurrying home to catch a favorite TV show. The good thing about becoming a fulltime staff nurse was that she could afford DSTV. On days like this when she was not on night duty, she looked forward to getting back home from the hospital to some warmed up jollof rice and soft drink in front of the TV. Her flatmate who was a school teacher in one of the new-generation private schools was away visiting her boyfriend for the weekend. This could easily have been one of the most relaxed weekend night she’d had in months.
Daniel had a hangout with his boys he could not think of missing. After having sat at home for two years, one of his Unilag chums had finally got a sweet job, a consulting position with a top accounting firm. He was the last in a group of five friends to land a job. To celebrate, they all planned to take him out and about Lagos on some serious partying spree. But his mom won’t hear of it. She said he’d be exposing himself to attacks from enemies by going out to drink and party a week before he resumed his new job. So the boys settled for a Bruce Lee marathon on Daniel’s 80 inch TV with unlimited beer and suya.
But the July rain had a slightly different plan for Nene and Daniel.
The express way was about a mile away when Daniel hydroplaned, skidded off the road, and went over a spiky metallic thing. Flat tire in the rain with three hours of stand-still traffic ahead of him. Daniel knew there’ll be no Bruce Lee lounging tonight. Luckily, a vulcanizer was only about a hundred yards away.
Nene, who was waiting under the vulcanizer’s shed for the rain to subside saw everything. In the few seconds it took for Daniel to come out of the car, she tried to picture what the driver of this sleek Toyota Corolla would look like. She thought of a middle-aged man, light skinned, slightly pucker-faced, a lawyer maybe. She was still drawing out the feature of this imaginary driver when Daniel opened the door and walked hurriedly to the vulcanizer’s shed. He was more seductive than charming in a suit so dapper and a face to handsome that it made her sick to the stomach. But many years later when she narrated the story of how they met, she’d always say that all she saw as he walked towards the shed was the scar on his face, a dark thin line running from his temple down to the bottom of his chin.
While the vulcanizer and his boy went to work on the car, Daniel sat on the bench and pulled out his phone to let everyone know what was up. Nene was leaning against the shed. If she had left the hospital an hour earlier she would’ve missed the rain and would have had no trouble finding buses. Right when she was about to leave, a truck load of accident victims arrived. She hated it when that happened. Why do people decide to get into accident just when her shift was over? When the matron asked her to stay back and help out with getting things settled, it’s not like she had a choice to say no. By the time things were in control enough for her to sneak out, it was raining heavily, buses had disappeared, and the few that were still running were asking for amounts of money that she would pay only if it got dark.
You know when you feel someone’s eyes on you and the feeling leaves you with a passing sensation of being cold and exposed. That’s how Nene felt as she stood there with her back facing Daniel. The vulcanizer, an old baba was wiping water off his face. The tattered, rainbow-colored umbrella that his boy was holding over him wasn’t helping much. The tools were slippery and sliding from his hand, but the old man was doing the best he could. She wondered why Mr. Dapper wasn’t trying to be of help or, at least, show some interest. Why he was just sitting there fiddling with his phone.
Daniel could not get his eyes off Nene because he had never seen a nurse that attractive. She wasn’t wearing the white sack-like thing that nurses tended to wear. Her uniform looked like a white dress, a pretty dress, fitted and rather flattering of her perfect body. She had black ballet shoes on, not some stodgy utility shoes. He knew a thing or two about the dorky and bitchy world of nurses. After the fall that gave him his scar, nurses and doctors were practically the only family he had during weeks and weeks of operation. The thought of this nurse standing before him and wearing a pair of girlie ballet shoes gave him a thrill. That’s why he was watching her so intently. But had he overdone it? Did she know that he was looking so intently at her back? Why had she suddenly become fidgety? He wondered.
The bad tire had been removed and had to be repaired. Daniel had no spare. A similar incident had occurred a couple of weeks ago. He had used the spare and had not had the time to replace it. The vulcanizer came back to the shed and set about turning on the generator so that he could get his fire-spouting machine going. When it kicked on, the generator drowned out not only the sound of the falling rain but also Daniel’s voice when he said to her: “Hello.”
She didn’t turn around because she didn’t hear him. It was the vulcanizer’s boy that she heard. “Sister, Sister…,” calling her attention to Daniel’s attempt to get her attention. Daniel had planned on saying something about her shoes being lovely, but when she turned to face, first the boy, and then him, Daniel lost his voice. He wanted to flirt with her, but in the vulcanizer’s shed where the rain and the generator were carrying on a shouting match, flirting just did not feel right. Instead, he asked: “Don’t you want to sit?” Even though he asked, he was half-surprised when she came to sit on the bench beside him.
Nene was fine standing and would certainly have refused his offer if she wasn’t tired of having his eyes bore through her back. She knew he had been looking at her and if sitting by his side would make him stop, she saw nothing wrong with that. When she sat next to him, she felt his body heat and smelled the woodiness of his cologne. His phone was back in his pocket, and he was looking out into the rain. She didn’t know if she was expected to say something.
The first thing Daniel noticed as she walked towards him was her newly done braids. They were on the thicker side and would have hung down to the middle of her back if she hadn’t pulled it up in an aqua colored hair ruffle. He didn’t want to seem rude so he didn’t take a long enough look at her face. But from the little he saw, her lips were full and rounded and her eyebrows were clean and perfectly arched. She was clearly the kind of girl that was finicky about her body. It made him wonder whether she was also as finicky about that other part of her body. This thought threw him into a bit of a confused state, leaving him thankful that thoughts were private. After struggling without much success to prevent his thoughts from straying any further up her body, he decided to ask her her name, hoping it would distract his imagination.
“What’s your name?” he asked at the same time that she said, “how did that happen?”, pointing to his scar. They both laughed. Not a loud laugh. They were too nervous for that. Then there was a second of silence during which each waited for the other to go first. She was the first to speak.
“Nene…My name is Nene.”
“Is that the full name?”
“No one ever calls me by…”
“I’m just curious,” he cut her off. She fell silent.
Feeling sorry, he quickly added, “I didn’t mean to cut you off.”
“No wahala.,” she said waving her hand as if to say she was not upset and that he didn’t need to apologize, but then she did not continue with what she was going to say. The silence went on for a while and grew more oppressive than awkward. He felt like a jerk for rudely cutting her off. Suddenly, the thought of parting like this frightened him. For a moment, he felt there was a spark between them, and he liked it. But the longer they sat in silence, the more he felt the spark dimming. Soon, he would be some guy with whom she shared an awkward moment at the vulcanizer’s shed while she was waiting for the rain to stop.
The vulcanizer was nearly done patching the tire so he had to act fast.
“I fell from a tree when I was ten,” he said.
“Pardon…did you say something?” Her mind had indeed drifted.
“You asked what happened to me.” He waited for her to recall her question.
“We went to spend Christmas at the village.”
“Where,” she asked.
“Oshogbo. The moment we arrived, I climbed this really tall Fruit tree. It was an old tree and not all the branches were as solid as they looked. The next thing I remember is waking up in LUTH…You work at LUTH, right.”
“Yeah…my mother was freaked out. It was clearly something no hospital in the area could handle so they had to hurry back to Lagos. When I fell, I landed with the right side of my face on the sharp metal burglary proof on the fence. It took several surgeries…up to five…the last was in England…to get it to look like this.”
The silence that followed his telling of this little story drowned out everything—the sound of honkings car, the clanking noise from the vulcanizer’s tools, the rain, the generator—and overpowered her. Nene said nothing. She looked at the scar again, she still said nothing. Not because she didn’t have anything to say. She wanted to say that the scar made his face so much more captivating. She wanted to say that it was not the power suit he had on, but the story of the brave little boy, that told her that he was tough stuff. The expensive banker suit was eye candy. It wasn’t strength.
Even though she couldn’t say these things, she did have to say something in return. After all, she was the one who asked him about the scar in the first place. In truth, Nene wasn’t thinking when she asked the question initially, and she’d hoped he wont really respond. It was a bit forward to ask a stranger such a personal question, and now she was been ruder by not responding. Desperate, she did the next thing that came to her mind. She touched the scar.
“Jesus!…I didn’t just do that,” she gasped.
“It’s okay,” he said, laughing. She was both reserved and forward in a way that puzzled Daniel. He liked that about her.
“I get that all the time, ” he added to reassure her that she did nothing bad. In fact, he quite liked the rather odd turn of events.
“People touching your scar?”
“Just kidding…At least, you weren’t put off.”
As Nene wondered how she would ever forgive herself for having done such a thing, the vulcanizer called and said the car was good to go. The process of deciding what to do next was a bit awkward. For some reason, the few minutes that passed seemed like eternity and had somehow transformed the vulcanizer’s shed into a crossroad. They could both sense that whatever decision they made at that moment would change their lives for ever. He stood up not knowing what to do or say. Ask for her number? Give her his number? Do nothing and let her get on with her life? Nothing felt right.
She continued sitting down thinking how badly she had bungled her encounter with this perfect stranger and how much she would love to have a little more time with him and possibly redeem herself.
“So are you going to tell me your full name?,” he asked, nervous.
“It’s pretty. Omo Ibo?”
“There you go,” she says in mock anger.
“What did I do now?”
“You’re Yoruba, right?”
“Is that what I’ve done wrong.”
“No, but why do all Yoruba people think that if you’re not Hause, you’ve got to be Ibo?”
“If you’re not Ibo…”
“Edo…I’m Edo,” she cuts him off.
“Aren’t Edo people Ibos?” he asked, laughing.
“Why do I feel I’m been made fun of?,” she laughed. The sound of her laughter and the shape of her mouth when she laughed seemed, to him, the loveliest things.
He had to get going. The vulcanizer was calling him to inspect his work. But he didn’t want to let go of her for one minute, scared that she would slip away forever.
“I told you, no one calls me by that name.”
“Nekpen,” he repeated with an emphatic tone that shut her up. She was going to continue her protest, but the way he said her name, the plea, passion, joy, the impatience with which he pronounced her name made her stop.
“Nekpen, I want us to continue this conversation. So here is what’ we’ll do. You are going to tell me where you live and I’ll take you there.”
She didn’t say anything so he continued, hoping she won’t say no, ready to beg if she did.
“It’s going to rain through the night and the buses are getting fewer by the minute. I don’t feel right leaving you here all by yourself.”
Daniel paid the vulcanizer under the shed. She couldn’t tell whether he paid the man three times the usual price to impress her or whether he was just been kind to an old man who had labored under the rain to repair his car.
They both ran to the car shielding their bodies as best they could from the rain. Inside the car, they looked at each other’s face, slightly wet from the rain and began laughing. He was thinking how stunning a face she had and how he would never let her go. She was thinking how charming his smile was especially when the part of the scar that came closest to his mouth creased.
“So where are we headed?,” he asked.
“By the way, I’m Daniel.”
“Nice to meet you Daniel” she said, smiling nervously.
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