‘Cali': Part Eight

I gasped.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” said the asshole. “First you ignore me while I am here waiting, then you pretend not to see me as I am standing right in front of you. What does that spell to you?”

Normally I could take any insults from customers with a smile or a barb that went over their heads but made me feel infinitely better. Or if they got too loud, I could just report them. But something about this guy made me believe that not a lot would go over his head. I wanted to slap his face. His stupid, smirky face. I could not believe that for a split second I thought that he was fine enough that I stopped to breathe. That coffee complexion deceived me. I shook my head.

“There was no one by this window and yet you stood here. What does that make you?” I asked. In my head I said ‘Olodo’.

He chuckled again. “Call me olodo for wanting to be served by the most beautiful girl here.”

Don’t mind if I do, olodo.

The man frowned slightly.

“One’s beauty or its lack thereof is not directly proportional to how well they do their job,” I said, glad to have an area to challenge him on. “And furthermore…”

He rolled his eyes. “Learn how to take a compliment, why don’t you? God. I just want to deposit some money.”

And with that he moved to the next window, cutting off the customer who had been on her way there. I saw her brow furrow as if in slow motion, her mouth opened. She had been tapping her foot impatiently while she waited, jabbing the keys on her Blackberry with so much force that the tak-tak  sound filled the entire floor. He smiled at her. The furrows on her face melted.

“Sorry,” she said, as if she was at fault.

“It’s all right,” he replied.

Anger heated my blood.. I gripped my worktop, shaking, shaking. Oh the things I wanted to tell him! I could see the floor manager watching me, always watching me. I took a shaky breath and said “Next please!”

The woman that the asshole had cut off came to my window with a dreamy look on her face. I waited for her to tell me what she needed but she just stood there.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Erm…yes…I came to…came to…” she glanced back at him again. The asshole was busy chatting to my colleague Nnaemeka, joking about. Of course they would get along, I thought. Nnaemeka was a pain in my neck; always making sexist comments that none of the other women challenged.

“What do you want?” I finally snapped at the woman when she wouldn’t say anything that made sense. That seemed to bring her back to earth.

“Excuse me?” she yelled. “Is it me you’re talking to like that? Don’t you have any manners?”

“She clearly doesn’t,” chipped in Asshole. “Nigerian customer service at its finest.”

“Imagine!” said the woman, glad to have his attention.

“Could you please tell me what I can do for you?” I attempted in a lower voice. “There is no need to shout.”

My heart beat very loudly. I thought ‘This is it’. I was surely getting fired now. The floor manager had a niece that she had been wanting to bring in for months. Some chick who studied accountancy. She made no bones about the fact that with my English degree, she did not think I belonged and was always trying to get rid of me.

I had just given her a reason.

‘Cali': Part Seven

I heard my phone buzz on the desk as I squatted, riffling through some papers. There were papers all over the floor and even though I was away from my window, I could see someone walk up to it and wait, checking their watch.

“Stupid, asshole,” I muttered. Why were they standing there? They were trying to get me fired. I hadn’t called anyone to my window yet. The floor manager would see and report me and I would get in trouble for slow service. My phone stopped buzzing for a second and started up again. I gave up on looking for the document I needed, shoving papers back into the bottom drawer carelessly. I grabbed the phone and still squatting by the desk, I answered it.

“Hello?”

A pause.

“Chielozona?”

“Oh, hi, Cali.”

“Is evlyting okay? I have not heard from you since.”

“I’m fine. It’s just work is hectic right now. I’m even hiding to answer this call right now and if they catch me…” I peeped out again. The shadow of the asshole stood resolutely by my window. As if they saw me, the person by my window seemed to crane their neck. I ducked again.

Cali seemed to be waiting for me to say something. “Sorry,” I said.

“About what?” he asked. “If ya busy, ya busy. No ploblem. But…”

“But what?” I asked feeling the irritation rise and tamping it down.

“You don’t reply my texts or text me either. I can always see that one and I will know you are okay.”

“I’m sorry, Cali. I’ll try harder. It’s just been busy.” Someone was calling my name. The floor manager! “Cali, I’m so sorry. I have to go.”

“Okay, mu-“

Feet came towards the office. I disconnected the call and slipped the phone into the pocket of my trousers. I opened the drawer again.

“Chielozona, so this is where you are? There are customers waiting.”

I  looked up, from the pair of black, block-heeled courts to the midi maroon skirt and matching jacket. A scowl topped the ensemble.

“I was just looking for an account document,” I said, making a show of slamming the drawer and getting up. “Nice shoes,” I said.

The floor manager allowed her glance to linger on my own stilettos. I hated block heels and never wore them.

“Maybe you can look for it later. There is someone by your window,” she said. She looked at me, wrinkling her nose as if she could smell my bullshit and walked out.

I huffed when I got to my stool. I didn’t mean to. It just came out. Or maybe I meant to. I mean, who just stood there by an empty spot instead of moving to another window?

“Next please,” I said pointedly, avoiding the person in front of me. A low chuckle. I looked up. My breath caught in my throat.

“Just what I like with my transactions,” said the man in front of me. “A touch of bitch.”

Good news!

I am pleased to announce that I have a short story appearing in Apex Magazine next month. Excited!

Here’s the reason I’m so happy:

Screenshot_2014-10-10-17-54-14

I made a promise to myself, then I tried (and failed) and tried again and it came true!

I have loved this magazine forever. I went through a bout of insomnia last year and Apex magazine was great company; all that weirdness, that darkness. Scrumptious sci-fi.  The stories would grip me until I was dizzy, falling eventually into an exhausted sleep. (For a long while, this was my favourite story.)

I mean, you have all these Hugo and Nebula and WSFA award-winners contributing to the magazine. And then there’s little ol’ me.  Have I said how excited I am?

I am so happy I fulfilled this promise to myself. And as they’re having me narrate my story for the podcast, I just might die from glee.

You can hear their previous podcasts by following links here. I joined their list of narrators after my piece was accepted for publication a few months ago. I narrated ‘Jupiter and Gentian’ by Erik Amundsen. I really enjoyed reading it – in fact, I have got bits of it still stuck in my head.

‘Cali': Part Six

“Nwamalubia,” my mother warned. My sister normally went from nought to sixty in the blink of an eye.

“You know, it seems to me like you’re the one who has a problem with him, calling him entrepreneur…”

“…That’s what he is!”

“Nwamalubia,” my mother warned again.

My sister looked at our mother and words seemed to flow between them. Words to which I was not privy. After a while, Nwamalubia smiled at me, getting up to stack the lunch pates before anyone else could do them.

“Anyway, I think he’s cute,” she said. “If you don’t want him, I’ll gladly take him off your hands.”

Her jovial tone was forced. I know my sister. Whatever she was going to say had been snatched away by my mother’s warning look. Warning for what? It further confirmed what I felt. They wanted to save their gossip till I was gone. It hurt my heart to know they were going to talk about Cali and after he had been so nice to them too. We should never have come to see them, I thought.

“You think this is ‘Coming to America’?” I asked. We all laughed. But my heart was not in it.

***

“Mummy, ya vely quiet. What’s the matter?” asked Cali on our drive back. He had been whistling along to Osadebe for two minutes. Before that, it had been Dolly Parton, Bob Marley and some song in a language I did not know. Cali’s taste in music was eclectic.

“Nothing, darling,” I said.

“Are you sure? Did anybody annoy you?” He lowered his voice. “Did I annoy you?”

I patted his hand, rubbed it. “No, no. You didn’t annoy me.”

“Good, good,” he said. He continued whistling. I thought about my mother and sister some more and my blood boiled, sending my breath, steam-hot out of my nostrils. The cheek of Nwamalubia! I was not sure what I hated more, that she laughed at Cali or her conciliatory jest afterwards, as if I could not handle the truth about my own boyfriend, as if I did not know him and love him regardless.

No, because, I corrected myself. I loved Cali because of who he was.

I studied Cali’s profile. Clean-shaven with that red Ibo colouring. Blunt chin which I often pretended to chew on. He knew I was watching him but unlike me, Cali never seemed to baulk under scrutiny. The person who could make him flinch had not yet been born. Cali was a man and a half. So why then did I feel this feeling behind my eyes, heavy as if I was going to cry? Outside, the sun tucked itself further into the darkening sky and my mood sank along with it.

“What did you and my dad talk about?” I asked suddenly. Cali smiled.

“I can’t tell you. It’s man stuff.”

“Com’on,” I said. “Please? I have to know.”

“You don’t have to know evlytin’,” he said.

“Cali…”

“Mummy?”

I felt a flash of anger at that. “Chielozona,” I corrected.

“Chielozona, mummy,” said Cali.

I frowned and said nothing more. The silence made Cali take his eyes off the road. He tweaked my nose.

“Smile, Jesus loves you,” he said.

“Stop it,” I swatted his hand away, irritated. What was this language he had picked up? First it was ‘We bless God’, now this? It made him sound so…so… Another thought occurred to me. Had he always been this way and I simply had not noticed?

The slap still resounded in the car, taking up room. Cali replaced his hands on the steering. He didn’t resume whistling.

“Sorry,” I said after a while.

“It’s okay, mu…Chielozona,” he said.

That made me feel worse. I searched the side of his face for clues to what he was feeling.

“i am not angly,” said Cali and the tears almost started rolling down my face. Cali never hid how he felt. He always said.

“Sorry,” I said again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Cali rubbed my clasped hands with one of his. I looked out of the window at the world speeding by; green shrubs and red earth interspersed with my reflection. The noise and chaos of backfiring okadas, honking cars and overladen buses came as though from a distance, muted in Cali’s silent, ACed car. I grew tired.

I knew I had fallen asleep only when Cali shook me awake.

“Wake up, mummy. We’re here,” he said.

“Are we?” Onitsha stared back at me, draped in criss-crossing wires like a fisherman’s drying nets. “Oh.” I made to get out of the car. Cali held me down gently. His breath tickled my ear. I flinched.

“Stop,” I said, smiling.

Cali kissed me lightly on the lips. “Mummy, I want to come inside,” he said.

The combination of Cali’s straightforwardness and the accidental pun would normally make me smile and acquiesce but that night I was not in the mood.

“Not tonight Cali,” I said. “You know I have to get up very early. Tomorrow is Monday.”

Cali sated his appetite with kisses until I pushed him gently away. “I have to go, darling,” I said. I slipped out of the car before he could come round and open the door. I knocked at the gate. He waited until someone opened it before he drove away, still waving.

I felt guilty to be so relieved.

‘Cali': Part Five

“Mum, Dad, this is Cally.”

Cali gave me a look. “It’s Cali,” he corrected.

“That’s what I said,” I picked some lint off his blazer.

Cali enveloped my mother in hug. She looked taken aback but smiled. Dammit, I thought. I had forgotten to tell Cali that my mother did not like to be hugged by strangers. She’ll be talking about that when we leave, I thought. I knew my mother. She had already begun marking him, looking for flaws, for reasons to fail him. Nobody was ever good enough for her, not unless he had a PhD, was a medical doctor or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Or George Clooney, but he was off the market now.

“You’re quite tall,” she said.

I was glad for that. At least she would not hold height against him.

“We bless God,” said Cali and I winced. Since when? I thought. I didn’t how that phrase made him sound.

Cali remembered my father’s title and greeted him accordingly, clasping my father’s proffered handshake in two of his.

“Let’s take a look at this mystery man, finally,” my sister Nwamalubia pushed through my parents, throwing herself into Cali’s arms. She disentangled and looked at him critically. “Hmm,” she said.

“Wait, let me pose properly,” said Calestous. He started to do a number of poses while Nwamalubia pretended to take his photo. My mother looked alarmed.

“Cali, darling…” I started.

“Nice jacket,” said Nwamalubia. “Versace?”

“Yes, Versanchi. Very good. You know fashion?”

“I know beauty,” she replied. “I work with textiles too.”

“Why don’t we move from the doorway?” I asked, a little unsettled. I thought I had seen Nwamalubia’s lips turn up when he said ‘Versanchi’. I would have to have a word with her.

“Yes, let’s,” said my mother leading the way to the smaller living room. I smarted at that. I knew she had already judged Cali and found him wanting. The grander of the two living rooms would remain closed to us. She was so obvious! Not two minutes in the house and I had the beginnings of a headache. I would have to have a word with her too.

“Nwamalubia tells me you like fried rice,” said my mother. She saw Calestous’ puzzled look. “She searched your Facebook, dear. This one,” she pointed at me,” Doesn’t tell me anything.”

“I’m okay with anything you give me,” Calestous said, warming my heart. I took his hand in mine and squeezed it once. I was going to kiss him for that later.

“Good. Cook is making you fried rice. Special. Just for you.”

“Just for you,” added Nwamalubia, in an ominous tone. I turned to look at her. Just what were they planning?

“Eh-he, I forgot. Excuse me,” said Cali, going out to the car. He came back with three gift bags and stood back to enjoy my family cooing over their gifts, face shining like the sun. I squeezed his hand again.

Two hours later and Calestous held his fork and knife like they were machetes. He bent over, shovelling food into his mouth while his knife shuddered in his other hand, yearning for a piece of the action. I cleared my throat, tried to show him with my eyes, how to hold his cutlery but he was oblivious. He smiled at me each time. After the fourth or fifth time of clearing my throat, my mother snapped.

“For heaven’s sake Chielozona, sip something. You’re driving us insane.”

My mother had a way of co-opting everyone into her own sentiments. I obeyed anyway. My shoulders hurt from sitting in the correct manner. No sooner than I had taken a mouthful of my drink than she asked, “So Calestous, what is it that you do?”

My drink went down the wrong way and I started coughing. Cali’s cutlery clanked down on his plate. He slapped me on the back.

“Easy, easy mummy,” he said. My eyes were watering but I saw my mother raise her eyebrow at that. My sister Nwamalubia tittered.

“He’s an entrepreneur,” I said as soon as I could. I wiped the tears from my face.

“Oh interesting,” said my mother. She cut a piece of chicken, placed it in her mouth and chewed for a long while, even though it had only been a sliver of flesh. “And what is your area of expertise?”

“Men’s’ apparel,” I chimed in. “You know, the good stuff. All originals, which is a relief in Nigeria. Dad you should come down to Onitsha to see him. Cali is one of the genuine distributors of designer wear here in Nigeria. He also offers a fitting service…”

“I’m sure you’re very proud of your boyfriend dear, but he can speak for himself,” my mother cut me off. She smiled what my sister and I called her ‘Queen Regent’ smile. I tried to stop my nostrils flaring.

Calestous finished what was in his mouth. I made a mental not to talk to him about bulging cheeks, the darling, and waited until he’d had a sip of his water. “I’m a trader,” he said.

“Darling, you own a chain of boutiques offering bespoke services. It’s hardly trading.”

“I own shops. I sell men’s clothing. It’s trading,” said Calestous. A crease appeared in the middle of his face.

“It’s more than just trading…”

“Trading. Definition ‘The buying and selling of goods and services’,” Nwamalubia cut in. “Is that what you do, Cali?” Her eyes twinkled.

“Exactly. That is what I do. I am a trading man,” Cali affirmed, winking at her. “It’s not this English your sister is talking.”

I laughed, swatting him on the arm. “Yes, darling, I know. It’s just usually, when people talk about trading you know…”

“I think I’m ready for dessert now,” said my father. He had barely spoken a word since I introduced Cali to them. He got up from his seat. “Perhaps Cali, you wouldn’t mind joining me in my study? We can talk without this impertinent daughter of mine jumping down your throat. Lunch was superb dear, as always.” He kissed my mother on the cheek, tugged at my ear. Nwamalubia kissed his cheek and then he was gone.

“Thank you for lunch, ma,” said Cali. He kissed my mother’s cheek just as my father had done and left without looking at any of us. Anger and tears burned behind my eyes. My mother had upset him.

Nwamalubia watched him leave. She chuckled, nudging my mother. “M-m-m. What physique, what taste. Too bad he doesn’t…”

That was all I needed to hear. “Too bad he doesn’t what eh? Speak English well enough for you? Too bad he doesn’t know how to hold his cutlery? Well too bad for you, Nwamalubia! I love Cali and he loves me. At least he doesn’t live at home with his parents.”

Nwamalubia gasped theatrically. She was a spoilt little madam, much indulged on account of her ‘artistic temperament’ which she had inherited from our weaver-grandmother. Her handiwork littered our parents’ house and yet, she’d never had a gallery carry her stuff, claiming it ‘wasn’t ready’ and preferring to redecorate our parents’ house over and over instead. She was one to talk. At least Cali was his own man.

My mother stared at me, mouth open slightly. Cali’s mouth-print gleamed wetly against her powdered cheek. I fumed. She was probably going to talk about it when we were gone, about how nobody had taught him to kiss a cheek probably. The thought of them laughing at him made me feel ill to my stomach.

“I was just going to say ‘Too bad he doesn’t carry women’s wear I would have bugged him for a freebie’” Nwamalubia swallowed. “But never mind that, tell us how you really feel.”