A Modern Marriage
Apr 5, 2016
23 Min read time
A debut short story by an emerging Nigerian writer. Winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
When the phone rang the night before Anu’s wedding, she was packing the last of her boxes for the move across the bridge to her fiancé’s two-bedroom apartment in Astoria. She was happy to leave her dirty little studio in the Bronx. James’s hipster enclave in Queens seemed like a veritable castle in comparison. Hardwood floors, original paneling. A prewar building, Gatsby era, he told her. A real piece of history.
Anu stumbled a bit before she reached the phone. She should have had the line disconnected days ago but had kept it for the international calls she could not make on her mobile. “Hello?”
“Anu, my darling? Ba wo ni?” If the soft, accented voice hadn’t given it away, the crackling on the line certainly would have. Her cousin Tobi was in Nigeria and was not able to come for her wedding, but she had been calling Anu all week, teasing her about the wedding night and advising her on creams and lotions that would make her skin soft and supple and asking her if she had received her bridal finery, the woven red and gold aso oke wrapper and blouse from Lagos that she would wear for her reception. Tobi was excited about this marriage. She had been praying for years for her cousin to meet someone and was determined that the day should go off without a hitch.
“I am fine,” Anu replied, and sat on a sealed box.
“Out with the bachelors.” They were going, James told her, to a boxing match in Brooklyn, and then out for drinks. Anu swung her legs, eyes flickering over the dingy white walls of her apartment. Just in the corner of her line of vision, a cockroach scurried up toward one of the cracks in the ceiling. They normally weren’t this bold—perhaps they sensed she was moving out.
“Good.” Her cousin sounded relieved. “I have to. . . . I wanted to speak to you, it is very important.”
“Oh?” God, Tobi could be dramatic. “Go for it.”
“I have not even told your mother, not yet. I—well, I wanted you to know first.”
“Are you pregnant?” Anu joked, but when Tobi didn’t laugh, she sat up straight. “Tob. You’re not—?”
“No—hei! Olorun maje,” she swore. “No. I’m not.”
“Is someone sick?” Or dead? She could see them, trying to hide it from her until after the wedding, not wanting to upset her, but Anu always did better when she knew things, saw them coming. “Or—”
“Anu, jo, just listen.” Tobi inhaled; she was probably smoking, Anu realized. She tended to do that when she was stressed. She pictured her cousin crossing one dark, plump leg over the other, touching her mouth the way she did when she was nervous about something.
Anu was quiet.
“Are you still there?”
Tobi’s next words came out in a rush, mixing and tumbling over themselves like grains from a bag of rice, landing in no particular order. Anu managed to piece together bits as she went along. James was married. Wife in Lagos. Two children, a boy and a girl, both in primary school. Married six years ago, before he left Nigeria to go to school in New York. It wasn’t a state marriage, not really, but he had paid her dowry and taken her from her father’s house. . . .
Anu listened. When Tobi was finished, her voice was both high and breathless.
“Anu? Anu? I spoke to his uncle this morning, Anu. He was very, very angry. The boy, he said, is just using you for a visa. His own application was denied. Anu—!”
Anu hung up the phone.
• • •
Although she was over thirty, badly dressed, too thin, too broad-shouldered, and still possessed the oily, spotted skin of an afflicted teenager, the tall, broad-shouldered PhD student and lecturer James Adeola Adebisi proposed to Anu a scant six weeks after their first date. It was rather exciting. To her, men were foreign creatures who mostly looked at her with astonishment, or ignored her altogether.
It wasn’t that he was attracted to her. On the contrary, Anu knew that the man found her repulsive. She’d seen the flicker in his dark eyes the day she’d been brought to him by the dean of philosophical studies, who introduced her as the new office assistant and a “fellow West African.” The dean had been all enthusiasm: Americans love coincidences, and he milked this particular one for all it was worth. He beamed at the two of them; Anu imagined the corners of his mouth meeting in the back of his head. She mentioned that she is Nigerian in her interview, isn’t that something? Perhaps you come from the same area? Do you speak the same language?
During the interrogation, Professor Adebisi’s face resembled that of a martyr who feels in the eleventh hour that sainthood isn’t worth all the trouble. Anu was embarrassed for him, for them. The professor parried the dean’s questions with diplomatic skill, greeted her politely, showed her where his keys were, and gave her his office hours. He was dressed in trendy scholar-wear: wool trousers slung low on his hips, corduroy jacket, skinny tie, vintage denim shirt, brown loafers from some obscure Italian cobbler, Ray-Ban glasses, no socks. It made Anu self-conscious of the ill-fitting polyester suit she wore that day, although she didn’t own anything better, not really. It cost money, looking so effortlessly casual.
In those brief first minutes, the professor managed to convey through both manner and tone that he hoped their arrangement was temporary, that she would barely see him due to his schedule, and that his life’s happiness depended on the joyful hour of her departure. Anu minded little; she understood his position. Being reminded that you are different from your colleagues by the existence of decidedly unglamorous office help is unsettling, at the very least.
“I won’t bother you at all,” she said with her usual simplicity. He looked startled but didn’t respond.
• • •
Despite their rocky start, Professor Adebisi still asked the typical questions. He fired them off at intervals during their first day together: Who are your parents? Were you born here or at home? Do you speak Yoruba? The answers tumbled from her lips with ease, as she’d answered them many times before, and the answers were nothing extraordinary. Her devout Christian parents were a nurse and a taxi driver. She’d been born in the States, and yes, she spoke a little Yoruba, but understood more than she could speak. He grunted as if something had been verified, and they never spoke of their shared ancestry again.
The professor did not initiate conversation again, and Anu felt foolish when she found herself hoping that he would. He slunk past her every day, mumbling with eyes averted, but his unfriendliness was little deterrent to developing a crush, which she did, and quickly. It was hard not to. He moved with a quiet, old-fashioned elegance that suited him, spent hours listening to music, and lit a candle that filled the office with the smell of cedar and sandalwood long after the other PhD students had retired for the night. His body hunched when he read, as if he were trying to force something out that had lodged between his shoulder blades. Older professors, confident in their tenure, called him brilliant. His peers called him pretentious. Anu found him fascinating.
Anu discovered that he listened to William Alwyn while writing papers and John Coltrane while grading them. She downloaded compositions from both to her Android, drawing odd looks in the subway as she squeezed her face, trying to follow the rises and falls of the strings, harps, and horns. When he ordered sushi from a restaurant with an unpronounceable name that delivered in an elegantly folded box cooled by dry ice, she rescued the carton from the recycling and went there on a weekend. She spent forty dollars for a seat in the back and struggled for an hour to navigate chunks of rice and raw fish to her lips with those clumsy wooden sticks. She checked out books he mentioned on his blog, struggling with phrases like “the bourgeois declaration of the rights of the egoistic individual,” and “dialectical materialism as a heuristic in biology,” and other things that were as indecipherable to her as ancient Aramaic.
They were his words, though, and because of that, she read them.
• • •
Anu wasn’t smart. Not in the way Professor Adebisi was, anyway.
She realized this years ago, when her parents started getting letters from her school. Anu, they said, might have a learning disability. They wanted her tested. There were special classes she could take, special books for her to read.
Her mother blamed the devil, blamed evil spirits back in her father’s village that had stolen her daughter’s intelligence, taken her stars at birth. “They will not label my daughter!” she snapped, and beat Anu with her hands whenever her report card sported those inevitable Ds and, at best, Cs. She took her for prayer once a week at Faith of Fire Ministries and hovered over her as she struggled with homework until both their eyes were red and darkly circled. Her classmates were oddities, with their cramming and all-night study sessions that somehow left room for sports, boyfriends, and clubs. Anu had church, home, and the gritty little desk under a naked yellow bulb where she propped up her face, elbows aching, as she studied.
Anu graduated high school a year late, accustomed to being a disappointment. If only she had been beautiful, she heard her mother sighing on the phone one day to an auntie in Nigeria. It wouldn’t have mattered, then.
• • •
“I read your blog,” Anu told Professor Adebisi one day, after approaching his desk with a stack of books he’d ordered from the library. Kant, Calvin, Hobbes. He stared at her for a moment before moving a stack of papers. She placed the books carefully, soundlessly.
“And?” he asked after a moment, as if trying to decide whether or not her opinion was worth anything. Curiosity won, however, or a need for flattery.
“It was good.” She paused. “It’s for people like you, though, I think. Intellectuals would like it.”
“Huh,” was all he said, then asked her to close the door when she left.
The next day, James saw her in the student commons, where she often sat to eat a sandwich while playing games on her phone. He hesitated, coffee in hand; then he came over to her. Anu looked up and immediately lost her appetite. She simply couldn’t keep chewing a ham sandwich dripping with mustard and sweet onion sauce when he was sitting across from her, eyes warily scanning her face.
“You shouldn’t have said that yesterday,” he said. “Not about. . . . It’s supposed to be for everyone, that blog.”
Anu lifted her shoulders once. Not speaking, she’d learned over the years, was the only certain way of sounding even remotely intelligent.
“If you wouldn’t mind. . . .” He cleared his throat. “I’d like your eye. On the blog. When I post. Tell me what you think.”
“If you’re not doing anything after work—food? My last class ends early tonight.”
Anu opened her mouth and spoke calmly, like an actress who’s spent weeks practicing for a bit part in an enormous production.
“OK. Thank you.”
Surprise flashed across his face, quick as a sleight of hand. “I’m very glad,” he said gravely, in that peculiar mix of British and Nigerian accents he’d picked up from years at universities around the globe.
• • •
“Where did you go to school?” he—James, as she was now permitted to call him—asked her two weeks later.
It was the fourth time they had been out together. Anu wasn’t sure whether this meant they were seeing each other. He hadn’t tried to touch her or flirt with her, but he looked a little less wary.
Anu paused before speaking. She was feeling particularly confident today, for once. After Googling for an hour and a half, she managed to uncover a sushi restaurant in the Village that was dirty enough to seem unordinary, and the sleeveless linen top she wore actually seemed right for the venue.
“I didn’t,” she replied. “I—I went to community college for a year.”
James nodded. “Too expensive?”
“Yes,” Anu agreed, although it wasn’t true. Her parents would have been only too glad to fund school for her, if she had managed to go.
“You can go for free, you know. To our school, since you work full-time.” James selected a California roll, ignored the wasabi and soy sauce, and deftly lifted the small bit of cold rice and chopped vegetable to his mouth. “It’s our responsibility to make the best of this place, Anu. We’re strangers, no matter how many years we’re here.”
Her stomach tightened, appetite gone. “My father often says the same thing.” She could not tell him about the years of sitting up late, copying her textbook chapters onto small white cards, as if direct replication would make the words more decipherable. He would not understand it, the futile struggle to achieve something that most managed without even trying.
“You don’t seem lazy,” he observed.
“No,” she agreed, and he peered at her over the table.
“Are you angry?”
She shook her head.
“What are you thinking, then?”
“About your sushi,” Anu said, and the corner of her mouth curved upward, slightly.
“Yes.” She could hardly make up an impressive truth, so why make it a lie? “I was thinking about my grandmother, back home. And how she would be horrified that we would pay to eat raw fish.”
James’s face relaxed into a smile, despite himself. He had, Anu noticed, the clearest eyes she’d ever seen. They were as dark as hers, but were so liquid that they caught the light, reflected it, making them seem bottomless. She could only look for a few moments before she had to lower her head. It was too much.
“How Marxist of you,” he said, and his voice was dry. He lifted his wineglass in her direction.
“What is that?”
He laughed out loud.
• • •
That, Anu supposed, was the moment when they moved to properly dating. He asked her to go to church with him the following week—practically a declaration in some Nigerian circles—and kissed her for the first time one misty evening after classes in the little moss-covered bower where upperclassmen smoked pot during finals week. He warned her beforehand that he was going to do it. She nodded, then held very still. It was pleasant. She was more aware of the warmth of his body than she was of his mouth, which surprised her. Films had led her to expect the opposite.
He pulled back, looked almost surprised.
“Haven’t you been kissed before?”
She looked at him, and his expression was a mixture of shock and—yes, there it was, for the first time—intrigue. “Jesus.”
He made it sound like a virtue. Anu was grateful.
That night he took her to the park to see a play performed live in open air. The language was difficult, but she liked the main character. He made eye contact with the audience, tossed roses indiscriminately, grinned at his fellow actors from under a cap of flaming red hair, as if the whole production was based on a joke only they understood.
‘I nearly shit myself when I found out, James. Well, well. She’s got a great ass. That video-girl wig has got to go, though.’
When she tried to explain this later, he looked at her, that half-smile still in place, and shook his head. “You’re quite the enigma,” he told her afterward. “Ignorant, and shamelessly so, but quite profound.”
“Is that bad?”
He laughed. He did this quite a bit when they were together. She was beginning to like it. “We’ll see.”
Anu looked it up on her phone when he wasn’t looking: enigma. She liked that. It gave her a reason for her long silences when they were together: she was mysterious, exotic, she told herself. It wasn’t that she had nothing to say. She wished he would take her to more things like this. He often wrote of them on his blog—the plays, operas, and films with titles in languages she didn’t recognize. It was difficult, James having a life she wasn’t invited to join because she lacked the right that cleverness would have given her.
That would change, she told herself. Enigma.
• • •
“You and her?”
Anu was in the department office, out of sight on the floor, where she’d been attempting to trace her computer monitor cord back to its socket. The speaker was Tara Elliot, who had just walked into the office and stopped in front of James’s door.
“They told me you and her. . . .” She let the sentence dangle suggestively. Tara was a professor in James’s department and had been hired two years ago. She was tall, lithe, and tan from yoga and sun, and she questioned everyone in the demanding voice of one who felt that her credentials gave her the right. She claimed to have spent time teaching philosophy in a Gulf country and often mentioned, with smug satisfaction, that textbooks for her gender studies classes had been seized and censored by the Ministry of Culture nearly every semester.
There was no sound from James’s office. Anu strained to hear. Perhaps, she thought, he was shooting her one of those exquisitely nasty looks he usually reserved for incompetent waiters. Or perhaps his face was blank, a nonverbal indication that she should get out. Or maybe, she thought, throat tightening, he was smiling, nodding, trying to pass off the comment as a joke. He was eager to please Tara. Anu knew this, saw the emails that flew back and forth between them on the office servers, saw how he never disagreed with her on personal things, how he puffed up with pride when she praised him. They went to lectures and concerts together sometimes. Tara was an emblem for the part of his life that Anu would never be a part of.
“She’s remarkably intelligent,” James said of her, the highest praise he knew to give. And now—well. Tara was laughing at her, words bursting out between giggles.
“I nearly shit myself when I found out, James. Well, well. She’s got a great ass. That video-girl wig has got to go, though.”
“Get out,” James was saying, and she could barely hear his next words, although she could make out the fact that—yes, he was defending her, in sharp, measured words that came together in phrases such as you have no right and your condescension is rather common and we’re all a joke to you, aren’t we?
Anu almost wished he had laughed it off. She stumbled to her feet, not caring now who saw her, then crashed into a trashcan. Her skin was crawling with the cold-hot prickles that always preceded throwing up, and she bolted for the hall.
When she emerged from the bathroom, eyes calm but red-rimmed, James was there, handkerchief in hand. His jaw was set. She could see bone protruding from under smooth skin.
“She’s a fool,” he said. His voice was calm with contempt as he handed her the square of white linen. Anu pressed it to her mouth. It smelled like him, something woodsy and light.
“Let’s go home, Anu.”
Anu shook her head, crossed her arms. The stupid weave she’d installed the week before itched unbearably, like the cheap shiny wig it was. She’d thought it quite fetching when she did it, forking over nearly two hundred dollars for it. She thought she had seen a flicker of something in James’s eyes when he saw her that Monday, but now she knew. Video girl? Oh, God.
“People might see,” she said by way of explanation, and his eyes hardened.
“I don’t care.”
That night in her tiny apartment, she cried in front of him for the first time. He held her wrists, forced her to look at him, spoke soft desperate words that poured out quickly. It was the first time he’d spoken to her in Yoruba since they met. His words were tender and musical in a way that English simply could not be for him. Her sobs quieted and he whispered, “Pele, pele, I am sorry,” over and over again, kissed her temple, stroked the long silky strands that the hairdresser had so carefully set.
Don’t pity me, she wanted to whisper, but he kissed her properly then, with an intensity that made her ache. His warm hands had slid beneath her clothing to touch her bare skin, splaying over her waist and back. She was overwhelmed by his closeness and could not speak. When she finally did, it was a husky please as she shifted her hips. But he pulled away from her, shook his head. There was shame on his face.
Not until they married, he said, cupping her face in his hands, and he pulled her close to him until she slept.
• • •
He must have been really desperate, Anu thought now, resting her aching head in her hands. Not as desperate as she’d been, though. He hadn’t defended her to Tara. Not even close. He’d merely stated the facts. He’d been angry. No one wants to be accused of screwing the ugly girl, after all.
The boy, he said, is just using you—!
After a few moments of sitting very still, Anu took the phone, dialed out. The call would use up the last of her precious international minutes, but she didn’t care. She would be using James’s from now on, after all.
Tobi was relieved when she picked up. “Anu—thank God, I was worried. Are you all right?”
“Tobi,” Anu said, and her voice was very calm. “I have to tell you something.”
She was astonished by how easily the lie slid out. She knew about his wife, she said. He would be divorcing her in a few months, but there were some logistics that were holding up the process. He’d obtained a green card already, but was keeping it quiet. His visa had nothing to do with her. She thanked Tobi for her concern, but she was fine, really. She knew what she was doing.
“Anyway,” she finished. “Even if he was, Tobi. Why would you stay Nigerian if you had a chance not to? It’s a useless country now.”
“You cannot possibly think this is what God wants for you!”
Anu laughed hollowly and hung up the phone again, this time yanking the cord from the wall and placing the phone in a box. Tobi simply could not understand the way it felt, looking up at the sky from the bottom of a pit you’ve spent all your energy digging.
• • •
Anu and James were married the next day.
It was so hot that tree leaves wilted and insects buzzed lazily, too tired to sting. The ceremony was one that their people would remember as pleasant, if not extraordinary.
Invitations on Japanese rice paper had been printed at the university shop and sent to one hundred fifty people, listing the starting time as 5:00 p.m. One hundred eighty-five Nigerian attendees trickled in around 8:30, joining the few white and Asian guests who hadn’t been warned about cultural quirks and had thus been treated to hours of watching the DJ and bridesmaids set up. Sagging and swathed in white and red, the tables groaned under the weight of trays that held seasoned rice, goat meat in red pools of palm oil, and hot pepper soup. Glass plates of sweet fried chin chin and roasted peanuts served as centerpieces. It was incredible, Anu thought. No one had ever made a fuss over her before.
James, resplendent in a sleek black tux, surveyed the chaos with disgust. He’d wanted a quiet ceremony at an upstate chapel that he’d frequented while writing his dissertation, but Anu’s parents had overruled him, ecstatic that their only daughter had finally found a husband. He gave in at last, with very bad grace.
“Don’t let them pepper the soup too much,” he instructed Anu. “I’ll be inviting people from campus, you know.”
The guests listened as the bride’s uncle gave the opening toast and prayer, thanking God for the union, praying against spells, family curses, and any other tool of the Evil One that would prevent theirs from being a fruitful marriage. All the babas and mamas raised a hearty “Amen!” A woman shouted out that they would be blessed with twins; everyone laughed. Then they all ate sticky fufu and okra and bitter-leaf soup and sighed and put their hands on their tummies and ate the great plates of rice with piles of sweet fried plantain, chasing the last grains with their fingers, heading for more in the coolers hidden under the buffet tables.
In faintly grease-stained voices, they gossiped about how God had answered the prayers of the bride and how many degrees the groom had and criticized the bridesmaids’ cherry-colored dresses for being too tight and ordered younger girls out of good seats so that they could be closer to the high tables. Then they danced with the bride and groom, spraying bills in the air like feathers, rolling bodies united as a single teeming organism to undulations that slipped out between lines of music. Everyone sang along: You dey make my heart do yori yori! Then: Shay u won no d koko?
James disliked the music. He told Anu privately that they were all rather silly numbers, beneath his dignity. He would have preferred Motown, jazz piano, ’70s African highlife. Still, he drew her close on the dance floor, a smile fixed on his narrow face. The dean, his fat florid face flushed with too much palm wine, kissed them both effusively, bragged about his matchmaking, pointed out his wrapped gift of antique Wedgewood china.
Everyone went home on sore feet and felt partly responsible for making the wedding such a success.
• • •
That part had been quite easy, Anu thought ruefully, watching the last of their guests trickle out in the small hours as her husband helped her into the back of their private car. She had been watching him all that evening, as if they were characters on a reality show where she already knew the outcome. He spoke fondly about how they met and looked at her now and again with half-hooded eyes that she supposed were meant to denote affection, one hand tucked into hers or wrapped firmly around her waist, nestling her against his side.
It was hard not to feel anything during the ceremony or reception, harder than she thought to look the bishop in the eye and lie, say the vows they’d decided on via email three nights before, copying lines from various websites. He kissed her twice during the reception, for pictures and such. His mouth was warm, soft, with a hint of scratchiness about the chin.
She was glad, she realized with the violent thrill of a conquest she had no right to make. She was glad she knew about his wife. It would spare her the pressure of being his ideal.
“Good job,” he said into her ear when they were settled in the back of the car that would take her to her new life. She nodded, unable to speak through a sudden pressure in her throat. James fell asleep soon after their departure, lulled by the car’s gentle rhythm. The heat radiating off his chest made her drowsy, but she did not sleep. Instead, she watched the driver. He’d opened the windows and it was misting outside, a warm faint imitation of rain. The man sang quietly to himself, free hand dangling out the window. Anu wondered idly if the defogger was broken, or if he enjoyed the coolness of the mist on his fingertips and face after a day trapped in the small, hot prison.
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April 05, 2016
23 Min read time