Windows and Reflections
By Ify Okoli (Nigeria)
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WINDOWS AND REFLECTIONS
By Ify Okoli
"Sir? Did you hear me, Sir?"
The secretary with her fingers poised over the notepad in her hand paused, worried. Without thinking she shifted in her chair and the mini skirt she had on rode higher exposing smooth brown thighs.
Not that he would notice, any way, she thought bitterly.
He was by the window looking down. Three stories below. He watched with quiet distraction at the scene – the buildings, the tarred road, the people walking busily up and down the streets, the beggars that lined the sidewalks, the yellow buses including the little ones that looked like motorbikes people called keke maruwa, the traders sitting lazily with their trays of smoked fish, garden eggs, books and flashlights. The noise would be deafening if he opened the windows. So he just watched. And he thought.
It was seven days to the deadline.
His lawyer and friend since their university days had called him the day before. The conversation had been short. They had exchanged no pleasantries.
"Ada just called. She called to remind me that its seven days left. What are you going to do?"
"Have you seen her yet? Talked with her like we discussed?"
"No," he had said sharply. "I will speak with you later."
That was thirty one hours ago. He still hadn't called. He did not know what he would say.
He turned around startled. His secretary. He had forgotten about her.
He said, "I'm sorry, Julie. Please leave me. I will complete the dictation later."
"But Sir," she sputtered. "The deal has to be closed by tomorrow."
He sounded tired. She left. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. It had ceased to matter one year, eleven months and twenty four days ago. He had thought he had it all. She had taught him that he had fooled himself.
A lady dressed in yellow caught his eye. She crossed the road to the other side. The colour of her dress stood out, attracted him. He could tell she was beautiful. It was in the way her head was lifted. He just knew. Her hair was gathered at the nape of her neck. She strolled unhurriedly with other workers that had closed from work. Confidence exuded from her. He could feel it, sense it. His hands tightened around the window blind. He snapped it shut angrily but the image would not go away.
He thought about the lady in yellow all through the journey home. It rained. Heavily. Though he came in his car, he was soaked by the time he entered his house. His phone rang for the umpteenth time. Without looking at it, he turned it off. He shed his clothes by the door but left his boxers on and his shoes. A pool of water had formed around him. As he walked down the dimly lit hallway to his bedroom, his steps echoed on the polished linoleum floors. He was alone. And now more than ever, he felt it. His heart was heavy for no reason. He was in his late thirties yet he felt close to fifty.
The next day, he waited for her by the window. He was sure she would not disappoint him. He felt a little lighter than he had the day before. She had taken his mind off Ada. Off the kids. Off the memory of his son crying on the phone.
She was in red today. A shirt and pants. For an instant, she looked up as if she sensed that he was looking at her. He quickly withdrew and closed the curtain. He felt guilty already. Julie knocked and came in to announce that she was leaving. Would he be alright? He nodded. He didn't see her shake her head. She could not figure out what was wrong with him. He had been acting strange lately. The office grapevine had it that he was dealing with psychological problems since his wife left him.
He refused to look out for her on the third day. She was occupying too much of his mind. He needed to think. He needed to work. He wanted to throw himself even deeper into work so he could forget. He stayed at the office till ten in the night making more deals, making more calls, making more money. He had a stash of it. Once, he had thought that was all that mattered. He wasn't so sure now.
On day four, he couldn't resist the urge to get to the window. He lied to himself that he wanted fresh air. He opened the window and the sounds poured in – the car honks, the raised voices, and the occasional blare of sirens. Two people were fighting just across the road where she would pass. He watched and waited for her.
"Sir?" it was Julie. He was already irritated.
"What is it?"
She frowned. She could tell that he was in a bad mood but she had a mission.
"Sir, the managing director of Transatlantica Shipping lines just called. He was angry. The meeting was supposed to have commenced thirty minutes ago. The driver has been waiting. The phone lines have…"
"Just a minute…"
He practically raced out past the confused Julie, down the corridor, past the astonished lift operator, down the stairs, through the lobby where he hardly heard their greetings, out into the street. He weaved his way through the sea of people. He was a tall man. He could just barely make out the fluorescent green of her clothes. She was waiting by a bus stop. He wanted to shout to her to wait but he did not know her name. She looked left and right and for a split second their eyes met. Held. Then she looked away and crossed the street. He stopped. She ran into the waiting arms of a man. They laughed while they hugged and the man kissed her. Then they continued down the road arm in arm, oblivious to other onlookers. He watched them and he felt a part of himself slipping away.
Julie knew that there was something wrong with her boss when he came in the following day. He clearly had not shaved. His suit was not pressed. He rejected coffee. She contemplated calling his doctor but decided against it. She was trained to mind her business. He stared through her. She knew he wasn't seeing her when he looked at her. He sat, his chair turned to face the window, his brows furrowed, his lips pressed tightly. At a few minutes past four, she looked up when he walked past her then she faced her work. That was what she had been paid for.
He felt cold inside as he walked down the streets. He struggled with his tie and loosened it somewhat. He removed his suit jacket and draped it over his arm, folded his shirt sleeves to his elbows. Women stared at him appreciatively. Some wondered about the darkness brewing in his eyes, the lines across his forehead. His gold wrist watch gleamed in the dull sunlight. He turned a bend. There was a restaurant ahead. He walked into it and closed the doors behind him. He chose a corner of the room and sat. He buried his head in his arms and rubbed his tired eyes. He could feel something burn at the back of his throat, at the back of his eyes. A woman sat at the table next to him cradling a baby who kept crying. His head ached. The woman looked at him apologetically and stood up. He could tell she was embarrassed but he was not interested. Soon, the cries faded off. He was left alone to his thoughts. His phone rang.
It was his lawyer friend, Julius. He didn't want to pick it but people had begun to stare at him. He flipped it open.
"How are you doing? Where are you? I'm at your office. We have to talk."
"What is it?"
"Ada called again. She is determined. She insisted. I promised her that I would see you. We can't hold back anymore. The two years probation is off."
The words sounded so final. The thing in his throat thickened. His eyes itched.
"Not today. Please. I can't do it to…" his voice broke and he was alarmed that tears were silently rolling down his cheeks. He tried speaking but thick mucus clogged his throat. He disconnected the phone line. He buried his face in his hands. He couldn't hold it back anymore. It had been long coming.
His wife of twelve years was leaving him and he did not know how to stop it.
"Ummm…excuse me sir, is anything the matter?"
He shook his head and wished the person would go away but he felt the person take a seat in front of him. He felt soft hands touch his arm. He jerked instinctively.
He could barely recognize his voice. He needed someone to talk to but he did not know what to say, how to say it. He was not supposed to feel weakness. His father had always taught him that. A man's place was to provide for his family no matter what it took. That's what he had done. Why would Ada accuse him of neglecting them? Why? He had done his best, made them comfortable, his wife and two children. They had the best clothes, went to the best schools, and went to the best holiday spots. He had cared for them in the best way he knew, the way he had been groomed to. As he thought of everything, the discovery that his wife was seeing another man, the declaration that she wanted a divorce, he poured it out to this stranger without a face. He heard anger and resentment and bitterness in his voice. He also heard something else, something soft and tender, something he did not want to feel.
"You still love your wife, don't you?" the voice was gentle, feminine.
He hesitated then replied, "Yes. Dammit! I think I do. I still do. Oh God!"
He shuddered. It hit again. And again. Ada, young, beautiful, sharing their marriage vows with him in the church. His promise to her that night as he had tenderly made love to her, careful not to hurt the baby. He had said to her, "I will never make you cry or want for anything."
He had failed in both counts.
"You have to talk with her. Tell her how you feel. Make her remember how it had been. Maybe, she will turn around or maybe not but you must remember that you mustn't always be in control to be a man. Sometimes, allow her to take the lead."
He did not know what it meant but just hearing another person's voice was soothing, healed his mind a little.
"Go to her," he heard again.
He felt the stranger rise and leave. He looked up to say thank you but never said it. He was staring at the back of the stranger, this time she was in orange. It was the beautiful woman from the streets – his fantasy. He thought it was a dream but she looked real. His heart leaped. He suddenly remembered what it was about her that made her endearing. She looked exactly like his wife had looked ten years ago.
He had seen only a part of her face. He lifted his hand to halt her but dropped it quickly. He wasn't sure what he wanted to say to her.
He dried his eyes with his handkerchief and left the eatery. His steps were lighter though he was at a loss what to do. The sky had darkened somewhat. It was going to rain again. As he crossed the street, a yellow dress on a mannequin caught his eye. He went into the boutique and touched the material. It was smooth and silky and he could imagine it caress his wife's body. He hardly glanced at the price tag as he paid with his credit card. It was the perfect size fourteen. The shop keeper wrapped it carefully in a box. To him, it was the perfect gift.
It had begun to drizzle when he got into his car heading towards her house. In anticipation for the impending rain, the traders on the streets had begun to gather their wares hurriedly while pedestrians raced down to catch their buses. Her new house was not far from his office. Although he had not been there in quite a while, he still remembered the route. Now he had a reason for checking on her. Other times, she had insisted that she bring the children over to spend the weekend. His grip on the steering wheel tightened. This was it.
He got there in a little over thirty minutes because there was traffic on the road and the traffic wardens had disappeared from their post to hide from the impending rain. He sighted her car in the parking lot and parked his just beside hers.
She answered the door bell on the third ring. She was still in her work clothes but her feet were bare. She was surprised to see him, damp, cradling a large white box.
"Ugo, why are you here?"
"Ada…I…I came to ask for the children," he said lamely.
"But you know they are in school and will not be back from boarding house until next week." She cast a glance over her shoulder. She looked impatient. Angry. Her fist settled on her waist.
"I brought you this," he said and thrust the box into her arms. At first, she looked confused then curiosity took over as she opened it and gently took out the most beautiful yellow dress she had seen with stones lined down the bodice. The cardboard box fell to the floor. She frowned.
"What is this?"
"I got it for you."
"For what? I don't understand the games you are playing. If this is about…"
"Ada, please. You can't just leave…not after this while…not after everything. See, I am prepared to give you and our children everything you want. Everything on this earth...”
She angrily thrust the dress at him. "Take! You haven't got it yet, have you? You never will. You think everything is about your money!"
A masculine voice asked from inside, "Ada, is everything all right?"
"All is well," she replied. She eyed him and he could see tears well up in her eyes.
"Your children will be at your home by next week. I will keep in touch."
The door was closed in his face. He raised his fist to bang on the door but froze. It was no use. He had tried and lost. He left the beautiful yellow dress on the ground.
As he drove home through the heavy rain, he tried to come to terms with the reality that Ada would no longer be his. There would be no one to come back home to, to laugh with, to take shopping, to take on holidays when he had the time. In his air conditioned car, he could not hear the drum of the heavy rain on the roof of his car. It was just as well. His head ached terribly and he could taste salt in his mouth. The words came back to haunt him: you think everything is about money. What did she want him to do? What was he doing wrong? What?
It happened very quickly. All he saw was a flash of white before he felt the airbag hit his head with so much force that it knocked the breath from his lungs. He heard the grating of metal on metal, smelt burning tyres and heard the murmur of distant voices.
Then he passed out.
He thought he was dreaming when he opened his eyes and saw Ada leaning over him. It made him happy to think that God had been merciful enough to create angels that had Ada's face. He was sure he was going to enjoy being here. Then the pain hit him and he gasped. Ada frowned. Worry lines appeared on her lovely face.
"What sort of thing is this, eh? Thank God you are back. Let me get the doctor," she said. A moment later, he heard her calling their first son, Nedu who appeared just as quickly as she had disappeared.
He had not seen Nedu in a while. He had been out of the country for three months straight and Nedu was in the boarding house. The twelve year old grinned at him.
"Oh dad! Fancy getting mum so worried about you. This plan is definitely working. Uh-oh, here she comes. Dad," he whispered, "your secret is safe with me."
"Nedu, where am I?" he asked slowly. He didn't understand the lad's language.
"In the hospital. You had an accident and mum has been here with you for a week now."
He was discharged from the hospital a week later and Ada came to pick him up. He bristled when he tried standing and could not on his own. The doctor seemed happy to tell him that he would need to use crutches for the next few weeks. As she drove the car, he hardly said a word. He was so embarrassed that she was at the wheel. She was telling him that he would need a housemaid to cater for him but until she found one, she would have to stay at his home for a little while. She didn't seem happy and he didn't either. He told her that she didn't have to do it. She looked at him but remained silent. Even before they got home, he knew he had to get strong as soon as possible before trouble broke out between them. They always seemed to be arguing over anything.
It was agreed that the kids be sent to their aunt's place for the holidays because though he enjoyed their presence, they were approaching adolescence and had the tendency to cause a lot of noise especially with the new Home Theatre he had bought months before. Being in close proximity with Ada would have been a welcome idea if he had not been on crutches, unable to do the simplest thing by himself. Ada bathed him, clothed him and cooked for him without complaint but sometimes he could see the tiredness in her eyes and while she struggled to put his clothes on, he cursed madly. He could sense that she was trying so hard to restrain her anger and pity but he didn't need it. In the middle of the night, he would try to get up himself but always his frail legs would crumple beneath him and send him crashing to the floor. The last time it happened, Ada rushed into his room from the next room where she slept. She was hurriedly tying her robe about her.
"You won't kill me, Ugo. You won't kill me! What is wrong with you?" She tried to help him but he was weighty and he fell on her.
"I am sorry," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm sorry."
He buried his face in her bosom. She had begun to cry and her tears wet his back. He remembered the promise he had made to her on their wedding night and he wanted to beg her to stop crying.
I will never make you cry or want for anything.
He hated that he was weak, that he was helpless, and that he had to depend on her. He wanted to be the man he had always been. He wanted to make her happy, to make her look at him the way she used to with adoration and solid trust. She had depended on him. She had needed him. He wanted to tell her not to leave him, to trust that he would make things better. He needed her by his side, helping him with the kids, keeping his home, just being there. But he wasn't sure that she wanted to hear all these things. He wasn't even sure he wanted to say the words. They would make him weak before her and he didn't need to humiliate himself any further.
A week later, she came up to him and announced that she had found the perfect housekeeper who would help him until he was strong enough to be on his own. She had been around for almost a month and the strain was telling on her. She had to take care of him, prepare things for the kids to go back to school and still go to work. Most times, she was too tired before it was eight in the night and she slept on the couch in the parlour.
"I don't need anybody," he growled. Paperwork was strewn everywhere. Julie came in every morning to take dictation and instructions for the day. He could tell that Ada was not happy about it but that was the only indication that he was still in control of his life. He had to try and resign himself to the reality of the divorce.
"We'll see," she said calmly. She still went to work in the mornings and came back in the afternoon. She worked in a telecom firm on Victoria Island. It was a job she started as soon as she moved out. He hated her working, the stress lines that were not there before but had appeared on her forehead but the last time they had discussed it almost two years ago, that night she had moved out of the house.
"Unless…unless you make it easier for me."
She slumped down on a chair before him and sighed. She ran her hands through her hair tiredly. "You know that you are not making it easy for me. Ugo, one would think that after all this while living in the same house, I will understand you. We don't understand each other. I tried to and I failed." She sighed again. "I called Julius. He is coming over on Monday so that we can know which step to take now. I am ready to settle into my new life and I am sure you are eager to. The kids…well, I explained to them earlier this week. They are rebelling but I know they will get over it. I will be moving out after church on Sunday. The new house keeper will move in on Sunday evening or Monday. At least, I have tried. Is there anything you want to say?"
He stared at her. His fingers were tightly closed into fists. What did she expect him to say? She had made up her mind, hadn't she? Yet, sometimes, he sensed that they had got closer in the month they spent together. He didn't know what to make of it. He knew that she wanted him to tell her something but he did not know what would make everything right.
She looked away then she stood up and whispered that she was going to bed. He could tell that she was furious. That made two of them.
There was always a point in life when circumstances made decisions for you without giving you even the tiniest control. Time flew by. He was barely aware of anything else. It seemed that as he was waking up to a new day, the day was just as soon fading away into the night. Sunday dawned bright and mocking. He lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. His mind kept going over so many things – words he had said, the ones he hadn't and the ones he had implied. A voice kept laughing in his mind, taunting him. It's over. The voice sounded much like his.
She appeared at the door. He gawked at her, surprised. She looked stunning in the yellow dress. It hugged her ample breasts perfectly and the silky material flared out at her waist down to her shapely calves.
"I'm going to church."
He sat up in bed. She was smiling slightly noticing the effect she had on him. Her lips glistened. He could make out faintly the sleep bags under her eyes. She had not slept well.
"Alright…Wait! Can I join you?"
It was her turn to look surprised. She couldn't remember the last time she had gone with him to church. She agreed and had to help him get ready. They were silent throughout the preparation and he was sure that she chuckled when he sighed in frustration as they tried to get him into pants.
As she helped him into the car, she tensed and waited for him to curse and swear at her. She knew that he was not used to being helped by her. He only mumbled an almost silent 'thank you'. People cast surprised glances as they entered the church together. Thank God the kids left for school the day before, Ada thought. She could sense women talking about them around her. She ignored them. They sat in the middle row. Sometime, during the preaching, he placed his hand on hers. He was not even aware that he did it. The preacher was a middle aged soft spoken man. His message was that of gratitude to God.
"In every situation you are, thank God," he said. "He knows why you are here and he is making ready your next move. Don't ever doubt that he has forgotten you and don't think that he does not hear the silent cries in your heart. He hears it and will send you an angel to attend to your need. Bow your heads, let us pray…"
As he closed his eyes, he felt as if something heavy was being lifted off his shoulder. Someone was singing in a beautiful voice beside him. Count your blessings, name them one by one…
He realized that it was his wife. Her eyes were closed and he took his time watching her. How could he just let her go?
When the service ended, they joined the crowd that filed out of the church. Few people said hi to him. As they got to the car, he felt apprehensive. He knew that she was supposed to drop him off at the house and leave.
"Ada, I…" he started but a masculine voice cut him short.
"Ada, you came? Why didn't you tell me you were coming? How are you doing?"
A man in a dark suit approached them. He did not recognize him but from the way he comfortably embraced her, he could guess that he was the new man in her life. He looked away.
"I'm fine. I didn't know that you would be here. Please just give me a minute."
The man looked him over and shrugged then turned back to her. "You are coming to the house?"
"I might. I will call you later."
He squeezed her shoulders and left.
"Ada, is he the one?" he asked. She fidgeted with her hands.
"Are you going to marry him?"
"I don't know."
There was silence. Her words drilled a hole in his heart, ate him up.
"Thank you for the dress. I like it."
"Don't make me feel guilty. This is what we both want."
"Says who? You were the one that came up with this divorce issue. I don't want it! Are you enjoying this, Ada? You are making me suffer for what I don't know I did. You …you…" he stopped. He was almost shouting and people had begun to stop and stare at them.
"Don't pass all the blame on to me. I read your actions. You didn't want me anymore. More and more you kept away from the house. You just didn't trust me. You made me feel weak and…and inferior. I was second next to your work and there is no woman that can handle that," she hissed. She was boiling with anger.
"Then why didn't you just say it?"
"I tried but you were not listening. You were too occupied. I figured that this was the only way and then there were the calls…all your secretaries around the world or so they claimed. They had you. I didn't. I couldn't continue."
"But I provided you with everything you wanted. You never lacked anything, did you?"
She shook her head at him. "Cant you see? The kids…May be we didn't have enough time to court properly before my pregnancy and the hurried marriage but I thought we would make up for it while married. I was even lonelier than…"
Her lips trembled. "Anyway, that's water under the bridge now. Get in the car so I can take you home."
“Don’t tell me to get in the car when there is still so much to say. Whatever is eating you up, I want to hear it now, you hear? Not later but NOW! You can’t just dismiss the twelve years and two children between us like that. I doubt that you even care that I am hurting. You don’t even care what I want.”
“I know what I want and right now, I want to go home,” she said tiredly.
He was angry and frustrated. She looked at him and he noticed fear in her eyes. What had he done to make her afraid of him? In all the times he had known her, she had never shown fear. It was the one thing that had attracted him. She was a strong woman, one he could count on to take care of things even when he was not around.
They were quiet all the way home. She helped him get to the sitting room then she went inside to pack her things. Twenty minutes later, she reappeared carrying her bags. Without saying a word, she drove off leaving him to his thoughts. He waited for her to come back until it was dark and he knew that she had really left. He was bone weary and his legs had begun to ache. He slowly made his way to the bedroom and as he sat on the bed, he noticed a piece of paper sticking out from underneath the pillow. Puzzled, he pulled it out. It was a letter written hurriedly judging by the hardly distinguishable scribbles but he was familiar with Ada’s hand writing.
Dear Ugo, I don’t know if I could live with myself if I don’t tell you the truth straight from my heart, it started.
As he read, a dozen emotions played across his face. At the end, he sat as still as a statue, staring fixedly at the wall, his expressive face playing out his thoughts.
How had he not noticed? How had he let things get this far?
He asked himself a thousand questions till it was almost dawn and he had come to a decision. The letter was a rope thrown to a drowning man. With equal ferocity, he grabbed it praying that the rope would pull him to safety and ultimately, bliss.
Getting a taxi to Ada’s apartment as early in the morning when it was still dark proved to be a difficult feat but he was determined that one more day would not pass with the raging storm brewing in her heart. He got to his destination at a few minutes to six. As he pressed the doorbell, his mind raced. Her wary voice answered from within, “who is it?”
“It’s me, Ugo.”
The door opened. She was in her bath robe and her hair was pulled back into a hair net.
She avoided his eyes and he knew that she was battling with her pride. It hit him that the trait he most admired in her was coming between them. He had taken her strength and independence for granted.
“How did you get here?”
“Ada, why?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell me to my face? You’ve never had a problem rebuking me before. Why is this any different?”
“I...Ugo, its complicated.” She was avoiding his eyes. He could hear tremors in her voice and knew that she was about to cry.
“This concerns me,” she cut in. “Look at me. I am a far cry from how I used to look before the kids. It just seemed as each year passed, I just put on this hideous weight and you no longer found me attractive. You couldn’t even wait to get away from me. I thought you were with more beautiful women whom you passed as your secretaries.”
“I moved around a lot not because I was avoiding you but because I wanted to make enough money to make you all comfortable and I swear, Ada, I have never cheated on you.”
She put her arms around herself protectively and he could see that the tears had spilled onto her cheeks. He knew that he would never really understand the depth of her pain of being neglected.
“Here,” he said softly, giving her the old family album he had found. She looked at him questioningly but opened it. Dust had gathered in between the pages. There were photographs of their wedding, her belly bulging out in front of her, then photographs of their babies and finally the last photograph was of their first son, Nedu grinning at the camera as he cut his fifth year birthday cake. Moisture had held the remaining blank pages together. She had a sad smile on her face as she closed the album. She looked up at him and he could see the hurt his neglect had done to her. She was finally letting him into her soul.
Mucus clogged his throat as he spoke gruffly, “I have always admired that quiet strength and determination in you and your innocent beauty touched me ever since the first day we met. You are the only woman I know that will still look damn attractive even at sixty and this is the truth. I guess I have let a lot of things pass by without noticing, not that I meant to hurt you but... Ada, remember on our wedding night, how I promised you that I would take care of you as long as I live? It was that promise that I was trying to keep by working so hard and though I have failed I hope it is not too late to ask, to beg you to allow me make things right. We could take time off work and just get to know each other again and fill the other pages in the album... Is that all right with you?”
She burst into tears and slid to the ground but he caught her deftly and pulled her roughly to him. His tears flowed freely above her head.
“Yes,” she whispered hoarsely. He did not hear her but he knew what her answer would be right in his heart, the best home that he could give her.