Tuesday, September 30, 2014

WORKING OUT. A short story


Temi knows she cannot avoid the three men chatting loudly just by the entrance of the Galleria. They all know Korede’s father. She braces herself; they will say her son is a splitting image of his father. They will shake their heads as they point to specific identical features as irrefutable evidence- the broad three pronged nose, the round head, the long chin, the fair complexion. Only his eyes look like hers, and not even a great resemblance, they will say. If they had not seen her around carrying that dishevelled, swollen look for nine months, they might have wondered who his real mother was. She will not be teary-eyed, when they remind her of Tommy.
The smile in Korede’s eyes as she lets him walk, his soft miniature palm in hers, his small proud steps- huge strides to him- make it easier to carry on. Her eyes are recovering from being twice their size because of nights spent up, thinking, about how quickly things can happen, how change can take the wind out of you and how it may never make sense why things changed.

She had barely weaned Korede when Tommy met the other woman. That pouchy stomach was still prominent and she was only gradually getting her real nose and lips back. She spent hours in the bathroom obsessively scrubbing the dark skin on her neck and feet to get her skin colour back, that even brown tone she was always proud of.
 Exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months. It was what all the friends and aunties were doing. Her husband insisted; he wanted a healthy baby. He had every internet article on infant feeding and health saved onto his desktop and often fell asleep reading articles on infant care with his forehead flat on the keyboard while she drowned in shrill baby screams.
Three months. That was how long Temi could cope. Three months and four days. She had breastfed him so often, her nipples felt sore. It was the only thing that could make him stop crying. She drove angrily to the market after Korede kept her up -she had been counting-  for 24 hours. She checked for baby formula, buying one sample of everything on display, to see which one he would prefer. There was nobody to stop her. Her aunties who had come when she gave birth stayed one month before returning to Ekiti where they all lived. Her sister came not long after, but had to travel after three weeks when her Visa finally came through, to join her own husband in the UK. She had made no friends since her company recently transferred her to Abuja and Tommy who didn’t have a stable job, had travelled to Lagos for the week to pursue some contract. She didn’t know how to break it to him that she was now using baby formula but he didn’t show up on the Thursday he was supposed to. He sent her a message saying he would be in Lagos for a couple more days. A couple more days became one more week. The following Thursday he just showed up in a taxi, not giving her enough time to hide the baby formula that was on the table. She kept a straight face when his eyes widened with surprise. That was one quarrel they never had. She had played it in her head when she saw through the bedroom window Tommy come into the gate. He would walk in and raise hell, they had agreed on the exclusive breastfeeding thing, the doctor advised six months at least, it was the healthy thing to do. She would raise hell too, he was supposed to return one week ago, he was not returning her calls and he just showed up one Thursday, as if nothing had happened. Perhaps if he had returned her calls they might have discussed it. He didn’t want to talk about it. And even though she was ready to, she didn’t want to fight about it. So they buried it in silence. The unexplained one week. The abandoned exclusive breastfeeding.
Now she knows that was the week he met her. It must have been, now that she has read all his emails and Facebook messages. She got so much of the back story, more than she wanted to know. The woman must have been a writer she thought, hell, she even enjoyed reading some of the messages, until she had to wake herself,  tell herself, it was real, it was happening to her. The other woman, Maureen, took every opportunity to relive in obscene flowery detail the things they had done, leaving a trail of evidence.
Calabar. Obudu. Ice cream. Incredible ice cream. Croissant. Sex in the bathroom.
 Do you remember Tommy darling, the day we first met at the airport when our flights were delayed? When you wouldn’t stop complaining? I still can’t recall whose idea it was to go have a Star at the airport bar.  It tasted different, the Star, you remember?
Or perhaps the Star was altered by the exciting buzz of sharing a drink with someone who was at once a stranger and sweet companion, a nameless stranger whose eyes could see through all her walls and facades.  
            Temi lingered on those lines when she read that first email and wondered why Maureen wrote of herself in the third person and whether the eyes meant the same eyes she saw in Tommy’s eye sockets, regular eyes even on his best days. Christ! she thought, were those the eyes that saw through walls and facades? Those eyes that got red very quickly- when he took his bath, when he had to take a bike for an appointment because his car would get stuck in traffic, when he drank as much as one beer, when he had a headache, when he was reading?

Sweetest Maureen. I do remember that first day. We must have had three Stars each. Ha! It’s the shoes I remember most, us taking our shoes off and walking barefoot around the airport. They looked at us like we were nuts, they couldn’t see how much fun we were having. Ah, darling, life is best lived in the moment.
            Indeed darling Tommy, life is best lived in the moment. It’s what I thought when I suggested we do something wild and spontaneous. And even though I suggested it, I didn’t realise I would be having the best night of my life, a rollercoaster of fun.  
Ah, sweetest Maureen. It was my best night too! Was it the Star that made us abandon our flights and go to have Margarita’s in town? (I still haven’t had Margarita’s as sweet). Babe, we were on a roll. I have been trying to remember what movie we saw that night...
            Hahaha, Tommy darling, I wouldn’t expect you to remember. I don’t remember either. We were making our own movie. That’s all I remember, our hands finding each other and exchanging warmth, that looong kiss and how we had to stop to breathe. I think we left before the movie ended... that night was magical.
Temi grits her teeth. She is torturing herself. She has seen all she needs to know, but she keeps at it, opening every single email to or from Maureen.

Everything in the house is now a painful reminder of all that has crumbled.  The old golf club which she used to smash his desktop computer, reminds her.  The black, leather-covered, wrought iron chair she was sitting on when she stumbled on his emails, this too reminds her.  She knows the exact spot between the living room and the kitchen where she stood, reading his text message saying he had left for good and that there was no need to discuss it. It can’t work. She remembers she leaned over the sink in the bathroom, crying, because although she knew about his affair, she didn’t think it would come to this- that while she was planning how best to confront him, Tommy would leave her and move in with the other woman.  The signs weren’t there. He was still kind, still did the things a cheating husband burdened by guilt would do. One week before, he had asked how much her new wig cost. Although she could see the shock in his eyes, he didn’t ask how an ordinary looking wig could cost so much. He came back that evening with a hundred thousand in cash.
Temi had found out everything the internet had to say about Maureen. She searched for Maureen’s profile on Facebook and because her privacy settings allowed, went through all her photos. She cried when she saw Maureen. Dreadlocks, badly executed on hair unfit for the purpose, riotous colour combinations, who wears blue and green together? She downloaded some of the pictures. The ones with Maureen looking serious attending what looked like a seminar, the ones with Tommy sprawled out on a bed that looked like a hotel bed, the ones with Tommy and Maureen, frightened laughter on their faces, riding a Ferris wheel, the ones with them holding each other at night outside a bar, the ones where they both had that upside down, waking-up look, that suggested he had spent the night at her place. She saved them in a folder she named ‘evidence pics’ after the emails which she saved as ‘evidence mails’. She found her handle, @Msexytoy on twitter. She couldn’t understand what type of grown woman (she says grown ass woman) used sexytoy as a name. She had seen on Maureen’s Facebook profile that she was a consultant with the World Bank. There was a Wikipedia page that said Maureen Luka who holds a PhD in Development Studies from The University of Queensland in Australia has worked in as many as seven developing countries in projects dealing with violence against women. She knew Maureen was vegetarian and Tuvaluan. She googled Tuvalu. No, it was neither a religion nor a professional association but a sovereign state with a little over ten thousand people, not nearly enough to fill the National Stadium in Abuja; it had a parliament with fifteen members, two less than the number of children her grandfather had, and the Queen of England was also the Queen of Tuvalu. She enlarged photos of Tuvaluan women. They all had wild flowers in their hair. Their skin is the colour of Indians who run restaurants in Abuja, she thought, a sort of brown that looks like hot water and a good scrub would wash off.
            She sent Maureen two emails after she got that breakup text from Tommy. Two long emails. The first one, calling Maureen an old hag, a home breaker, a dirty good-for-nothing slut who can’t get her own man. She sent it off and waited for a reply, checking her inbox, every hour. After one week she went back to her sent items to be sure she had sent the message. She checked to make sure there was no ‘mailer daemon failure delivery notice’ and checked her spam folder. Nothing. Then she changed strategy, sending an even longer, but softer email, without name calling, entreating Maureen to understand.
            Dear Maureen,
Please talk to me woman to woman, tell me what I have done, what my son has done to deserve this. I did not chance upon Tommy. We did not just live together. I did not just get pregnant for him. He came to my family, he came to my father. Tommy married me under the eyes of God in the Holy Roman Catholic Church and under law. Please Maureen if you have any heart, any conscience...
She obsessed about getting the email right, wiping her tears, determined to reach Maureen. She looked up words from the huge thesaurus which had inscribed on the sides and pages ‘The Majekodunmi’s’. Looking at the inscriptions, in blue Permanent Marker, she recalled the day they had sat on the red rug in the living room, books scattered on the floor with two blue markers, play-fighting about who had the best handwriting. He was wearing a yellow t-shirt that was slack around the neck, some free thing he had gotten at a Malta Guinness Promotion. The brown inscription, ‘Makes your day’ had already faded as had ‘Malta Guinness’ and more than once she had threatened to hide or burn the shirt if he insisted on wearing it. The first book he did, a new Good News Bible given to them as a wedding present he got wrong, writing the first few letters too boldly leaving only little space to squeeze in the remaining letters. ‘Our surname is too long, I am going back to my maiden name,’ she joked, ‘Tokoya is a much better surname. And I can’t even do the compound name that women do these days, imagine Tokoya-Majekodunmi. Terrible.’  They laughed.
She tried to remember when they stopped laughing, and thought- with certainty - that it was the week she stopped breast feeding and started using baby formula, the unexplained extra week he spent in Lagos which she now knows he spent doing things wild and spontaneous.
 She had thought getting back into shape might do her some good a few months after weaning her son and registered with a gym paying the yearly subscription from her own pocket. Her waist, that 32 waist that used to drive Tommy crazy, now lost to her pregnancy, was going to come back, the flabby stomach was going to disappear along with the flesh on her arms. One year would do the magic. But then he got the events planning job in Lagos for a series of conferences, seminars and training for the Lagos State Government. He was going to be away three weeks every month for four months. Now from one of Maureen’s emails, she knows the job lasted only three months. Thanks for staying back, the email said, thank you for a sweet November. She wished she had read these emails sooner. Perhaps she might have stopped him from leaving. Or perhaps she should have confronted him immediately she read the first one that Saturday afternoon when he went out to pick up the laundry and left his email still open on the desktop. She was not one to snoop around; she was just trying to check her own email. Tommy knew this, and that was why he was careless, and used the same password for his Facebook account, email and desktop computer- iyawomi2006. She wonders now, why she saved those emails and closed the web browser, pretending when he returned that all was well; why she pretended for a whole month that she was not busy asking everyone if they knew a Maureen Luka with dreadlocks, checking her online, reading her tweets which were always about salads and new vegetarian recipes, getting to know this new rival of hers; why she didn’t tell him, the day he left with a bag bigger than usual- the last time she saw him-  that she knew that his ‘meeting in Lagos’ was a meeting with Maureen.
She rationalised why Maureen hadn’t replied any of her emails. If she was Maureen she wouldn’t reply a drowning, grasping woman trying to save her man. She wouldn’t add a bloody battle of words to the woman’s misery and loss. That would not be fair. Maybe, she thought, especially as her husband changed his profile picture on Facebook from a photo of Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr. to  one of the Ferris wheel photo’s he took with Maureen, maybe, Maureen was being kind to let her mourn alone.
***
She gets up from her messy bed and makes her way around the labelled packed cartons of different sizes all over the house, to the table in what used to be a study where the desktop, now lying in a junkyard somewhere, used to sit. Her new Dell laptop is in her hand. Reaching the table, she realises she doesn’t have the laptop charger. She walks back to the bedroom recalling that she had put the charger in one of the cartons. The charger is laying in a carton with old rechargeable lanterns, earphones- some good some bad-, an electrical extension box, and an extra Nokia charger which she bought when she thought she had lost her old one. She takes out the charger and reseals the carton labelled ‘Old Electrical Things’.
The laptop boots and she fights the thoughts in her mind that tell her not to give up hope, the thoughts that tell her this is all a dream gone bad and she will wake up to find herself sweating, hearing that drone that Tommy swears is not a snore and reach out to feel his heaving mass; the thoughts that tell her not to take it lying down, to go to Lagos and put the fear of God into the adulterers and bring her man home. She fights it because she is tired. Tired of crying, of the heaviness in her eyes. Tired of the harbingers of woe, who take it as a God-given duty to call her from Lagos with every latest indication of the finality of Tommy’s move- the new car he now drives, the events he attends with Maureen wearing the same fabric, a complimentary card with a new Lagos address. She is tired of her father telling her Tommy will come back. Her father says so because she hasn’t told him everything, about the other woman, about his new life. Nine months is enough. Enough time for him to have had a baby with Maureen if he wanted. She is tired of the temptation to check his email, the old password still works; tired of finding new things- that Maureen recently travelled to Australia, that she misses having sex with him, that she wants to have his baby, that she needs to know if he wants his iPad in black or another colour, that she told her mother in Tuvalu about them, that her sister in Australia (who is proud of the courage he had to leave his wife for true love) can’t wait to meet him when she visits Nigeria next summer.  
            She plugs her internet dongle into one of the USB ports. It is her custom to type her emails using a word processor before copying to Yahoo Mail. She types.
Thank you Maureen for not fighting with me when I tried to draw you out, you could have and God knows, it would have hurt me far more than it could have hurt you. I hope he is with you what he could not be with me.
 She saves it in her drafts folder. This message will never be sent because it is for herself, for her peace of mind, something Maureen can’t delete or choose to ignore. She has thrown in the towel without an audience to boo her, walked away to avoid any more blows to her spirit.
She has the second message all composed in her head. This one she will send. ‘My husband,’ she will begin. This is the last time she will call him husband. She will tell him she calls him husband because by law they are still married. She will write that she was bitter, angry, but today she is at peace and wishes him well in his new life, even though the beating of her heart and the pinching pain inside her nose will say otherwise. She will advise, more for her sake than his, that he changes his password because she cannot trust that she will not keep reading his emails.
***
A nanny stays with her in her new apartment on the outskirts of Abuja. She goes more frequently to the gym because working out takes her mind off things for a while and she can channel her anger into something useful. It is a rainy, lonely day; she succumbs to the temptation to check after succeeding for many months in not checking his email address. Tommy has indeed changed his password.
            Korede is asleep and the nanny is doing the dishes loudly humming the gospel songs that Temi hates to hear. Today, ‘Thou art worthy o Lord’ is on repeat. The nanny is always like this on Saturdays and Temi isn’t sure if it is in anticipation of her day off or she just likes to get in the mood for church one day early. Before she leaves early on Sunday mornings, she performs the same lengthy ritual of transformation in front of the full length mirror in the bathroom, preening herself to a random selection of praise and worship songs.  This nanny, an unmarried woman in her late forties, is good with Korede. Temi likes her because apart from her good cooking and honesty, she doesn’t pry, doesn’t ask why she is all alone with Korede or why she doesn’t go to church.
Temi opens her inbox and finds a new email from Tommy. He does not use the ttmajekodunmi@yahoo.com that she knows. It is now tommym@yahoo.com. She wonders if this is short for Tommy Majekodunmi or if the ‘m’ after his name means Maureen.
Hi,
Wanted to inform you that you will be getting papers from my lawyer soon. If you don’t have a lawyer, get one and I will pay. It is only fair.
Tommy.
This really, is the end, she thinks, holding her chest that thumps like the drums in a Police band, letting herself cry, one last time. She purses her lips and tries not to let Korede or the nanny hear her. Her head hurts; she feels veins popping out on her neck. She calls out for her mother and asks her why she left, why she died and left her all alone in the world. She hates her sister for moving to the UK and her father for believing that things will work out, not seeing that things have crumbled. Then she puts her workout clothes and shoes in a knapsack and unplugs her iPod from the cable connecting it to her laptop. She is headed for the gym where she will work out to the rhythm of angry Eminem songs.

She thinks of the tall dimpled man with perfect abs and fine manners whose eyes she avoids at  the gym, who asks her often, if she would like to catch a drink with him. Perhaps she should let him buy her a drink. Perhaps he will be funny or witty or just a gentleman and make her forget for just a moment the heaviness in her chest, the tiredness in her head. Perhaps she too should do something wild and spontaneous, to know how it feels. It might help her make sense of it all; how a stranger can make you do crazy things: erase years of memory, pack a bag and head into the sunset.

29 comments:

  1. Nice one, as usual, Elnathan. Well done and more grease!

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  2. Well written & a well created depth of feelings

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  3. This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for the lovely piece Elnathan

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  4. Brilliant sir! Wow, I actually moved at several instances.

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  5. Crying. The line, "She is headed for the gym where she will work out to the rhythm of angry Eminem songs" really hit me, because I have been there. Perhaps for different reasons, but same method of seeking solace. Pain and our attempts to find a soothing balm know no borders.

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    1. I am glad you were able to connect with this. Thank you for taking the time to read.

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  6. Masterclass! Started following yesterday. New fan here.

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  7. Too painful...It doesn't answer "why" though. So my question is how would she eventually find closure? Might that possibly be in the expectation of Karma paying him a visit?
    I am in awe of how you portray the thoughts of your characters, almost like you reside in their heads.

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    1. Onazare, I appreciate your comment. Thanks for reading and your kind words.

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  9. Don't know if you're familiar with what "Masha Allah" means but I do want to say Masha Allah, your writing is beautiful!

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  10. Such a sad beautiful story. But I have a feeling you don't like Tuvalu women Nathan "Their skin is the colour of Indians who run restaurants in Abuja, she thought, a sort of brown that looks like hot water and a good scrub would wash off."

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  11. Thoughtful, realistic, and deeply emotional.

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  12. Thought I have read all in your blog, never knew I left this story out. Nice one Elnathan and thanks for sharing this on Twitter today...

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  13. OMG. This is an awesome story. Am sure someone, somewhere is feeling like this now. But the guy heartless sha. This is one of the reasons I don't understand marriage. Great work Elnathan.

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  14. This is really beautifully and tenderly written. The ambiguities make it very realistic-- although it wasn't my story, I recognized the emotions; they're all so intrinsically human. I think a companion piece written from Tommy's POV would be great.

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  15. This is a story close to home...... I cried. She will never know why... Because there isn't one. Well written El. Kudos

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  16. I found a copy of this story on my computer among the 2011 archives but it didn't have attributes; I didn't know who sent it to me. So I googled it :)

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You fit vex, bet abeg no curse me. You hear?