“Oh wow, he is so cute,” Kuddus cooed when I settled beside him, with my baby brother in my arms.
My boyfriend was right. The little bundle staring up at me with his button features, small mop of hair and a pearl of a smile was simply adorable. His small fingers fluttered close to my palm; they made purchase with my forefinger and promptly wrapped themselves around it in a gesture that tightened my heart with love.
“He is cute,” Kuddus said again.
“Yes he is.” I puckered my face at my baby brother. “Yes, you are. You know you are.” I made a face and he gurgled in laughter, a most delightful sound.
The reception for Michael Ekenedilichukwu Achike was well underway. We had returned to the pomp of the celebration from the ceremony at the church a while ago. The fete had transformed my parents’ Ibadan home into a rich display of people, food and gaiety. My mother was the quintessential hostess, flitting from guest to guest, her face permanently wreathed with smiles, her eyes sparkling under the upsweep of her gele, the same green-and-gold colour of her George attire.
Presently, she sauntered over to where Kuddus and I were seated, and she beamed at us as she observed my caper with the baby.
“Michael is never this spirited with any of us,” she announced as she settled beside me.
“Of course he isn’t. I’m his big brother, and I’m not the one who named him Ekenedilichukwu.”
Kuddus giggled from my other side, as Mother shot me a mock scowl. I met her stare head-on and deadpanned, “He will never forgive you for a very long time for giving him that name.”
“Well, you survived the name Chukwuemeka,” Mother quipped back. “He too will get over it.”
“But Ekenedilichukwu is such a heavier burden than Chukwuemeka,” I retorted.
Mother threw her head back in laughter. Kuddus joined in. She sobered up and divided a pleased look between me and my boyfriend. “I’m so glad the two of you could make it.”
I nodded in acknowledgement as Kuddus said, “It’s a pleasure, ma. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Of course, of course,” mother said airily. “Chukwuemeka is so private, it’s always a pleasure to get an opportunity to get a peek into his life, who he’s dating –”
“Okay, Mother,” I interrupted her as I began to feel self-conscious.
“I even invited Jude,” she said. “But he said he had a family event. Is that true?”
I’d tensed at her mention of Jude’s name, and had to make the studious effort to sound casual as I replied, “Yeah, he does.” I had no way of knowing if that was the truth, because I hadn’t spoken to Jude for more than a week now.
“Ok oh.” It was clear she didn’t believe me. Or Jude. “Anyway, how’s your new job?”
“It’s okay,” I said. No, it’s not okay, mum, I thought. I happen to be working for the ex-wife of the owner of the former record label, where I’d run away from to escape the Bassey family drama.
There was a brief lull in the conversation, and my attention drifted from the baby at the burst of laughter that came from a few yards from us. My father was holding court with some of his peers.
Nodding at him, I said to Mother, “So what – are the both of you like back together or something?”
Mother followed my gaze to him. She sighed. “Or something.”
“What do you mean?”
She moved her gaze pointedly to Kuddus. He caught the stare and said to me, “Why don’t I take Michael for a walk and you and your mum can talk for a bit.”
I handed over to him the gurgling bundle and watched him walk away while making faces at Michael and muttering playful gibberish to him.
“What is it about babies that make adults less grownup?” I observed.
“They have all the power, don’t they?” Mother said.
“Apparently,” I said, turning a meaningful look to her. “Enough power to keep you and dad together…or something.”
She sighed again. “The thing is, your father and I aren’t exactly an average couple. We’ve got quite the reputable status in the society.”
“I’m still part of this family, mum,” I said with a wry smile. “You don’t have to state the obvious with me. Even if I wasn’t, the caliber of this reception is enough to tell me you and dad move in big man circles.”
“Well, when messy things like cheating scandals and divorce start happening,” she explained, “people start to talk –”
“And we don’t want that, do we?” I said.
Her shoulders slumped and looked away from the brunt of my stare. “No, we don’t,” she said slowly.
“So you guys are just going to keep lying to everyone that you’re still together, forever?”
“No, not forever,” she objected hastily. “Just until Michael gets older or we get older – whichever comes first, and people don’t care anymore.”
I chuckled and shook my head. “Why you people care what people think is beyond me. I could never bring myself to care.”
It was her turn to give me a wry smile. “Well, you’re gay. It’s apparently a gay thing not to care what people think. So you’ve had practice.”
I laughed at that.
Just then, a young woman, one of the servers, came to claim my mother’s attention. As she rose to follow after the server, I stiffened to attention. Then I moved her hand swiftly forward and snatched her arm, forcing her back down on her seat. She gave a small gasp of surprise at my forcefulness, before swatting off my hand.
“Unhand me, young man,” she said with a cross look at me. “What is the problem with you?”
I was staring past her to the entrance of the open gateway of the compound, where I’d just seen my friends Tayo and Sly moving slowly and uncertainly in to join the festivity.
“You invited them?” I hissed.
Mother followed my gaze to the gate. Then she exclaimed with delight, “Oh they made it.” Then she turned to me. “Of course I invited them.” She raised her brows. “You boys are still friends, right?”
“Yes, we are –”
“Then what –”
“I didn’t invite them. And now they’re going to think I’ve been avoiding them.”
“Have you?” She gave me a look.
“I don’t know… Maybe –”
“Emeka!” she interjected.
“It’s nothing serious,” I protested. “I’ve just been really busy –”
“You’ve been busy na-eme gini?” she scoffed.
I’d been watching my friends, and I groaned inwardly when I saw them approach a server, who after a brief exchange, pointed in our direction. They turned and our stares clashed. My expression was stricken with guilt. Theirs were twin wooden masks.
“Shit!” I cussed.
“Language, young man,” Mother admonished.
Then she rose to her feet as Tayo and Sly drew closer. I stood up to, fumbling for something to say. But I needn’t have bothered. The two men thoroughly ignored me as they greeted and congratulated Mother, handing over wrapped packages they had purchased as gifts. The three of them bantered a bit, before Mother excused herself, walking away and leaving a very tense silence behind.
I took in a shaky breath and finally took the plunge. “Guys, you don’t know how glad I am to see you. I actually wanted –”
“Save it, Kevin!” Tayo cut me off. “Just save it.”
Sly settled for an icy stare thrown my way, before following Tayo off to get some refreshment.
For me, the rest of the event flew by like a blur, and before I knew it, guests were leaving. My parents soon retired with Baby Michael upstairs, leaving the rest of the family, the servers, and a few other less important guests lingering downstairs. Some of the helpers were already cleaning and clearing things up, under the direction of my sisters.
Soon, Kuddus was ready for us to return to our hotel. But I had something to do first. Tayo and Sly were on their way out, and I needed to make amends.
I ran after them, catching up with them as they approached Tayo’s car.
“Hey! Guys!” I called out.
They stopped and turned.
I drew up to them, slightly winded. “Look, I know you guys are mad at me –”
“Really?” Sly said sarcastically. “What gave us away?”
I sighed. This was not going to be easy, clearly. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t invite you, okay? I just thought –”
“Are you fucking kidding me!” Tayo erupted. “We don’t care about the fucking child dedication, Kevin. Or that it was your mum who invited us and not you.”
“Then why are you so mad at me?”
“Are you serious?” Tayo’s eyes bugged at me with incredulous anger.
“This guy is unbelievable,” Sly scoffed angrily. “You want to know why we are mad at you? How about the fact that we’ve been trying to reach you for six months and you have never responded? We call but you never pick up. We come to your house and you’re never around –”
“Or maybe he’s around but just won’t open the door,” Tayo said to Sly through gritted teeth.
“I’m sorry, guys,” I said in a low voice.
“No! No, you’re not!” Tayo whirled around to stab at me. “You did this exact same thing last year when Jude was ill – shutting us out! And now you’ve done it again! Well, we’re not going to take it this time!”
“We are so done with it this time,” Sly added.
They turned and began heading back to the car. Sly got to the other side and got in.
A tug of desperation clutched at my insides and I darted forward and grabbed Tayo’s arm as he reached for the door on the driver’s side.
Reacting instantaneously with anger, he wrenched his hand from my grasp and jerked the door open. He made to get inside.
“Tayo, please…” I said miserably. Tears were stinging the back of my eyes.
He stopped and turned to me. His eyes were crimson and moist as he yelled at me, “Did you think he was only your friend?”
“What?” I rasped.
“When Samuel died – did you think it was only you his death affected?”
“Of course not!” I said defensively.
“Are you sure? Because that’s how you made us feel! I mean, when something like that happens, we’re supposed to stick together as friends. But as usual, you blocked us out – because poor Kevin was the only one that lost a friend!”
“It’s not like that –” I protested.
“It’s exactly like that!” he flashed, punctuating his rebuttal with a finger jabbed in my direction. “He was meant to be my best man, Kevin. My best man!” His voice cracked at this juncture and the tears began to fall from his eyes. “And then he died. So don’t just stand there and act like you’re the only one who lost a friend that day! We all did!”
Tayo drew in a deep breath and raised his hand to wipe the tears from his eyes in an angry gesture. It was then I realized my cheeks were wet too, as my own tears escaped their confinement in my eyes.
“Tayo…” I began.
“And you want to know what galls me the most?” he shot at me. “Not once, Kevin, not even once did it occur to you to find out how we were doing.”
The bullet in that accusation spliced through my heart, withering blood and tissues as it went through.
“I’m sorry…!” I cried.
“A week ago, I would have thought that meant something,” Tayo said with magnificent scorn. “Now it means absolutely nothing to me.”
And with that resounding final shot, he turned, got into the car and turned the ignition. I watched miserably as the car moved forward until it turned a corner out of my sight.
I was crying now, into the twilight, feeling an aching loneliness and rabid guilt gut their way through me. When Kuddus’s arms moved around me in familiar warmth, I broke down completely and gave myself up to my grief.
The drive back to the hotel was brief and silent. I sat beside Kuddus, totally wrapped up in the darkness that was threatening to take over me. When we got to our room, I dropped into the bed. Kuddus locked the door behind him, sat on the bed and began taking off my shoes. Then he took his off and stretched out on the bed beside me.
“They are right,” I finally said to him, my voice soft with self deprecation as I turned to face him. “I’m a terrible person.”
“No, you’re not!” Kuddus disagreed.
“I am,” I insisted.
“If you are, then why do I love you so much?’ He had a smile on his face.
I let out a forced chuckle, as refreshed guilt started to eat up my insides. I didn’t deserve this man. And I didn’t deserve my friends. Heck, I probably didn’t even deserve my family.
“See?” Kuddus said. “I knew you didn’t mean what you said –”
“I did,” I maintained. I sat up in the bed and rested my back against the headboard. I dropped my head into my hands.
Kuddus grunted as he sat up and moved close to me. “Kevin, don’t worry about your friends. They’ll come around in time. They are just angry – that doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“How sure are you?”
My boyfriend let out a sigh of frustration. “Okay, you’re a bad person. Is that what you want to hear?”
“It’s the truth!” I said, almost in tears again. “I make stupid decisions and I never think of how the consequences will affect others.”
Kuddus was going to make a quick rejoinder, but something in my words must have communicated itself to him, because he paused and examined my expression. His own expression became guarded as he began slowly, “Kevin, baby, is there something else to this? Something you’re not telling me?”
I sighed and my shoulders slumped. I didn’t care anymore for my secret. The truth needed to come out. I couldn’t keep carrying this in hiding from the man I was supposed to love.
“Kevin?” he called. “I asked is there –”
“Yes,” I interjected. “Yes, there is.”
“And this started when?”
“Last year,” Amara answered, with her head turned down and away from her therapist’s steady stare.
Deidre leaned forward a bit, her expression urging, reaching out to her patient, asking for her total trust in her. “You didn’t tell anyone when it started, did you?”
Amara shook her head.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I – I…I don’t know.”
“That’s not the answer, is it?”
“I really don’t know why I didn’t tell anybody…”
“Perhaps you thought no one would take you seriously if you did?” Deidre pushed.
“No,” Amara quickly said. Her eyes flashed at Deidre momentarily, and then she looked away again.
Deidre smiled, ever the patient caregiver. “Amara, it’s been two days since our last session. We won’t move forward if you don’t start admitting some things to yourself right now.”
“I know,” Amara responded. She paused and then sighed. “That wasn’t the reason I was silent.”
“Then what was?”
Amara darted another look at the other woman, hesitating. “It’s probably going to sound really stupid.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you’re paying me to keep quiet about the things you say,” Deidre joked.
Amara let out a chuckle, before saying, “Okay. I was – I thought she wanted to tell me something important. I thought maybe, just maybe, it was my mother trying to speak to me from the other side. But then, when I realized it was not going to be anything but one hallucination after another, I don’t know – I felt betrayed for some reason. I felt sad.” She was blinking now, fighting futilely the tears that had peaked in her eyes. She chuckled again and said, “I told you I was going to sound crazy.”
Deidre pushed a box of tissues toward her. “No, you don’t sound crazy. Or stupid. Just hopeful. It’s a perfectly normal human reaction to unusual circumstances.” She watched as Amara dabbed at her eyes and cheeks. “Look, Amara, we’re all like that. Sometimes we crave answers to questions we never asked. It’s part of our existing. It doesn’t make us stupid or crazy. It just makes us human.”
Upon hearing these words, Amara couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips. “Which Chimamanda Adichie book did you steal those lines from?”
Deidre giggled. “Chimamanda ke? It was at the back of this thing.” And she lifted a bag of cookies from her side, brandishing it before Amara, who had started laughing. “But that doesn’t make it any less true.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Amara said.
“But I just have to ask,” Deidre continued, “if what you’re looking for is answers, then why didn’t you just go to your father?”
A bitter feeling, dark and murky, bubbled to life inside Amara t the mention of her father.
“We’re not exactly on good terms, he and I,” she answered softly.
“Not on good terms, you say,” Deidre said. “That means it isn’t a major estrangement?”
Amara shook her head.
“Then it wouldn’t hurt to make up, patch things up –”
“It’s not as easy as that. He really messed up and –”
“And he’s still your father,” Deidre interrupted gently. “And you mentioned in our last session that you two have been there for each other for all your lives. So who better to get you to what you seek.”
“I don’t even know what I seek,” Amara said, “or that there is something to seek.”
“You never know,” Deidre said solemnly, “until you start asking the right people the right questions.”
You never know until you start asking the right people the right questions.
Deidre Balogun’s words kept playing themselves intermittently in Amara’s head as she found herself standing before her father’s house. She couldn’t account for what came over her and took charge of the wheel, bringing her straight here from the therapist’s office, instead of her home where she’d intended.
She was reaching for the front door knob, when the door was jerked open from the other side. Before her stood her father.
“Good evening, dad,” she said.
“Amara,” Mazi Peters said simply.
And his daughter fell into his embrace.
“And I know I should have said something sooner. But I was just…” Amara paused, feeling choked with emotion under the soft wash of the moonlight as she sat with her father in the verandah of his home. The scent of gardenias from the garden below drenched the air around them.
“I’m so sorry, dad,” she finally said.
“Oh Amarachi,” Mazi Peters said, as he sat up and reached out a hand to pull his daughter closer to him on the seat. His hand held his daughter’s shoulder comfortingly. “My sweet, sweet Amara…”
“I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner…”
“Don’t be,” Mazi Peters countered. “If anyone is to blame, it’s me. I’m your father, I should have sensed you were in pain –”
“No, dad –”
“Ehn-eh! You’re my only child. Whenever something is wrong with you, I should be the first to sense it. Instead, my focus was on planning a wedding that shouldn’t have been.” Mazi Peters shook his head sadly and turned his head to kiss Amara’s forehead. “Ama, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, dad.”
“And I’m even sorrier for treating you like that the other day at the hospital. I should have been more sensitive to your feelings.”
“It was probably for the best. If you hadn’t done that, only God knows if I’ll be here, telling you this, had I taken over from you in the company.”
“So Chukwu ma ihe nile, mm? God knows best.” Mazi Peters looked intently at her. “And this therapy you’re doing is helping, right?”
“Very much so,” Amara answered with feeling. “I haven’t been seeing any more hallucinations of mom since we started having our sessions, even though I’m still having recurring dreams. She – my therapist – thinks it’s mom trying to tell me something. And I think so too.”
As Amara spoke, she felt a stir in her father. She looked at him and caught an unfathomable expression on his face. It was gone as quickly as it got there.
“Dad, what is it?” she queried.
“It’s nothing,” Mazi Peters replied, looking away.
You never know until you start asking the right people the right questions.
Amara’s back straightened in the seat and her tone firmed with purpose as she said, “Daddy, if you know something, please, tell me.” When he didn’t speak, she said with some exasperation, “Daddy! Do you know something I should know?”
The elderly man released a heavy sigh, before uttering a very soft “Maybe.”
Written by The Reverend