Welcome to another Wonderful Wednesday! Today is special for many reasons, but two are worthy of mention: It’s the last day of August, and the day I share the last story in the August Fiction Series. Yes, indeed. This is the 4th and last one (The other stories are here). This story involves one woman, a man and a loose braid. The rest is below. 🙂
I hope your August was very fulfilling, and I wish you an even more amazing September … which is when next I’ll be here. 😀
Till then, enjoy the rest of your week!
AT THE END OF A LONG LOOSE BRAID
Romoke slowed down her pace and pulled out her earphones. She ran the same route through her apartment complex every morning, and hardly encountered anything worth a second look. But this thing was different. It demanded attention. Her attention.
“What is this?” she wondered, coming to a complete stop.
There was something on the ground, lying in her path. Last week, she had seen the sundried, tire-flattened carcass of a frog in the same spot.
But this was not an animal.
A tall, ebony-skinned woman, possessing the strong, toned body of a runner, Romoke looked fearless. But, she circled the object with caution.
Just then, a strong gust of wind caught hold of the object and blew it closer to her.
A giggle escaped from her throat, followed by a deep sigh of relief. The object that had piqued her interest was a slightly tangled mass of hair. The weft on one side, which was visible from where she stood, had a few short bits of black thread sticking from it.
“Ouch! Someone’s hair got ripped out,” she concluded, as she continued on her way. That theory was more plausible than the other one, which was that another woman, walking that same route, had on a whim, ripped out her own weave, and scattered it to the wind. And it had eventually wound up there.
Or perhaps, she ripped it out elsewhere, and the wind conspired with her to send it Romoke’s way.
Romoke put her earphones back on, and only thought of the wandering weave in passing in the coming hours. Little did she know that the universe had just sent her a warning.
She prepared for work as usual, and headed to work at the sports beverage company where she had been employed for more than two years.
Although this was just a branch of the company, not the corporate headquarters, the cut-throat, intense competition and busyness that corporate America was notorious for was alive and well here.
It was Wednesday and as a member of the Marketing Department, there was a mandatory hour-long meeting to attend before lunch. Romoke had taken the advice of a senior colleague, and made a point of not being the first person at the meeting. Her aim was to arrive somewhere in between: not too early, and certainly not late at all. Tardiness was unacceptable.
In Stacy’s unforgettable words, her aim was simple.
“Make like osmosis, and float from cubicle to conference room. If you get there too early, you look desperate. Like Bill. He’s been hounding Mona for a promotion for years, and we all know he ain’t getting it. Get there too late, and Mona will have a field day embarrassing you in front of everyone.”
That last part was truer than the rest.
For anyone who ever came late to meetings for any reason, their Branch Manager, Mona had a special penalty: that person had to stand on the conference table, and give a lively rendition of the company’s TV jingle from start to finish.
The first time Mona had told them this rule, they had all laughed. That is, until an unlucky handful of employees became scapegoats. After that, they all knew she was serious. It was also then that the employees realized that lateness to work, to meetings or lateness period, could spell demotion or worse yet, outright loss of employment.
To avoid all this, thirty minutes before these weekly meetings, Romoke would make adequate preparations, and make sure all the documents she needed were printed and ready. The excuse that the copy machine broke down again wouldn’t fly with Mona, and a demotion wasn’t exactly Romoke’s idea of heaven on earth.
Stacy had already left for the meeting about five minutes before Romoke decided to join them. It was on her way to the conference room that she realized that she had forgotten to print out one vital report for this meeting.
At that moment, Romoke would have kicked herself for that slip up, but looking back, she realized fate was at work, a matter of destiny. Or she thought, for if she hadn’t gone back to print out the report she had labored over the previous day, then maybe she wouldn’t have …
Well, she hit “Print” and half-ran, half sprinted to the copy room where large printer-copiers stood side-by-side, machines that mostly needed to be fed with paper, ink and toner to work efficiently. But there were days when they refused to cooperate, resembling immature teenagers with those unpredictable mood swings.
“I wonder if these things come alive at night,” she wondered as she grabbed the document she had just printed. It was a colorful page of bar charts, which would corroborate what Mona was always whining about: that they needed to be more efficient and productive.
She was still chuckling to herself as she imagined the office equipment springing to life at the stroke of midnight, and wondering at what they would say about each employee, when she turned the corner and almost collided with a young gentleman.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Romoke began, deeply apologetic, as she assessed the almost damage. No broken bones. Good. And he didn’t seem offended. In fact, he was smiling. Even better.
Romoke noted that this wasn’t one of those condescending, barely polite smiles that really said, “You blind bat! Watch where you’re going!”
No. It was a knowing, friendly smile. And the smiler looked like he wanted to talk, to say more than his large, brown eyes were saying.
The man Romoke had almost knocked over was well-built with a tousle of rich, black, curly hair, paired nicely with intelligent eyes set in a gentle face. His light complexion was mostly hidden under the navy blue long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants he donned.
But his eyes sparkled curiously.
He recognized her first.
“Wait. Have we met before?” he asked, and then initiated a verbal attempt to recollect her name. “It’s Debbie, right?”
“Yes,” said Romoke with a look of surprise. How did this guy even remember her? She had first met him a few months back when Mona sent her to pick up a report in Accounting. On her way back, she had stopped by the IT department to complain about not being able to send or receive emails all morning. It was this guy who had restored her computer back to working order.
“Yeah. I remember you. You had … have an accent and you told me your African name. Starts with an “R,” ” he said squinting as he combed through the archive of names in his brain that began with that letter.
“R-o-m-o-k-e. It’s Romoke. But most people, at work anyway, call me Debbie ‘cos it’s easier to pronounce.”
“Yeah, it’s a lazy American thing,” Steve confessed. “But we’re not all like that. Some of us don’t like reducing people’s names to “Bob” or “Sue” just ‘cos it’s convenient. I’m a big believer in getting it right, you know? So tell me, how do you pronounce your name again?”
And Romoke obliged him, pronouncing each syllable with painstaking, exaggerated effort. After two attempts, he pronounced it properly and got the intonation right too.
“Wow! You’re a fast learner, Steve. I’m impressed,” said Romoke truthfully, her eyes brightening with delight.
“Yeah. It’s kind of a thing for me. I can’t stand people messing up other folks’ names. It just reeks of laziness, really. And you would not believe all the folks who’ve messed up the pronunciation of Steve. Yup, a simple five-letter name.”
“No way!” Romoke gasped, eyes as wide as saucers.
“Yes way!” said Steve, nodding vigorously. “You’d think there’s no way to mess it up, but hey, some people can’t be bothered.”
And just then, it hit them both.
“The meeting!” Romoke cried. “Oh my gosh! I’m so late! Oh no … Mona will … Oh no!” she groaned.
“Wait. Were you heading to the Marketing Department meeting?” he asked.
“Yes. And I’m so late,” Romoke cried. She considered not going at all, but that would only make matters worse. “No shows” were penalized even more heavily than latecomers.
“Oh. I’m so sorry. I’m supposed to be at that meeting too,” said Steve.
“Really? But you work in IT. How come–”
“Yes, I’m in IT. But Mona was having technical difficulties, and I was sent to–” Steve began.
“—Come to her rescue,” said Romoke with a knowing look. “Of course. Lucky you. She’s not your boss.”
“You say that only because you haven’t met Joe,” said Steve.
“My boss. He heads the IT department,” he replied.
Romoke smiled. Every man had his own personal taskmaster.
“Hey, let me handle Mona,” he offered. “Let’s go, okay? This is partly my fault anyways, standing here boring you with pet peeves and such.”
“Come on, Steve. I wasn’t exactly running away. And I didn’t yawn, so you’re definitely not boring,” Romoke said, exuding modesty.
“Madam, you are far too kind,” said Steve switching to a British accent for a moment. Romoke giggled in delight.
“Oh, but I shouldn’t have come back to print this silly report,” she said disdainfully shaking the single sheet of paper that had taken her back to her desk.
“And missed my awesome rant about mixing up names? No way!” said Steve shaking his head.
Romoke laughed. “You do have a point there.”
Standing there in a patterned lemony yellow and cobalt blue wrap dress with her two-week old Senegalese twists, Romoke looked stunning. And Steve picked this awkward moment to point it out.
“You look great, by the way. I wanted to tell you, w-a-a-y-y before the names rant,” he said. Romoke blushed and looked away. Then, she thanked him. Diving into the British accent again, he asked, “Shall we march onto the meeting then?”
Delivering her answer in the best copy-cat impression she could manage, Romoke replied, “Certainly, sir. Let’s go.”
And they made their way to the conference room.
“Thanks,” she said and stepped back as he opened the door, and let her in first, before stepping into the room. The small conference room was packed and almost every available chair was taken, occupied by seven people who had made it to the meeting on time. Standing towards the front of the room near the projector, which was flickering, was the eight person: Mona.
Romoke and Steve’s arrival brought the number of meeting attendants to ten, and their entrance was marked with hushed whispers and an abundance of judgmental stares. No doubt they expected the “Mona Verdict” to be handed down and supply the day’s entertainment.
Romoke searched for an empty chair and began to walk towards it.
“Dear Santa, a cloak of invisibility. That’s all I want for Christmas. In Tomato Jos red, please,” she thought to herself as she made her way feeling the weight of judgment growing heavier with each step. She eventually reached the chair she had fixed her eyes on and sat down.
A bald-headed guy with glasses who sat beside her said:
“You better take your shoes off so you don’t slide off the table,” he said nodding at her black pumps. Romoke scoffed.
“ITK! Who asked this one sef?” she wondered to herself staring at him with a less than complimentary look.
While she was still digesting his annoying comment, the slender brunette who sat beside him added:
“Hope she knows the lyrics or else Mona’s really gonna be ticked off.”
Romoke silently labelled them “enemies of progress.” Clearly, these two were suffering from “bad belle-ism,” and it had really festered. All the physical responses she had in mind for Mr. and Mrs. Bad Belle, were solidly against company policy. Eyeing them would have to suffice for now.
The entire time she was settling down, Mona had been watching both Romoke and Steve without saying a single word.
That woman! She lived for drama.
But what most people failed to notice was that Steve whispered something to Mona just before he re-attached a disconnected cord to the projector. It stopped flickering immediately.
Technically, he could have left at once, but for some reason, he stayed behind. And even though he could have picked any of the empty seats, he chose to spend the entire meeting on his feet, leaning against a wall, arms folded across his chest.
Every now and then, his gaze would sweep the room as he waited, presumably, to help Mona with any other technicalities. But for the most part, while Mona made her presentation, his eyes kept wandering back to a single face in the room.
The girl with the beautiful twists that hung over her shoulders and stopped at her waist, a flattering compliment to her round face.
Romoke noticed this, blushing deeply where she sat. He smiled at her several times from across the room, and she smiled back.
Meanwhile, they all waited for Mona’s verdict.
But, Mona never even mentioned Romoke’s lateness. Instead, she convened the meeting as if nothing had happened. Although no one challenged her, the shock was evident and written on faces across the room.
What was so special about this girl that made Mona break her famous rule?
“I have to thank Steve once this is over,” Romoke thought to herself, wondering like the rest of the people in the room, what Steve must have said to make Mona back down from her usual tactics. That question was on everyone’s mind, but no one knew the answer yet.
Towards the end of the meeting, Romoke, feeling a lot more relaxed, absentmindedly pulled off the rubber band holding her braids in a tight ponytail at the nape of her neck, and ran her fingers through the coarse twists. Gone was the tender ache in her scalp from all the pulling and twisting by Ramatou, the woman who had skillfully twisted her hair for $ 450. The pain had faded within the first few days after the braids were installed.
Romoke had kept postponing loosening the braids that dangled from her delicate hairline. It was something she usually did within the first two weeks of getting individual braids like these, to save her hairline from the devastation braids can wreak on a woman’s edges.
That Wednesday was the two-week braid anniversary.
“God help my edges in two months … if I still have them,” she thought to herself.
Just then, she looked up in time to see a small spider letting itself down from the fluorescent lamp overhead, on a single, silvery web. As far as she could tell, this creature planned to land on the conference table directly in front of her, and scurry off to a dark corner of the room. In a split second, she made a decision.
Turning to the right, she grabbed the report that had detained her in the first place, from the baldie sitting beside her and rolled it up, transforming it into a formidable weapon. Then, she turned sharply to her left, and seeing her eight-legged foe about to make a successful landing on the table, she slammed the paper on it.
The splattered brown mass on white paper announced that her mission was successful.
A female voice to her left shrieked. As Romoke turned her head to say “It was just a spider not a scorpion,” her eyes fell on the object that had inspired the shriek.
Lying in the middle of the conference table, separated from its sisters, was a long, twisted braid. From where she sat, Romoke could even see the tiny bit of her own hair at the very tip where it was once attached to her scalp.
Forget Santa and the cloak of invisibility. Romoke wanted to cry.
She saw it. Everyone saw it. The other braids, which unlike their fallen comrade were still attached to her scalp, saw it. And Romoke was sure that the other spiders hiding in crevices all over the conference room too, saw it.
A lonely, detached braid lying in full view.
Romoke wished she could just evaporate like steam and disappear from that room.
Why did this have to happen today of all days? And here of all places? Why didn’t it happen at home or in the imagined privacy of her cubicle?
At that moment, Mona ended the meeting, and everyone rose to their feet. Romoke rushed to the door, but before she got there, someone called out:
“Hey, Debbie! Wait. You dropped something.”
Who? Wait ke? For wetin?
Romoke didn’t even stop for a second, but beat a hasty retreat to the nearest ladies’ restroom. After crying for what seemed like an entire lifetime, but was really just ten minutes, she wiped her eyes and decided that life must go on.
“How will I hold my head high in the office? Ever?” she asked herself over and over again, as she reluctantly left the confines of the stall where she had been reliving her shame in slow motion.
No one had entered the restroom since she took refuge there, but she still felt the need to step out cautiously.
No sooner had she stepped back into the hallway, than she noticed someone standing a few feet away from the restroom entrance.
It was Steve.
Covering her face with her palms, she groaned. But he approached her.
“Cheer up, Romoke. It’s not the end of the world,” he said reassuringly.
“Really? How do I survive that? How does anyone survive that? In front of all my workmates for that matter. I’ll be the laughing stock of–” she began. Steve help up a hand and stopped her.
“Come on. Let it go. I’m sure they’ve already forgotten it by now,” he said.
“You really believe that?” she asked.
“Nope, but I sure hope you do!” said Steve. Romoke chucked bitterly. “You need to, Romoke.”
“Oh Steve, what am I going to do?”
“The same thing I did when my zipper broke in 5th grade: take a deep breath, buy new pants and move on. Except in your case, you can skip the pants part, and just move on. Life goes on. You’ll see.”
After considering it for a while, Romoke agreed to take Steve’s advice.
“Here,” he said, dipping his hand into his pocket, and pulling out an object.
“Oh! Please tell me you’re not the person who called me back?” she said in horror.
“No! That was the guy sitting beside you,” he said correcting her.
Romoke sighed in relief.
“What a hater!” she hissed.
“Ignore him. I got it after they’d all left. Didn’t think it should be lying there.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Steve,” said Romoke, collecting the braid from him, and clasping her palm over it.
And quickly changing the subject, he said:
“Hey, d’you want to grab coffee with me sometime?”
Romoke hesitated, then replied:
“Sure. Why not? When though?”
“Say Friday at 7. Coffee shop downtown near the food trucks.”
“Sounds good,” said Romoke. “And you can tell me what you said to Mona to get me off the hook.”
“Oh, I can tell you that right now: she’s my cousin. She owes me plenty.”
“Oh! Well, that certainly helps,” said Romoke in surprise. “I’d never have guessed.”
“Most folks don’t know and I’d rather keep it that way.”
“So, has she always been like this?” asked Romoke.
“You mean bossy and …. bossy?” said Steve.
“Your words not mine,” Romoke chuckled.
“It’s alright. Yes, and there’s a lot more we can talk about over coffee. Do you like scones?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Romoke.
“Okay. Coffee and scones on Friday,” said Steve.
“I’ll see you then.”
In her journal that night, in addition to promoting the “Break-free Braid” to number three on her list of “Most Embarrassing Moments,” Romoke penned these lines:
That Steve guy isn’t bad at all. Who knew that at the end of that one, long, loose braid was a date with Steve Allenbury, Mr. Remarkable?
Who knew, indeed.
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