When Rumor and her constantly wagging tongue had it that Obinna was cheating on his wife of three months with a nameless, faceless, seventeen-year-old with agbalumos for breasts, everyone blamed the bad sex.
Had to be.
Could not be the attitude. Our Wife was just the sweetest.
A little too sweet if you ask Mama Ibeji, but Mama Ibeji is never satisfied with anyone or anything.
Mama Ibeji says that Our Wife is always curtsying till her knocked knees sink into the earth, and always waving till her lined palms are a blur, and always asking how she can be of assistance––like an over-eager house help trying to pacify her ill-tempered madam––even though Mama Ibeji has told Our Wife that she never needs help, that the heavens forbid the day that she, an able-bodied woman with two working hands, starts to need help.
And as if Our Wife is not a-little-too-sweet enough, Mama Ibeji says that Our Wife is always buying sweets for the neighborhood kids.
And not just any-and-any sweets.
Oyibo to the bone, their rainbow wrappers still carrying the decadent aroma of the overhead compartment of a Delta aircraft, their fraying price tags still screaming Walmart, still jeering at those of us who cannot afford to stone our little rascals’ longer-throats with Hershey’s, and Ferrero-whatever-it’s-called, and every other tongue twister that exists to spite us.
If we didn’t know better, we would say that Our Wife wants our children to bite their tongues, or the hands that feed them.
You see, Our Wife’s are the type of sweets that leave the tongue heavy with want––our children’s want as they stare at their feet after yet another rice and stew supper, our want as we stare at the men in our beds and curse our hearts for saying yes to lives where other halves do not press caramel against our tongues. We betray ourselves for growing tired of kulikuli and choco-milo, and maybe Mama Ibeji is right, just this once. Maybe Our Wife is a little too sweet.
We are starting to think Our Wife is a sin.
And Mama Chinedu is a firm believer in Chi, and Alusi, and Sango, and (all thanks to her two-year American education at a community college in downtown Houston) Athena, and asking for permission before you give anything edible to Emeka, her crown-prince of a son, and can you blame her? You cannot. Not when you live in a community like ours, crawling with herbalists, and ritualists, and paedophil-ists. Ha.
And isn’t it a respect thing? We like Our Wife, yes. How can we not like a woman that sweeps the leaves off our front porches with the brightest of smiles. But let me ask this one question. Who is Our Wife to dictate the sweets our rascals eat? Will Our Wife foot the dental bills when we drag those ewus to the dentist to fill cavities that leave gaping holes in our bank accounts? Does she not care about our poor hearts? Can she not use her four eyes and foresight to see that we are starting to remind our children that Our Wife is not their mother?
Mama Ibeji and Mama Chinedu cannot stomach Our Wife. Come to think of it, our guts are hurting too.
We must blame the bad sex.
Because men like Obinna have a sweet tooth, a rotting thing that sinks into fleshy bosoms and samples the parts of our anatomies we still censor, and it cannot be her face. Our Wife’s face is even more yellow than papaya. It is an even yellow, a freshly ground, Imo-yellow. Sister Biola says that if the yellow comes from bleaching cream, it must be one of those high-end bleaching creams that a woman can only obtain if she has a man with a bottomless wallet. The type to go by euphemisms like toning cream, and whitener, and do-it-yourself.
And Akudo who is always chastising everybody, and sucking her teeth, and squeezing her face, says that we must stop spreading all these bleaching rumors because she has seen Our Wife’s baby pictures and Our Wife was even yellower at birth. That Our Wife’s three siblings and parents are just as Imo-yellow as she is, that this yellow is her blood.
Nor can it be Our Wife’s body. Our Wife has a big, fat ikebe that swings from East to West when she moves her thighs, and she moves her thighs a lot. We are starting to think that she moves her thighs on purpose, and is this provocation? Does she live for the steel in our gaze? She does.
That ikebe is still on our mind. It is not one of those igneous rocks that don’t respond to slaps. No. It jiggles and jiggles. Chekwube swears that the ikebe swings when Our wife sleeps. We are starting to think that the ikebe is its own woman. She swells up to be twice her usual size during our weekly neighborhood meetings, and once a week she shares a space with all our husbands, including Oga Kunle the drunk who has confessed, time and time again, that fat ikebes are his weakness.
We are starting to clutch our chaplets.
Some of us are suggesting that the men leave us out of those meetings if it would leave Our Wife and her ikebe out of their sight and isn’t it a man’s role to attend meetings anyway? We are starting to suggest that we should scrap the meetings altogether because come to think of it, a banana republic poses less danger than Our Wife’s ikebe beneath our husbands’ eyes.
Our Wife giggles with all her chest, and throat, and cheeks when she hears our suggestions, as if the suggestions and their owners are a joke, but the joke is on her.
Her giggles are fluty bursts of air bubbles that pierce through our voices, allowing our curious eyes ample time to study the science of her yellow, the red on her lips, the glitter on her nails, the beads around her ankles, the rounds of her breasts, the designers hanging off her appendages.
Our bodies sense designers. They pick out a Hermes scarf from Ankara, detect the thin wisps of Yves Saint Laurent in the air. And all the while, she giggles. Like in God she trusts. Like we serve a lesser god.
But there is nothing wrong with Ankara. We all wear it on Fridays. We all demand that our tailors prioritize our desires for styles straight off the middle pages of City People.
No, it can never be less than.
At least, that is what Papa Folusho says. Even though some of us suspect that he only says that because he is too lazy to earn a decent enough living to treat Mama Folusho to the opposite of bend-down-select. But we would not know because our home training would not let us challenge Papa Folusho, and it must be the bad sex.
Women like our wife are perfect from head to toe. Their sun shines through flesh so unlike ours (wrinkled like a Meishan pig), and ours (blue-black from afternoons spent in Balogun market). But we serve a living God who sees beyond the physical realm and that explains why Mma saw Our Wife in a dream. In the dream, Our Wife was as dusky as shoe polish, the intonation on her tongue as Igbo as pointy shoes and belt buckles, and maybe Our Wife is bleaching after all.
But that is neither here nor there.
People like Our Wife (too perfect on paper), like Our Wife (speaking through their nostrils, and carrying wet wipes in their purses, and painting their finger nails, and flossing their teeth, and wearing eye masks before bed, and cutting lemons in their water, and . . .), are the ones who lie down on raffia and throw their legs apart, and squeeze their foreheads and eyes, and suck on the insides of their cheeks as if preparing their thighs for the first stroke of koboko coated in atarodo, and turn into every lifeless thing there ever was, only to regain their humanity when the dirty is done.
I always say that men like Obinna––with big appetites and an empty belly––should save their tin-foil rings and grand speeches for wowo women who have everything to prove and nothing to lose. I always say but the men like Obinna, they never listen.
They pick the glistening trophies, and blow against the dust sticking to the aluminum, and wedge those heavy things beneath their armpits, and laugh at our red faces as we gulp lukewarm water to dilute the jealousy in the canals of our throat.
But if their laughter had a mouth, would it not tell us that they sigh behind closed doors––a low mournful thing––because how can they start a generator with a faulty lever?
Soon, these men like Obinna drag their feet out their front doors and let their eyes roam the lengths and breadths of the earth for a mechanic to fix the women with faulty levers, and the mechanic comes with his spanners and three-legged pidgin, oga–sah–abeg, and whips up a price from lowfat flour and thin air, so that the men are forced to wring their palms, and eye their faulty levers, and swallow fistfuls of aspirin.
It is only then (after the mechanic has packed his tools and hailed a cab) that they remember we pointed them to tokunbo, tried-and-tested, and it must be the bad sex.
And Ogechi, the eldest daughter of Mama Ogechi, says maybe it was the bad food.
Ogechi is the only child permitted to listen in on our conversations, to give her two cents once or twice and never more, because she has started to grow breasts, soft like the right kind of eba, and opinions with blunt edges.
What about her food.
What about her food?
“What about her food?”
We whisper amongst ourselves and to Ogechi.
She clears her throat, and twists her big red lips into a smile, and she is just like her mother in this burnt orange halo, too sure of herself, brimming with wonder, and words, and spite.
She says that just the other day, she was at Obinna’s house. We inch closer.
She says we cannot imagine how big it is. We inch closer.
She says that she wandered into the kitchen, and we pause.
Because what woman wanders into another woman’s kitchen without permission. What woman does not fold her palms in her laps and wait for the rightful kitchen owner to lead her by the arm.
But that is what she said––wandered into the kitchen. Just like that.
And there was a pot of fried rice on the cooker, filled to the top, spilling out the sides, and she helped herself to a plate, did it a favor really, what with all that spilling.
The narration stops abruptly.
Ogechi is back to smiling like a woman whose brassiere is chockful of receipts and ammunition, and Chineke, she is starting to resemble her mother.
Go on, Mama Joy urges, and I am grateful for Mama Joy and her lack of joy, because Chineke knows I am tired of holding my breath and biting my tongue. And yet I continue to hold and bite, because there is something about Ogechi’s button of a face that makes me pick my words like I am separating beans from chaff.
All that pressed powder and Vaseline.
All that heady youth.
She says that the fried rice was so dry that she spent more time coughing, and swallowing water, and coughing, than she did eating.
She says that the fried rice was so tasteless that she wept.
She says that the badness of the fried rice was so undisputed that Obinna agreed with her.
We shift uncomfortably in our seats.
We withdraw into our cocoons.
It is the old age in us. It causes us to perceive odors we would rather not smell, like yeye.
Ogechi is a burning bush that does not know it is burning, or she is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the eye of the furnace, or she is a body in heat that would not stop rolling until it rids itself of its singed smell.
In summary, there is fire.
Her voice is too far gone to stop talking, and our ears are too hungry to stop listening, so we content ourselves with humming in unison as Ogechi confesses that Obinna cried to her about all the bad food, except she does not call him Obinna, that functional Igbo name devoid of Eros. No.
On her tongue, he is Obi’m, a teenage boy with a cheeky half smile.
On her tongue, he neither sports a receding hairline nor wears the faint trace of gasoline on his skin, and it is the magic of these young girls––this uncanny ability to turn our men into anything but our men.
We hum softly, and eye her trembling breasts, the incantation on her breath. We see our old selves in her, those long-legged nubile beings who were so in love with love that they defended its penury, or fiery temper, or the strange stench emanating from its mouth. We see her till there is no more seeing to do, and seeing is starting to feel like sinning, and our fingers are reaching for needles and wool, and knitting her words together, till it forms a pattern, a scarf if you will.
Mama Joy is our mouth piece. She has just the right voice for conflict. It carries war in its rise and fall.
Mama Joy thrashes her legs in the air adjacent her head, and insists that Ogechi is an unreliable source, because she too has had Our Wife’s fried rice, and was it not the most delicious fried rice she ever had? We concur, nodding our heads to the beat of her mouth.
Ogechi is saying it is not what you think, but our faces are too lined to let her think for us, because our aged eyes are clear enough to see that we have been worrying about the wrong pair of buttocks, when the right one has been in our midst, and it is too late to raise hell so we settle for resignation, and prayer––that our men remember the warmth of our meals, or to stretch a condom across their penises, because girls like Ogechi, with agbalumos for breasts and an arsenal of pet names for our men––they come in heavy-duty trucks, they spill out exposed trunks, they cling to Dunlop tires, and we are the rusty keys that no longr fit in our men’s ignition, and…
It was the bad sex after all.
The realization slaps our faces.
We sit with it, and we chew on it, and on our inner cheeks, and those of us who still have men with listening ears think of how to share the news with our men (perhaps late at night, in bed, chuckling between the sheets)––and some of us are swearing that it must be something deeper than bad sex, the worst thing, a rotting thing with a swollen belly, that we can smell the decay on Our Wife’s skin, so
We are back to square one, and our heads hurt from all the trying, because how can we judge Obinna’s wandering eyes without knowing Our Wife’s sin?
How do we pick the organ to machete off her torso?
We adjust our wigs and gavels, our tongues poised to call a mistrial.
And Aunty Uche who never speaks raises her one hand, and opens her mouth to let out all the rank air, and speaks.
She says maybe Our Wife’s crime is being a woman, maybe it’s not the bad sex, and we agree that we do not like the rise in her voice she says maybe, or woman, or bad sex.
So, we tell that woman that we liked her better when she kept her thoughts to herself, and no wonder her ex-husband used to throw her lepa body against his guardrails on the weekends, and has she forgotten how we had to plead with him on her behalf, and wonders shall never end.
We whisper in each other’s ears, and we murmur to ourselves, and we leave in two’s and three’s, and we go home to our men, and when we have their ears, we discuss Our Wife, and Ogechi, and Aunty Uche, and ourselves, and ignore the disquiet in the hollow of our bellies.
This story was written by Adorah Nworah and published in collaboration with Writivism as part of their annual short fiction prize.
Adorah Nworah (@nadora_) was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She is a recent law grad and an avid supporter of spontaneous bursts of laughter, kindness, justice, and colorful sentences.
Related country: Nigeria