The easiest thing to do is love something, or someone that’s wrong for us. I knew this a long time ago, because I watched it happen to my parents. I watched their skins wear because of it, and I watched them trapped, because their true selves were smothered by the force of it.
When I was five, I told my best friend, Bukola, while we played with our ragged pink dolls, that I would not marry if the man wasn’t crazy about me. He had to love me like air. When I was fifteen, I told her he must love me like his breath, an effortless love; a love desperate in its absence. And that love did manifest.
Love starts like this; a dare at a party when you were sixteen, sloppy kisses, your first experience of the after effect of alcohol is when you stare at each other. Love breathes in a chance meeting ten years later. He’s your client, you are his banker. All that’s changed is the place, and it’s almost enough to stop you both. But you are still the prettiest girl he’s ever met, he’s still the only one who gets you buzzed on a look, so you both let love fly you away.
Our love was so fierce, so overwhelming that it had no room for friends. When twenty-four hours a day isn’t enough for two people, it becomes a problem. We cut off friends. That part was easy. Once, I got a sick leave so we could take a road trip together to the North, to see the walls of Kano and the plains of Nassarawa. We locked ourselves in rooms and had sex; fast, pleasurable fucking, slow tortuous lovemaking. We rumbled across beds and counters. I came to know my body in a whole new way, but not any better than I knew his. There was not enough room for conversations about family, about careers and friends, there was no room for anything that tilted the balance. Three was blissfully a crowd.
Once, we tripped. I got pregnant and his first reaction was not elation like I had imagined it would be. He got so angry and I didn’t understand. How? How could he love what we had but not want something that solidified its existence? I thought flittingly of breaking up in the two days’ separation that followed. Why couldn’t I? I had once lived without knowledge of his existence, then I survived a ten-year break from him – love always comes, it is a coat of many colours. But then, I remembered his smile, his words, his support, the gifts, and most importantly, that he had become as much a part of my thoughts as me. When he showed up that night at my doorstep, he braved whatever was eating at him and hugged me, and he told me he could bear the baby as long as he had me. I understood then. The question I should have been asking is how I could live without him. I knew then; I had found air.
We exchanged our vows in the bustling, breathing heart of Lagos. It was the single most beautiful day of my life. I wore white, he wore black and the sky was grey. Our child I carried, was a witness. I did not taste a thing, how could I when I was full with love? The people I cherished stood by me and smiled, the man I loved held my hand and tried to cup a feel through my satin dress when no one was watching. I firmly placed his hand away and told him “Kunle, if this wedding picture turns out weird because you can’t wait another two hours, I won’t forgive you.” He laughed and cupped a feel anyway.
Our child came when we were still in a haze. She was so beautiful and tiny I cried. Kunle was dazed, afraid to hold her, scared he would crush her. “How can she be so tiny, no bigger than my hands?”
My child soon became my rival for his affections, yet, it made absolute sense. At times, I was scared. How could life be so perfect for me? Was it right? I worried that some people were getting betrayed by the ones they loved, that some never found love, some had no kids and others lost love to the unrepentant acts of death. There was enough misfortune to go round but why wouldn’t it touch me? Of course, it grazed from time to time. Like once when my friend, Bukola had a stillborn, like the time the bank laid off some of my colleagues, like the continuous downslide of my country. But there was a lack of quality to it, as if I was watching large trucks pass by while I played my favourite music on earphones.
Bad choices are usually our favourite choices, the unnoticeable ones, the effortless ones. I was drawn into the consequences of one because of my ignorance. There was a deliberateness to my ignorance that I was punished for. The truth had presented itself to me but I had set it gently aside. I had told myself: later, just a bit more time.
I was feeding Arase while she sang on about a fish that was swallowed by a shark while it cried for its mother when my phone rang. It was an unknown number. I should have known then; unknown numbers always bear doom to someone whose life is together. I picked up.
The station stank. The toilet was nowhere in sight but the air was permeated by the smell of urine and faeces. I had foreseen the ugliness of the station, the fading colours and choky atmosphere. I had expected the noise, the screams, the anger everyone had in common, and the despair that did not spare even the police in their forbearing black uniforms. But I did not expect the smell, and I most definitely did not expect the fear that drowned all my thoughts.
Fear made me brave. I wanted to know as soon as possible. I approached an officer who was pouring garri into a yellow plastic cup, tapping the other one who shared a table with him, to pass him a sachet water from under the table.
Thirty minutes later, I had been updated on Kunle’s offences. My husband was guilty of being a notorious fraudster, most recently of a fraud of sixty million, of illegal possession of firearms, of conspiracy to defraud, of various crimes, of cyber fraud, theft, and assault of an officer. Then I was directed to pay a ‘visitor’s fee’ of two thousand naira and then led to a room to see my husband. It was a distastefully washed down version of the dark room in movies. Its only possession were a menacing iron bench and a bulb swinging from bleached, rowdy wires. It was there I sat wringing my hands together, letting my worries rush past my defence line.
He appeared with his head bowed. Somehow, it relieved me that he still had the shirt he left the house in, on him. In the movies, they were always missing a shirt. This was indeed my husband, Kunle. He sat next to me, the officer hovering close enough for me to smell the stench oozing from his pores.
“Kunle, what’s happening? They called me.” I knew how much I sounded like a wife from a soap opera, but it was the only question I had.
“Jolade.” That was all he said. It was all he needed to say.
He didn’t tell me how. There was no time to. I was on water with him, even though I couldn’t remember boarding a boat. Love had ensured it; my ring had sealed it. There was something about importer and exporter that should have put me off in the first place; the small size of his office building that didn’t correspond with what we spent should have tipped me off; the lack of company dinners and brunches should have spoken to my sixth sense, but it didn’t. There was a part of me that had chosen ignorance because it ensured my bliss. That part acted defensive and lashed out, she rose from within and wailed “how could you do this to me Kunle? What did I do to deserve this from you? How could you hide this from me for years?” There was no answer, only the smarmy clutching of hands and tears.
In the months that followed, I tasted grief. I tasted pain, desertion, blame and mockery. There were so few people left by my side that I could cover them all in one gaze. My boss didn’t look at me as he handed me the sack letter, he seemed to find the green paper bin beside his desk more interesting. “Jolade, we are so sorry. But no one would trust the bank if the manager is the wife of a fraudster. You should wait till this dies down, till your husband is cleared.” It was a fib and we both knew it. My husband would never be cleared, I had become a banking vegetable. I thanked him anyway and cleared my desk that afternoon. I didn’t even shed a tear.
I walked around in a haze in the days that followed. Sadness trailed me like a shadow, yet there was no way to fully stand in the light. I donned on an oxygen mask. “There’s always a way to live on”, my father said. Mother, one day while she blended pepper in my kitchen as I made rice, turned her head briskly to me and said, “This won’t kill you. You will live for your children, that’s why we all go on.” Nobody ever talked about it, nobody asked me if I had known before, nobody was curious how the news had met me. It took me a while to realize it was because no one truly believed I could have lived so intimately with a man without knowing where all our wealth flowed from. I couldn’t blame them, because I didn’t even believe myself.
Money slipped through my fingers faster than salt. It was a pyramid. There was me at the top, the lawyer directly underneath, the policeman down there. It was an unforgiving cycle. The lawyer, a pregnant single woman, told me, “In the real sense, your husband isn’t guilty of assault or conspiracy. But the police have padded your husband’s charges. His case must not go to court this way and the only solution is money.”
There were always witnesses to pay, policemen to bribe. The ‘bail is free’ cardboards pinned to the walls of the station mocked me. On a daily basis, I paid money for a glimpse of the face that a ring had assured me I had a right to.
On the day he was arraigned before the High Court, the judge appeared angry. Perhaps, that was why Kunle was thrown in prison immediately without any adjournment. But the lawyer had another theory.
“We could have gotten bail oo. But the current situation in the country didn’t favour him. If only that senator’s corruption case did not come to the limelight. But madam, you know how things work, your husband is a very big man and his case is loud enough to cover up. Just look at the number of reporters he’s drawing!”
There’s a fragile line between two extremes. Hot and cold, peace and war, love and hate. I could not stop the slide from one extreme to the other.
If someone had asked me before what I would do if I found myself in the misery that my life had become, the answer would have been simple. I would stand by my love, always. “How would I leave someone I loved more than myself when they need me the most? What was love if it didn’t taste pain?”
But this is harder done. It is easy to condemn a pain one has not suffered. It is easy if one didn’t know the whispers that followed you everywhere, the four-year-old child who wouldn’t stop being so demanding, the money that was becoming alarmingly harder to keep track of, and the loneliness that emptied and drained the life that was barely existent. More than anything, I wanted to leave. Every night when I got home drained and drifting, the plan cemented. I will talk to my brother in Canada, I will leave with the money I had saved up over the years, take my baby. In five months, I can be out. The promise of a new life would lull me to sleep into the mornings, the plan would tickle me lightly into rising and preparing Arase for school, and then it would ridicule me for my job-hunting hours. It would slowly dissipate with the lunch I made for my husband and disappear completely when I saw his face.
The shame that shrouded his frame always helped. I liked that he felt guilt, that he couldn’t look me in the eye, that tears always shimmered and hanged onto his lashes. Underneath the beards and the shaggy hair that was steadily taking over his face, there was the love that he had given so completely. It always made me feel better, it wasn’t completely absurd that I could never have suspected a man who was so capable of feeling, of such betrayal. Good people didn’t act any better, good people were not good lovers. Should I suffer for trusting love?
He never asked if things looked good for him. He never showed any signs that he felt he deserved to be free. That became my reward.
On Arase’s sixth birthday, she finally popped the question.
“Mommy, where’s my daddy?”
It took long enough for you, I wanted to say. Now that you need him in a picture, you mention him. I had stopped worrying about the absurdity of my thoughts at this point. I would have felt guilt for my thoughts before –she’s just a little girl, I would have told myself. She knows nothing, it’s not her fault she was born to him. Those thoughts don’t count anymore, however. How can they? I was the biggest victim. I didn’t have his blood, I didn’t have anyone to depend on, I didn’t even have tears to expel the grief anymore. There was no grief anymore. All that was, was a passive cynicism with no consequence. It stayed inside me and manifested only in the haggard lines on my face. It showcased itself by wearing out my flesh, till clothes became the only thing shielding my bone from pilfering eyes.
But I was still a mother, in some ways. An instinct to protect, an instinct that was as much a product of maternity books as nine hours of labour. My child was slowly leaving oblivion and I knew that she didn’t deserve to live with the crimes of her father. Already, his name had become enough pain to live with.
Bukola my friend, shifted her baby from one hand to another. There was a cautiousness to every movement, as if she had trained all her life for it. In a way she had, three stillborn in a marriage of seven years had prepared her better than anything. I wanted to offer to carry the baby, but I dismissed the thought. I spent too much time lifting, stirring and washing pans in my small restaurant and I deserve to let my hands rest whenever I can.
“So, what are you going to do now?”
My mind returned to the conversation.
“I don’t know, I think I should leave now. There’s nothing left to do without hope.”
“You would have left since if you can. I read somewhere that love is as much a result of the things we have done for people, as the things they have done for us. There’s too much investment in your marriage.”
I nodded vaguely, drawing the blanket over Arase’s legs as she napped on the couch. She would kick it away in another minute, but I couldn’t stop pulling it back, the mosquitoes were merciless.
When Bukola left that night, I ruminated over her words. There was truth in them but it didn’t make her any less wrong. If there was anything the years had taught me, it was that love was not why people stayed. If it was enough, everyone had some of it to give.
Over time, I had become a regular at Ikoyi Correctional Service – a latest correction to the prison it used to be. Although, there was not a single thing that was different about the place but the longer name.
The December air blew in my general direction, making me shiver. But I didn’t cover myself. I wanted my body to begin the adaptation towards the weather. There would be enough of it to come. Today, there was not much to say to the man I love. I knew now that if I didn’t have words, silence would own our time together. I couldn’t blame him. The one hour I spent here every two weeks always left me drained. It must be much worse for someone who had lived inside for close to eighteen months.
“How is Arase? Does she still want to change school?”
“She will be fine. She just needs to adjust to primary one.”
“You should look into the teacher she hates, to make sure there’s no reason, you know? There are so many bastards in the world.”
I noticed there was a new writing on the table now “Ori ejo” it said. “Is that all there is left between us now? Arase?”
Silence followed my sudden words. “What do you want me to say to you Jolade?”
“Anything, anything other than Arase or my parents, or the rest of the world.”
“Oh, you want me to talk about what I have made you into? How I ruined your life and future? You want me to talk about the hate that dances wildly in your eyes every time you come here? You want me to talk about how I know it’s directed at me?”
I didn’t say a word. I just mentally spelt ori ejo backwards.
“Or do you want me to talk about the fact that you are finally leaving? About the documents the lawyer brought here for me to sign? Because if I do, I will beg you Jolade. I will beg you and kneel. And it will be the biggest fraud of my whole life. And my daughter…”
I knew what he wasn’t saying. Arase would always bear his name, no matter what my future bears. It would be her curse, yet it would be his only reward. Silence followed again. And for the first time in a while, I truly looked at Kunle. He was surprisingly clean shaven, but his uniform was blatantly faded. How would he cope in the months to come? He should have at least, had a mother alive. Or a sister. Someone. I was glad I had paid the warden for two hours instead of one.
“Let’s not talk about the us now. There is a time in our past we can talk about without bitterness.”
So, we talked. We went back to sixteen when I had my first taste of beer on his breath, when I first got buzzed on the looks he sent me. I went back to twenty-six when we only spoke love and it was a language with all the vocabulary we needed. I went back to the time I thought I wouldn’t live without breath. Now I knew, not living wasn’t dying.
When I left Ikoyi Correctional Service, I knew I had experienced love in all its might. I was partly grateful and partly resentful. I left knowing a part of me would want what I had once had again, because even if we give up on hope, hope never gives up on us.
Image by Pam Simon from Pixabay (modified)