“I’m sorry,” a voice came behind her.
She turned to see Apham standing behind her. “Hey,” she gave him a weak smile.
“You don’t look too good.” His hand went to her hair, rubbing down the strands of the wig that were sticking out.
She laughed softly. “I didn’t put on any make-up when I was leaving the house.” Her lips quivered and a sob escaped her lips.
Apham pulled her into his arms. “Honey, it’s okay. It’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.”
Ijeoma pushed him away, wiping her eyes and sniffing. “Let’s go inside.” Her voice was stiff.
With a sigh, Apham followed behind her. They took a table by a secluded corner of the small but cozy restaurant. Ijeoma felt comforted by the slow music that filled the restaurant. A waiter came up to their table as soon as they settled down.
“What are you going to take?” Apham asked her.
She didn’t feel really hungry, but the expectation shining in Apham’s eyes had her saying “Fried rice.”
When their meals arrived, they ate slowly. Ijeoma took her time to chew each spoonful of rice, enjoying the crunch of the vegetables in the colourful rice.
“How are your parents?” Apham asked after she cleared her plate.
“They are fine, watching their grown-up daughter is not as stressful as you think,” she said drily.
He frowned. “Are they that strict with you?”
“You think?” She took a sip of the glass of juice in her front. “I think I just returned back to my secondary school days. I don’t think it was even as bad as this.”
“I’m sorry. It’s all because of me.” He reached across the table and placed his hand above hers.
She pulled away from his touch, tucking her hand under her purse on her lap. She pretended not to see him flinch. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Her voice was small. If the music in the restaurant had been any louder, he wouldn’t have heard her.
Apham exhaled deeply. He had expected this question, had even prepared a speech for it but everything he prepared to say vanished as soon as the question left Ijeoma’s lips. “I was scared,” he said simply.
Ijeoma looked at him in surprise. “Scared?” She had expected every other answer not this.
He nodded. “Yes. I was scared. Not every girl wants to hear that the man she is about to marry was once into drugs and may or may not have ruined the life of another person.” He flashed her a sad smile. “Well, it turned out even worse.”
“It would have been better hearing it from you than from my family. How bad was it?” Her tone was apprehensive.
Her hands tightened around the glass of juice. “I want to hear it. All of it.”
“It started here before I went to the UK. I had quite a number of friends and this was like the norm among them. I joined them. It was just for fun at that time. Once or twice a week when we went for parties. Soon, it became more than just for fun, especially when I just arrived abroad. It wasn’t hard for me to fit in. I had the money and the looks.” He grinned wryly. “It was easy for me to gravitate towards the wrong company. And soon, it became like food for me, something I couldn’t go without in a day. Sometimes I had it three times, sometimes it was two times.”
Her expression was suppressed. There was no anger or sadness in her clear eyes. “And my sister?”
“It was just as I told you. I didn’t force her into anything. She had it worse than me. I tried when I could to keep her off it: lying to her that it was finished, threatening her suppliers, and whatnot. But she found other suppliers. At a point, it was too serious. I found her unconscious in her apartment. She had taken too much of it. I was scared. I thought she died. It really scared me. I knew I had to do something. I offered to go with her to rehab. I was also trying to go off it at that time. She tried, but after two days, she relapsed again. I broke up with her thinking it would wake her up.” He shook his head sadly. “That was the last I heard from her. I was graduating and with my father on my neck, I had to get my shit together.”
“She was deported,” Ijeoma said even though it was no longer news to him.
“I know. I felt really guilty when I heard it from one of her classmates. I wanted to call her, to check up on her, but the guilt didn’t let me. I wasn’t even sure how I would approach her.”
“When she returned, she was a skeleton. Every time she was requesting for ‘something’. She was looking to curb the itchy feeling inside her body. My parents were scared. We were all scared. I was home for a holiday, but seeing my bossy, exuberant sister like that, it almost killed me. It was hard to find a reputable institution here in Nigeria to help her. At least, with the way she returned, there was barely any opportunity for her to get in contact with suppliers. We tried. We really did. For a year, our family was strained by what happened to her. As she slowly got herself, started eating more, laughing more, we heard what happened. We cursed you, you know. My father threatened to skin you alive when he met with you. I as well. It was hard. For my sister, for my parents, for me.” Her voice broke. “I can imagine how it was for her, Iyora. When I brought you home.”
“Honey…” He wanted to reach across the table for her hand and cover them with his, to tell her that he was there.
“They will never agree to our marriage,” she said. “I know. They would never let me marry you. I’m not sure if I still want to-”
“Baby,” he pleaded. He leaned on the table and pulled her hands from where they were hidden.
“No, Apham. Can’t you see it? My sister cannot even look at you. My parents have sworn not to let you cross a foot into our gate. How possible do you think this is?”
“But don’t give up on us baby. I can do anything. I can kneel down in front of your gate for the next two years, it doesn’t matter. I love you baby. You’re the only person I want.”
“I love you too, Apham. I really do.” The tears were pouring down her cheeks now. “But I also love my family too. I cannot do anything that will ruin my relationship with them.”
“Then let me do something to redeem myself. Don’t just expect me to give up on you overnight. It’s not going to happen. I’m willing to fight for this relationship. I want you to fight with me as well.”
Ijeoma shook her head, pulling one of her hands out of Apham’s and using it to cover her mouth. “I can’t, Apham. I just can’t. It will only worsen the pain when everything is over.”
“So you want to give up on us?” His voice was tired.
He pulled his hands away from hers. She missed his warmth immediately. “I don’t want to give up. I won’t. I will come to your house. If I have to knock insistently until they open up for me, I will do that.”
“Please, Apham…Just let it end. Don’t worsen things with my family.” She put her hands up in a pleading gesture.
“So you just want me to give up, to just let you go?” His smile was weak, his eyes reddened. Even in the cool restaurant, she could see sweat beaded on his forehead.
She shook her head.
“I won’t come to your house then,” he said reluctantly. “But I won’t give up.”
And he didn’t.