The next few weeks were the most uneventful of Athena’s 31 years. Her trip to London was for business, but it proved to be more of a get away. Six weeks went by in a flash and it was, once again time to go home. this time, up town L.A. The walk into the very familiar warm Brentwood was without the usual pomp and slight pagentry. But home never lost its warmth. The smell of fresh roses welcomed her into the dimly lit bedroom. She ignored the flowers and the card tucked beside it and walked to the answering machine. She had one hundred and ninety five messages. Setting the machine on automatic play, she walked into the shower for a hot bath.
Toke had called, 5 times. Her last message was a plea for truce. That was enough for Athena. The rancor was tiring and she did miss her cousin. Dee’s messages were all the same.
“Hey, babe, where are you? I’m sorry…”
She was sorry too, but she wasn’t sure apologies would work. She had issues Akindele could not begin to phantom. It was in his interest for them to stay apart. That was one of the many conclusions she had arrived at during her trip. Her phone rang again for the third time, this time, she picked.
“Athena, honey, are you okay?”
“Hey… I’m fine. How are you?”
“Fine. Fine… about Nigeria…”
“Toke… it’s alright, it’s forgotten…”
“No, it’s not. It’s not fine, and it’s not forgotten!”
“Don’t so this now… I’m tired and I really can’t argue with you now.”
“You don’t have to argue, we can talk…”
“This is a long conversation, and it’s costing you money…”
I’m in L.A. I could come over or we could have dinner somewhere…”
“Yeah. Kay has this conference thing again and the kids are with his sister…”
“Let me guess, you both want to talk to me, right?”
“No. This is just me and you. We should have had this conversation a long time ago… I really don’t know what happened, but I am so so sorry for all the part I played in it… Athena, I had no idea… My mom’s brother in Ibadan… he said some things… I really need to talk to you, Athena! I’m dying with guilt and fear inside! I ca…”
“It’s fine Toke, let’s do this.” She sighed. “When?”
“How about tonight? Westwood?”
“Nah! I hate the food! Come to my house.”
“Send me your address, I’ll have my driver pick you up.”
“Great! I’ll bring some Thai food.”
“Cool! I’ve got wine. I have a feeling we are going to need it!”
It was an awkward greeting for the two of them. Behind the hugs and the perfunctory inquiries were weightier questions neither knew how to broach. Seeing how hard it was for her cousin to do what they were both there for, Athena took the first plunge. She started with the confrontation in Nigeria, to the reason why she was so inaccessible, to what drove her away in the first place. The hardest part was talking about the day she was raped. It was hard and painful for both of them, and midst hot and burning tears, the truth came out. For the first time, Athena bared a much guarded part of her heart to her cousin, trusting for the very first time since she could remember. SHe talked about her argument with Dele and how they parted.
“So, where does this leave you and Dele?”
“I don’t know… I think we should just let things be…”
“Don’t you love him anymore?”
“I do… I think I always have… that’s why I feel this is the best thing…”
“But he’s hurting, and so are you!”
“And he deserves more than this!” she said, pointing to herself. “He deserves someone who is not so messed up inside! I don’t know how to love him! I don’t know how not to be excessively cautious or suspicious or guarded! I’m just going to hurt him again and again…”
“Athena… I don’t know how to say this, but… if anyone needs protecting, it’s you… Stop trying to save everyone else. Let someone save you…”
“What if I don’t know how…?”
Toke spent the night with Athena. The duo spent the morning sharing old memories and making new ones. After breakfast, they went shopping for Tricia and Trey while Toke tried convincing her to come spend some time with them at Christmas. They called New York and spoke with Toke’s mom, made visitation plans with Tomide’s wife. It was a beautiful family outing. The first Athena had ever had.
“You know, today will be perfect if Dele could just show up and sweep you away into Arabian paradise tonight!”
“Toke, I always told you to stay away from all those Silhouette novels you drugged yourself with in high school! ”
“What would you do if he showed up?”
“I don’t know…” she replied between mouthfuls of ice cream. “I’d say “hey! How’s it going?’ and walk away!”
“I’d so not let you!”
“Why? Cos it will not fit into your romantic fantasies?”
“No, cause you are my only sister and I love you! I want to plan your burgundy and pink wedding!”
“No way! What horrid colors!” she managed between laughs and the ice cream cone.
It was fun bantering like this about real life issues. The best part was that she got to be honest and open about how she felt. This made it hard for her to say good bye to Toke and Kay when they eventually left. Visitation promises were made through blurred images shrouded with tears. It was the most Athena had ever felt for anyone since she could remember. And she was glad she did not feel it alone.
Dele did not come that day, neither did she call. His calls had stopped coming in since they day she returned. Maybe he had finally given up. Athena was quick to tell Toke on the phone that fantasies don’t happen anymore. She had made Toke swear not to call Dele or give him any encouragement. Things were better this way.
The week ended and there was no sign of Dele. The last bouquet of roses he sent while she was away had been replaced by her usual white lillies. She came home every day hoping that there would be a sign of him somewhere. But everyday was the same. There was no Dele and no romantic surprises either. His birthday was coming up in a couple of days. She wondered what he was planning to do. She had confirmed from a mutual friend that he was in town. Contrary to Toke’s romantic ideas, the guy must have finally seen that it wouldn’t work between them. Else, why else did he stay away? Or maybe she had pushed beyond his ego limits. Maybe… Her mind was filled with so many reasons why he didn’t call or make any attempt to check up on her. She was grateful she had Toke had talked about the past. They couldn’t fix what had happened, but they could somehow make the future work, for them and their kids. Toke though it better to leave her brothers out of the full picture. She was still working on the story to give her Nigeria based family when they called… All in all, it had gone well. And well, if this ‘Dele/Athena’ couple didn’t work out, she was better at handling the next guy. If there was any problem, she could always run to Toke for some fresh dose of romantic optimism.
“B-Savage! My man…”
Dele waved at the guy on the other side of the road. he supported the wave with a huge grin. He ducked hurriedly into his car and sighed with relief.
“Yes, Mr. Savage.”
It’d been two weeks now. And it was getting harder by the minute. Right now, he was not in the mood for chit chats or mindless banter. He was easily worn these days too. And his doctor said all he needed was rest. Well, he was getting some this weekend whether he liked it or not. This had got to stop. But it was beyond pain that was slowly killing him. There was guilt. Dele’s mind had journeyed to the past much more than he liked in the last eight weeks. Three weeks since he ran back to the States to find her, two weeks, 4 days and 16 hours since he heard she was back in L.A. Eight lonely, empty weeks of his life.
He remembered the day like yesterday. The conversation with his room mate, the dare, the confrontation… everything. It was all his fault. He was young and foolish then, not knowing the implication of his choices. He hadn’t been ready, and it had twisted their love story even before it really started. It started with a silly bet. Like every young strapping college boy, it was unheard of that you had a girlfriend who was keeping “it” away from you. He was a “kool kat” and he had to represent. So when he got teased for not being able to “handle his woman”, he became obsessed with proving them wrong. He’s started pressuring Athena for sex, but rather than her usual confrontational way of showing disagreement, she avoided the topic. He’s tried subtle hints, overtures, romantic dinners in his dorm room… nothing worked! He could not bring himself to have a full blown conversation about it. First of all, he didn’t know what to say, secondly, he was sure she would convince him to “abstain”. So, he pulled the emotional blackmail card on her, and she fell for it. So, here they were, warming up slowly for the grand finale… His hands were for the buckle of her jeans when she first froze. He had expected that and had planned for it.
“Baby, just relax, ok… you’ll be just fine…”
He’d whispered sweet nothing in her ears again and proceeded to distract her with the things he knew she liked best. But everytime he went to that pesky buckle, she’d react the same way. After like the one hundredth attempt, he stopped trying to calm her nerves and went ahead to undo the buckle. But by the time he was pulling down her zipper, she could have passed for an ice statue, a weeping ice statue. That was the day she told him she had been raped by an uncle who also battered her while he molested her. She wasn’t so coherent so he didn’t get all the facts. He’d been shocked, confused and overwhelmed. It was almost a relief when she ended the story breaking up with him. But the story had remained a burden on him. he could never bring it up again, not even after they later became buddies. He thought it was best left in the past, neither of them could handle the effect of it… at least he couldn’t.Good ending? No?
If only things were that simple. Dele had also fallen in love with Athena. He’d never loved any one else that way since then. At first he thought it was a mixture of guilt and familiarity, he soon thought otherwise. Athena was perfect for him. She had the right amount of funny, the perfect kind of humor, his exact preference in character and the best kind of companion any man could wish for. Chasing her all these years had been a thrill, but getting her finally was a much bigger thrill. He’s thought he knew her through and through, how wrong! He could not believe the depths of her personality he was yet to discover. Athena simmered with un-distilled passion. She was the right kind of warm, the right kind of naughty and the best kind of fun. With her, he felt like all of himself and saw more of what he could be. It was hard winning her trust, it was much harder losing her love. Without her, he felt like this. Incomplete.
Dele raised his brooding head to see he was parked right outside his flat.
“Don’t worry about picking me tomorrow Frederic, I’ll be working from home.”
“Yes, Mr. Savage.”
He walked straight to his study to check on some document he was working on the day before. There were no messages on his phone, not like he expected Athena to call. Why should she? He had betrayed her trust a second time. When he saw Toke crying that day in Isolo, he should have walked away. If he had walked away, she would have thought him mean and that would have been it. Instead, he had gone to meet her and asked about it. It was then she told him about the meeting with her uncles and aunt and how they had asked her to speak to Athena because they believed she knew something about her parent’s separation. At first she thought they were concocting stories, but they had gone to great lengths in presenting their wild theory of Athena seducing her dad to spite her mom. They had also said her dad had always liked Athena but probably wouldn’t have done anything if she hadn’t encouraged him. They also said Athena and her dad had been caught by her mom and Athena had called it rape. Then they said in rage, her mom had beaten Athena to a pulp, landing her in the hospital. The story had developed many versions and none of them was sure of the truth. They had implored her to confront Athena to tell her the truth so her parents could reconcile, particularly now that her mom was at the throes of death. That was when he saw her. And of course she had downloaded all she was told. He never heard the full story from Athena anyway, but some facts did sound familiar. It was not like he did not trust Athena, he just didn’t want doubts on his mind about the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. So he’s encouraged Toke to confront her. In private, he had emphasized the word ‘private’. Apparently, one of the uncles had prodded Toke again. The next thing he heard was the brief shouting match. Like a guilty party, Athena had withdrawn. He never knew her to back from a fight and her response… it wasn’t helping his calculating thoughts. He needed answers. Toke needed answers. Everyone needed answers. And Athena refused to give any! He’d lost it, said horrid things and in the end lost her. In retrospect, he was fine with what he had. They would have worked through his doubts between them.But he’d been too chicken to face the issue squarely.
He closed the bulky file and placed a call to Nigeria. He needed to confirm some things about this real estate deal with his dad. As usual, his dad’s mobile was switched off so he dialed the landline.
“Hey bruv, wasap?”
“Dele… good to hear from you. Don’t say you are missing home already”
“For where? I’m free from your mother’s wedding planning strategies for a while!”
“How now? What’s happening? You ok?”
“Yeah, I’m good. What are you doing at home anyway?”
“Came to drop something for momsy.”
“Is dad at home? His mobile is off…”
“His sleeping. Maybe he forgot to charge it or something…”
“Oh, okay, please ask him to call me when he wakes up, abeg.”
“Ok, no worries.”
“Alright, laters men, take care”
“Ahn ahn… just like that? You don’t wanna gist with your baby brother?”
“Not just in a gisting mood jare… Kinda brooding right now…”
“Why? Woman troubles?”
“How did you know?”
“Ofcourse it is! The way you were acting before you left… anyway, hope you got it under control”
“I wish I did, mehn!”
“Have ou talked to her?”
“I don’t know what to say… it’s a long thing, mehn…” Dele said, rubbing his temple, “very long and very complicated!”
“Well, I’m not really into your details, but whatever it is, talk to her. Don’t a woman ever accuse of keeping mum on an issue. Not good for you, bro!”
“Yeah, I hear you, man! It’s all good. Tell dad I called, okay?”
“Will do. take care, bruv!”
“You too, man.”
He dropped the phone and rubbed his temple with both hands. “Talk to her” his brother had said. Like he needed another excuse. He picked up the phone and booked an early flight to L.A. That would give him enough time to clear his desk and plenty time think of what to do once he got there.
Signing off on the London deal was a big one for Athena and PM LCC considering the current state of things in the finance sector. She hardly ever left her house these days. She had cut short her vacation for the London trip so she had a few more days to play with. She’s gone to New York to see her aunt over the weekend. She was still in the hospital but she was a lot better now. It was also a good opportunity to spend some time with Tomide and Tireni. She couldn’t say they had ‘bonded’ again like she and Toke did, but it was a start. They had agreed on how to fund her aunt’s treatment and she could see their shock at the amount she was willing to commit to it. She was making progress, howbeit, in baby steps. Somehow, they’ll all get through this. In her usual fashion, she was sitting in her covered foyer, escaping into the imagination of her most recent favorite author when she heard the door bell. Her first instinct was to ignore it, then she had second thoughts. She absentmindedly opened the door without bothering to ask who it was. Her wildest imagination couldn’t have conjured the faintest semblance of him. She had wished and hoped for days that he would turn up on her door. Her fervent prayers had given way to reality. But here he was, scattering her building resolve. At the sight of him she knew she why it was so hard to be without him. Dele came with all that she wanted. He was persistent as he was patient. And he eyes always spoke the words her heart could never tire to hear.
“I love you, Athena. I don’t want to ever live without you!”