When the unsettling question of how sex was going to be enjoyed arose between the pair of Itoro and Juliet, Itoro being about fifteen years younger than she and all, it was a shamefully unnerving dialogue. It should not have been; they’d known each other for three years and counting now. But now one can only but ask, how come two people who’d known each other for so long be so detached in bed? They weren’t sterile, or inexperienced, or even encumbered by moral or religious tethers. But there they were, being awkward about the whole damn thing, touching but not touching each other, each wondering, do I do this? What do I do next? Will this hurt him, or hurt her?
Sure, these are normal, sane, encouraged questions to ask. But then, when such crosses one’s mind, one most certainly must voice it out, make it a true conversation – albeit betwixt ecstasies of sexual pleasure –and then, thenceforth, come to relevant understandings of how to treat one’s partner. Itoro and Juliet did not…voice anything out. They just wondered and wondered, and slept off, still wondering even in their dreams, what if I had done that?
At a stage, when Itoro had picked up the courage to slip his fore and middle fingers a little distance between her waist and the elastic lining of her pink panties so as to pull it off, Juliet got the answer to the first question that occurred to her when they agreed to sleep in the same room for the first time- who would be more concerned? The answer was simple. Itoro was. He had to be. He was in the prime of his youth, fresh out of youth service after graduating second best in his faculty, aspiring to become an astute estate manager, yet stuck with an outmoded admin staff of a seriously out-of-touch government agency responsible for cleaning up oil spills. Where it all hurt most for her was the fact that she was taller, bigger, and much more advanced than most women her age.
Juliet reached down to undo his belt’s buckle and free it from his waist. She felt him tense, doing all he could, but failing, to hide it as well. She leaned in and kissed him, hoping his nerves would calm. At least, it was certainly not the first kiss they shared. Heck, they had hooked up because of a much embarrassing, much miscalculated, unsuspecting kiss in a nightclub at Marina Resort three years ago, a few minutes away from where they were now. There were sparkles – literally even – a few bottles of strange cocktails, loud music, a belch here, a throwing-up there, and he was walking her down the street to her home, in a wide street off Mary Slessor Road. From the bedroom, letting a moan that was building up escape her lips in response to the slithery traces of his hands over her bare chest, Juliet felt Mary Slessor Road needed further widening as she briskly looked at it from her half-open window.
It was strange, but she did actually begin to draw up analogies of the things she observed in that one glance on the street with her love life- she did get like this at times, which is top of the reasons why Itoro had decided to fail at learning how to fall out of love with her, each time he tried . . . each time circumstances and kin suffocating them since they learnt of their involvement forced him to try.
Juliet did not live in the suburbs, or in a low-class sector of the city for that matter. Her area was as bourgeoisie as they come. The ostentation and flippant materialism associated with her neighbours reminded her of the early days of her hook-up with Itoro. They flaunted everything. Obviously, she was the breadwinner, of some sort; no different than a sugar mummy. Itoro, at meeting him, was this smart little cute boy in in-over-his-head, trying to make some money to foot his university bills. The shiny bistro table just by the edge of the street under the colourful awning that read, “Amy’s Dailies,” was a direct match in colour to the first pair of earrings Itoro bought her, barely two weeks into their relationship. He confessed he’d been saving up from all she’d been giving him for upkeep.
Amy, the eponymous owner of the coffee shop, had just put up her shutters for the day, and on the verge of turning off the neon lighting that surrounded her shop, Mr. Okon’s Siamese cat walked up to her. Juliet was sure the cat was purring, probably seeking attention. Amy’s roar against the poor feline forced it to meow so loudly it woke Mr. Okon, and in turn, reminded Juliet of the first time she met Itoro’s mother. Juliet isn’t from the Niger-Congo, and knew not the first thing about speaking Ibibio, so Itoro had to wait hours after his mother had ceased screaming at the top of her lungs, at him, in front of her, before he could translate all that she said. Let’s get it summarized: “fool you are for choosing a hag for mate.”
They were both free of all manner of clothing now. Itoro was under, and panting heavily. He felt her all over him. It was all he’d dreamt about since the first day she defended his honour in front of her parents. She needed not shout at her people because, let’s face it, at her age, any man she brought home was welcome, as far as he had a penis, and had intentions for raising a family. And come to think about it, her mother at a stage casted a brief leer at his direction. He was virile, it was all natural. The snag was her father’s insistently dismissive glare. It was as if an artificial face had been permanently casted in that fashion and placed on him. Two words were exchanged between both men throughout their meeting: “young” and “man”.
Juliet pushed up against his frame, letting her lips brush over his face. He moaned for the first time that night, ever-so-lightly, and Juliet smiled inside. He was finally letting down his guard. She went at it again and again, until his psyche got used to it – too quickly for her liking – and he went back to stiffening up.
“Can I get water?” he asked.
She didn’t hear him at first, and requested that he repeated himself. He did, and she couldn’t hold back her worry anymore.
“My It-man,” – for that was what she called him – “do we stop? I think we should.”
“Why?” he responded, as expected.
She lifted herself from him. “You can give me this birthday present after the party. You’ll always have me,” she replied.
Itoro let out a grunt. His face contorted to a pout. “But why?” he asked again.
Juliet opened up her mouth. She closed it back. There was no conceivable way the words could leave her lips without shattering his heart. That was the last thing she’d do. But the truth remained- the intimacy had grown too awkward to bear. They needed time off to think this through. Not that they haven’t – of course, it ruled their thoughts most of the time – but now that it hadn’t proven as spontaneous and simultaneous an experience as they had hoped, some measures of re-evaluation of intentions became expedient.
“You–” she chose her words carefully, “care . . .”
“Of course I do,” he interrupted. Itoro was young, not stupid. He knew where this was going. Hadn’t he been wondering since they agreed to sleep together that night just how much Juliet would try to be motherly instead about the entire affair. He didn’t really have doubts about her performance as should have been the understandable reason to be bothered. Hadn’t he heard stories of how her ex would never cease smiling every Saturday morning when he’d return from his weekly trips to Thailand from her ex’s sister – whom the breakup between them didn’t soil her friendship with Juliet by the way, and indeed was the one in charge of the celebration of Juliet’s ruby anniversary. The line between mummy and boo was too often blurred for her in his opinion.
“. . . too much,” she finished. She cleared her throat and found there were no more words. She fixed her eyes on his. She was expecting a retort, a quick witty quip about how she worried her little head too much, but it never came. He just let their pupils do the rest of the conversation until he became limp, and she moved to his side and laid down. Their backs were against each other’s. They hardly slept the rest of the night.
Amaka batted her eyelashes at Brian the fourth time the next afternoon, and Itoro found himself asking Juliet, “how long do you think they can go on doing that?” Juliet laughed – not her usual full-hearted guffaw, but a heavy repressive reaction of her funny bone – and replied him, sipping ever-so-gently whatever drink Amy – her fiery neighbour – poured her, tapping her feet to the rhythm of the loud highlife music from her stereo, enjoying the cold of the tiling in her kitchen counter right beside Itoro, “It’s adorable. Even cuter that Brian is the shy one. She always loves them that way. It’s the best match for a piranha.”
“Do you think Obinze is showing up?” Itoro asked her insensitively. Obinze was Amaka’s brother, Juliet’s ex.
Amaka did not give her the chance to reply. Itoro wouldn’t have savoured what her lips were about uttering. Their night before, aside being cold and uncomfortably quiet, it had been long. And the morning before 8am when their first guest – Amy – showed up, was worse. They’d find themselves together in the bathroom with their toothbrushes in their mouths, and accidentally swig a load of toothpaste as they said “sorry” and excused each other. It was ludicrous that Itoro didn’t hear the shower running as he was about stepping into it. He slipped while excusing himself from the place so that Juliet could take her bath first. Worry at this point had evolved to something else, something the both of them wished and prayed would remain in the shadows and recesses of their minds, lurking there, without plans to come into the light and ruin things.
Wishes aren’t horses. And this pair was the worst of beggars in history at this point. Obinze came. Not only did he, Salami did too, along with the gossip girls of the University of Uyo, class of ’08. Salami was Itoro’s latest ex. They were both friends and graduating mates with Bimbo, Emem, and Efereta, the gossip girls.
Pretty soon, the house was full. Friends, and friends of friends swarm everywhere. The chatter was energetic and endless. It resembled a reunion more than a birthday. In full disclosure, there were actually two reunions going on – Juliet’s and Itoro’s – the one indoors, and the other by the pool, well outside of the building.
“So, what’s she like?” Salami’s plus one asked. Itoro hadn’t met this guy before, and was affirmatively alarmed at his forwardness. But then, Salami was there, so it must be that that was her question to ask instead; he was her proxy. It had been the most acerbic of ways when they parted, Salami and Itoro, exactly a year before he met Juliet in the same bar at the Marina.
“Like, how?” Itoro feigned ignorance, while staring with disgust at Juliet rendering the most heartfelt laughter he’d ever seen while having a private discussion with no other person than Obinze. Was that jealousy? Wasn’t an emotion like that too irrational? How three years together suddenly seemed so insufficient a proof of her loyalty to their relationship.
“Like, in bed. It’s what you mean right?” Amaka stepped in. She’d just welcomed her brother, lingered aimlessly amidst Obinze, Juliet, and the super-rich friends that filled the pool area for a few minutes, and headed for Itoro inside the house. “Gosh, what these people drone on about is business, shares, profits, yuck! I can bet none of them knows the latest celebrity scandal going on in Le Meridiem as we speak.” Amaka took her seat right beside Itoro, shifted in a little too close than comfortable towards him, winked unabashedly at him, placed her right arm under her chin, and spoke. “I prefer your group. We’re much younger than their lot and are more alive. Speaking of alive, those beautiful brown eyes haven’t had much in that light since morning. Tell me love, what’s wrong?”
Amaka’s brazen flirtations was her natural state, and normally, Itoro would play along, but the words still refused to come. His entire person sought to walk up to Obinze and tell him off.
Salami took over from her boy-toy. “Hey, earth to IT,” she called playfully at him. Half his attention shifted to her. “What Mark is asking you, we all want to know. It’s her birthday after all, our mouths remain zipped after this night, we promise. For old time’s sake, and because, simply, we worry. Does the oven work? Can it still make buns?”
Juliet saw Itoro’s hand as he threw it up and brought it down hard on the wooden armrest of the rubber sofa. He was pissed. Not at Salami, or Mark, or Amaka, or even at the gossip girls for their sinister and judgemental giggles as Salami spoke. He was pissed at Juliet, for being so damned cheery in front of Obinze, especially after the events of the other night. He stood and marched out of the house, straight for Obinze.
“Leave her be,” he commanded. Obinze was truly alarmed, so was Juliet. Obinze quickly recovered from the shocking affront. “Hello child,” he offered greeting, arms stretched. It was a spear, and it struck home. “Obinze!” Juliet warned.
“Sorry, but he asked for it. Only kids throw tantrums. He’s starting to become that which everyone feared he’d finally be- a drag, on you.” Obinze stood tall, unflinching in speech as he spoke, meaning everything he said, and meaning for it to tear Itoro apart. He knew it wasn’t the first time he’d spoken to Itoro that way, but he was mighty certain he was finally on the winning side.
Itoro was boiling. Obinze was right, and the fact that he was frustrated him the more. He was indeed acting as a child. Jealousy. He remembered Juliet’s words: “‘You’ll always have me.’” It didn’t help that he had to raise his head very well to look Obinze, who was inches taller than him, in the eyes. Obinze, full of himself, cruelly bent his back forwards. “Why should we strain our necks in establishing contact,” he said.
Juliet stared on at the both of them. It secretly gave her pleasure that she was one woman who men of all ages could fight for. But she grew sadder and sadder. She loved Itoro, and hoped he would respond wisely to Obinze; beat him at his own game of cockiness, shake his hand, and move past his brief moment of exasperating foolishness, be the better man.
Instead he said, “water. I need water.” Instantly, Juliet was glad she didn’t offer him any when he had requested for one the previous night.
Later that day, when the birthday cake was to be cut, attention was on what Itoro would say about Juliet in his toast. He gently approached her as she stood in the middle of a semicircle. It was as if he had appeared from nowhere because after the humiliating and truly emasculating confrontation with Obinze, he completely disappeared. He got to his beloved and took her hands in his, and with his other hand, shifted a stray tuft of her cropped soft hair behind her ears, and looked intently into her eyes. Juliet hoped he wasn’t about to pull another stupid stunt fuelled by infantile jealousy. She closed her eyes and then opened it, before he exhaled and spoke up.
“Happy fortieth, my darling. Remember the Marina, the kiss. It was like a matchmaker in heaven had given you the exact words you said to me, almost without thinking it, after the accidental kiss. You told me, ‘why so shocked? Age is just a number,’ and then you smiled the most beautiful smile ever. I’ve spent the last three years of my life in the constant loving of you, accompanied by the constant discovery of this number that is age. I’ve come to learn something. It isn’t just only a number, it’s a place value. Ignoring it is misjudging one’s place in a system. It is inability to possess the right values necessary for that system to function. Ignoring it is foolishness.” He kissed her forehead and reduced his voice to a whisper. “I thought I’ve been wise. I haven’t.” He left her hands, and walked away, out of the house.
“How’s Emem and Bimbo?” Itoro asked Efereta as the waiter approached them. They were in a fancy restaurant in Le Meridiem Hotels. He had gotten a company bonus three days before, and had decided to start the entire wedding ritual between him and Efereta with a last date as fiancé and fiancée. They were engaged to be married in five days, and plans had been swell right from inception.
“They’re fine,” she replied in her squeaky voice. “They’re making plans for the bachelorette party as we speak. Wes assured them a blast. All I can do is hope.”
“Goodday Sir, Madam, what can I get you?” the waiter asked.
They ended up ordering a complex Italian dish with chocolate ice-cream for dessert. Halfway through their meal, Efereta showing no mercy on the dish, the waiter returned to them. It was too early to present their bill. “Note for you Sir, from the woman by the extreme,” he said.
Itoro turned and looked. He couldn’t see anything, until he saw, and the colour left his face. Juliet waved with her fingers at him from a table by the entrance. She was smiling at her hosts, but it wasn’t a real smile; Itoro could always tell. She was being pressured to be there, and he felt it. It’s been three years and she hadn’t changed a bit. She turned away from him and faced her hosts- two well-dressed men in English suits. Itoro noticed a ring in the left fourth finger of one of the men, and instinctively shifted his glance to hers. There was a matching ring there as well. She certainly wasn’t lunching with business partners.
Her face hadn’t met Itoro’s yet, although he could tell she observed all he did out of the corner of her eyes. He opened up the note and read. He carefully closed it up. “Who’s it from?” Efereta asks, and Itoro remembered someone was with him on the same table. “I– uhm,” he coughed to buy him time for a good enough response to avoid exposure. “I can’t find the send…oh, I think it’s from that couple over there,” he pointed to a couple four tables to the left of Juliet’s. “I know them from work. I did an AutoCAD work for them for a supermarket they needed built in my early working days.” He was glad for Efereta’s blindness to truth.
“I love the way you say early working days,” Efereta purred, “so hardworking,” she finished. She really was excited over the fact that he was doing so well at work that his pay was quite enviable, and she would only roll with a man who would provide. It was repulsive. The appetite to eat completely left Itoro.
Scratch that, the appetite for a different kind of food consumed him instead. “Hey Efy, I need to use the restroom.” He excused himself, and walked straight to the waiter who delivered Juliet’s letter. He wrote down, “Gents, behind you” under Juliet’s inscriptions. The waiter took vector towards Juliet while he got into the bathroom and waited.
“Why so shocked?” That was all that was written in her letter. Clever girl, Itoro thought.
The door to the male restroom swung open and swung close. A ravishing delight walked up to Itoro, slid the back of one of her wrists over his face as he took note of every nerve that reacted to her impulse. Her face drew nearer and her arms wrapped around his shoulders. He lifted her up, and rammed her back onto the wall. She was in purple velveteen with maroon pearls. He locked wrists with hers, both of them, and pushed them apart, spread-eagled. A pearl from her bracelet fell off.
“I missed you,” she said. His eyes replied with only adoration. His lips met with hers.