She had died. She was too sure of it. She had died and gone to heaven. There was no other explanation for the way she was feeling. It was a heady, otherworldly giddiness, much too unreal for words, and only in heaven could one find such a perfect blend of happiness. So yes, she was in heaven and Okedike was God. To look in his eyes was to lose oneself in the exquisite waters of the river Euphrates, the one that flowed right out of Eden, or was it the throne room of God? Right now, in this moment, Halima couldn’t care less. He was here, in her bed, and she could find no better description of heaven. Nor could she think of anything that mattered more.
Time with Okedike was beyond precious to her. He was married, you see, and even though he never failed to profess his undying mad passionate love for her, he always had to go home to his wife. There were days though, weekends when he could get away under the guise of business trips, and they would spend their time mostly in the comfort of Halima’s plush apartment. Occasionally, they took their affair to a guest house owned by Okedike’s best friend. This was one of those weekends. Halima had kept her fingers crossed, not sure that he could get away. There was a lot going on at the engineering firm he co-founded with Nnamdi, his best friend. On top of that, his missus had been complaining about her health for a couple of days, and it was hardly the time to abandon ship and leave her home alone.
His missus. She didn’t know it, but the languorous smile she wore had slowly morphed into a worried frown under Okedike’s watchful gaze. God knew she had nothing against the very fragile beauty that was his wife, but it didn’t stop Halima from resenting the fact that she had to share him with another woman. It didn’t matter that they were married. Okedike had married Flora – the missus was called Flora – six years ago, and in the same amount of time, they had been trying to get pregnant, but Flora had not been able to carry any of her eight pregnancies to term. The doctors had blamed it on chromosomal abnormalities, trust them to have a name for everything. The first time he bedded her however, it was an instant hit. Sadly though, she had to get rid of it, God have mercy. It was too early in their relationship, and Okedike didn’t think it would be fair to Flora. Neither did she, truth be told. But that’s why she knew, on a subliminal level that Okedike was hers. She knew it in a way that she couldn’t explain. She might never be his missus, but he belonged to her. And who was she to say never? Never say never, right?
Her mind took a languorous back flip to that Wednesday afternoon in 2003. It was the second day of the annual University of Lagos Book Fair. Halima had left the office of her thriving gift delivery business, to have a feel of the books at the fair. She had fallen behind on her reading, and was out to increase her personal library. She remembered contemplating aborting the trip because of the intensity of the heat. But she made a last minute impulsive decision to visit the fair, and as soon as she was able to convince the bothersome young man who couldn’t quite make up his mind on what gift he wanted for his girlfriend to continue with her assistant, she left the office.
There were too many books to choose from, and she was spoilt for choice. A cardboard sign ahead read “NON FICTION” with an arrow pointing left, so she walked in that direction and found a small stand along the aisle. She felt like Alice in Wonderland. The Bookie Wonderland. They had everything from Danielle Steele to Dean Koontz to Robert Ludlum to Barack Obama. Tiny stand, but loaded with goodies. Scanning the fifth shelf, she found a small book with a very unusual title, Who Are You? Good question, she thought to herself. She fingered the book thoughtfully, her finger slowly going up and then down its spine, not sure if to add it to her already hefty selection.
“Make up your mind already,” the voice came from behind her, the rich baritone of it startling her. She turned with a start, and for the first time locked gazes with the most interesting pair of eyes she had ever encountered.
“Sorry to have startled you,” he continued with a smile that showed the perfect set of teeth, save for one chipped tooth in the front. “It’s just that you were taking so long to decide if you wanted the book or not, and there’s only that one copy in stock.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just wasn’t sure.” She replied with a small smile of her own. She held the book out to him. “Here, you can have it.”
“I take it you know exactly who you are.” He didn’t take the book from her, and she wondered if he smiled at everyone the way he was smiling at her right now. That chipped tooth that did nothing to diminish the brightness of his smile. It oozed a confidence that wasn’t cocky, and those eyes of his were beginning to make her nervous.
“I’m sure I do, actually.” Her smile was slowly melting, and it suddenly occurred to her how much time she had spent away from the office and how she needed to get back there as soon as possible. Her hand still held the book out to him. “Here,” she repeated. This time he took the book, still smiling he thanked her and turned to meet the cashier.
Halima felt stupid then. It wasn’t everyday she encountered men whose eyes were brown pools of heavenly goodness, who were polite and smiled at her with such lovely teeth, even though one of them was chipped. She turned to watch him, but she could only see the broadness of his back in the blue shirt that he wore, and she saw the cashier smile at something he said. On a flash of impulse, she walked back to him, put one manicured finger on his shoulder and waited for him to turn. She had no idea what she would say when he did, she just knew she wanted him to smile at her again. He did smile again, when he turned and saw her short self, standing behind him. This time though, the smile was a question.
“If it’s not a problem, I think I want the book,” she said, and felt even more stupid that that was all she had tapped him to say. He burst out laughing, and now she wanted to die. He though she was a fool!
“I’ve already paid for it ma’am,” he told her. “I could give it to you though, if you promise to give it back when you’re through reading it.” Because she couldn’t think of any smart thing to say, and because the cashier was giving her these odd looks, she introduced herself.
“Halima,” she smiled brightly as she stretched out her hand to him. “Halima Gwarzo” He took her hand in his, first transferring the small book from his right hand to his left, and that was when the gold band on his finger got caught in the light and flashed at her.
“Crap,” she thought. The good ones were always taken. Then she stopped herself. Who was to say that he was a good one? She certainly didn’t know him well enough to say that. Anyway, it was too late now. She had put her foot in it and right now the only thing to do was follow through with it.
He waited for her to pay for her books, then they walked together to where her car was parked. The sun had decided to take a break, so they didn’t have to look like idiots that smiling and squinting would make them seem. He took her phone number and gave her his. He gave her the book, refusing her half-hearted protests that she didn’t want it. Then she got in the car, and made to drive off. “Okedike,” he called out to her. “Mine is Okedike.” She couldn’t stop smiling as she drove back to The Purple Aquarium. She had a good feeling about this one. Immediately she cautioned herself. The man was married for Pete’s sake. Then she shrugged it off. She wasn’t looking to be wife number two. Even married men could have friends, no strings attached. Besides, Halima wasn’t into the whole love thing. Work was interesting and demanding enough.
“Okay, five naira.” It was that rich baritone again, this time it came from just above her head, close to her left temple. She looked up and kissed his chin.
“Good morning baby for the third time this morning,” she told him with a grin that said plenty.
“Morning babe, but you need to tell me what you were thinking about that had you changing facial expressions faster than I could say knife,” he said, all the while tugging on some strands of her luscious hair.
“Is that what the five naira is for?” she asked him, smiling as he nodded in response. “You actually thought you could buy my thoughts with five naira?” “Come on, OK, where is all that oil money when I need you to spend it?” They laughed together this time, arms around each other, basking in the happiness that only lovers can give each other.
“I promise to tell you,” She told him with a smile, “if you make me breakfast. I’m hungry.”
“The lady has spoken. I better get to it.” With that he got out of bed and into his boxers, and proceeded to the kitchen.
Halima sighed contentedly, and grabbed the book she’d kept on the bedside table, Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope. Life couldn’t get better than this, she thought. He’s mine, she told herself as if to reassure herself. Tomorrow evening he would have to go home to the missus. But right now, in this very moment, he was hers, and she planned to make the best of it.
Okedike took the frying pan down from the kitchen wall, where it was hanging. He was going to fry some eggs, toast a few slices of bread and make her a cup of the hot chocolate she so loved. She always said she loved the way he fried his eggs, but then again how much cooking could he do? He figured he had to excel in the limited scope of his culinary abilities. This would never happen in his home, he thought, shaking his head in amusement. Even though Flora was too fragile to do any domestic work, she would not hear of him stepping into the kitchen for anything other than to wash his hands at the sink. There was a cook, whose duty it was to make food, she would firmly tell him, and he should allow the man do his work. Thankfully, Akpan didn’t disappoint.
He took out six eggs from the fridge, broke them into the bowl Halima called the egg bowl, and began to whisk. The egg bowl, he thought, amused again. The woman was an organizational junkie. Everything had to have its name, place, and function cut out for it from the day it was purchased, and he always wondered how she did it. She was a wonderful woman, with an outstanding mind and personality, all wrapped in the kind of body that could give a man headache. He went to the fridge again, this time to bring out the loaf of bread he had bought on his way here. He had told Flora that there was a big client in Calabar that the company had been chasing for a while, and their management had contacted him to fly out for a meeting on Saturday morning. He would try to postpone it, since she wasn’t feeling too well, but he wasn’t sure they would like it. On Thursday evening when he got home, he told her casually that they had insisted, and he would be taking the last flight to Calabar on Friday. He was surprised she didn’t even protest.
“That’s fine,” she told him with a small smile. “Nkiru will take care of me. You’ll be back in time for dinner on Saturday, won’t you?”
“No,” he quickly replied. He looked away, not able to meet her eyes, but not before he saw the look of disappointment she wore. “The meeting will probably take the whole day. I’ll see you on Sunday. You’re sure you’ll be fine with the help? Or should I tell Didi to come over for the weekend?” he already knew she would say no. Didi was his no-nonsense younger sister who didn’t understand how a woman would claim she was too fragile to do anything in her husband’s house. It wasn’t like she had a bunch of children running around the house. In usual Didi fashion, she didn’t hide her resentment, and the result was bad blood between both women. Most days he chose to ignore it, as long as there was no blatant disrespect going on. He wasn’t going to allow anyone disrespect his wife, no matter what.
“No,” she replied. “We will be fine, Nkiru and me. You go handle your business.” With that, she left the room.
He felt bad about lying to her, but it had been 3 weeks since he had been with Halima, even though he spoke to her every day. Three weeks that felt more like three months. He had to see her, and an evening of dinner and good music would simply not do. He knew how much these weekends meant to her, and they were very important to him too. Flora might be his wife, but he had never felt this way about her, not even when Nnamdi introduced her to him and he beheld her ravishing beauty for the first time. Halima was no match for Flora in the looks department, but Flora’s beauty had a cool quality to it, where you could see Halima’s fire in her eyes. She carried it everywhere, it showed every time. She was more… alive. He knew he shouldn’t compare both women, and there was no excuse for his unfaithfulness, but he couldn’t help it, and the fact there were no kids yet made it worse. He wondered if he hadn’t been too hasty in settling down. If he had waited three years more he would have met Halima.
He remembered that day at the book fair. He remembered staring at the caramel-complexioned young woman as she walked into the small stand and went straight to the first shelf. She had eyes for the books, only the books. He watched her select her choices, watched the pile grow. That’s when his interest piqued. It was a very welcome breath of fresh air to find a woman who enjoyed reading. She wasn’t drop dead gorgeous like Flora was. You had to really look at her to take in her features and appreciate her beauty, because it wasn’t going to hit you in the face at first glance. So when she thoughtfully fingered the spine of that small book, almost as if she wasn’t sure she wanted it or not, he took it as his cue to say something, and walked up to her. He didn’t need the book, didn’t even care for it. Who needed a book to tell them who they were anyway? Not to brag or anything, but the ladies had been nice to him. He had yet to meet a female who didn’t like him, except for that Yejide girl. Yejide Iponrin. He had met her in his second year at the University of Lagos. Beautiful Yejide. God, he had loved that girl. He remembered pursuing her for months, taking her on dates and spending all his pocket money on her. When he finally asked her to be his girlfriend, she had said that the only thing she felt for him was brotherly love, the wicked girl.
Now Halima, for one minute he had thought she would be hostile. She had sure looked like she was considering it, so he took the book and backed down. And was pleasantly surprised to turn and find her behind him, the look on her face priceless. He knew he had fallen. Okedike wasn’t in the habit of chasing women. He believed in being with one woman at a time. Since he had gotten married, the only other time he had been with a woman who wasn’t Flora was what he could best describe as a drunken mistake, and he had not stopped blaming Nnamdi for taking him to that party. And nobody would believe it, they would probably laugh in his face like Nnamdi aways did when he said it, but there was something divine about his meeting Halima. She wasn’t like most women, and it had nothing to do with the physical attraction they shared, that seemed to sizzle at the slightest touch. He shook his head, as if to drive the thoughts out. He didn’t like feeing like this. It was one thing to be having an extramarital affair, but comparing her to his wife was another matter altogether. Halima was special, full stop.
He only wished his marriage had produced a baby. He tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, somebody had to be strong for the both of them. Fragile Flora cried enough about it as it was. Fragile Flora was the alias that the incorrigible Didi had given his wife, behind her back of course, and it made him smile now. But God, he wanted a child.