Simple, stylish, and sophisticated. And blonde. I winked and pouted playfully at my reflection in the full-length mirror, imitating silver screen legend Marilyn Monroe, another blonde notorious for turning heads albeit for the right reasons. Unlike me. Odachi, my boisterous next-door neighbour who popped round for a natter and a chatter every other day, had an eye for cosmetic detail thanks to the makeup skills she’d learned on YouTube. Too bad she couldn’t work her magic on me today as she was entertaining visitors at home, and without her expertise I didn’t feel human enough to face whatever remained of the day. God alone knew how many times Odachi had repeated the “You’re beautiful the way you are” cliché each time I begged her to conceal my freckles and enhance my eyes, but while I never believed those words myself, I had to hear them. She meant well, but I would rather have starved for a week than step into the sunlight without my long glossy blonde wig. And my NYX Butter Lipstick in the perfect shade. And my Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Foundation, as endorsed by that nurse-turned-Instagram model. Thank God for my US-based cousin who sent a few bottles via courier after countless WhatsApp messages begging her to hook me up, but how long before the next batch arrived?
Guess it’s just my eyebrow pencil and Afro puff today, I sighed, pinning a detachable hairpiece atop my head. I caught sight of my wall clock in the mirror—only thirty more minutes before the local bush meat dealer closed his stall for the day, but I only went shopping late in the afternoon when the sun burned less brightly, and had spent my afternoon spring cleaning and examining files from work. During my primary and secondary years, teachers dismissed me as dull and lazy, ignoring my protests when I requested a seat at the front allowing me to view the blackboard clearly. None of those dictators could have predicted my success with Tiny Tots, Makurdi’s highly-rated nursery school. Time to shoot through the door and pick up those groceries. My makeup finally sorted, I grabbed an umbrella, found my purse, but halted at the bedroom door. Of course my phone has to ring now, I grumbled. Just when I was about to go out too…
“Nkeoma, is that you?” shrilled the voice on the other end.
“Speaking. I’m sorry, but who’s on the line?” I asked, praying this mystery caller would state their business as quick as possible and hang up. Sunday’s okoho soup wouldn’t flavour itself if I didn’t get a move on.
“This is Felicia Aguocha.”
“Oh, okay.” I racked my brains, wondering why the name sounded familiar. “Sorry, but have we met?” Probably one of my pupils’ mothers, even if I didn’t recognise the name. “Does it concern Tiny Tots, because you can speak to the receptionist, and she’ll sort out a meeting…”
“No, it’s not Tiny Tots. You’ve forgotten who I am?” The voice paused before dropping the bombshell. “It’s Francis’ mother, or have you forgotten him too? Francis Aguocha?”
Oh. My. God. You could never forget your first love, especially when you’ve spent months drying your tears after dealing with your first heartbreak. Especially after your first love’s mother comes between you and destiny. Why this sudden contact after years of animosity? Ten years ago we’d parted on bad terms, never guessing she’d contact me again. What did she want?
“Nkeoma, I’m glad to hear your voice, it’s been such a long time. Mrs. Williams, your boss at the school where you used to teach gave me your phone number—we both go way back, we attended TTC together. Francis tried contacting you himself, but you snubbed him…”
And with good reason, I argued inwardly, determined not to get into a fit over hearing the voice belonging to a woman who’d nearly caused me to drown in my own tears. “What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Nkeoma, I really think we should get together and talk because we have something important to discus, and it concerns Francis…”
“They’re gonna love you, baby, just wait and see.” He patted my knee and briefly let go of the gear stick to squeeze my hand, but neither his soothing words nor his affectionate gesture could eradicate my mounting fears. I gave my boyfriend a nervous smile, trying hard to disguise my old insecurities rising to the surface yet again. Hauwa, my roommate in Makurdi where we both served as youth corpers, had recently become engaged, and had spoken of nothing since her return. Before leaving Makurdi to join Francis in Enugu where he resided, Hauwa had offered the classic “Just be yourself” line when I informed her of my upcoming visit to meet his folks. Just be myself? Yeah right, because that tactic had served me well in the past. Random strangers screaming vicious insults from a safe distance, inconsiderate teachers labelling me a dullard who would never amount to anything in life… Because I went about my own personal business as myself? Not that I could impersonate another individual if I tried. People I considered friends couldn’t help taking jabs at me either. Despite promising Mum and Dad I’d always remain strong when society launched their attacks, I shed buckets the day those ‘friends’ composed a song and dance focusing on my imperfections. How original, at least I could demand royalties after their improvisation became a Broadway smash hit. Francis’ family… How would they react upon meeting me for the first time? They sounded lovely on the phone, but one could never tell…
Sensing my nerves, Francis stopped the car and turned my face towards his, clutching my clammy hand once again, removing my sunglasses to gaze into my eyes. “Nke, it’s okay. You’ve spoken to them several times, and they already love you, that’s why they’ve asked you to spend the week with us this Easter. It’s going to be a great time, and I’ll look after you, promise.”
Francis hadn’t stopped assuring me the minute we left his bachelor flat for his parents’ home in Umuahia. His compliments hadn’t ceased since our first meeting when he attended an engineer’s conference held at the University of Port Harcourt during my final year as an Education student. He’d spoken highly of his mother and father—a primary school headmistress and retired NEPA manager respectively—claiming they couldn’t have wished for a better daughter-in-law. I’d developed an instant fondness for his mother the day my boyfriend of a year handed me the receiver during their phone conversation, and I quickly discovered how much we both had in common. Mrs. Aguocha had worked in education nearly thirty years, and as an aspiring teacher myself, I imagined the two of us comparing notes. Her friendly demeanour conjured up images of a pleasantly quaint dwelling where she welcomed visitors on her veranda and served them home-cooked meals prepared with freshly-plucked vegetables from her back garden, every morsel relished in a dining area adorned with smiley-faced family portraits and potted plants in every corner. How exciting.
Francis’ BMW pulled into a gated compound and parked in front of a cream bungalow fringed with ixora shrubs and red hibiscus bushes. Oil palms overhead rustled in the April wind, scattering withered fonds across the swept grounds, and I smiled at the gate man who offered a friendly salute. Through the windshield I noticed Francis’ exhilarated family gathered on the veranda, ready to welcome their son and his nervous fiancée. Taking one more mango air freshener-infused deep breath, I adjusted my dark glasses and waited for Francis to open my door from outside and take me by the hand to escort me up the stairs leading me to his parents who glanced at each other completely startled. My heart pumped wildly. Bad impression? Maybe Francis and I could both jump back into the car and return to Enugu? What had these imposters done with the warm couple I’d laughed with several times during our light-hearted phone conversations? Not that I waited long to work out this clue. Mrs. Aguocha drew me into her towering frame, welcoming me into her home, asking if we both had a safe journey. Her husband, a wizened diminutive carbon copy of his beloved first son, smiled and took my hand, as did the rest of his children. The Aguochas led me to the dining area where gari and achara soup lay waiting on the table. Just as I’d imagined. Their wide smiles and generous nature soon put me at ease, and I cursed myself for nursing those second thoughts on the way to their house. What Igbo girl in her right mind hadn’t dreamed of marrying into a family like theirs? Early days yet, but from what I’d observed, the Aguochas epitomised what I’d always dreamed of since my teens, and the good Lord had answered my prayers, despite the odds.