Celebrating East African Writing!
I close my eyes again. “It all started when we moved to Lagos.”
My mother, on her own for the first time, seemed a different person. From living in a crowded room with 7 other people and cleaning other people’s houses for a living in the first year, my mother built a house of her own and a domestic service business in four years.
“I don’t have anybody to tell me what is proper or not proper for a woman,” she would laugh and say to me at random moments.
At first, her laughter seemed a strange sound – like a timid whisper from someone trying not to wake the world. Over time, it became this full-bodied, uninhibited sound of freedom that made me swear never to be with a man, because, surely, a man must be the thing that kills laughter. Why else had it been buried in her stomach while she was with my father? Why else was this sound just now bringing light into our lives?
“I met my husband in my second year in university,” I say to the marriage counsellor. “He was so shy that I felt protective of him.”
“Is that why you fell in love with him? He reminded you of a time you were vulnerable too?”
“I don’t know why I fell in love with him. I don’t even know if I loved him. Maybe I did. But my mother used to tell me that in spite of how her life turned out it was important for a woman to have a man. And maybe she was right. When we lived with other people, her lack of a husband was usually the first thing people used to insult her anytime there was a misunderstanding.”
“Is that why you married him? Because a woman needs a man?”
“I married him because his super sperms got me pregnant the first time we fooled around and had sex in final year. It wasn’t even good sex. It’s never been good sex.” I laugh. It all seems funny now that I say it out loud.
Ola made me feel safe in the beginning. I thought I’d never feel threatened by him. My mother liked him, but she’d probably have liked the devil if I brought him home in male clothing. I don’t think any African mother has ever been happy to have a daughter get pregnant out of wedlock but mine was ecstatic.
“This is God’s way of telling you to have a family,” she said when we told her.
“I had hyperemesis while I was pregnant and I vowed never to do it again. My mother said that is how it was when she was pregnant with me. ‘You’ll even vomit blood,’ she said when I first complained. I was on bedrest a lot but Yele, our daughter, is my world. Do you have kids, Mrs. Akintola?”
“Ok. Anyway, Yele is the reason I want to kill my husband. All these years, he said I should raise her instead of working and I didn’t mind, to be honest. I helped my mom grow her business and I was fine just staying at home and being a good wife.”
“Did he hit her? You said he hits you.”
“Hit her? I won’t be here telling you I want to kill him. You’d be on the witness stand telling them I was temporarily insane. He only started hitting me some months ago after my mom died and I took over the full running of her business. Now he’s just angry all the time, but I don’t care. I don’t care.”
I say the words ‘I don’t care’ over and again because I want to convince myself that I don’t. I don’t want to cry but when I’m angry I cry and the tears make me angrier and that makes the crying worse. I stop talking.
My mother follows me about in weird ways. Sometimes I get the eerie feeling that I’m living her life, no matter how I try to avoid her shadow, no matter how I try to deviate from the paths she walked. These are the things I’m talking to Mrs. Akintola about. I don’t mean to. I want to talk about my issues with Ola. I want to talk about how it seems my daughter has turned against me because she thinks I am weak. I want to find the rationality that seems to elude my brain. To focus. But I just end up talking about my mother. That’s how it is with her: she’s there in the unexpected things and ways. I don’t have her face, but I can’t look in a mirror without seeing her. I meet a new person and they see her before they see me — it’s the distinctive birthmark on my right cheek and above my lip. They are her. She has the same mark on her back but it is plastered on my face.
“Perhaps the worst thing is when you can’t tell people what happened because they’d look at you and say, ‘That’s it?’ In that tone that has silent comments like, ‘So what if the sex is bad?’ ‘So what if he cheats?’ ‘All men cheat.’ ‘Who is to say the next one won’t cheat too.’ ‘After all, our mothers stayed.’ ‘That beating part, just report him to the pastor but you can’t leave o’.”
“Do you want to leave him, Mrs. Obiagwu?”
“Yele raised her voice at me last week. I told her to listen to her father and continue living at home till she’s married. Do you know what my daughter, my own best friend, said to me? She said she didn’t plan to move from one oppressive man’s house to another and she couldn’t let any man walk over her the way I let Ola walk all over me.”
“Our children never think we’ve done enough for them or for ourselves, you know.”
“But she was right. I know in my heart that she’s right.”
I have told myself these things too. For weeks. Three months, since the day he first hit me. I have tried to stay but the worry has wearied me till I have lost sleep. I haven’t slept for more than an hour a night the last three weeks.
“I resolved not to tell anybody. When they ask after him, I just smile and say, he’s fine, we’re fine,” I stretch my hand towards her. “Then I saw an interview about you in the paper and I thought you might be able to help me.”
“Do you think your husband would be willing to come in for counselling? Maybe we can find a way to rekindle what love you once had.”
“I don’t know if I want him to,” I say. “Love dies slowly, you know. When the end came, I didn’t even know it. I still don’t know the exact moment it started to end. The trust was the first thing to go – I could no longer trust him to do things in the family’s best interest. And then I found that I could no longer stand his touch… my mind is wandering during sex while my mouth repeats sounds from memories of a time when my legs locked around him even after, even when I didn’t have an orgasm. The conversations have died, reduced to: ‘How was your day? When are you coming home?’ I don’t know if I want to rekindle it.”
“Have you thought about your alternatives then?”
“Yes. I think I’ll do it with unprocessed cassava. I think it’ll be easier to be a widow than to be a divorced woman. That won’t be messy…”