“So when is this boy of yours planning to make a good woman out of you?” Ma asked, her eyes full of light.
A maid brought us a flask of tea and placed it on a small table. It was Friday evening and I had come to visit Ma for the weekend at her home in Munyonyo. A Nollywood movie played on Africa Magic Channel.
“Leroy, Leroy. His name is Le-roy?” I didn’t mean to shout.
“Ah ok, when is Le-roy going to make a good woman out of you?”
“Stop asking me that. It’s all you ever ask me. How about you ask how I’m doing? About work.”
“Oh,” Ma looked at me, “how’s work?”
“You’ll be pleased to know he has left me,” I announced.
“Really, Jenny. Sometimes you choose to deliberately misunderstand me,” Ma said softly. The light in her eyes disappeared. “I never liked him because I didn’t believe he was the right one for you. Am I glad he has left you? Yes, I am. At least he’s no longer stringing you along, wasting your time. Am I glad you’re hurting? Of course not.”
“Stringing me along?”
“What would you call it? He hasn’t married you, has he?” She picked up her cup of tea, leaned back in the sofa and turned her attention to the movie, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
I knew she wasn’t surprised by the break up. Within seconds of meeting Leroy, she had decided that my relationship with him wouldn’t go far, and had told me as much. “I can see he adores you. I can see he’s running around you, but I can’t see him do it for long,” she had said, and continued to introduce me to men, men she didn’t know much about except that they were single and came from good families. I just assumed she never saw beyond his race.
Later in the night, she sat on my bed and reached for my hands. “I do want you to get married and have children,” she said. “This is what I want for you. After your father’s death…look, I am growing old, soon I will be gone and I will be at peace if you have someone to look after you. But this is what I want for you. What is it you want? If you want to grow old by yourself, I will let you be.”
The tears overwhelmed me and I cried and cried and cried and thought about Leroy.
Leroy and I had been living together for over ten years when he dumped me. With each day, I had convinced myself we were nearing a marriage proposal. Penelope, my friend from Makerere University, had predicted the whole thing. “A white boy will drop you in a second,” she had told me countless times as she snapped her fingers. “The brothers will cheat on you, but they’ll never wake up and feel the need to find themselves. By the way, finding themselves means a new woman.”
“Not going to happen. We’re in love,” I’d say with the faith of a woman in love. I’d tell her how Leroy said I made him feel safe, complete, at home.
“Was he drunk?” She’d ask.
“Nope,” I’d shake my head, confused.
“That’s even worse,” she’d say, “because that’s a load of bullshit. He’s supposed to feel wild passion, butterflies, whatever people in love feel for each other.” She’d wiggle her body like a snail. “You aren’t his mother to make him feel at home.”
“The sex is passionate,” I’d counter, hoping my voice didn’t betray the doubt I felt tightening my tummy into a lump. As soon as we went our separate ways, the question would scratch at my soul – could she be right?
That Friday early afternoon, as we sat in the kitchen in Penelope’s house, the sunlight making our faces yellow, and waited for the tea kettle to boil, I told her that her predictions had come true; I thought Leroy was dumping me. “Dump” was apt. I felt like garbage.
“He either is or isn’t. What did he say?” Penelope asked. She always asked for details, and liked to know what exactly the person said, how they said it, what they looked like when they said it.
“Something about Uganda becoming too much. He wasn’t sure if this is what he wanted.”
“Uganda becoming too much? After ten years? That piece of shit. He’s a load of shit,” Penelope said as she stomped her right foot up and down on the red cement floor as though Leroy was there and she was kicking him. “I was hoping he’d surprise us all and do the right thing by you. A brother would never do something like this. What else did he say?”
“That we wanted different things.”
“Different things? What’s that supposed to mean? Did he want different things when he was having sex with you? I’II tell you what it means. He’s a coward. Why didn’t he just tell you he wanted out of the relationship? Only a white boy can talk this nonsense. We need a drink, a proper drink.” She stood up, switched off the stove, and searched in the wooden cupboards for a bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin, tonic and glasses. She got ice cubes and picked limes from the basket of fruits on the small kitchen table. These she cut into perfect round shapes and added them to the glasses of gin and tonic.
“What are you going to do?” Penelope asked as she handed me a glass. I looked at her nails, which were perfectly manicured with red nail polish. I couldn’t remember if I had ever seen her with chipped nails. She had got married immediately after our graduation and gone on to have five children. I was grateful she didn’t say it was his loss; he didn’t deserve me, even though that’s what I wanted to hear. That he was a fool, a fool who’d come running back to me, begging me to take him back, after realizing he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
“I don’t know,” I said. The idea of starting to meet eligible bachelors all over again was daunting; the awkward silence, the desperation of wanting to be liked, the game of finding a man attractive and feigning indifference. “I feel like my guts have been wrenched out.” I gulped the gin and tonic. “You know I really believed he was the one.” His face flashed before me. Tanned. Unblemished. Dimples. Ocean eyes. “He said I was the one. Why can’t I have the Cinderella story? Maybe he needs time to think.”
The moment the last words were out of my mouth, Penelope’s eyes jutted out of her sockets and I saw the pity in them.
“Please don’t feel sorry for me,” I said as I looked at the line of small ants walking back and forth to collect grains of sugar on the kitchen table. “I just wanted him to marry me.”
“Marriage isn’t all that,” she said slowly. I thought she was trying to make me feel better but I saw darkness in her eyes for a second. “Anyway, if this is about marriage, if it’s a question of getting married, then we can find you a nice Ugandan man. I can list several men that would marry you in a second.”
“But I don’t want a nice Ugandan man. I want Leroy. I don’t even know if I want to get married, but being dumped makes me think only about getting married. Does this make sense? Anyway, I’ve got to go, Ma is expecting me.”
At breakfast, Ma broached the subject of arranging my marriage.
I shook my head. “Ma, I don’t think you know what am looking for,” I said.
“Of course I do. Am your mother.”
“Like that entitles you to anything!”
“Hear me out before you completely dismiss me. After all your father and I were married for thirty one years, thirty one. At least I know what makes a marriage work.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“There’s no harm in trying and you won’t lose anything. I promise you’ll vet all the men, meet them, and make up your own mind, before I do anything.”
“Ok,” I agreed grudgingly. I still wanted to get married and have children, and I reckoned she’d bring it up after a few days and I’d say no, but she immediately presented me with a long list of potential husbands with their pros and cons. The wealthy,uneducated businessman, who liked to provide. A stable retired judge; a good role model for the children, and if they inherited his genes, they’d be intelligent children. “This young man Musa is a self-starter. He’s managing his own gym. It’s small, but it’s something. Then there’s this trader, a school teacher, and a farmer.”
I rolled my eyes at the list. “What’d I do with a farmer or a poor teacher?”
“These are all hard working good men,” Ma said.
“Do you have pictures?”
“What kind of husband do you want?” she asked.
“Smart, funny, wealthy and generous, doesn’t take himself seriously, definitely handsome…”
“I don’t think that one has been born, so I’d have to mold him for you.”
“Which of these men is at least attractive?” I asked.
Ma shook her head. “That’s not the criterion of a good husband. Look, you’re not exactly young. You know all your friends you went to school with are married.”
“So what if they’re married? Spending one’s life with one person isn’t for everyone. Can any of these men at least argue the merits of the Euro, talk about the financial crisis or democracy?” I asked.
Ma who had gone to school but had been content to stay at home and look after her family, looked at me in that way of hers that made me feel like a spoilt child.
“I mean if you’re going to arrange the marriage, I might as well be picky, no?”
Ma looked at me as though talking to me consumed all her energy.
“Ok fine, I’II meet them as long as they’re not old or ugly.”
When I met Musa, a tall man with sparkling eyes, a face that belonged in a fashion magazine, the body of a god, and smoothskin that glittered in the sun, I agreed to see him a few times again, and I let Ma accept the dowry, and the customary marriage took place.
Musa and I became friends quickly, and I liked that he was relaxed, not as intense as Leroy. He easily integrated into my life and let me sculpture him into what I wanted him to be. The tight t-shirts and jean shorts, I replaced with white linen shirts, black pants and stylish jeans. Soon he was reading newspapers in the mornings and listening to BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. Instead of dancing at Angenoir discotheque till the sun opened the skies, we tried new restaurants around Kampala. At office parties at Bailey’s Law Firm, where I worked, he turned up in sharp tailored black suits. My colleagues would look at him as a peer as he talked to them about global warming, spirituality, Nelson Mandela and debated the merits of African democracy. My heart swelled with pride.
The first cracks in our marriage came with our first child, Moses. Musa insisted I continue to breastfeed once I resumed work. I refused. When it became difficult for me to wake up every night to feed Moses, I proposed we take turns. On his nights, no amount of shakinghim, nor Moses’s wailing, woke him up. One night I poured a bucket of cold water on him.
“Are you insane?” he bellowed as he removed his pajamas and threw them at me.
“Moses is ready for his milk,” I said.
“Then feed him.”
“It’s your turn.”
“Oh for God’s sake. Why must we take turns? You’re his mother.”
“And you’re his father.”
“You can’t expect me to wake up in the night and run a gym.”Musa had continued to manage his small gym. It kept him busy but it never brought any income.
“What makes you think I can do both? You can leave the gym. I can’t leave the firm.”
“I am not quitting my gym.”
“It brings no money.”
“It’s my thing.”
“Your thing? Seriously Musa, your thing doesn’t help us in any way. One of us has to earn a living.” I said as I handed Moses to him, picked up a pillow and tried to sleep in the guest bedroom. When I checked in, Moses was fed and he was rocking him.
“You’re a natural,” I said.
He shrugged. I didn’t see there was no sparkle in his eyes.
By the time we had Mark our second child, Musa had confessed he enjoyed Moses’s company and spent less time at the gym. With my encouragement, he grudgingly shut it down. Around this time I was made a partner at the law firm. Musa seemed content to be a stay-at-home-dad and support my budding career. In the mornings he’d drop me off at the law firm and the children at pre-school, and woke up in the night to sing lullabies to Mili, our youngest daughter, who had a recurring nightmare of skeletons running after her in a field of roses. For awhile, the cracks mended and I stopped wishing Musa could talk to me for hours like Leroy used to. Ma was proud. The union had exceeded even her expectations.
But a month ago, whispers behind my back started to float like feathers in the wind throughout our neighborhood. Our house, with its high walls meant to keep out robbers and gossip, failed to stop them. They reached me through one of the maids who, before she got the courage to talk to me, had taken to hovering around me, until I asked what she wanted.
“Madam,” she said, “you’re kind and deserve the truth. Everyone is talking about you and Mister. Mister has been bringing this lady to the house.” She spoke very quickly.
“Mister. He brings this lady to the house. He comes back with her in the mornings and takes her back when he comes to collect you and the children.”
“Pack your things and leave,” I told her. “I’II not have liars in my house.” She looked at me. Large eyes, almost popping out of a round face in bewilderment, pierced me before she ran away.
The whispers persisted. I dismissed them as idle talk of people who wanted to destroy my marriage, but they pecked like termites on wood, and eventually, I checked Musa’s phone. There can be no smoke without fire, I said to myself. It’s better to put this whole thing to rest.
As soon as I read the words – I can’t wait to be with you – to a Violet, I put the phone back in his trousers pocket, and I called the law firm and told them I’d be out for awhile. For days I slept, and when I was awake I lay in the bed inert, the blanket pulled up to my neck, my hands across my chest, legs spread out, staring at the ceiling fan. If it fell, its metallic petals would crash my chest. I willed it to fall.
Musa asked me what the matter was and I told him nothing, I just needed a break. He agreed. “You work too hard,” he said, “everyone needs a break, you too.”
He brought me milk tea mixed with ginger. Each time he woke me up, I saw his sparkling eyes darken with anxiety, for he had never seen me like this. He brought the children in the hope they’d get me out of bed, but I lay back and watched them. Images of smiling faces walked through my mind. Five smiling faces including mine, but they melted away in an instant the way ice cubes melt, leaving drops of water on the floor that eventually dry leaving no trace.
I breathed in the dust that came through the open bedroom windows and thought about how it fell on everything, the sofas, the tables, on my clothes neatly folded and tucked away in the walk-in closets that filled one wall in our bedroom. The dust. Constant. It was in my eyes, my braids, my nose. I found comfort in thinking about the dust, knowing it’d still be there when I woke up again.
Sometimes, I thought about my favorite moment. Sunday breakfast. Musa read a newspaper. The children giggled and kicked each other under the table. We held hands and prayed to God to bless our food, our faces bathed in the gentle morning light. The soothing church bells called out to us to go to pray and thank God for our blessings. Musa said we should go to church. I nodded and promised we’d go the following Sunday. This promise was forgotten as soon as the bells fell silent. We made plans for the day, listed the friends and relatives we had to visit, but knew we’d end up at one of the beach resorts along Entebbe Road, where we’d sit beneath a large umbrella, safe from the sand, the salt water and the sun. The children squealed as they jumped into the water and only came to us to drink soda and eat cakes and cookies.
Then I thought about Leroy and my heart filled with warmth. Leroy who loved to talk. If he had cheated on me, we’d have talked until our words were depleted. I wondered if he was still in Kampala. Maybe I should have fought for him. A friend of mine once told me that her boyfriend, now husband, rang to tell her he’d not join her in London after they had agreed to relocate there. As soon as she put the phone down, she bought a ticket back to Uganda. They were married six months later.Maybe I worked too hard. I should have listened to Penelope, who had warned me. “I don’t know a single Ugandan man who could be content, let alone happy, raising children and dropping his wife at work,” she had said. “Men are providers. That’s what they are. They like to provide. You’re turning Musa into something he can’t be.”
“You’re jealous,” I had laughed. “You’re a jealous friend,” I had mocked. “Be happy for me. Maybe your hubby will copy my Musa and start helping you with housework,” I had teased, and now who was laughing the loudest?
But Ma agreed with Penelope. “A man must eat food cooked by his wife. The way to a man’s heart is through the stomach,” Ma said each time she visited us, and insisted on cooking for her son-in-law, as I rolled my eyes.
“Food is food,” I argued. “He had better be happy there’s food on the table.”
“Would it kill you to cook for him once in awhile? Make the bed. Prepare his bath. Put the children to sleep.”
“But am paying people to do all of that. Musa isn’t doing any housework. Come to think of it, maybe he should, instead of spending the whole day watching TV!” I said.
Ma shook her head. “You’re still a woman,” she said.
“A woman who is making sure there’s food on the table, that the rent and children’s school fees are paid.”
“You and your smart mouth,” she said. “I did this this for your father. What has happened to you children? It’s this education.”
“Pa provided everything for you. You didn’t have to work!”
“A husband is a husband.”
“Look Ma, it’s working for us. He’s not complaining, is he? Besides, you educated me so I could do these things for myself.”
Ma kept quiet the way only wise people know how.
I thought about Violet and imagined her opening the door of her house for Musa before he even knocked, removing his black shoes, brown from the dust, cleaning them until they shone again. I imagined her fussing over him, kneeling down and slowly pouring beer into a glass for him and sitting by his side, eagerly listening to whatever he needed to talk about, until he finished his tea. These were things I never did. Instead he brought me tea or a glass of water as I ploughed through endless case files and fell asleep on top of law books, dressed in my working clothes, too tired to remove them. Perhaps I should have done these things.
“You don’t leave a good husband because he slept with another woman,” Ma said. Her voice was categorical. “Where are you going to find a man who won’t have a bit on the side?” she asked.
Penelope had simply shrugged and told me her husband had another family with children the same age as hers.
“C’mon, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. There’s more to marriage. Whatever you do,” Penelope warned, “don’t show him that you know he’s sharing his manhood, unless you’re going to leave him. That’s the mistake I made. Now that my husband knows I know, he doesn’t even try to hide it.”
I looked at her mesmerized. It wasn’t the reaction I had expected. “Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Of course it does, but I never expected him to remain faithful. You’re lucky, at least there are no children involved with that other woman. I could have left, but you know I gave up my job when I got married. They all have their vices and this is his.”
But I couldn’t accept the situation. I had to tell him. Each time I imagined this other woman I’d do things like ask the maid not go give Musa supper, pretend I didn’t hear him when he came back late in the evenings, and instructed the security guards not to open the gate for him. I even took to punching my pillow several times imagining I was hitting Violet, and then, one day I actually attacked her.
Musa and I were in Angenoir nightclub listening to Chameleon’s music on a Friday night. He had insisted we go out and although we were both bored, we were determined to stay. A woman walked up to us, and handed Musa a napkin. Come dance with me, it read. I latched on her and pulled out a few of her braids. Musa carried me out of the discotheque, the braids in my right hand.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, as he started the car.
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Yes, what’s wrong with you? Why’d you attack a stranger?”
“Yes, a stranger.”
“You know that woman.”
“I don’t know her.”
“I checked your phone and saw your text messages.”
“And you thought this woman. I don’t know this woman.”
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
He coughed, cleared his throat, and parked the car by the roadside. “It’s not what you think,” he said.
“And what do you think am thinking?”
“It’s not serious,” he tried again. “She means nothing to me, nothing. She’s nothing.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I am not. It was…”
“You are. You’ve been driving her around in my car, bringing her to my house.”
He looked at me for sometime. “To my house, in my car. How about saying in our house?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“Am not. Am not. It’s your life on your terms and I’ve had to fit in somehow.”
“So now it’s my fault!”
“Don’t be silly…”
“And now I am silly.”
“Oh God, you’re impossible.” He sighed. “Do you know how many times my friendscall me Mrs Jenny? Of course you don’t and you probably wouldn’t care if you did.” I saw his face lit by traffic lights. He seemed exasperated. I shook my head, and it was then that I started to cry and I hated him for making me cry.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “I’II fix it.”
“You can’t fix this.”
His head was on the steering wheel when I started hitting him and scratching his face. I kicked, but my kicks only hit the dashboard, infuriating me. Squirming didn’t help either. Then I realized I could bite him and sank my teeth into his shoulders. He shouted but didn’t let go of my hands and held on until I had no energy left, but as soon as he released me, I opened the door and bolted. He chased me along Muyenga street, shouting my name, but he had to go back to the car.
When I was sure he had stopped pursuing me I slowly walked up the hill. The sidewalks were filled with people so I walked on the road lit by traffic lights. Vendors were selling roasted nyama choma, and fried eggs and potato chips. The air was warm and smelled of roasted meat and maize. I bellowed at drivers who honked at me to get out of the road. I entered Weekend Bar and bought a bottle of Uganda Waragi. There were women everywhere, scantily dressed. I folded my skirt up my thighs, removed my top and joined a group of girls dancing on the bar; something I had always wanted to do. It was when I asked them where the next party was that I noticed their disdainful looks and realized how young they were.
The sky was full of the colors of the rising sun when I left the bar. I kicked at empty beer bottles scattered in the road and threw a stone at a pack of dogs barking at me. I wanted to get home before the children woke up. The security guard opened the gate for me. I startled one of the mother hens and her chicks furiously scavenging through the tiny stones on the walkway for insects to eat. The mother hen hastily jumped away but remained nearby, her feathers flungout, ready to attack if I touched her chicks. The chicks, safe in their mother’s protection, didn’t notice any of this.
The first thing I saw on Musa’s face was relief. I could tell he wanted to reach out, but he sat at the kitchen table, looked at me, and waited. I sat on one of the chairs and folded my hands across my chest.
“Don’t close me out,” he said.
I looked at him.
“Talk to me,” I could hear the plea in his voice. “What would you like to do?”
“Am not the one who screwed up.”
“Give me something.”
“Where do we go from here?” he asked softly. “I am in my early forties and I’ve no respect. My friends call me Mrs Jenny. I’ve no identity outside of you. I can’t do this for much longer.”
“You should have told me this is how you felt.”
A hint of a smile. “I am telling you now,” he said. “What will it take for you to forgive me?”
“Now is not the time to talk about forgiveness.”
“Please tell me what to do,” I heard the desperation in his voice.
“I don’t know. Am so broken.”
“We could start over.”
“How? Things can’t be the same again.”
“I don’t want them to be. Jenny, I don’t want to change you, but there has to be space for both our dreams.”
“You should have talked to me instead of running around with another woman. I had to find out from the maid, and I fired her because I didn’t believe her, and now you’re telling me about your dreams. Why now?”
“Because I love you. Because I don’t want to lose you. Because I need you. Because I know if we continue like this we shall not make it, and I want us to make it.”
“I don’t want to make it. You were my perfect husband, and now you’ve gone and ruined everything.”
“Don’t say that. I haven’t ruined everything!”
“Yes, you have.”
“What does your mother think?”
“She’s not the one whose heart has been ripped out.”
“What would you like to do?”
Before I could answer the children rushed in, and he effortlessly switched into father mode. I watched him boil milk and mix it with tea leaves and sugar for their tea. He fried eggs, removed sliced bread from the fridge, added Blue-Band and peanut paste and put two slices of bread cut into half on each plate. The boys picked their cups of tea and plates, and took their places at the table while he carried Mili’s breakfast to her. A maid came in to help but he waved her away. Once they were settled, he made me a cup of tea. Even in my brokenness, I knew this is what had drawn and tied me to him, and I knew I had to find a way to have it all.
“Ma, what are we doing today?” Moses asked.
“Ask your father,” I said.
“We could go to church,” he said. “Actually, I’d like to show you the gym I used to own,” he said looking at me.
I smiled. I had to start from somewhere.
Bio: Ruth Mukwana is a fiction writer from Uganda and currently working with the United Nations in Sudan on humanitarian issues. She has completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Bennington College in June 2014, and she’s currently finishing her collection of linked short stories. One of the stories in the collection “THE SMELL” was published by Solstice Magazine.