the short story project


Peter Nnajiofor


Patrick was not in any hurry since he knew Mary Jane would be late. As usual. He strode to the bar and ordered a martini while waiting. The wall clock behind the bar read seven thirty five. The Jade Palace restaurant was busiest at this time of the day. Its clientele consisted mainly of young and middle aged Lagosians who had either been born into privilege or had spent time abroad. These were the people who had the means and exposure, and were not too set in their African ways to welcome the burgeoning Chinese food industry in Nigeria.
It was his ex girlfriend who had introduced him to The Jade, as regular customers like himself liked to refer to it when trying to sell it to friends and co-workers – You won’t believe who I met at the Jade the other day; you should check out the Jade sometime, eat some real food. And more often than not, someone would be quick to remind you of how absurd it was for a Nigerian to be calling Chinese ‘real food’. Patrick had been that someone a number of times on account of his single Chinese food experience that made him swear never to be caught near a Chinese restaurant ever again. He liked to think that was how much he had loved Winifred, allowing her persuade him into going to the Jade Palace. And from that day, he’d come to enjoy Chinese food; he didn’t stop liking it even after he broke up with Winifred as he had suspected he would. For a long time, Patrick put off telling Mary Jane that this place brought up memories of his ex-girlfriend. In fact, it was by mistake that he let it slip. As it turned out, Mary Jane wasn’t one to make a big deal over things like that and he developed a new respect for her after that. Now he hardly thought about Winifred whenever he came here; even when he tried, the memories were hazy and impersonal.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’ He had only taken a cursory look around the bar before he sat down. He had seen the young lady beside him but he hadn’t paid any attention to her. He found himself wondering why because hearing her voice and taking a look at her now, she was the kind of woman you couldn’t look at once and bear to resist the temptation of looking again.
‘As a matter of fact, I am’ he said.
‘Your girlfriend?’
‘I wouldn’t call it that exactly,’ he grinned. ‘What of you? I assume you’re waiting for someone as well?’
‘I’m waiting but not for anyone in particular.’ She didn’t see the puzzled look on his face because she was absent-mindedly swirling her drink with the straw.
‘Well, do you come here often to wait for no one in particular?’ Patrick pressed.
‘If I did,’ she said, ‘you probably might have seen me before now. Oh, I saw how you were friendly with the manager when you walked in so I assumed you’re a regular here.’
‘Wow…you’re really observant.’
‘Well, you have to be observant when life is determined to screw you over.’ Patrick was confused. How did this conversation begin in the first place? He glanced at his watch wondering what was keeping Mary Jane.
‘Oh,’ the woman suddenly brightened up. ‘I am so sorry. I tend to say these things that just kill the mood. I’m Julia, by the way.’ She held out her hand. It felt soft against his, almost fragile.
A headache threatens to split Patrick’s head open as he gets out of the car. His heart is still racing and his thoughts are all over the place. He rummages his bedroom cabinet for a packet of Panadol and downs four tablets with water. He contemplates taking a glass of whisky for his nerves but opts instead to splash cold water on his face. The water feels good but it doesn’t do much for him right now. He drops to the floor, brings his knees up to his chest and wraps them with his arms, waiting for the Panadol to take effect.
Oh my God. What is this? What have I done?
It is fortunate that Mary Jane spent the night at her parent’s house. Patrick shivers to imagine what would have happened if she had been around and he had come home in the morning all messed up like this. Where would he get the strength to answer all the questions, to look her in the face and explain himself? Considering the state of his mind right now, he is pretty sure he would sound like a fool and a liar. She has already called his phone a couple of times and he knows she’ll call again, but he can deal with that later.
The events of last night slowly start to take focus in his mind. He’d talked with Julia for almost twenty minutes before Mary Jane arrived. She turned out to be witty and really fun to talk to. Her eyes widened and almost seemed to sparkle when she spoke and she had this cute carefree laughter that was amusing in itself. Plus she reached out to touch him every once in a while as if for emphasis. He didn’t know if she was being purposely flirtatious or just being her normal self. Either way, he enjoyed the flirting and even tried some light flirting of his own.
Then Mary Jane had arrived and he had to say bye to Julia. Over a meal of shredded beef and green pepper sauce with rice, Patrick listened to Mary Jane go over details of the wedding planning which he didn’t personally care so much for. It was all she ever seemed to talk about these days, but it was fine just as long so it didn’t make the food any less delicious. He knew better than to do anything that would give away the impression that he wasn’t being enthusiastic enough about the wedding.
Patrick had almost forgotten about the woman he met at the bar when the check came. Inside the check, there was a small piece of paper with numbers on it. It took a moment before he realized it was a phone number and another moment to decode whose number it was. His heart lurched. He quickly threw the paper into his pocket before Mary Jane would see it. From that point, he was only half listening to what his fiancée was saying, debating in his mind whether or not to call Julia.
‘You didn’t tell me it was your fiancée you were waiting for’ Julia accused.
‘I’m sorry’ Patrick smirked. ‘Usually, I’m very eager to share my life story with a stranger at a restaurant. Especially a beautiful one.’
‘Oh, Patrick’ Julia crooned, hitting him playfully on the chest.
Since Mary Jane had gone to her parents’ house, he had decided he might as well call Julia. He wasn’t sure what he had expected but he was surprised when she invited him to a bar not far from the Jade.
‘I’m really sorry for all the trouble I might have put you through,’ Julia was saying. ‘It’s just that I needed to talk to somebody and you know, you were really sweet and understanding when we talked at the Chinese place.’
Patrick took a good look at her. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders and framed a face with fine, small features, except for the eyes. She had been wearing a sweater at the restaurant but now it was off leaving a simple white and blue dress with flowery patterns which emphasized her smallish frame. For the first time, he wondered how old she might be.
‘It’s no trouble really. I just find it difficult to imagine a charming lady like you being lonely. I mean, there must be like a thousand guys who would flock to your side at the smallest signal.’
Julia laughed. ‘Oh, Patrick. That’s so sweet of you to say. But you know, I never really get out much. So…but you’re not bad yourself. Your fiancée must be one lucky woman.’
They talked. About their lives, their childhoods, their jobs, mostly his anyway. She had a way of diverting the conversation to him, but he didn’t mind. She seemed genuinely interested and she kept touching him in that light, playfully flirtatious manner. And then they danced. Awkwardly at first, amused at each other’s lack of moves, but slowly the shyness wore off and the distance between them thinned out. Until their bodies worked as a single sensuous dancing machine, writhing and gyrating to the rhythm of the music. The thought came to Patrick that this was the time to escape, say goodbye and say with some degree of truthfulness that nothing happened. But a part of him wanted to see where this was going.
Patrick manages to lift himself to his feet and shuffles to the sitting room. It is cosy and well organized, thanks to Mary Jane. The same cannot be said of his mind however. Yesterday afternoon, his life was pretty straightforward and now, all of a sudden, nothing makes sense anymore. He is a nervous wreck. He picks up the remote, about to switch on the TV when a thought suddenly occurs to him and the remote drops from his hand as though by dint of an external force.
What if it’s already on TV…?
His head is beginning to throb again so he takes two more tablets of Panadol. He remembers Julia throwing some pills into her mouth occasionally last night. When he asked, she explained to him how she had been sick since she was nine years old and had to rely on pain killers, a habit which had stuck in adulthood. She also said that recently, she had diversified into non-prescription drugs like cocaine, heroin and meth, whatever she could lay hands on. In fact, she had gotten into trouble with a few of her dealers. She had laughed when she saw the look of shock on Patrick’s face. She told him of how she had grown up with so many restrictions, how she had watched her age mates do things that she would never get to do. And now, she had vowed that nothing was going to stop her from living her life to the fullest. ‘Life is too short’ Julia had said, throwing back her head in her carefree, infectious laughter. Patrick had smiled and shaken his head.
Now they were in Julia’s hotel room and Patrick could kiss any claim to innocence goodbye. He silently watched her take off the earrings and necklace. Slowly and precisely, she dropped them on the bed closet and walked to him, her eyes locked on his all the while, inviting and daring all at once. She came up to him and touched him lightly on the chest and then her hands travelled upwards till they found his chin. Her soft hands were like fire against his skin.
She turned her back to him and lifted her hair to one shoulder, revealing the zip at the back her dress. Patrick was caught in a war between his mind and body. He knew he shouldn’t be here. He was getting married in three weeks. He had made promises to someone else, his mind screamed at him. And yet his body screamed something totally different. Every part of his body quaked in desire – desire he had not felt in a long time. She was there, all flesh and blood. He had felt her body respond to his while they were dancing, and now his body craved hers with an animal intensity. All of her. And that was exactly what she was offering. He tried in vain to keep his hand from shaking as it reached for her zipper.
With one fluid motion, he brought down the zipper and the dress came down. And with the shedding of the dress, so went every instinct to resist temptation, every iota of restraint. He turned her around and kissed her with all the pent up passion he had been trying to deny since he met her that evening. Her welcome was unequivocal and it was her own desire more than anything else that stoked the fire of passion in him. He lifted her clean off the floor and in his haste, nearly slammed her onto the bed. He kissed and caressed, nibbled and tasted every bit of skin, vehemently attacking every remaining piece of clothing in his way. Her moans did something to his brain that was too much for his conscious mind to handle. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he rid himself of his own remaining clothes at Olympic speed and positioned between her thighs.
‘Patrick,’ Julia cried. ‘I need you to fuck me like this is the last time.’
Patrick woke up with a throbbing in his head. He had been oblivious of the amount of alcohol he had taken because all his focus had been on Julia. But it had been worth it. This night had been magical. He suspected he was going to remember it for a long time with some guilt perhaps, but mostly with pride. It would be one of his grand conquests. Speaking of Julia. She wasn’t in bed. He went to the bathroom door and knocked and when he didn’t hear anything, he opened it. No sign of Julia here.
A wave of panic rose in him when it occurred to him that Julia might have left the hotel, perhaps without even checking out. He willed himself to be calm as he surveyed the hotel room. He called her name but there was no response. It hurt his pride, the thought that she could have just run away without so much as a goodbye after all they had done that night, after all they had shared. And even worse, she didn’t leave any note. Patrick was wondering if he could slip past the hotel staff downstairs without being asked any questions when he remembered the balcony. It was possible that she had gone out there to catch a midnight view of the city and maybe had fallen asleep in the process. He opened the door to the balcony and reeled back in shock. The contents of his stomach rushed up to his throat and he had to cover his hand with his mouth to keep from vomiting.
It was Julia, alright, in nothing but her black panties, lying on a deckchair. Her head was clear off the chair, hanging at an eerie angle, her face mere inches away from the floor. Around her was a pool of putrid yellow and black vomit; the tip of her hair was swimming in it. Also swimming in the vomit was a syringe, an amber bottle and a transparent narrow rubber tube. What struck Patrick most was the colour of her skin – a sickening morbid pale, like there wasn’t a drop of blood in her body.
Patrick shut the door behind him as he fought to suppress another wave of nausea. His knees gave way beneath him and he sunk to the floor. A part of him wanted to forget what he had just seen, wanted to believe it was only a bad dream that he would wake up from. But he knew no dream could be this vivid, this cruel. There was no question, it was a dead woman out there. Dead Julia. But how? When? How was he going to explain himself? How on earth could anyone explain a night like this – or the corpse sprawled awkwardly on the balcony? Jesus Christ! He had to get out of here. Now!

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