The plan turned out to be more fun and productive than either of them had thought it would. The bonding was tricyclic. Latifah came on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays as babysitter, and Saturdays and Sundays as a girlfriend. She was being paid handsomely too. She began to save up for a business she had in mind.
One day, Lateefah was in the living room of Islamiyah’s flat, dressed casually as usual and playing with Soffiyah who was on her thighs, when she heard a knock on the door. It was strange. Islamiyah had her keys, and she didn’t tell her anyone was visiting.
“Who is that?” She asked.
“It’s me. Eesa.”
Now, she remembered. Eesa. Islamiyah’s kid sister coming from Ibadan. Islamiyah had mentioned that to her a week ago. She told her he had gained direct entry admission to the university just a few minutes’ drive outside the town and he would be staying with her. She put Soffiyah down on the sofa, and rushed to grab her overall hijab. “I am coming.” She fastened the knot of her black niqab behind her head, and walked over to the door.
“Salaam alaykum.” The young man greeted her.
“Wa alaykum salaam,” she replied, holding the metal door for him to drag in his luggage.
“Ehn, my own baby girl, my own Soffiyah!”
Eesa ran to the sofa and carried the girl with visible passion. She threw her up in the air three times, and the toddler laughed and giggled. She continued to play with her. Speaking to her; asking questions and responding to himself in baby’s voice. It was after a few minutes had gone that he found his sense of courtesy, and turned to the one in the black veil, with sparkling eyes. “I am sorry. I was carried away. Ekaa’san.”
He was tall, dark, with well-trimmed and oiled beard.
Of course, as you’re now thinking, this became a concern. For Latifah, she was not comfortable spending so much time in a flat where Eesa would be residing too. It was not a matter of temptation— she was six years his senior. It was a no-brainer to her. But her concern was about freedom. She wouldn’t be able to stay niqabless and hijabless. She won’t be able to move freely with Soffiyah as she used to before.
For Islamiyah, her concern was that Eesa might, seeing the petite stature of Latifah, come about as disrespectful, and think her as an employee of her sister. But Eesa had changed from the young, thoughtless brother she knew.
Latifah and Eesa got along well. They would discuss life, Islam, and business ideas. Latifah had some ideas, and Eesa was enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. Days over days, they grew closer and closer to the point that Islamiyah was left perplexed and slightly uncomfortable.
One afternoon, at the time when the sun began its decline, in the backyard of Islamiyah’s flat, Lateefah was sewing cloth. Her feet were on the pedal, and hands were on the machine. She fixed her head on the knitting pin, meticulous not to be pricked as she had suffered a few times. It was in the middle of this that Eesa came with Soffiyah in her hand.
She had woken up, and probably needed food. Latifah, hearing his footstep, intuitively, with quite adeptness, drew down her niqab which she had left over her head to give her better vision of what she was doing. It took her like a mili-second. And at this, Eesa was implicitly disappointed. His conscious thought had nothing to do with a desire to see Latifah’s face, but the moment the veil fell back to conceal her, he felt an awkward unease in him.
He had already seen her hazel, sparkling eyes left unshielded countless times, but now, something in his heart longed to put a face to it.
“She is up abi?” Latifah asked, turning her head away from the machine.
Eesa responded, drawing out a green plastic chair, the rental type, beside Lateefah. He sat and began to play with Soffiyah who held on to his thumb.
There, both seated, the rest of the sun providing heat; Latifah resumed her work, and Eesa kept her company by becoming lost in the details of his own spiritual transformation, and negligent of the beads of sweat settled on his face.
He had once been a party boy and a lover to a girlfriend whom he thought was the love of his life. Rashida was her name. Rashida wore tight jeans and only wrapped her hair in scarves. She was short, the same height as Latifah. Her voice was soft, just like hers too. They both had been dating each other hoping they would, at the end of the day, become married. Their faith in Islam kept them away from zina— fornication, even as they agreed to do everything short of that. So Rashida would visit him, and they would kiss and smooch, but will not go beyond that.
One day, however, the tides changed. Eesa’s friend, Muslims like himself, at the dorm knew this, so they had told him that if he really wanted to make Rashida his, he should have sex with her. It would show she love him in return, they argued. It would make her love for him increased. What if she doesn’t want to? Cornered, Eesa had asked his enlightened friends. Just do it, they had replied. She will like it. She will always like you. Girls always like the person who take their virginity forever. You see how Bimpe comes here every time to me? One of his friend had asked with a bustling sense of pride.
So on that day as Rashida sat on his twin-size bed, which was on the bare floor, and put her hand into Eesa’s, she did not know that he was a changed man on a mission. She would later notice that his grip was tighter, his eyes were bulging and red, and that he seemed different. She pleaded with him when he began to escalate, when he began to do what they never did, and reminded of their promise of marriage, but those words fell on deaf ears.
The Eesa she knew at that time was a nonentity, and the person on top of her had given the remote control to the Devil by merely being alone with her in the first place.
Strangely, it was Eesa who cried afterwards. He had sat there, on the floor, hands over his face as streams of water continued to flow. Rashida was indifferent. She gathered herself together, took her purse and left. That was the last time Eesa saw her.
The sin had stood on Eesa’s mind like a mountain. Nothing peaceful hadseemed to be able to come inside him. He had carried guilt with him day and night. Rashida won’t pick his calls either. His friends were after all wrong. Confused, saddened, and guilt burdened, he turned to his Creator, and prayed for forgiveness.
Details like these were carefully omitted. He only told Latifah of other things he left, and the group of Muslims he began gravitating towards. A melancholic smile spread over his face, as the face of Rashida, full of anguish and disappointment, showed on the brick wall in the distant. “Let’s just say an act of disobedience to Allah led me back to Allah.”
“Alhamdulillah for you.” Latifah commented. “You know what you need now?”
“Marriage. A good sister, ma shaa Allah.” She said, smiling.
To Eesa, like many other young Muslims who became religiously active during their undergraduate years, marriage was a top priority. It was a normal effect of a cause. If you’re serious about your religion while still being human with certain physical and emotional needs, to constantly think about marriage was, of course, a given. Those who think it abnormal already have in place something to compensate for the needs of this life stage. The something being a variety of things.
But Eesa was still stuck on Rashida. He still wanted her. He still looked forward to marrying her. But he couldn’t reach her. There was only one person he felt attracted to after Rashida, so in response, he gave a vague answer.
“Sister Latifah. There’s this sister I like, but…”
Anxious to know who, she removed her hands completely from the machine. “But what?”
“There’s just this sister. That’s the only thing I can say of her for now.”
He had never looked so serious like that before. His eyes were looking straight to the wall. His nostrils were wide. Sweat was coming out of his face and dripping on his beard. She had never seen his face lit like that. All these for that sister, ehn!
It was now over eight months that Latifah lost her husband and this night she did what she had stopped doing a long time ago. The night was quiet and wet as rain had fallen hours before. Latifah sat up on her bed, remembering the tingling feeling, the euphoric rush that kept her gasping as though she was been deprived of air, and the sudden return of normalcy as the heartbeat returned to its slow rhythmed pounding. The room was lit by the yellow bulb, and the white ceiling fan was adding to the cold breeze escaping into the room through the cracked, netted window. Latifah held tightly the pillow to her chest, and after minutes had passed, sat up on the bed.
Whenever she had a dream of a specific importance, one that knocked her awake, she always returned to the night before and walked down her thoughts. She would check if there was a cause, a direct line. Good dreams are from Allah. Bad, terrifying dreams are from Shaytan. Other dreams are from the subconscious. Walking down memory lane, she remembered thinking of her late husband, and the memorable times they shared together. Then she remembered catching and scolding herself, already halfway, thinking of the tallness of Eesa and how it would be if he held her in his hands. She had stopped herself quickly, realizing how silly it was especially after what had transpired between the two earlier the day before.
Latifah had just put Sofiyyah down inher crib and had returned to the living room to continue reading her novel. On reaching the living room, she had found Eesa just coming in from outside, reaching for her novel, and flipping through it.
“It’s a romance novel, eh?”
“No, not really. Just love based. Don’t mind the cover.” She had been embarrassed a little.
Eesa, clearly an over thinker, had read into her feelings and saw that she had been embarrassed and that it was his fault. He shouldn’t have asked such a pointing question. Why did he pick up the book in the first place? And the answer was clear to him. He liked to engage Latifah, and hearing her speak, in her low-pitched, soft voice that had semblance to that of the popular Yoruba movie actress Wunmi, comforted him. So as a penance he would go to the living room and apologize. It might sound goofy, but it was worth a short.
She had appreciated the apology, even though she felt it unnecessary. It made her feel somehow, but it also made him endearing. A man who cared about such little things would not want to hurt a woman. Any woman who married Eesa would be fortunate. She was thinking this when Eesa said something about MMM, the Ponzi scam that sent some Nigerians to hospital beds. It was a funny meme he had seen on Facebook. They both started to laugh. And as the coziness in the living room heightened, sitting not so far from each other on the black leathered three sitter furniture, Eesa committed a blunder, a rather strange Freudian slip. Still laughing, he did not know when he said out loud what he was thinking. “Oh, Iwish I can see your face.”
After his slip, Eesa had remained silent for about twenty minutes until Latifah broke the stillness which had enveloped the living room.
“What do you mean you want to see my face? Are you a mahram?”
She had sounded normal. And this had given Eesa a hint that she was notangered or offended by his slip. He liked the way she talked to her. Like an elder sister, guiding her kid brother. But that was exactly what made feeling for her so wrong from Latifah’s perspective. Respect was an essential element for her when interested in a man, not only attraction, nor religiosity. But was age proportional to respect? This was the question that baffled her all day.
“No, I am sorry. It was a slip. I didn’t. I wasn’t. You know.”
“If you say it’s a slip, then that meansyou have been thinking about it.” Behind her niqab, she had been clearly enjoying this.
“Yes. I mean, no. What happened is that I think.”
“You think it is okay to ask to see my face when you’re not my husband, abi?”
“Ah! It’s not like that.”
“So you want to lie that I did not hear? So is this what brothers think in their minds? Ya Salam!”
Defeated and ashamed, Eesa had puthis feet on the chair and cuddled up around his knees. Then he had felt that saying the truth was the only way out of the awkwardness. His facial expression had changed, and he had turned to Latifah.
“Sister Latifah, I did not mean to say what I said, but yes, it’s true I havebeen thinking about it.”
Latifah had been quiet.
“I read up about proposing in Islam, and saw that the prophet, salallahu alehi wa salam, encouraged men to look at the face of the woman they wish to propose to before doing so.”
“So what does that have to do with me?”
“Because I would like to marry you.”
It had been like a wind of hot air was opened on her head. She had felt suffocated by the words. Her mind shutdown and for a moment she felt nothing. She was just there, on her seat, alone in the word for a second.
The only thing she could manage to say was: “How?”
Eesa had taken the ‘how’ to mean what were his plans, so he had begun to tell of how he thought he could actually marry and maintain a marriage with Latifah. His mother had left him an inheritance of four million naira and a four bedroom bungalow in Ibadan. They would use half to invest in Latifah’s business.
She would be overseeing it, while he finishes his studies. It should work. They would have only one child until he finished his youth service and started to work. They would be living in her current room and parlor. He did not mind. And that was when Islamiyah entered.
Latifah stepped out of bed, yawned and stretched before reaching for her grey overall hijab hung on the cliff hanger behind her room’s door. She trod into the hallway and went to the bathroom where she eased herself. She then strode to the backyard, small kettle in hand for ablution. Sounds of toad from a nearby gutter were defiant to the stillness of the night.
Back in her room, she spread her red praying mat, and began her night-prayer.
There, she tried to block out the world, and focused on being intimate with her Maker. With every movement and declaration of the greatness of Allah, she imagined God, over the seven heavens, watching her, and commending her efforts to the company of the angels, who were swimming in the air, circumventing the throne of Allah, and celebrating His purity. She made her recitation audible, the sonorous tone emanating from her mouth, sent her into a trance like state. She did not know when tears began to slide down her cheek and fell on her bosom. She was reading one of the last ten chapters of the Qur’an.
As she sat in complete darkness, because of NEPA had induced a power outage during her sujood, making dhikr, she could not understand how her heart seemed to be in conflict with her head. She was trying to think of practical things, but her heart kept going back to the thoughts of Eesa, making some of her prayers include him.
The young man had been exuding traits of a matured, gentle man to the amazement of Latifah, but the fact remained he was the younger brother of her best friend. She stood up for another two unit of prayer and did istikhara.
Latifah got to Islamiyah’s flat the next morning at around 9am. It was a Friday so she was not supposed to be there. But there was an emergency family meeting for Eesa and Islamiyah to attend in Ibadan later that day and Islamiyah did not want to take her baby with her. Eesa had driven her sister’s grey Lexus sedan to Latifah’s place and drove her back to the flat.
During the fifteen minutes’ drive, Eesa talked to Latifah about his seriousness, and how he would make sure she didn’t regret if she accepted. He would tell his sister when they returned from their trip that night. He just loved Latifah and saw that they could make a beautiful couple.
Latifah stayed quiet throughout the ride, her gaze distant, and her mind seething of thoughts and fears.
By 9:30am, the house was hers, and Soffiyah’s. Soffiyah, after taking cereal, slept off few minutes before ten’o clock. So now, it seemed to her, she had the house to herself. She wasn’t feeling like sewing or anything. The unsolicited proposal from yesterday had drowned her spirit. It was on her mind. She knew they were becoming closer, she knew she was feeling for him day by day, she knew Islamiyah was getting more and more suspicious and confrontational.
Just this morning when she arrived with Eesa, Latifah had made a silly joke about the eagerness of Eesa to drive her. Eesa had laughed, but Latifah had noticed the passive-aggression in Islamiyah’s tone.
So, yes, Latifah, sitting on a dining chair, cheek on her fist, was deeply lost in thoughts; thinking of her life, of her nightly outbursts of cravings for sex, of her desire for financial independence, and her need for companionship when the events that would have her do the unthinkable.
Being seated for a whole thirty minutes, she decided to stand, and walk around the house. Maybe walking would take her minds off things. She thought she heard Soffiyah cry, but when she got to her room, she was sleeping quite peacefully. She walked back to the living room, and found the television on. But she was the only one at home, how could that be? Something seemed odd.
Abu Matrud had been in his room all morning, nursing a slight headache and fever. His wife had left him under a thick comforter, and unplugged the standing fan beside their bed. He did not know that Latifah would be around that morning so his sauntering into the living room was purely coincidental. He had put on the TV, hoping to watch the latest news from Al-Jazeera.
“Oh, Sister Latifah, I didn’t know you’re here today.” He said, coming back from the kitchen, glass cup in hand.
“Oh, I am here sir for Soffiyah. I guess Umm Soffiyah forgot to mention it to you sir.”
“I see. La baas. I was just catching the latest news from Syria. May Allah help our brothers and sisters over there.”
Back on the sofa, he said, “I would be out of your way soon. I have slight headache.”
“Oh, no problem. May Allah give you shiffa.”
And as promised, after the news, he returned to the room to sleep a little bit before he would start getting ready for Jumuah. The thought of Jumuah reminded him that he had not prepared his speech for that afternoon. Normally, he would just tell Islamiyah to help him come about a topic, and then he would build upon that, but with her absence, he thought it would be interesting to seek a novel opinion from a novel mind.