Ugola reluctantly trailed her daughter, Ogonna, into the duty-free shop, her tired eyes hidden behind large, uncompromising Chanel sunglasses. Two nights of insomnia, partly induced by the gnawing thought of not seeing Ogonna for another four months, left her hankering for a dark, quiet nook. But high on the success of executing a birthday surprise for her daughter, she maintained a determined gait, pleased that she had remembered to whip out her phone to immortalise Ogonna’s speechless reaction to the hail of festive pink and gold balloons adorning their hotel suite. She particularly relished watching the prismatic change in her daughter’s expression, going from subdued delight to sheer ecstasy, as she lifted the dainty, black box from the bed prettified with pink geranium petals that spelled “Happy birthday, Ogonna,” and untied the white bow to unveil its content: a red, Chanel crossbody bag.
Ugola took pleasure in envisioning her ex-husband Ehimen’s disapproving reaction to the handbag, given he thought it wasteful and vainglorious to splurge on children. In her mind’s eye, she saw him arch his thick brow in that disbelieving manner she once found endearing as he griped to their daughter about the “obscenely expensive present” and her own stubborn refusal to be realistic, which usually meant conceding to his worldview. For her part, presents were a physical expression of love and appreciation, a custom she adopted from her parents who still lavished her with gifts. And since her medical practice afforded her the means to splurge, she saw no qualms in continuing the tradition with her only child. Gifting a few luxury items each year had neither turned Ogonna into an entitled brat nor negatively affected her grades in school despite Ehimen’s prognostications.
Secretly, Ugola hoped Ogonna would permanently move in with her in three years, when she turned eighteen and gained freedom from the custody arrangement that required her to spend four months at a time with either parent. And why not, she reasoned, studying the sunspot of her life browsing a row of novels, her naturally honey-toned afro reminiscent of a lush, rain-fed garden. After all, it was she who birthed her, breastfed her, and sat by her hospital bed after she took ill with viral meningitis. It was she who acquiesced to sleepovers at friends’ and allowed her to pierce extra holes in her pinna, much to Ogonna’s glee and Ehimen’s chagrin. These and other liberties led him to characterise her parenting style as lax, a word initially lobbed with sharp irritation but had since blunted to grudging resignation. But liberal as she was, Ugola knew where to draw the line as she did when Ogonna asked to dye her hair bright purple.
“Mum, you’re doing that face again,” said Ogonna, prompting a look of bemusement from her.
“The face you make when you’re scheming against dad. You purse your lips.”
Ugola flashed a sheepish smile. It was one of the few times she regretted their solid mother-daughter relationship, where secrets, no matter how unpleasant or distressing, stood no chance against their vow of transparency.
“I was thinking about how much I’ll miss you when you’re gone. I don’t want to let you go.” She pulled her daughter close and planted a kiss on her temple, a gesture that elicited an eye roll.
“Mum, it’s only four months. I’ll be back to your house before you blink.”
Disengaging from her mother’s embrace, Ogonna wandered over to the magazine stand and picked Essence and the last Vogue before moving to the rack of keyrings. She plucked one with the name of the soon-to-be-departed island nation painted with the country’s flag tricolours.
At checkout, Ugola added a bar of Toblerone to Ogonna’s items and started to open her handbag but caught herself. Of late, Ogonna fussed over her paying for “chewing gum,” the term she used to describe articles deemed inexpensive and, thus, purchasable with her pocket money. While she found her daughter’s attempt at asserting her independence impressive, she dreaded the looming separation and heartbreak that accompanied a child’s inevitable transition to adulthood.
With their purchase in hand and identical Louis Vuitton suitcases rolling beside them, the mother-daughter pair settled in a sparsely populated spot near the boarding area of the vast business class lounge. When Ogonna took out her phone, Ugola thought to say something about social media addiction and the need to be cognizant of one’s surroundings, but instead helped herself to the Essence magazine and Toblerone.
“Dad commented on the photo of us on the beach in matching leopard print bikinis.”
“What did he say?” Ugola said with feigned disinterest.
“‘You look just like your mother. It’s frightening.’” Ogonna chuckled. “As usual, he added three exclamation signs at the end.”
Ugola barely hid her pride as she split the bar of chocolate in two and handed her half. “Well, genes don’t lie… Has he commented on the handbag I got you?”
“I haven’t posted it yet. But you know what he’ll say,” she added with an eye roll that made Ugola smile.
They both shared similar views on luxury goods: Nice, expensive items were just that, nice and expensive. And durable for the most part, Ugola liked to add. Years ago, Ehimen sent her a screenshot of a designer Ghana-Must-Go bag retailing at Neiman Marcus for 2,000 dollars, with the caption: “WTF!!!” And in her determination not to give him any ammo with which to launch another moralising treatise on the decadent absurdism of designer goods, she’d simply replied with laughing emoticons. Of course, she knew some of these exclusive brands affixed their labels to commonplace products to jack up the price tag to eye-watering heights. She also knew how to push her ex-husband’s buttons.
“How about we look for your dad’s trouble,” she said slyly. “Post a photo of the bag with the caption: ‘Dad, I want to see you top this.’”
Ogonna gave a small giggle, her eyes skimming over her Instagram feed. “That’s one sure way to do it. And then he’ll either call you to say that I’m pitting you both against each other to have my way, or sit me down for a lecture about the evils of materialism and why it’s important to keep my feet on the grou— Mum?” She nudged her mother now distracted by the vision of a slender woman in a long, fuchsia sundress that commanded eyes to her glowing, dark skin, like a peacock’s iridescent plumage on full display. Mother and daughter watched as she took her seat several feet away from them, crossed her sandaled feet at the ankle and retrieved a Kindle from her leather handbag.
Without taking her gaze off the woman, Ugola spoke in a whisper, almost to herself, “Remember the lady from my old photo albums you said was a hybrid of Whitney Houston and Grace Jones?”
Ogonna’s eyes settled back on her mother. “Uh, your friend, Ovie?”
“I think it’s her.”
“Are you sure? I can’t recognise her with those braids because in all your photos she wore her hair short.”
“I saw her walk in, her gait is as I remember it. Feline.” She lifted her sunglasses briefly. “And those cheekbones… It’s her.”
“Do you want to say hi?”
Ugola scrunched her face as though she’d been asked to swallow a hundred pins at once, then shook her head vigorously. “That won’t be necessary.”
“Why?” exclaimed Ogonna, her eyes dancing with sly amusement.
Because there was no point, she wanted to say. Their paths diverged almost fifteen years ago under turbulent circumstances. And even though she had since forgiven Ovie for walking out on her, she couldn’t muster a reason not to say hello aside from the slight discomfort of weaving a yarn about her non-existent marital life.
“Mum, it’s been 16 years,” she continued drily, “You can’t still be mad at her for not attending your wedding. Perhaps she was prescient and knew it wasn’t going to work out between you and dad.”
Ugola shot her daughter a wilting look that only succeeded in tickling her further.
“You know it’s true,” she said amid laughter. “You have nothing to be mad about.”
As much as it pained her to admit, years after their friendship ended, Ugola occasionally browsed through her old albums containing countless photos of Ovie she’d saved like an heirloom. Destroying them seemed utterly useless since random incidents often precipitated vivid but disjointed reels of a past forgotten. Black cats recalled Ovie’s childhood pet, Yemoja, which had a knack for curling up at their feet. TV sightings of Leonardo DiCaprio, star of their favourite movie, Titanic, resurrected the many weekends they spent reciting lines from the film with the prurient fervency of pubescent teens. Even certain turns of phrases spoken by total strangers activated thoughts of Ovie like a latent infection. Like shadows on a sunny beach, she was an intangible, inescapable presence.
Ogonna poked her mother’s waist with two fingers. “Go say hi. You made me extend olive branches as a kid, now it’s time you drank your own medicine,” she gloated, a smug smile resting on her lips.
“Oh, so it’s payback time, eh?”
“Yes, this is revenge.” Her counterfeit growl made them laugh.
With a sigh and grudging look of surrender, Ugola handed Ogonna her sunglasses and flicked her lustrous, bouncy weave. Then with her chin upturned and shoulders pulled back to exude an imperial air, she rose and sashayed in the woman’s direction, praying for a case of mistaken identity.
Ovie looked up from her Kindle at the voluptuous, five-feet tall woman draped in bold, gold jewelery who had called her name. Immediately, her brows lifted at the same time her mouth slightly parted in genuine surprise.
“Ugola. How now?” she exclaimed in her characteristic husky voice, rising to shake hands with her.
The women traded compliments with each other, amazed that the last two decades had had little impact on the other’s physique. Ugola begged to differ from Ovie’s laudatory assessment, laying her hands over the soft hump of her lower belly, a souvenir from a hard-won pregnancy.
“Your eyes deceive you. I don’t see anything,” avowed Ovie, her knitted brows denoting that hard-boiled candour Ugola once trusted but now interpreted as politesse.
A lifetime ago, she would have responded to such declamations with an eye roll and a pithy remark drenched in sarcasm. But the shifting sands of time, having scuffed all the layers of familiarity required to defang sarcasm, meant she only managed a self-conscious laugh. Determined to continue on the safe, broad path of small talk, Ugola enquired about the nature of Ovie’s trip, causing both women to marvel at the coincidence of having vacationed in the same city around the same time without ever running into the other.
“Isn’t it strange?” wondered Ovie aloud after they sat cheek by jowl, “One whole week on the island and we’re only meeting at the airport.”
“Must be Providence,” Ugola quipped, then privately rebuked herself for the glib response, given she didn’t believe in coincidences, luck or divine intervention. She blamed her nerves for speaking out of turn, a corollary of the slight changes to her initial plan. She was supposed to say hello and return to her seat in the same time it took to tie a shoelace, not sit down for a chat. And yet, here she was, tucking her hands between her thighs, wondering if whatever animosity that existed between them was now blood under the bridge.
“I heard you opened your own law firm,” she continued, recalling a Facebook post by a mutual friend. In the early years following their breakup, news about Ovie sent bile bubbling up from the deepest crypts of her stomach, and to pre-emptively nip similar updates, she unfollowed several unwitting friends.
Ovie’s small, brown eyes twinkled from the pleasure of Ugola knowing something current about her life. “Yes, in Abuja. We just celebrated our sixth anniversary,” she said triumphantly. “And you relocated to the US?” She’d inadvertently gleaned that piece of information from a former classmate several months after deleting her Facebook account due to privacy concerns, which had had the collateral effect of drastically limiting news about her erstwhile friend.
“Yeah. Left a year or so after the wedding.”
The disappointment in Ugola’s tone drew Ovie’s inquisitive gaze to her hidden fingers. Realising the futility of playing hide and seek, she freed them, setting her hands on the armrests.
A brief silence lingered before she spoke again. “Ehimen and I are divorced.”
“I know,” Ovie said with a small, sympathetic smile. She’d considered reaching out upon hearing the news but couldn’t bring herself to couch her condolences in a cushy basket of sincerity and compassion. After all, their friendship owed its demise in part to the marriage.
The first crack in their relationship emerged after Ugola abruptly remarked on her close-shaven hair and its potential conspicuity amid a sea of wigs and weaves. She expected her bridesmaids to adhere to a strict uniformity, and with militaristic fervour demanded they all fix false nails and mink eyelashes, buy Spanx to dispel non-existent “Michelin rolls,” and maintain their UK size 6 figure. To ensure they stayed within the prescribed weight, Ugola selected slim acquaintances over plumper close friends for her bridal train and set about emailing the chosen few weekly diet tips that included cleansing juices, non-starchy veggies, healthy quinoa salads, and intermittent fasting. A swift cull and replacement awaited defaulters, as four-week pregnant Omolara soon discovered, much to everyone’s gawking dismay.
As chief bridesmaid, it often fell on Ovie to temper Ugola’s excessive demands and impulses at the behest of her bridesmaids, an enervating task that sometimes left her questioning her friend’s sanity. Fame, she’d read online, didn’t change a person but amplified underlying traits, and judging from Ugola’s behaviour, she found the same was true of brides afflicted by wedding mania. She’d cringed when Ugola revealed with a wicked grin that for the sole aim of playing diva, she ranted at the wedding planner after they failed to book Tuface due to scheduling conflicts. She shook her head at her friend’s decision to hire aso ebi girls in a bid to swell her posse and inflate her popularity in the eyes of guests, and considered Ugola’s plan to segment wedding guests on the basis of wealth and status obscene. With a VVIP section for politicians and prominent businesspeople, a VIP area for friends and close family members of the couple, and a less appointed space at the back of the hall for a hodgepodge of informally invited guests that included poor relatives, church members and wedding crashers on the prowl for free drinks and food, the nuptials started to seem less like a celebration of love and more like an extravaganza staged to puff up an insecure ego. Or as Ovie later described the wedding to her mother, a garish circus set up for and by parvenus.
One evening, she and Ugola had just finished reviewing the music playlist for the white wedding reception when Ugola began chastising Omolara for opting to wear her own material to the traditional wedding rather than the shiny, pink aso ebi fabric she’d selected for friends.
“But what did you expect? You kicked her off the train for being pregnant,” said Ovie with a nonchalant air, plucking her phone from her handbag. “You’re lucky she’s even attending your trad.”
“If she’s going to be passive-aggressive about it, then it’s best I disinvite her.” Ugola plonked down on the cube-shaped stool in front of her dressing mirror, inspecting her face for pimples. “She got pregnant and somehow it’s my fault she can’t function in the capacity I need her?”
Something about the word ‘function,’ the implication that she and the other bridesmaids were merely cogs in her machine, pricked Ovie. As far as she was concerned, performing bridesmaid duties was a favor granted to friends, not an obligation and certainly not the bride-to-be’s right to demand or impose, a fact that had so far eluded Ugola.
Without looking up from her phone, she responded through clenched teeth, “Ugola, you can’t treat people like chess pieces, like they solely exist to fulfill your childhood fantasy. We’re sacrificing time and money to witness your wedding so, at the very least, be grateful.”
At that, Ugola whirled around and faced her friend with a defiant expression. “Exactly, it is my wedding,” she said with an imperial tone, touching a finger to her chest, “I call the shots as I deem fit.”
One week later, those last words echoed in Ovie’s ear when Ugola phoned to ask how she planned to style her hair for the wedding only five days away. Her nonchalant response coupled with Ugola’s indignation evoked a mesh of accusations and countercharges that trawled the depths of savagery, unearthing buried slights and an ugliness fanged and unrelenting. As their recriminations got louder, Ovie spat with venom that she would rather die than be her chief bridesmaid.
“I’m sick of dealing with your entitled ass, sick of your bridezilla antics, and sick of fighting you,” she bellowed before hanging up.
The shock of Ovie’s outburst quickly transmuted into a throbbing fury that pervaded Ugola’s fingers. Trembling and heedless of spellings and punctuations, she fired off a long text message in which she called Ovie jealous, bitter, insufferable, and wicked, eventually capping the litany of adjectives with “Fucking cunt.” However, satisfaction lasted but for a moment, robbed by the disdain of Ovie’s silence, leaving her broiling with rage and in need of a target upon which to direct it.
Like a demon exorcised, Ugola dashed out of her bedroom with no predetermined destination, ending up in the garden where the fragrant bloom of queens of the night mingled with the strident screams of worship songs emanating from neighbourhood churches. She paced the stony walkways barefooted, brutally fighting back tears that trickled down freely at the sight of her mother.
The older woman heaved a sigh of relief at the end of Ugola’s sob-ridden summary of her fight with Ovie, pulling her in for a hug. “Dry your tears, Ugola. Friends are seasonal and come and go all the time. You have a lifetime partner in Ehimen, a gift greater than any friendship.”
As though the hairs on her mother’s arms had suddenly transformed into bristles, Ugola jerked away, her expression hovering between irritation and disbelief. The expectation that an untested marriage would successfully fill the imprints left by her oldest relationship outside her parents’ seemed grossly unnatural to her, like substituting an amputated hand with a hook, which was how she saw the rancorous fallout with Ovie. An amputation. The sudden death of a friendship was like meeting a barren, rocky landscape at the end of a long path clogged with neon signs promising infinite, verdant vistas. It was something she’d hoped her mother would acknowledge before proposing a way to mend fences, even though she had no intention of doing so. She simply wanted her to validate the conflicting emotions roiling within, rather than have them dismissed as inconsequential.
Ugola thought to say all that to her mother, but not wanting to get into a fresh argument, she swallowed her words. Then managing a curt goodnight, she trudged back to the house, all the while ignoring her mother’s plea to tell her what she’d said wrong.
A small, rainbow-coloured ball rolled and stopped at Ovie’s feet, and as she bent over to retrieve it, a freckled girl with long pigtails appeared. Claiming the toy, the child beamed and thanked her before dashing off.
“Children…” Ovie said with a wistful smile.
“The joys and headaches of motherhood. At least mine is.”
“Isn’t it strange that the thing that brings rapturous joy is also capable of causing the most severe of heartbreaks?”
Ugola gave a noncommittal nod, unsure whether the rhetorical remark was a dig at their own history or a general observation about life. In the deliberative silence that ensued, she debated whether to bid Ovie a happy-to-see-you-again farewell with her pride still intact or put into practice the ideals she preached to her daughter at the risk of disrupting the present bonhomie.
Clearing her throat, she began in a calm, steady voice, her gaze shifting tentatively from her clasped hands to Ovie’s smooth, inscrutable face. “I know it’s late for an apology, but I’m truly, truly sorry for sending you that vile text fifteen years ago. I allowed my ego to cloud my judgement. Should have never composed the message in the first place, and for that, I apologize.”
Ovie nodded slightly, her thin smile insufficient to mask the pain of a disinterred past in her eyes. The bite and intense vitriol of the text had struck her like a hard pillow to the head. It never crossed her mind that her childhood friend would stoop so low to manufacture bald, hurtful untruths, like the lie that she envied her good fortunes and was, thus, seeking to ruin her wedding. The “fucking cunt” comment offended her less than the accusation that she hadn’t supported her wedding preparations even though it was she who had trawled Facebook for a competent makeup artist and spent hours compiling a selection of old school songs for the DJ to play at the reception. It was she who had negotiated down the cake maker’s exorbitant rate, which Ugola, spendthrift and imprudent, would have undoubtedly paid. Ugola’s excoriating missive reminded Ovie of a quote from a book she read as a child: The gratitude of a donkey is its kick, and Ugola’s kick had landed smack in her face.
Summoning the force of a raging storm, she sat up ramrod straight in her bed and began replying to Ugola’s message. Moving at a dizzying pace, her thumbs matched the viciousness of a mind untethered from the restraints of civility and love, completing a ten-part text in record time. Then scrolling to the top to start proofreading, she only made it halfway through before hitting delete. The words seemed so alien, so crude, so unlike her. In them, she saw a vessel simmering with acidic depravity, a fluent violence that shocked her to tears. What did it say about her character that she could casually wish another person a slow, torturous death, especially someone she’d once called a friend? What did it say about her state of mind that she deemed it fit to curse Ugola with a long, miserable marriage and mentally-deranged children? What did it say about her motto: live free, soar higher, when she’d swiftly and wilfully swooped low for razor-sharp words to slice and dice her best friend for the benefit of getting even?
Ovie drew a deep breath and slowly let it out, repeating the process until a calm presence dislodged the tension in her belly. Then switching off her phone, she buried her head among the pillows, brooding for a long, long time.
A boarding announcement triggered another exodus of passengers. Crisp business suits hurried past while jaded parents and their perky children lumbered towards the gate in a zombie-like procession.
With her eyes fixed on the departing crowd, Ugola cut through the distraction and uncomfortable lapse of silence threatening to mute her. “I tried calling you back that night and the next morning, but your phone was off. I should have sent a text, but…” Her voice trailed off.
“I turned off my phone for two days straight,” Ovie said quietly with a tender smile. “I was afraid I might cut loose and say even worse things to you. If you saw the demonic draft I composed…” She touched the back of a hand on her forehead, miming a faint.
This was classic Ovie, breezy and facetious, just as Ugola had preserved her in memory. This was the Ovie who wore perfume to bed for the “man in her dreams,” who once ran to the opposite end of their university campus in a haze after a group of rambunctious male students exposed themselves as she walked past their hostel one night. Recounting the ordeal the following morning, she’d performed the same fainting gesture, sending interlocutors into fits of laughter.
Ugola leaned into the familiarity of Ovie’s idiosyncrasies, enough to let out a genuine laugh. “Why don’t you tell me about it so that we can be even?”
“I don’t think so,” she countered in a sing-songy manner as Ogonna approached them, rolling two suitcases.
Her appearance brought a sparkle to Ugola’s eye. She beamed with pride as she did the introductions and Ovie marveled at their striking resemblance.
“This is exactly how you looked in secondary school,” she exclaimed, looking from mother to daughter, with her arm wrapped around Ogonna’s shoulders in a warm embrace. “The only difference is that she’s light-skinned. Wow… it’s surreal.”
“Ah, don’t let my ex-husband hear you o.” Chuckled Ugola, and glimpsing her daughter’s arched, inquisitive brow, winked to signal the secret was out.
“But it’s true now, she’s your carbon copy.”
Pleasantries aside, Ogonna set the suitcases and their handbags next to her mother, then announced she was taking a stroll around the lounge. As she walked away, Ovie gushed some more about their resemblance and how seeing her was like journeying to the past, back to the carefreeness of their teenage years when stress meant fretting over history exams and fumbling a math equation. She recalled with keen clarity how their class had attempted to ridicule a much-hated English teacher by placing the duster high up on the ledge of the blackboard, far from the reach of his stubby limbs.
“And we would have had a good laugh had you, teacher’s pet, not gotten the duster down for him,” Ugola growled, counterfeiting annoyance that left the friends laughing like old times. “You know, you always tried to do the right thing,” she added with less levity, remembering how they became friends.
As the new kid in class, having transferred from a primary school in England where her father recently completed a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering, Ugola had watched forlornly from the classroom window as kids played hide and seek, dashing across the playground like hares, shrieking with wild laughter at jokes she wasn’t privy to. But her despondence lasted all but two days when Ovie extended an invitation to see-saw with her. They see-sawed that day and every other break time at school, becoming inseparable as the plank they occupied on opposite ends.
“Live free, soar higher. Still live by that motto?”
Ovie gave a nonchalant shrug. “I try, I guess.” There was a brief pause. “When I think about it, I shouldn’t have shirked my bridal duties just days before your wedding. It was mean and petty. If anything, my actions added more flint to the fire. So in that regard, yes, I was a selfish bitch. And for that, I apologize.”
Ugola was already shaking her head and began to protest, but Ovie cut her off. “You were right about me being a ‘selfish bitch,’ I’ll give you that. But by the time you typed ‘cunt,’ I knew you had clearly lost your marbles.”
Ovie’s cutting frankness and deadpan delivery made Ugola release an uproarious laugh. The jovial intimacy of their friendship had returned like a traveler coming home after a long, arduous voyage, a feeling that never quite materialised during her nine-year marriage to Ehimen. In the twilight of their union, the counselor they visited individually and as a couple had encouraged them to retrace their footsteps to the honeymoon phase of their life together in an attempt to isolate the first instance of marital discontent. For her part, she barely performed the prescribed tasks, resentful of Ehimen’s insistence that they attend couple therapy with a licensed counselor instead of seeking marital advice from their parents as she’d wanted. They were Africans, after all, and the idea of airing one’s marital issues to a stranger one might run into at the supermarket struck Ugola as egregiously exhibitionist and desperately American.
In truth, she did not care for the marriage, which merely served as an avenue to have a child in the context society approved, and with the deed now accomplished, Ugola no longer had the energy, or time, or will to pretend to Ehimen that hiking trails unknown and weekend nights at basketball games trumped dinner at elegant, upscale restaurants. Still, it lacerated her ego when her husband admitted that much to their stone-faced therapist, whom she’d described to friends as the sole surviving relic of Medusa’s gaze.
In describing their marital situation, Ehimen twisted the shank deeper, declaring that he felt like a sperm donor and a live-in sex partner, that their relationship had yet to evolve to a union because their hearts remained on two different planes. The slap of his stark honesty, so earnest and unadorned, drew a villainous snigger from Ugola that prefixed her own accusations against him of being selfish and wilfully blind to reality.
“I’ve had to cut my work hours to be there for my daughter,” she growled, her eyes shooting pure rage.
“I’m her parent, too,” Ehimen fired back. Then turning back to the therapist, he spoke in a voice smouldering with indignation, “See, what I mean? She doesn’t see me. In her mind, I don’t exist.”
Ugola bridled at his assessment, recounting the times she’d asked friends traveling from Nigeria to buy ukwa so she could cook his favourite meal, reminding him it was she who remembered to pack sunscreen to protect his fair, fair skin during their hikes. If anything, she argued, it was he who behaved like she didn’t exist, and it galled her, his lack of appreciation for these small, thoughtful gestures.
Scraping the chair back with indelicate impatience, she rose and slung her handbag over her shoulder, nearly knocking Ehimen’s head with it. He watched with an incredulous stare as she evenly thanked the therapist for patiently listening to their bullshit for the past three weeks before sweeping out of the office.
“Why did you leave?” Ehimen called out, increasing his pace to catch up to her.
“If you believe I don’t see you, then maybe you should consider making your presence felt.” She punched the elevator button more times than required. “When was the last time you took Ogonna to her ballet class, or sat in one of her school plays?”
“Play nice, Ugola. My job doesn’t allow a flexible schedule, you know that. And let’s not pretend that you’re unhappy hogging those activities.”
Ehimen didn’t skip a beat, soldiering on coolly as they stepped into the empty elevator, standing opposite each other. “Every decision regarding Ogonna, you’ve made unilaterally. You chose her school even before we discussed it. You decided on her extracurricular classes without my input. You didn’t even tell me you are planning a birthday party for her until I saw our bank statement last weekend.”
“I forgot. It wasn’t deliberate.”
He sniggered. “Sure. And for the other claims, you forgot, too?”
They lapsed into a truculent silence for several seconds. Ehimen drew a deep breath as if to extinguish a fire raging in his lungs, and when he spoke again, his voice was low, tired, resigned. “Most days, I feel I’m a cog in a machine you designed long before we met, and god knows I’m tired of fighting you.”
“I can’t do this anymore, Ugola, is what I’m saying. I can’t do it. I’m done.”
“OK,” she said with a shrug, and with an expression bordering on indifference, turned towards the grey, metal door as tears pricked her eyes and her thoughts settled on those peculiar words uttered nine years prior. The bite of Ovie’s parting shot festered for many months afterwards, the sting flaring up at the flimsiest reminder as it did now under the glare of the elevator’s overhead lights. Except for this time, she vowed not to let it frazzle her, especially not with Ehimen watching.
In the weeks leading up to their divorce, she and Ehimen communicated with affected civility, appraising and splitting their shared trappings with a bloodless, corporate efficiency. For her part, Ugola operated like a freewheeling car, effortlessly coasting through time and space, even as something large and unyielding constricted her chest anaconda-like. Some nights she cried herself to sleep, distraught about Ogonna missing out on the joys of a two-parent household that she herself had been raised in, ashamed that her forever lasted short of a decade. But most nights, an unrelenting succession of brooding thoughts invited insomnia to occupy Ehimen’s now deserted spot in their bed, where it snuggled her until the wee hours like he once did.
With their divorce finalised, Ugola took a trip to Mauritius, far from the overly mournful faces and nauseating sympathy of friends and family, especially her mother’s. Her choosing the island as a getaway rested on two criteria: distance and the low probability of running into acquaintances, a theory she refrained from testing during her stay, leaving her room only at night to dine in the beachfront restaurant. Without a phone to distract her, Ugola filled her days parsing past and present relationships using some of the exercises she’d gleaned from the doomed couple therapy sessions.
One morning after breakfast, overcome by an inexplicable urge to journal, Ugola sat at the desk, flipping open the complimentary jotter. She drew a horizontal line down the middle and began writing in big broad strokes recurring words that relatives, colleagues, lovers, and friends had used to describe her in one column. In the other, she noted the corresponding reasons or scenarios that evoked said descriptions. Sailing through the compliments, she slowed down considerably as old and new criticisms appeared across the page like angry eruptions on a teenager’s face.
Rash: for sending Ovie that thoughtless text years ago without caring for her feelings. Planning holidays, parties, accepting invitations without Ehimen’s input.
Inconsiderate: ditto. Cancelling our wedding anniversary party and not informing Kimberly et al., assuming rumours of the divorce would reach them through the grapevine. (They were right to be upset having made hotel reservations.) Also, for making Ehimen believe I enjoyed outdoorsy activities early on in our relationship when I hated every single one of them.
Entitled: for not texting Amina to tell her that my battery was low before it died, then fuming when she wouldn’t return to the restaurant even though she made several attempts to reach me prior. For removing Omolara from my bridal train then disinviting her from both weddings after she declined to wear the aso ebi fabric. Haranguing cousins Gogo and Uloaku for not attending my 37th birthday party in Bali, without considering budgetary and visa constraints, and the depreciating naira.
Perverse: for refusing to concede or apologise when I was clearly in the wrong.
Ugola kept at the exercise, baring herself in blue ink until, naked and unburdened, she was sitting in the beauty and the nasty, the uplifting and the unnerving, the pleasant and the unsavoury, seeing through the eyes of loved ones, freeing the past and inviting the present. I’m wonderfully human; flawlessly fallible and wholesomely imperfect, she affirmed again and again until the constriction in her chest began to loosen, until the extra weight she’d lugged from Los Angeles slid off her neck, until the words became saliva on her tongue, familiar and natural.
After what seemed like several hours, Ugola shut the notepad and ambled over to the balcony, where the water sparkled from the sheen of the late morning sun. Standing there, watching the ocean’s long fingers caress the golden beach, she saw a new horizon loom before her.
The public address system crackled to life once more with a pre-boarding announcement, prompting a sprinkle of travelers to rise and head to the designated gate.
“Well, that’s my cue,” said Ovie regretfully. “It’s been delightful talking to you.” She placed an affectionate hand on Ugola’s thigh, then rising, slung her handbag over her shoulder.
There was a slight awkwardness as they stood there smiling at each other, both deliberating the next course of action. Ugola went first.
“Can I get your number?” She hated the note of uncertainty that crept into her voice, but decided she didn’t care when Ovie’s burgundy lips parted in a welcoming smile.
Ugola retrieved her phone from her handbag, and after inputting the digits, dialled it so Ovie would get hers. With the numbers saved, Ovie seized the opportunity to put in her own request.
“Let’s take a selfie, shall we?”
After six attempts, they selected the best two, and Ovie promised to send them via WhatsApp.
“Alright now, take care of yourself and have a safe flight back home,” she said, zipping her handbag.
“Thanks. And you, too.”
Ovie opened her arms for an embrace at the exact moment Ugola did, and both women laughed.
“Let’s keep in touch,” she urged, her voice slightly muzzled by Ugola’s thick, flowing mane.
They disengaged, and Ovie started towards the boarding gate, stopping briefly to chat with Ogonna, who intercepted her to say goodbye. Ugola watched them exchange smiles, hugs, then happy waves, soaking up the scene with a soft, content smile.
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