The Derby Arboretum bubbled with lovers strolling hand in hand and sitting on the wooden benches. Families came to picnic, and children cavorted under the watchful eyes of their parents. Amidst all these excitements, Abbey sat alone under a magnolia tree, her hands held loosely in her lap. For six years, since she’d come to the UK, she’d been a regular visitor to the park. But she’d never found herself so lonely here like she was today. The breeze’s spindly fingers, rich with an earthy fragrance, grazed her cheeks, but this did nothing to ease her clenching stomach. The wind rustled the tree branches and tugged at the leaves, which floated like giant confetti, joining a mosaic of reds and browns that quilted the earth.
An unkindness of ravens circled, their black plumage set off against the mauve sky. She recalled fascinating bedtime Bible stories involving ravens her mother had told her as a child. The thought of her mother’s storytelling theatrics and the echo of her soothing, long-ago voice in Abbey’s ears made her smile. She wouldn’t mind reliving those days in Ibadan, in her mother’s bedroom with its perpetual camphor smell.
Taking her phone out of her purse, she walked toward the ravens to take their pictures. Two tanned girls—brunette and blonde—snuggled up to each other on a mat. Her insides tightened again, and she clutched at her purse. The brunette stroked her partner’s hair and kissed her forehead. Leaves fell and fluttered around Abbey’s feet, slowly leaving the branches unclad.
She slumped down on a chair to her right. The naked limbs reminded her of the approaching winter. The three previous cold seasons had been depressing. It was killing her not to have someone to spend her time with, someone to cuddle with under blankets in the long nights or binge Netflix with her. The dead weight of loneliness was more crushing than the despair of a broken relationship.
She’d had three dates. The first was a building engineer who walked with swaggering ease. He lived in the blue half of Manchester—that was how he described the location of his beamed-ceiling apartment, which was also an orgy of blue—but he didn’t understand a woman’s love language as much as he understood Pep Guardiola’s tactics for Manchester City.
The second had been a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike, whose refrigerator held bruised peaches. He was a business development manager in an insurance company listed on the London Stock Exchange. But he worked long hours, often through weekends and holidays. No time for her.
The third was a slim Zimbabwean, a doctor at the same hospital where she was a nurse, who hung chrome-framed pictures of Robert Mugabe in his house. How could a person adore a sit-tight leader, a man whose administration had rendered his national currency worthless, to the point of breaking the very first of the Ten Commandments?
While the dates hadn’t gone well, Abbey had vowed not to whine about her experiences. She couldn’t really because every subsequent date had been in her imagination. But the dreams had taken root in her mind; the line between her fantasy world and reality had blurred. Sometimes, she unconsciously searched for something one of her three suitors had left behind in her apartment.
Abbey’s phone beeped: a WhatsApp message from Leila. She’d encouraged Abbey to try online dating. Abbey had the impression it was for losers, those who’d lost hope of meeting a partner in real life. If you couldn’t strike love in the physical world, what was the chance of striking it in the virtual space?
But Leila had met Gustav Svensson, her Swedish boyfriend, on an app called Romance Fest. They’d been together for eight months, which was the longest time she’d ever dated a man.
Abbey had already installed the app and was considering when to start using it. She opened the app, then closed it. Logging on to Netflix, she renewed her subscription and watched a romance movie about a trans woman dating a trans man. It was comforting that no matter who you were, no matter where you found yourself, you could find a love who shared your identity. She stuck to the movie until the sunset paled on the horizon.
* * *
Abbey took a bite of her fettuccine, but it tasted bitter. She often came to Casia—this mid-priced, family-run Italian restaurant bordered by a bookstore and a florist on a tree-lined street—to give relief to a mind laden with terrible pictures from the hospital. When she used to drive straight home after work, the patients she’d nursed would appear in her dreams, their moaning and anguished faces haunting her. It was a worry she’d divulged to Rabiot, a French-born psychologist she’d met several times in the hospital cafeteria.
Rabiot had listened to her, his eyes unblinking, his elbows on the table, and his fists propping his chin. Then he’d said, “Perhaps you should find somewhere else to go first—a restaurant or a park—before you head home. There you can relax and free your mind of the burdens that it’s picked up around here.”
Since then, Abbey had let the sights and sounds in this restaurant—the arrivals and departures of patrons, the laughs, the patter of feet, and the samba of mastication—distract her until she could no longer feel the imprint of her patients or hear their moaning; until she’d had their images replaced with scenes from the street.
She sat at a table outside but lost her appetite as soon as the waitress, Danielle, placed the food before her. One patient weighed on Abbey’s mind—a middle-aged woman who’d been flown in from Lagos after her family had paid for her treatment through a crowd-funded event. Abbey had been working her ward this afternoon when the woman died.
She’d always felt the demise of a patient as a personal loss, but something about this woman’s death had impacted her emotions harder: the shattering of the woman’s unusual hope of survival, a hope anchored on her faith, resonating in her splintery voice—“I’ll survive this in Jesus’ name. I’ll return home with my health completely restored.”
The patient’s subsequent death in the face of such hope reminded Abbey that time flew, so one had better not wait to fulfill one’s dreams. She’d trudged to the nurses’ changing room, feeling as though her breath were being drained from her. There, she’d dropped into a chair and, teary, scrubbed her hand over her face.
Abbey’s throat grew shards, and it hurt to swallow. She glanced about as she played with her fork. The evening sun was a primrose yellow in the Derby sky. Two guys rode away carefree on their bikes. Then she saw the rangy man in a tweed blazer who’d become an everyday sight. He was pushing his baby in a buggy down the street. She’d always wondered where his wife was, or whether he was a full-time dad. She couldn’t think of herself having a man like that. A couple stomped past him as though hurrying to an emergency.
At the table next to hers sat a gray-haired couple. The woman laughed, tipping back her head. What had the man said that elicited such a hearty response from her? Could Abbey find a man to make her laugh, too? Could she survive another lonely winter? A sob rose in her throat. She didn’t realize her eyes had misted heavily with tears until the waitress came by.
“You’re crying?” Danielle said.
“Oh, Danielle,” she said with tremor in her voice, “I lost a patient today.” It was easier to tell the waitress she was grieving over a lost patient than to tell her she was in despair over her loneliness.
Danielle, eyes crinkling, put a hand to her chest. “I’m so sorry, darling. Please accept my condolences.”
Abbey choked on the ice-burn of the sob. “Thank you.”
It was a consolation she needed, but she had a sense that she could get much more using Romance Fest. It was as though finding love would compensate for the woman’s death. Or even just finding a man for the short term. A partner to satisfy her skin hunger, her craving for sensual touch during the freezing weather—those feelings the silver vibrator she’d named Ben couldn’t rouse in her.
She ate her fettuccine again, opened the app, and created her account. At first, when she uploaded ten pictures, she thought she was just crazy and desperate. But then she saw other women who had posted twenty or thirty pictures—an entire photo album—on the app.
She typed as her profile headline: Whiskey in a teacup. Then she wrote in the “About Me” space: Am a caring, hardworking and voluptuous girl, I may come off a little shy at first but am really a nice person. I enjoy reading mystery and suspense novels and watching Marvel and DC movies. I love cuddling and long passionate kisses. My love language is important. I desire touch. Am a good cook.
Abbey included this last attribute because almost all the Black girls on the app had mentioned it. They’d written, “I enjoy cooking,” “I’m skilled at preparing sumptuous meals for my lover,” or “Cooking is my hobby.”
Maybe these girls had found that cooking was the way to a man’s heart. Again taking their lead, Abbey added, My perfect date is a romantic walk on the beach/in a park or spending time at a cinema.
I want a Derby-based man that is beautiful inside and out, industrious and capable of genuine intention. She wrote, I want a God-fearing man, but deleted it because that would make her sound self-righteous or too religious (even though she had been raised by a mother who was a devout Anglican) and like a typical Nigerian girl looking for a husband. In its place, she wrote: I want a man that will not abandon his family, that will treasure his wife and children forever. Am not for bedroom fettering and binding. Only demons should be chained. Am not a demon. LOL!
She guzzled her wine, relishing its rich cinnamon flavor. Hadn’t she accessed a new universe, where her options on love would be infinite, where overtures would be so overwhelming as to crush the previous uncertainties that had besieged her? The warmth that coursed through her veins must have brightened her countenance because when Danielle came for her money, she remarked, “Good to see you’ve turned on your beautiful face again.”
* * *
Two days later, a Black man with the name Tudor reached out to Abbey on the app. He was thirty-six, three years older than her, and had a long, narrow face. He said she looked cool and gorgeous. He would love to earn a chance to see her beautiful face. The message made her cheeks tingle. She couldn’t have had a compliment more befitting than that. Over the next four days, they exchanged messages, talking about growing up, love, and work. She’d started to feel a connection with him, but then he stopped replying to her.
Hi, Tudor, I hope you had a wonderful day. I hope you are faring well.
Are you okay over there?
Hey, Tudor! What’s up with you?
It was frustrating to see that her messages had been read without any reply. Had she said something rude that made him stop answering her? She went through her messages and found nothing discourteous.
At Casia, over plates of fettuccine, Abbey told Leila about her frustration.
“There are weird guys on dating apps. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that.” Leila was the queen of internet dating and had explored thirty or so other apps. “You might come across some random dude who shows interest at first but later ignores you.”
Outraged, Abbey dropped her fork. “Without giving you any reason?”
“That’s what ghosts do.” Leila chewed her food. “I met a few, too, before Gustav.”
“Ghosts, ghosts,” Abbey said, eyeing the long, curling ribbons that massed together on her plate as though the pasta were strange to her.
“You can also call them ‘sons of bitches,’” Leila said. “You might think they’re into you, not knowing they’re setting you up for abandonment.”
Abandonment. Abbey had known it since she was four—when her father had deserted his family. Her youngest older sister, Rachael, was eight, and her oldest older sister, Rebecca, was eleven. What Abbey remembered of that time was her mother crying day and night, neighbors coming to their apartment to console them, and Abbey longing to see her father return home to comfort her mother.
A flame of pain burst in Abbey’s stomach and spread to her chest. She fought the urge to cry.
“Whatever happens,” Leila said, “I’m still rooting for you.”
Abbey wiped a tear from her eye.
* * *
A second man, named Krull, sent Abbey a “flirt.” His profile read that he indulged in mountaineering. His first photo showed him in his full kits at the base of a mountain. The second showed him beaming atop the mountain, his rope, helmet, and carabiners at his feet. He had a ruddy square face.
A lover of adventure might be an interesting personality for her to meet. She responded with, “Hello, Krull the Everest (three smiling emojis). How have you been?”
Two days passed, and Krull had remained silent. It was disappointing to have met another ghost.
“Hello, babe?” she called Leila. “Guess my second experience on Romance Fest.”
Krull’s silence still hurt. But she laughed to disguise her pain. “Deader than the first.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I love that you made light of it. Another one has eliminated himself.” Leila spoke in the cockney accent she’d been imitating of late since she started attending an evening drama school. “You’re closer to getting a living soul than when you started using the app. You know what I mean by a living soul?”
“They won’t waste your time. They know what they want. Gustav is one of them. He called me the same day we messaged each other on the app.”
“That’s comforting,” Abbey said. Unlike her, Leila was an extroverted empath, and Abbey couldn’t help but love her for that. Sometimes she wished she had Leila’s kind of cross-cultural background. Leila’s father was from Bridgetown in Jamaica, while her mother was a Black American mixed with the Blackfoot and Choctaw Indian tribes.
“Be expectant of another man,” Leila said.
Abbey was hopeful, and within forty-eight hours, another man, Mason, contacted her. His profile revealed that he was romantic, accommodating, and appreciated Black beauty. He might have added the last feature because of her. His marital status read Separated. He left a love-up message in her inbox.
Hey, Abbey. You’re beautiful. I admire your blackness. Might we connect?
She wasn’t excited about his note. Tudor had worded a better compliment than Mason’s, which had led her nowhere. The former’s impeccable use of grammar had made her realize she’d been reckless with her punctuation on the app. Anyway, she was also wary of Mason for not having more than one photo. The image was even a long shot of him wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts on a beach. His hair, which seemed blown, was plastered to his forehead. In an age where most people had smartphones, shouldn’t a profile consist of more than one picture?
In her apartment, Abbey whined to Leila about Mason’s single snapshot.
“Oh, men don’t take pictures as much as we do.” Leila gestured to the several framed photos of Abbey and her sisters on the walls and TV stand. “Do you think they have time for it? It can never be their hobby. Gustav had two pictures when I stumbled on his profile.”
“All right, I’ve heard you.” Abbey raised her hands, laughing. “No more complaint about his lack of photos.”
Leila clapped. “That’s my girl! You should meet him first before you make your final decision.”
Later, Abbey reclined on the bed and logged onto Romance Fest. She found that Krull had deactivated his account and realized that Tudor had only two pictures. Most of the men on the app had only one or two photos, as though it had been a unanimous decision.
* * *
When Abbey’s shift ended at ten the next evening, she clocked out and walked to the nurses’ parking lot humming a song, her sneakers bouncing on the asphalt. One of her patients had regained consciousness, while another had been discharged. What could be more satisfying at a hospital?
The stars twinkled across the night sky like sugar sprinkled on chocolate pudding, and she found it hard to hold back a smile. She got into her car, opened Romance Fest, and texted Mason.
Hello, Mason, many thanks for your compliments. I hope you’re fine.
He replied at once. I’m fine. You?
Had he activated a notification for her message? I’m good. Thanks.
This opening stirred a flurry of messages between them. His real name was Farhad Chekri. He was born to British and Iranian parents and worked as a consultant cloud architect. She admitted she hadn’t heard of that profession. After he sent a lengthy message about front-end and back-end platforms, Linux and Unix, and Google cloud technologies, she realized she wasn’t interested in learning anything more about his work than her present blissful ignorance. She felt relieved when he changed the subject to his love for risotto-and-shrimp dinners—a combination she hadn’t tried, but would like to.
We could have it together. How about that? he wrote with colorful love and dinner emoticons.
It’s possible, she replied with two smiling emojis. The beam of a headlight through her windshield jolted her, and she looked out to see a car reversing away. A uniformed guard patrolled the park. She was safe.
Nice. I’m great company, Farhad responded.
She sent him three thumbs-up emojis. Without missing a beat, he dropped his phone number. As she gazed at it, her blood pulsed. Wasn’t it too early to share contact info? As if he’d read her mind, he asked if he’d been too hasty in sending his number. She answered no, it was all right, recalling Leila’s pronouncement that “A living soul won’t waste time!” When she dropped her own number, he called right away. She was struck by his deep mellow voice, which soothed like a warm caress. It so entranced her that when he asked to meet at the Arboretum on Saturday evening, she said, “Cool. Okay,” without thinking.
“Five in the evening,” he said. “How about that?”
“Yes, five is fine.”
But when the call ended, she gripped the steering wheel and asked herself if she’d been too quick to agree. Her hands trembled. Wasn’t it rushing things to set up a hang out in two days’ time? Clearly, he was desperate for her, wasn’t he? Was there anything off about him—something psychopathic, or who knows what? Had any unsuspecting women fallen prey to his wiles? A few months ago, a young woman’s body was found in an alley near a popular bar, having been stabbed in her crotch. Abbey wasn’t sure if the local Sherlock Holmes had apprehended Kayla’s killer.
She took a deep breath and put the car into gear. Normally, she was a leisure motorist whose driving far below the speed limit infuriated Leila. But this evening, she pressed more gas, cutting through the road as though escaping from Mason or the promise she’d given him.
Back in her apartment, she slumped onto her bed. Could her longing for a romantic relationship turn into something more macabre? She called Leila and told her about her conversation with Farhad, then expressed her misgivings about their date.
“You think he might be a predator seeking his next prey? Yes, he’s probably the person who killed poor Kayla some months back, right? Babe, your mind is running amok.” This was conveyed in her big-auntie voice. “You’ve read too many whodunit books. Paranoia is a toxin. Murder mystery has poisoned your mind with dark imaginings.”
“It has nothing to do with books.” She sat up. Streetlights pierced the gap in the curtains and blond-streaked the third drawer of her mahogany dresser.
“What is it, then?”
Silent, she wandered to the living room. A part of her wanted to keep hoarding her trauma.
“Aren’t you gonna meet Farhad in the open? At the Arboretum, you said?”
“Babe, just look your best on Saturday and be there.” A truck passed outside during the short silence on the line. “Listen carefully, Ms. Paranoia: he isn’t going to harm you in the park. You aren’t meeting in a secluded place, are you?”
“Then just meet him and see if you two hit it off. I’ll be waiting to hear how it went.” A dramatic yawn from her had Abbey smiling. “I had a long day. I’m going to crash now.”
“He might be the one and he might not. Either way, you’ve got nothing to lose. But you’ve got to give it a shot. There’s nothing to worry about, is there?”
“How I wish that was true,” Abbey said under her breath, then realized Leila had hung up.
She could deceive everyone except herself. Her dread wasn’t about the possibility of falling prey to a psychopath—that story was to cloak the secret fear of abandonment she bore ever since her father’s sudden disappearance years earlier. The aftermath of his vanishing had been tortuous: the unwritten rule not to talk about him in the house; her mother destroying all his photos before she turned five; her now-adult mind still heavy with questions about his whereabouts.
When she dropped her phone on the TV stand, she gazed at Rebecca and Rachael’s pictures. She’d been twelve when she overheard them—during a rare moment when they spoke about him in passing—saying that her father had run off with another woman. As she grew up, some questions begged for answers: Why would a father abandon his home? What fatal attraction lured him away from his beautiful daughters? Would he have abandoned them if they were boys? The questions were to remain unanswered; a knotted web that couldn’t be untangled.
For years, she’d struggled with the sharp pain of abandonment without telling a soul. Whenever her despair flared up, her desire for a lover seemed frivolous and illusory—no matter how much she longed for romance. She coughed to clear her throat and wiped tears off her cheeks. Her sisters were married with kids. Why was she the only one being haunted by the ghost of his disappearance? Was it because she was the last born and hadn’t had much of him by the time he left?
The tears flowed as her two warring selves—one wanting and the other not wanting a lover—screamed at her. The wanting part insisted Farhad was a good catch. She should wrap her fingers around this treasure and see where it led. The not-wanting self warned that it would be suicidal to end up abandoned like her mother. It was safer for her to open her palm and let the so-called jewel slip away. It was surreal to have a part of her grieve the gain of a good catch, while another part celebrated the loss of this treasure.
Her wanting self desired someone to cuddle under the blankets in the long winter nights. That part had registered on Romance Fest. The not-wanting self had used Mason’s single picture as an excuse not to message him at first. It used Kayla’s murder as a warning to stop her from meeting with him, had been happy when Tudor stopped replying, and was delighted when Krull didn’t respond to her messages. That self kept her away from the building engineer, the business development manager, and the doctor, so she only dated the trio in her imagination, seeing them whenever Ben served her sexual urges. The not-wanting self was the locker that hoarded her pain—the being she hadn’t revealed to Leila.
Now the two voices pushed and jostled in her head, her temples throbbing from the impact. She dropped to the floor and hugged her head to her knees, her tears falling to the floor.
* * *
On Saturday evening, Abbey sat gazing into her dresser mirror, applying makeup, when Leila called.
“Hi, sweetheart. You should be preparing to meet him, right?”
Abbey let out a breath to release the pressure building inside her. “I’ll be on my way in the next twenty minutes.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Not really? You’re sure?”
“Yes.” She didn’t dare admit her edginess. Leila had switched to her big-auntie voice, and she couldn’t bear another of her motivational talks.
“Hey, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be waiting to hear how it went.”
Farhad had phoned about 3:30 p.m.—a video call at his request. His dark, curly hair framed a broad, open face wreathed in smiles, his lips pink, as if moistened with Burgundy wine. Abbey, does this guy look like a killer? Come on, can you identify a killer by their face? He’d said he couldn’t wait to meet her and wished their 5 p.m. date was in Glasgow time as opposed to Derby’s. It would have left them thirty minutes to meet instead of ninety. She’d laughed and promised to be at the park at five o’clock sharp. Still, she hadn’t bothered to add his name to her contact list.
For one last time, she appraised herself in the mirror—her cheeks rouged with dusty rose, her eyes shot into prominence by two-toned eyeliner, her low-cut hair dyed champagne red, and her parrot-green ruffled blouse tucked snug into a modest tan skirt. Satisfied, she grasped her purse and stepped out of her apartment. Her feet grew heavy as she walked to her car, and she plopped into the driver’s seat as though her legs had given out. It was a quarter to five. She could be at the Arboretum within ten minutes. Fierce heartbeats vibrated her chest. Did she really want to go? Should she go? She wiped her moist palms on her skirt and drove out, in spite of herself.
* * *
She found a parking spot, pulled over, and got out. The tree-lined street smelled like the exhaust of a dryer vent. But two blocks to Casia, the smell gave way to the aromatic delights of Paulo’s cooking— layers upon layers of them: Bolognese sauce, minced beef, flavored olive oil, garlic, basil, all tickling her nose, and so lively and refreshing. She took a deep breath.
When she arrived at the restaurant, she chose a table outside. Danielle was attending to a young interracial couple—a Black man and his brunette partner—whose presence hit at Abbey that she should be with Farhad.
Danielle finished and came over to her table. She wore a salmon-colored shirt with the inscription ‘Casia,’ and a peasant skirt. “Hey, nice to see you again.” She ventured a smile that deepened the green of her irises. “Fettuccine and Bolognese sauce?”
Abbey switched off her phone. “Risotto and shrimp, this time, please, and red wine.”
“Trying something new?”
“Don’t we all need to once in a while?”
Danielle nodded and went inside. A gentle breeze swept through the street, bringing with it an unexpected chill. A deep laugh burst from the couple but she kept her gaze averted. Leaves tumbled from branches of nearby trees—red and brown flags bereft of cords—and waltzed across the road.
Danielle returned with the order and poured the wine into a glass. “You look so fabulous today.”
“Do you have a date somewhere? Or are you meeting here?”
Abbey checked her watch. Ten minutes past five. “I was supposed to meet someone.”
“You stood him—or her, or them, up?”
Danielle stayed silent, contemplative, her features solemn. “Why? It’s terrible to be stood up.”
Abbey wanted to say she was afraid to go through with the date but the words escaped her. Instead, she glanced down at her wine, shoulders pulled in. Danielle forced a weak smile past her disappointment and left. Abbey picked at her food.
As if a menu god had cast its enchantment, the restaurant soon surged with patrons. Danielle moved from table to table, and Abbey salved her guilt with the pleasant sights and sounds around her. She savored her wine and had her glass refilled. When she finished her food, it was just about six. The meal had fortified her, and she felt good as she settled her bill.
Back in her car, it occurred to her that the buggy pusher hadn’t passed this evening. Or had she missed him? But what did his passing have to do with her life? Why was she consumed with the whereabouts of a stranger she would never summon the courage to meet? She exited the parking spot.
Farhad? The thought came with a long sigh.
How many times had he called her over the past hour? She imagined him combing the length and breadth of the park like a surveyor on reconnaissance, approaching every Black woman and receiving the same answer: “No, I’m not Abbey Bello,” or “I’m sorry, I’m not the one.” Was he worried, angry, or disappointed?
She headed nowhere in particular. Later, she found herself on a road she’d passed earlier. She followed a cavalcade of bikes and, after a stoplight, veered eastward, passing the sex shop where she’d bought Ben. A southbound turn led through a drive-in cinema where she, Leila, and Gustav had watched a movie two Saturdays before. A short time later, she found herself on the road that led to the Arboretum.
When she pulled over across from the park entrance, she hunched over the steering wheel. An animated troop of picnickers came out of the recreation center. Farhad could be any man there with red lips and dark, curly hair, emerging with a sad countenance. Sad because of her. The guilt returned like a curtain covering her heart. She shouldn’t feel regret. Could she bear abandonment like her mother had? The curtain went down.
She was sure he couldn’t identify her. When they’d video-called, her face had been plain. Afterward, working the magic of makeup, she’d slipped into her other face, which stemmed from human effort rather than Mother Nature. She was wearing this facade like protective gear, and it would see her home safely.
The only man who had red lips, dark, curly hair, and wore a forlorn face emerged with a woman and two teenage girls. He couldn’t be Farhad. His profile had indicated he was separated. The family moved down the street. Then her gaze strayed to some ravens looping in a half circle overhead and she recalled the story of Noah in her mother’s Bible. Didn’t a raven dash his hope when it flew away, never to return, never to meet his expectations? The story unmasked her own behavior and gnawed at her conscience. She bit her lip hard. Why was she even idling here? She wasn’t going to beckon to Farhad even if she spotted him, or was she?
She put the car in gear and retraced her drive back, watching billboards glow and storefronts glimmer through signs and awnings.
* * *
Earlier, she’d tucked the quilt tight as though she’d intended to bring Farhad home. Now she slid into bed and switched on her phone. The WhatsApp icon appeared at the top corner of the screen. She swiped down the indicator. The messages were from Leila and Farhad. As she imagined the texts they might have sent—Leila wanting to know about their outing, and Farhad expressing his displeasure—a cold needle of unease threaded its way through her insides. Anyhow, Leila’s message shouldn’t be too bitter to chew.
Hey sweetheart, I’ve been trying to reach you. Call me asap.
Abbey jolted as her phone rang. It was Leila.
“Hey, babe. Did you switch off your phone?” she asked. “How did it go? Do you like him?”
Abbey hesitated. “I didn’t see him.”
“He didn’t show up?”
“I didn’t go.” She almost whispered it, as though it were a secret.
“What? Did you say…? You stood him up?” Leila’s voice was tight and high, a tone that indicated arduous control over her imminent outburst of venom.
“I didn’t…” Abbey ran two fingers over her brow. “I don’t feel it’s ideal that we meet.”
“Do you realize you’re now the ghost?”
“My mind wasn’t settled enough for me to go there.”
“Bitch!” Leila hissed. The line went dead.
Abbey felt suddenly exhausted. She dropped the phone at her side. It beeped. Farhad was video-calling through WhatsApp. The pit of her stomach froze. She couldn’t stand seeing the disappointment on his face or hearing it in his voice. Why hadn’t she switched off her data? The tooting stopped. A moment later, the phone rang again. She covered her face with her palms. What excuse could she give him without her voice growing choppy or her features betraying her? Her words wouldn’t make sense—not to him, not to herself either. The tension wound itself around her guts like sickness.
The silence that followed tunneled through her ears. Another set of messages dropped. She shuddered as she opened the chat page.
Hello Abbey. I keep wondering why you didn’t come, began the first message Farhad had sent at 6:12 p.m. I went round the park looking for you until I was tired. I was worried when I couldn’t reach you on your phone. Please, call and let me know you’re fine.
She should call him that she was fine? Then what? It wasn’t as easy as he’d projected.
I’m disappointed because I shortchanged my son, the latest series of messages began. The time I should’ve used to walk him in his buggy I wasted going to the park instead.
She could hear his voice in the texts, throbbing with sadness. It broke her heart to think Farhad was likely the rangy man who buggy-pushed his child down the street near Casia. She hadn’t seen him this evening because he’d gone to the park, hoping to meet her.
Things might have happened that you hadn’t bargained for.
We can make arrangements for another day. Possibly next weekend.
Please message me back.
The texts aroused her. It seemed he was saying, I’m an embodiment of everything romantic you desire in a man. I’m giving you another chance to give my love a shot.
Indeed, it pleased her to aim for his love. But they didn’t have to wait until next weekend. She went over to the dresser, pulling at the third drawer. She dug past her crotchless panties and other lingerie to the bottom of the drawer where Ben was nestled in a velvety bag. The craving that followed was one she’d felt after she’d evaded the building engineer and the business development manager; the irrepressible urge she’d satisfied before—which, in turn, had smothered her guilt of ghosting. She slid back into bed and closed her eyes.
In the park, Farhad draped his arm around Abbey as they strolled along the carpet of reds and browns laid out like one for the queen.
“The rangy buggy pusher,” she teased.
“The Black Florence Nightingale scared of abandonment,” he said, and she laughed, tipping back her head.
When they sat on a bench, she burrowed into the warm, exotic smell of his Oxford shirt, unmindful of the leaves fluttering around her feet. The breeze crooned blues in the tree above them. He pressed his mouth to hers, filling her with his peppermint breath. It gave her a sensation that made her breath catch in her throat.
By then, Ben was inside her. ■
About the author
Olusola Akinwale grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria. His works have appeared in the Hamilton Stone Review, Silk Road Review, Prole, Western Post, the Monarch Review, the Cardiff Review and elsewhere. He was a winner of two national essay contests in Nigeria and a finalist for the 2017 Galtellì Literary Prize in Sardinia, Italy. An alumnus of the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing workshop, he can be tracked on twitter.com@olusolaakinwale