Forty and Counting…

The mesh of voices delivering the happy birthday song jolted Imade back to the present. One of her guests – Mena – was showing off her voice while singing, throwing in a few twists and turns that would give contestants on The Voice a run for their money.

“…birthday to you…ou…ou.” Imade caught the tail end of the singing.

“Show off!” Abigail chimed, blinking her artificial lashes at Mena. Abigail had a tendency to overdress; in fact, she had a tendency to overdo everything. She was a woman who never knew when something was just okay and so she often went overboard. They often teased her that even her meals were always over-the-top (too spicy, too salty, too bland). Tonight, she was dressed like she was the celebrant, wearing a short, black sequined dress that cinched her waist, hiding the left-over belly fat from her last pregnancy. Her makeup? The full serving of bridal makeup. Sometimes Imade wondered what she was hiding beneath the pomp and pageantry.

“Happy birthday, babe. Cheers to the big 4.0,” Mosun’s voice rang out at the same moment glasses clinked, a toast.

Imade cracked her lips open in a smile as Mena took a picture, she pushed aside the dread slowly creeping up her gut. Forty. She was forty. God!

She loved the place Mena had picked to host the party for her; it was exactly what she would have chosen if she was planning it herself – there was something demure about the space with the white and yellow floral décor and the gold embossed cutlery and napkins. Their table was located on the terrace, a covered area and cozy set up that made it feel like home. The table, with the gold-dipped tablecloth, was long enough to sit the six people she had on her list and short enough to make them all feel like they were a family, a part of something beautiful.

It was exactly what she wanted – something intimate, no hullabaloo, because truth be told, she was not exactly sure how to feel about being forty.

“Tell us, Maddy, how does it feel to be forty?” the question was from Tricia, the unofficial compere of the event. Tricia had turned forty the previous year, and had admitted to Imade at the time that forty was overrated. Perhaps she was looking for Imade to corroborate her opinion.

Imade shrugged, hiding behind a glass of Chamdor. “Great. Just great.”

She wondered if they could hear the slight tremor in her voice. In a discreet move, she glanced at her wrist – it was 8pm already. The party had been going for almost two hours and she was getting tired. Yes, when Mena had called to tell her she wanted to throw a party for her fortieth, she had agreed because Mena had pointed out that forty was a huge one and that she would regret it if she didn’t mark it somehow. But now, she suddenly didn’t want to be here with them, she wanted to be alone, to think about what she had done and what she planned to do next.

They had eaten, she had even been persuaded to dance when she came in – never mind the fact that she was a terrible dancer, or that she really didn’t like to dance to any tune that wasn’t inspiring.

So, why were they still here? Why couldn’t they just go home to their families?

Stop being uncharitable, Imade. She swore she could hear her mother’s disapproving hiss in her ears.

“Hey, I think I need to go. Hubby is calling already.” Yvonne was leaning towards her, whispering in her ears.

Imade looked up at her, grateful. “Let me see you off.”

“Sure, birthday girl?” Yvonne was tall, yet there was something inconspicuous about her. Where Abigail always wanted to be seen, Yvonne was the opposite. She had once confided in Imade that when she was growing up, she had wondered if it was possible to cut a part of her legs away so she could be shorter.

“Absolutely,” Imade slipped her feet back into her sandals and stood. “Hey ladies, Yvonne has to go. I’ll be right back.”

The women exchanged hugs, air kisses and goodbyes before Yvonne and Imade walked out to the parking lot.

“So…tell me what’s the problem?” Yvonne’s voice was tiny, unusual for her frame.

“What?” Imade focused on her feet as they walked. Because of her quiet nature, Yvonne was incredibly intuitive and sensitive. She was always observing people, things, actions. Their friendship had started almost ten years ago, two women with a love for God navigating life, career and their faith; they had eased into their friendship like children welcoming a new sibling into their life.

“You’ve been smiling that your fake smile all evening,” Yvonne nudged her with an elbow.

Both women leaned on Yvonne’s car, a Toyota Matrix, her husband’s recent gift.

“How do you really feel about today? Are you happy?” Yvonne continued.

Imade sighed, shutting her eyes and opening them; “I don’t know how I feel, to be honest. All the days leading to today, I convinced myself I was excited about it. I was sure I would be excited but then I wake up this morning and I just feel…empty, tired.”

“Well, that’s usual. Birthday jitters. Not everybody is happy about getting older,” Yvonne grinned, patting Imade on the back.

“You think? I really don’t know. I mean…I prayed about it this morning and felt a little better but I realized a little too late that I wasn’t in the mood for a party.”

“Mena would have been upset if you cancelled. She’s been planning for weeks. That woman can plan for Africa.”

“I seriously don’t know where she gets the energy.”

Yvonne laughed; “listen, I know what it feels like to not want to be ‘present’ on days like these…”

“I resigned.” Imade blurted, interrupting.

“Eh?”

“It’s a long story, but it’s been on my mind for a while now. I just…it felt like the right time. I have been praying about it, though.”

“Wow. So, when did you submit the letter?”

“Today. I put in the letter today…once I did it, I felt like this huge weight was off my shoulders. What? What are you thinking?”

Before Yvonne could respond, the two women spotted her guests making their way towards them. They were truly glamorous women, Imade realized. They were all different, meant different things to her, played different roles but ultimately, she loved them, she appreciated them. It was humbling to know that they had taken time out of their day to spend it with her. They had families, other things to do – Mosun, for example had told her she had an early flight to Johannesburg the next day. Abigail had left her three-year-old with the nanny and her husband, Chidinma had recently had fibroid surgery and was supposed to be recovering, Tricia had her in-laws over but had left them to be here, and Mena had taken the day off from her events planning business to make sure today was perfect.

How could she have been ungrateful? Imade scolded herself.

She rushed towards them, spreading her arms wide, hugging them one-by-one.

“Thank you so much for coming,” she whispered in each woman’s ear.

“Happy birthday again, darling.”

******

Back home, showered and nude, Imade lay in bed, scrolling through her phone. Her inbox was full, her Whatsapp overflowing with birthday wishes, Facebook was another territory filled with Hbd and Wullnp.  Briefly, she wondered if some people never outgrew writing in abbreviations like these. Instagram as usual, told her story in pictures and mentions.

She should feel loved but as she liked, commented and reposted the birthday wishes, she felt a bizarre detachment from her actions.

The only thing she felt curiously excited about today was her resignation from the firm. She had been unable to continue the conversation with Yvonne amidst the flurry of goodbyes, but she knew that she did not regret her actions.

In her heart, she knew it was time to go. She was done with the world of corporate law – it had taken so much from her, the constant looking for angles, covering up for the big shots, fixing their legal and sometimes illegal messes.

Her phone vibrated, a low, consistent hum jerking her back to the present.

“Hello, Lami,” she cleared her parched throat.

“Happy birthday, you amazing woman. I wanted to be the last person to wish you a happy birthday today.”

She smiled.

“Stop smiling,” he said.

“Stop pretending to know me better than you do,” she retorted.

“I know you are probably in bed now…naked.”

Imade sat up, subconsciously pulling the covers around her.

“Stop it, Lamide,” she let out a huge sigh. “This is why we broke up.”

“Why? Because your Christian self couldn’t resist this chocolate goodness?” his voice was low, teasing, everything she remembered it to be.

“No, because you refused to respect my boundaries. Plus, you are not all that. I don’t know who’s been lying to you.”

“Let’s not start that now. I called to wish you a happy birthday. I had something delivered to your office this afternoon. Did you get it?”

“Er, no.”

“What? But the delivery guy assured me he…”

“It’s not…um… I don’t work there anymore.”

“What? Since when?”

“Today. I resigned today.”

“Are you serious? Why? You are going to a better firm?”

“No. Not for now, anyway.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I can’t explain it, Lamide. Besides you don’t need to bother about me anymore, okay?”

“Imade, just because we are not together anymore doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. This is the 21st century o.”

“I just…thank you for the birthday wishes, Lami. I really appreciate. But I have to go now. Bye.”

She hung up after she heard his subdued goodbye and a part of her, the part that still stupidly cared about him, felt bad about her abruptness, but desperate times, desperate measures, and she could not afford to be sucked in by Lamide after eight months of saying their goodbyes.

She couldn’t even if she wanted to. They were too different, their values like oil and water, never mixing. It was in the simple things like how they spent their evenings – where she would rather spend hers in Bible study meetings, Lami would rather spend his with friends driving under the brightly lit streets of Wuse 2. At first, she loved that about him; his robust approach to life, his jovialness, his deep rumbling laugh that reminded her of the advert song there’s a rumble in my belly.

But when they talked, about the things happening in the world, she sensed an undercurrent of flippancy, a liberality that didn’t sit well with her. Each one to his own was his favourite phrase. Let everyone do what makes them happy.

Even when it’s wrong?

Who are we to determine what’s right and wrong?

Exactly. We are not the ones determining it. The person who created the world has clearly shown us what is right and what is wrong.

God?

God.

Their arguments often centered around her faith and his lack of one. She knew clearly what the Bible said about being unequally yoked, but what happened when you didn’t plan the yoking? When it stumbled upon you, or you, it?

She had met Lami in church one Sunday during Thanksgiving service. At the time she didn’t know he had been invited by a friend who was a member and who often exchanged hellos with Imade after service. According to Lami, he had been charmed the first day he met her that he had to return for three more services just to get her attention.

That should have been a red flag; but his ability to make her laugh, his charm, his intellect and his ambition had drawn her in, blinding her to their obvious differences.

She sighed now, let her phone slip from her hand and closed her eyes. One of the benefits of living alone was the fact that she could turn off the rest of the world whenever she wanted.

“God, help me,” she whispered. “Thank you for giving me forty beautiful years and I’m sorry I was ungrateful. I’m thankful for life, for sound mind, I’m grateful for family and friends. Thank you for another 365 days. Help me to make it count, Lord.”

Her phone vibrated at that moment, she turned away, ignoring it. Just another birthday wish she could always catch up on.

As she continued praying, she became conscious of the frenetic vibrations of the phone; once, twice, three times.

She reached for it: Yvonne.

“Hey babe! I…”

“Imade, please…I need…you.”

Imade sat up, alarmed. Yvonne was crying, her voice coming out in hiccups.

“Yvonne, what’s happening? Where are you?”

“Hospital. Please come. I’ll text you the address.”

“On my way.”

God, please, let everything be okay. she muttered, pulling on her jeans.

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