There is a pot of water on the kitchen stove, the new one. Te’ele will use it to boil rice and realize when she tastes it that she forgot to add salt. She won’t mind, where is her appetite anyway? It’s 7pm and her husband is not home yet. She has turned off the television so she can hear when her phone rings or when he honks at the gate but neither has happened and the steady hum from the generator has begun to creep under her skin.
It would be fine on any other day. Even for a Saturday when they usually have to send their daughter, Ima, to her mother’s so they can have some alone time. It would be fine on any other day (Elkan is known to miss things). But today, in the morning, she saw a leather band on his wrist. Elkan never wore Jewelry. Not wristwatches, not the gold chain she got him on his birthday. Not his wedding band. They made him uncomfortable, irritated his skin. But today, in the morning, she saw a leather band on his wrist.
Te’ele had always been keenly observant—especially of her men. It was something she learned from her mother through years and years of studying her parents, until the day her father left them for his ex-wife. Te’ele knew Bayo had a child, a five year old son with the woman he claimed to be his cousin. She knew Malcolm had glaucoma, even though he was careful to peel off the labels on his eye drops. She knew Oris would drive her to yawning in bed—there was an unattractive laziness to the way he fondled her breasts. And she had always walked away before the need arose to confront any of their messes. But Elkan was different. Elkan was the one she fell in love with. He was the one she married.
It was his laughter, how she saw it before it poured through his mouth, how it was always a little too loud, how it echoed in her chest. It was his wide feet, the way his toes were almost the same length, so that it looked like he stood on two isosceles triangles. It was the way he kissed her goodbye on her neck. Te’ele loved Elkan with the kind of love that changed people, that made them complacent.
Then one morning, when Ima was still a restless foetus in her belly, she woke up to her husband sitting in front of the mirror, with her make-up kit spread before him in an exhibition.
“Baby, what are you doing?” she asked him, her voice heavy from sleep.
“They are looking for me.”
He told her the governor had a list of citizens that were a threat to his office. That he was on that list and plans had already been put in motion to get rid of him; all his family members were in on it. They were not to be trusted. Nowhere was safe. He would disguise himself and escape on an 11 am flight to an undisclosed country. She would join him once it was safe. Te’ele tried to take it seriously then tried to find it funny, she attempted to laugh but there was a dry lump in her throat. There was something about the way Elkan fidgeted in the chair, buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt, with sweat highlighting his forehead. There was a look in his eyes. Something was wrong.
“Let me call Umar.” Umar and Elkan have been friends since playgroup.
“No! Don’t call Umar. Don’t call anybody. I can only trust you.” He looked at her dubiously. He was not sure of that either. “Just… don’t call anyone.”
He applied the lipstick with shaky hands. Arese; it was the matte-purple lipstick he got her because he liked the name. Don’t panic, she said to herself as he upended her box of clothes and picked out a blue buba and wrapper. Don’t panic, she said to herself as he searched through his backpack, getting out a flight ticket. Don’t panic, she said to herself, looking at the ticket and seeing that it was to Australia. Australia. She tucked her phone into her shorts and told him she needed to tend to something downstairs.
“Umar, where are you?” she whispered, trying to measure the amount of worry she let on.
“On my way to work. Why?”
“Please come to our house now. Something’s up with Elkan.”
“Is he all right?”
“Just come, Umar. Please.”
“Ok. I’m on my way.”
About twenty minutes later, they were in Umar’s car, hurrying to Sky Memorial, the hospital she would later be wheeled into to have Ima; where she would hold up the feet of her squirming two-point-eight kilogram baby and recognize the isosceles triangles, where she would have the first of many photos of father, mother and child taken. But this trip to the hospital was different. Elkan had settled for her yellow kaftan. Te’ele was in the back with him, trying to assure him that he was safe, that she was on his side, trying to force down a scream. Umar had beaten four red lights.
After they had gone past traffic, curious stares and a police officer that insisted she prove her marriage to Elkan, her husband was finally asleep in one of the private wards upstairs.
Dr. Bello was a small man in an oversized chair that creaked as he swung in it—which was often. He had ears so thin, so very thin, they would flap in the wind. Under different circumstances, Te’ele might have found the sight of him funny. She sat, unmoving; in his office hoping her smile was enough to hide her apprehension.
“Do you love him?”
“Yes I do—very much.”
“It’s good you do. You’ll need it, and patience. A lot of patience.” He offered her a cold can of Malta, Te’ele has never liked Malta. “It’s a life-long condition and he may not always be the most co-operative.”
He told her Elkan was mentally ill, explaining her husband’s illness in overflowing detail; saying patience too many times. It was ample temptation to throw her drink in his face whenever he said it. He didn’t know what he was talking about, it couldn’t possibly be. Not with Elkan. Not with them.
About two years into their relationship, Elkan’s father died. His heart failed in the early hours of morning and he never made it to the hospital. Elkan was at her apartment when the news came; they were redecorating her room with the walls wet and mauve.
Elkan had proposed to Te’ele the week before and was beside himself with excitement. They would finally become husband and wife; she would stand between him and his father for their family photo. His father would be proud.
She accompanied him home and to the hospital and to the village when it was time for the funeral. Elkan would squeeze her hand a bit too tight and hold her a bit too close at night and stare at photographs of his father all day. He would say very little and eat very little and whenever she told him it would be okay, he would smile and nod.
It was Elkan who held his mother in a soothing embrace on the day of the funeral service, when it seemed her crying would break her. It was he who gave the eulogy in church when she could not bring herself to walk up to the lectern. It was he who organized the family for a group photo and later took Te’ele out for dinner at an unnamed restaurant with a wooden sign that read Food is Ready; where he held her face in his hands and caressed her heart with his eyes and asked her if she was okay.
That Elkan was strong, he was put together. That Elkan couldn’t possibly be bipolar.
“How could this have happened?” she asked.
“Well, one can’t say exactly, it could be anything.” He went through his folder front to back, back to front. “Do you know of anyone in the family with mental illness?”
“You can’t remember a time he was particularly stressed?”
“No. Not really.”
“Has this happened before?”
“No. Never. I have never seen him like this.”
He handed her forms, questionnaires, and prescriptions. She put them in her bag in silence, searching through her memory for a time when his behavior was ever unusual.
“That’s it for now,” he rose from his chair, “but there is nothing God cannot do.”
In Elkan’s room, he was still asleep. Umar was in the chair beside his bed, he had dozed off. Te’ele stood by the door, watching the slow rise and fall of her husband’s chest, he was beautiful. He was her Elkan. She wasn’t sure who he would be when he woke up.
It was a different man she took home, he was withdrawn, smaller. She wanted to tease him about his nose hairs and how they always hang outside his nose. She wanted him to kiss her on her neck. She wanted so badly for everything to be like before. But no.
She got out his bag of medicines and offered him his pills with a bottle of room temperature water.
Elkan comes and goes, so the times she has him, she tries to keep him for as long as possible. She prolongs these times and documents them, in photos taken at dinner, by a stranger who tries to hide his impatience while she asks for a few extra shots; in videos of them watching TV with Ima sitting in his lap, putting her colour pencil up his nose, and funny stories with friends as she watches for his laughter, to know when exactly it begins before she hears it. She makes him into a medal she wears wherever she goes.
She has remembered to be observant, to look out for unusual things; habits, behaviors—like wearing a wrist band. She has learned to know when these moments are drawing to an end. To brace herself. For Te’ele, observance has rolled into suspicion, so she constantly holds Elkan to her mind’s magnifier. She listens when she hears him talking to be sure he isn’t talking to himself, she knocks on the door when he has been in the bathroom for too long, she takes time to look into his eyes whenever she is with him—just to be sure. She has learnt that knowing beforehand makes it less heartbreaking.
Te’ele has called Elkan eight times on each of his lines but he hasn’t answered any and he has been gone since morning. She has called everyone she knows to call and even considered borrowing her neighbour’s car to go find him. But to where? Besides Te’ele has overheard her too many times talking with her other neighbor, the round-faced nurse, about things that should not concern them. Do you know that the Onoches are going through a divorce? I went to see my friend at his firm last week and they were there—he’s a divorce attorney. I was at the pharmacy yesterday when Mr. Toryila came to buy a pack of condoms—and his wife is not even in town. I heard that boy, Teslim, has an addiction problem, that’s why he’s so thin and withdrawn. I’m sure it’s cocaine. Te’ele does not want to be talked about, so she keeps calling.
She knows it is important to keep his condition private. She learned that in a book, Living With The Bipolar, where she also learned to hide the car keys whenever he starts to get paranoid and talk about leaving the country. And to smile a lot, but not too much so he doesn’t feel patronized. She would highly recommend the book but she does not know anyone else in her shoes. Te’ele has learned to read a lot and now reads too much. The brain and the mind have become an obsession for her. She wants to get it, to enter into his mind and familiarize herself with it, to find a way to keep him for good. She also wants to keep herself from thinking. That would mean remembering how they used to be. That would mean loss.
Before the books, Te’ele didn’t know much besides medication and trips to the hospital—and waiting. So his episodes usually came rudely, meeting her unprepared; like the time with the blue dress. His sister, Ettima, had just finished from fashion school and was overflowing with excitement and the need to just create. Elkan had gotten her to make a dress for Te’ele. It was a beautiful blue dress that caressed her curves and stopped where it touched her knees. Elkan had always liked the dress; he liked to stroke the row of buttons at the back when he walked with her. The dress made him picture making love to her at sea.
Elkan had always liked the dress but one morning, Te’ele woke up to find it in shreds. He had put her scissors to it and cut it in tiny pieces, like confetti. She tried not to scream as she looked at her dress in blue bits, as he accused her of cheating. That she got the dress from her lover. That it was a different blue from the one he got her. That this one didn’t make him think of sex at sea. She wanted to understand, to remind herself: This is not really him doing this. It’s just a dress anyway. I love my husband.
She has however, learned not to believe or practice everything she reads. Especially not from Dr. Ulrich, the psychologist that wrote about sex therapy. He wrote so confidently about intimacy and it’s positive effects on mental illness. She then realized she had not had sex with her husband in months. Initially it was that she was more concerned about his health, then it was the baby, then she just didn’t know how to.
She got back from work and dropped Ima off at her mother’s. Elkan was in the bedroom watching a football game. It was one of those times when he was extremely quiet, almost timid. She got in bed with her husband. The game had just ended and Arsenal lost to Chelsea 1-0.
“Who won?” she asked, even though she had seen the scores.
“Chelsea,” he said, his gaze still fixed on the screen.
“That referee was biased.”
The silence that followed left Te’ele stranded. She did not know how to proceed so she kissed him. And he kissed her back. Tentatively, like a school boy that was unsure of himself, sure he wasn’t getting it right, then with passionate urgency, his hands removing all that was in their way, exploring her body, reminding her, promising her.
“I love you,” she said to his chest when her breath finally returned to her.
“How could you?”
“Why would you do that?”
“Do what?” she couldn’t recall doing anything wrong.
He was sniffing, rocking back and forth with his head in his hands. He had begun to cry. She had begun to cry. He went into the bathroom and started to bang on something. She did not know what to do. Bang-bang bang-bang. She knocked on the door and begged him to come out. Bang-bang bang-bang. She waited. Bang-bang bang-bang. She went to the guest room and stayed up all night and the following morning made sure to burn Dr. Ulrich’s book with a resolve to never read him again.
By 9pm, her ears will have muffled the sound of the generator and the silence will drive her to restlessness. She will walk round the house and enter every room. She will end up in their bedroom where she will sit in bed and open her laptop. She will play the most recent video she has of them. They are at City Park and Elkan is climbing a mango tree. Ima is below him, skipping circles round the tree on a cushion of fallen fruit and leaves. Te’ele will watch her, the beads in her hair catching the light as they swing left and right. Te’ele now knows how to replay and memorize her happiness, to deliberately forget other things, like her fear that she is slowly losing her husband, that Ima takes after her father in more ways than his triangular feet.
Aishat Abiri (@ ) lives in Abuja where she writes and looks for ways to reclaim her social life. She blogs for olisa.tv and of her many short stories, one was shortlisted for the 2017 Awele Creative Trust Award while another was published in the Ake Review (vol. 3). In the nearest future, she plans to pursue a career in music. Seriously.
Related country: Nigeria
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