Friday afternoon Imo arrived at the bank wearing a wraparound dress and a frown. Barely acknowledging pleasantries, she marched straight into the Manager’s office.
Her husband, Bassey, looked up. “Is something wrong?”
Imo shook her head and dropped her oversized bag on his desk. “I’ve been ‘directed’ to represent my boss at a seminar in Lagos. I didn’t want to simply call and tell you.”
Bassey exhaled, indicated a visitor’s chair.
She declined. “Something to do with mentoring tomorrow’s women leaders,” she said, brandishing a flyer from the bag. “The director said she’s sorry for the suddenness.”
Bassey sat back. “It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry too, but you know how it is. I really wanted us to be together this weekend. There’s a new Clooney movie playing at Silverbird. I heard it’s like Salt. So your type.”
Bassey shrugged. “You’re back when?”
“Sunday evening. I’ve got to run. My flight leaves in two hours. Love you.”
Within the hour Imo left their Utako District home and checked into Kingdom Come, a tolerable hotel in Garki, one of Abuja’s older quarters. Signing in as Shola D., she told the receptionist that only her mother would ask for her. That No Disturbance message reminded her that she hadn’t called Mama in weeks. Not that she didn’t care, she just had to focus on Bassey. He needed help to heal and stop blaming her for Marilyn’s death.
That he’d never verbally accused her made no difference. If anything, his silence dangled the accusation like a noose over her head. She’d been the one at home. Whatever “indeterminate cause”—as the Fire Service report stated—ignited the fire that burned the curtains, which unleashed the smoke that asphyxiated Marilyn, the fault lay with her.
As if to reinforce the depth of her culpability, her own mind had gone Judas by segmenting life into guilt-pigmented timeframes of Before, During, and After Marilyn. Her mind she could whip in line at short notice, but Bassey required more creative persuasion. This past Thursday night she’d tried to cuddle, hoping he would sense her mood and go all the way.
He’d rolled his shoulder away instead. “My neck hurts.”
She’d been wearing a short skirt and a halter that showed off her smooth brown skin. Kneeling by him on the settee, she kneaded his neck.
After a few minutes, he shifted away. “That’s enough.”
For many months After Marilyn, Imo accepted the rebuffs as Bassey’s way of coping. She herself never got used to the suffocating guilt. Daytime or night made no difference—she sweated more from her failure as a mother than the Abuja heat.
But now a year had passed. Bassey’s continued rejection conveyed contempt for her without ambiguity. And no matter how hard she tried to understand his pain, it didn’t make her own hurt any easier to bear.
NO SMOKING signs eyeballed guests all over Kingdom Come’s premises. Nonetheless, Imo longed to light up the moment she settled into her room. She searched in her bag—a Prada she’d nicknamed The Beast—before she remembered giving up, unasked, After Marilyn.
Imo snatched up the TV remote and caught “Carry Out” by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake playing on a music channel. The tongue-in-cheek sexiness of the song aside, one of the girls in the video stirred her. The girl could have been Didi, a voluptuous new friend she’d taken home in an earlier attempt to help Bassey get over his grief. She’d flirted openly with Didi, spurred on by the boner about to rip through Bassey’s trousers. Then she got rid of Didi only for a deflated Bassey to mumble nonsense about a headache. Later, she wondered if she should have engineered a threesome.
A different video came on and she changed channels. Her new plan ought to work better. Despite his present reticence, Before and During Marilyn she and Bassey had created some worthwhile memories. There were sporadic trips to Barceló’s to sample grilled chicken; popcorn-fuelled expeditions to Silverbird to tolerate the silly shoot-‘em-ups he liked and enjoy the smart rom-coms she favoured. But in the months After Marilyn, he’d become something she couldn’t be spontaneous with and yet couldn’t throw away—like frozen chicken. Now she of all people saw nothing wrong in consulting ridiculous how-to articles to augment her ideas on how to thaw him out and head off a divorce.
Seven o’clock in the evening she dialled Bassey’s mobile. He answered on the first ring.
She marvelled at that. What would it take for him to recognise his own wife and address her by something other than a dull nicety?
“Are you home?”
“Don’t overwork yourself. Remember your back.”
He grunted. “How’s the seminar?”
“Oh, you know, first day, arrivals and registration. Remember the hotel we stayed at when we went to Calabar last year?”
“Very funny, Bassey. You’ve forgotten your sister’s wedding?”
He grunted again.
“You loved the hotel, said it had a relaxing atmosphere. Where they’ve put me is like that. I wish you were here…” she trailed off.
After two beats, Bassey yawned. “You’re in Calabar?”
Imo rolled her eyes and muffled a sigh. Until now she had been going along with the tips in the “Make Him Miss You” guide she’d read online. That script clearly wasn’t working.
“Why don’t you ever say you love me anymore?”
“But… I do… love you.”
“I know you do. You just never say it anymore.”
“Eh, you’re not a teenage girl needing reassurance every five minutes.”
Imo gasped. “Of course I’m not a teenager. I’m your wife. We got married because we love each other. I don’t think there’s anything wrong if we revalidate that love regularly.”
Bassey chuckled. “You sound like a talk show.”
“Hey! This is serious.”
His chuckle gained strength. Imo made a fist and closed her eyes. Bassey was laughing as she ended the call. She longed for a smoke. Why did he find this funny? She would ignore him for the remainder of her mission.
His annoying accusations made her wonder if she shouldn’t lawyer up and dive into divorce. But she remembered reading somewhere that divorcing a husband equalled divorcing a known life. Did she really want to take a chance on an unknown fresh life?
Saturday morning she remembered the seminar papers. She fetched them from her holdall and flipped through so she could make small talk on the life-changing ideas she’d garnered at the retreat. In truth, some group had a seminar planned in Lagos and participants from Abuja were likely to be there. She’d seen the materials on a table in her director’s office and had snagged them because they were the kind of proof that solidified a story.
The papers were written by a bickering committee, she decided. The ideas were pedantic at best. Who were these people who thought women needed liberation from men? Within minutes, sleep seized her, and Marilyn, a recent companion in dreamland, came visiting.
Marilyn glided down on formerly gorgeous wings tinged with careless brown spots. She handed over a gift-wrapped package. No sooner had Imo received the package, than Marilyn returned with another. In no time, Marilyn delivered a wall-high collection of packages.
Unable to keep up with Marilyn’s dizzying speed, Imo found herself walled in by the packages. She was on the verge of choking from the airlessness caused by the innumerable gifts when she gasped awake to the purring ringtone of her cell phone. She took the call.
“Mama. I’ve been thinking of calling you.”
Mama harrumphed. “Thinking is not the same as doing.”
“I’m sorry. Just been busy with work.”
“Work won’t look after you when you get old, not that you’re looking after me.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“You’re a woman, you know. You can’t leave some things too late.”
Imo bit back her lip and dragged in a breath. “I lost my baby. It’s not been easy.”
“Listen to me child, no matter how much pain we pass through in this world, there is always a lot of joy left in it. So, stop enjoying the pain. You’re not the first to lose a baby.”
“Don’t waste it on me, child. See, that anger you’re feeling? Use it for a nice husband and wife quarrel with Bassey and see if you two don’t end up making love afterwards.”
Imo gasped. “What?”
“Keep up the grieving and see if he won’t look elsewhere.”
“Why are you doing this, Mama? Bassey is not like that.”
“What do you mean he’s not like that? He has a penis, doesn’t he? He’ll use it.”
Imo could not stop the tears. She hated being this emotional. “Stop it, Mama.”
“That you can still cry means life is yet to show you pain that will dry your tears. And that is a good thing, my child.”
By the time Imo put down the phone, she wanted to rip her weave off. She got out a handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. How did her mother always manage to do this to her? He has a penis, doesn’t he? It came out just as deadpan as if Mama had been talking about food, as in: You like potatoes, don’t you?
What she’d give for the pleasure of inhaling something musky with a menthol tang. That reminded her of Marilyn’s gift packs. Of course, she didn’t need any psycho-babbler to decipher that her feelings of guilt over Marilyn had served up the nonsensical vision. But what if Marilyn meant to show her she could smoke if she wanted to?
Imo exhaled. She had enough reasons to go crazy. Marilyn telling her it’s okay to smoke. Mama warning her that if she didn’t get back into baby-making she would lose Bassey. The one person who could set matters straight had never indicated whether he knew that she’d been a secret smoker, and so far he hadn’t shown any interest in making another baby.
Despite her earlier resolve, she called him.
“Bassey, we need to talk.”
“The seminar?” He sounded groggy.
“About us. We’re falling apart.”
“I know you blame me for Marilyn’s death. I’ve said I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“Darling, listen…” His tone went up several notches, firm, authoritarian even, yet not accusatory. “What happened could have happened at any time, to anyone. I’ve never blamed you. I’ll never blame you. Remember what the grief counsellor said? It’ll be better if we talk about this when you get home, so I’ll hang up now.”
He didn’t wait for her response. She wondered what he would have said if she told him, “No, it happened when it happened because of me. Forget what the Fire Service said. I know what caused the fire and I’ll always remember.” And what had the counsellor said? That there would be times like this when it felt as if she’d snuffed life out of Marilyn with her own hands; that she was to focus on other things. She scoffed. What did the silly counsellor know?
Still, how could it hurt to try?
On TV, that stupid millionaire game show came on. “What will you do with your winnings?” the host asked the contestant on the hot seat. Imo switched off the TV. She’d heard responses as varied as the characters she’d seen on the show. The most memorable had been uttered by a skinny, happy-go-lucky girl with huge breasts who said, “I’ll just live life.” Pressed for details by the host, whom Imo often thought patronising, Miss Skinny stuck to the “life” line like an old politician unwilling to learn a new narrative. Imo had loved Miss Skinny’s courage. She whooped like crazy when the chirpy girl won two million. When Miss Skinny stood up for the ceremonial winner’s handshake with the host, Imo’s eyes had popped at how sexy the girl’s hips were. Imo had salivated. Remembering all that now, a familiar ache coursed through her.
Miss Skinny had been TV, a fun fantasy. She’d liked Miss Skinny’s answer to the silly question though. After all, whatever you did with your winnings, it all amounted to living life: Making choices and accepting the consequences.
Imo brightened up. So true what they said about married couples. Look at that; she’d started parroting Bassey. But right now she didn’t want to focus on him, damn him. She would rather focus on a pack of smokes, and the company of a hot girl like Miss Skinny.
The smokes she arranged through a crafty steward despite kingdom Come’s No Smoking policy. Minutes later, she collected a pack at the door and tipped generously. She fired up and blew ghost shapes at the ceiling.
She really ought not to resume smoking, she reasoned. After all, she’d gone without for a whole year. But if Marilyn consented then it had to be okay. She tapped ash into a drinking glass. I could have been a spy, she thought. Fly here and there; kill bad people like Evelyn Salt. Soon it’ll be four whole years and poor Bassey still didn’t really know her.
Not her fault, really. He’d never been curious. She’d liked that about him at first. He never pried. “You’re an adult,” he’d say. “Handle your business. Choose a path. Take responsibility.”
The crisp and abrupt way he often spoke intrigued her in the early days. How could a human being manage to sound like a machine without even trying? Then, it annoyed her. Why did he rarely take the time to say things in full sentences? Even Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show typically reserved his monosyllables for Miss Piggy.
Wait: Did Bassey think of her as his Miss Piggy, a woman who loved him but for whom he didn’t really care? Imo sat up in bed. She knew Bassey had married her because of a ‘well, it’s time to get married’ sort of thing. She’d overheard part of a phone conversation where he’d described her as “A graduate, presentable, has a job.” She hadn’t minded. If she were to be honest about it, men bored her. Since Bassey spoke so little, kept to himself, and would never be caught displaying affection of any kind, she thought it couldn’t get any better.
The money helped too. She knew Bassey’s bonuses and allowances were what they lived on. His generous salary just kept piling up as savings.
Every now and then, he’d ask if she needed anything extra. Since he already gave her more than enough every month for housekeeping and her personal use, how could she, in good conscience, say that she did? Never having had lots of it growing up, she’d always been careful with money. Now that she herself earned a fairly comfortable wage as an assistant director in the civil service, she’d become richer than she’d ever thought possible.
Feeling restless, Imo palmed her phone and scrolled through Contacts.
Aisha. Ladylike and reserved. No drama. Yet something about the way Aisha smiled. As if it didn’t go beyond the face. No. Too much mystery helped nobody.
Beni. Very cute, very sensual, but also very drowned in guilt. Besides, being a Seventh Day Adventist and today being a Saturday, Beni would likely live, and probably die a little as well, in church.
Christy. Well put together and self-assured. A Lagos transplant who’d come to Abuja with big dreams, but that Lagos hustler attitude came across as abrasive and inconsiderate.
Didi. Classic hourglass figure. Flawless skin. Eyes like pearls. A bit of a screamer but ingenious sense of humour. The one Imo really let herself go with. In truth, she’d introduced Didi to Bassey so they could be free to be intimate at home without suspicion. Before then, they’d shared some great moments During Marilyn, sometimes even baby-sitting together. But right After Marilyn, Didi went cold and though Imo tried to understand, that didn’t lessen the agony of being rejected.
Still, Imo dialled now and waited. The phone rang then displayed, ‘No answer’.
Deflated, she shoved the phone aside. You don’t always get what you want, she thought. She picked up the seminar papers again and while poring over them, the drab academic rigmarole invoked a pimply-faced girl who had the hips and breasts of Miss Skinny but lacked the devil-may-care attitude.
Born into a house of books, dusty old tomes had apparently filled a parenting void for the girl. At twenty-three, the bookworm wore the sort of glasses more likely to perch on the nose of a professor of sixty. Yet a sincere naiveté defined the girl Imo had nicknamed Ajebutter.
She dialled. Ajebutter answered right away.
“Good morning, Clarissa.”
“My darling…” Imo regretted not rehearsing before calling. Having forgotten the girl’s real name, she hoped her voice sounded sexy enough. She made a mental note to remember to be ‘Clarissa’ to Ajebutter forever. But where had she gotten Clarissa? “Are you free? Can we get together?”
It never failed to amaze Imo when anybody asked that. If she wanted to see the girl next year, what would be the point in calling now?
“Yes, now. I miss you.” It didn’t come out right. Imo didn’t even believe herself. And the funny thing about it? She did miss the bookish girl.
“Why don’t you ever call except you want to see me?”
“Well…” Imo trailed off, wondering where she’d met the cocky girl.
“And when I want to talk to you your phone is always off, which means you’ve got another line that I don’t know about, which underscores how little I know about you.”
Imo remembered where she’d met the girl. Southern Fried Chicken. And Ajebutter rejected the money she’d offered afterwards. “You can ask me anything.”
“Alright, what do you do?”
Easy one, Imo decided. The truth always sufficed where a lie served no purpose. “I work at the Ministry of Culture.”
“Are you married?”
No, Imo flinched. This won’t do. “Come over and we’ll talk.”
“Aha! Another hotel. So you’re married.”
It seemed to Imo Ajebutter wouldn’t be coming her way. Then—
“Okay, where? And please get chips and eggs for me.”
Imo stretched out. Now that she’d ordered the girl, she could focus on Bassey.
Did she still want him to love her? She told herself not to be silly. Bassey did not not love her. He just didn’t come in many modes, the default one being ‘indifferent’. With him, there could never be ‘passionate’. ‘Compassionate’, sometimes, but beyond ‘dutiful’, he might as well have been ‘neutral’.
That Bassey got her pregnant with Marilyn when they rarely ever made love was a bit of a puzzle to Imo. She wondered how he would react if he learned she actually preferred girls. Probably wouldn’t react. She’d come to accept that he didn’t like making love. It seemed such things were beneath the level at which his interest-detector kicked in.
She was reasonably well off now. Should she leave him? She pawed a pillow. Who did she expect to answer the question? An empty hotel room?
Ajebutter arrived in a dull blouse and gauche baggy jeans that telegraphed little interest in fashion. Yet Imo winked gamely at the bespectacled girl.
Since she didn’t have much interest in food, Imo always marvelled at people who ate with the speed and relish that Ajebutter tucked her chips away. Then Ajebutter lit a cigarette and dragged. That jolted Imo like a hard slap. Go tell it on the mountain. She hadn’t figured the bookworm for a smoker.
Ajebutter coughed. The intensity told an Aha story.
Imo reached out for the cigarette. “You shouldn’t start when others are trying to quit. It’s no longer fashionable to burn your lungs away except you’re already a crazy music star.”
Ajebutter ignored Imo and dragged again.
Imo kept her hand aloft. “You’re already cool. You don’t need to impress me by killing yourself. Can’t you read the ‘liable to die young’ warning?”
Ajebutter blew smoke in Imo’s face. “If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another messiah.”
Imo looked askance at Ajebutter. “What?”
Ajebutter smirked. “If I choose to ‘burn my lungs away’ as you put it, that’s my choice. Don’t get self-righteous and try to ‘save’ me. Concentrate on saving you.”
Imo lowered her hand and appraised Ajebutter. Having books for parents would certainly make anyone a philosopher. It made perfect sense. Laughter seized her. Imo laughed so hard she might as well have been crying. She leaned forward and kissed Ajebutter. The girl blew smoke into Imo’s mouth. Imo inhaled and ran her fingers through Ajebutter’s braids. As they kissed, Imo closed her eyes, feeling light-headed. Then the smell of burning fabric ffilled the air. Imo pushed Ajebutter away and jumped off the bed.
A portion of the bedspread had caught fire from Ajebutter’s cigarette. Imo beat out the flames with a pillow, snatched the cigarette from Ajebutter. The girl fell off the bed looking small and vulnerable.
Imo pulled Ajebutter off the floor. “‘I’m sorry’ does no good after you start a fire.”
Ajebutter pitched forward and barfed.
No sooner had Imo helped Ajebutter clean up than the bookworm fell asleep. While it pleased her to see that the girl-philosopher hadn’t stopped being a mere girl, she couldn’t stop thinking of her wisecracks. Was she a fool for trying to save Bassey from his grief? Perhaps rather than attempt to make Bassey miss her, she simply needed to tell him the whole truth.
Several times when they’d been together During Marilyn, Didi had done everything she could do to make Imo quit smoking. Didi begged, cried, and wouldn’t share Imo’s bed. At last, Imo relented. Or at least she pretended to in order for Didi to get back with her. The thrill of the heady menthol high led Imo to devise more and more ingenious ways to fool Didi. Had Imo given up for real, a lit stub she’d hidden and forgotten in a small jewel pack when Didi dropped in unexpectedly wouldn’t have started the fire that she would never forget.
Saturday evening Imo scribbled Get yourself some proper clothes on a paper and left a thick wad of cash for Ajebutter before she left Kingdom Come.
Except for the market section, Utako slept in at the weekend. When Imo let herself into her home, the usual silence of the house greeted her. She trudged towards the master bedroom, still undecided about what constituted the whole truth she needed to tell Bassey. The door stood ajar and she heard a distinct voice in the throes of passionate lovemaking. Her heart faltered, and a sudden weariness descended on her, yet she inched forward until she could see Didi astride Bassey, grinding down.
Davina Owombre’s recent fiction appears at Gravel Magazine, Burrow Press Review, and Litro Magazine. Her printed work includes stories in Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction (MaThoko’s Books) and See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming (Better Non Sequitur). A finalist in Narrative Magazine and Glimmer Train contests, she’s also the sometimes-pseudonym of an African writer who tweets from the handle @dowombre.