Strange things began to happen on Friday morning when Love saw the ‘Friday Deals’ sign, printed in red, in front of Sarah Grace, the new boutique on Herbert Macaulay way. She had heard of them first in the “New Marriages” column at the back of Punch newspaper. The headline read: “New bride’s luck changes after she enters Sarah Grace in Calabar.” The story went that the bride’s evil mother-in-law had died the same day the bride had her wedding gown fitted at the boutique.
Since Sarah Grace opened in Lagos three weeks ago, Love had passed by on the way to her job at the public school where she taught history but had never gone in. She would stand on the other side of the road, staring at the milk-coloured mannequins, the crepe, taffeta and organza wedding gowns they wore, her mouth watering, the same way it did when she had a hot plate of porridge in front of her. Only women with rich fiancés bothered with shops like that. They had partners, prospects of marriage, things Love had coveted for most of her adult life.
Love was not the type to buy clothes just because they were on sale. However, a few days ago, at a weekday service, a guest pastor had visited her church and prayed for single women. He’d asked them to come out to the altar and kneel down just by his feet. He wore long grey pants, but Love could see the dry, peeling skin of his ankles as he laid hands on her oily head.
“I see you in a white dress at a wedding,” the pastor said. “Glory to God. I see you walking down the aisle. Yes. You are walking down the aisle. Just imagine yourself with the man you love. My dear sister, you better start preparing, your life is about to change. Just have faith.”
The weight of his voice sent goosebumps down Love’s spine. It gave her the courage she’d lacked for so long. She imagined herself with Femi, her longtime crush, and shook. She repeated his words every day as she walked to work: “I see myself walking down the aisle.” When she checked her Taurus Weekly horoscope that evening, it read “Something New Is Coming For You This Week.”
It was on the fifth day of that week she walked into the boutique, just before 8 a.m. — assembly time. She would be late; one of the headteachers would complain about her tardiness and she would promise to do better. That was the worst that could happen. Standing under the bright white light that was a stark contrast to the dark clouds outside, Love felt a wave of dizziness that forced her to hold on to a mannequin and shut her eyes. By the time her eyes had stopped rolling, and she could stand without the mannequin’s help, she felt a rush of calm and declared out loud: “My life is going to change today.”
The attendant was a short girl with the square face of a chopping board. Her name tag read Blessed. She had a wide, white smile, and when she spoke, it was with a lisp. She asked Love many questions: “When’s the big day? What type of gowns do you have in mind? What about the traditional wedding? We also make aso oke. Do you like muslin? If you don’t like chiffon, we also have organza.” On and on she went and Love responded in detail. She told her his name was Femi and that they would not be doing an introduction or engagement, just the registry and reception at her church in May.
“You know how busy these lawyers can be,” Love said and Blessed nodded.
Love chewed on her acrylic nails as she examined the dresses. She didn’t have to look for long or feel them. Once she saw the dress she wanted, she knew it was the one for her. It bore similarities to the gown she’d always dreamed up for herself as a child. It was an eggwhite plain, straight dress with a long scoop neck. The only other defining features were the crepe fabric and net sleeve. Even with the sale, it would cost February’s salary. Love didn’t care. She asked Blessed if she could wear it. Blessed nodded profusely, beginning to take it off the mannequin. Love, who bought most of her clothes bend-down-select in Yaba market from boys who smelled of sweat, was unused to Blessed’s eagerness. They rushed into one of the cubicles in the dressing room, squealing like teenage girls. Blessed helped her take off her dusty black skirt, complimented her skin, saying she was caramel sugar, like the popcorn, lifted her legs into the gown, rubbed her back as she zipped her up. It was intimate and ordinarily, Love would be ashamed — the straps of her black bra were mismatched, yellow and blue, and the sweat clung stickily beneath her arms. Not today.
They stepped out into the dressing room where other brides-to-be looked seriously at their wedding dresses and well-wishers sat in the sitting area drinking zobo in party cups, their chins perched in their palms. Love held herself. She enjoyed the soft smell of vanilla and newness that had taken over her. The skin of her face was lustrous, different in a perfect way. She stepped back and stood at the centre of the dressing room walled with mirrors. She could imagine Halimat, her housemate, grinning or frowning when she showed her the dress.
Blessed offered compliments, in a subtly mechanical way: ‘You look lovely. You look elegant. You look wonderful. Wow. Amazing.’ An older woman, sitting in a corner with glasses perched on her nose, nodded and told her she looked good. “Your husband will love this. He must be a very lucky man.”
“Oh yes, he is.” Love said, still staring at herself in the mirror. “If you watch TV a lot, you might know him. He’s an actor.”
The older woman smiled and continued flipping through the magazine she was reading.
Love didn’t stop talking. “He was in How I Met My Lover Season 1 and in Wedding Party 4 and —”
Someone with a trained American accent — standing next to the old woman — interrupted, “So how did you meet?”
The dressing room grew quiet. Love turned to the direction from where the voice came. It was a tall woman with skin the colour of overripe mangoes. She was being fitted in an even prettier wedding gown by three attendants. Love was intimidated by the smug look on her face — her highlighted cheekbones, her sharp jawline.
“Ironically, he works in the same law firm my housemate works in. We met through her,” Love said and shrugged.
“Tsk,” the woman responded.
Blessed quickly butted-in and offered to send the box to her house with the next day’s orders but Love shook her head. “No, that can’t happen.” It wasn’t about the delivery cost. It was the attention a delivery truck might get on her street. The little naked children who chased tyres would run after it, and the old men who sat on their verandah playing checkers or Ayo would stop everything they were doing. In addition, she didn’t think she could let the dress out of her sight.
It was 10:15 when she left the store, a little poor, but chuffed about the dress in the box. As she stood at the traffic light, waiting to cross to the other side of the road, she noticed she was wearing one of her rings — the silver band with a ruby gemstone — on her ring finger today. How perfect, she thought.
Love taught history to JSS2 students who ogled her butt, picked their noses and slept off in class on Friday afternoons. The rest of the time, she prepared notes, marked scripts and gossiped with other teachers in the social science staff room. When she got in today, she was too excited to concentrate. She told Ms Caroline, who sat at the table next to hers, about how she’d soon be getting married to the love of her life, Femi, the well-known actor. Ms Caroline hadn’t heard of him — she didn’t watch a lot of television. She made the right amount of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and that made other teachers surround them.
When it was time for class, she taught nothing of the topic: the development of Nok Culture in Northern Nigeria. Instead, she sat with the students, telling them the reason they had to believe in forces larger than themselves, be it Christianity, Islam, traditional gods, astrology or science. She would be getting married because she believed.
At home that night, Love tiptoed into her building, with the box in a bagco she borrowed from the boy who sold Tasty Time on the school campus. It was getting dark, but some of the older women in the building like Mama Silvanus, still lurked around. As she walked into her shared apartment, she saw no signs of life. Halimat, her housemate, wasn’t back from work. Disappointment turned her stomach. She wanted to talk about the gown and her wedding. Halimat was either swamped with work or she had gone out for drinks with her lawyer friends. Love checked her messages. There were none from her. She was tempted to ask about Femi, but that would be weird. Halimat probably knew Femi liked her — Love was fairly certain his crush on her was obvious — but because Halimat could be rude and annoying, Love had never told Halimat that she also had feelings for him. She thought Halimat would tease her and make her feel stupid for having feelings for a man, especially Femi.
Love had first seen Femi in Games Men Play, the show about how Nigerian bachelors navigated singlehood. She was stunned by how natural his acting was. Each time he kissed any of the other actresses, Love felt a sharp pang in her chest. She followed him on all his social platforms and created a fan account where she curated pictures of his bare chest from different shoots. It was weeks later, when Halimat invited her to an office party that they first met. She was shocked because she had no idea they worked together. Halimat had never spoken about him. His online persona was mostly about his acting and nothing about his legal career or personal life. It was then she fell in love with him and knew that he loved her too. It was the way he looked at her, the concentration in his eyes, how he clasped her moist hands in his, offered her drinks, paid attention to her words, even when none of Halimat’s other colleagues looked her way. He was in a relationship, but Love knew that was only a temporary stumbling block. She prayed about it and was now convinced that all things were working together for her good.
Inside her room, Love spread the dress on her bed and stared at it. It was the most beautiful dress she had seen in her life. It didn’t have a train as the gowns she liked on BellaNaija Wedding’s Instagram page. Or like the one Nkiru, her cousin who married the oyibo boy, wore on her wedding day. Yet, it was perfect. As she made dinner — Quaker Oats and akara — Love couldn’t stop staring at the ring on her finger. It wasn’t a wedding band, but it gave her a sense of anticipation — she was preparing for Femi’s ring.
Later, when it was completely dark, she wore the gown and stared at her body in front of the mirror. It hugged her waist, made her hips look wide. She pretended to be in a beauty pageant, waving her left hand and holding an invisible mic to her mouth. When it was 9 p.m., she checked again for texts from Halimat. Since there were none, she checked Femi’s Instagram to see if he’d put anything new in his feed and story since the last time she checked six hours ago. Nothing. She changed into her nightclothes and went to wait for Halimat in the sitting room. She watched some episodes of Friends, one of the early seasons, but their relationships and lack of upset her, so she rewatched Namaste Wahala and imagined she was the bride and Femi was the beautiful Indian man.
When Halimat returned, the entire neighbourhood had gone to sleep. It was quiet, but for the sound of crickets and frogs. Love had slept off in front of her computer in the sitting room but woke up to the tune of a Cavemen song. She knew the song in her sleep — Halimat usually hummed the same tune while she cooked or took a shower. The room was dark, indicating a power cut. It took her a moment to make out Halima’s figure in the doorway. Her eyes were closed, her hijab loosely wrapped around her nose. A tall man whose eyes were covered in dark shades stood by her side, holding her waist. He wore a white shirt with sleeves rolled up. His afro hair was a sunny yellow. Love knew Halimat wasn’t into men, so she wondered who it was. It took her a moment to realise it was Femi. She gasped. Last year, he’d visited a few times during weekends to discuss court cases with Halimat, but he hadn’t visited at all this year. It could only be God. She tilted her chin up, squeezing her eyes at him.
He smiled a one-sided smile and took off his glasses, “Love, it’s me Femi.”
“Oh wow,” Love said, “I could barely recognise you there.” Love took in his deep smile that revealed two dimples and concluded that he was flushed. She imagined that his heart was thumping in his chest, the same way hers was. She was barely thinking when she blurted, “You look so different from the last time I saw you. You actually look like my fiancé with your shades.”
He smiled with his eyes. “That’s… that’s interesting. I guess I have one of those faces.”
Halimat chuckled. “Love, you don’t have any nonsense fiancé.”
“Uh, I do.”
Halimat’s laughter grew. She slapped Femi’s arms. Femi, clearly discomfited by her laughter, scratched his head and looked in different directions: from a painting on the wall to the curtain that blocked off their rooms from the sitting room. Love saw his discomfort as shyness.
The last time she had seen Femi was in December, at the end-of-year party Halimat threw in the house. They hadn’t spoken much because he had to take his “babe” to the airport. And all of a sudden, he showed up on the same day she bought a wedding gown and told everyone they were getting married. She peeled the dry skin on her bottom lip with her teeth. She removed the throw pillow covering her naked thighs and smoothened her unruly cornrows.
He looked at his watch. “I should be on my way. I just came to drop Halimat off because — well, as you can see, she’s clearly drunk. Happy hour gone—”
“I’m not drunk,” Halimat said and staggered into the middle of the room. “You’ve dropped me off. Now, go on, go home.” She slumped on the couch across from Love.
“Calm down na, shey I said I’m going. If I didn’t drop you off now, they’ll say I’m wicked,” Femi said, staring at Halimat.
“Are you sure you want to leave at this time? It’s pretty late and dangerous,” Love chipped in and sat up. She couldn’t lose this opportunity to spend time with him, coax him to get over his shyness and confess his love.
“I’ll be fine,” he said “I’ve been out at worse times.”
“Yeah, he’s a big boy, he’ll be fine.”
“I insist. Just the other day, there was a robbery on the express. I don’t know if you saw it on the news,” she said, even though she hadn’t seen or heard of any robbery in recent time. “And it happened around this time. You can stay over. We have a camp bed, no one will be in your way.”
Halimat coughed and kicked her brogues off.
Femi shrugged. “Alright. At least that’ll save me the lonely ride to Lekki.” He shut the door and crouched on the floor. He brought out his phone and made a call. He told the person on the phone that he won’t be able to come home and was at Halimat’s.
“Yes, Halimat, the lesbian.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Love you too.”
Love convinced herself he was talking to his mum. That he loved his mum first, then he loved her next. She studied his face for telling signs, but she only saw tiredness. He sighed and she smiled. He must be relieved to be spending the evening with me, she thought.
They sat quietly for a long time. The clock ticked. Love tried to count the different distinct sounds she heard, but often got distracted by her ring. She wondered if it wouldn’t be wise to remove it, to make space for his engagement ring. Halimat snored softly. Love desperately wanted to say something to fill the silence. She remembered the gown and ran to her room to get it. She returned with a lantern that she placed on the floor and her dress.
“My wedding gown,” she said, splaying the dress over her body.
Halimat rubbed her eyes, confusion written as lines on her forehead. “Wait, what? I thought you were joking.”
“How could I be joking about something like that?” Love said, one hand on her hip.
“Like seriously,” Halimat said, turning to Femi. “I swear, I don’t know this chick with any man and we’ve been living together since last year March o.”
Femi smiled and nodded. “I mean, I’ve been here a few times and haven’t seen you with a man. I guess people are just really private. I’m a bit like that if we’re being honest.” He paused. “Congratulations, Love.”
Love read between the lines. He had noticed that she was single. He was private. He had noticed her. She squeezed her thighs together to keep pee from trickling down.
“It feels strange. Surreal.” Halimat sat up.
Love grinned. “Yeah, it’s just about surreal to me too.”
“When’s the wedding? I hope this isn’t something you’re rushing into?”
Love rolled her eyes and twisted her lips. “I’m not rushing into anything,” she said, her voice thick. “I’m going to be with a man who I love and loves me right back. What’s there to rush?”
“Toh. So tell us about him, then.”
Love’s eyes lit up. She looked away from Halimat to Femi. “He’s just like you, Femi.” She stared into his eyes, her voice becoming tender and soft. “He’s tall, big and has full blonde hair.”
Halimat stared at Love, then at Femi and then back at Love. “Are you sure you’re not being delusional?” Halimat said, locking tired eyes with Love. She picked up her brogues and went into her room.
“She sounds upset,” Femi said.
Love shrugged and spread out the dress on the couch Halimat had just vacated. She moved close to Femi and sat on the floor next to him. “That’s Halimat for you.”
That night, after they all went to bed, Love dreamed that she was wearing the dress, only that this time it was backless. She was in a church different from her local parish. It had high ceilings and stained-glass windows. She was walking down the aisle. The veil covering her face made it hard to make out the faces of the people who stood watching the procession. At the altar, there was a golden coffin, instead of a priest and Femi. Inside the coffin, it was her face, made up with thick kajal, mascara and black lipstick. The ring was still on her ring finger, with her hands clasped over her breast. The church erupted in laughter, the kind only heard in Nollywood horror movies of the late 90s. She raised the veil and turned to face them. There was still no sign of Femi. The congregants were the handful of people she knew: her students, Halimat, who kept repeating a variation of the words she had said earlier —“you’re disillusioned, sis” — colleagues, and her mother in a blue lace buba and gold gele, sitting at the front, smiling her sinister, raised smile. “This is everything you’ve always wanted abi? Oya do it. Get married,” she said.
It was at this moment Love woke up. She was soaked in a pool of her sweat. She stared at the blue, sweaty walls of her room, then at the fan that dangled from the ceiling, as if it would fall. She got out of bed and went to the sitting room. Femi was asleep in the camp bed, his two hands clasped beneath his face. She stared at the lines on his face, and his slightly parted lips. After Halimat had gone to bed, Femi had been curt, his responses short. Love concluded that he was tired, squeezed his hands and went to bed. Now, she sighed and thought to herself: Femi, you missed your opportunity last night, but there’s still time. She leaned into him, her lips almost meeting his. He smelled fruity and sweaty. He stirred, turning to his left. She froze, her mind screaming. Once she was sure he was asleep, she went back to her room.
Love made a decision to go and see her mother in the morning. If she was to get married to Femi, she had to get her mother’s approval. She stayed up the rest of the night looking at his pictures and making a wedding to-do list. Right after “visit mama” and just before “talk to pastor about Femi” was “get Femi to communicate his love and stop this hide and seek he’s doing.”
The journey to the outskirts of Lagos where her mother lived felt long for a Saturday morning. Love sat next to a window and leaned against it, reading the words on an old flyer pasted on one of the front seats that claimed it could help people solve their problems:
In case you’re interested in making money within 24 hours without blood sacrifice or repercussions, call me or message me on WhatsApp: +23480777666333. Are you ready for marriage but no one loves you? Or are you trying to have a child, I’m the one for you.
There was a time Love was tempted to consult juju people like these. This was way back when she was unsure of Femi’s love. Last night — him staying back to be with her — was enough confirmation that he loved her. She felt a wave of sadness for people who had no one. Here she was, in love and about to be married, when there were people like her mother who were lonely and miserable.
When the bus arrived at her stop, it began to feel like home: the familiar smell of clogged gutters, the dust that embraced her, the muddy roads and the 90s RnB music from saloons. Heat laced her neck. It had felt like a good idea to see her mother, but her mother, like Halimat, could be very annoying. Mama Lolo, as everyone called her, didn’t believe in any gods — especially Love’s God. She often asked her, “Lolo, my daughter, if this God cared for you, won’t you have a better job than teaching in a public school by now?” To which Love would reply, “Mama, having a god is better than being lonely as you are.” They had this back and forth every time Mama Lolo called to ask for money or when Love visited, which was rare. But Mama Lolo didn’t care that she was alone. Neighbours claimed that she was the one who killed Love’s father, by poisoning him. Mama Lolo always said she wished she had. This annoyed Love.
It was a short walk from the bus stop to her mother’s house, but Love decided to take an okada. The road was slippery and muddy and walking with the box with her wedding gown was stressful. She stopped by a roadside shop to buy oranges and pineapples, before flagging one down.
Her mother’s house was a quaint, peach house with a communal well and a pharmacy upfront. When Love’s father had died, Mama Lolo complained only to Love about what a wicked man he’d been. After Love left and there was no one to listen to her rants, she built the well and made it free for all, just so she could talk as freely as she wanted to whoever would listen. Love grew up there in the 90s and early noughties and left because she couldn’t stand her mother’s disinterest in the things she cared about — love, marriage, religion — or her drinking habits.
When Love entered the house, Mama Lolo squealed. “I knew you were coming.”
Love wanted to roll her eyes, but the cheeky smile on her mother’s face made her smile too.
The older woman re-tied the wrapper on her breast and stood up to hug her daughter. “If you look in the cooler, you’ll see the amala and ewedu I made for you. I knew you were coming.” The hug was stiff, even though Mama Lolo pressed Love into her soft folds. She smelled of coconut oil, aboniki balm and shea butter. Love took it all in and sighed.
They had been talking for one hour before Love brought up the dress.
“Mama, didn’t you notice the box?”
Mama Lolo smiled, showing off the gap-tooth that seemed to be wider than the last time Love saw it, last Christmas. “I kuku saw it,” she said. They were sitting at the dining table, fairly empty bowls of soup in front of them. Around them, the sound of generators hummed, which made Mama Lolo shout whenever she spoke. “What’s in there?”
“My wedding gown.” Love let out a squeal that died when she noticed her mother’s flaccid reaction.
Mama Lolo eyed her daughter with curious eyes. “Oho. Who bought it for you?”
“I think I’m engaged,” Love said, staring at the dots of sweat on her mother’s forehead. “Actually, I’m engaged.”
“Really? To who?”
“To my boyfriend. Femi.”
“Hmm.” Mama Lolo began to pick her teeth with a toothpick and stared out the window.
“You should say ‘congratulations’,” Love said, clenching her fist.
“Oho. Congratulations o. Ire naa a kari.”
Love was unsatisfied. She could feel the beginning of an argument and knew she should run from it. She should wait it out, let the silence stretch between them, but something about the way her mother hung her arms around the chair, the way she stared, not at her, but into the distance, made Love’s face heat up. Her teeth began to chatter. She couldn’t help herself.
“Why can’t you just be happy for me, Mama? Why?”
“I am happy. Lolo. I am happy. It’s just, you’re still a young woman. I never thought you should rush into marriage like this.”
“Mama can you hear yourself? Other mothers are praying for their 28-year-old daughters to get married, you’re saying this.”
“Lolo, your age doesn’t matter. I keep telling you. If I knew any better, I wouldn’t have married your father when I was too young to know my left from my right, I’d have lived a little more.”
“Your regrets, your business.” Love folded her arms.
Mama Lolo sighed. “Alright. Tell me about your husband. Let’s talk. We could do the traditional wedding in Ijagun. What do you think?”
Although an engagement ceremony in a far off village she hadn’t been to in years wasn’t in her plans, Love was happy that her mother was finally onboard. “Let me show you the dress. You’re just going to love it.”
“Waity. Tell me about your bobo.”
Love smiled and began drawing invisible lines with her chipped, acrylic nails. “Mama, he’s just amazing. Actually, you might have seen him on television.”
“Wait, do you mean Femi Coker?”
“Oh Mama, I knew you’d know him.”
“The one that his dad is a human right’s activist and his mum is a politician? He himself is a lawyer who acts occasionally.”
“Isn’t he married? O ti marry now.”
“He’s not, Mama.”
“Abi is he divorced? I watched his engagement ceremony last month on Channels. Put his name on Google and check.”
Love snatched her phone from the table, clasped her hands and sucked in her breath. “For the last time, Mama, he’s not married.”
‘Okay oh,’ her mother said and folded her arms and lips.
Love picked up the box and stormed out of the house. She had a new mantra on her lips, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’
Ope Adedeji is a writer and editor from Lagos. She is a former editor-at-large at Zikoko Magazine and was the managing editor at Ouida Books. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Lolwe, and McSweeney’s Quarterly. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction by Writivism and was an Artist Managers and Literary Activists Fellow in the same year. She is an alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop (2018) and the winner of the 2019 Brittle Paper Award for African Fiction. She is currently a Booker Prize Foundation Scholar at the University of East Anglia.