THE FIRST sign of trouble that Wednesday afternoon was a woman in a blouse and matching Ankara wrapper, marching out of the dressing room where she had disappeared few minutes earlier, headed towards the checkout of the retail store, a condom packet held in one hand, waved like a flag. The woman reached the counter and tossed the condom on it, shaking with fury; hanging on to one end of her wrapper which had loosened as she ate up the distance between the dressing room and the counter. The girl behind the counter, tall, pretty, with expressive eyes, noted the red lacy lingerie forgotten on the woman’s arm, still wearing its price tag boldly.
“I want to see the Manager of this store. Now!” the woman declared, and watched in satisfaction as the young girl, barely eighteen, scrambled away like a mouse caught in the glare of light.
Beluchi balanced on the heels of her shoe to steady herself from falling as she marched from one end of the counter to the other waiting for the Manager of the store. Her seething anger tied her intestines into tight knots and squashed her muscles into jelly. Few minutes later, the young girl returned with a small man in a white shirt tucked into black trousers, peering at her behind square glass lens, a beatific smile pasted on his face.
“Good afternoon Madam. Is there a problem?”
“What do you think? Isn’t that a problem?” she retorted, pointing at the offending object on the counter which caught the light of the room and looked as shiny and as proud as a gold trinket found on a beach. “I found it in one of your dressing cubicles. On the floor. There was a condom lying on the floor of your dressing room!”
The Manager adjusted his glasses and peered at it without getting closer as if the very thought of reaching for it would bite his hand. He frowned and cleared his throat.
“It’s unopened,” he stated, and watched her roll her eyes.
“Manager, are we here to debate that? I am not offended that it is unopened. The fact that it was there in my dressing room is already a problem. What is a condom doing in a dressing room of a public store? What, ehn?”
The Manager shifted his weight from one leg to another and mumbled. “Can we go into my office, Mrs…?”
“Mrs. Beluchi Chinemere.”
“Mrs. Chinemere. Please come into my office so we can discuss this quietly. You are causing a scene already.”
Beluchi turned around and sure enough, customers in different stages of shopping had abandoned their activities and were watching them; some in curiosity, others in amusement. She expected them to back her up, to demand an explanation like she was doing, but they merely stared, watching like it was a movie, hoping for more drama, more action. Beluchi was irritated at their blasé attitude. If the Manager wanted to get out of the tangle he had created, she was not going to make it easy on him.
“Manager, I am aware we are a spectacle already, but until this is explained to me, I am not going anywhere. This is how you people will be encouraging sin…sin!”
She felt satisfied as drops of sweat lined his face in spite of the cold blast from the air conditioners around the large retail store. She watched him scratch his head, a quick gesture that exposed his discomfiture.
“Madam, err…the condom may have fallen out of someone’s pockets or handbag, anything could have happened. I apologise for the embarrassment. It won’t happen again. Did you want to buy that? We will give you a good discount on it.” He pointed to the red lingerie still dangling from her arm, and suddenly Beluchi felt foolish and ashamed at her outburst and at being caught holding on to something as frilly and promiscuous as the underwear. She dropped it quickly as if it had burned her arm, noting the confusion on the girl’s face as she picked it up and checked its size.
“Madam, please can I get you another one? This one is too small for you.”
It was all Eniola’s fault this had happened, Beluchi thought as she bowed her head and marched out of the store, hoping that none of the shoppers had captured her few minutes of madness on camera to upload on one of those social media pages people were always flocking to these days. If only Eniola had not called a few days ago, with those few words that would keep Beluchi awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering, hoping that the words were a lie.
“Belu darling,” Eniola had said, “so you didn’t want to tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That you have lost so much weight since the last time I saw you. How did you do it, my friend?”
“I don’t understand you. You saw me two weeks ago in church and you laughed at my fat ass. What’s this now? Or you’re not done teasing me?”
“But James and I saw you and your husband yesterday night at the mall, walking hand in hand, kissing like school children. And James was so envious, he told me not to call out to you two, so he could brush up on his husbandly skills first.”
Recalling now, Beluchi wondered if the phone call had been deliberate, a subtle message passed by a woman who wanted to remain a friend, but who wanted to expose a wound before it got infected. It was after the phone call that it had dawned on Beluchi the implication of Eniola’s words. She had wanted to call her, to ask her if she was sure it was her husband, Afanna, she had seen holding onto a slim girl, kissing in the dark in a place as open as a shopping mall, but she did not because it suddenly made sense why he had been keeping late nights at the office for the past few weeks.
That evening, with fury climbing up her skirts, Beluchi had attacked their wardrobe for a sign of the strange woman who had suddenly taken up a cosy part of her brain and would not leave. She sniffed the clothes her husband had worn to the office throughout the week, checking for unusual stains. She dug into his pockets looking for his handkerchiefs. She opened little cartons that had gathered dust over their ten years of marriage searching for clues, until she had found the clue she was looking for, hidden in a section of his travelling bag.
Beluchi had dropped on the bed staring at the clues – packets and packets of colourful condoms, conveniently tucked away, separate from the three she knew were in their drawer. She knew how many condoms were left at the end of each week, because she and her husband were not regular lovers, and these packets were different from the ones in the drawer. They made love every other week, always on Wednesdays, when her husband finished watching a football match. She had noticed that he was always needy only on Wednesdays. She had noticed because Eniola had told her about a friend, Ozi, whom she had said had a small notebook where she planned making love with her husband. Ozi had special days of the week marked in red ink when she and her husband could fool about in their bedroom, and Eniola had laughed as she gossiped with Beluchi about Ozi who had a timetable for lovemaking.
“Who does that?” she had laughed. “James will kill me if I ever did that.”
Beluchi had laughed about it, half-heartedly because hers was worse. She did not have a timetable. In fact, she never felt up to it, had stopped enjoying sex after her third child was born. Whenever Afanna stretched his hands in the dark, groping on those Wednesday nights when Arsenal lost a match, she would turn away and snap at him that she was tired. The few times she managed to give in, she lay on the bed, legs spread open, watching him move in and out of her, his face twisted in determination, drops of sweat landing on her face, and afterwards, they would lie with their backs to each other. Soon, his snores would fill the air and the memory of what happened would be like a mist gradually fading away from her mind.
The condoms she had found tucked in his travelling bag had shocked her, because they were different from the ones in the drawer; these ones were colourful and smelt of fruits. There was something dangerous about the aroma of fruits wafting from the shiny packets as she lifted them to her nose and sniffed; something that had never happened between them for many years. She had tucked them back in, and waited for him to return from one of his late night meetings.
She was awake, lying on her side of the bed when he returned. She had stiffened as he slid into bed beside her, and as she heard him snoring, she had got up and took his phone from the bedside table. She had checked phone, something she had never done before. There was nothing implicating on his Call Records. She had checked his Images and had been disappointed as she sorted through dozens of pictures of himself, his friends, their three children and herself. She might have missed it had she not continued till the very end. And then she saw it; the one picture that would colour her world grey.
It was a picture of a girl, slim, in red lingerie of fine lace, her thighs spread apart slightly, her black skin boasting of youth, supple and shiny like oil had been massaged into it. The picture was missing a head, so that Beluchi could only see from the girl’s neck, where black braids curled like worms, down to her mid-thighs. The picture was everything Beluchi was not, and suddenly it dawned on her that her husband of ten years was cheating on her with a girl who looked like an outdated version of herself.
The thought had kept Beluchi up for many nights as she lay wondering if her husband was with the girl in the red lacy lingerie, if he was kissing her while she was home with his children, cooking, cleaning, and making sure that his home was welcoming when he came to her.
Then she had gone to the retail store to pick new clothes for her eldest daughter, and she had come across the underwear in the lingerie section, beckoning to her. As she came close, something moved her hand to snatch up the one in ‘Small’ size, and she had ducked into the dressing room to see if she could still squeeze herself into the lingerie, if she could still feel the way she had felt the day she became his wife, shy and uncertain, excited yet heady with the knowledge that the man standing before her was hers and wanted her as much as she wanted him. That was before she had stumbled on the condom lying there in a corner of the dressing room like the pregnant belly of a woman everyone thought to be a virgin. The shiny packet taunted her, mocked her and then it had come to her that this was no coincidence; this was an act of a spirit up there somewhere angry at her for allowing what had happened remain hidden in the stillness of her heart.
Beluchi sat still for a few minutes at the parking lot of the Retail Store as the thoughts washed through her. At the back of her mind, she remembered that she had forgotten to pick out clothes for her daughter, Ada, and she would have to explain to her why she would have to return another day for her clothes. She drove home slowly, because she was still upset.
Afanna was home with the children when she returned. She remembered; it was a Wednesday. He barely spared her a glance as she walked by him; he was engrossed in his football match. The younger children ran to her. The elder one, Ada, sitting beside her father, looked at her in expectation.
“Did you get it?” she asked.
“Not today, darling. I will go back tomorrow,” she replied and watched her face fall.
Beluchi felt heavy. She needed to talk to someone. She called Eniola.
“I did something horrible today,” she started. “I feel so ashamed.”
“What is it? Are you okay?”
“I…I…” She burst into tears, because she did not know how to say it, what to say. How could she tell her dear friend that it was her fault her husband was cheating on her? How could she tell her friend that she could not remember the last time she and Afanna had gone out together, her hand in his, kissing in the dark. She could not remember; that was what bothered her. It had happened, but she could not remember it.
“Can I call you back?”
“Should I come over?”
“No. I will be fine. I will call you back.”
Beluchi went into the bathroom and took a warm bath, careful to wash off the signs of her crying from her face. She spent time working moisturizer into her face while staring back at herself in the mirror. She brushed out the tangles in her hair; she had not bothered brushing her hair for almost a week since she returned from the salon. She powdered her face and slipped into her old nightgown, a white maternity nightgown she had got after her third child. The gown stopped below her knees, shapeless on her body. It still fit her the way it had when she had bought it. She rubbed the bulge in her abdomen, a reminder of how hard her body had worked and stretched over the years to carry Afanna’s children. Then she spritzed on perfume and put on lip gloss.
“Mummy, you look…pretty,” her second child said as she walked into the kitchen where he was chopping onions gently. It was his turn to help out cooking and he knew that Mummy would always use onions. His eyes were teary and he grinned through the tears.
“Thank you, my darling.” She kissed his head, warmth spreading through her toes at the compliment. When was the last time she received a real compliment?
Beluchi was waiting for Afanna by the time the children went to bed. She sat on her side of the bed watching him get out of his clothes, take a quick bath then slide into the bed beside her.
“Afanna, there is something I want to ask you.”
“I need to rest. Can’t it wait?”
“But your football could not wait, your bath could not wait, even your food could not wait.”
“Why are you shouting? You want to wake the children up?”
Beluchi fought hard to bring her thumping heart under control. Afanna was staring at her as if she had grown three heads.
“Are you doing something wrong I should know off?” She rushed her next words, afraid that he would cut her short and she would not have the strength to continue. “I know you are cheating on me. I know it. I saw things…things I should not see…around the house.”
“So what do you want me to do?” He sounded bored. “Confirm or deny?”
“Tell me the truth.”
“Are you sure you can handle the truth?”
“Don’t ask me that question. Answer me!”
He chuckled, and the sound grated her nerves, because it was alien and uncalled for. She wanted to bury her head in a pillow where no one would ever see her again.
“You know the truth. It already hurts you. I can see it. Whatever I say now will not change your mind so I think I will just go to bed and let you stew over your truth all you want.”
She wanted to scratch him, to leave a mark on his skin like he had left in her heart. She wanted to raise her voice so the whole world could hear what he had done. She wanted to push him off the bed so he could fall on his bottom and she would feel sated that she had humiliated him, but she did not do any of these, because Beluchi liked to lick her wounds in private and she thought to herself that it was her fault. She had poured salt on a fresh wound and it hurt like a toothache.
Tears wet her pillow. She used her pillow case to dry her stuffy nose. Sleep would not come and her heart felt like a stone had been dropped on it. She was angry but she could not do anything about it, because she had nowhere to go, no money stashed somewhere she could rely on. She was just a woman who had been content as a housewife for the past ten years.
Something woke her up. It was the feeling of something crawling up her gown. She slapped it away but it was back and she woke to discover it was her husband’s hand. He drew her closer, buried his face in her hair and ran his hands up and down her thighs, grunting. She reacted swiftly with a slap. He drew back but was once again upon her, this time, he just held her close.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. She meant nothing. It was nothing.”
His voice was rough in her ears. His hands began its crawling and she allowed him. When he got on top of her, she watched him. His eyes were shut tight, his groans deep. She wondered if he was thinking about the slim girl in the red lacy lingerie and the thought felt like spiders crawling on her skin; that she was now a replacement, a thing to be used when it suited him.
When he was done, she lay with her back to him so he would not see the despair loosening the muscles in her face, because she had felt nothing while they made love. Nothing at all. She stiffened as he drew her closer and sighed deeply from the deep within his large chest. It was a sigh of contentment, a longing for what had been and now was a thin wisp of smoke left hanging in the air like a question mark.