My pulse races every time I think of my Joyce. And for a 76-year-old widower with high blood pressure, too much excitement is not advisable-o! I’m doing a photoshoot for her granddaughter Tabitha’s 8th birthday today. I first met Joyce three years ago when she hired me to take photos for Tabitha’s 5th birthday. If you ask me what color the child wore that day, I couldn’t tell you. As for my Joyce, I remember every detail on her navy-blue dress, the intricate cornrows design that crowned her head, and the gap between her middle teeth. Aah…when she smiled, it held me captive.
Every year, for the past three years, Joyce has hired me to take family photos. Mostly birthdays, but sometimes on Easter and Christmas too. The husband, Benji, is never in the pictures, as he’s hardly around. Freetown is a small place, and people talk. I’m told he’s a drunk and a womanizer, so I’ve long concluded that he doesn’t deserve a woman like Joyce. That it’s just a matter of time before she leaves him, and that when she does, I’ll be right there ready to swoop her up and ask her to be mine…my Joyce. Still, three years is a long time to yearn for someone. To close your eyes every night with an image of their face embedded in your mind. To embrace your pillow as though it were their skin.
When I arrive at her house, my Joyce is wearing a mauve and white traditional print dress with elaborate embroidery on the chest. Her hair swoops into a loose bun, and streaks of gray at her temple peek at me. Heat flashes on my face as I look at her. I remove my hat, clutch it to my heart, and bow. “Afternoon Joyce.”
Her eyelashes flutter, and her yalla cheeks show a hint of pink. Na blᴐs i deblᴐs so? She doesn’t have on makeup. She never does. But her lips always glisten (perhaps from Vaseline) as though inviting me to kiss them.
Joyce returns my smile, her dimples deepening. “Aw yu du, Stanley?”
I take a breath. And before I can respond, she adds, “Can I get you something to drink? Water? Beer?”
I want a beer, but I’m supposed to be working, so I say, “No, thank you.” My eyes still fixed on her face. I haven’t moved an inch; I’ve barely even blinked.
Joyce saunters toward the couch, and my eyes follow the sway of her hips.
“Stanley, won’t you sit down?” she offers, crossing her legs.
My feet obey, and I sit down beside her, my pulse racing. I clear my throat, an attempt at composure. “We Bɛnji?”
Joyce purses her lips. “I cᴐmᴐt,” she says. “That husband of mine can’t keep still. The streets are always calling him.”
My eyes linger on her bare shin as blood engorges me, awakening places long dormant in me.
The aroma from an arrangement of freshly cut red hibiscuses atop the coffee table filter towards me. I sniff. “It smells wonderful in here, Joyce. The flowers are from your garden, nᴐ to so?”
“Yes, thank you, Stanley. They bloomed so nicely, I decided to pick them this morning and bring some of the beauty inside.”
“Oh Joyce,” I reach over and touch her hand, unable to contain myself. “Your face is more than enough beauty to fill this entire house.”
Joyce giggles, “Stop it, Stanley,” she says and places her hand over mine.
The warmth of her fingers emboldens me. I inch closer. “Actually,” I say, leaning my face towards her neck. “I think the sweet aroma is coming from you, not the flowers.”
Joyce lowers her eyelids, and I seize the opportunity. I press my lips against hers. I’ve imagined this moment countless times, and now it’s happening. Her lips are soft. Our tongues tangle. She tastes sweet. I savor the seconds.
Suddenly, I hear the jingle of keys at the front door. Joyce jumps up and wipes her lips with the back of her palm. Ebo! Was she erasing my kiss?
Benji staggers in and brushes past Joyce. He reeks of brandy. Nincompoop!
“You hungry?” Joyce walks after him, but he waves her away.
I stand up and offer Benji my hand, although I would have preferred to punch him.
He ignores me, mumbles something under his breath, and heads up the stairs.
I glance over at Joyce; her eyes are dim. I want to grab, pull her close again, whisper that she doesn’t have to continue to live like this. I want to whisk her away, show her how a man treats a woman he truly loves, and ask her to be mine, my Joyce.
“Hello, Pa Stanley,” Tabitha bursts into the room, jolting me to reality.
I blink and force a half-smile. “You look nice. Ready for me to snap you, birthday girl?”
“Yes,” Tabitha says, her eyes aglow.
Just then, I hear Benji’s footsteps coming down the stairs. He has changed his shirt and is now wearing a design in the same print as Joyce.
“Take a picture of me and my wife first,” Benji barks.
And he drapes his arm over my Joyce, claiming her as though he were worthy of someone as beautiful, refined, and gentle as the woman whose lips I had just kissed. The camera in my hand wobbles.
I tilt my head towards Joyce, seeking her eyes.
She looks away and turns to Benji instead, resting her palm on his chest. I grit my teeth and swallow my disappointment as I lift my camera to my eyes. My Joyce smiles, a cheerful smile. My finger freezes for a moment, as anger churns in my chest. I snap the photo.
Tracy Olabisi Coker is a passionate Sierra Leonean-American writer who believes that the written word is an art that can open minds and transform hearts. She works as an HR professional and lives in Vienna, Virginia, with her husband and three children.