They met at the chic café she frequented during the holidays and when she did not have to teach at the center. She always sat on the second floor, by the window facing the twenty-four-storey office complex. During lunch hours, she counted the number of blue and yellow delivery bikes that stopped in front of the building. In the evenings, she watched the people that trooped in and out of the building in twos or threes, some of them texting as they walked; occasionally, there was the lone wolf tightly clutching a purse or briefcase. She also counted the number of customers that came into the café while she was there—the day they met, it was twenty-three; thirteen of them got a takeaway. She knew the baristas by their names—she preferred Jon to make her latte and Yinyin to make her lemonade, even though they all tasted the same no matter who made them.
That day, Deming had come into the café alone, wearing baggy cargo pants and a black T-shirt. He was the eighteenth customer. Dikachi had been bobbing her head to Ariana Grande, looking up autumn outfit inspirations on Pinterest, when he slid to her side and asked to sit opposite her. She nodded, a little disconcerted because there were unoccupied tables in the café. He sat down and started playing a game on his phone. He smelled nice, a woody scent with subtle floral undertones. His proximity discomfited her and made her drink more frequently from her cup of coffee than usual. The pictures on her laptop blurred and she bit her lips, thinking how long it had been since a man approached her. She sneaked glances at him, noticing his closely cropped hair, his thick, arched eyebrows, and his shiny, pink lips.
It was another twenty minutes, after she had emptied her cup and asked for a refill, before he tried, awkwardly, to strike up a conversation. He spoke in English, asking for her name and if she visited the café often because he had seen her previously, twice. She was a bundle of nerves as she replied, blushing when she used the wrong tense and mispronounced a word. He was striking in a way that reminded her of the picture of the Chinese celebrity her co-worker used as a desktop and phone background, and polite in a way that made her think of the kids she taught at the center.
As they talked—about the café, the erratic weather, and her favorite Chinese food—she mentally recalled how she looked when she left her apartment hours earlier. Her hair was held up in a lazy Afro puff; her edges were already rebelling against the gel that held them down. Thankfully, she had lined her eyes and glossed her lips, but her eyebrows were bushy. And recently, she had been slacking on her facials, so her skin was beginning to feel rough. With her plain shirt and dark blue jeans that had lost their shine from years of washing, Dikachi felt anything but attractive.
They exchanged WeChat contacts before he left. He promised to text her. In the few days that followed, she tried not to think of him. The encounter struck her as surreal, a product of her imagination. She took him to be one of those who liked to approach foreigners to practise their English.
He messaged her three days later, inviting her to dinner. She took an hour to reply, staring at the message, waiting for him to recall it, even though she knew the thirty-second window to recall a message had passed. Her response, sure, had been one of curious expectancy. He was interested in her. And it showed in the way his eyes lit up when she agreed to exchange contacts at the café and in the overexcited bunny sticker he replied with when she agreed to his dinner invitation.
For the date, she wore a tight-fitting, knee-length purple dress that had been gathering dust at the back of her wardrobe and the sandal heels that she had only worn once since she bought them a year ago. She took the cab to meet him in front of a dainty Japanese restaurant in a secluded part of the city. If people stared at them at the restaurant, she did not notice. Her giddiness caused a churning in her stomach. She patted down her braids, which felt tight and painful, and tugged down her dress. They ate shrimp pasta and fried fish, then talked about their jobs. She bit her lip to keep from retorting when he talked at length about gaming. Only after they started dating did she let go of her reservations about a grown man who did nothing but play video games. Even then—after she saw how much he earned from it, the meticulous notes he kept, the exquisite setup of his game room (she started to call it his office), and the length of time he spent doing live streams—she treated his gaming with the indulgent air she reserved for the kids in the center.
They went on two more dates before he asked her to be his girlfriend. The most elaborate proposal she had ever received. She and Kenneth had fallen naturally into a relationship after they shared a kiss at the back of a campus bonfire they attended together. Zubby had simply said, You know you’re my girlfriend, shey? the night they went for drinks together and another man approached her to get her number. Dafe had asked: he sent a long confession punctuated with heart and flower emojis, ending with Will you be my girlfriend?
Deming came to her apartment with a bunch of fresh, pink and purple flowers, stood at her doorway, and told her how she caught his attention with the seriousness with which she counted delivery bikes, how her eyes had drawn him in when he first approached her, and how he could not stop thinking of her. She did not agree at first. His interest excited her, but she was also worried about the dynamics of a relationship with him. They were different, culturally and racially and in every way she could think of. She had close Chinese friends and even a Chinese family that invited her regularly for family dinners, including Chinese New Year’s and mid-autumn festival dinners. But she was not certain she was ready to be intimately close with someone so utterly different from her, especially after peeking his age on his driver’s license and realising that he was younger.
A day later, he called her in the middle of the night and asked again. He rambled about himself, extolling his good qualities, enticing her with allusions to undying devotion. On another occasion, she would have ended the call, kissed her teeth, and muttered “stupid boy” before blocking him. Yet she found his fervour endearing. She agreed with a tentative okay and chuckled at his loud whoop of Yes! on the other side of the phone.
With Deming, she experienced an emotion that hovered between intimate love and platonic affection. There would be days when she rode high on the euphoria of being with him. Days when she carried thoughts of him as she went through rather mundane hours. Days she stared into space with a silly smile on her face and looked forward to seeing his smile. And then there were days when his image in her mind became translucent. Days she pretended not to see his messages and hurried to end his calls. She had loved him. It was unlike when she had loved Kenneth, when she bent over backwards for him until her spine cracked in the middle. Neither was it like with Zubby, when she looked forward to his monthly deposits into her account. It was definitely not what she had felt for Dafe—an intense infatuation that withered after they had sex.
Rather, it was placid in the way it settled in her stomach, like a purring cat, only stirring when he touched his always cold fingers to her warm skin or when he smiled at her, his eyelids folding into themselves, his deep brown eyes lighting up. It hugged her when he sent a message in the middle of the day asking how her day was going. It tickled her brain when he played with her cornrows and tried to braid her hair, though he ended up tangling it. It flooded her body with warmth when he brewed brown sugar ginger tea for her when her stomach cramped up with period pains.
But their relationship also had an air of impermanence. It weaved itself into the way they spoke to each other and the tenses they used; they always spoke in the present. Even when they spoke about the future, it was always in the singular, excluding the other person. Although he made space for her in his home—the extra chair and futon in his game room, the pair of blue house slippers, a cutlery set of forks and spoons because she could not eat properly with chopsticks—she knew that, like her, he did not include her in his tomorrow. It was something she knew when she agreed to be his girlfriend.
They celebrated milestones in their relationship—one month, three months, six months, one-year anniversaries—but they all seemed like numbers in an hourglass. A quicksand hourglass like the LED one he had gifted her on Chinese Valentine’s Day. Sometimes, she imagined the hourglass transforming into a countdown clock to hover over their heads. It was when she was reminded of this impermanence that she forced herself to ignore the purring cat in her stomach and to envisage a future without him.
Once, during a summer trip to Thailand, they met a Chinese tourist couple who assumed they were from the UK. Dikachi had hastily agreed with them, cutting into Deming’s attempt to correct the misunderstanding. It technically wasn’t a lie since he had gone to school in the UK, she told him later. When they returned to China, she realised that she always felt inclined to separate herself from Deming when they were outside. And that she preferred to remain indoors with him even though she was outdoorsy. They rarely got to do all the fun stuff she had seen other couples do: hold hands while strolling megamalls, eat stinky tofu in the middle of a busy food street, share ice cream together, or take selfies beside cute cat and rabbit statues in entertainment parks.
At first, she tried to convince herself that she cared little if people stared when she was with Deming. Yet it always felt as though there were a thousand eyes boring holes into her. It made her want to let go of Deming’s hand and walk behind him. It made her notice things and people that she had previously not paid attention to. She looked longer at the Chinese models on billboards, on the banners in front of cosmetic shops, and on the products in the cosmetic aisles of Carrefour and Walmart. Their pearl-white skin. Thin lips coated in shades of red and pink. Opalescent eyes that were at once aloof and soulful. She began to look at the clothes worn by the women she passed on the road. She switched to wearing long, flowery skirts instead of skinny jeans because they made her feel more delicate, less different. She wore make-up more often, trying out new styles to give her face a doll-like appearance. When she was with Deming, she looked at the faces of the women as they passed, looking for something there. A look of criticism. A sneer. Raised brows.
They frequented the cinema, though. The dim lights allowed her to lean into Deming. There, she would not have to imagine that they were being watched or create imaginary scenarios of being ousted for being with him.
In the future, when Dikachi remembered Deming, she would recall that her happiest moments with him were the times they spent indoors. He would be playing games on his elaborate computer setup, clicking fiercely on the mouse and keyboard, and shouting at his teammates through his headset. She would be sitting on the futon he had gotten for her, watching sitcoms, preparing a lesson plan, or scrolling through Instagram.
She had practically moved in with him four months into their relationship, only going back to her apartment occasionally for a change of clothes. They took turns cooking; when one cooked, the other cleaned. She made Jollof rice, which he liked; egusi soup, which he finished, albeit with the air of a child forced to eat plain broccoli; and okra soup, which he added soy sauce to and blatantly refused to eat with the fufu she made from corn flour. He cooked braised pork, beef noodles, and egg-and-tomato sauce. She came to like the Coca-Cola chicken wings he made; it took her six weeks to learn to cook them perfectly without burning them.
In the evenings, when she came back from work and after they had dinner, they went on walks around a park close to his apartment building. By then, the sky would be a deep shade of gray, and she felt freer to hold on to Deming’s arm. They would leave the park through the east gate, take the tree-lined gravel path until they were out in the wide street, walk past the elementary school, past the police station, past the row of food stalls where sometimes they bought kebabs or dim sums, past the building with the saloon where Deming cut his hair, until they got to the overhead bridge, which they would climb, and then take another route back to his apartment. During the cooler months, they sat in the park to eat the snacks they had bought.
When they returned to his apartment, they had their baths—Dikachi first, then Deming. Then they would have sex or simply lie in each other’s arms and talk. When they were too tired to talk, they scrolled through their phones until one of them drifted off to sleep. There were nights when Deming would have to stay up to stream a game. On those nights, Dikachi diced and salted apples for him, made him a cup of Eight Treasures tea, and filled his thermos flask with warm water before she went to sleep. He would apologise when his slipping into bed around four a.m. stirred her from sleep. The sex they had then was silent, tender, impassioned. She found it hard to go back to sleep then, but she remained in bed with him, listening to the sound of his breathing as dawn broke.
One early autumn Tuesday, after their walk, they sat on one of the benches to eat beef kebabs, both of them heavily cloaked in the smell of mosquito repellant that Dikachi kept spraying on their bare legs. After Dikachi told him about a kid’s mother from the center who complained that her English lessons were not intense enough, Deming, in a succinct manner, said that he got a job offer from a game company in Germany.
She was going to tell him, too, about a co-worker who stood up for her when a parent expressed displeasure at a black person teaching her child, but she faltered.
The relief came first. She saw the imaginary clock above their heads vanish. Then her stomach knotted, and the spicy kebab became paper in her mouth. She swallowed hard without chewing properly. They were quiet for a while before she told him she was planning to return home at the end of the school term. Permanently.
“I’m going back to get married,” she added as an afterthought. He had a small smile on his face as he listened to her ramble about the upcoming nuptials.
Her husband-to-be, Chibuzor, had proposed to her three weeks ago over a video call. She had met him during her visit to Nigeria the previous year, but she told Deming that Chibuzor was someone from her childhood and that her parents had set them up together.
When they returned to Deming’s apartment, they made slow love. Dikachi wrapped her arms around him, keeping his face in focus all the while, imprinting his beautiful face in her mind. Deming kissed her tenderly, held her as she cried. Then they had mad, passionate sex. Dikachi bit him and scratched him, wanting to leave her mark on him. The rest of the night, they remained wrapped around each other, listening to Michael Wong, burying all they couldn’t say in the silence between them.
The next afternoon, Dikachi returned to her apartment in a taxi with clothes that had been in his wardrobe, a toothbrush that had been in his bathroom, and a disquieting awareness that he was going to be an earworm in her heart. She was going to think about it every day—this unfinished story of theirs.
is a graduate student of history at Wuhan University. She was shortlisted for the 2021 Quramo Writers’ Prize for her unpublished novel and has appeared in The Kalahari Review, Fiery Scribe Review, and Writers Space Africa. Connect with her on Instagram – cynthia.linlin. Twitter: @cfromthemoon.