By Beatrice Lamwaka
I’m sitting on the veranda drinking cardamom coffee, trying hard not to call Chris.
“Don’t call him and accuse him,” my therapist says. “That will only make things worse.”
She suggests filling my mouth with water and keeping it there.
“Bite your tongue if you feel you might say something that will anger him,” my mother adds.
Neither my therapist nor my mother is much help. I don’t want to spend my nights waiting to open the gate for a grown man. I certainly don’t want to bite anything.
My mind is wandering from the hospital – perhaps that’s where Chris is, lying injured on a bed—to that woman who often calls and to whom he speaks in a monotone; maybe he’s giving her another round.
The urge to speak, to shout, is strong, but I will not call. The last thing I want to hear is “I am stuck in a jam” or “I will be there in a few minutes.” When Chris returns, smelling of a woman’s perfume and wine, a few minutes will have turned into hours.
Thank God the children are asleep.
Lately, they’ve been demanding to see Chris, who is hardly around anymore; even on the weekends, he’s at the office. At least, that’s where he says he’s going when I’m making breakfast in the mornings.
With Jamie and Jordan, all I have to do is find games to distract them with. Jacob the oldest, is the one I worry about. He never stops asking why Chris doesn’t want to be with him, where he has gone, whether he has many other more important things to do.
Sometimes I wonder if Chris has other children. He has always wanted a girl and yet, for some reason, I’m always giving him boys.
It’s been years of sitting here, drinking cardamom coffee, so I’ve had to make the veranda liveable. I’ve lit candles, ferried warm blankets from the house, plugged in electric repellents to offer extra protection against mosquitoes, and placed my favourite rug in the centre.
There are now also over twenty potted plants whose natural perfume I like, including jade and snake plants, around the veranda. Did you know that jade plants are also known as money trees? They are supposed to bring you luck. I’ll think myself fortunate if I earn enough this year to take care of my kids on my own.
I’ve turned the time I spend on the veranda into quality “me time.” I watch movies on my iPad or phone. I eat chocolate. I cry. I imagine a sad and lonely life without Chris; I imagine the kids hating me, blaming me for leaving Chris. I imagine giving Chris full custody of the kids—after all he’s the one with the money—and then I cry some more. I take long, indulgent naps, only waking to hooting at the gate.
I think of my friends, who stopped visiting soon after I became a mother. I think of those friends who say I’ve changed, as if it’s a bad thing. Aren’t we supposed to change? I think of all the friends that house-keeping, in a place so far from the city centre, has cost me.
Chris and I wanted a house near Lake Victoria but the only one we could afford was in Katosi, about 26 kilometres from Kampala. Initially, friends came—for housewarmings, for brunches, for barbecues. One year in, I barely had any adult visitors. And since I don’t visit, either—I can never seem to find the energy—the phone doesn’t ring anymore.
Chris thinks I’m “too fat,” considering I’ve had “only three children.”
“You could find beautiful dresses if you lost some weight,” he says.
When he says such things, I wonder whether I’m going crazy or I haven’t heard him clearly. Why does he say such things? Why does he seem intent on hurting me?
I smile because I feel that’s the best response I can offer.
I’ve been thinking of using the time I spend on this veranda to get into shape. But that’s all I’ve done: think. I haven’t gotten round to doing anything. I have a yoga mat, but don’t know any yoga poses. Sometimes I kick a soccer ball around the compound with Jamie when he’s back from school.
Chris thinks I’m ugly. As ugly as my mother, sometimes. But then my mother has never been ugly. She contested for Miss Uganda, which is how she met my father. At 68, she’s still elegant. She watches what she eats. She jogs.
I wasn’t always like this.
I had a well-paying job as a communications officer at UNHCR. Back then, I was free from stress and anxiety. I could do whatever I wanted. Although I earned
more than Chris, I didn’t consider this a problem; I never let my salary get between us.
When he was promoted to senior accountant, though, things changed. It was almost as if he’d been waiting for that promotion to reveal his true colours.
From the veranda, I can hear my neighbours.
Once, I heard Lucy running out of her house. Soon after she opened the gate, Ssaalongo dragged her like a chicken thief back into the house. I heard her screaming while Ssaalongo hit her.
I sat for the longest time, listening to the beatings, lost for words. I only stood up when it was time to lock the gate.
These days, I lock the gate soon after Christine’s husband picks her up on his booda-booda. Christine is my house help. She often leaves after the kids have fallen asleep.
Sometimes, Lucy comes to sit with me on the veranda. She used to hate coffee and cardamom. She said the two don’t belong together. That if she continued to tolerate her husband, everything would eventually lose taste.
Now we drink cardamom coffee and gossip.
Lucy is a Nnaalongo: she has two pairs of twins. Ssaalongo, her husband, is a drunkard. Apparently, his bosses at the university know about his wife-beating and drinking habits but since he’s so brilliant, since nobody else can teach engineering classes the way he does, they keep him on.
Lucy talks to me about the same things: cheating men, how women suffer at their hands, and how the universe seems to enjoy watching women suffer.
We don’t know any happily married couples in the neighbourhood. Or maybe we do but prefer to think that they are as unhappy as we are.
There’s the young pastor and his older, moneyed wife. He’s the kind of pastor I wouldn’t believe once he started preaching.
He seems vain; he’s always checking himself out. He only leaves the house to jog.
Lucy says the pastor’s wife is always complaining about the young girls who throw themselves at her husband. I think he welcomes the attention; he seems like the kind to relish and bask in schoolgirls’ advances. Or maybe this is his way of revenging his wife’s refusal to make huge donations to his floundering church.
There’s also Ben, who likes to sit along the road and chat up women. One time, as he approached his bungalow, I saw him give someone a kiss and then switch off his phone. Ben’s wife cooks supper—usually smelly fish and sukumawiki, which often get burned—soon after she returns from work. I often wonder if she burns the food intentionally, to punish Ben for his infidelity.
Ben’s wife speaks loudly as she bangs saucepans, and it doesn’t take long for plates to crash on the floor. Ben’s daughters are as loud as Ben’s wife. Although the eldest is younger than Jamie, she bullies him and runs off with his toys. Ben’s daughters always have flu, and runny noses. So, even though they are beautiful, I can’t find the strength to look at them. I’ve forbidden Jamie and Jordan from playing with them.
All the women in this neighbourhood have something in common: our husbands don’t enter the kitchen—meals are solely our responsibilities. When we find time away from the kitchen and our children, we meet to talk, usually about our husbands.
Another thing we have in common is that our husbands cheat on us but we carry on as if we don’t know this.
Monica used to be my best friend.
She accused me of doubting everything and called me a pessimist.
I prefer ‘realist’ to ‘pessimist.’
My therapist likes to ask where all my doubt stems from. I tell her that although I’ve been a doubter for as long as I can remember, I can’t think of a place. Sometimes I wonder if my therapist knows what she’s doing, and if her work is ever evaluated by a professional.
When I’m not sitting on the veranda, I spend most of my time in the living room, which is the source of unending stories. It’s the largest room in the house; there’s a six-seater sofa, a TV on the wall, a bookshelf with African books in one corner, and several photos of myself in Rome, Paris, Cape Town, and Nairobi. Whenever I feel depressed, I look at those photos and feel hopeful that things will get better.
There are no photos of Chris. No wedding or kwanjula photos either. Maybe, someday, there will be plenty of those on the wall.
I was in the living room the first time Chris called me ugly.
I had never thought of myself as an ugly woman. If no one had ever told me I was beautiful, I would have believed him. But my family had always told me. Even the streets thought I was beautiful.
“You are the ugliest woman I know,” He insisted. After three children, you now look like you gave birth to twelve. Your mother looks better than you do.”
At first, I thought he was joking but then I realised from the disgust on his face that he wasn’t.
“I am a beautiful woman,” I fought back, failing to understand why he had called me ugly.
If calling me ugly was his way of bullying me out of the house, he wasn’t going to succeed. Dead or alive, I would never leave this house. I’d never give up the land on which it stood. We’d bought the land together and drawn the house plan together. I had spent every single coin I’d ever made on turning this house into a home for us and our kids.
Under no circumstances would I leave all this to another woman to enjoy.
As of this week, Jacob is in nursery school, while Jordan and Jamie are in day-care.
It turns out I can’t deal: I’ve reached a point where I feel as if I am going crazy.
Chris is slipping through my fingers. When he goes to work, he doesn’t return until past midnight.
He wants me to sit with him while he eats—that’s his idea of spending time together—but at that time I’m always exhausted. All I want to do is shower and sleep.
The first time I slept in Jacob’s room was when he had malaria. Since then, Chris hasn’t let me back into the master bedroom. Sometimes I hear him in the middle of the night and wonder if he’s having phone sex with other women, or telling them that he’s single now—that he’s separated from his wife. I wonder how many of those women believe him.
This is how Chris arrives: driving straight through the garage doors, which I leave open, and putting his hands around my shoulder the way he would with a work colleague.
I fetch his supper, which must be hot matooke, meaning I must have a sigiri burning regardless of what time he returns.
I’d always preferred men who wore white shirts over blue jeans, so I’m not sure how I fell for Chris. Perhaps it was the other way round: maybe he fell for my choice in clothes and shoes? When we first met, Chris’ beer belly was visible beneath the brightly coloured t-shirts he wore over tailored trousers. I was the one that showed him how to wear colours that hid his beer belly. I was the one that bought him his first pair of jeans. I turned him into a well-dressed man who is careful about his weight.
At fifty-one, Chris’ hair is freshly cut; he looks better than when I first met him.
I’m not leaving this for another woman to enjoy.
He can do whatever he wants as long as he comes home to me.
Sometimes Chris bolts food down.
Sometimes he picks at it.
Either way, I’m required to stay and watch him eat.
By the time I finish clearing the table and doing the dishes, he has retreated to the master bedroom and I can hear the shower running.
The last time the matooke wasn’t as hot as Chris liked, he held me by my neck and screamed at me. When I asked, “She doesn’t cook for you?” he screamed more obscenities and locked himself in the master bedroom.
The next day, I called my mother.
“Did he beat you?” she asked.
When I said no, she said, “Then it’s not bad, my daughter. Women go through worse.”
My mother is one of those women who have gone through worse.
Whenever I talk to her about Chris, she reminds me of those days when my father drank a lot of Waragi. “Your father used to beat me. Did I leave you and your siblings? If I didn’t leave, then neither should you. You must kuguma. Women must kuguma for their children. Where will you go with your three boys? You are now approaching forty. Who will want you?”
My mother thinks the only thing wrong with Chris and I is that we behave like spoiled grown-up children. She says we need to stop “playing around.”
Sometimes I hope Chris will wake me up and ask me back into the master bedroom. I miss our soft bed. I miss snuggling with him. I miss sleeping without clothes on.
Now that I have no job or friends, I must reek of desperation.
I imagine that staying at home all the time and having no one to hang out with must make me ugly. The ugliest woman he married so he could save her.
“No one can take you now. You will never find anyone to love you. A woman at your age is nothing. Remember I am the one who saved you. All the men left you,” Chris says.
To spite him, I say, “‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.”
I tell him of the men who left but who treated me so well that I still remember them.
Then we argue until we are not listening to each other.
Sometimes he goes to the master bedroom, or he reminds me that he wants to watch football as soon as I change the channel. Either way, in the end I often go to the bathroom where I cry and believe what Chris says about how I’ve let go of my body and I’m not beautiful anymore.
The words hurt and I can’t look at myself in the mirror.
The last time I permed my hair was twenty years ago.
I wonder whether I should try again since everyone is perming their hair; it’s what is considered beautiful now.
Now, when Chris tells me I’m the ugliest woman he knows, I tell him he is ugly too. Every time his answer is different. Sometimes he says, “If you see how women fall for me, you will just run and lay a red carpet for me. You know I get better with age like wine while for you, you deteriorate every day. God, why don’t you do something with yourself? I can give you all the money you need. All the perfumes I give you, you don’t want to wear. You should celebrate me for sticking with you, you know.”
“Should I sing for you and wave palms for you?” I say, because I don’t know what else to say.
We both laugh.
Sometimes, when I feel lost, I believe that Chris really did save me.
I have nowhere to go. My mother doesn’t want me back in her house and my friends have found people worthier of their friendship.
A year ago, while pregnant with Jamie, I told my mother that I didn’t want to be married anymore. I admitted that I wasn’t happy in the relationship and didn’t think that Chris was making any effort to make things better.
“Is he beating you?” she asked.
I could hear her breathing on the other side of the phone.
“If he doesn’t beat you, then stay. He is a much better man than most men and he seems like a good man, so you better stay with that one.”
She hung up after that, although I had lots of airtime and could afford to speak to her for hours. I’d wanted to speak to an adult: I hadn’t spoken to an adult in a long time. Screaming at Jamie and Jordan had made me mad. But it was almost as if I was wasting her precious time.
I scrolled through my phonebook, wondering who to call next.
Sheila? No, I couldn’t call her. She had just lost her father but I hadn’t yet visited her. Jackie? She hadn’t spoken to me in a long time.
Everyone I thought of calling had either moved on or was dealing with their own issues.
My cardamom coffee is cold, but I drink it anyway.
I’m at a point in my life where I’ve decided that it’s okay to miss out on luxuries like warm coffee.
Today, I will let mosquitoes suck my blood for as long as they want. After all, nobody wants me.
Cardamom coffee is the only thing that brings me joy.
Like a good wife, I still wait for Chris, although I no longer keep track of the exact time he returns.
I still open the gate long before he hoots.
I still leave the garage door open.
I still let him into the house and serve him hot matooke.
I still sleep in Jacob’s room.
I will do all this until he beats me. Then, I will know what to do.
The money I have in my account is enough to take care of myself and the kids for one year: Suze Orman would be happy for me.
It’s a good thing that I have a house that Chris doesn’t know about. I never knew how handy owning a house would be. At some point I really wanted to tell Chris about it but now I am glad I never did. E
Beatrice Lamwaka is the President of PEN Uganda. Her collection of short stories, Missing Letter in the Alphabet was published recently in Tamil.