Zina had mustered the courage to call PA after Imaobong encouraged her to do so. She had even told her about Esosa. Imaobong was of the opinion that she should not encourage him until she was absolutely certain that PA had backed out. This would prevent any doubts as to her morality. Her premise was that whatever had happened was in the past and she was now a new creature with no baggage, seeing that Zina had been celibate from the time she had Peter. It wouldn’t do for anyone to accuse her of stringing a 2nd man along while dating PA. That would leave her credibility in shreds.
When he didn’t answer after she had called twice, she left him a message.
Call me when you get this. We need to talk. Love, Zee.
She didn’t hear from him the next day. In a panic she called Imaobong.
“Do you think someone has told him? He isn’t answering my calls or responding to my messages.”
Imaobong sighed. “I hope not. I wanted him to hear it from you.”
“What will I do if I lose him? I have never opened up to anyone like this. What will I do? Imaobong I don’t know if I can take it.”
She was distraught. Imaobong wished she was in her office to comfort her.
“Come home early. Let’s watch sad movies and cry.”
“I don’t want sad movies. I want my PA!” she cried.
“It’s okay. Let’s pray about it. God who sees your heart will make a way. Don’t cry.”
At 7 p.m Zina got a text from PA.
Meet me outside your office.
He knew her schedule despite how short a time they had been dating. She made a call to dismiss her driver. Nervously, she touched up her hair and makeup in her bathroom before proceeding to sling her bag over her arm. On impulse, she knelt by her desk.
Father, I know I don’t deserve a good man like PA but he has led me to hope. Please don’t let him dash my dreams. I will be good to him. I will quit my job. I will be submissive. I will do whatever it takes. Just give me a chance, I beg you.
PA was leaning on the bonnet of his SUV, his feet crossed at the ankles, his arms folded across his chest. She took in his jeans and plaid shirt as she approached. He didn’t look angry; in fact, he looked serene. When he noticed her, he stretched out a hand and drew her into an embrace when she was close enough.
“Hi, PA,” she managed, surprised.
“Hi, Zee baby.”
“I thought something was wrong when I didn’t hear from you for so long,” she probed.
“We’ll talk about it later.”He released her and unlocked his car door. “How does suya sound? I know a great spot.”
She got into his car. He also got in and drove off without further comment. She was silent, battling with thoughts of how to broach the topic. He was not given to conversation while driving so she could not tell if he was just letting her down gently or if he really had no idea what she was about to say.
At the suya joint, he parked the car and turned to her.
“When were you planning to tell me you have a son?”
Zina could feel her world crashing around her. Her heart pulsated loudly in her chest. Fleetingly, she wondered if he could hear it.
Who had told him? How had he found out? Did he know everything?
“I am sorry I kept it away from you.”
She stole a glance at him. He was watching her, expressionless.
Is this it? Father, is this the end?
“What else are you hiding?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she protested, raising her hands in a defensive gesture.
“I want to hear everything. No summaries, Zina. Tell me everything.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back, still facing her, his gaze piercing. She averted her gaze, barely able to meet his. As she began to narrate her story, she kept her eyes on the floor. She did not want to look at him for fear of what she would see. If she was going to lose him, she wanted to remember him for his adoring gaze not derision.
Zina had grown up in Bori, a small town in Rivers state. The daughter of Lebari who was a cleaner in the local government headquarters, she never knew her father. She had 4 siblings; only 1, Ledum, shared a father with her. They went through public school, coasting on the subsidized fees and occasional handouts from relatives.
At 16, she attended a crusade in town and answered the altar call. She began to read her bible and attend a small fellowship close to home where other believers like her congregated. Gaining admission into the University of Port Harcourt was her dream. She wanted to study to become an engineer. Her mother was selling pastries on the side to augment her income and it was the responsibility of all the children (except Boma the oldest) to hawk them around the local government secretariat.
Boma was training to become a mechanic. He had been pampered by their mom. Rather than take up the responsibility of assisting the home, he often stole the proceeds of their petty trade. There was nothing the others could do. He hung out with worthless fellows and Zina had once seen a gun among his possessions.
One day, Lebari came home and announced that she had secured a job for Zina as a cook for an expatriate who worked for a construction company that was executing a contract in the town. His former cook was quitting to get married but was willing to train Zina for two weeks before leaving town. Lebari had overheard a conversation between the cook and another staff of the secretariat where she worked and boldly offered her daughter as a candidate.
Zina did not like the idea of working as a cook. She wanted to be an engineer. However, she was almost 20, yet to secure admission into the university and tired of hawking snacks. Left with no choice, she began her training as a cook. Lee was an easy boss to please. He was a young man, probably in his late thirties, whose wife and children had stayed back in Korea. Twice a year, he traveled to spend time with them.
For 3 months, Zina went to his house at 6 a.m. every morning, including Sundays to prepare his breakfast. He had lunch on site. She made dinner and left it in the microwave oven. On Sundays, she went to his house after church service to prepare his lunch and dinner. He often had female guests over but never made any advances towards Zina. In fact, he barely spoke to her. She did not mind this as she had pre-determined that the day he cast a lecherous glance at her would be her last in his house.
She had broken up with her 1st boyfriend after the crusade that changed her life. He was the driver to a wealthy man in town and he used to give her money to supplement her family’s meager earnings. It was difficult giving up the relationship but she was determined to make heaven. And the coordinator of the fellowship kept emphasizing that all fornicators and adulterers would end up in the hottest part of hell.
One day, she went to visit her mother at work. A staff of the secretariat stopped her to ask her if she was in school.
“No, ma,” she replied. “I have been trying to get admission into Uniport for a long time.”
“Why have you not tried to get admission into Bori Polytechnic?”
Zina shrugged. “I want to get away from Bori. I have lived here all my life.”
“How many times have you taken the exam?”
“I am on my way to buy a form for my niece. Write down your full name, I will buy two forms.”
“Thank you ma but I don’t want…”
“Do you want to remain a cook for the rest of your life?”
“Write your name on that piece of paper.”
Reluctantly, she complied. She put the incident out of her mind the moment she left. In fact she did not mention it to her mother. The next day, her mother presented her with the form.
“I don’t want to go to a polytechnic,” she whined, cross.
“You don dey house since. That work wey you dey work, how many years you wan do am? The man go soon comot Naija O! As you no gree get better boyfriend wey go help us, kuku go school na,” her mother scolded.
After days of cajoling, threats and sheer nagging, Zina filled the form and began to prepare for the examination. She had enough time on her hands because her work as a cook meant she was exempt from hawking for her mother. Also, one of the brothers in the fellowship was an undergraduate in the polytechnic. He began to coach her and a few other members who were preparing for the examination.
She passed the exam and gained admission to study Computer Science. Her job was not threatened as she was able to combine work and lectures. Besides, she needed the money to pay her fees. Her initial reluctance gave way to pride and joy that if she earned her diploma, she could leave Bori and forge a life for herself. She did not have trendy clothes or wear as much makeup as other girls for two reasons. She wanted to avoid as much attention as possible and she needed to save up.
By the end of her 1st semester, she realized that she was in danger of dropping out of school. She was yet to pay her fees and books were expensive. In addition, she was expected to contribute to her family’s upkeep. She was despairing.
One day, she saw her ex-boyfriend in her school. He had come to pick girls up to attend a party his boss was throwing.
“Zina, how far?” he greeted.
She shook hands with him as he leaned on his boss’ car, smoking a cigarette. It was almost 4p.m. and she was done for the day.
“Nwiba, it’s been a long time.”
“You broke my heart now,” he joked.
“Which heart? Do you have a heart?”
She laughed as she clutched her bag to her chest. It was a self-conscious habit she didn’t even know she had developed. Her modest dressing and minimal makeup did not prevent the attention of male folk. They seemed determined to lay the ‘holy sister’ who would not participate in social activities or hang out with them. She had formed the habit of clutching her bag to her chest as though it would keep the lustful gazes away.
Nwiba threw his stub on the ground and stepped on it to extinguish it.
“You no go come party?”
“Yes, my boss gives a lot of money to the girls that attend. How you dey manage sef? I hear say school cost.”
“E no easy. I never pay school fees sef,” she complained.
“That oyibo wey you dey cook for, you no wan love am?”
“Love who?” Zina nearly fell over in shock. “Mr. Lee?”
“That man na better man O. My oga like am. If you born for am you no go suffer again.”
“Nda Bari! What kind of talk is that? You don take igbo so?” She made gesture on her head like when one is unscrewing a nut.
“No open eye. Another girl go soon born for am. My oga say the guy dey very careful because him no want get pikin for naija but you wey dey inside go sabi how you go take get am.”
“I don repent Nwiba,” she spat.
“But you no be virgin!” he scoffed. “Anyway, I don dey go. Take this money buy something for yourself.”
She accepted the money he offered her without a second thought. Her younger brother, Ledum had been thrown out of school already and she was waiting on her salary to get him back in. Lebari, her mother, had gone to ask for an extension but was asked to pay at least half of the money. They could not afford even that.
She counted the money once she was out of his sight. It was just enough. She raised a hand to heaven and muttered hallelujah. This had to be a miracle. Of course she had been tempted several times to call him and beg for financial assistance but she knew she would end up in his bed so she refrained. She did not want anything to do with hell fire. As for his advice about Mr. Lee, she chucked it into the bin.
In PA’s car, Zina took a deep breath. He had made no comment while she spoke. Her phone had rung once but she turned it off without answering it.
“Do you want us to get something to eat?” she asked.
“I am not very hungry,” he replied.
She sighed. In truth, she was just postponing the inevitable. She had never really told anyone the full story; not even her best friend who died before she moved to Lagos. The shame and guilt had trailed her all her life, even after she moved to Port Harcourt and moved up in life.
“It was time for my 2nd semester exams. They threatened that anyone who did not pay their fees in full would be locked out of the hall,” she went on.
“My mother borrowed the money from her church association. She warned me that it was the last time they would give her money as she was already neck-deep in debt. They only pitied her because they knew I was working and schooling. I had tried to get a loan from my fellowship but they were few and had not really thought of having a purse for such requests.”
“I did well in my exams and began to save again for the next semester but Ledum fell ill and the money went for his treatment. I was bitter at God because I had prayed that he would heal Ledum so that I could save for school. That was when I remembered Nwiba’s advice. I hatched a plan to get pregnant for Lee. He always kept his condoms beside his bed and he never ran out of stock. I calculated my ovulation period and chose a date to seduce him.”
“On the first day, I hid all his condoms and waited for him to eat dinner. While he ate, I undressed and got into his bed. He must have assumed I had left because a short while later, he got into his bed, not even noticing I was there. When I tapped him, he was surprised to see me but he did not hesitate to accept what was offered. He later admitted he had been attracted to me but that he felt I would turn him down since I was so religious.”
“We continued our affair for months till I found out I was pregnant. He was angry; accusing me of planning it all along but I denied all wrongdoing. Then he gave me money to abort the pregnancy. I used the money for my needs and lied that I had gotten rid of the baby. You see, I needed a baby to get money regularly from him. He was quite frugal and rarely gave me more than a stipend even after we became lovers.”
“If he suspected anything, he couldn’t prove it. By the time I had a bulge, I claimed that the abortion had failed. He cried bitterly, sad that he had violated his rule. Many of his friends and colleagues had children all over the villages surrounding Bori but he had prided himself on escaping the clutches of the desperate women folk.”
Zina folded her arms across her chest and sighed.
“Peter was born in December. Lee was out of the country and barely speaking to me by then. My mother did not support my decision to have Peter but she understood. She assisted me so I could return to school as soon as possible. Lee returned and placed me on a monthly allowance to take care of Peter. I continued to work as his cook but we did not continue the affair. My son had bought me the money I needed for school and my salary ensured that I had a little extra.”
“I cannot begin to tell you the emotional trauma that I passed through. My reputation changed overnight from ‘holy sister’ to ‘baby mama’. A number of girls had children for foreigners living and working in Nigeria but none of them was ambitious enough to enroll in school. They mostly lived near the docks, serving as entertainment to the sailors in Onwe and environs. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Boys assumed I was an easy lay and made coarse remarks when I walked past.”
“I bore it till I graduated. Lee helped me get a job in Port Harcourt. I moved there and left Peter with my mother. Soon, I got over all the bitterness and renewed my relationship with my savior. However, it was all good till any potential suitor heard about my son. Maybe if he was dark-skinned, it would not be so bad but he looks so much like Lee. He has curly dark hair, his eyes are Mongolian like his dad and his skin is almost white. I moved my family to PH when I began to earn good money but I lived on my own to create room for relationships. That did not stop my past from trailing me like a serial murderer.”
She gulped, swallowing a sob. It would not do to cry because it could be misread as manipulation.
“Lee plays no role in the boy’s life?” PA asked.
“That was his condition for supporting us. He didn’t want his wife to ever find out he had a son in Nigeria. Peter is never to try to contact him or his family. He left Nigeria 5 years ago.”
PA heaved a sigh.
“I am so sorry I didn’t tell you. Please, forgive me. I was not trying to deceive you. I just believed it would never get to that point. At least if you were dumping me, it would be because you were no longer interested and not for his sake. I am tired of being abused, tired of blaming myself, tired of confessing my sins. I just need a breather!”
She didn’t even realize she had cried out.
“I was ready and open to a woman who has a past but I’m not sure I ever considered a single mom. It’s just not one of those things you plan for, you know,” he said, rubbing his head.
Zina nodded, holding her breath.
“What do you believe? With the benefit of hindsight, do you believe that was actually the only way to get the money for your fees?” he asked.
Zina bit her lip. “No, I took the easy way out. I could have deferred my admission, or got a second job coaching children or whatever. All this would not have happened. I love my son but God’s way is always the best,” she replied.
“The fact that he is mixed race makes it more complicated,” PA said. “There is no way I can keep it out of the public sphere; not with my kind of job. I have learned that it is better to keep all skeletons out of the cupboard than to attempt to keep people from opening the cupboard. People are nosy and church folk expect so much of leaders. It’s okay if they sin but those on the pulpit must never miss the mark.”
PA turned and cupped her chin in order to raise her face to meet his gaze.
“You made a mistake and none of us is perfect but people are vicious and unforgiving. That is my worry. Can you take the heat? Will my members take up arms? Will it divide the church? Will they accept you as my wife?”
Zina swallowed a sob. “I don’t want you to pass through that kind of persecution for my sake.”
“Let’s go in and buy suya. I have a story to share.”
PA released her, turned off the engine and opened the door for her. She alighted, wrapping her arms around her to keep the chilly air out while she waited for him to lock the car. He took her hand as they made for the suya stand, oblivious of the crowd of people milling about, the music blaring from the speakers or the smoke from the grills that littered the joint. Zina’s thoughts were on PA. She was anxious to know his decision. PA’s thoughts were on his past: A story he had shared with only one other person all his life. One that had haunted him for years; the reason he had remained a bachelor for years.