It was only yesterday that my husband died. And I don’t think it is a shame that I’m happier in his absence. Before his death, he had been in a coma for four days, clutching tightly to his life but laying very calm on the hospital bed in a way I had never seen him before.
The morning after his burial, I sat in the living room. There was a long silence in the house and every other thing asides the lights and the paintings appeared dead. I placed my glass of whisky back on the stool, pushed aside a pack of cigarette and the ashtray. Then, I strolled around the house naked and moved to let the windows open wide and welcomed the sun in our home. The light was intimate with the house in a way I had never felt it before. Its rays encircled me and I reclined in its impenitent freedom. The air in the room was electric and it swirled in a romantic dance with the music, Sia’s Reaper that played in the background.
I felt the sadness in my eyes leave quietly, like a thief escaping through the back door. There had been enough sadness in my eyes for the whole of Downtown Manhattan to share and still be left with some to give the rest of New York. I took out my journal that had become my companion for all the hard times from the bookcase, tore out the thick covers and threw it into the fireplace.
My arms went out in the air and I laughed and laughed.
Picking up my phone again, I ordered a taxi via Lyft for J F Kennedy Airport and then put my last clothes in my bag. I was going to San Diego. I continued walking around the apartment but a little quietly to avoid waking Iris up. This house, our apartment in a condo on Sullivan Street, Greenwich Village, Lower Manhattan was where I had finally grown up. Its brash yet sophisticated finish felt modern and American. The home was sensual and embracing. The first time I followed Richie home, it was the dark hardwood floor and the eclectic array of paintings on the beige walls that reached me. I was not surprised. Greenwich Village was a home to a loose collection of writers, poets, musicians and artists. This home provided sensational calmness to a rather rapid Manhattan life.
I was a student at the New York University majoring in English, Dramatic Literature when I met him at a basketball match at Madison Square Garden. I had followed Cheng, my neighbour at Third Avenue North, to see a game after he had persuaded me. Richie’s physique made his towering height admirable. It had started over a bottle of coke. Cheng was lost in the game while I only smiled and played with my phone.”
“You don’t watch basketball, do you?” I smiled sheepishly, although also bothered that I was not making enough effort to look like I was interested in the game. I didn’t really know which team was playing. I was only trying to return a favour to Cheng who had followed me to see a performance at the theatre.”
“But it’s great you agreed to follow your Chinese boyfriend to the game. That’s pretty cool you know. I saw you two walk in.”
I wanted to tell him Cheng was not my boyfriend, but instead, I told him my name.
“My name is Kemi.”
He smiled “Nigerian?”
“I’m Richie. Nigerian.”
The way he said Nigerian, it was like he knew the consequence. New York University had the highest amount of international students in the country and this meant that mixing up could be fun, but one was very likely to drift towards one’s cultural circles wherever one could find them. There, I won’t have to explain everything I considered normal. I could also get to celebrate very wildly as I loved it, and might get invited for more fun parties in African-American owambes- parties with the careful mix of glamour and conservativeness. I could also get to see Adigun with his suit and abeti-aja. He sometimes went to the extent of drawing himself tribal marks. He called it the African tattoo, though he thought it could have been lent some artistry rather than being just straight parallel lines.
I easily warmed into Richie and soon we were sharing coffee at Madman Expresso. I loved their cinnamon cappuccino and doughnuts and he would always take Italian espresso. Sometimes we settled for listening to street musicians at the Washington Square Park. Slowly, and as much as we didn’t want to admit, we were seeing ourselves more often than not and began to really care about each other.
I discovered myself in this house- that is how I had chosen to describe every lesson that I learnt here. The first time his hand clapped against my cheeks, I called Aunty Gbemi and told her Richie beat me. She was surprised. But she told me to keep calm, that every marriage had its own problems; that I should forgive him and act like nothing happened. She said she would call him to warn him. How dare he touch my baby! She screamed before she hung up.
When we danced through the streets of New York, Aunty Gbemi was the first to know about it. She was quite excited about it.
“Kemi, you have done well. I was beginning to fear you were turning out like some of our girls here. They don’t get married… roaming the streets of America, and carrying their shoulders up. Too headstrong to keep their man and speaking American accent like they were born with it. Kemi, don’t be like them. They’d grow old and start fighting to get husband. Kemi, you know some of them even travel back to Nigeria to look for a husband. I heard one of them in the church that day; her New Year resolution was to get married. But you are wise and cultured and have been able to get the attention of a Nigerian man, a well to do one for that matter. Not those ones looking for marriage to validate their papers. You have not lost your impeccable upbringing for American swag. Nothing of that American boyfriend rubbish. Not like Tayo, she went to marry chinco’.
Aunty sounded like I was lucky to have him and was increasingly favoured to have found a Nigerian man who had the interest in marrying me. Even worse, she sounded like a husband was a heavenly gift without which a woman can be classified unfortunate. “Ha-ha! Aunty. I’d tell Tayo. She’d be furious with you!” Tayo now lived in L.A. with her husband. Her new name made me laugh- Tayo Shi Rong. I could not just pronounce it right.
“If you like, be like her. I was beginning to think you will also marry that chinco friend of yours! What is with you people and chinco. Chai! You would have killed me. How would a black Chinese look, I don’t want to imagine”.
“But the men are guilty, Aunty mi. I think many of them are scared. They can’t stand our progress. Lola has found it difficult to get a man since she started her doctorate. She once considered stopping so she could find a husband but she decided not to do so. She said she would not stop her education for some chauvinistic men of low self-esteem. Some of those men are afraid we would be costly to maintain. Aunty mi, can you imagine? It’s like they think they are coming to save us from perishing hunger. And why is the worth of a woman determined by how well she can prepare Egusi, aunty mi?”
But Aunty Gbemi had already hung up. These were the times when I really enjoyed talking to Aunty Gbemi. I quite understood what she was saying. Many Nigerian ladies in America appeared to be less humble than the Nigerian men wanted them to be. Some had very strong personalities and easily thought themselves as equal to, or higher than our men. Nigerian men don’t like it, they find it nauseating for a woman to think she was their equal. They are not courageous enough to put up with that behaviour and their ego was too much to allow them to overlook it. That is why they return home to find a real Nigerian girl, someone who is more submissive and will be saying Yessah! Yessah! up and down- someone that has not known any man. Someone who will worship them, sprinkle their ego with fertilizer and offer sexual rendezvous at their behest. So I did not pity Chikwendu, when his village wife dumped him in America and disappeared with another man after getting her American papers.
Some of those men were also just looking for European women to marry so they could be legal occupants of the country. Because of this and other things, there were a lot of Nigerian women in US who could not find a husband from Nigeria. Some like Tayo had resorted to marrying Asians, Arabs or Jews or anybody who do not find them arrogant, non-submissive, disrespectful, argumentative or unfaithful.
Aunty Gbemi was my late father’s sister. Ever since he died, she had not left my side. She catered for most of my needs and still acted like we were friends. She was very humorous, although superstitious. She had only returned to Lagos a few times.
“I warned your father! He was fraternizing too much with those people. I told him to stay here in America and enjoy his life. He can at best create a foundation and send them money. He wanted to go and do politics in Nigeria. I heard it with my ears. They said he cannot use American money to come and intimidate them.”
My father died in a plane crash with mum when he began to intensify his political ambitions. He had told me; it is good to return home to help them with what you’ve learnt. But since he died, Aunty Gbemi had restricted my travel to Nigeria to just two times. She told me, don’t force change on people who don’t want it, and that she cared too much for me to be killed by one woman’s red-taped padlock and key like she watches in Yoruba movies on Youtube. She had taken ownership of my care and I too found a companion in her.
So when I told her that Richie beat me for the first time. She was really furious. She called Richie as promised. But then, I had to beg Richie later on, after he accused me of bringing a third party to our home affairs.
I did not want to appear like what he and many other men perceived Nigerian women living in America. So I listened to his bitter words and said nothing except sorry. I was sorry for everything. And there, the list of things I was sorry for grew. I was sorry for not cleaning up his mess too quickly. I was sorry for eating less and looking like I was underfed. I was sorry he was disinterested in the new painting he paid a lot of money for. I was sorry I gave birth to our baby daughter, Iris, especially when companies began downsizing and cutting salaries. I was sorry Iris ate too much. I was sorry she cried at night. I was sorry I was too tired cleaning the house and taking care of Iris I was not ready for sex when he wanted it. I was sorry when he raped me and was even more sorry that he had to do so. I was sorry for looking less beautiful in all of these. I was sorry I cried too loudly when he hit him. I was sorry I asked if I could go back to school and looked like I wanted to run away. I was sorry I asked him if he still loved me anymore. I panicked when I hear his steps in the hallway. I knew I was losing my mind.
And when he talked to his mother, she said she warned him. That she had already told him to come and pick up a real Nigerian girl. When I tried to tell Richie that I was doing all my best to make him happy. He would laugh hysterically.
My journal became a close companion. It was a gift from Cheng during our wedding. I wrote very boldly, HE BEAT ME, I’M HELPLESS on the first page. And it led the series of writing in that book. It was the only thing I spoke to after I stopped telling Aunty Gbemi about the things he did to me.
Her replies had become hackneyed.
“I’m really sorry. I would call him. I will pray for you two, Kemi. Richie is not that kind of man. It’s the devil. But you can’t let the devil win. Kemi, we have to keep praying. We must not let the devil win. Were ni Richie o… but the devil will not win. You have a child now, Kemi. If not for anything else, you should stay for the child, it is bad for a child to grow up in a broken home. Kemi we have to pray and be patient.”
The last time Richie hit me, his eyes were fierce and he looked like he would murder me if he had the chance. I had told him he needed to spend more time at home, for his family, that he spent too much time outside the house and was beginning to take too much alcohol. He got angry. But this time, I was not willing to say sorry. He was infuriated. The argument heated up and he hit me again. I stood there without moving. It was different for him. I would normally fall and weep and beg him. And he would continue to hit me very hard. I’d lay on the cold floor and later crawl into the bed.
He continued to hit me. I called him a coward who could only beat a woman. When he hit me again, I hit him back. He was shocked. I felt his ego take a brutal battering. He ran towards the kitchen but as he approached the kitchen, he slipped and hit his head on the floor. He let out a huge cry.
I thought of different things as I stood there. I could reach for the sauce pan, hit him on his head and beat him with all my strength. I could gorge his eyes out and stab him. But I sat down there and watched him suffer. A few hours later, I called an ambulance to come to pick him after he had passed out. He would never return home again.
The music stopped playing.
I called Aunty Gbemi that I was going to San Diego for a getaway.
“Kemi, what are you going to do in San Diego. Your husband just died. You should mourn him. Ma so mi lenu, omo yii. What are you turning into…”
I left the receiver on the table while she talked, picked up Iris from her carrier and walked out of the house with all sense of victory and like a bird set free. I felt the warmth of the sunshine cuddle my skin, took a deep breath and approached the car that waited for me.
‘Hi, I’m Alfred.’
I smiled and replied with all ecstasy.
‘Nice to meet you, Alfred. Please take me to the airport’.