Imaobong waited for 1 hour before she sent Zina a whatsapp message asking her if the call was over. The moment she affirmed that it was, she rushed over to her friend’s flat to drill her for details. Zina opened the door for her friend when she rang and stood aside to let her in. The questions began from the doorway.
“What happened? What did he say? I hope you were on your best behavior?”
Zina rolled her eyes. Imaobong pulled her into the two-seater cushion and dived in beside her.
“Ehe? What are you waiting for? Spill!”
“We have a date for tomorrow night,” Zina said.
“Whaaaaaaat!” Imaobong wrapped her friend in a bear-hug, laughing and crying in excitement.
They remained in that position for minutes before Imaobong released her. She sat back in the cushion, raised her legs and folded them under her on the seat. Clapping, she motioned to Zina.
“What exactly did he say?”
“He said he really likes me and he felt bad that day he came to my office and I kind of rejected his lunch invite.”
“Aha! I told you. Wicked girl; you wanted to break my pastor’s heart but my God is alive,” Imaobong joked.
“I did not O!”
Imaobong waved her protests aside. “So?”
“I told him I wasn’t sure I was the right girl for him and he said I should go to dinner with him and he would prove me wrong.”
Imaobong threw back her head and laughed. “I thought they said this man was reserved? He has been reserving all these lyrics for years. Ha! Zina, you are in for some spoiling because all the energy he uses in preaching, he will pour it into wooing you.”
“I am done for,” Zina wailed comically.
“Where is he taking you?”
“I guess it’s to a restaurant.”
“That blue dress I made you buy will come in handy. You know I am a prophetess. When I asked you to buy it, you were arguing that it is too dressy for church and work. Do you see that I am always right?”
“I will never argue with you again.” Zina raised both hands in surrender.
“I have to get back. It’s late. What time is your date?” Imaobong rose as she spoke.
“Okay. My nanny will be back by then. I will come over and do your make-up but nothing over-the-top so he doesn’t feel put off.” She was talking as she walked to the door, while Zina followed her.
“No in-your-face approach. The key word is subtlety, intrigue, suspense…” her voice was becoming dreamy as she spun plans.
Zina chuckled. “I pity your girls.”
If Imaobong heard her, she did not acknowledge it. “Do you have a nice pair of heels?” she asked.
“I have black sandals.”
“No silver or gold peeptoes?”
Zina shook her head.
“Well, those will have to do but after this we are going shopping.” She rubbed her hands in glee.
Zina opened the door and pushed her out gently. “Continue your planning in your room. Goodnight.”
Imaobong blew her a kiss and sailed off to her flat, whistling a merry tune.
The next day, Zina hitched a ride with Imaobong and her family to church. It was her custom especially when Imaobong’s husband was out of town. She caught up on the happenings in the world of Imaobong’s twins, Anietie and Aniebet. Their mom had coined the phrase ‘Anny-T and Anny-B’ for them. Zina could not really tell them apart by looking at them. It was only by observing their behavior that she could. Anny-T was reserved while Anny-B was an extrovert like her mom. She loved them like her own children and had to resist the urge to spoil them.
Today, however, she kept a smile on her face, half-listening to them but not really replying. Her mind was on PA. She wondered if he would look out for her in the crowd. Would he push all thoughts of their date to the back of his mind and deliver a fiery sermon or would he be as distracted as she was; muddling up his words? Would he dress with special care as she had or throw on one of his designer suits as usual? She had worn a pink dress that made Imaobong whistle. It was not scandalous but it fit her just enough to attract the right amount of attention.
She had forgotten she even had that dress. She could not explain why she took more time planning what to wear than praying in the spirit as was her custom on Sundays. It had to be that she was nervous. And her nerves were justified. This would be her first time of going on a date after Obas dumped her.
The service passed in a blur for Zina. She waited with bated breath for PA to take the stage. It would not be her 1st time of hearing him preach but this time, she needed to assess him. She needed to judge his compassion, his flexibility, his openness. This was crucial because she knew that before they began a relationship, she needed to open up to him about her past. She needed to be sure that he would not condemn her. Even if he decided that she was unsuitable as a pastor’s wife (which she fully expected him to), she hoped he would let her down gently. She was a big girl. She could handle rejection.
To her irritation, it was announced that PA had an engagement elsewhere so Pastor Odion took the stage to deliver the sermon. Imaobong gave her a knowing glance and squeezed her hand. She had refrained from teasing her overly as she was genuinely excited for her, and because she did not want to make her self-conscious.
After the service, Zina went to the food vendors to buy the ice cream she had promised the twins while their mom went to pick them from their class. She was waiting in the queue when a voice at her back made her turn.
“I beg your pardon?” she said to the man who had spoken.
“I said your dress matches the candy floss,” he repeated.
“Thank you,” she replied and made to move forward but he held out a hand.
“Esosa,” he said, smiling.
“Zina.” She shook his hand.
“Do you have kids?”
“Why do you ask?” she wondered.
“My kids insist ice cream is not for adults,” he explained. “Besides, you don’t possibly eat anything but salads with that figure of yours.”
Zina raised a brow. “I am buying for my friend’s daughters.”
“They are lucky to have you. Is it okay if I ask for your card?”
“What would your wife say about that?” she asked, frowning.
“She passed on 6 years ago.”
Zina was mortified. She raised a hand to her mouth. “I am sorry to hear that.”
He smiled. “It’s fine.”
She took another look at him. He was tall and of average build. Probably in his late forties, the sprinkling of grey around his forehead only lent him a distinguished air. He was not handsome but he had a pleasant face and a warm smile.
“I don’t have my card here but if you give me your number, I’ll call you,” she offered.
“I won’t fall for that. Give me your number and I’ll call so you can save mine.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and held it before her; his face hopeful.
“I promise not to call at odd hours,” he added.
She reeled off her number for him.
At 5.30 p.m. Imaobong was putting finishing touches to her make-up when Zina’s phone rang. She had worried that the date was canceled when she did not hear from PA all day but Imaobong reassured her that he would show up. To her relief, it was his number dialing hers.
“Good evening PA,” she greeted. She motioned to Imaobong, indicating who was on the phone so she stepped away to give them privacy.
“Hi, Zee,” he replied. “I just realized that I left my house too early. I am on your street.”
“O!” she shrieked.
“Not to worry. I’ll pull over and wait till it’s six. I don’t want to rush you.”
She heaved a sigh of relief. “I am actually dressed.”
“I’ll wait,” he insisted. “Don’t mind me. I am just so excited to see you.”
Zina blushed, laughing.
“6 p.m. then?”
“See you,” she said as he ended the call.
At 6 p.m. on the dot, PA called and told her he was at her gate. She had left a message so he would be allowed to drive in. Imaobong had finished her make- up and taken several pictures of her which she quickly uploaded on instagram. Zina told PA she would meet him in the driveway so that he would not come upstairs. Blowing kisses to Imaobong, she shooed her out of her flat and locked up.
“Call me as soon as you get home. I’ll be up,” Imaobong said.
“How do you know we will not end up in his house?” Zina teased.
“E never reach like that abeg. No come corrupt my pastor.” Imaobong laughed.
“I’ll call you. Off you go.” Zina rolled her eyes.
Imaobong waved as she watched her walk away. “Remember to take small steps. Don’t bounce like a man,” she joked.
Zina turned to stick out her tongue at her before entering the lift. She was still smiling when the door closed. As it descended, she prayed for the butterflies in her stomach to fall asleep. She stared at her reflection in the mirrors that lined the elevator. Her shoulder-length hair was styled in a long bob. Imaobong had highlighted her lips, which she claimed were her best feature, in very soft pink lipstick. Her skin glowed; whether due to the foundation or excitement, she could not decide. The blue dress she wore had a square neckline, ruffled bodice and stopped mid-calf. It fit to perfection. The bracelet was borrowed from Imaobong but the tear-drop earrings were hers. A blue clutch and her black sandals completed the picture that presented itself to PA when she found herself outside the lift and on the driveway.
He stepped out of his Mercedes SUV and reached for a hug. She smiled at the vision of him in a simple white cotton outfit made in the traditional Nigerian two-piece style. He said hi and took her hand to lead her to the passenger side before opening the door and helping her in. After closing the door, he got in as well and sped off.
There were some minutes of silence as he navigated his way out to the street. She tried to watch him without actually turning. He drove fast but carefully. His slender fingers gripped the steering with confidence; his nails were cut low and clean and he only wore a simple leather wristwatch. She liked that he was clean-shaven. She didn’t mind a beard but on him a beard would have been out of place. And he smelled nice. She couldn’t name the fragrance but she knew it didn’t come cheap.
“Hope you like Chinese food?” he asked.
“I eat anything I am offered,” she replied.
“Would you prefer an African restaurant?”
“I didn’t see you in church?”
“I had to preach in a friend’s church. Today was their 10th anniversary,” he explained.
They drove in silence till they got to the restaurant. She was at a loss what topics were safe to discuss with a pastor and he appeared to be concentrating on his driving. Of course she did not know how nervous PA was. It would be his 1st time of taking a woman on a date and he felt like a bumbling fool. Silently, he prayed for grace not to blow the opportunity to impress her because he could feel her assessing his every move, weighing his every action.
At the restaurant, he parked and opened the door from inside for her. He got down and took her hand when she got down, guiding her inside. She saw it was a restaurant she had seen in a magazine feature but had never visited. The chef was reputed to cook the food on an open fire before a cheering crowd of customers and serve them bits of it directly. His gymnastic moves, jokes and daring stunts all added to the entertainment.
They were received by the hostess and guided to their seats at a long table facing the chef’s work station. She told them he would start in 15 minutes. Meanwhile, they ordered fruity cocktails. PA turned to her.
“Is this okay? Not too local?” he asked.
She smiled. “I like it.”
He heaved a visible sigh of relief.
“What was that for?”
“You have been tensioning me,” he joked.
She burst into laughter and simultaneously they felt the nerves slip away.
“So tell me about you,” she said.
“Allen Ikpoki, turning 40 this year,” he began. “I grew up with my parents in Asaba. My older brother was 6 years older than me. He died years ago. I think my parents were heart-broken because they died shortly after him, 1 year apart. My grandmother raised me. She was a poultry farmer so I went to school in the mornings and sold chickens for the rest of the day.”
“Feeding them, cleaning their cages, slaughtering them for sale and cleaning their entrails out: Yeah, not a very fanciful job.” He grimaced.
“I bet your grandma is very proud of you.”
“She is; up there in heaven.”
“O, I am sorry for your loss.” Zina made a sad face.
“Don’t be. She died at a ripe old age and I got to take care of her for some years.”
“Why did you choose architecture?”
“It chose me, I guess. Drawing has been my passion from childhood. My arts teacher in secondary school made me enter for a competition and the prize was a partial scholarship to study architecture. Grandma covered the rest. I wasn’t the richest student but I had enough.”
Their drinks had arrived so they thanked the waitress. Zina was eager to hear the rest before the chef arrived. She knew it might be too rowdy for talk.
“Why did you become a pastor?” she asked.
“I joined a school fellowship on my 1st Sunday in school and just discovered I had a flair for teaching the bible. They made me bible study coordinator, then pastor, then regional director. By the time I was in my 4th year, I was so deeply involved that some people mistook me for a full-time pastor.”
“How did you cope with academics? I heard architecture is very tough.”
“I can’t explain it myself. Though I was disciplined with time and lectures, I must admit that God helped me. I had it easy.” He shrugged.
“Very modest,” Zina teased.
PA chuckled. “I have never been accused of being anything but modest.”
“Well, some people may misinterpret the protocol officers you surround yourself with as a sign of egotism,” she stated.
He thought for a while. “I agree and I had to battle with that decision. Because I have remained single for so long, I almost became prey. The men around me help me maintain my sanity. Besides, they keep my reputation pristine.”
“Oho! Are you accusing us ladies of being predators?” Zina joked, clapping her hands in mock anger.
“No, I am not. And I won’t say any more because I know I won’t win this argument,” he said, laughing.
“Fair enough. I like a man who chooses his battles.”
“What else do you like?”
“Are we fishing for compliments here?” She rolled her eyes comically.
PA cleared his throat. The chef had begun to set up his equipment, greeting each diner loudly.
“Why did you start your own church?”
“I don’t want to sound cheesy but God spoke to me clearly. I told the founder of the fellowship I had been in charge of, and he gave me his blessing.”
“That’s unusual. Most founders would have had a falling out with you.”
He shrugged. They would have conversed some more but the show had begun. Zina thoroughly enjoyed the display and the food. She initially wished they had gone somewhere private but it dawned on her that he might have worried about them running out of things to talk about. At least, the entertainment livened up the night.
After dinner, she went to use the ladies room while he settled the bill. He rose when she returned.
“Shall we?” he asked.
She nodded. He let her precede him as they headed for his car.
“I hope you enjoyed the food.”
“PA, you’ve asked me that 20 times,” she joked.
He made a face. “Ouch!”
They stopped in front of his car.
“Maybe you are avoiding asking me what you really have in mind?” she asked.
He ran a hand through his hair. She raised a brow, fixing a gaze on him.
“I haven’t done this before,” he began.
She did not reply.
“I would like you to consider me as more than a friend. I want to know that you are open to a future with me,” he said finally.
She leaned on his car door, crossing her legs at the ankle. He had both hands clasped in front of his face like he was praying.
“PA…you are such a nice man and I am flattered by your attention. However, I have not always lived a pristine life and I worry that it would not be a good look on you,” she said finally.
“I’ll always think of tonight with fondness. You made me feel special. Thank you very much.” Her voice cracked as though she were about to burst into tears.
He stepped away and unlocked the car. She went over to her side but he had got in and opened it from inside. Dejected, she got in, willing herself not to cry as he began to drive to her apartment in silence.
I can’t believe I actually expected this man to take me in his arms and assure me that no matter what I have done, he will stick by me. Menopause here I come. At least I have my job to pour my frustrations on because at this rate, I will die alone; left to wither like a dead plant on a shelf.