“Don’t go home, he knows.”
Her voice is low, so low I could have missed her warning but for the gentle tug on my arm.
I stop and in the dying light of the day our eyes meet and hold.
Mama Tunde! She lives two houses away. I know her because her son is a regular at our place. Handsome and very fair complexioned every one calls him oyinbo. He is best friend to my neighbour’s first son.
I know her but we are not friends, neither are we close enough to share the kind of secret that would excite such a warning.
I stop and feigning ignorance despite the wild beating of my heart,
ask, “Who knows?”
“Your husband.” She says softly, her voice barely audible, her gaze averted as if she
is too ashamed to behold my shame. “He knows about your lover.”
And at those words, something gives way deep inside me. I feel the way a
pebble must feel when you let it drop down an abandoned and empty well. I feel the knife turn in my gut. I am a samurai and this is my hara kiri.
When I look up, Mama Tunde is gone. Dusk is falling and the bus stop buzzes with workers hurrying home. I sit down on the dwarf fence that separates the shopping complex from the main road. Tears sting my eyes and I raise my hand to wipe it off as it slithers down my face.
I knew this day would come but I was like a woman teasing a bad tooth with her tongue and dreading the day my pleasure would sire true pain. The day has come and like a warrior caught without his sword in battle I am unprepared.
I see a schoolboy trudging home with his young sister, their feet raising a cloud of dust in their wake. I see a conductor fondle an orange seller’s breast as his bus passes her. I see a deranged man masturbating in the space between the staircase, a homeless lady staring up at him with unabashed longing.
And I sit here waiting for nothing.
There is so much pain lurking in those things that give us pleasure. I discovered that fact a long time ago, but my knowledge did not make me any wiser. Instead it fettered me with a yoke that grew heavier with each stolen moment.
I was married to a man I did not love. I had a lover who did not love me. But I was bound to these two men by a feeling of gratitude, but gratitude is a sad and sorry thing. Like a cheap cloth that wears out with time, gratitude can so easily grow tattered. Mine did, but I was powerless to put off my rags and don another covering.
My journey to this dwarf fence, this buzzing bus stop, this darkling plain, began a long time ago. I was twenty-three and an undergraduate. Life loomed large ahead of me. I was chasing a degree and dreams of marriage and children. But fate was stalking me with a hideous grin. It was mocking me without my knowing it.
Like a rumour of rain, trouble had been brewing for days on campus, but no one knew when the rain would begin to fall. The day of violence dawned without incident but before we knew it the peaceful rally organized by the Student Union Government had turned into a monster with bared fangs. Cars and windows were smashed and in no time the campus had been turned into a battleground. Molotov cocktails and bullets whizzed past overhead like deranged meteors.
Smoked out of hiding by tear gas, we ran for the gate at the rear of the campus, but anti-riot policemen had blocked it. We turned and headed for the hills and that was where the nightmare began.
They let the boys escape. They grabbed the girls. They dragged us into a thicket. They raped us, on the bare rocks, thorns and briers digging into our backs and buttocks. Not once, not twice.
As they passed me from one black clad monster to another I felt a cocktail of emotions; anger, revulsion then resignation. When they were done, I lay there unable, un-willing to move. Like a python that had gorged itself, I lay there willing death to come, but death had other plans.
Dusk was afoot when I finally roused and dragged myself back to the hostel. I got under the shower and kept scrubbing my skin until it was raw. Then I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
For three days I did not go to school. I felt dirty and angry and helpless. I had told no one. Rape is a personal dilemma.Like a terminal disease you keep from family and friends in order not to cause them pain, I kept it to myself. And so did the others, I suppose. Bearing our shame without words, we tried in vain to wish away the evil that had been done us. It was a battle you fought alone, without help. It was a lost battle, like a cripple training for the Olympics. So when I discovered that I was pregnant, I stole out to a clinic at the back of the hostel with the little money I could raise and had an abortion.
That night, I woke up in a pool of blood and was rushed to the teaching hospital. Something had gone wrong. I was at the hospital for five days and my doctor was a smug faced woman who treated me like Hester Prynne with the Scarlet Letter dangling from her neck.
If I expected pity, I found none. She never asked for my back-story. Every abortion has one. Every voyage ending long before it begins has a back-story. Every word marooned in a stutter has a long history behind it. Every abbreviated word has a tail missing. She did not care. She did not bother. Taking care of me was a duty and she was merely carrying out that function.
Things changed on the fourth day when an elderly and bespectacled man walked in. His voice was deep and soft and there was a dull spark in his eyes. He looked like a man who was learning to forget how to smile and laugh. His eyes had the look of a mirror dulled by dirt and so unable to reflect.
“How are we this morning?” He asked his eyes scanning my case note.
He settled his bulk into a seat by my bedside and holding my gaze spoke words that redefined my life.
“Your diagnosis is bad.” He said, his gaze unflinching. “You have a ruptured uterus and your fallopian tubes are scarred. You may never be able to have a baby.”
To this day, I can never figure out whether it was pity or anger that made the female doctor keep my diagnosis away from me.
I left the hospital healed in my body but scarred deep inside. The news had two effects on me. For the first few months I dreaded men. I flinched when my boyfriend touched me. I could never visit a man all by myself. Riding in cars with boys was impossible. I had been through hell and my mind was still scarred.
Then a change came over me. It was so sudden it took me by surprise and it was a long time before I fully understood what was happening to me. I began to crave sex. I slept with any man that caught my eye. I was desperate to prove the doctors wrong. I wanted to take in, to test their words, to call their diagnosis a lie.
It took me two years and two venereal diseases to learn that I was indeed a marked woman. Without a miracle I would never have a baby of my own.
After school I found a job and even though there were relationships, I never let them last. I became adept at shutting men out, steeling my heart like a Spartan I would watch the embers of affection turn to cold ash. And even though I wept inside, I knew it was the best thing for everyone. I was not ready to burden any man with my yoke.
Then I met that same doctor again, eight years after my stint at the teaching hospital and affection had sprouted tiny shoots. I was thirty-one, he was fifty-two. Age was a gulf that yawned wide between us.
I was at the hospital to visit a colleague who had just had a baby when our paths crossed again.
“How are we today?” he asked blocking my path and making a huge effort not to smile.
“Fine doctor,” I answered as recognition dawned.
We made small talk and exchanged addresses. He had just moved to my city and would keep in touch, he told me. It was a chance meeting and I did not think too much about it until the phone rang one afternoon some three weeks later and I heard the deep unmistakable voice on the other side.
“We are having a send off party for a colleague. Would you like to accompany me?” he asked after we had exchanged pleasantries.
” I would have loved to but I can’t. It’s my period and I’m battling abdominal cramps.” I told him keeping my voice cheerful in order not to cause offence.
He was quiet for a heart beat and I could imagine him taking a deep breath.
“What drug are you taking?”
“That should do it,” he said and sighed. ” Just get plenty of rest, okay.”
“Thank you”, I said then after he said goodbye and hung up, I sat there with the receiver in hand wondering why the doctor was asking me out to a party.
We had a lunch date soon after, then dinner and then one night after I heard him laugh I asked why he made such an effort not to laugh. It was a long story, he told me and I could see that he was loath to tell it.
We were lovers by the time I finally prised the story out of him. He told it in a rush, as if he was scared of the very memory itself. As if in telling it, he was sticking a knife in an old wound and making the pain all too real again.
His story was a sad one. He had been married once. There had been children. But it all ended one night. His wife was having an affair and he was none the wiser. It was night and he was out working.The gas was leaking and when his wife’s lover struck a match to light a cigarette the house went up in flames. The lovers escaped but not the children or the house help. He made a vow not to love or marry again.
Until he met me and learnt how to laugh again, to love again, to live again.
On our wedding night he looked in my eyes and spoke words he would repeat often: “My Angel, if you cheat on me I will kill you then I will kill myself. I love you so much to share you with another man.” Instead of a reply I kissed him. I knew that what I felt for him was different, it felt like love but it was not love. But then at thirty-one I was grateful to find a man to call my own. What I felt for him was gratitude. And gratitude is not so different from love. Like purple and lilac, it is all about hues and shades.
It was a serene marriage. He provided well. I lacked nothing. But it was too serene. Like a tepid pond, nothing happened.
We lived in a three-bedroom apartment. I had all I needed. He didn’t want me to work, so I spent my days reading, watching movies listening to music or painting. Painting was a childhood pastime I had almost forgotten about. Now with so much time on my hands I spent hours before my easel, creating abstract images that tried to capture my state of mind.
My husband had an eye for good art and most times he found buyers for my paintings. They didn’t sell for much but the money always came in handy when I went shopping, a new pastime I was cultivating.
My husband loved jazz, old blues and classical music. I loved R&B and Rap. When he was home, he would cue in his CDs, sit in his rocking chair and headphones strapped on, he would sit there for hours rousing only when it was time to change the CD, while all around him, Tu Pac and Biggie and DMX spat out anger and obscenities from the rap CDs I loved to play loud.
He tried to interest me in his kind of music. “My Angel, listen to this. Jazz is the music of matured minds. Just listen for five minutes.”
He tried, but aside from Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday, I didn’t make much progress.Bilie Holiday I loved for the underlying tone of pain and sadness that ringed her words like a high fence around a house. I felt like that house caught in the constricting embrace of that fence.
We both knew there would be no children. He did not want any more and I could give him none. A lifetime of togetherness loomed ahead of us, time enough to smoothen the rough edges. Time enough to grow into each other. Time enough for the sadness to overwhelm us, define us and re-define us.
But gratitude is a thin fabric. Harassed by the buffeting winds of life it wears out too easily. I was soon tired of the serenity and even though I did not go looking for trouble, it found me soon enough.
I could tell that it was coming but like a death row inmate waiting for inevitable fate, I was powerless to escape that which awaited me. I could sense the restiveness deep within me. My husband could sense it too, but where I understood what it was that ailed me, my husband was confounded by it all.
“My Angel, are you okay? Do you want to take a trip? Is something bothering you?” He was all solicitous concern. Ever the doctor, he wanted to cure my body, but how could he ever tell that that which ailed me sprang like a fountain from a source that lay deep inside.
He noticed it in my paintings, which though always abstract were taking a new form, all spatters of passionate red and fiery yellow. I was the daughter of the sun. I wanted to catch fire and burn.
How could I tell him that what I needed was a he-goat, nose in the air, mad with lust. How could I tell my husband, the man who had plucked me off the shelf of spinsterhood and given me a home, that my body desired the very thing he could not and would never allow me.
I was a young woman on a wide-eyed search for trouble and I found it soon enough.
Trouble was twenty-six years old with eyes that twinkled with mischief. Trouble was a graduate who drove a cab until he could raise enough money to go abroad. Trouble found me on a hot afternoon while I was out shopping.
We didn’t speak another word after we negotiated the fare. But the looks he flashed me in the rear view mirror spoke to me of things we could never find words for. When he parked and offered to help me take my things upstairs I knew I ought to have said no, but flush with giddy excitement, I let him.
He took my shopping bags upstairs and after he set them down on the dining table he reached for me. I could have pushed him away. I could have screamed. But no was a word I could not utter. I let him pull me down on the couch. I was a dry and thirsty land, he was long sought water. I clung to him for dear life.
A half-hour later, my whole body tingling, I stood on the balcony, his semen running down my inner thigh as I watched him drive away.
I should have stopped. I knew I ought to have stopped, but I was like a car without brakes. I needed something to impede my motion. And gratitude was not strong enough to hold me back. My husband’s threat was not strong enough to make me stop. I needed something else. Like an abiku deriving perverse joy from taunting its parent I wanted to get caught without wanting to.
My lover was young and carefree and uninhibited. We made love in the car, at the beach, at fast food joints. We were junkies and sex was our drug of choice. We tried to be discreet. We kept away from my house. I went by public transport when we had to meet. But it wasn’t enough. Somewhere, somehow, we left a hot trail.
He did not love me, I was clear on that, but he understood my need. He knew I cherished the time we spent and graciously made out time for us to be together. But stolen moments are never enough, like quick bites that never satisfy they leave you with a mad craving for more. I craved for more.
He lived at the back of his father’s house. Once we drove in and stepped into his room, passion would take over. Our lust spent, we would listen in silence to R&B or rap. Sade and Anita Baker were favourites. So were Notorious BIG, Tupac and DMX.
Most times when there was a power outage, we would lie naked in bed and his fingers tracing circles around the dark aureoles of my breasts he would tell me stories of his childhood, his family and his girlfriends in school. There had been quite a lot. He was the kind of man who drew women to him like moth to naked flame. He didn’t boast and I didn’t feel jealous. We were like two strangers yoked together by a shared need and no more.
He spoke of his dreams of going abroad. The cab driving was a means of raising funds and making his dreams real. His parents didn’t know. They wanted him to find a job and settle down. He was their only son. But he had other plans.
“This country is killing me. The soldiers have messed everything up. I need to get out.”
He didn’t drink but I could tell he smoked marijuana. His kisses were sometimes flavoured by the acrid smell. As time passed and we got used to each other, I would walk with him to a football pitch two streets away and sit with him while he rolled and smoked a joint, his eyes staring into the distance as if contemplating his trip across the seas.
One evening, as we sat there, the tip of his joint glowing in the gathering dusk, something happened. It was so sudden but not so unexpected. He was smoking, his cheeks sucked in, his eyes tracing the horizon while I lay my head on his lap and looked up at him. His left hand was lazily stroking my nipple through the thin fabric of my silk blouse when the sharp voice pierced the night air and jumping up I bumped my nose against his chin.
“Hold it!”It was the police and as they asked us to stand with our hands up, I felt a trickle of blood escape from my nostril.We got off by emptying our pockets of all the money we had on us.
I cried through it all as I thought of what my husband would do and say if I ended up in jail with a strange young man on a drug possession charge. Would he suspect? He was trusting but I knew he wasn’t foolish.
That incident should have scared me off, brought me back to my senses. But I was a junkie. I needed my fix.
But I almost beat my addiction. Almost. Once I had called at his place without warning. It was a Sunday and my husband had been called off to the hospital for an emergency. Alone at home, I was suddenly overcome by an urge to see him, to hold him, to feel him deep inside me.
When I got there,I met a girl in his room. He introduced me as a friend and leaving the girl in the room drove me back home. He took me in the sitting room, wordlessly, violently. Then when he was done he pulled on his clothes and left without a word.
I didn’t see him for a month and just when I was thinking it was all over, I received a DHL package from him asking me to meet him the next day. I wish it had all ended then.
I sit here in the darkness, swatting at the mosquitoes that buzz all around me as the spool of my life unwinds before my eyes. I picture my husband at home, sitting in his rocking chair and listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
I see myself walk in and wonder whether he will look up and call me his angel.
But I know better. I am a fallen angel and above my head, the glow from the shopping complex is nothing but a halo of shame.
(c) Toni Kan Onwordi