Poverty is a state of mind. Okoro doesn’t dwell there.

“Where are we going?” I asked for the umpteenth time. He smiled again and said nothing. I watched the sweat trickle down his smooth forehead, past the twin caterpillars of his eyebrows and down his sparse facial hair to collect on his chin. It looked like it had picked up some of his complexion and hung dirty-brown on his jawline until he flicked it with his thumb out of the window.

It was hot. My shirt stuck to my back and I tried to sit upright even though my body was caving in on itself in lethargy. My breasts jiggled as we hit another pothole and I sagged in the seat to hide it.

“Sorry the AC is broken,” he said, looking at my face. I smiled.

“So? It’s just heat.” I broadened my smile to reassure him and he nodded and turned back to negotiating the army of little potholes intent on wrecking the car. “But if you feel really bad, you could make it up to me by telling me where we are going.”

“I can’t. It’s a birthday surprise. We’re here already anyway.” He clicked the trafficator to indicate right, waved at the driver who let him cut through traffic and parked in a small parking space. The building in front of us bore a striking similarity to a big hut, thatch roof and all.

The restaurant interior was full of foliage and the floor was sand. Not sand-coloured, but sand; what looked like miles and miles of the stuff but was in fact a few feet. I felt like taking off my shoes.

“I like this.” I said, watching my shoes sink in. He smiled. Part of me scanned the sand for kpuu-kpuu, the tiny sandflies that produced huge welts on one’s skin. A young man in a uniform of white shirt and black trousers approached and led us to a corner.

“What would you like to drink?”

“What are you having?”

“Nonsense, it’s your birthday. You go first and then I’ll decide. Get anything you want.”

“Maybe a soft drink then.”

“You hate soft drinks…”

“A carton of juice to share?”

If you’re sure. What kind?” He beckoned the young man and placed our drinks orders. “What would you like to eat?” he asked, when the man didn’t walk away again.”You first,” he said sternly before I opened my mouth.

“Errrr…ok. Some rice please. Some fried rice?”

“One plate of fried rice with chicken please. Thank you.” He turned to me, intercepting my  frown. “Oh, I’m not very hungry. Besides, I’m treating you.”

“But…but..I can’t eat alone!” It didn’t sound right. But I was ravenous, having skipped lunch on his earlier instruction. Not eating now was out of the question. Still, I didn’t want to eat alone. I knew my hunger pangs would might make me careless with table manners and the only way to disguise that was if he ate too. “How about eating just a meat pie or something? It’s my birthday, I should get one wish granted.”

“Nonsense. It doesn’t work like that.”

The food was plentiful and hot. It smelled good and I clamped my teeth shut to stop myself from drooling. I swallowed. “Look, it’s a lot. We can share.That way, I’m not over-full and neither are you. A few forkfuls won’t hurt.”

“No, eat. I want to watch you enjoy yourself.” He took a sip of his drink and leaned back with his hands behind his head. I took up the fork and attacked the rice, breaking up the food with speech. I pestered him until he accepted a forkful of rice. Then another. Then some chicken. He waved his hand after that, ‘No more’.

We talked with the easy familiarity of friends until the sun started to go down. Then he called for the bill. “Hold on a second, please.” He got up and went after the waiter. I could see them with their heads close in discussion, then he gave him some notes and came away.

“OK, let’s go.” As I gathered up my bags, I heard a rumble. I stood up embarrassed. “I can’t believe after all I just ate…” He was looking at me with a sheepish look on his face. It took me two seconds to put two and two together. I thought about my emergency stash of cash which my father insisted on for all dates.

“Look, why don’t I get us dessert? My treat!” I said before he could interrupt. “Consider it my birthday cake. We can even buy some candles and I’ll make a wish and everything.”

He shrugged. “Hmmmm…ok. But next time, I’ll make sure to include dessert.” He looked pained, serious. I punched him in the arm and waved at the waiter.

“Could we have two cakes please?” I heard him groan and punched him in the arm again.

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