I sit across from him at the dining table. His face reflects on the marbled surface upside down like a mirage. His jowls become elongated and animated as he chews. I watch him devour the Eba with his hands. He dunks a golf-ball sized chunk in the Egusi, lifts, draws an invisible circle about his mouth before shoving it in. He heaves as he does this, leaning desperately in with every bite and permitting the occasional grunt. All of his life he has eaten like this, as though he is starving. Back then I used to wonder how he stayed so skinny, how such lanky arms could be attached to such hungry fingers. I would joke that he was feeding that magnificent ogo of his, and he’d lay claim to an insatiable stomach in his brain, fuelling his intelligence. And we would laugh. I’d scoff but secretly agree for he was by far the smartest man I knew, true intelligence that had hands and feet. He reminded me of myself.
His stomach is visible now, rotund and firm, it preens like a pregnant woman’s in his preferred white agbadas. He waddles ever so slightly and he is breathless when getting out of the car. I do not know when it appeared, this girth. Over the years I guess, when I was not looking, or rather looking the other way. I feel like one night I glanced over at him lying comatose on the bed and he had grown an extra person. There are four people in our bed now. Him, his stomach, his mistress and myself. I spend my nights clinging to the edge of the bed lest my shoulders brush against her invisible breasts.
He doesn’t notice my silence anymore, where before he would tease the pondering from my quiet he has taken it as contentment. I do not complain and I do not gripe. I burn. I burn with what I think is an everlasting fever. He thinks I have become amenable with age but he must be joking. Does he not remember who I am? Who he met all those days ago? I tell you, that slender girl still rolls her eyes and folds her arms within me. The thought of it galls me. For him to imagine me dull, my fire doused and me wisp-ing into languid, bitter smoke. When did he think he had the right to see me in this way? Let me tell you about myself; The only daughter of two professors, with five brothers I was the most outspoken of them all. You couldn’t tell me what to do. After the customary beatings from my mother as a child, till I learned to direct my directness at other people, my mother encouraged my independence. She encouraged my fearlessness and blew flames into my words. My mother’s sisters said I would never marry, that I was destined to live alone with my sharp mouth. But she laughed them off;
“This girl will go places” she told them,
“In fact they will be begging her to marry.” Then she would turn to me and wink,
”And anyway who doesn’t like a good thing?”
And really who didn’t? The schools loved me and put me on full scholarships from Form One. I was an asset; I was the girl with two-heads and still won the uniform prize. They featured me in all interviews about excellence, my grades displayed even before my name. The boys loved me too, either through their hate-filled admiration or the beckoning gleam of a challenge. I knew they would come chasing and when they did, lustful and stupid, puffed up with male ease-of-life, I was ready for them.
When we married I was a banker, everyone knew I would replace my manager in four years, the manager knew and tried to make my life a living hell, but me, me of before? I made sure he sat fully in the hell he created. When I was pregnant with Remi, our first, I said to my husband that he could be the provider. He could be the man of the house, be the head of the household, have all the titles and salutations in the world as long as I was left undefined; free to be whom I wanted to be. I have no use for titles. I deal with substance. Who are you? What can you do? Show me. That is all.
I warned him that two months was all I would take off work. Two months and I’d be back to roasting that manager of mine, back to killing our targets and working our way to the top. And I meant it. I meant it so much that we would get into arguments. Not because he didn’t agree, no, but because of my constant reminding;
“I know the woman I married,” He would insist but I couldn’t stop.
Every night I felt the need to say it again and again, to tattoo it somehow into our future. Daily, unease would grip my chest so tightly I would struggle to breathe. I could not help but see my growing stomach and my changing body as signs; premonitions and whispered warnings in the unguarded seconds before I close my eyes.
You see I married him because we were the same person- born different genders, born to very different families, but the same. Learning more about him was like, like discovering more about myself. He confirmed me, put proof to my existence in a way I never knew I needed. How this happened to someone like me, this aching need for another human being, I cannot explain. All I know is how it made me feel. There is a love that makes you feel ceaseless. Emergent and endless in its certainty that no one has come this way before. This is why we knew we would buck all trends, forgo culture and upbringing and typeset roles. It was a coming together of unmatched equals. Exact in vision and passion. We could not be defined, we could not be stopped.
But with this pregnancy I was now the part slowly bending out of shape. I would have dreams of myself stretching and stretching, like a balloon, over the compound, over our street, the whole of Lagos till I burst and went shooting off into the sky, torn and never to be the same. I would wake up shaking and he would lean over, asking me what was wrong. He never had to ask before.
Then Remi was born early, and we almost lost her. Then she got better and I got sick. Then they diagnosed me with some daft post-partum thing, and I was more or less on bed-rest for a year. I would scream when I cried, not from pain, though it was unbearable, but from watching nannies change my daughter’s diapers, and comforting her tears, and teach my daughter nonsense.
Even now, as I watch my husband gorge himself on his food, scenes of that year flit painfully across my mind’s eye. My manager visiting me and coyly mentioning his promotion. My husband’s mother asking me at least once a day whether I was the ‘first to have a child’. The fact that she was in my house in the first place. And he, my beloved husband, looking at me like that, in a way he had never before. He looked at me like I were damaged, touching me like I were pieces of glass, pitifully trying to glue me together with promises of ’no more children’. He begged me not to give up, as though I would, as though that was something I was capable of doing.
When I got well, I sacked all the nannies and maids and had four more children, one after the other. I allowed no one to help me with them. I stopped visiting my mother. Their lives became my utmost priority; I was militant in my ambition for their success. And I nearly succeeded. The older four were, are, the most hard-working, high-achieving and well-rounded children I know. When people asked me how I did it, I told them it was because unlike them, I didn’t prioritise their education over their general well-being. I didn’t care if they were offended, was it not them that asked. I studied them meticulously so I could treat them differently but equally. I taught them to love themselves. I knew their struggles would not be academic in nature; just look at their parents. I knew it would be their attitude to life. I vowed to teach them that they were themselves’ before they were anyone else’s. That they must forgive themselves each time they fell short of their own expectations before they apologised to anyone else. That the only debt they owed anyone, even me, was love. Not respect, not duty, not even reciprocity. They are all abroad now and are doing well.
It’s just the youngest left. Layo. The child of my old age. She was conceived so I could prove a point I am ashamed to say and I believe that has been the flavour of our relationship. She is so headstrong even I dread arguments with her. This would be fine if she did not also have such a cripplingly low opinion of herself. No matter what I say, she sees her siblings’ successes as a birthright she had, through some fault of her own, lost. She carries the weight of her deficiencies, of their legacy with startling self-immolation, flitting intermittently between talk of depression, brazen insolence and bad decisions. I feel my failure like a festering wound. Like phantom pain, I feel it even in places I thought I no longer had.
One day last week, I woke up to the sound of myself crying. Large ugly sobs into the mirror in disbelief. Who was this tired-looking woman, decades away from her only job? Who was this broken woman failing so miserably with her last child? And who oh who was this man snoring on the bed behind me, who in the midst of my despair, is so very content? I’ve been betrayed! Why couldn’t he just have been what he promised he would be? Would it have been so hard to deliver on my one condition, for us to conquer the world. Together. How could he watch me suffer in this wrong turn of my life and placate me with wealth that my hands did not create? How dare he take all of me, use me to become who he is and not have the decency to release me to be who I am?
I worked hard to deserve her. From the very beginning, when I first noticed her, my life seemed to hinge on her approval. I thought her inability to be impressed was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. It was her self-confidence, the careless appreciation of her own self-worth, her absolute disdain for weakness. I felt I would die if I didn’t have her. In my struggle to know her, I was left even more intrigued. Not only was she beautiful but she was a congruence of opposing facts. Her sharp mouth protected this astonishing softness and fragility. She masked compassion behind onijongbon behaviour and displayed a fierce loyalty I found rare in ambitious people. No one could so much as talk about her friends around her, talk-less of her brother’s wives- who even she admitted to me were complete imbeciles. She carried them like they were her blood sisters, refusing to haze them in a manner befitting her temperament and position as the favoured (and spoiled) only girl of their household. Yes, she was not perfect, the lengths she would go to protect her feelings could be quite cruel and she suffered no fools and took no prisoners. But she was perfect.
Make no mistake; it was not a one-sided thing. I can never forget the first time she cried in front of me, conceding to her imperfections as though their weight would tear her apart. She would not have permitted even a glimpse of that side if she did not love me. So to be worthy, I promised her the world. Elaborate promises that even as an ambitious young man I doubted I could keep. But I made them anyway. I could not let her settle with a lazy, poor man, even if that man were myself. And haven’t I done it? Doesn’t she have everything she wanted? Didn’t I make myself great?
And yet now she regards me with thinly-veiled disgust and her body recoils from me like my touch is dirty. I have somehow, and in every way, become her enemy. Even now, as we eat, she stares menacingly at her plate, subconsciously stabbing at pieces of food, glancing up at me from time to time and sighing quietly with every sip of water. I can tell that this time her annoyance stems from reluctance rather than retribution. She needs my permission for something and is loath to ask for it. In this game of hers, acquiescing to conversing with me makes me one-point-up, but asking for consent is, in her eyes, a substantial loss to her scoreboard. You see I still know her. She still talks, but only with her body language and not her words.
When did this all start? I cannot pinpoint exactly. I just know that early into our marriage, say four or so years in, she began to act differently. At first I was unconcerned. Our relationship was evolving to include children and it seemed natural that things wouldn’t stay exactly the same. But she seemed to fall deeper and deeper into herself, into places I had never seen and could not understand. Into myriads of dislike and perturbed discontent. She was perpetually angry with me. I would come home from work and the air would be thick with her disappointment. I would go looking for her, briefcase still in hand and always find her doing something mundane; setting the table, changing the babies, checking homework. Her back would be to me and going about her activities as though they required all the attention in the world. I would try to engage her; wrap my arms around her waist, tell her to tick another thing off from our life-plan. She would stiffen or sometimes even jerk back and generally pretend like getting lucrative contracts were annoying in some way.
When we first got married we had written our goals across the walls of our bedroom. We’d read in one Forbes article like this, that waking up to your goals displayed so visibly every morning helped to cement them in your ‘Achievable Conscience’. Even though I’d recently come home to find the walls painted over, It had already become habit for us to tell each other to ‘tick off our goals’. It had always been her favourite thing to do. I thought it would return some normalcy if I kept up our routines. For God’s sake, I just thought it would be nice to have a wife who pretended to appreciate what I did for her and our family. But it seemed the more I did well, the worse it got.
So I stopped putting my arms around her, and I stopped telling her that we made it. Any success I had in the day, and they were many, would dissipate into nothingness once I walked in the door. And try as I might, I could not shake the feeling that I was eleven years old again, finally on top of the class again after a lengthy battle with Segun Yusuf, going to show my father my report. I am standing in front of him, waiting for him to finish his newspaper so I could show him that his taunts had worked and I was back on top. I remember needing to use the toilet so badly but I would rather have pissed myself than miss this opportunity with him. He looks up, asks me why I’m dancing juju in front of him and disturbing him. I show him the report, tilting the paper over his paper. He brushes it off irritably;
“Can’t you see I’m reading something here?”
“What do you want? Congratulations?”
“What kind of man will you be if they have to give you milk and biscuit every time you do what you’re supposed to?”
Then he would work himself up into a rage with my imaginary comebacks;
“You think I don’t know what I’m saying,”
“You think you know everything,”
“You are nothing but a useless human being,”
“You will never amount to half of who I am if you don’t start behaving like a man.”
I realised something that day. There are some people you can never please no matter how hard you try. So I stopped trying. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of my failure though, in fact I worked harder but purely for myself. I became the impetus of my own success. I was the only endorsement I ever needed. Till I found myself, walking down my own hallway, in my own house, carrying my suitcase full of contracts like they are stuffed full of damned report cards.
I was in a hotel room with a lithe young woman, the niece of some governor or the other, on holiday from her masters at Wharton Business School. She debated confidently about the vicissitudes of the American financial market while undressing. It was this that made me realise how far from a romantic thing, this my love for my wife is. You see I have always been severely single-minded. Even as a child, I would concentrate on a single activity for hours on-end and could forgo mischief, friends, even food, till I achieved what I wanted. My body could never betray my mind, could never circumvent or override it. I kicked her out that night, and she left with a puzzled tone in her American-tinted Yoruba. I never bothered with such nonsense again.
But the young lady got her revenge of course, and it became an open secret amongst the Lagos colony of sycophants I have to associate with that she had spent the night with me. My wife pushed one of those newspapers in front of me, an eyebrow raised, wordlessly asking. And as I stared at the lurid headline and the badly photo-shopped pictures, I thought about telling her the truth. That I couldn’t do it, to her, to myself, to be so joined to a lesser woman. But I was desperate for her to get angry, to do anything that would push her words, her self, out of her mouth. I looked away, not in guilt but because she could always see the truth in my eyes. That was when she finally fell silent and the Great Silence of my marriage began. Silence when we eat, silence when we go to bed, silence when we make love… I would feel disgusted with myself; was I forcing her? What was wrong with her? How long could she punish me? I thought her anger was bad but her glacial restraint is much, much worse. And she cooks for me. She will not talk to me but will not let anyone else cook my food. Initially I thought perhaps she wanted to slowly poison me. But as I continued to live I sought other explanations. She had never been keen on cooking before and it made special those nights she used to come home early from work just to cook my favourite meals. Now that is all I eat, every day, my favourites, hot and cooked to Buka perfection. Confusion is clearly an efficient weapon of hers.
Do I regret the lie? No. I am not a man of regret. I made a calculated investment and it failed. My fake betrayal did not force her back to normal. It happens.
Occasionally, however, when I am stuck in traffic, or in one of those insufferable bank award ceremonies, I find myself looking back, rehearsing the past in a light I don’t like. I wonder about my true motives. Was it really to draw her out or was for me to win? Her greatest fear is to be inadequate. It was mine too. Was there anything that would exacerbate hers more than the evidence that she was not everything to me? Was there anything that confirmed mine more than the evidence that she was? Perhaps when she asked, all I could see was a scoreboard, wondering how many points I would lose if she knew how much I lived for her. Had I really married a woman like my father, who would use this weakness against me and punish me, punish me, punish me till I lose? Was she worth losing for?
After that I had to be with her without her words which she would break only for special occasions like when she informed me she was pregnant again or that her mother had died. I used to take her silence to work with me. Her deep sighs, the shrug of her shoulders, when she twitches her nose in annoyance. When she munches on a hangnail or digs her thumb in her palm when the children have worked her last nerve. There I was, constantly deciphering what she meant in balance sheets and business proposals. Foolish. My wake-up call came when I lost some money to one lecherous accountant of mine. It was an infinitesimal amount considering what I had already amassed, but I did not become who I am by being a careless man. I can settle to have failed her in every other way but this. She must never, ever lack. So I stopped all that nonsense. I do not care what she is or is not saying. I will not give her the satisfaction of my failure. After all I am well-versed in living without the validation of others. And I did not die when she withdrew hers.
I have decided I cannot bear it anymore. I have decided to go to England with Layo, to settle her into a new school and just not come back. I will not live the rest of my days with a man who has become satisfied with the broken version of myself.
He is almost done with his food when I open my mouth. I tell him about the school I’d chosen for her and he nods as he chews. He thinks I’m asking for his permission but I am merely stating the situation. Was this what he wanted all along? To tame me? God forbid. I have been blinded for too long. I have years left in this life. I will rebuild myself and be whoever I was meant to be. It’s never too late anyway. If he truly ever loved me, he would not stand for this limp excuse of a wife, who asks for permission to take her child to school. But love was never really the true motivation. It was all about the challenge wasn’t it? Boys and their infernal love for a challenge. I’ve had three of them, so I know how they are born with such unquenchable thirst for conquest. Well, he has won and I shall bow out gracefully. I feel a hope fill me with a fire I haven’t felt in years. How have I lived without it for so long? I smile widely enough for him to see, and I don’t even care if he thinks it’s because of his irrelevant permission.
“So does she like school?” He asks on the phone.
I have placed him on speaker, which he hates, as I clean the kitchen of the London flat. I have been cleaning obsessively since Layo disappeared into the gates of her new school a month ago.
“So when should I book your return flight?”
I say nothing.
“Did you hear me? When should I book it?”
“Let’s just leave it for now. I’m not sure yet.”
“For how long?”
“Just for now, till I feel Layo has settled in properly.”
There is a silence that grows heavy wings.
“Obafunke are you leaving me?”
I am suddenly breathless. Bleach fumes catch painfully in my throat. I think back to the time when Layo was talking back at me, and I had beaten her with all my heart, with a frustration that bordered scarily on hate. I had fallen in my bed in despair at the look she’d given me afterwards. I think of how he’d come into our bedroom yelling like a mad man.
“I will not allow it! I will not allow you to rob her of you too!”
And I hissed and turned away not understanding what he meant till now. Not seeing how he too saw the whitewashing, the careful removal of all traces of the old me, and how much I hated myself that I wanted to erase all my traits from my daughter.
But I am resolved. I feel the familiar power of my old stubbornness spreading through me. I think of my mother, of my old cubicle overlooking the Manager’s office, my unfinished list of accomplishments that rest behind a coat of Magnolia White. I think of the real Obafunke, endless Obafunke, waking up to herself those mornings before Kemi was born.
“Oya, book my ticket for Monday.” I hear my mouth say and I put my head in my hands.
“Monday? This Monday?” His voice sounds urgent and strained. And hopeful.
ORIGINAL IMAGE: Bigstock.com