‘The Bride’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The man in the back seat of the powder blue Toyota RAV4 is not Dumeje Nwokeocha, the groom.
But you are the bride.
Your name is Somadina, Adina for short.
Sometimes, your name is baby, or Din Din, or the black girl, or the quiet girl, or her, or the chubby one, or bitch, depending on the mouth, or the mood.
Today, your name is the bride, but the man in the powder blue Toyota RAV4 is not the groom.
You make this troubling discovery as you sit at a wood table with sawdust falling down its sides like snow. This wood table is in a stuffy second-floor room in Victoria Island, Lagos. Your legs are wide apart like you are in the throes of labor, and come to think of it, maybe you are.
The biggest weddings in Lagos come to a head on this second floor, like pus escaping a pimple. This second floor is home to rail-thin brides, and muscled grooms, and hysterical acquaintances from summer camp ’09 with salacious backstories, flashing their roaring twenties like badges of honor, or perky breasts beneath see-through mesh.
You are long past your roaring twenties. A mouthy ex-lover once called you milk left to sit on the counter for too long. Your girlfriends called him mean, but deep down you knew he was right. Breaking up with him was hard. Everything is harder when you are past your roaring twenties, like the skin on your palm, and birthdays, and losing last night’s beer belly. Like breaking up with bad lovers. Like this sitting at a wood table with sawdust or snow. Everything is a kick in the gut.
The man in the powder blue Toyota RAV4 is not the groom.
You run your fingers against your almost-but-not-quite-thin arms, occasionally stopping to pull the flesh away from its bones, like you are last night’s chicken wings. You are just as desperate to distance yourself from skin as you were in bed last night, kneading each peppered wing between your fingers like clay, taking a bite then spitting it out.
Nono’s silhouette glides across a curtain. Nono is your younger sister and she is in her roaring twenties. Maybe you gulp. Maybe you curse beneath your breath. Maybe you press the fat till you feel the ghost of a ribcage. Maybe you miss jean skirts the size of handkerchiefs. Maybe you feel around your neck for a zipper, like you are a prickly sweater that can be taken off.
You make the discovery about the groom’s wrongness by chance. It happens like this. Your frantic eyes rove from the makeup brushes lined against a wall from ascending to descending order, to the stained louvers on the walls. They shift, ever so slightly, to the left. They blink away sunshine penetrating retina. They note the powder blue Toyota RAV4 with its shiny rims. It stands out like an old bride. It stings your tongue like sour milk.
Your eyes do not stop looking. They have always been that way. They size up people and things, and question everything. It worries your mother, those searching eyes of yours. Once, she said ‘Din Din, not everything has to be questioned.’ You replied with something foolish, like ‘But why, ma?’ and she clutched her rosary and pulled your ears so hard that they were warm to the touch for three days in a row. Your mother applauded you for not crying. She said that it is good for a girl to hold pain between her teeth.
The man who sits in the back seat of the powder blue RAV4 is pressing a silk handkerchief to his forehead. You feel around your neck for your rosary. Something is wrong about that forehead. You squint. It is too small, or just right, which means it is wrong. Dumeje’s forehead is not just right. It is spectacularly long, or tall. It is a walking, breathing man with distinct needs and inclinations. The head in this car is quiet. You strain your neck to see the rest of him but Bunmi, who is a caricature of the melodramatic, fussy best friend keeps you from moving your head.
‘Keep your head still,’ Bunmi yells. She wipes the beads of sweat gathering in the hollow of your collarbone with one hand and presses translucent powder into your forehead with the other. You remind her to hide the acne smattered across your forehead. She is doing her best, but you worry it is not good enough, or your face is not good enough, or you are not good enough, or all of the above.
Keep your head still for God’s sake!
No one warned you about all the wedding-day yelling and how it pools in your tummy, each fevered pitch rocking your bowels back and forth.
‘You’re sweating too much today,’ Bunmi sighs. ‘It’s ruining your makeup.’
She says it like it is somehow your fault that your sweat glands chose today to play their role.
Nono waves her broomstick arms in the air and prances around the room on tiptoes. She is human but she is also feathers and shimmering dust. You detest the ease at which she twirls a fluted glass in one hand, and sidesteps shoes and piles of clothes on tiptoes, like a ghost, or an amorphous plastic bag floating in the wind, its edges blurred.
‘It will bring out your cheekbones,’ Nono murmurs as she swipes a line of dark concealer from the top of your right ear to the center of your cheek.
The man who is not the groom is still in the back seat of the powder blue Toyota RAV4. Where Dumeje’s head is oblong, this one is round. There are no jagged edges. There is no carved nose that leaves one’s fingertips with raised cuts. There are no traces of your skin in the wedges of his fingernails. There is no hardness in his lips when his eyes meet your eyes. You listen closely. No exasperated sigh sticks to the saliva glazing the insides of his mouth.
But this must be your wedding for there are guests in all shapes and colors. They float in and out of rooms and hallways in their Asoebi, and Kate Spade, and Balogun market beads, and hand fans, and party trays, and feathered hats, and airy chiffon, and it is starting to feel like you are just one of many passengers on a speeding train, breasts to backs, heads bowed, bellies hugging, as the carriage sways from side to side. There is no getting off. Not now, not after you said yes.
Those three letters, yelled from a rooftop, like you were trying to prove a point. Yes. Yes, of course. Yes! Oh God Yes! Yes. Yes Lord Yes! Even as the heat spread in the roof of your mouth and your knees fell to concrete. It was love, was it not? It had to be.
The Instagram comments said ‘Y’ALL ARE THE CUTEST COUPLE’ or
‘ACTUAL COUPLE GOALS.’ It felt like love, didn’t it?
Maybe not on the toilet bowl that night, or in the shower the morning after, or on the subway platform the next evening, but it felt like love on that rooftop, and in the alternate reality of your group text messages.
‘You lucked out. SIGH’
‘Girl, where can I find my own Dumeje?’ You just need air.
‘Keep your head still,’ Nono hisses.
Your eyes connect with the back of the head of that man who is not Dumeje. It is a caramel rectangle in a sea of dark browns. The rest of its body is swathed in a Mai Atafo pinstripe suit. It hangs loosely from his shoulders like it was made for a different man, a man’s man with chest hairs and veiny arms. A crimson handkerchief sticks out the pocket of a blazer. You raise your eyes to the face, so unlike the familiar one with its bushy brows and chapped lips spitting questions at you like where do you think you’re going dressed like that?
What was that, a listener may ask?
It was a Herve Leger number, the color of a kumquat. You had worn the exact same Herve Leger dress the first time he met you. Perhaps, he had long forgotten about the dress, or the woman who wore it in that smoky speakeasy in downtown Philadelphia.
‘This your dress go kill somebody, oh,’ he had said in an exaggerated Nigerian accent as he made his way to you from across the room.
You had giggled like a thin girl, or a girl with a prettier face, or a younger girl with breasts like gun barrels, then whispered in his ear – ‘must be why you look like a dead man walking.’
Oh, you had flirted shamelessly. You made your mangled laughter work, even when it jumped out your face slit with the end in the middle and the beginning at the end. Like a child learning to ride a bike, one unsteady foot on the pedal and brows furrowed in concentration, you flirted pointedly.
Your mother rushes into this room, a half-tied gele wedged between her chest and décolletage, anxiety in her hurry. She says that word over and over again, like it was not the incantation on your lips in the days before that rooftop and its proposal. She says it to the beat of the rusted ceiling fan blowing its dust and its hot air, then to the dry hum of exchanged pleasantries coming from somewhere beneath your feet, then to the clink of voices asking after the beautiful bride, and where is she, and what is she wearing, and may we touch her–
‘Hurry!’ your mother cries as she gallops out of the room, her feet pattering against off-white linoleum.
‘What’s the matter with you today?’ Nono mutters against your cheek. She smears the inner edges of your lips with kajal. ‘You’ve been so excited for this day and now that it’s here, you wear this yeye long face?’
You are saved by the swinging door. There is the man who is not Dumeje. His limbs are thinner and longer in this room. His lips are just as chapped as you remember them, or the man they once belonged to, or the other man.
‘Ah,’ Bunmi groans. She playfully swats the man’s narrow shoulders. ‘What are you doing here? You can’t see her before she walks down the aisle!’
Her laugh is full. Her arms are wide. Her breathing is easy. There is no tension in her jaw or forehead. Her eyes are soft, her sighs long and wistful. She recognizes this man who bends down to kiss your too-much skin, and approves of him. She sees the smooth brown behind his ears and above his lips and finds solace in his presence.
You do not see the smooth skin. You see the burn marks on his arms, and the dark scars on his ankles from where he fell into a gutter midway through a childhood marathon, and the hunched back, and the one leg that is longer than the other, and the way he leans to the right when he walks, like he can topple over at any moment.
‘Oh Nono, I’ve met the man of my dreams,’ you yelled at your sister in one of the many long distance phone calls in the days after that wondrous night in the smoky speakeasy in downtown Philadelphia. You had been sitting on his kitchen counter in nothing but his plaid shirt, eating his half a slice of Pepperoni pizza and licking mozzarella off his beard. The soles of your feet still stung from the bachata on a makeshift dancefloor in the parking lot of a Target in Old City. The rest of you still ached from the dirty dancing in the backseat of his Toyota Camry. Indeed, you felt like a Tumblr poem.
‘Where’s he from?’ Nono asked, matter of fact.
‘He is Nigerian, from Anambra State. Can you imagine?’ you gushed, your veiny little heart in your hands. ‘Mother would be so proud!’
‘You better not fuck this up,’ Nono murmured. ‘She’s beginning to think she’ll never be a grandmother.’
Today, sweat pools between your breasts. You scratch at an itch on your arm. Someone in the room next door shrieks. It is followed by laughter. You kick off your thin-heeled Jimmy Choos and grab Nono by her tiny waist. You weep softly into your feathery, shiny, sister’s chest and she wilts.
‘You are ruining your makeup,’ Nono murmurs against your hair.
‘I don’t want to do this,’ you cry. ‘I don’t know him, Nono.’
‘Oh, don’t be silly,’ Nono murmurs against your neck.
‘Something is off about his skin, Nono. Look at it closely.’
‘So what now, eh? You want to call off the wedding?’ Bunmi yells from where she stands by the wood with its falling snow, fists clenched.
You swallow a retort and laugh, because you are the type to laugh when your world is grinding to a halt. Yes, you laugh with all your teeth when the man in the powder blue Toyota RAV4 curses at the bumbling waitresses in that one Chinese buffet in downtown Philadelphia. And you guffaw loudly when he curses at reckless drivers. Yes, you are the type to laugh into your hardening palms when he curses at frightened babies in airplanes. The type to sneak into a toilet cubicle to chuckle when he swears at you for not warming his soup for long enough, or not flapping the bedsheets before bedtime, or not wearing enough makeup, or wearing too much makeup, or not wearing the right dress, but nothing is the right dress when he is in the wrong mood.
Truth or dare, bride.
Is it harder to laugh when he cradles you in his arms and weeps soundlessly, his head bowed like you are a member of the clergy, and he is a tax collector?
Truth or dare, black girl.
Do you stifle the ache in your upper torso when he curses at you, or do you keep your head still when he lunges at your hair? What saved you the last time he came at you – the back of a leg or an elbow? Are you on your ninth life? Do you want to live?
‘You’d be a fool to walk away from a Harvard-educated medical doctor,’ Bunmi says.
It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You stand up from snowing wood, and you send the broken pieces of your back, and the hair rollers, and the bobby pins in your hair flying to the east and west, so that the air is a straight, glinting, line of you.
You ignore Nono and Bunmi’s flailing arms as you run out of this room and into that hallway.
Onlookers may describe a bouquet of red roses beneath your armpit. They may invent a thin translucent veil clinging on to your big toe. They may insist you never stopped, not for anything or anyone, that you dashed past the iros and bubas, and the outstretched palms, and oohs, and aahs, and curious glances, and the bodies flying out of your path, like a cheetah in her prime. Some accounts may mention the aunties frantically sending instant messages to their absentee sons, or the six-foot brick white cake that topples over, or the phones raised to capture your legs flying over a table as you unclasp a bracelet, and then an earring, or the way you paused in midair to wipe off your lipstick with a table cloth before galloping past floor-length box braids and bibles. Onlookers do not see that something calls out to you in the distance. It is a thing with two arms, and legs, and a head. It shoves you into a dark supplies closet. It takes off its gele. Your mother’s head is smaller without it and the dark circles beneath her eyes are more pronounced. She smells of perfume and fried beef. She clasps your head with so much force.
You want to tell her that he dug his fingers into your cheeks because you insisted on wearing that Herve Leger, and that you pushed him away with a strength you did not know you had. You want to tell her that your scalp still hurts from where it hit the bathtub for the fourth time in a row. You want to tell her that you’re scared to live this way.
‘So what if the poor man’s skin is a little dull, eh?’ your mother cries, her face a crumpled note. ‘Will you now embarrass me and your father by calling off the festivities? Do you hate us this much?’
‘Ma, you don’t understand.’
‘Oh, you think I don’t see it too,’ she whispers, and her breath falls on your chest. ‘I see it all, Nne. Today, it is the color of his wrists. Tomorrow, it will be the demands he makes of you, each one harder than the next, till you are left with only those parts of you that serve his needs.’
You weep against your mother’s bosom like you are five again, with jutting bones and too-little skin. She lets your tears soak her blouse. She hums softly against the hairs on your arms. She runs her fingers through your tightly coiled hair and blows warm air on your forehead. She rubs her palms against your back as she rocks you back and forth. She kneads your shoulders.
You hold your pain between your teeth. You gather the pieces of your back strewn across the floor, an eyelash hanging on a thread, beads falling out your hair, a back bone, raw sinewy skin, the veil on your toe. You practise your breathing till your ragged spurts grow softer, and all that is left is silence.
You practise again in front of this gasping crowd, that beady-eyed pastor, on a mattress with the man, on a red-eye flight to Bali, in the delivery room at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, at your fifth anniversary, at his chieftaincy ceremony in Umueze village, at your twentieth anniversary. Chibuzor, your son, says you and dad are so stinking cute.