Waiting by Chika Unigwe
This is one of the reasons she does not like to shop at this time of the year: too many people. Her hands are full and she when she remembers how difficult it was for her to make a choice, she thinks, The tyranny of choice. Not in those exact words of course, because these days, she finds it very difficult to find the words she needs. In that way, she has become a more visceral being. She feels what she means even when she cannot articulate it. She wishes she were an octopus. Many more hands would be useful, she thinks, struggling to hang on to the huge racecar with one hand while she picks up the plastic bag with the transformer, which has somehow slipped from her hands.
Clumsy. Thatís what Gunter would have murmured. Clumsy, Oge. Clumsy. Clicking his tongue and shaking his head like a father scolding a child. She hates it when he talks to her like that. As if she were his child, not his wife. When he does that, she feels a burning in her throat and then she says things and then he says things and then they both fall silent. But the burning in her throat remains for a long time, hurting her like an open wound with pepper rubbed in it. It is an ulcer of the throat. She is amazed at the miracle of the word that has come to her. Out of nowhere. But such is the nature of miracles, is it not? They come out of nowhere, presented to you because you believe. And she believes. If you had faith as little as a mustard seed, you would say to this mountain Move and it shall move! The mountain would pick up and run! How many times has the pastor said this? Ministering to her over and over again. Faith is free he says. All you have to do is accept it! And she has. She has. Oh yes she has.
She knows she should have bought something else but she can no longer recall what. She thought of it this morning but now she has forgotten what. She hopes Jordi would like what she has chosen, his presents from Sinterklaas, but it is only now that she remembers that what she had also wanted to get him was a pack of cards. Something they could do together as a family. Like in the old days. There is no way she is going back now to pick it up. She does not have the strength to stand in queue again in an overheated toyshop just for a pack of cards. Still, it would have been nice. She. Gunter. Jordi. One happy family. The way they used to be.
She should have made a list. She is always forgetting things and Gunter used to find it endearing. My little forgetful wife, he used to say, laughing. My little forgetful wife. One day youíd forget your head. And then where would we all be? And she had laughed with him too. Now, when he laughs it is because there is something funny on TV. She never watches TV with him, especially not when there is a comedy on because they do not find the same things funny. She finds his humour dry. It had never mattered before: this difference but now, like all the other ways in which they are different, it bothers her and she wonders why she ever married him in the first place.
There were others she could have married. Tony. They had met at the University of Lagos, and had dated for a long time. She had had to let him go because every time she went to visit him at home, his mother wore her down with her questions. So, what are you doing this summer? This summer, Tony and his brother are going to New York on holiday. Have you been to New York? When are you flying down to the east? Which airline? Why would you travel by road and not by air? Oge always felt insulted by the disingenuity of the questions, designed not to get responses but to let Oge know that she, Tonyís mother knew, that Oge did not come from a home as affluent as theirs where the long vacation was ďsummerĒ spent shopping in London or New York and you never did long distance travel by bus when you could fly. The questions- like every conversation she had with the women- were designed to remind her of her place and hint at how unwelcome she really was. She was not prepared to enter into a marriage where she had to start by fighting a determined mother-in-law. Tony is married now to an ambassadorís daughter and Oge was sent a newspaper clipping of the couple, carefully cut out from a glamour magazine by her best friend who had written "Miss Piggy" under the brideís photograph and given her a snout for a nose. Oge had laughed when she received it.
And before Tony, there was Jide. Jideís problem was not his mother but his constantly roving eyes. He loved Oge, he constantly assured her, but it wasnít because a man had ordered that he could not peruse the menu, right? Wrong, she told him. It was humiliating sitting beside a man in a car and having him gawk at every female that passed by.
Gunter had come wonderfully uncomplicated. No roving eyes. No snobbish mother. They had met at a club on Zikís Avenue, the year she graduated. She was out with Angel and her boyfriend, Kene and while they were having a drink, Kene said, Ah ah, see this oyibo wey dey dance like black man ooo and she and Angel had turned to see the white man dancing like a black man and the white manís eyes locked with hers. He gave her a smile she returned it and he walked over to their table to introduce himself.
Good dance steps youíve got, Kene said and the man smiled and said thanks but his eyes stayed on Oge.
May I get you something to drink? He addressed all three.
When he brought the drinks over, he sat down beside Oge as if the empty chair there had been waiting for him. They had talked a lot that night and Oge was struck by how such a huge man could have such a soft voice.
Her parents had not minded that their daughter had a white friend but when Oge told the mother that the man was talking marriage, her mother had asked with which mouth she would tell her friends that her daughter was marrying a man who was uncircumcised.
Mother! Oge said, embarrassed. Why should that be any concern of theirs?
Ogeís father had wondered if she had thought of it carefully. Moving so far away, marrying a stranger. Was she sure?
She had known him for two years; he was not a stranger anymore.
You know what I mean, her father said.
Yes, Oge said. "I love him.
Then tell him to come and talk to me.
For the time of year, the weather is rather mild. Were it any colder, she would have certainly regretted not bringing her gloves. Miss Forgetful, she chides herself. She had brought out the gloves but left them on the bed. What is the use of having things if you never use them because you forget? She can hear Gunterís voice asking.
She hopes she has not gone overboard with the presents. That is another worry. Gunter has always scolded her for spoiling Jordi. Buying him expensive presents. Children donít need expensive presents. He will certainly be upset when he finds out that the race car alone costs over a hundred euro. You know how many mouths that can feed in Africa?
Gunter has a social conscience, translating every excess of hers into how many lives it would save in Africa. Before, she would argue with him. Tell him the only people with a social conscience are those who were brought up on plenty. I want my son to have everything I never had.
But that doesnít have to be expensive? Think about how much that is in Naira.
No. I wonít do that conversion because it doesnít make sense. Are you going to stop buying beer because whenever you convert how much you pay for it comes to lots of Naira? Or your fancy wine?
But today, she knows she would have no strength to argue with him. There are more important things on her mind. Like how to hide the presents from an inquisitive six year old until Saturday when good old Sint is supposed to come down chimneys dropping presents for good boys and girls.
And Jordi has been a good boy. He was the best boy. The thought of him makes her smile. Gunter used to joke at the beginning that he was jealous of Jordi. My son has taken over and now you only have eyes for him. And to prove that that was definitely not true, she would make love to him and later they would both stand over his crib and marvel at this beautiful creature they had made. They delighted in sharing tidbits of what he had done, what he had said. Jordi smiled. Did you see that? He just smiled at me!
I donít think so. I think that was gas.
No, it was definitely a smile. Youíre just jealous
Jordi said dada dada today!
No he said ma ma!
No way. Da da. I heard him loud and clear. Da Da.
There was a synthesis to their conversation. These days, things have changed. They say things to each other, words to fill the air but their words have no meaning. It is not intended as a conversation. And mainly, Oge thinks, trying not to give in to self-pity (Self-pity is an enemy to Faith!) when Gunter talks, it is to find fault with her. His voice dogs her every step, telling her where she has gone wrong.
Why donít you dress up? Itís afternoon already. You canít be walking around in your bathrobe.
Oge, wake up. Youíve been in bed the whole day.
Oge, you shouldnít be drinking alone. Itís dangerous.
It is as if she can no longer do anything right. She must be watched. It is eating her up. Ulcer of the throat. The only salve is Jordi. But all these started because of Jordi too. Jordi. Her only child. Their only child. Never mind that these days, Gunter acts as if Jordi was not his.
By the time she climbs up the thirty steps to their front door on the second floor, Oge is worn out. She should have taken the lift but she has a fear of enclosed spaces. You must fight that fear, Gunter tells her often and she just glowers at him. You are good at telling me what to do, she screams at him sometimes.
Gunter is in the house when she gets in. He is in the kitchen, doing dishes. She stands by the dining table and says a reluctant hello. She is not in the mood to quarrel over the presents with Gunter. It would have been better, she thinks, were he not around. When he sees her, sees the toys in her hands, he drops the newspaper he is reading and lets out a long sigh. Now she is sure a complaint will follow. The fact that she is expecting it does not stop her heart from sinking. She has been hoping that today, it would be different. This hope, is it not faith too? Faith as small as a mustard seed. And a mustard seed is small. The pastor says it is as small as a pinhead. Her faith is bigger than that. She feels the weight of it in her stomach. Your faith must be perfect, the pastor says. Perfect faith works miracles. But her faith is perfect: round and smooth. It sits in the pit of her stomach and fills her up so that she hardly ever has any appetite. That is how big her faith is. That is how perfect it is. So, she has a right to hope but Gunterís sigh betrays the unfulfillment of that hope. Even before he speaks, the burning begins in her throat in anticipation of what he will say. It will be nothing she wants to hear. She sees it already in the way his eyes slit, in the way he holds a massive palm over his forehead as if her were checking his temperature.
For Jordi, she says. For something to say. To stop him from saying whatever it is he wants to say. She knows that she does not have to tell him for whom it is. He knows it is for Jordi. He must know. He is the only child in the house. For whom else would she buying presents for two days before Sinterklaas but for their precarious six year old with skin the colour of toothpick. His voice high and questioning, Mama why are you brown? Papa, what does this word mean? With that mind, Jordi will surely be a scientist, Gunter announced once. Jordiís hair is a mass of curls and invites you to bury your nose in it. With that hair, heíd drive every woman crazy, Oge had replied.
She brings the race car out and holds it out to Gunter like a peace offering. Here, see. You think he will like it? Itís remote controlled. Lights blink. Doors open. Everything. The shop assistant told me that even the horn works. Oge laughs. Her laughter is wild. And for a moment, it relieves the burning in her throat. It is as if someone is sprinkling water on the fire , calming it, stopping it from spreading.
Gunter walks towards her. Every step measured, as if her were stepping on eggs and trying hard not to crack them. He closes up the distance between them in his long steps. He takes the present from her and puts it on the table, gently, like a porcelain piece. His arms spread out like wings and engulf her. She is finding it difficult to breathe.
Oge, he says, his voice strained and tired as if he had been awake all day. Oge, Jordi has been dead for six months. Is it not time to move on?
She wriggles away from his embrace and lets out a shriek to ease the burning in her throat. The room is shrinking. Her throat is burning. The room is shrinking. Her throat is burning.
Theroomisshrinkingherthroatisburningburningburning. The fire escapes her throat and starts to lick at her breasts, then her hands and her legs. Her entire body is on fire. She is burning up and then she starts to tumble, tumble, tumble. She is falling headlong into a tunnel and it feels like death.
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