“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.
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.