I always pride myself as the best waiter in Faaji Restaurant and Lounge. Maybe even in the whole of Ibadan. But all afternoon as I skid around the hall, taking orders and filling the pockets on my apron with tips, I am wary that my full-faced smile hangs like an ill-fitting piece of clothing. I won’t lie, the smile can only be fake if you have to plaster it on your face all through a ten-hour shift, every day, but usually I have the confidence of a magnet hunting metal to pull it off. Today, all thanks to Moh, that confidence is tied to my ankle, its weight mopping the floor behind me, dragging me down, reminding me that I’d rather be elsewhere crying my eyes out into a bucket.
Twice, I’ve stolen away to the restroom to shed the burden of pretence. My reflection is broken through the cracks and blind spots in the old mirror sitting on the tiled wall. I imagine my heart broken into more pieces, struggling to keep beating as one, each pump a laboured effort. My tears ache to break through the misty clouds around my eyes, but there’s a huge reason I cannot cry here. If even one of my fellow ankara apron-wearing colleagues catches a whiff of Moh’s breakup with me, I’m sure the news will grow wings and fly to quarters that will ridicule me. Amira might not work here anymore, but I know I can’t stop her from hearing eventually, too. I must first grieve this day out, however.
Only six months ago, I was everyone’s darling. Well, everyone except Amira. She always wanted my finesse, my reputation. It was only because of her one-sided competition that the others began to insinuate that she was better than me, and then Moh changed everything. It’s not my fault that my voluptuous backside got to him. Neither is it my fault that he is so sweetly handsome. And as much as they’ve all agreed not to believe me, we already had an all-night romp before he told me he was involved with Amira. Alas, it was her who told me she didn’t want him anymore when I tried to confirm with her. Sorry, I’m not one to taste good food and bin it because someone else doesn’t want it anymore.
And thus it all started. They raise their noses when customers request for me particularly. They call me aproko, saying I never mind my business. But in the end, there’s a reason why even Obiageli – the ginger-haired workaholic who could balance four trays on her two arms all at once – got the sack and I’m still here. I’ve been here longer than any of them, and they think that’s all because I don’t mind my business. I wonder if they remember that taking care of other people’s needs is our job, and so, minding our business means sticking our noses in places other than the space between our eyes and mouth. The way I see it, if being an aproko helps me retain my spot as the best here, then I’ll wear the title like a badge of honour.
About a month after Moh and I started dating, Amira got her last laugh anyway. I was serving my radiant smile at a nearby table when Monsur, one of our richest customers, climbed out of his seat and fell on one knee before Amira. Well, at least I thought he fell, like it was some kind of mistake, until all the gasps and cheers and the gleam of the stone on the ring he was holding out suddenly dawned the situation on me. You should have heard the way she screamed yes as if she was scared her spell might wipe off him if she didn’t answer quickly.
I couldn’t help smirking in disdain because I knew just how this happened. Amira was not the only one who heard Mr. Bayo commiserate with Monsur the first time we saw him in Faaji Restaurant and Lounge. I did too. The music gulped most of the other sounds in the hall, but I heard him talking about how cancer had taken his wife, and how he was going to be frequenting our place because he always loved the food before he got married. Just the same way I heard one of his guests tease him about considering dating again on the same day I asked Amira about Moh. It’s therefore a wonder that my colleagues pretend as though my ears leave my head and wander around the restaurant picking up random words, and Amira’s don’t. Well, she is the one who now lives in a glass house on his private estate in New Bodija, not me, the labelled one.
Amira mastered the poke-nose, and it has rewarded her with a posh life. One would think the beef would end there, but no it didn’t. Every single time she’s been back here since her status changed, it’s one other colleague or the other serving her, never me. Not like I would like to serve her anyway, but she never misses an opportunity to relegate me and make someone else look like they’re better than me. Her only comment ever to me is: How are you and Moh? Later when she’s gone, she’d call them to laugh and laugh, I imagine, in her rich woman robes with maids and stewards cowering at her behest. And later when I get home, I’ll lay my moodiness on Moh, reminding him in all the ways I can think of that he doesn’t have money. Without actually saying the words.
At least, I had someone to nag and complain to when Moh was there. In the vast abundance of everything swimming about in this big world, he was all I could call mine. At a certain age, being an orphan no longer gets you any favours. I remember how much I hated living with my grandma; her incessant bickering about being the best at whatever you do. I remember being passed on by everyone when I ran off to Ibadan, thinking I could move in with other relatives here. I remember hawking wares in Dugbe market at just seventeen so I could afford a nightly bed space. It was sewing for the next two years, and serving at a local buka for another four. It’s now five years since fate brought me to Faaji Restaurant and Lounge and it is here that I’ve perfected my grandma’s mantra. Now that Moh is gone, this place has a whole new meaning. I know I said I would rather be elsewhere crying my eyes out into a bucket, but where else am I truly welcome, really?
I open my eyes to a glimpse of myself in the mirror and brush off the mild wetness that has slipped onto my eyelids. I sniffle back a powerful urge to let the tears flow. I run my hands over the fringe covering my forehead and pat the ponytail at the back, then I run both hands down the sides to my ears to ensure the wig is sitting pretty. Just as I straighten my apron and step away from the mirror, Bolaji’s unmistakable raspy voice filters into the restroom.
‘Jolade, are you here?’
I hesitate at first, but the voice is close enough so I might as well respond. ‘Yes, I am.’ I try to sound as firm and confident as I can muster.
And around the corner she appears. But it’s not just her. There’s also Bisi, Chioma. And even Akin. Did he not read the ladies sign outside? Why the hell is he in here?
‘What’s going on?’ I ask, my eyes darting from one to the other, searching them for answers.
‘Oh dear.’ It is Bisi, coming over to place her palms on my shoulders. ‘We heard about Moh. We’re so sorry.’
I feel my heart sink, taking all the defences I had built up all day with it. Within seconds my face is gleaming with so much tears, it is as though everything I bottled got set free at once.
‘Look at you, Jolade, your fine skin and your big big hips,’ Chioma’s face is in mine, her big eyes, narrow nose and thin lips too close for comfort, her cheap body spray assaulting my nostrils. She reeks of an eagerness to appear sincere. ‘The only thing Moh can lose that is bigger than losing you is his life.’
The others chorus a nod. Bolaji guides my head to rest on her bony shoulder. Bisi wipes the streams of tears from my face, her badly painted nails threatening to poke my eyes. Akin stands at a distance and packs such tenderness into his ‘sorry babe,’ which he says at regular intervals like it is programmed. It irks me to feel this vulnerable. Damn! Losing one’s boyfriend should have a guide; something that helps to deal with all the many strange ways one feels all at the same time. Because even though I came in determined to get through the day without letting them know, my body shakes so much in response to the comfort and concern they have offered, and both my nose and mouth have joined my eyes in seeping, weeping, and I have absolutely no control over any of it.
Soon, the buzzer goes off and we’re forced to disperse. I take a few extra minutes to powder my face and get myself back together. Some moments later, I’m back strutting through the hall, hovering over the tables with the biggest smile I’ve ever worn in this place, leaving with notes and returning with trays of foods and drinks. It does not matter what type of customer sits at the table – the smiling ones, the straight-faced ones, the not-bothering-to-look-up ones – my exaggerated facial stretch stays intact.
Before long, my enthusiasm at executing my job eclipses my heartbreak, even if only for brief moments in between. My walk is straight. My steps are elegant. My colleagues all smile and let me have whatever table I want. It’s a different kind of day today, maybe. The twin pockets on my apron bulge from all the tips. Table after table, I serve, and my confidence builds. The next one is occupied by a smiling man sitting all by himself.
‘What a beautiful girl,’ he says as I arrive at the table, a gold tooth peeking from his neat dentition. His eyebrows are so full they almost kiss and his dark and shiny sideburns join with his beards to give prominence to the pinkness of his full lips and the brightness of his smile.
I blush and giggle. My heart starts to beat fast, but a nagging ache quickly cautions it to slow back down. I take his order and hurry away, abandoning my practised straight walk and elegant steps. At the counter, Bisi reads my notes and hands me a glass cup and a bottle of water. I lay them side by side on a tray and carry it back to the table, the stretch on my smile so wide it hurts my facial muscles. I look searchingly for the gold tooth to peep from behind all the rich hair around his lips, but the lips remain shut, and his eyes wear a sudden uneasiness. A slim woman in a brightly coloured gown and with gold adornments shimmering from all over her face – ears, nose, eyebrow, lips – slips next to him at the table. The way his face doesn’t leave the TV on the nearest pillar to him until I take my leave, he might as well have been a statue.
I struggle to keep my smile from shrinking as I head away from the table. There’s a weakness in my knees, and all of a sudden, the cool breeze from the multiple ACs high on the walls seem to have gotten under my skin. My misery, again, starts to gather itself within me, and my eyes, again, find themselves sitting behind gathering mists. I’m still many steps from the counter but I can already sense the switch in demeanour. I can already tell that the topic making all four of the other waiters jeer so heartily is me. I can’t believe I allowed myself to fall for their charade of care and concern. My heart, again, slips down my chest and is at the soles of my heels by the time I place my empty tray on the counter.
‘I can’t believe you actually didn’t know he was with a woman,’ Bolaji smiles, the mockery unmistakably simmering in her raspy voice. ‘Don’t you always know everything about everyone from the moment they walk in?’
‘It’s the Moh thing, I’m sure,’ Bisi says from behind the counter, sounding all-knowing. ‘When they bail on you like that, sometimes you forget food goes to the mouth and not the nose.’
‘Amira scored a big one, but I’m sure she didn’t have to smile so hard,’ Chioma lets the words trail her as she strolls away to take a customer’s order.
I feel a big hand press down on my shoulder and squeeze lightly. The voice is Akin’s: ‘Keep smiling babe, don’t mind these ones.’
I wish I could help it, but in all honesty, I do mind them and their words. I can’t deny it’s the Moh thing. Am I not rightly labelled an aproko? I’m the one who reads a person from his silhouette behind the entrance door before he pushes it open to reveal himself. By the time I appear at a table, I already know if it is ‘bonjour’, ‘buenos dias’, or ‘good morning'. More than anyone else, I know better than just walking up to a customer and asking what they would like. I gave tutorials to each of these four when they started here, teaching them how it’s better to stand aside, smile and wait to be spoken to if the customer is one that is typing away on their phone. And every time any of them forgot and the customer bit their head off, I was the one they always ran to until Amira decided to extend her competition to teaching.
Yet, it is from me they all – including Amira herself – learned that smelling a cheap perfume often means no tip; that if a customer is sweaty in this our air-conditioned atmosphere, they’re likely too tensed to want a waiter breathing down their neck; and that if the customer happens to be talking on the phone, or to someone they’ve come in with, that’s an especially lucky situation because their tone and mood tell you all you need to know. These four here didn’t quite grasp that last bit because it is difficult for most people to discern coherent words in a hall engulfed by loud music, but not Amira. How else did she get Monsur to give her a ring?
Right now though, all this knowledge has cleared out of my head for the ghost of my breakup to roam free. I know these four think it is karma, but they’re smiling in my face and patting my back anyway. I imagine any one of them already whipped out their phone and typed out my nightmare to Amira. When Moh left her for me, she had laughed and pretended like she didn’t care. I bet she would laugh even harder hearing this, holding out her phone to confirm that she read it right as she pampers her skin at some stupid rich woman spa, or sits in a bedside jacuzzi in her stupid rich woman glass house.
Two gentlemen – one black and one oyinbo – walk into the restaurant as I sit there at the bar, swimming in self-pity. They are having a tense exchange as they make their way to an empty table by a window overlooking the car park on the outside. They settle in on either side of the table, ignoring the world around them and continuing their exchange. The black man has pushed his sunglasses up so his forehead now wears them, and the oyinbo has set his fedora hat on the table.
My mind is still cloudy, and my head, haunted, but my body is already halfway through the hall, moving towards the two men in slow, measured steps.
‘...this is how we do things here, Craig,’ the black man is saying. ‘It doesn’t matter if you are marrying your best friend, you have to pay the bride price, and of all the beautiful young girls that I know, my sister’s price is still the cheapest.’
‘Come on, Chi Boy,’ his oyinbo friend, the Craig, responds. ‘What you call cheapest can land me a moderate house in the fucking Hamptons. You and your family need to know that I’m only marrying your sister, not fucking buying her like she’s some commodity.’
The bit I’ve picked up from their conversation is my cue to keep walking. Past their table, I’m smiling at other customers, especially those whose tables I’m waiting, asking if they need anything. Most have their eyes glued to their phones or to the huge TVs hanging down from the walls and pillars. The woman with gold adornments follows me with her eyes, her arm ensnaring her statued man’s neck.
My mind debates with itself on whether I saw the oyinbo smile at me, or not. I can swear his eyes stalked me as I floated past him, and if they did, then he must have seen my big behind swing carelessly as I swayed all the way before completing a full circle at the counter.
These four are more vicious with their mockery now, but I still smile like I’m convinced their words are genuine compliments. I stand at the counter, flipping through the familiar pages of the menu. My back is in the line of vision of the oyinbo, but that’s only if he’s looking. Bolaji must have said something funny, because the others all chorus a laugh after a low murmur. It must be about me, but I smile all the same.
Akin swallows his laugh midway and points at himself, his expression asking a question. Then he’s pointing at me saying, ‘it’s you they want.’
I look over my shoulder to find the oyinbo’s eyes fixed on me. This Craig, ehn.
‘Come over here, will ya?’ Somehow, his high-pitched voice finds its way to the counter despite the loud music.
My heart runs into a misstep as an idea flash across my mind. I love my job, but Amira loved it more, and even she was able to conjure up a ring somehow and move on from here. The story these four tell is that Amira had been a caregiver for Monsur’s wife before she died, and she was the reason he became a customer at the restaurant in the first place. But I’m not fooled. I know better – she heard him on the phone like I did, and she must have taken her chances, period!
As I scribble a note on a torn piece of white paper, I feel cold sweat build up on my palms and down my spine. I’m not going to die waiting tables here, my mind fights back. I, too, want a man and a home and children, all the things my ailing grandma has hounded me for all these years. At twenty-eight, perhaps I can finally grant her a last wish. And so, I place two menus side by side and push the white paper into the middle of one. I pick the two up and head to the table, sliding my wide smile back into place.
‘...a distant cousin, kind of like a different alternative, but this one is not as fine as my sister.’ I catch Chi Boy’s words as I advance on the table, my arrival making him pause the conversation.
The oyinbo runs his long fingers through his scruffy beard and rubs his bald scalp, his ocean-blue eyes saying more than his thin-lipped mouth. Craig, Craig. I hide a faint smile.
Chi Boy turns his wrist and looks down at a watch strapped on it, then he turns to me and says dismissively, ‘we’ll call you when we’re ready.’
I curtsy and drop both menus on the table, stealing another look at the oyinbo before turning and moving reluctantly away from the table. My mind is in panic mode and the sweat on my palms can drown a small insect.
This is thirty minutes later and I’m standing here at the bus stop opposite Faaji Restaurant and Lounge with my packed bag and a dazed mind. Over and over, I ask myself what I was thinking. Stupid. Stupid. Stewpeed! I thought losing Moh hurt. I’m not sure how to describe losing my job. If only I can wind back those gruesomely embarrassing thirty minutes and take my stewpeed note back.
When the buzzer sounded, the others thought it was for Akin, as usual, but I knew it was for me. The stupid oyinbo’s eyes had trekked all around my body so hard he paid little attention to the menu I placed in front of him. A few seconds later, Chi Boy sprouts up like a human-shaped mini rocket, shooting me a hard look before making for Mr. Bayo’s office.
The manager’s office is small and crowded with cartons of water and a few bottles of different drinks. He was seated behind his crowded desk when I answered the buzzer. A fuming Chi Boy sat across from him, his eyes hard like painted buttons. My little note laid on a number of files like a naked me longing for clothes. In crawly, clear handwriting, it read: Low bride price, call me – 07069536501. Love, Jola.
‘What’s the meaning of this?’ asked Mr. Bayo, his anger more animated than the complainant’s. ‘Have you not seen a white man before, ehn?
I couldn’t find words for a response, and even as I stand outside the restaurant now with my head hazy, words still desert me. In less than twenty-four hours, I no longer have either my boyfriend or my job. It’s like the world got punctured and it is now shrinking in and trying to suffocate poor me.
I think of Amira and wonder what she did differently. I think of Moh and imagine him whispering the same sweet words he told me to his new girl. I think of the four I left behind and a frown flutters across my face. They had an unmistakable extra layer of mockery pulled on as they helped me pack, incessantly asking me what happened. They will find out eventually, I’m sure. Amira will hear it too. Maybe even Moh. They will all learn how I paid the ultimate price for being an aproko.
A black Mercedes, with gleaming rims and windows too dark to see through, glides to a stop before me. Still lost in thoughts, I start to move aside but the window rolls down, and inside is Craig, his fedora hat making him look even more attractive. He flashes a dimpled smile and beckons to me to hop in.
In the rear mirror, I can see Chi Boy chasing and cursing. I sigh deeply and it feels like I exhaled a burden. I relax in my seat and watch as he grows smaller in the distance. Amira will hear this story, and so will Moh, and it will really piss them off how it ends. A soft smile hatches at the corner of my lips. It spreads until my entire face is covered, stretching all the way in and ridding my heart of all its tension and hurt. Perhaps, like a clingy dress on a shapely outline, or better, like the linking of my oyinbo’s fingers and mine after his hand leaves the gear stick, I don’t need a mirror to tell me that this wide smile fits just right.