“She hoped that her children knew that what they needed to embrace when they encountered wild irrepressible flames wasn’t fear but control. In fear, they would kill the fire and lose the warmth but with control, the intensity of what they could create was inconceivable.” – Efun.
We spend the rest of the night side by side, avoiding each other’s gazes because it feels as if we’re unwilling to fan the flames of a possible attraction. I like her. I think she’s beautiful, warm, and very womanly, in ways I can worship her body in my bed, on the kitchen countertop, from behind her as she grabs the edge of a desk, and when I throw her legs open and eat like a three-course meal.
I lost Kaffy a few years ago, and since we were so close to getting married, it’s been difficult replacing her with anybody else. The thought hasn’t crossed my mind until now. And now that it has, I don’t think of it as replacing her. I think of Nicole as someone I want to have fun with, share memories with, possibly fight life’s battles with, and make insanely good love with. She’s not a replacement, she’s the main thing.
Nicole glances at me halfway through a procession. I sense that she wants to ask me a question before the words escape her lips.
“The person you lost–” she briefly looks away, as if uncertain about how to phrase her next words or how I would receive them.
I wince, my chest tightening in a knot knowing that she has known the type of fear that traps her voice. I know that she isn’t mine but if she were, she’d never worry about what I’d do if she said the wrong thing. Against better judgment, I reach for her hand and gently squeeze it. She smiles, and I’m relieved that she allows me this touch.
“Was she a lover?” she finally asks.
“We were engaged.”
“Oh,” Nicole says with a nod.
Kaffy was the love of my life. Or at least, at the time that’s what I thought. After I lost her, I came to the realization I hadn’t come to while she was alive. Our love was performative. We’d do everything together and go everywhere together, wear matching onesies, leave heart emojis all over each other’s Instagram posts and say the things we hoped the other person wanted to hear. It wasn’t that it was the wrong way to love, it just wasn’t what should have defined our relationship.
I met her at a friend’s birthday party. At the time, I was newly appointed executive vice chairman at my father’s real estate business. I was in career cloud nine and the poster child of wiz elite kids positioned to take over their family business. African media loved me, Nigerian tabloids worshipped me, and select circles in Europe acknowledged me.
Kaffy was the heiress to an Ijebu businessman’s vast lotto empire. Old money too. She was gorgeous, the sort of beauty that belonged in the center spread of fashion magazines with a skin that’s never known a day of stress.
We were supposed to fall in love. And we didn’t take it lightly. Our relationship was like the romance Olympics — she gifted me Swiss watches and I matched them with diamond necklaces. I surprised her by shutting down the Louvre for her on her birthday, she flew me on her dad’s private jet to Mauritius to celebrate a work win on a billionaire’s yacht. We were made for marriage. Except life got in the way and death happened. She was struggling with depression and anxiety, and I didn’t realize how bad it was. Until I walked in on her, already gone.
“I’m sorry,” Nicole murmurs. “Loss is hard.”
“It is.” During her last depressive episode, I had stayed longer nights at work and taken on more than I could handle. And then on her birthday, I had been late for dinner because I lost track of time. Grief and guilt were my companions for the next few years.
“How did you get over the loss?”
“My dad and my best friend.”
I follow her gaze as it lands on a tipsy couple. “There’s too much alcohol at this thing,” she chuckles.
I smile. Her statement douses the melancholy a bit.
As we get carried away by the lighting of the sacred lamp, I realise that I’m not sorrowful about the past. The gloom about being robbed of a future that could be still lingers, but not sorrow.
As the flames of the sacred lamp lick the steel on which it’s lit, the Ataoja emerges, ready to dance around it as part of the procession for the night. The diviner that my uncle follows believes that his prophecy finds his way to us, choosing this moment to once again remind me. I suspect he’s drunk as he saunters up to me.
As he whispers to me, “Don’t stand in the way of destiny,” only then does Nicole say, “Please don’t tell me he wants you to dance around the sacred lamp because you don’t look like you know how to dance o.”
I laugh. “Except if they need me to do a terrible Zanku or shaku shaku because I’ll confess my legwork game is weak as hell.”
I cross my hands and shake my head, doing a little shaku shaku dance. She laughs, a sweet melodic sound that leaves me in a trance as I watch, imagining her in a more intimate place. Like a living room or a bedroom, where she’s less stressed or tense. I don’t know why I get the sense that she doesn’t laugh a lot. Maybe because I can tell that her husband brings no joy to her life.
“Why did you fix the estate issue?” she asks in a low tone. I didn’t think she’d find out about the changes I made this soon.
“I hadn’t thought about how terrible some of those rules were. And to be honest, they were never set in stone.” The truth, however, was I couldn’t resist easing her stress, and I knew it wouldn’t hurt to revisit a set of plans that weren’t that rigid in the first place.
“Thank you,” she says softly.
I reach for her hand. I don’t resist the urge to squeeze it, watching as a smile emerges. She may have discarded our little moment from earlier, but I’ll carry it with me until I’m less convinced that something is begging to be explored here.
“This is unacceptable, but in another world where prophecies perhaps favor us, I would take you on a couple of dinner dates, break rules, and dance shaku shaku for you. Maybe even gaze at the stars while some good old jazz music plays softly in the background.”
“I like jazz,” she says, tempting me more than I can take. Now I give in to exploring more of those fantasies in a world that could be. So, instead
I ask, “Nina, Louis, or Miles?” and it earns me a smile.
“Nina. She’s the only one I have really listened to.”
The lyrics of Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You” flood my mind when she says that.
I laugh as her fingers curl around mine, “I feel as though you have jazzed me,” I confess.
She smiles, the dimples deepening. “I have to go now, really. I have something in the morning.”
I nod, struggling to brush off the disappointment I feel knowing that goodbye is coming. I haven’t felt a sense of loss this heavy since I found Kaffy lifeless in our home years ago. I feel as if I am about to lose Nicole and the reason I feel that way is inexplicable.
Desperate, but unwilling to frighten her, I say, “Maybe we’ll see each other again one day soon. I leave for Lagos for work that demands my attention first thing in the morning.” I’m pained because I would have tried to see her again during the festivities. But the call has changed everything, even canceling my plans to commission the water project I came here for.
“Oh,” she nods slowly, “I guess someday soon then.”
Does she sense the despair or do I imagine it? I have pushed too far tonight and I can’t do it anymore. There’s a thin line between showing strong affection and lack of boundaries. I embrace the hollow feeling that will come with watching her leave, and when she unlinks our hands, I feel as if a part of me is leaving with her.
It’s strange because it also feels as though she leaves me with a promise.
It’s unspoken, hazy, but firm.
Check back in on 29 July for more of Efun’s Jazz. Until then, read 3 here.