Friday, November 6, 2015

The Black Widow

Black Widow
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Ndubuisi and I argued over my tardiness. Sure, he had mentioned his colleague’s wedding last week and I had agreed to accompany him at the time, but this morning I felt differently. Thoughts of engaging in frivolous talks with snooty people I barely knew, or watching him brag about his latest court case left me feeling lethargic.

What eventually got the multi-colored covers off my body was Granma Adaeze’s saw about keeping promises: ‘The ability to keep and respect an unenforceable agreement was a measure of a person’s character.’

“But I told you the service was for 11am,” Ndubuisi whined after I let him in. “With the crazy traffic, it will be over before we get there.”

A large, fluffy towel wrapped my nakedness like a cocoon as I stood akimbo in front of the wardrobe, deciding on an outfit. “And you haven’t even chosen a dress. Unbelievable,” he murmured testily, marching off to the kitchen when I ignored his protestations. My choice narrowed to a simple black, tea-length dress with a plunging back and a short, metallic gold dress.

“You know it’s a wedding not a funeral, right?” Ndubuisi said as we walked to his car.

“Colors are blank slates we fill with our own subjective meanings,” I replied, slipping on the six-inch silver stilettoes I had just spared from scraping between misaligned interlocking stones. Two destroyed pumps were enough advice to not wear heels until I got in the car.

Not prepared to argue, Ndubusi sighed deeply and started the car. I applied pink lipstick, smacked my lips and peered out my window. No words were exchanged between us as we drove to the Muson centre on Lagos Island for the reception.

The parking lot was adorned with an assortment of SUVs, Mercedes, Hondas, BMWs and small groups of people laughing too generously and talking too loudly. A stench of pretentiousness—the kind Ndubuisi inhaled effortlessly—hung thickly in the hot, midday air like fog on a Harmattan morning.

No sooner had we stepped out of the car than a desperate and sweaty photographer ambushed us. “A beautiful photo for a beautiful couple,” he wheedled with naked flattery. I was going to decline his services but Ndubuisi threw his arm around my shoulder, pulling me closer to his side. We smiled and a tiny, red light blinked three times. Then Ndubuisi slid his hand to the small of my back, leading me towards the reception hall.

Because the wedding was a crème de la crème affair, admission into the hall was strictly by invitation. Two thick-necked, no-nonsense bouncers flanked its entrance, inspecting IVs and turning away professional gate-crashers with nothing better to do on a Saturday. One of such gate-crashers was bad-mouthing the bride to another uninvited guest on the steps.

Mtchew. Imagine this girl that used to beg for cabin biscuit in secondary school. Now she feels too big because her dad is a senator, eh?” she hissed bitterly.

“Don’t mind all these politicians’ children,” consoled her friend. “They forget their fathers are common criminals. The only difference between them and the ones in jail is that they have the blessings of pastors and the support of Nigerians.”

The hall was resplendent and vaguely fragrant. Thick clusters of real violets and lavenders enveloped the aisle arches from end to end, and sat regally in slender glass vases on each table. The ceiling was adorned with swoops of purple fabric and ornate chandeliers that sparkled brilliantly. Half the guests had arrived when we took our seats next to two couples Ndubuisi knew. The two women eyed me cautiously before one broached a question the other three were thinking, but dared not ask.

“Black. That’s a rather odd color to wear to a wedding,” said Christina, a heavily made-up, bleached-out-dark-knuckled woman in her late 20s. She was a visual assault of luridness in her ill-fitting, bright red bandage dress and matching lipstick.

 “What makes it odd?” I asked, feigning ignorance. Ndubuisi cleared his throat, a signal that I ignore the bait.

“Well, it’s a wedding,” she replied in a mutilated American accent. “And black is sombre and doesn’t portend well. It’s—,”

“Oh, I get it,” I cut in. “Black is morose and dirty. White is pure and virginal—as it’s expected of the bride, but not of the groom. And red… red is passionate and dangerous. But it also signifies sexual desire.” My words were punctuated with sarcasm. “Should I keep a close eye and a tight leash on Ndubuisi, then?”

Ndubusi winced, while the rest laughed uncomfortably at what they interpreted as crassness. Crass or not, it ended any further talk about my color of choice. Conversation turned to stories about the lives of high profile guests present, further devolving into football talk for the man and ‘which designer such-and-such was wearing’ and ‘how lucky this woman was to be married to that moneyed man’ chatter for the women. In a bid to relieve boredom, I whipped out my Blackberry and began typing away, knowing I would not be missed from their idle prattle.

Several minutes later, voices began whispering exuberantly, “They’re here. They’re here,” as heads turned towards the main door in anticipation of the bridal party’s entrance. Loudspeakers, which until now had been softly playing slow jams, blasted the remix of P-Square’s Chop My Money without any consideration for eardrums. It was the musical cue for the bride and groom’s triumphant entry. They danced energetically on the violet monogrammed aisle runner, raising their hands and swiftly sliding one palm over the other. Their entourage followed closely behind, mimicking the couple’s dance step.

The bride was a picture of feminine sophistication in an off-white, custom-made Monique Lhullier ball gown with a sweetheart neckline that exposed a whisper of cleavage. Her diamond earrings and decadent wedding ring sparkled seductively at the slightest of movements, complementing her bright smile.

As with the details of her dress, I also gleaned from women at my table that her shoes were Louboutin. Or as they insisted on calling them, ‘Loubs’—a contraction I suspected stemmed from fear of butchering the designer’s name. Meanwhile, the groom, not to be outdone, looked equally dashing in his Hugo Boss tux, lavender bow tie and black Louboutin shoes. His smile radiated warmth.

“Money is good o. Money is good,” chanted Christina, ogling the bride with her entire being.

“It is o,” concurred her bland-faced friend. “Spending 15 M on a wedding is not beans. But since both their fathers are senators, the money must have been chicken change.” Then in a whisper she continued, “Hmm, I hope to find my Mr. Right here.” 
 
They giggled like piglets.

“Ah, but Dorcas, what about…,” Christina’s eyes diverted to her friend’s date.

A sneer contorted Dorcas’ face. “Somebody is being serious, and you’re busy bringing that one up. Mtchew. Mind yasef o. I’m not here to play.”

They giggled some more. “I trained you well,” her friend said slyly as we rose for the opening prayers.

                                                                 ***

We were into the main course of spaghetti bolognaise when I got drawn into the table discussion. It had begun with Ndubuisi’s snarky remarks about his colleague not taking on her husband’s surname.

“I don’t see that as a problem,” I countered casually, my gaze focussing on twirling spaghetti round my fork.

“What do you mean it’s not a problem?” Samuel, Christina’s date, asked in a pseudo British accent. “The Bible says the man leaves his home to take a wife, and the two become one. How else would couples show they’re united if the wife doesn’t bear her husband’s name?”

“Taking on a spouse’s surname isn’t about marital unity.” I held up a finger to prevent Ndubuisi from interrupting me. “It’s about power. That’s why men don’t change theirs. This ritual, this change of surname business is a mark of control and ownership. It’s a stamp on the woman to say ‘she’s mine’, in the same way slave owners did with hot iron.”

Gasps of horror escaped from the ladies’ mouths, a normal reaction to what was deemed un-African, and therefore heretic.

“How can you say that?” grimaced Dorcas, offended. “I disagree.”

I shrugged off her remark. “I’m of the opinion that what is good for the lion should also be good for the lioness. If a man truly loves you, it shouldn’t be an affront to him that you want to preserve a piece of personal history.”

“First you wear black to a wedding, then you advocate that married women retain their maiden name,” Priye, Dorcas’ date, said in a dismissive tone. “What’s next, men doing housework?” Though his tortoise-shell rimmed glasses gave him a professorial mien, he sounded intellectually lazy and incapable of original thoughts. “And may I remind you,” he gestured with his fork, “that men are the head of the family, not women.”

“Only if he’s the more intelligent of the two, which isn’t always the case,” I argued. “And last I checked, testosterone didn’t confer intelligence. Brawns may have worked wonders in the bush, but brains,” I paused, tapping my temple with a finger, “rule the modern world.”

Ndubuisi rolled his eyes and shook his head like I had spoken a forbidden language. “Look, the idea that women take on their husband’s name is our culture. And even if it isn’t, the Bible prescribes it.”

The others nodded in agreement like Agama lizards. Like a game of basketball, the women had faded into the background of the conversation, animated only when they thought the men scored an argument point.

 “Can you quote the verse where it was prescribed, because I’m skeptical it exists. Also, you shouldn’t mention our culture and the Bible in one breath.”

Confusion flickered over the faces at the table.

“Christianity isn’t our culture, but we’ve grown to accept it. And that’s because culture mutates to suit the prevailing zeitgeist. If it didn’t, my twin cousins wouldn’t be alive today.” I took a sip of water from my glass. “Secondly, no one follows the Bible to the letter, or you men wouldn’t dare shave your side-burns.”

“Oh, please, that’s Old Testament stuff,” scoffed Samuel, exposing the reddish bolus in his mouth. “Christians are more attuned to the New Testament.”

Ndubuisi touched the air with a finger. “My sentiments exactly.”

“If those are your sentiments,” I said snidely, pinning Ndubuisi with my eyes, “then we shouldn’t be fucking.”

A tomb-like silence fell over the table, only to be swept away by nervous laughter. Ndubuisi and I did not laugh. Instead we smiled at each other from across the table: He with embarrassment and annoyance; I with self-satisfaction. Clearly, my remark had exposed his and everyone else’s hypocrisy.

                                                                ***


 “You’ve been acting strange lately. What’s with the attitude?” Ndubuisi said in an irritated tone, as he opened the door of his house. “Is it your period?” Normally, such a flippant comment would have riled me, but not today.

We walked past the grey foyer into the sun drenched living room—an oxymoronic contrast to the impending mood. Our relationship had become a festering boil, a parasite that needed to be purged before it sapped my essence and left behind nothing but a visible body; a soulless silhouette. Disenchantment had long eaten every rose petal of contentment, exposing the ugly, prickly stems of an onerous and unfulfilling partnership. The kind whose death surely promised life and clarity.

“I cheated on you.” It was a statement said with a calm defiance. Sex with Bode had been my penance for pretending to be someone else, for denying myself of the things I wanted and for apologizing for who I was. It heralded a new start on a blank slate. So this confession, or rather disclosure was not about fluffing pillows for my conscience at night, no, it was about ungagging the fat lady. And also, to a lesser degree, I wanted to experience schadenfreude; I wanted to draw blood—and that I achieved.

There was a lull after I spoke. It was a calculated move on Ndubuisi’s part to allow for a retraction of words; a pause to let me say I had been joking. When that did not happen, Ndubuisi spoke.

“You know, I always knew you were something of a whore,” His words were razor sharp, carrying with it undercurrents of righteous anger and bitterness. Ndubuisi’s ability to speak in a measured tone when angry was not his trademark. It was eerie watching him remain composed. “Good thing my mom convinced me last month not to propose to you.” 

His first comment was an admission of a lacerated ego. Cunt, bitch, whore and bossy were easy straws men—who could not tolerate the unafraid, unbounded, self-determined woman—grasped at to soothe their pride. The second one was a puerile remark, masking as a tit for tat suited for the woman whose sole existence depended on getting married. In his mind, I was the stray, hungry dog that had squandered its luck by biting the man who would have rescued it.

But his words meant nothing. In our three years together, never did I think we would survive eternity like comfort and joy. But I stuck with him for the semblance of stability our relationship provided, for the assurance that the ground would not cave in on me after Mom’s passing. The fear of losing love again drove me to find solace in an imitation of it. With Ndubuisi, I had pursued a safe venture with minimal risk.

            “I’m not a whore,” I said with the quiet confidence of a woman who had rediscovered herself. “And just so we’re clear, marriage was never in our future—your mom would have never allowed it. And eventually, you would have giving in to her.”

The truth must have jarred Ndubuisi’s nerves because he lunged at me, viciously caging my face with his fingers, slamming me against the wall. His fingers dug into my skin, his breathing was heavy and erratic. “You bitch,” he spat over and over again. Then as unexpectedly as he had pounced on me, he released his grip.

“Take your things and get out of my house.” His choked words bore the emotions of an army general forced to concede defeat. Head bowed, he pressed his clenched fists against the black, granite dining table, as if to stop himself from striking something or someone.


As I rolled my suitcase towards the waiting taxi, all I felt was his murderous glare clawing my back.